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Beard Science(12)

By:Penny Reid

I stepped forward, closing the distance between us until I hovered just three feet away. At this distance I had to angle my chin. I was in heels, but he was still tall.


I swallowed as the full weight and intensity of his chaotically handsome gaze rested on mine. Gathering my courage close, because—honestly, he still frightened me—I prepared to risk what was left of my pride and hand over control.

"So," I started, licking my lips because they were dry, "so, you will help me, right?"

Cletus frowned, his eyes sharpening, analyzing me. He'd done this in the car, once he realized I could see through the sweet, innocuous routine. He’d been openly examining me since. Perhaps Cletus figured he didn't have to obscure himself behind a mask; there was no point because I saw him clearly, so he held nothing back.

All his brutal cleverness was on display and it made meeting his eyes—then and now—extremely difficult. I felt like I was being dissected.

He inhaled slowly and I got the sense he wanted to say no. In fact, my heart was already on its way to my feet, when he said, "Tell me about yourself."

I blinked. "Pardon?"

"Tell me about yourself. What do you do, other than bake and wear costumes?"

My hands pressed against my stomach self-consciously and I peered down at my dress. "You think I look like I'm in a costume?"

"Aren't you?"

He was right . . . of course. It was a costume. But I had a hard time admitting the truth out loud.

"The makeup, the hair, those fuzzy caterpillars on your eyelids. You dress like a stage performer all the time. Is this something you enjoy?"

"No," I answered immediately. "No. It's not. But I don't see what this has to do with—"

"With finding you a husband who is going to give you babies?"

"Well, yes. What does how I dress—"

"Everything. Because who you represent yourself to be on the outside, what people see, forms their first impression of you. For marriageable men who like women, this means you'll immediately fall into one of three categories: marriage potential, one-time amorous congress, or forgettable."

I grimaced. "So, you're saying I'm forgettable." Of course he would. He’d never noticed me.

He chuckled, and I couldn’t help but enjoy the way it brightened and softened his eyes. "No, Jenn. You're not forgettable. But being a caricature doesn't make you very accessible either. A woman usually needs to be accessible in order to fall into the marriage category."

I tried to hide my delighted surprise at Cletus calling me Jenn instead of Jennifer, and instead attempted to focus on his disconcerting evaluation of my category. "So that just leaves—"

"That's right." He nodded solemnly, reminding me of my grandfather Sylvester, or Judge Payton. "Most men—especially young men—are simple creatures. But the good news is, men can and do change their minds.”

"This is a distressing conversation." I rubbed my forehead, feeling a little nauseous.

"Am I alarming your delicate sensibilities?"

"No. It's not that. I just feel sorry for men now. It must be frustrating to be so feeble and limited."

Cletus's eyes widened dramatically just before he barked a laugh. "Feeble and limited? Is that how you would describe men?"

"No. But apparently that's how you would describe them."

The side of his mouth hitched in what was clearly a distracted and reluctant smile, his gaze losing a bit more of its hard edge. “As I was saying, women move between the three categories all the time. Attiring yourself thus,” he waved his hand over my dress, “may encourage folks to think of you as crazy, and if a woman is crazy, then she might move from bandicooting to the forget category.”

“Bandicooting? Isn’t bandicoot a type of potato?”

“Yes. But as a verb, it’s also a euphemism for sexual congress.”

“I like to do that, where you can just add an I N G to something and decide it’s a verb.” I grinned, clearly forgetting to whom I was speaking. But this was one of my favorite things to do in letters to my pen pals and I’d never discussed it with anyone before.

“It’s called ‘verbing.’” Cletus turned his head a touch to the side and narrowed his eyes. “What are some of your favorites?”

“Um, let’s see . . .” I moved my attention to the darkness over his shoulder, thinking about the last letter I wrote. “‘Truthing’ is a good one. I define it as trying to make something true, even when it’s not, or when it’s only true to you. Or ‘capering’ as an alternative to adventuring. It’s a subtle difference, but I like the feel of it.”

I brought my smile back to Cletus and found him watching me with a peculiar look. My grin waned as we studied each other and I braced myself for whatever that peculiar look meant.

Unable to withstand his inscrutable expression, I pressed, “What? What’s wrong?”

“I'm not going to harm you,” he said matter-of-factly, as though harming me had been on the table, but now not harming me was something he'd just decided.

I felt my eyebrows lift high on my forehead.

“Oh?” I croaked, a shiver of fear racing down my spine. "Well, that's nice of you."

Cletus's slight smile was warm, truly disarming, and didn't look practiced or measured. It ignited a blossoming warmth in my chest despite his most recent statement, and that confused the ever-living heck out of me.

“You mistake my meaning. I’ll acknowledge, harm wasn’t the best word choice. I would never do you physical harm, and I’m saddened that we live in a society where I have to explicitly state that. You must know, my father . . .” His words trailed off and he blinked, his eyebrows pulling together.

Meanwhile, I held my breath. I was shocked Cletus brought up his father. Everyone in town knew Darrell Winston—ne'er–do–well and father of the Winston brood—used to beat his wife and kids. My momma gossiped about it to her friends in hushed tones. Growing up, I’d eavesdropped on more than one conversation about the topic.

“Well, anyway.” He shook his head as though to derail his current train of thought, grimaced, then continued. “All I’m saying is, I won’t harm you, physical or otherwise. But as you observed last Sunday, I’m the vengeful sort. Any person endeavoring to blackmail me typically wouldn’t emerge from the attempt unscathed.”

He paused, his eyes no longer sharp as they moved over my face, yet his gaze felt no less unsettling.

“But, you will. You will emerge unscathed.” Cletus’s voice was quietly contemplative as he finally finished his thought. “You surprise me, and I am not accustomed to being surprised.”

I held very still beneath his steady perusal, though my pulse raced tellingly between my ears. I understood that he’d meant the words to be calming, but they had the opposite effect.

Cletus Winston didn’t bluff. He didn’t exaggerate. He was quietly methodical, with stony focus and drive. He was dangerous. And, apparently, by some random unknown magic, I’d just managed to escape a future reckoning.

Thank. God.

“But back to the task at hand,” he said suddenly, making me jump, now all business. If he noticed my reaction, he made no sign, instead plowing ahead with his thoughts. “You want me to help you find a husband. I maintain helping you with this endeavor is impossible unless you become your true self, and that means something other than the Banana Cake Queen, and all the yellow that entails. Consequently, here is your first homework assignment: make a list of things you like to do."

“Homework?” I repeated dumbly.

Cletus nodded once and then turned.

Unthinkingly, I grabbed hold of his arm and held him in place. “Wait, what? Make a list of things I like to do?”

“That's right. And we'll have to schedule a time to meet once a week for lessons.”

“Lessons?” I reared back.

“Yes. Lessons. You need lessons.”

“What kind of lessons?”

“How to be Jennifer Sylvester lessons.”


I lifted my chin. “I know how to be myself.”

“No, you don't.” He covered my hand with his and pried it from his arm, letting it drop.

“That’s ridicu—”

“Fridays are obviously out of the question, and I'd prefer a weeknight over a weekend. In a pinch we could meet during the day on Sunday. What days do you have off from the bakery?”

I gaped, blindsided by the direction of this conversation, and therefore could only answer his question with plain honestly. “I don't have a day off.”

“What? What do you mean you don't have a day off?”

“Just that. I start baking at three AM most mornings, and then if I don't have any special orders, I go home and sleep for a while. But I usually have special orders. And then we have parties most Fridays and Saturdays in the city.”

“You mean Knoxville?”

“Yes, or Nashville.”

“Why do you have to be there? Doesn't your momma have staff who can help?”

“Well, yes. But she likes me to—”

“Never mind. Don’t answer that.” He waved away my response, frowning again, looking and sounding dreadfully grumpy. “If you don’t have a day off, which day is slowest? When do you usually have a little free time?”