Home > Pint of Contention (King Family #3)

Pint of Contention (King Family #3)
Author: Susannah Nix





Three Years Ago



“Ryan! What a nice surprise. Does George know you’re coming?”

I smiled at my stepfather’s new wife, Heather. New being a relative term, given they’d been married more than sixteen years now. “He’s the one who asked me to stop by. He didn’t tell you?”

Heather flicked an unconcerned hand as she stepped back to admit me into the house. “Of course not. You know how he is.”

I did know. I probably knew George King almost as well as anyone could claim to know the man who ran King’s Creamery and therefore pretty much the entire town of Crowder. I’d known him since I was six years old, when my mother had become his second wife. Going from a rented double-wide in a trailer park to a sprawling mansion situated on forty acres of rolling Hill Country land with a pond, fishing pier, horse barn, greenhouse, gazebo, and swimming pool had been a life-changing event for both me and my mom.

I leaned in to kiss Heather’s cheek as I edged past her into the house where I’d spent most of my formative years. Although Heather was a slight-framed woman, my bulky six-foot-five-inch frame filled most of the doorway, forcing me to sidle in sideways and suck in my gut to avoid crowding her against the wall.

“You should come round for dinner sometime.” Heather’s smile was bright and well practiced. “It’s a shame we don’t get to see more of you.”

“That’d be great,” I replied with a smile as practiced as hers, doubting that dinner invitation would be coming anytime soon. Heather and I got along fine, but neither of us had much desire to spend more time together. I’d been in college when my mother died and Heather replaced her as the lady of George King’s house a mere six months later. We put on a good show of familial affection, but a show was as far as our relationship extended.

“He’s in his office, as always,” Heather said. “You can go on through.”

As I strolled across the handwoven Mexican rug covering the terra cotta tiled entryway, I gazed around me at my old childhood home. The massive ranch-style villa, which had been custom built and decorated to suit George’s particular tastes long before he’d married my mother, had hardly changed at all since the day I’d first set foot in it.

Based on the look of the place, George had wanted to be sure his visitors wouldn’t have any doubt they were in Texas. The rough-hewn wood furniture, cowhide upholstery, and black-and-white prints of bluebonnets, longhorn cattle, and oil derricks adorning the stucco walls all paid homage to the Lone Star State that George King was aggressively proud to be from. The only substantive change that had been made to the interior of the house was who lived in it with him these days.

On my way to George’s office, I paused in the doorway of the family room to greet George and Heather’s two kids. Twelve-year-old Riley clambered to her feet and bounded over to give me an enthusiastic hug. Her teenage brother Cody, who was now too mature and cool for such childish displays of affection, kept his seat on the couch as he offered me a more sedate greeting.

“Want to watch Steven Universe with us?” Riley asked as she gave my hand a hopeful tug toward the TV.

“Wish I could, squirt, but I need to talk to your dad.” However indifferent I might be to Heather, my fondness for her children was genuine. I liked kids in general, but I also knew too well what it was like to grow up with George King as a father figure, so I’d gone out of my way to offer them brotherly affection despite our lack of a blood relationship.

“Maybe Ryan’ll stay for ice cream after your dad’s through with him,” Heather said as she slipped into the room to join Cody on the couch.

“Sure I will,” I promised when Riley’s face lit up like sunshine at the suggestion. “Save me some S’more Than a Feeling, okay?”

Leaving them to their TV watching, I made my way down the long hallway lined with vintage concert posters that led to George’s office. The man was such a music aficionado that he’d given all eight of his children by his three different wives middle names inspired by his favorite Texas-born musicians. Riley and Cody bore the middle names Maines and Lyle, respectively, after Natalie Maines and Lyle Lovett. My two half-brothers, the sons my mother had given George, were Tanner Townes King and Wyatt Earle King after Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. The offspring of George’s first marriage had been given middle names inspired by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Janis Joplin.

As a stepchild, both my mundane middle name (John, after my maternal grandfather) and last name (McCafferty, my mother’s maiden name) set me apart from the rest of the King clan. Privately, I’d always considered it a blessing not to be burdened by the King name, which conferred too much notoriety in our small town for my comfort.

My knock on the closed door to George’s office was answered with a terse “Come in,” so I did. It wasn’t a room I’d spent much time in. When I lived here, George’s private sanctum had been strictly off-limits to us kids without an invitation. Such invitations were generally reserved for serious, unpleasant conversations like the delivering of punishments or bad news, so it was with an uneasy feeling that I strode into the wood-paneled room now. Even though I was too old for punishments these days, bad news was something you never outgrew.

“Thanks for stopping by, Ryan.” George rose from his high-backed leather chair to offer a handshake across his desk. As usual, his receding gray hair was pulled into a thin ponytail, and he wore his traditional work attire of Levi’s with a short-sleeved button-down. He owned a million similar shirts in a whole host of ugly patterns. Today’s was turquoise and covered with birds. “Have a seat.”

Dutifully, I lowered my weight into the leather wingback facing the large wooden desk.

“You want a drink?” George offered as he carried his half-empty whiskey glass to the bar cart in the corner of the room. When I declined, he reached for a bottle of bourbon to top off his own glass. “How’ve you been?”

“Good. I’ve been good.” My gaze wandered idly to the enormous rack of antlers mounted behind the desk in a not-so-subtle display of intimidation. “Same as always. You?”

He waved off my polite inquiry with an impatient grunt and set a fresh glass of bourbon on the edge of the desk in front of me. “In case you change your mind.”

Hmm. I couldn’t imagine that boded well for the conversation ahead. “You said you wanted to talk to me about something?”

“I did.” George’s chair let out a squeak as he leaned back and took a sip of bourbon before he focused his sharp grayish-blue eyes on me. “You remember the last time you saw your dad?”

I nodded, taken off guard by the question. I hadn’t thought about my father in a long time, and it certainly wasn’t a subject I’d expected George to raise out of the blue. “After Mom died. When he showed up at the funeral.”

My parents had never married, but I had hazy memories of them living together for a brief period when I was little. Around when I was three or four, my father had taken off, leaving my mom to fend for the two of us alone. Though he hadn’t been minded to stick around and do the hard work of parenting, he’d dropped back into our lives every so often on the excuse of spending time with his son, but only when he was down on his luck and needed money or a temporary place to stay. Those short bursts of paternal attention had been more than enough for me to form an impression of him as a selfish, small-minded bully we were better off without.

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