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Beard Science(3)

By:Penny Reid

“Judge Payton rushed it through.”

“We just got the evidence this morning.”

“He said the photographs painted a clear picture and he was honored to be the one to sign the warrant.” Jackson flicked the envelope with his fingers and swapped smiles with the other deputies. “So I guess the only question remaining is, who gets to arrest the bastard?”

The sheriff sighed, shaking his head like he couldn’t believe what he was reading. “Call for backup from Merryville before you set out.”

“I think the six of us can handle one scrawny biker,” Jackson scoffed, but kept his tone respectful. “Plus Dale and Evans are already en route.”

Dale and Evans were two other deputies, not currently at the station. At least, not as far as I could see. I took a moment to glance around at those present.

My heart stopped. Skipped. Stuttered.

I took a reflexive step backward. A twisting, uncomfortable heat crawled up my chest and bottomed out my stomach. I spotted a bearded man separate from the crowd, tinkering with a machine. It was a beard I’d recognize anywhere.

Cletus Winston, the third Winston brother.

As usual, he didn’t see me.

When folks in town dismissed me, it didn’t bother me much. Very few were actually petty, and most of the petty ones were girls my age that I’d grown up with, or their mothers. They’d affix fake smiles in front of my face and rolled their eyes at my back. I was used to this.

Cletus was different. He didn’t see me at all. It was as though I didn’t register on his radar, not even a blip, and this had been true my entire life. I was invisible to him.

But that was fine by me.

Cletus Winston was the sneakiest, most manipulative, most powerful, and—as far as I was concerned—the most dangerous man in East Tennessee. Problem was, virtually no else seemed to realize it. Everyone in town thought he was odd, but mostly harmless.

Meanwhile, he blackmailed them into doing what he wanted, all the while tricking people into thinking it was their idea.

I knew this because I was a people watcher.

Don’t get me wrong, watching Cletus was no chore. Was he handsome? Yes, he most certainly was. Like all the Winston boys, he was a looker.

Maybe, to most people, he wasn’t nearly as favored as his other brothers with their tidy beards, lean builds, and classic good looks. At first glance you might overlook him because, with Cletus, it was necessary to probe beyond the surface to see the potential underneath.

He was shorter and stockier than his siblings, his frame thicker and more muscular. His beard was bushy and long, long enough to braid, like one of those Vikings. The man evidently didn’t subscribe to beard maintenance other than brushing it, oiling it, and letting it grow.

His streaked chestnut hair was long, curly in some spots, wavy in others. It stuck out in all directions, several strands bleached blond by the sun. The locks covered his ears but didn’t quite meet the back of his neck due to its constant state of skewedness. I thought, on anyone else, it would look adorable.

Before I’d realized how cold-blooded he was, I’d itched to tame his wild mane and trim his beard—just a little. Just enough to reveal the handsome man under all that chaos. I’d often wondered how much of his disorderly exterior was purposeful, meant to give him an innocuous, unkempt appearance. Obviously his misdirection worked because folks were fooled by it.

However, his eyes should have given him away. His eyes should have made it obvious to anyone really looking that he wasn’t odd. He was maniacally clever. They were green or hazel—I wasn’t sure which since he never met my gaze and hardly ever stood still for any period of time when I was close by—and were rimmed by ridiculously thick lashes. His lashes were so very pretty.

I think his pretty lashes confused people and made them overlook how his eyes were lit with an unnatural intelligence. He didn’t miss much. And he was able to mask his expression and thoughts, misdirect others, because of how he used his eyes.

Regardless, maniacal intelligence and scruffy misdirection notwithstanding, Cletus Winston was remarkably attractive.

Yep. Definitely a looker.

But I didn’t care much about that. I wasn’t interested in lookers. The King brothers were lookers, too. Just because a person was a looker doesn’t mean they’re not a psychopath.

At present, Cletus’s features were arranged in affable indifference, but his eyes told a different story. They were sharp and attentive. It was clear to me he was splitting his attention between the gathering of officers and the machine in front of him, eavesdropping though appearing oblivious.

While he watched them, I watched him. As my grandmother always used to say, “Best to keep an eye on the viper in a barn full of mice.”

Especially if you’re a mouse.

“Well, I guess y’all better get going,” the sheriff said with reluctance, worry in his voice.

The officers started to move, the air ripe with anticipation as they traded excited glances. Deputy Chris Williams turned, stepping right in front of me then reeling back a bit. He gave me a big smile.

“Oh. Hello, Jenn. Didn’t see you there."

I nodded at his greeting, my attention moving to Cletus. The third Winston wasn’t looking at Chris and me, thank goodness.

Curious, I leaned forward and whispered, “Where y’all going?”

He puffed out his chest proudly. “Oh, no place special. Just off to arrest Razor, aka president of the Iron Wraiths MC.”

My lips parted in surprise and I straightened. “Oh my.”

If Cletus Winston was the most dangerous man in East Tennessee, Razor Blade St. Claire was the second. The main difference being Cletus kept clandestine control over his power, while Razor was brazen about most everything.

As the president of the Iron Wraiths motorcycle club, he’d skirted the law for years, always just out of reach. It was generally known and accepted that he was a murderer. And a drug trafficker. And a perpetuator of plenty other sordid crimes, each more unpleasant than the last.

Chris Williams’s grin widened as he walked past. “That’s right. The big dog.”

The big dog . . . well, that was one way to put it.

A few of the deputies tipped their heads at me as they passed, but most appeared to be lost to the excitement of bringing in the head of the Iron Wraiths. Once they cleared, Sheriff James stepped forward and gave me a flat, distracted smile. He was still holding the envelope. His worry was completely understandable.

“Do you want to do this some other time?” I suggested, not wanting to impose when his mind was on more important matters.

“No, no. It’s fine. In fact, I’m looking forward to it.” He turned to Marion Davis, one of the administrative staff milling about, and waved her over. “Marion, will you take this to George in evidence for me?”

“Yes, sir.” She smiled brightly, regarding the unsealed envelope with reverence.

The sheriff hesitated for a beat, then passed it over to her waiting hands.

“Come this way.” He grabbed the foil-wrapped zucchini bread from where his son had left it and motioned me forward. I followed, casting furtive glances at Cletus Winston. Cletus’s attention was on the sheriff. And then it was on the mail machine. And then it was on Marion Davis. And then it was on the sheriff again.

He was up to something and I didn’t want to know what.

Once we were in the sheriff’s office, I pushed thoughts of Clandestine Cletus from my mind and prepped the sheriff for the video. I set up the shot, wanting to place his face on one side of the frame so the viewer would see the station beyond.

One of the only things I liked about doing the videos and Instagram promotions were the fundamentals of photography and videography I was learning as a byproduct. Aesthetically, setting the subject to one side was more visually appealing than just a man’s face in the center of the screen.

“Okay, are you ready?” I gave him an encouraging smile.

He returned it, crossing his arms. He uncrossed them and frowned. “What should I do with my arms?”

My grin widened. “Hold your right wrist with your left hand, in front of you. Yes, just like that. It looks very natural.”

He nodded, like this was serious business, and gave me the sign to start recording. So I did.

The sheriff was a natural, which was surprising since he was typically a man of few words. Yet he had no problem talking about my cupcakes, and that warmed my heart. I had what I needed, so I didn’t make him record a second testimonial.

We finished up. I left soon thereafter, noticing with relief that Cletus Winston was also gone. He posed no threat to me, but he still made me nervous. No one person should be allowed to be that pathologically intelligent and oppressively handsome.

After the station, I stopped by the Piggly Wiggly. I picked up my weekly crate of bananas and delivered them to the bakery. It was getting late and I was growing tired, so I carried the crate to the back cabinet of the industrial kitchen.

And that’s when I remembered I’d stuck my small-batch baking implements in the cabinet. There was nothing for it; I needed to clean up before I could go home and crawl into bed.

But I was uncomfortable. My feet hurt and the dress I wore hurt my ribs. It had one of those built-in bone bustiers, which made my shape look really nice but also served as a torture device. My mother had confiscated my overalls earlier and everyone else was long gone.