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Beard Science(75)

By:Penny Reid

And all that's best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes...”



I had brown hair.

“Are you sure we’re not supposed to bring something? Not even a casserole?” my mother fretted, twisting her fingers as we drove along Moth Run Road toward the Winston homestead.

“I’m sure. They were very adamant that we just bring ourselves.”

I felt my mother’s eyes on me and she sighed sadly. “I’m not used to seeing you like this yet.”

I didn’t respond. I was tired of talking to her about my hair.

The Monday after Jethro’s wedding, my momma and I came to an agreement on my terms of employment. She’d also signed over my BMW to me as a show of good faith. Or as a bribe. One or the other, and possibly because at Sienna and Jethro’s wedding I’d been approached by a famous pastry chef based in Los Angeles.

I’d dyed my hair back to what I assumed was my natural color just before the trip to New York, after seeing Cletus off for his boar hunting trip to Texas. The color had caused hysterics from my momma. I did my best to tolerate her waterworks. Instead I concentrated on organizing the bakery in preparation for my three-day absence.

She’d been crying non-stop since kicking my father out. At first I had worried she would take him back, but then she explained that she wasn’t crying because she was missing him. She was crying because she realized how much his nasty and vile behavior and selfishness had cost her family. She’d nearly lost both her children. It was then I realized how much I did love my momma, and wanted to give her the chance to know the real me. And perhaps, I might get to know the real her, too.

Presently, I was a little nervous about my hair. Cletus hadn’t seen me yet and I hadn’t told him. I wore blonde wigs for all my social media posts and pictures, and during the meetings with the talent agent.

“Am I dressed okay?” She smoothed her hands down her pants and fiddled with her third finger on her left hand, where her wedding ring no longer belonged.

“You look great.”

She did look great. I’d insisted we go shopping while in New York and had pushed her into trying on a pair of pants. They looked fantastic. I then talked her into buying them. I also splurged and grabbed a few items, one of which I was wearing now, a dark orange sweater dress. I’d liked how Cletus looked at me in the blue knit dress and I thought this one complimented the color of my hair.

“You also look very nice,” my momma said, patting my leg.

I struggled for a moment. I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, so I decided to say, “Thank you, Momma.”

But it felt like a big deal. It was the first time she’d complimented me about anything for months, since I’d painted my nails burgundy, in fact.

I was anxious to see Cletus. We’d been texting as much as possible, but where he’d been—out in the middle of nowhere Texas—didn’t get good reception. Also, when I’d returned from my trip, I’d been working non-stop at the bakery fulfilling seven hundred Thanksgiving orders for banana cake.

Then he’d returned from Texas late last night.

I missed him.

But today was the day. The cakes were baked. The orders were delivered. I’d talked my momma into taking the day off and going to the Winstons’ with me for Thanksgiving.

“This will be fun,” she said, as though trying to convince herself, still twisting the vacant spot on her finger.

I parked my car and then reached for her hand, squeezing it until she met my eyes. “It will be fun. The Winstons are really nice. Just try to relax and enjoy yourself.”

She nodded tightly, but I could see she was panicked. Maybe she didn’t know how to relax. Or maybe she didn’t know how to enjoy herself.

Sighing, I left the car, waiting for her to also exit before climbing the steps to the porch. We walked to the front door together and I rang the doorbell, a little flutter of excitement in my stomach growing and reaching a crescendo as the door was pulled open.

I grinned. “Cletus.”

He grinned, his eyes devouring me. “My Jenn.”

He was so handsome, but I didn’t get much of a chance to count the ways because he pulled me forward, wrapped me in his arms, and gave me the most magical of all kisses, cupping my jaw with one hand, tilting my head to one side then the other, tasting me from every angle and making my toes curl in my shoes.

I clung to him, my heart racing, my blood singing in my veins—more, more, more.

And then my mother cleared her throat.

And so did someone else, followed by a voice chiding, “We’re going to move that mistletoe, Cletus. That’s the twelfth person you’ve kissed tonight.”

Cletus lifted his head and turned an angry expression on Beau. “That is a falsehood. I’ve kissed no person for ten days.”

Beau elbowed him out of the way and reached for my mother’s hand, placing a gentle kiss on the back of it and saying, “Please excuse my brother. He usually has better manners. Won’t you come in?”

My momma gave Beau a tight smile. “Yes, thank you for having us.”

“Our pleasure,” the redhead responded graciously, offering his arm.

Despite my kiss haze, I could see Beau’s gentle politeness had worked as my mother walked by. She was by no means relaxed, but perhaps I needed to give her some time.

Fortunately or unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to say a word on the matter because Cletus pulled me to the porch, shutting the door behind us, pressing me against the side of the house, and kissed me again.

“I missed you,” he said between kisses, “so much.”

“I missed you,” I said when he gave me three seconds to gasp for air, but I didn’t mind. Not at all. I just wished we’d had a moment before now to catch up.

Eventually the kisses turned less frantic and frenzied. His lips softened. His fingers relaxed and smoothed down the length of my torso instead of gripping my hips with punishing fingers. We rested our foreheads together and attempted to catch our breath, neither of us willing to cease touching.

“I was very rude to your mother. I will have to apologize and compliment her pants.”

I nodded, laughing lightly. “You noticed my momma’s pants?”

“Yes. Of course. My whole life I’ve never seen that woman in pants.”

“Did you notice anything else?” I lifted my head and peered up at him, lifting my eyebrows in expectation.

He studied me, a confused frown on his forehead. “She’s not wearing her wedding ring.”

“No. Not about her. About me.”

His frown deepened and his eyes widened, like a deer caught in headlights. “You . . . changed your . . . toothpaste?”

I glowered at him. And then I smacked his arm.

“No, wait. You changed the address on your voter’s registration card?”

“Cletus.” I smacked him again.

“Sorry, of course, I’ve got it. You changed your mind about me sucking your toes.”

Despite myself I laughed, but I also smacked his arm a third time. “You are extremely irritating.”

Grinning, he captured my cheeks and pulled me forward, placing a soft kiss on my lips, then pulling away. His clever eyes moved over my head and he pushed his fingers into my hair.

“You are lovely, Jenn. No matter what color you paint your hair, I love it and I love you.” His gaze returned to mine and he added on a rumbly whisper, “But it’s your goodness, kindness, and heart that makes you beautiful.”

My mother didn’t stay long after dinner. I could see she was trying, but I also understood that being faced with a boisterous, happy family like the Winstons must have been painful on some level. She’d had two children, invested a lot of herself into us, and nothing had turned out like she’d hoped.

I walked her to my car and gave her a hug. She’d returned the embrace, kissing me on the cheek, and drove back to the lodge. She’d been staying there since splitting from my father. My father wasn’t at our family house either. My mother had changed all the locks and froze all the accounts. The gossip mill was having a field day with Kip Sylvester’s sudden disappearance. I endeavored to ignore the lingering looks and whispered questions.

I didn’t know where he was. He hadn’t made any attempt to contact me.

I tried not to think about it, about him. My life was full of too many wonderful things. I decided I didn’t have time or energy to waste on pointless endeavors.

Dessert was served outside, around a large bonfire as we all bundled up in blankets. Cletus passed out shot glasses of moonshine while Drew and Ashley passed out pie.

“I wonder what Duane and Jess are up to.” Roscoe picked at his pie, eventually discarding his fork in favor of the shot of moonshine.

“They’re probably asleep.” Cletus refilled his youngest brother’s glass, then capped the jar and moved to me. “It’s the middle of the night in Italy.”

“They should have stayed for Thanksgiving,” Ashley lamented, frowning at the fire.

She was sitting on Drew’s lap and he rubbed her back. “But then they’d never leave. After Thanksgiving it’s Christmas, then New Year’s, then birthdays, and such. It was time for them to go, they’d put off their fernweh long enough.”