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Beard Science(5)

By:Penny Reid

“Hey, Cletus. I wanted to introduce you to Shelly Sullivan. She’s new in town and looking for work as an auto mechanic.”

My frown was automatic—not because I was displeased, but because I was surprised. I barely controlled the urge to take a visual assessment of this woman mechanic. They were a few and far between breed.

“Pleased to meet you, Miss Sullivan,” I said to the counter.

“Mr. Winston.”

My frowned deepened because her voice was . . . well, truth be told, it was odd. Direct, husky, like she wasn’t used to speaking and disliked doing so. She was from up north. I decided Boston. But her accent was light, near imperceptible.

I made a show of checking through the work order in front of me. “Tell me about yourself, Miss Sullivan.”

I didn’t need to glance up to know Jethro was grinning. He was used to my modus operandi, often found it amusing. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d prepared Miss Sullivan for the process because she didn’t seem to be offended by my lack of eye contact.

“I’ve been welding since fourteen and fixing up cars since about the same time. Everything I know is self-taught, based on trial and error, or research. And I’m very good at it.”

I lifted my eyebrows, waiting for her to continue. She did not.

“Anything else?” I prompted.

“Nothing relevant,” she responded.

Despite my tendency to keep a sharp rein on all outward expression, I smiled. I liked her use of the word relevant. It meant she considered relevancy before volunteering information. You can’t teach people how to do that.

Jethro cut in, “Do you remember Quinn Sullivan? Ashley’s friend Janie’s husband? The real pretty redhead?”

“Quinn isn’t a pretty redhead. As I recall he has a real pretty brown head.”

“No, dummy,” Jethro grumbled. “Janie was the pretty redhead, not Quinn. Shelly here is his sister.”

“Ah.” I nodded, my eyes still downcast. I didn’t mind nepotism as long as it was deeply entrenched in meritocracy. Quinn was a practical sort, short on words, big on actions. I liked him just fine. If he’d lived nearby, I might have gone to his birthday party.

Now was the time to shake her hand, so I extended mine and she slid her palm against it. Her hand was big—for a woman—long fingers roughened with callouses. Her grip was firm, succinct, and self-assured. But I only noticed these details peripherally because an enigmatic shock of something passed up my arm as our skin made contact.

I broke my sacred scientific rules because I was startled.

I looked up.

I looked at Miss Shelly Sullivan.

And, by Tesla’s steam oscillator! The woman was beautiful.

“Why is your face like that?” Jethro waved his index finger in front of my eyes.

I didn’t like it. I grabbed the finger and twisted it away.

“Like what?”

“Like you’re constipated and angry. I know you’re not constipated. You drink that gross coffee every morning with apple cider vinegar and maple syrup.”

“It’s not maple syrup.”

“Honey then.” He shrugged.

“It’s blackstrap molasses. Nothing similar about honey and blackstrap molasses other than their viscosity.”

“Whatever.” He shrugged again. “Why’re you making that face?”

“Because I’m irritated, obviously,” I grumbled. I didn’t grumble in public if I could help it, only in front of my family because I trusted my family . . . mostly.

“Why’re you irritated?” Jethro continued his poking and I heard the grin in his words. “Don’t you like Ms. Sullivan?”

Against my will, my eyes moved to where the tall woman and my younger brother Duane were bent over the hood of a Ford Focus. I studied her. Her expression was thoughtful as she listened to him, her demeanor confident and unaffected. She was all business.

Yep. Still perfect.

“Course I like Miss. Sullivan.”

“How much do you like her?”

“A lot.” I grimaced. I didn’t grimace in public either.

I’d been grumbling and grimacing since she’d arrived. Now was not a convenient time to have met my life partner. I had too much to do, too many irons in the fire. Some examples:

I had a shuffle board rematch with Judge Payton on Saturday.

I had a talent show in Nashville in October, and I hadn’t yet rehearsed.

I had Jethro and Sienna’s wedding in November.

I had a trip to Texas coming up around Thanksgiving; my wild boar sausage reserves were running precariously low.

I had a criminal organization to dismantle and annihilate by Christmas with the help of the King brothers . . . they just didn’t know they were helping.

I had to make spaghetti sauce on Sunday.

Jethro chuckled and placed an obnoxious hand on my shoulder. “Well, I’ll be.”

“You’ll be a baboon with dysentery.”

He laughed harder. “I never thought I’d see the day. You’re smitten.”

“Yep,” I admitted easily, because it was the truth. I was as smitten as I was capable of being. No use denying it. If one considered the facts, Shelly Sullivan and I were perfectly suited. It was a matter of science.

She was an auto mechanic. She was straightforward. She was smart. She was capable. She didn’t seem to have any feelings to hurt. She was clearly discerning about with whom she associated.

Plus, bonus, when I’d prematurely glanced up earlier upon our first meeting and met her eyes, the next words—so prosaically spoken—out of her mouth were, “This is weird. How can all you Winstons be so good-looking?”

See? Straightforward.

I liked the look of her and she liked the look of me. It was only a matter of time. We would be perfectly pragmatic together.

“If you’re smitten, why’re you irritated?”

“Because I’m never wrong. And that means Shelly Sullivan is the one. And now ain’t a good time for me to be meeting the one.”

Jethro’s smile flattened and he almost rolled his eyes. Almost. But he stopped himself, likely because he knew I didn’t tolerate eye-rolling.

“Oh brother. Can’t you just have a healthy interest in a woman without her being the one?”


“That’s bull, Cletus. You’ve been with other women and none of them were the one.”

I glared at him, not willing to explain the obvious. Clearly my brother didn’t understand the concept of research: the value of gathering data, the necessity of testing theories, and the importance of post-coital analysis. Not everything could be discovered in a laboratory environment. Knowing something in theory is meaningless if you have no experience with real-life application.

“Maybe she isn’t the one,” he suggested, likely growing weary of my silent glare. “Maybe you’re just attracted to an exceptionally pretty lady. Have you thought of that?”

“Nope. She’s the one.”

“Momma always used to say that you have a fixation problem. You get a thought in your head and you can’t let it go. One of these days, making up your mind too fast is going to land you in a heap of trouble.”

I gave him a non-committal grunt in response. Our mother had frequently said I was a “fixator.” She was right. I was a fixator. I fixated. I focused. It was a good personality trait in that I never had difficulty achieving a goal, once I set my mind to it. But it was a bad personality trait in that sometimes I couldn’t stop focusing on something, even when I wanted to.

“Why does everything have to be black and white?” Jethro continued to press. “Why does every person have to be a zero or a ten on your worthwhile scale? Maybe she’s a seven or a four.”

I shrugged. “I don’t have time for fours and sevens, I have too much to do. If someone isn’t a ten, they’re a zero.”

He sighed loudly, like a deflating inner tube. It was not a healthy sound. “Well, whatever. You do what you want. You always do anyway.”

“I will. Now what is it that you want?”

He lifted an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“I know you’re not loitering around here for your health. You want to ask me a favor.”

The eyebrow lowered and now he was squinting, which meant I was right.

“How do you know these things?”

“I know everything. So ask. I’m busy.”

“Already planning the wedding?” Jethro teased.

I narrowed my eyes on him, not liking his teasing. “Something like that.”

He took the hint and changed the subject. “Fine. So, Sienna—”

“You mean, your fiancée.”

“Yeah. Sienna—”

“You should call her your fiancée.”

“What? Why?”

“’Cause that’s who she is to you. I’m your brother, you say, ‘My brother.’ Sienna is your fiancée and has earned that title in your life. She puts up with your ugly face and bad manners, the least you can do is address her properly.”

Jethro whistled low before saying, “I guess you really are irritated.”

“Just earning my title as your brother. Now, back to your fiancée.”

“Fine, crusty britches. So, my fiancée and I, we’re moving into the carriage house when she gets home next week.”

“She doesn’t like living with us?” I was disappointed. I liked Sienna. She made me laugh and often surprised me with her shenanigans and tomfooleries. Very few people ever surprised me. “Is it the bathroom schedule? She doesn’t like the idea of it?”