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Beard Science(14)

By:Penny Reid

“So what you’re telling us is, we need to butter up Sienna?” Beau interpreted.

Jethro laughed, and so did everyone else. I didn’t.

I mustered a smile through my inexplicable melancholy while the urge to take my leave gripped me with a sudden ferocity.

I felt Duane’s eyeballs on me, so I gave him a flat smile, then glanced at my watch. “Well, it’s been fun, but I must take my leave.”

“Yeah, I need to go, too.” Drew placed his empty beer bottle in the new recycling containers; he turned to Jethro and shook his hand. “Congratulations, Jethro. Happy for you.”

“Thanks, Drew.”

The two men stared at each other and something passed between them, an understanding of some sort.

“Oh great, now Drew and Jethro can mind-meld. I’m getting out of here.” I turned from the group and their chuckles.

“Come on, Cletus. Stick around. I’ll gaze longingly into your eyes. Us single guys need to stick together,” Beau called after me.

“Cletus won’t be single for long,” Jethro said, likely hoping to get a rise out of me. It didn’t work. I didn’t want to be late for my first lesson with Jennifer Sylvester. We had a lot of work to do.

“What do you mean? Cletus got himself a girlfriend we don’t know about?” Beau sounded positively elated.

I was almost to the door when I heard Jethro say, “It’s not my place to tell.”

“That’s not nice, Jethro. You know Beau won’t rest until he figures out who it is,” Drew counseled, his tone half-serious.

“Who is she?” Duane asked, sounding interested, and I was surprised; typically he stayed out of the gossip.

“I bid you good evening, charlatans.” I waved over my shoulder and let the door shut behind me, blocking out their voices and strolling purposefully to my car.

I hadn’t been thinking on Shelly Sullivan’s suitability as a life partner recently, not since I’d met her a few weeks ago. I had no reason to rush things, no cause to instigate additional changes at present. We, as a family, were already dealing with enough disruption, no reason to add to it.

When the time was right, when things settled down to a routine, I’d ask her out for steak. We would discuss the future, draft a pro-con list, and then come to a mutually advantageous agreement. Once I’d dismantled the Iron Wraiths, finished teaching Jackson James a lesson, and helped Jennifer Sylvester find her backbone, then I’d get around to things with Shelly.

I was glad for Jennifer Sylvester. Helping her would be a good project; a nice, easy, manageable distraction.

“Jennifer, you can stop being afraid of me now.”

“Okay.” She nodded, not looking at me.

I stood facing her, on the other side of an immense counter in the Donner Bakery kitchen. Donner was Jennifer’s momma’s maiden name. The bakery and adjoining lodge had been in her family for three generations.

I’d received confirmation from my friend in Chicago that both Jenn’s computer and cell phone were video free. If she had any idea that I’d deleted the video from her devices, she hadn’t said a thing. More likely, she had no idea I’d had a professional hacker break into her laptop and mobile phone.

Her knowing or not knowing didn’t really matter in the long run, but—for now—I decided it would be best to keep this information to myself. She was already jumpy enough.

Jenn was currently spooning cookie dough onto a tray and not making eye contact. She hadn’t looked directly at me since letting me in the kitchen back door some minutes ago, and she’d been silent in a way that resembled anxiety and impatience. If she discovered her leverage was gone, I prophesied she would faint from distress.

“I meant what I said, I have no plans for revenge.” I was using my most harmless and innocent of voices.


I examined her and waited. She was still in one of her costumes—a yellow housedress—but she’d scrubbed all the makeup from her face, was barefoot, and had her hair in a ponytail. A baseball hat sat on her head and a Smash-Girl superhero apron was tied around her waist. I’d never seen her look so normal before, so much like a real person. I could work with this.

And I could wait her out. I could be patient if I wanted to be and the situation warranted patience. Or I could try disarming and distracting her into submission.

“I won’t send any Navy SEAL strippergrams to the workplace, or file any health code complaints against the bakery.”

Her movements stilled and she stared at the cookie sheet. “Is that what you were going to do to me? Was that your revenge? For me blackmailing you?”

“Yes,” I lied. “One or the other. I was leaning toward the stripper, though. I have an acquaintance in Nashville that would’ve put on a good show for your Sunday morning customers. I imagine the after-church crowd would rile up nicely post sugar and coffee. Plus, bonus, he’s an actual Navy SEAL, retired in 1975.”

The side of her mouth tugged to one side, but her eyes remained studiously focused on the bowl of raw cookie dough.

I watched her carefully, adding, “I still might do it, for your birthday instead, but only if you’re really nice to me between now and then.”

Her hand trembled slightly where it held the spoon. She was still uneasy.

“Moral of the story, Jenn: you’re getting a free pass, so try to loosen up.”

“Okay.” She nodded, still didn’t glance my way, and dug the spoon into the cookie dough, moving it around to no purpose.

She’d mellowed, just not enough.

Curious, I asked, “Why do I scare you so much?”

“You don’t scare me,” she responded immediately, sounding defensive.

“Then why are your hands shaking?”

Jennifer let the spoon fall into the batter bowl and leaned against the counter, her eyes lifting for the briefest of seconds. “You don’t scare me, I’m just . . . I’m just nervous.”

“Why’re you nervous?”

“Because . . . because . . . because you’re dangerous. And I have a hard time believing your revenge plan involved anything as benign as a male stripper.”

“Make no mistake, George is not benign. He is an eighty-five-year-old committed professional and brings his gun. Well, he brings both his guns.”

She huffed and fought her smile admirably, her cheeks staining with a hint of pink. Jenn’s eyes finally lifted and held mine. “I see what you’re doing, you’re trying to get me to let my guard down.”

“Yes. Yes, I am. How am I supposed to help you if you don’t trust me?”

“How am I supposed to trust you when you have a long, established record of underhanded dealings and manipulations?”

Astute woman is . . . very astute. But I was running thin on patience.

“Listen, woman. Do you want my help or not? Because, as far as your well-being is concerned, I’m as gentle as a toothless, blind bunny rabbit.”

“You are no such thing,” she contradicted, chuckling in spite of herself—like she was both amused and frustrated—and I noted her hands were finally steady. “You know things about everybody. Everybody. You’ve gathered information and held it over people’s heads, forcing them do what you’ve wanted for years. In fact, I bet you know something about my family that could tear our world apart.”

I was careful to keep my expression even, because Jennifer was completely correct.

Her daddy had been having an affair with Elena Wilkinson, the high school secretary, for years. I’d had suspicions for a time, so I’d audited the advanced placement calculus class as a cover, until I could confirm the sordid truth. Kip Sylvester was a heartless and vapid excuse for a human being who only cared about himself.

Whether his wife realized this or not, I couldn’t say. But I did know that if Diane Donner-Sylvester ever found out about her husband’s cheating, she’d divorce him in a heartbeat. And he’d lose everything, because that woman made more money in a month than he made in a year.

I had no current plans to leverage the information, but I probably would. Eventually.

Jennifer wasn’t finished. “You’ll keep it a secret, so long as it serves your purpose. And that makes you dangerous, like a viper ready to strike. I think my caution is justified.”

“Fine. I’m dangerous. I know things.” I shrugged. “But you need to trust that I’m not dangerous to you. I can’t help you if you’re going to be jumpy Jennifer all the time.”

She hesitated, picked up the spoon again, and then said, “You’re right. I can’t be jumpy Jennifer and I’ll have to find a way to relax around you.”

The way she said “relax” made it sound like a herculean task.


“I’ll work on it.” She frowned, tilted her chin up, looking harassed and strangely cute.

Yes, cute. Jennifer looked cute. The woman’s features were aesthetically pleasing, especially without those fuzzy caterpillars on her eyelids. I would rate her as very pretty at present. I could toss her to the likes of officers Dale and Evans. Clearly, both men had been enchanted with her at the jam session. But very pretty wasn’t going to help much or take her very far without a backbone.