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Beard Science(66)

By:Penny Reid

Sienna Diaz arrived just as Ashley was packing up and giving me instructions about my feet. She’d given me Ibuprofen and said to stay off them as much as possible for the day, but light walking would be fine. She said I should be able to walk normally by tomorrow, as long as it didn’t hurt. But not to wear high heels or stand for too long.

“Feet are resilient, they’re like women that way,” she said, then added with a big smile, “see you later, friend.”

Sienna flashed her dimples as Ashley left us, then turned to me with an exceptionally serious expression which was matched by her tone. “I have a proposition for you.”

I needed a minute. I wasn’t used to being the focus of so much charisma. “Uh, okay, what—”

“Here’s the deal.” She sat on the bed next to me and grabbed my hand, cradling it in her own.

Let me repeat that. Sienna Diaz—movie star, hilarious comedian, and all-round extraordinary human being—sat on the bed next to me and grabbed my hand. And it was not an hallucination.

Life is so weird.

“I am obsessed with your lemon custard cakes,” she confessed on a rush. “Obsessed. But your bakery hasn’t been carrying them for over a week.”

“Oh, sorry about that.”

She shook her head quickly. “Don’t apologize. Here’s the deal: if and when you’re feeling up to it, I want to pay you—handsomely—to keep me well stocked in lemon custard cakes for the next six months. And maybe for the rest of my life. And my children’s lives.”

I cracked a smile because the woman was funny. “You don’t have to pay me. I’ll be happy to do it for you.”

She shook her head. “No. No, no, no. I’m paying you. You’re being put on retainer. I’ll have my lawyer draw up a contract. We’re making this official, because I need those cakes, and I want to be able to hold you accountable in a court of law if you don’t deliver.”

I narrowed my eyes on her, seeing through her demand. Obviously someone had talked to her about my situation.

As though reading my mind, her expression softened and she squeezed my hand. “Yes, I know what happened. These Winston boys are big gossips. But I’m being completely honest with you. Please let me take advantage of you and exploit you for your baking brilliance. Please!” She tugged on my fingers, bringing them to just under her chin as though she were praying. “I’m suffering. I have morning sickness all the time. I’ve lost twenty pounds and I don’t fit in my wedding dress. They’re going to have to use duct tape to keep it on me. I need those cakes!”

Despite everything, she made me laugh. “Fine, yes, I’ll make you the cakes.”

She dropped my hand and stood. “Excellent. Jethro is driving you over to the bank today to get you set up with an account and I’ll have the money wired in.”

“An account? But . . . but I don’t have my wallet or my driver’s license.” I’d been so distraught when I left, grabbing my purse hadn’t occurred to me.

“Cletus and Duane went to your parents’ house this morning and picked up some of your things. Your momma packed your bag, but she wants you to call her. Don’t worry, Duane made sure there were no yellow dresses in the suitcase.” Sienna pulled a phone from her pocket and held it out to me.

It was my phone. I gaped at it and then I gaped at this movie-star angel sent from Heaven to deliver only good news.

I didn’t know what to say, so I just stared at her like a gaping moron.

She flashed a smile then moved to the door, spinning back to me at the last minute. “Also, I believe the Donner Bakery was supposed to make my wedding cake and I believe it cost something like two thousand dollars if my memory serves. Which means you were supposed to make my wedding cake. I’ve called the bakery and cancelled my order. I figure, let’s just cut out the middleman. I’ll add it to your lemon custard cake retainer fee. Assuming your feet will allow it, do you think you could use the kitchen in the carriage house? It has two ovens. And once you tell me exactly what you need, I’ll make sure you have whatever top-of-the-line equipment you require . . .”

Without waiting for my response, she left. I stared at the door for a long moment. Her energy was . . . intense. I liked her, and not just because she was one of those people who are impossible to dislike. She clearly had a good heart. I decided I would take her up on her offer, but one day I’d pay her back. With interest.

The phone in my hand buzzed, demanding my attention, and a text flashed on the screen. It was from Cletus and the sight made my heart lurch and twist, a pining ache stealing my breath. As I scrolled through my notifications, I noticed several texts.

Cletus: I’m sorry. I was wrong, you were right.

Cletus: I just realized you probably don’t have your phone.

Cletus: I think I’m going to make myself useful by retrieving your phone.

Cletus: I just left your parents’ house. I have your phone.

Cletus: Clearly I had your phone, if you’re reading these messages.

I was smiling—grinning like a love-sick fool would be more accurate—by the time I got to the last message. But then my heart twisted and I was gripped by a ferocious wave of sorrow. He might have recognized his error, but he still didn’t trust me to be strong. I didn’t want to be pitied.

I refused to be pitied.

Sighing, I placed the cell on my lap and stared at the ceiling.

I missed him. I hated being angry with him. This state of longing for Cletus hurt, because I wasn’t ready to forgive him.

He needed to prove that he trusted me, not just for me, but for him. Without trust, we had nothing.

I needed to prove my independence and strength, not just for him, but for myself.

And on that note, I called my mother.

I sat up in the bed, leaning against the headboard and testing my feet. They smarted just a tad, but not much.

My mother picked up after the second ring. “Hello? Jennifer?”

I gathered a deep breath, prepared for recriminations and hysterics. “Momma.”

“Oh thank God. What were you thinking? Leaving the house like that? And you didn’t take your phone. I had no way to reach you. You weren’t at the bakery. You weren’t anywhere. I was about to call the sheriff. And then those Winston boys show up and say you’re at their house. What am I supposed to think?”

He didn’t tell her he kicked me out? What a coward. A flare of disgust for my father had me shaking my head.

“Slow down. Just . . . give me a minute to respond.”

I heard her huff a watery sigh. “I’m just so sorry. I think . . . I think I must have driven you away. I keep thinking about that conversation we had on Friday. You hurt my feelings, and things were getting worse instead of better, so I talked to Reverend Seymour about it and he says I need to let you go. I need to let you fly like a bird.” She sniffled, then added on a wobbly whisper, “I don’t know if I can do that.”

Tears pricked behind my eyes. I blinked them away. “I’m not a little girl anymore.”

“I know. Well, I know that now. In retrospect, I guess, I haven’t been a very good listener. I just . . . I just wanted better for you than what I had. You know? You have so much talent and you’re so darn pretty, you’re everything I wished I was when I was your age. Your granddaddy was a selfish man, God rest his soul, and he neglected your grandma and me. I only want what’s best for you, what I never had.”

“But you’re not me. I’m me. And you don’t always know what’s best for me, because you don’t really know me.”

She was quiet for a stretch, then I heard her soft crying. I shook my head and sighed, my forehead falling to my hand.

“Momma, please stop crying.”

“I’m a terrible mother,” she wailed.

“No,” I rolled my eyes, “no, you aren’t. You’ve meant well, and have done the best you know how. But now it’s time to let me be my own person.”

She sniffled again, and I could tell she was struggling with this concept. “You’ll have to teach me how to let you be, because I’m at a loss. I really am. I feel like everything I know is upside down and backward.”

“First things first, you need to know that I’m not coming home. I’m not living at home anymore.” I couldn’t, for so many reasons, not the least of which was my father. I couldn’t look at him let alone share a house with him. I wouldn’t.

My momma was quiet again, and then she cleared her throat. “Now, Jennifer, I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”

“Even so, I’m not coming home.”

“But how are you going to support yourself?”

“You’re going to pay me.”

Again, she was silent and I could almost picture the shock painted on her features. But I wasn’t backing down. I worked hard—all the time. There was no reason I shouldn’t be paid for my work.

At length, she sighed, sounding exasperated. “You want me to pay you.”

“The bakery is going to pay me.” I lifted my voice, infusing it with as much conviction as I could. “I work there, and therefore I should earn a salary for the work I do. If you feel differently, I understand. But that means I’ll be working elsewhere.”