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Beard Science(73)

By:Penny Reid

“I love you,” she whispered as her hands slipped under my shirt. She smoothed her palm from my chest to my stomach, curling her fingers into the waistband of my pants.

Her words, her confession of love, sobered me. I stilled my movements, waiting for the frenzy of recklessness to recede.

Her home was not yet my home. She wasn’t ready. Not yet.

I may have wanted to possess her, but I didn’t need it. I needed to love her, not possess her. And she needed my love, not my trickery. Not my control.

So I breathed out. I did not possess her. I did not push her.

Instead, I eased her back to the bed, drawing the only remaining scrap of fabric down her legs, leaving her naked and vulnerable and stunning and shivering.

Lifting my greedy stare from her body—this body I coveted with raw desperation—I met her extraordinary eyes. On the floor before her I knelt, spreading her legs, and witnessed the beauty of her trust.

And then I loved her.


“Man is not what he thinks he is, he is what he hides.”

 André Malraux


It was a beautiful ceremony.

Jethro, unsurprisingly, wasn’t nervous. My oldest brother wasn’t the nervous type. But he did choke up when Sienna walked down the aisle.

Heck, I think we all did.

She appeared at the edge of the wildflower field, gussied up in a white cloud of a dress, looking like an angel. Sienna was beautiful, made even more so by the way she looked at my brother.

She took three steps toward the altar and my eyes cut to Jenn.

My Jenn.

My Jenn wasn’t looking at me. She was looking at Sienna with a big, happy smile on her face, so she didn’t see me as I stared at her, and imagined our wedding day. I imagined the moment she would appear, gussied up in a white cloud of a dress, looking like an angel.

Or maybe we would elope, just the two of us. Maybe to Alaska, where we’d have a private ceremony under a surprising sky.

Honestly, I didn’t care.

Virtuous fortitude, I reminded myself. Patience. The reminders made me grumpy, so I focused on the beautiful ceremony and my brother’s happiness.

After the I dos were over, the festivities started. I sought Jennifer as soon as the wedding party arrived at the reception site.

A large tent had been erected at the back of the property with a huge dance floor, covering a giant area both inside and outside the temporary structure. Traditional Mexican dishes and traditional Tennessee home cooking were side by side on the buffet, with vegan options also available for those lunatics that didn’t eat meat.

The good news was I found Jenn almost immediately. The bad news was she was talking to Jackson James.

My grumpiness returned and intensified.

I plotted an intercept course but was stopped by a hand on my elbow. Irritable, I turned, prepared to shake off this usurper’s fingers.

But it was Claire.

So I didn’t.

Instead, I returned her smile.

“Claire McClure, we meet again.”

Her grin widened and she laughed, pulling me into a hug. “Hello, Cletus. How are you?”

“Oh, I’m perfectly adequate.” I leaned away and captured her hand, tucking it in the crook of my elbow. “Will you stay and dance with me?”

“Only if you sing a song with me.”

I shook my head. “I guess we’re not dancing then.”

Her mouth pressed into a frustrated line. “Come on, come sing with me. You deserved that recording contract just as much as I did, and yet you insisted on playing second fiddle.”

“That’s because second fiddle gets all the Banana Cake Queens.”

“Good.” She nodded once, ardently. “I was planning on harassing you about her today, but I’m glad you finally came to your senses. You two are perfect for each other.”

“We are, aren’t we?” My eyes automatically sought Jennifer and I frowned. Jackson James had said something to make her laugh.

Itchy britches.

But then I caught myself smiling as my attention snagged on her mouth. I’d take her smile in any form, for any reason, even if Jackson had been the one to put it on her face.

“So there’s nothing I can say to convince you to sing with me?” Claire pressed.

“No.” I gathered a deep breath, turning to Claire and removing her hand from my arm, but keeping our fingers hooked together. “I aspire to different achievements than worldly success, and I know you do as well. But, Claire, I’m glad you finally saw reason and accepted the record deal. Your star is too bright to hide in plain sight.”

“You just rhymed, Cletus. I might have to steal that for a song.”

“Go ahead. I ain’t using it for anything profitable.”

Claire’s eyes moved over my features as though I were precious to her. I guess I was, in a way. I suspected we all were, even Billy.

As though reading my mind, her smile waned and her eyes fell from my face to my bow tie. She removed her fingers from mine and straightened my tie, smoothing her hands down my lapels, then lifting to her tiptoes to place a kiss on my cheek.

“Thank you for believing in me, Cletus. I’ll pay you back one of these days.”

I nodded, considering—studying her—then took a chance and suggested gently, “If you want to pay me back, go ask Billy to sing with you.”

A flash of pain burned bright behind her eyes and her smile dropped, falling into an anxious frown. She shook her head, saying softly, “He doesn’t want to sing with me.”

Her denial had me huffing a laugh. “Oh, Claire. He only wants to sing with you. No one else. Never anyone else. Just you.”

My words did nothing to ease the anxiety in her expression. In fact, it seemed to heighten it. Her eyes darted away, searching, and she pasted a forced smile over her features.

“I think Jennifer is looking for you.” Claire pointed to my right and I followed her gaze.

Sure enough, Jennifer was looking at us and grinning. She waved at Claire happily, then her gorgeous eyes moved to me. Her smile grew.

“Tell her I said hi.”

I felt Claire squeeze my arm, but when I turned back to my friend I was met with the sight of her back, walking away. I scowled at her, at her wrong-headedness. I didn’t understand her.

Stubborn woman.

Clearly she was in love with my brother.

But there was nothing I could do about her. At least, not yet. Maybe later.

I turned my attention back to Jenn and Jackson, and continued my original course, meandering with purpose toward my woman.

“Jackson,” I said as I pulled even with them, ensuring my voice was as flat as the tires of his car.

They aren’t flat yet, but they will be.

He turned his smiling brown eyes to me and they dimmed as I wrapped my arm around Jenn’s waist and pressed a kiss to her neck.

“Hey,” I said, ignoring him.

She smiled up at me, wrapping her arm around my waist as well. “Hey.”

“How are you?”

Her smile grew and her eyes lowered to my lips. “I missed you.”

She missed me.

Life is good.

I mirrored her smile, about to suggest we sneak off, but then Jackson cleared his throat.

“Hello, Cletus,” he said, drawing our attention back to his irritating face. I’d ignored him so well I’d forgotten he was still there.

“That was a nice ceremony,” he offered benignly.

“It was,” I admitted, still flat.

He scratched his neck. I followed the movement with my eyes while Jennifer gave me a sharp squeeze.

My grumpiness flared because I knew what that squeeze meant. She wanted me to talk to Jackson James, that’s what the squeeze meant.

Oh good Lord.

“I’m going to grab a drink and let you two talk,” she said meaningfully, pulling out of my grip while issuing me a big, encouraging smile. “Do you want anything?”

I mouthed the word you and she narrowed her eyes, shaking her head subtly and glancing at Jackson. Again, with meaning.

“I’ll grab you both a beer,” she said. “Stay here.”

Jenn left, drawing my eyes to her departing form as she walked away. I followed her movements until she disappeared in the throng.

And then I turned my attention back to Jackson and I frowned at him. He wasn’t looking at me. He was looking out over the crowd, his eyes scanning the faces of the wedding guests.

“I don’t know most of these people, but I think I recognize a few,” he said, apropos of nothing, as though we were on friendly chitchatting terms.

My frown deepened and I was ready to rebuff his familiarity, but then I thought of Jennifer and how she’d asked me to give peace a chance.


Straightening my spine, I crossed my arms, and also scanned the crowd. “That’s because lots of these folks are movie stars, friends of Sienna’s and such.”

He nodded absentmindedly, his attention snagging on a tall brunette. “I’m not going to point, but I think that’s Raquel Ezra.”

He was right. The tall brunette was Raquel Ezra; she was the latest Hollywood bombshell. I glanced away, instinctively finding myself searching for Jenn again. I found her loitering by the bar, glaring at me, with her hands on her hips.

Her message was clear.

I rolled my eyes.

Resigned, I turned to Jackson. “Here’s the deal, Jack.”

His eyes cut to mine and I saw either my tone or my words had surprised him.

Ready to put this farce behind me, I launched into my complaint. “I don’t like you pulling me over for no reason, wasting my time. And I don’t like you pulling over my brothers either. And I don’t like the way you treated my sister in high school, but I guess nothing can be done about that now. So, moving forward, you need to stop abusing your power and start acting more like your father.”