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Beard Science(68)

By:Penny Reid

He released my arm and shrugged. “Sure, I could. But I just let Drew know I’m giving my notice next spring.”

“What? Why? What happened?”

“The baby happened. When the baby comes, I’m staying home.” His grin returned and this time it was massive. “I’m going to be a stay-at-home dad,” he announced proudly.

My mouth fell open in surprise, but also excitement for him and Sienna. “That’s so awesome. I’m really happy for you, Jethro.”

“Thank you, Jennifer.” He split his attention between the road and me. “I’m really happy for you, too.”

“You’re happy for me?”

“Yep. Look at you. You don’t look a thing like a Banana Cake Queen.”

I glanced at what I was wearing—Roscoe’s old slippers, my jeans that I’d slept in, Sienna’s Harvard sweatshirt—I’m sure I looked a mess. And that made me laugh.

“No. I guess I don’t look like the Banana Cake Queen.”

“And the world didn’t end.”

“No. It didn’t.” I lifted my chin proudly and turned my attention to the passing scenery while I considered what that meant.

I wasn’t the Banana Cake Queen. I didn’t live with my parents—though technically I didn’t live anywhere—and I had enough money to rent my own place. Life was happening and I was making it happen.

Well, technically the Winstons and Sienna Diaz were making it happen. But soon I’d pay them back.

My attention snagged on a farmhouse set off the road, white with navy shutters and well-maintained window boxes, and I grabbed Jethro’s arm.

“Wait, turn in there.” I pointed to the driveway.

He pressed on the brake. “Here? Claire’s house?”

“That’s right. Claire’s house.” I pulled out my phone and searched for her name.

“Sure, but . . . why are we stopping here?”

“Because,” I selected her contact information and brought the cell to my ear, “I’m going to rent her house.”

He frowned at me, lifting an eyebrow. “I thought Cletus was going to rent it.”

I shook my head, resolve setting my jaw. “Not if I rent it first.”


“Love brings to light a lover's noble and hidden qualities-his rare and exceptional traits: it is thus liable to be deceptive of his normal qualities.”

 Friedrich Nietzsche


An amended plan took shape. And based on Ashley’s advice, it involved blackmail.

After the quick stop at Claire’s—and an even quicker phone call to the woman herself—Jethro was nice enough to swing by the Donner Bakery so I could retrieve an item from the gluten-free flour container. Then he took us back to the Winston house.

I wasn’t nervous. I was anxious.

Oh, heck. I was also nervous.

But I was determined.

Jethro insisted on carrying me into the house and I knew I looked a mess, but I didn’t have the energy to think about that. More important matters required my attention.

He opened the front door and we found a pacing Cletus by the fireplace. He lifted his eyes. His eyes weren’t blue today. They were greenish gray and they looked tired. He was suffering. When his gaze collided with mine, I felt the contact at the base of my throat and beneath my ribs. I ached for him.

Instinct had me wanting to reassure him, to tell him all was forgiven, to hold him close and kiss away his hurt.

But reason told me to hold my damn horses.

First, things needed discussing.

Then kissing.

Then more kissing.

“Hello, Cletus,” Jethro said, his tone impressively prosaic. “How are you?”

Cletus narrowed his eyes on his brother, then crossed the room to stand in front of us.

Ignoring his brother’s smirk—which was a remarkable achievement as Jethro’s smirk was extraordinary—Cletus addressed me. “Jennifer, may I carry you upstairs so we can discuss what has occurred?”

I hesitated.

I didn’t know if it was a good idea to be alone with him, not yet.

But then his eyes moved over my face, haunted and tortured and cherishing.

I said, “Yes, please.”

The anxiety drawing tension lines on his features eased, leaving his gaze still tortured, but mostly cherishing.

My heart fluttered in anticipation. Even though I was still holding on to my damn horses, I also still craved my man’s touch. I craved the feel of him, his warmth, his hands, and his mouth. I craved it all. I craved him.

So when Jethro handed me over I couldn’t help but snuggle against Cletus, tuck my forehead into the curve of his neck and breathe him in. This man belonged to me. He was mine. And I enjoyed every minute of the journey upstairs, especially because what would come after, what I had planned, might lead to less touching. I dreaded the aftermath, but I had to be strong.

Best to make the most of touching now, while I had the chance.

At the top of the stairs, instead of turning toward Ashley’s room, he moved in the opposite direction, swiftly carrying me to and through an alternate door. Cletus’s room. Before I could voice my objection, we were inside and I was distracted by being in his space. Everything was tidy and in its place, but traces of him were everywhere.

My attention caught on a chess board by the closet; it appeared to have been left in the middle of a match.

“I didn’t know you played chess.” I spotted two series of moves the black side could initiate to put white into checkmate.

He nodded absentmindedly, placing me gently on his bed and lifting the pillow against the headboard and encouraging me to rest against it. “Is that okay? Do you need another pillow? Are you thirsty? Do you need water? Or something else? What about tea? I know you like tea.” He turned from the bed and walked to his closet.

“Cletus, I don’t need anything. But I think we should . . .” I didn’t finish my sentence. I couldn’t. Because I was too confused.

Cletus began pulling gifts from the closet. Gift after gift. All wrapped in different wrapping paper with ornate bows. I gaped at him, at the never-ending pile of gifts. When he’d placed at least fifteen on the bed and the floor at my side, I finally came to my senses.

“What is all this? What are you doing?”

“They’re your birthday presents.” He placed two more on my lap.


“Your birthday presents. I missed your birthday, so here you go.”

“Cletus, what are you talking about? You didn’t want to know me last year, why would you have bought me a present?”

He paused on his return trip to the closet and faced me, placing his hands on his hips and sounding intensely frustrated. “I should have. I should have wanted to know you, not just last year, but all your life. I’ve missed all your birthdays, and I’m sorry. I was wrong, to miss your birthday twenty-two times, so here are your presents.”

I stared at him. Actually, I gawked at him, dumbfounded. My beautiful man looked so tormented, and I could see he’d spent the last half day beating himself up.

When he’d texted me earlier that he was wrong, he’d meant it. He believed it. And I believed him.

Cletus turned, walked to the closet, and retrieved another three wrapped boxes, his expression drawn with grief and ripe with self-recrimination.

Before he could turn again, I caught his arm. “Wait. Wait a minute. Just, stop. Stop bringing me presents, you sweet, terrible, infuriating, hilarious, clever man.” I was laughing by the time I finished speaking and was pleased to see some of his misery replaced with a weary smile.

“I’m sorry,” he said, gazing at me with his sad gray eyes, his voice a gravelly whisper. “I’m so sorry. You were right. I didn’t trust you.”

I switched my hold on his hand so our fingers were entwined. “Thank you. Thank you for apologizing.”

Cletus released an audible breath and moved to sit next to me, but his way was blocked by the plethora of wrapped boxes. He frowned at them. Using his free hand, he swept them from the bed.

“None of these are breakable,” he mumbled, claiming his spot and pulling me into a tight hug.

We hugged. And it was perfection. His body, his embrace was where I wanted to be always.

I hoped—in the future, whenever we fought—we’d always end our arguments with a hug.

After a time, but only because I was still holding my damn horses and they were growing restless, I pulled away, immediately missing his strong arms. “There are things we need to discuss.”

“I agree.” He shifted on the bed such that his back was also against the pillow and I was tucked under his arm. He kissed my neck, lingering there as though he was reluctant to leave my skin. “I have a lot I need to tell you.”

I paused, frowning, because his tone sounded ominous. “Wait, there’s more?”

He nodded, straightening. “Not about your father. I blackmailed him, this is true. But I didn’t do anything else to him. You already know about the Jackson James leprosy plan—which is on hold, as promised—as well, I have a few other irons in the fire. Let’s see—”

“Wait. Stop. Stop right there.”


I twisted so I could look into his clever eyes. “Cletus, you’re an adult. You don’t need to confess a single thing to me unless it’s something done on my behalf, or for my theoretical benefit. I trusted you and I still do. I’m not your confessor. I cannot absolve you. You have to take responsibility for your own actions and their ramifications, just like I do. Just like everybody does.”