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Beard Science(69)

By:Penny Reid

He frowned, looking nonplussed, but then eventually nodded.

Quickly, I added, “Now, if you want to talk about your day, or your leprosy plans, or whatever, I’m here for you. Just like I hope you’re here for me when I want to talk about my day.”

“Or your leprosy plans.”

“Yes. Or my leprosy plans. That goes without saying.”

Cletus cracked his first true smile and gave me a quick kiss, like he couldn’t help himself. “I love you.”

Smoothing my palm over his beleaguered beard, I cupped his jaw. “And I love you.”

His smile grew, warmed, heated, and his hands on me tightened in a way that felt both instinctual and possessive. “That’s the first time you’ve said it.”

“I know.” My grin mirrored his. “You kept interrupting me.”

Cletus’s eyes dropped to my lips and he rumbly whispered, “Remind me to stop interrupting you.”

I endeavored to ignore the ache in my chest, the circle of heat around my neck, and worked hard to sound serious. “Please stop interrupting me, because I have something important to say.” I tried twisting toward him to be closer, but the angle was awkward. So I huffed. “Can you just move—yes, like that. Move there so I can straddle your lap. I can’t see your face.”

“For the record, I will never turn down you straddling me.”

Shaking my head at him, I waited until he was centered on the bed, then I climbed on his lap and twisted my arms around his neck. “That’s better.”

“So much better.” His voice was low and sent a shiver racing along spine, which he chased with his hands.

I caught his fingers on their way to my backside and pressed them against my waist. “As I was saying, we have a few things that need discussing. A lot has happened.”

“Agree.” He nodded once.

“And last night, you really hurt me.”

A forlorn frown chased away his friskiness. “I know. What can I do?”

“Your apology helped. Thank you for that.” I swallowed, fighting to suppress the butterflies in my stomach. Being this close to him, in this position, was a bad idea. My hormones wanted me to abandon my plan. They wanted me to release the horses and unwrap my presents, starting with my man.

But I couldn’t.

Not yet.

“Here is how things are going to be: I am moving out of my parents’ house and into Claire’s house—”

“Agree.” He moved to kiss me.

Ducking, I dodged his mouth. “By myself.”

Frowning severely, his eyebrows pulled low into a dissatisfied line. “Disagree.”

I ignored him. “And I’ve talked to my mother. She’s going to pay me for the work I do at the Donner Bakery. I’ll also be baking for Sienna while she’s pregnant. I have some ideas—based on the lemon cakes she likes—that might help her.”

“Let’s go back to the housing part of the plan.”

Again, I ignored him. “I am going to support myself, with my baking, or whatever else I choose to do. Because it is right and normal for a twenty-two-year-old woman to support herself.”

“Yes, but—”

“Just like you are going to support yourself. Because it is right and normal for a man of your age to support himself.”

His frown became an eye squint. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying we need to stand separately,” unable to help myself, I kissed his nose, “so we can eventually stand together.”

His lips flattened into a dissatisfied line and his squint intensified as he mulled this over. “And if I disagree? If I want to—let’s say—get married and start making babies now?”

I gave him an indulgent smile and shook my head. “The answer is not yet. Because we’re not ready. I’m not ready.”

“And if I insist?” His hands slipped lower, his fingers caressing my backside. “I can be very persuasive.”

I grinned, because he was right.

“I will not discourage you from using every weapon in your persuasion arsenal.” He leaned forward to kiss me and I dodged his mouth again, holding a finger to his lips. “But I have to warn you, I currently have the upper hand.”

His left eyebrow arched and a delightfully mischievous smile claimed his lips. “Do you? How so?”

I withdrew the last thumb drive from my back pocket and held it up between us. He looked at it, then at me, then at it, his smile falling by degrees.

“That night I gave them back to you, I couldn’t find this one,” I explained. “I found it the next week and planned to hand it over when—or if—I saw you next.”

“Is that . . .?”


A torrent of emotions passed behind his eyes. Before he could settle on a feeling, I plucked his hand from my body and placed the data drive in his palm. Confusion claimed his features while his gaze followed my movements.

“Here.” I waited until he’d refocused on me. “Now no one has the upper hand.”

Cletus’s frown persisted as he studied me, but it became something else. Less confused, more thoughtful. More determined.

“You’re wrong. You have the upper hand, because my remarkable woman is astute, and strong, and kind.” He leaned forward slowly, holding my gaze, until our lips met. The kiss he gave me was both sad and sweet, resigned and rejoicing, and it crushed me, re-forming my body into a thousand tiny pieces of longing. I wanted to press closer. My thighs tensed on his lap. I wanted to live his kiss and touch his skin and dwell within his warmth and strength for eternity.

When our mouths parted, I chased his. But he tilted his chin to his chest until our foreheads touched. “You’ll always have the advantage of me, Jenn. Because I’m lost without you.”


“Moral wounds have this peculiarity - they may be hidden, but they never close; always painful, always ready to bleed when touched, they remain fresh and open in the heart.”

 Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo


Perhaps I was being selfish.

In fact, I was being selfish.

It was too much to ask of a person—to be my salvation, to teach me how to have faith, to balance my world-weary view with rainbows and sunshine and gardening in overalls—but . . .

Oh well.

Too late for second-guessing. I was in love with the woman.

Consequently, she was stuck with me. She wasn’t ready for marriage yet, and that was okay. I would wait. I might ask her to marry me once a month until she said yes, but otherwise I would be the epitome of virtuous fortitude and patience.

Maybe not strictly virtuous.

Sporadic virtue would do the trick, with frequent episodes of impertinence and indulgence . . . unwrapping of presents.

Also stuck with me, my family.

So while Jennifer was still upstairs in Ashley’s old room, asleep on Thursday morning, I called a family meeting.

“Who made this coffee?” Roscoe called from the kitchen

“Cletus did.” Duane sat next to me on the couch and sipped from his mug.

Roscoe strolled out the kitchen, mugless. “Then, no thanks.”

“Really? You’re going to be judgy with Cletus about his coffee right now?” Billy smirked at our youngest brother.

Roscoe crossed his arms over his chest. “I don’t care what he’s going through. I ain’t drinking his coffee. It smells like fish oil and tar.”

“Praise for my excellent coffee notwithstanding, I have something serious to discuss with y’all.” I sat forward on the couch, wanting to get to the point.

Roscoe had arrived late last night for the wedding festivities, which were set to commence this evening, starting with the bachelor party. All siblings were present.

I’d purposefully excluded Drew, because—as a federal game warden—he was law enforcement. I didn’t want him to feel any conflict of interest. Best to leave him in the dark.

It was time for me to share my proverbial burdens.

“Let’s hear it.” Ashley drank from her coffee mug, then smacked her lips. “My, my, that is some mighty fine coffee.”

Roscoe rolled his eyes, but ignored our sister.

I stood and crossed to the mantel, addressing the room. “I have two things to tell y’all. The first is a . . . theoretical situation, and I need your advice. I’d like for all of us to vote.”

“You want us to vote on a theoretical situation?” Duane, also drinking my coffee, frowned at me.

“That’s right.”

My siblings shared a sundry array of glances, most were wide-eyed and either confused or concerned.

Billy, sitting in Grandma Oliver’s favorite chair, folded the newspaper he’d been reading and set it to the side. “Okay. What is this theoretical situation?”

I cleared my throat, knowing this was the correct course of action. And yet, I hated losing control. I hated handing this over and not having a clear idea of what the future held. But Jennifer’s words the previous day had hit home. I’d been so busy trying to save my siblings, I hadn’t stopped to check in with them.

What did they want?

“Let’s say, theoretically, that I’ve been stealing evidence from the sheriff’s office that implicates members of a certain motorcycle club and placing that evidence in strategic locations.”

Again, my family traded looks.