Beard Necessities (Winston Brothers, #7)

Beard Necessities (Winston Brothers, #7)

Penny Reid



Prologue





Cletus





“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”

George Burns





“Someone want to tell me what’s going on?”

I gave my youngest brother’s hand a pat where it rested on the covers of his hospital bed, checking the watch on my wrist. Jethro was late.

“All will be revealed, Roscoe. All will be revealed,” I assured, assuredly. Poor kid, they’d made him shave his beard. The youngest of us seven kids, his chronological age was twenty-six, but he looked like a ten-year-old.

He should’ve let me shave a design in his stubble, it would’ve impressed the nurses. Next time. While he’s asleep.

“It better be revealed, Cletus.” This threat came from Duane, one-half of our twin brothers and number six in our family. Beau, the other twin, had been born first, which made him number five. Duane was the grumpy one, that was his role. “I have a plane to catch. Jessica’s due date is tomorrow.”

“We’re all aware of your progeny’s ETA, Duane.” I gentled my voice despite his terse tone. “Once everyone gets here, we’ll get started.”

I shared a quick glance with Beau, who was no help. He seemed to find his twin brother’s anxiety endlessly entertaining. Beau was the only other person who knew why I’d called the meeting. I’d filled him in on the particulars last week, needing an accomplice. It might be a shock, but my family didn’t always recognize the superiority of my stratagems, and you know something is a winner if it’s made up of the words “strata” and “gems.”

Plus, everyone liked Beau. He was the obvious choice for coconspirator.

That said, Duane’s present surly nervousness was for good reason. His partner in travels, life, and in matrimony, Ms. Jessica James-Winston, was forty weeks pregnant with their first child. Now, if she’d been an elephant, she’d have another fifty-five weeks to go. But she was not an elephant.

She was the local sheriff’s daughter and a sweet girl, although she could be a real sassy-britches from time to time. Duane was only here with us on account of Roscoe almost dying a few weeks ago (Don’t panic! He’s out of the woods now.)

Meanwhile, Jessica was living out her last pregnant days in Tuscany (Italy) with her parents, waiting for the arrival of Duane Jr., or Jessica Jr., or whatever they were planning to call the baby.

Speaking of which, “Hey, Duane.”

“Yeah?”

“What’re you naming that baby?”

Our sister, number four and the only girl in our brood, made a soft sound; I interpreted it to be of the reprimanding kind. “Cletus Byron Winston, stop asking Duane what they’re going to name the baby. Let him have his secrets.”

I lifted an eyebrow at my sister’s pretty face and she in turn lifted an eyebrow at me. We were close in age, Ashley and I, since she was the next to be born after I graced the world with my magnanimous presence. This made me lucky number three in the family. That’s right, the number three is lucky. It’s a well-established fact of the universe. Everyone knows it.

“I’m here!”

Like synchronized swimmers pivoting in unison, we all lifted our heads and attention to the door, watching as Jethro made his entrance.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said, his brown beard and hair a fright. “I had to change my clothes. Andy had diarrhea, and—”

I lifted a hand, stopping our oldest brother—number one—from continuing with his tale of number two (where the “number two” is poop).

“Jethro, I think we’ll all live a complete life never knowing why your son having diarrhea has any bearing on your tardiness.”

Jethro sighed, crossing his arms and giving me what he probably thought was an irritated look. It was not. I suspected my oldest brother’s face wasn’t actually capable of arranging itself into a frown.

“Wait. What about Billy?” Duane asked about the only Winston sibling missing from our assemblage. “Where’s Billy?” The grumpy twin scratched his neatly trimmed red beard, glancing between me and Jethro.

Well, here goes nothing.

I stepped forward. Everyone turned their eyes to me. Even though I was the shortest of my brothers—at a mere six feet—I had the biggest presence when I so chose.

“I’m glad you asked, Duane. Jethro.” I motioned to the door my oldest brother had just run through. “Will you shut that, please? I’ll be touching on sensitive information, and I’d prefer if these earth-shattering revelations didn’t leave this room.”

Ashley’s blue eyes narrowed, and she crossed to stand next to Roscoe, threading her fingers into the dark hair at his temples. “Hold on now. Earth-shattering? This isn’t going to agitate Roscoe, is it?”

“No, Ash. It’s not that kind of earth-shattering,” I said, but then my eyes moved up and to the right. “Well, I don’t think it’s that kind of earth-shattering.”

“Cletus,” Beau said, right on cue. A small smile hovered on his lips and twinkled behind his eyes, which is to say he was looking at me with his normal expression. “Do you want me to start?”

Now everyone was splitting their attention between Beau and me, and I took a level of satisfaction in their confused visages. I’ve always enjoyed a good twist—both the dance and the plot variety.

“Go right ahead, Beau.” I took a step back, lifting my hand in a the floor is yours gesture.

When we’d rehearsed earlier, we decided it would be best for Beau to cut in and for me to cede to him. Like I mentioned earlier, everyone liked Beau. Whereas, for some reason, my siblings weren’t as automatically accepting of my motivations as pristine. Obviously, they all had unfounded trust issues.

Beau stepped away from the wall, his smile growing both wider and yet more thoughtful. “Cletus and I asked y’all here because of Billy. I know we touched on it last week, just before the Paytons stopped by, but I think we all need to come together and decide on a plan.”

“What kind of plan?” This question came from Roscoe.

“Well, we’re mighty worried about him,” Beau said, then paused, waited, gave our family a chance to ask why we were worried about Billy. But, as I suspected, no one appeared to be confused regarding the origins of our concern.

Ashley brought her fingers to her forehead. “I can’t believe Billy is doing this. I can’t believe he’s putting himself through this. The first time was more than enough, but twice?”

The this to which Ashley referred was bone marrow donation. Our second oldest brother had volunteered to donate his bone marrow to our despicable father, Darrell Winston. Ever since we discovered Billy’s plan, we’d all been in various states and stages of shock and dismay. Billy had already gone through with the procedure once and was now scheduled for a second round. Our father would die without it.

“You know why Billy is doing it.” Roscoe turned his hand palm up, nudged Ashley’s leg, drawing her eyes to his.

A small laugh escaped her. “Actually, no. I don’t understand. I don’t get it. Hasn’t Billy been through enough?”

“But if Darrell is dead, he can’t testify against Razor Dennings. And if Darrell doesn’t testify against Razor Dennings, then the only charges that bastard will face are the attempted murders of Roscoe and Simone,” Jethro said, sounding nearly as frustrated as I felt about the whole situation.

“I get it.” Duane pushed himself away from the wall. “I hate it, but I get why Billy is doing it. Razor killed twenty-four people. That’s twenty-four families who won’t get justice if Darrell dies of cancer.”

Ashley rained down upon Duane and Jethro a thunderous frown that would’ve frightened birds, had there been any in Roscoe’s hospital room.

Clearly mad as hell, she crossed her arms. “When does it end, though? Hmm? When will Billy stop being the sacrificial lamb for this family? For this town? He’s not well! He’s sick, and worn down, and dammit, he’s given up more than any of us—time and time again. We can’t keep expecting him to shoulder every single burden.”

“I agree,” Roscoe said quietly, closing his eyes.

“Are you agitated, Roscoe?” I was quick to ask, examining him carefully. “Is this too much for you? Should we stop?”

“No. I’m fine.” He didn’t open his eyes. “I’m glad we’re talking about this, and I agree with Ash. Billy deserves better.”

“He shouldn’t have to donate bone marrow to the man who put him in the hospital when he was only twelve, who nearly killed him and beat our momma,” Ashley ranted, jabbing her finger through the air at some invisible foe; impressively, her volume never rose above hospital-appropriate yet communicated the full weight of her ire. “He kept us safe. He looked after us. Billy deserves happiness. He deserves more than this.”

“Well said, Ash.” I stepped forward, because now it was my turn. “Well said. And that’s an excellent segue to the real reason we’ve assembled y’all. It’s time we discussed Claire.”

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