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Beard Science(67)

By:Penny Reid

“No. No need for that. We’ll . . . work out something.” She sounded distracted.

“Yes. We’ll work something out and it’ll be formalized in a contract.. An employment agreement.”

She sighed again, louder this time. “That’s fine. We can make it formal if you need it to be formal.”

“I do. And another thing—”

“There’s more?”

“Yes. I will go to New York and meet with the talent agent, but I will decide what happens next.”

“Jennifer, this is a big deal.” Her tone held an edge of warning.

“It might be a big deal to you, but it’s not to me. And it won’t make or break the lodge or the bakery.”

“Baby, if you don’t accept the offer it could put me in a really awkward position.” She sounded a little panicked.

I fought against the ingrained instinct to soothe her and resolved to stay firm, but I kept my tone respectful. “Then you should have asked me what I wanted and listened to me when I told you. I want to be helpful to the bakery and the family business, but I truly dislike being the Banana Cake Queen. Therefore, I will continue to help within reason.”

She was quiet for a beat and when she spoke next her voice was strained, frustrated. “Fine. Anything else?”

“Yes. I’m not coming back to work until the employment agreement is finalized.”

“But . . . but Thanksgiving is coming up. We already have seven hundred orders for your banana cake.”

“Then I guess finalizing the employment agreement sooner rather than later is a priority.”

She made a choking sound.

I quickly added, “And I’m in love with Cletus Winston.”

“What? Cletus Winston, the auto mechanic? That simpleton?”

I pressed my lips together so I wouldn’t laugh at her assessment of Cletus, and spoke slowly and clearly. “I’m in love with Cletus Winston and we’re together and I’m very happy.”

“Oh good Lord.”

“He’s what I want.”

“I don’t know if I can accept this, baby. I just . . . I just don’t know.” I could tell she was rubbing her forehead. “You’re going to need to give me some time on this one.”

“That’s fine.” I shrugged, because it was fine. If she never accepted Cletus, that was okay. I’d chosen him for me, not for her.

Yet I felt certain that once they started spending time together and actually knew each other, they would absolutely get along. My mother was single-minded, shrewd and focused, and exceptionally smart. And so was Cletus. The main differences were, my mother didn’t try to hide her intelligence and she cared what other people thought.

Cletus didn’t care at all what other people thought, not unless the person was his family.

Or me.

I grinned.

“Maybe,” my momma said on a sigh, “we all just need a break. Your daddy told me I needed a vacation. He’s trying to get me to go to this spa in Asheville. He wanted to leave this afternoon.”

I tensed at this news. I didn’t know why he wanted her to leave town, but I could guess. “Momma.”

“I thought I raised you and your brother right. But obviously I did something wrong, because Isaac won’t even talk to me and you’re running off in the middle of the night to be with the town oddball because you don’t like yellow dresses anymore.”

I ignored her ludicrous and willful oversimplification of the situation because I had to tell her about my father. About her husband. She deserved to know. And I needed to tell her before he intervened and filled her head with lies. More lies.

“I’m going to tell you something, and you’re not going to believe me. But there’s proof. I’m not lying to you, and it’s really important that you believe me.” I hadn’t seen the proof, but if Cletus said he had proof then I didn’t doubt him.

“Jennifer, you’re scaring me.”

“You should sit down.”

“Jenn—baby—whatever it is, I’m your mother and I love you. Granted, you might drive me crazy wearing those jeans and I might react very poorly at times. I’m just very busy trying to rebuild the family business. And I just don’t understand why you don’t like those pretty dresses, but I guess I can come to terms with your peculiar choices, whatever it takes for you to be in my life. You know how much I miss your brother. I just don’t understand why he never calls.”

“Momma, listen to me. It’s not about me.”

“Then what’s it about?”

I gathered a large breath, held it in my lungs and sent a prayer upward. I prayed for strength. I prayed my mother would believe me, because she didn’t deserve my father’s betrayal. Just like I didn’t deserve his abuse. Just like he didn’t deserve us.

“It’s about Dad.” I spoke calmly, because I knew at any minute she was going to launch into hysterics. “It’s about Dad and what he’s been doing on the weekends.”

Guilt had me squirming in my seat.

It was the money. The money was responsible for my guilt. I couldn’t stop looking at my bank balance. But every time I looked at my bank balance, my stomach felt hollow.

“Stop it.”

I glanced to my side, to Jethro Winston who’d taken me to the bank and was now driving me back to his family’s house.

He continued, smiling, “Stop working yourself up about the money. Believe me, she’ll collect on those custard cakes. They’re all she talks about.”

I folded the bank printout into thirds and tucked it into my bag. “She was too generous.”

“I don’t think you appreciate how terrible morning sickness has been for her. She’s sick all the time. She jokes about it, but I can tell she’s in pain.” Jethro’s hands tightened on the steering wheel and the corners of his mouth turned down. His wife’s difficulty affected him. “Those lemon cakes are the only thing that helps. I’d give you a million dollars myself if I thought it would help.”

I didn’t need a million dollars. Between Sienna’s kindness and the agreement I’d tentatively struck with my momma this morning, my cup runneth over.

The conversation with my mother went both better and worse than expected. Better because she’d agreed to pay me for my work. Worse because she hadn’t believed me about my father. She said I was mistaken, that I was confused, that he would never do such a thing, and then she ended the call.

Worry for her plagued me, so I decided to give her some time, then approach the subject again.

“Sienna seemed okay this morning,” I said, wanting to ease his mind.

He huffed a laugh, shaking his head. “She’s a great actress.”

I nodded, because she was a great actress. I’d seen all her movies. Even my momma—who didn’t like movies—loved Sienna Diaz. She was America’s non-conformist sweetheart.

The fact that America’s sweetheart had ended up with Jethro Winston was amazing.

Sure, Jethro Winston was a looker. He had twinkly hazel-green eyes, a tall, lean build, strong jaw, impeccable beard, easy smile—the works. But he also had a checkered past. At one time he was involved with the Iron Wraiths and the rumor was he stole cars for the club. I thought he became a member, but I later discovered he’d been a recruit. He’d left the motorcycle club before he’d pledged as a full member.

Since leaving, he’d become a straight arrow. He was always easy-going and calm, never seemed to get ruffled. I never saw him drink spirits. My momma said that he used to treat women badly; but then I overheard Naomi Winters tell the reverend’s wife that Jethro hadn’t stepped out with a woman since leaving the Wraiths. The reverend’s wife said leaving the Wraiths saved his life and that he’d turned everything around for his momma.

And if Jethro could leave the Iron Wraiths, turn his life around and rejoin his real family, it gave me hope for my brother.

Before I thought better of it, I asked, “Was it difficult? Leaving the Wraiths? Did they make it hard on you? Or could you just leave?”

Jethro’s eyebrows jumped. “Uh . . .” he started, stalled, cleared his throat, shifted in his seat, and then frowned, “why do you want to know?”

“My brother, Isaac. He’s not a member yet. I just wanted to know, what could be done or how easy it would be for him to leave, if he wanted to leave.”

Jethro’s frown morphed into an expression of compassion. “Jenn, I hate to tell you this, but even if he wanted to leave, it wouldn’t be easy. They did not make leaving easy on me and I’m one of the few who ever managed it.”

“Thanks for being honest.” His statement confirmed my fears.

His smile was apologetic. “I’m sorry I can’t give you better news.”

“It’s fine. It is. I guess . . . people have to make their own choices. Even if it’s not what I want for my brother, I can’t force him to be something else. He has to be true to himself.”

Jethro gave my forearm a squeeze. “If he does change his mind, I’ll be happy to talk to him. If you want.”

“Thank you. That’s kind of you.” I studied his profile, seeing he was being sincere. “You could talk to him about being a park ranger and what that’s like.”