Read the first THREE chapters of Marriage and Murder!
* CLETUS *
“I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
“This is all very . . . fancy.”
“How do you mean?”
My eldest brother glanced around us, at the long tables covered in shining silk tablecloths, white porcelain dishes, sterling (I checked the back) silver flatware, ornate centerpieces nickel-and-rust-colored metalwork hearts, and up at the pearlescent handblown glass chandeliers strung above.
I followed his eyes to their last destination and mumbled, “I reckon it’s a little fancy.”
“Where’d Jenn’s momma get all this stuff? Last time Sienna and I had dinner here, it looked totally different.”
Here being the Donner Lodge dining barn—and I meant barn in the loosest sense of the word. The building had never been used as an actual barn, nor had it been built with the intention to house live animals. Just dead ones. For consumption.
Jethro scratched the back of his neck, looking down at his clothes. “Should I go home and change?”
“You should always strive for change, Jethro. But your garments are perfectly adequate.” Plus, we were more or less wearing the same thing: black pants, button-down suit shirt—his gray, mine red because I’d been explicitly instructed to wear a red shirt—no tie.
If he went home and changed, then he’d pressure me to as well, and I didn’t want to change. I’d already changed three times today, which was one more than my absolute maximum: from my PJ’s to my work clothes, from my work clothes to clean jeans and flannel to help set up, and from that perfectly acceptable outfit to my present stuffier attire. Of note, changing back into pajamas at the end of the day didn’t count, especially if I opted to sleep in the buff.
Jethro’s pained eyebrow pinch told me I’d failed to persuade him. “What about that guy?” He lowered his voice, gesturing to a fella across the room in possession of a silver tray. “He’s in a tuxedo. Should we be wearing suits?”
“That man is a waiter, Jet. You want to dress like a waiter, go for it.”
“Point is, the waiter is in a tux. I don’t think Sienna knows it’s formal dress, but I could be wrong. Whatever. You didn’t tell anyone this would be so fancy, Cletus.”
More than just the waitstaff were beginning to materialize in the fancy barn. As such, I lowered my voice, “I didn’t know it would be so fancy, Jethro.”
He crossed his arms, disbelief persisting. “How is that possible? You know everything about everybody, and you’re telling me you didn’t know your own engagement party was going to be—”
“A stuffy shindig? A bourgeois bash? A hoity-toity hellscape? No. I did not.”
Jet seemed to be bracing himself for an outburst of nerves or anger. He knew surprises tended to muddle and aggravate me.
I’d arrived here at 3:10 PM after a full nine-hour shift at the auto shop, fatigued and looking for a beer just to discover Jenn’s momma’s event planning had ventured beyond the pale. Far, far beyond the pale, to the land of excessive extravagance and profligacy.
The decorations, the sit-down, seven-course meal, the string quartet. Okay, fine. I could’ve shouldered the burden of such trappings. But who in their right mind wants to sit down for five hours and eat portions the size of dimes and quarters when hunger could be satiated by a plump sausage in five bites and three minutes?
I don’t know. I’ve never met the person. What a monumental waste of time.
My main issue had been the guest list, which I hadn’t been privy to—nor had I requested access to—until fourteen minutes ago. Good Lord, the woman had invited everyone in East Tennessee and all their neighbors but none of their children. An intimate engagement party is what she and Jenn had promised me last year when the wedding planning had begun. This evening would be as intimate as an orgy in Times Square and would likely be better attended.
Jethro exhaled loudly. “Well, we need to do something, and quick.” He examined his clothes. Again.
“I agree.” Meanwhile, I eyeballed the chandeliers. “You still got that baseball bat in your car?”
After a moment’s pause, he hit my arm. “No, Cletus! I didn’t mean wreck the place.”
“That was said in jest, brother. Obviously, I’m not taking a bat to the chandeliers. Besides, what did you mean?” I finally allowed some of the exasperation I’d been sitting on this afternoon to manifest.
“I meant we need to do something about what we’re wearing.”
“You’re starting to sound like Roscoe. Clothes shouldn’t make the man, ain’t nobody care if your shirt has a designer label or a generic one.”
“But Diane will care if your family are the only ones present not in suits and formal dress.”
I waved him off, grumbling, “Do what you want, but I’m not changing.” Besides, what could I do? The time for the doing of something had passed. “Serves me right, I reckon,” I mumbled.
“Serves you right? For what?”
I shrugged, pressing my lips together to seal them. I didn’t want to admit the truth; I’d been ignoring the wedding and all the planning associated with it, including tonight’s ostentatious affair, because doing so had served both altruistic and selfish interests (but mostly selfish). And now I’d been slapped in the face with a brouhaha bombshell, paying the price for my lack of attention.
“You look unhappy.” He eyed me anew.
“So what if I am? If it makes the woman happy, then . . .” I narrowed my eyes on the heart centerpieces, wondering if the welding had been Shelly’s handiwork. They were quite impressive, to say the least, and looked like they belonged in an art gallery or a museum, not on tables in a faux-barn.
“Which woman are we talking about?” Jethro questioned. “The future wife or the future mother-in-law?”
I glanced at the gaggle of folks filtering in through the wide barn doors. Thus far, I recognized 90 percent of those present. But I wouldn’t say I was exactly friends with these people. In short, I wouldn’t invite a single one of them—except Jethro, of course, maybe the sheriff and Janet James, perhaps the tuxedoed waiter—to my birthday. Nor would I attend any of theirs if invited.
Thus, Jethro’s question had been exceptionally pertinent. This party wasn’t what I wanted, and I felt certain it wasn’t what Jenn really wanted either. But the planning of it sure had made Ms. Donner happy. The woman had been positively glowing since Christmas in particular, her happiness leaked out of her like spring showers on fertile soil, and the entire Donner Lodge was feeling the impact of her incandescent bliss. Business was booming, her staff blooming, and I was happy Jenn’s momma was happy.
But more importantly, I was ecstatic Jenn’s momma was distracted.
Diane had stopped crying over her failed marriage and she’d ceased plotting the demise of her ex-husband ever since we’d handed over the reins for the wedding, exponentially more so since the holidays. The divorce papers had finally been signed and her ex had all but disappeared from our lives—though I made it my business to keep tabs on the man—Jenn’s momma had buried herself in party planning, seemed to find joy in being exhausted by details.
In turn, Diane Donner’s distraction had made me very, very happy.
’Til right now.
Jethro placed a hand on my shoulder, redirecting my attention to his. “I’ve never known you to be unhappy and do nothing about it.”
“Well, you’ve never known me to be on the precipice of marriage either. In marriage, sacrifices must be made. Compromises.”
Jet’s eyebrows ticked up as his hand fell away. “You? Compromise?” He looked truly flabbergasted.
“I am capable of compromise.” I sniffed, checking to see if the bar had opened for customers. It hadn’t.
“When have you ever compromised?”
“Just wait and see.”
I’d—somewhat cheerfully at the time—resigned myself last year to the fact that the entire wedding would be a compromise, back when Jennifer and her momma had suggested Diane take over. Looking around at the opulence now, I suspected the next few months leading to the actual wedding would be more akin to complete surrender than a compromise.
This chafed like wet pants on a ten-mile hike.
“All right then, start compromising with what you’re wearing. Diane Donner sees us dressed like this, she’ll have a conniption. We got to go home and change.” This last part he said on an urgent whisper.
I made a noncommittal sound. There must’ve been over fifty guests here already, and this thing didn’t technically start for another ten minutes. Soon we’d be surrounded with hangers-on and the grating sounds of snobby southern small talk, which is like Yankee small talk except there’s significantly more “Bless their little hearts” and sharing of recipes.
“Cletus. For the last time, we can’t wear what we have on. Look at them—not the waitstaff, Sheriff James and Jackson. They’re in suits, they got jackets. The only jacket I have in my car is a leather one.”
“What? You don’t want to look like Indiana Jones during my engagement party?” I didn’t look at the sheriff or his son, not wanting to inadvertently make eye contact with the Deputy Jackson James, an action that might be misconstrued as an implied invitation to join us. I wasn’t in the frame of mind to interact with acquaintances at present.
“Listen, this is what I’ll do.” Jethro put his hand on my shoulder again. “I’ll send a text message to everybody on my way out, let them know this thing is fancy dress, and pick up our suits from the homestead. Then I’ll come right back, and you can change.”
“I don’t want to change, Jethro,” I said stubbornly. “I’ve already changed too many times today. I’m not changing again.”
“Come on, Cletus. Be reasonable.”
“Hey guys.” Jackson James’s approaching voice had me lifting my eyes to the ceiling after Jethro mouthed the words, Be nice.
I didn’t get a chance to mouth back, Or what? before Jackson drew even with us, asking, “Where are your jackets? Folks are arriving.”
For the love of all tarnation—
“I’m on my way to go grab them,” Jethro cut in, locking my eyes in a death stare. “We just finished helping with the setup. And so now I’m driving back to the homestead to go get our suits. Goodbye.”
With that, the eldest of my brothers turned on his heel and marched out of the faux-barn toward the parking lot, leaving me with Jackson and his skinny tie.
I looked him down and up, not hiding my perturbed hostility. “Where and when did y’all get the suit memo?”
“How did you know to wear a suit?” I spoke slowly, carefully. If I had to repeat myself a third time, I was liable to grab his head and shout in his ear.
“Oh, well, I just assumed.” One side of his mouth smiled, the other side communicated wariness, like my question might be a riddle. “I’ve never known Mrs. Sylvester—I mean, sorry, Ms. Donner—to throw a shindig that wasn’t suit and tie required.”
I nodded faintly, considering his words and all the information he’d just disclosed, likely without meaning to do so.
Fact: Jackson had attended one or more Diane Donner “shindigs” prior to now.
Fact: I had never attended a Diane Donner shindig prior to now.
Fact: I had never been invited to a Diane Donner shindig prior to now. But Jackson had.
Fact: The Jameses and the Donner-Sylvesters were friendly previous to the divorce in the sense that they attended parties together, which—I supposed—made sense. Being a shrewd person of business, Jenn’s momma would want to court the sheriff’s good favor as often as possible. Whereas my momma and our family hadn’t any favors to offer someone like Diane Donner. Until recently.
“Plus, you know, Ms. Donner tries to one-up herself. Momma always has to buy a new dress each time. It’s expected. Since this is the first Donner Lodge party in years, I figured it’d be something intense.” He glanced around, taking his time to register all the splendor. “I was not wrong.”
I didn’t like the idea of Jackson knowing more than me about anything, let alone Jenn’s family’s customs. Therefore, I offered a terse grunt and looked at the bar again. Finally! Open for business.
“Excuse me,” I said, stepping around the blond officer and making a straight line for the promise of whiskey.
“I saw Jenn yesterday at the station.” Jackson’s voice followed me. I didn’t need to look over my shoulder to know he followed me as well.
“Was she under arrest?”
“What? No.” Jackson laughed between saying hi to the folks I brushed past. “She was bringing bakery stuff to the deputies and staff who couldn’t make it tonight ’cause they’re on duty.”
Upon reaching the bar, I held my thumb and index finger about two inches apart and said, “Whiskey. Neat. And a lot.”
Patty Lee, who sometimes filled in at the Donner Lodge but mostly tended bar at Genie’s, her momma’s place up the road, gave me an apologetic smile. “We’re only serving beer and wine tonight. Ms. Donner’s orders.”
No . . . whiskey?
Beer and wine only?
I made a mental list of whiskey brands I enjoyed in order to calm myself and did my utmost to keep the pitch of my voice steady as I said, “Patty. I can see the whiskey. It’s right behind you.”
She grimaced, looking undecided.
“Put it in a mug and I’ll say it’s tea. No one has to know.”
After another moment’s hesitation, and before I had to threaten her with blackmail, she nodded. “Fine. But don’t tell anyone else. Got it?”
“It shall remain our secret until the day I die.”
Her lips tilted to the side like the solemn vow amused her, but she nodded and turned.
Jackson stepped up next to me, chuckling. “Nervous?”
“Okay. If you say so. But for the record, I’d be nervous.”
If Jackson hoped I’d ask follow-up questions, he’d be sorely disappointed. My plan—now that my drink was en route and I’d begun to overcome my initial shock at the grandeur of the evening—was to find an inconspicuous locale, then hover and blend until duty called. I would use the time to drink whiskey and ruminate. A solid plan.
But before I could grab my drink and dash, my brother Billy’s unmistakable tenor reached me just as he did. “There you are.” Billy placed a hand on my shoulder after giving Jackson a quick nod of greeting. He then lowered his voice. “Where’s your jacket? Do you need a jacket? I have an extra in the car, and a tie.” Of course Billy wore a suit. He always wore a suit these days.
I wasn’t usually one to make faces, preferring to keep my thoughts to myself unless situationally necessary to achieve specific aims. But right now? After arguing the point with Jethro for ten minutes and being surrounded by a sudden swell of strangers?
I made a face. “I don’t want one of your suit jackets. Thank you.”
“You don’t even need to change,” he said, calibrating his voice to entirely reasonable, earning him a glare.
“Here’s your tea, Cletus.” Patti set a teacup and saucer on the bar top and turned to Jackson and Billy. “Can I get y’all any beer or wine?”
I picked up only the teacup, having no use for the saucer.
“I think I’ll take some of that tea. My throat’s a little scratchy,” Jackson teased.
Patti looked unimpressed. “We’re all out of tea, deputy. How about a beer?”
Billy used their exchange and his hand on my shoulder to steer us away. “Roscoe can bring one of your jackets, he was just getting out of the shower when I left.”
“For the last time, I am content with my present attire. Cease and desist, s’il vous plaît.” I didn’t have to lower my voice as the cacophony of chatter had mushroomed, the faux-barn filling with people and their inconsequential discussions.
“Jethro already harassed me about it. My mind is made up. I am not in the mood for more brotherly pestering.”
I should’ve known this would be an ostentatious affair as soon as Diane and Jenn turned down my donation of homemade moonshine and superior boar sausage last month. But, again, I hadn’t been paying attention to anything much these days other than Jenn’s magnificence.
Within my woman exists such a vast quantity of magnificence, I shouldn’t be chastising myself for being blinded by it.
Billy sighed, shoving his hands into his pockets, looking me over as though assessing my state of mind. “Are you nervous?”
That earned him another glare, but I was saved from answering by a ruckus followed by a whispering hush rippling over the crowd. Something by the faux-barn’s main entrance had seized everyone’s attention, even Billy’s.
My brother’s concerned expression cleared almost at once and a soft, appreciative-looking smile took its place. “Well, look at her.”
“Who?” I snuck another deep gulp of my whiskey.
“What?” I craned my neck to peer over those gathered, and I spotted her instantly, breath catching in my lungs, the sight similar to the effect of sunlight on snow.
She stood at the big doors next to her momma, smiling graciously at people as she greeted them, welcomed them, and the knot in my stomach eased, my troubles and muddles and irritation forgotten. She looked genuinely relaxed, happy. Seeing Jenn happy always improved my mood.
But her being relaxed and happy was likely not the source of Billy’s soft appreciation nor the crowd’s gentle hush. Her exterior, her hair, the dress she wore and how it fit, the artful makeup were likely culprits.
Jenn’s long brown hair had grown even longer this past year. She’d said she wanted to grow it long for the wedding and planned to cut it after. Presently, she wore it loose and wavy around her shoulders, which were bare. A single strap on each side held up the fire-engine red fabric that wrapped around her body like a second skin.
The dress—which, as a point of note, I heartily approved of—was basically a cloth tube starting under her arms and ending at her mid-calf. She looked sophisticated and classy as hell. The neckline was a straight line mostly above her breasts, the top curve of them just visible. So add sexy to sophisticated and classy and you’d have it right.
Also, her breasts looked fantastic, which I had no choice but to notice. A pleasant topic for my planned rumination.
“I swear, she gets more beautiful every day,” Jackson said, suddenly next to me again and sounding a little winded. “You’re a lucky, lucky man, Cletus.”
“Beautiful is not the correct word,” I mumbled on autopilot, but not because I disagreed with him per se.
Objectively, Jennifer was stunning, and sexy, and beautiful. Absolutely.
Now imagine if you will being in love with someone who is objectively stunning, and all the sorrow and joy that accompanies true, deep, abiding love. In her I saw flaws and strengths others would never see, secret parts of her known only to me, and my private knowledge of this stunning woman elevated her from the one-dimensional being implied by the pithy descriptor beautiful to someone quantum, cosmic in nature.
To Jackson, she may have been merely beautiful. To me, she existed as a multi-dimensional angel and devil, owner of my heart, my joy and my pain, light-years beyond beautiful, or celestial, or exquisite. Because when I saw Jenn, I saw all of her, all versions of her, and all our history, and all the wonderous and frightening possibilities of our future.
Beautiful was not the correct word.
Especially not in that particular dress.
“Yes! She wore it.” Sienna appeared out of thin air and inserted herself next to me. She then placed a big old kiss on my cheek and wrapped her arm around mine, squealing a little. “Doesn’t she look amazing? I told her it was perfect. And here you are, in your red shirt. Good on you, Cletus.”
Tearing my eyes from Jenn, though it physically hurt, I inspected my sister-in-law. She wore a fancy dress too. Despite Jethro’s fretting, Sienna must’ve received the memo. “You’re responsible for that dress?”
“I wouldn’t say responsible.” She seemed to debate how best to answer. “Unless you consider ‘responsible’ being the one who commissioned the designer to make it and being the one to pay for it? Then, yes. I am responsible.”
Sienna, who I already adored, was now my second favorite person in the world. “I’ll be sending your thank-you gift post haste.”
“As you should.” She winked. “Now shouldn’t you be over there? Go get her!”
I returned my attention to where Jenn and her momma—who I realized was also in a red dress, just a tamer, more matronly one—stood greeting folks, making their way through the crowd like royalty at a coronation, and I rocked back on my heels. A renewed string of disquiet wrapped around my chest and squeezed.
“They got it covered.”
Sienna barked a laugh. “Cletus. You’re the groom. You have to.”
Was she out of her mind? If I went over there, I’d have no choice but to do one of two things:
A) Sweep Jenn off her feet. Leave. Maybe we’d go to my car—I’d brought one of the Buicks—or perhaps we’d abscond to one of the lodge’s swanky cottages overlooking the mountains. Then I’d make love to her. Then we’d make love to each other. Then, perhaps if she wasn’t too tired, I’d make love to her again. A solid plan, but perhaps not what she’d hoped for this evening.
B) Talk to people I barely knew about subjects other than cars, sausage, or my superior banjo playing and pretend to care about their inanity.
Of the two scenarios, the latter was the most likely. Therefore—
“Pass.” I’d rather sit through a lecture on climate change delivered by flat-earthers than be forced to chitchat with no ulterior gain.
“Don’t look like that.” Sienna’s face fought a grin at something she saw on mine. “This is your night—yours and Jenn’s. People want to wish you well and tell you how excited they are for you.“ She looked to Billy as though to seek his help.
He gave Sienna a stare which was likely inscrutable to her, but which I read as, Don’t look at me. Cletus does what he wants.
About that, he was right. I didn’t want this, I didn’t sign up for it, I didn’t subscribe to it. I wasn’t angry at being caught unawares and unprepared, not anymore, not now that I’d seen Jenn and how happy this spectacle seemed to make her. But acceptance didn’t mean I felt moved to participate.
I took another gulp of my whiskey, finishing it.
“Is that—is that whiskey?” Sienna made a frustrated sound, pulling her purse up and digging around in it. “Ugh. You boys. You’re lucky you’re so cute. Here—” she held out two breath mints and took the empty teacup “—if you’re nervous, just say so.”
I accepted her mints and wrinkled my nose at the bitter cooling effect on my tongue against the lingering heat of the liquor. “I’m not nervous.”
I wasn’t nervous. I was avoidant. There’s a difference.
And, honestly, I was still of half a mind to scoop Jenn up in my arms and just flat-out leave. I appreciated the dress, I absolutely did. It was splendid, and Jenn was magnificent in it. But the dress being what it was, and Jenn being who she was to me, should I venture within its gravitational field, I wouldn’t be responsible for my actions. Best I didn’t venture too close, else the urge would become overwhelming.
“Uh oh.” Jackson stood straighter, his eyes sharpening. “Farmer Miller is here.”
I followed the deputy’s line of sight and, sure enough, Farmer Miller—or I guess just Mr. Miller given the current state of his non-farm—was threading through the crush of people, on a collision course with Jenn’s momma.
“I’ll get Boone, and we’ll stop him without causing a scene. Maybe Evans is here?” Jackson said, sounding resigned to his fate, and set off through the crowd.
“What’s going on? What’s wrong with Farmer Miller?” Sienna placed the empty teacup on a tray set up behind us to receive used dishes.
It was Billy who explained, likely because I was too absorbed by the alluring picture sublime happiness painted on Jenn’s features. “Well, you know that trouble last year? Where Kip Sylvester—you know, Jenn’s daddy—bought all those farms and promised to lease them back to the former owners? Kip was going to open a farm stay business. He promised the farmers they could stay on their property and host guests. Experience minded tourists, like spend a week on a working farm sort of thing.”
“Ah, yes. I met Jenn’s father once. He made a lasting impression, like those tuna eyeballs I ate in Japan that one time, or the smell of an LA dumpster on fire. And I’ve also heard of this farm stay tourism phenomena. Interesting idea,” she said, sounding like she didn’t actually find it interesting. Sienna loved living at the homestead with Jethro and their progeny, but I knew she had no interest in keeping animals other than as pets.
They had a dog. He was cute. His name was Morty. We’d bonded. But I digress.
“Except the farms are no longer actual working farms. The farmers sold off most of their livestock, keeping just a few animals to make the experience feel authentic.” Billy gestured to where Diane and Jenn stood talking to Scotia Simmons and her husband. I kept my attention trained on Jenn to ensure Scotia didn’t say anything untoward that might dampen my lady’s happiness.
Billy continued, “Which is why Diane had the opportunity to buy all of Miller’s cows at auction last year. He sold off almost everything, keeping just a few goats for the tourist experience.”
“Didn’t she buy the cows for a ridiculous amount of money? That was—when? Over a year ago, right?”
“Yes. I believe she purchased them in the month of January last year. We’ve had those Guernseys for going on fifteen months.” Mention of the cows had me reluctantly looking away from Jenn so I could elucidate for my sister-in-law. “Once upon a time, they may have belonged to Farmer Miller, but now the lodge has the Donner Dairy.” I couldn’t help the pride in my voice. The Donner Dairy had been my brainchild and—like my brain—it was a beautiful thing.
“I know all about the dairy, the milk is outstanding. But did the other thing ever happen?” Sienna plucked two glasses of red wine off a tray as a server walked by, handing one to Billy. “The farm stay business?”
“Thank you.” Billy accepted the wine she offered. “No, Kip turned all the farmers out of their houses—Danvish, Miller, and a few others had already signed and sold—and hasn’t done a thing with the farm stay business.”
“Kips has been a little busy,” I muttered.
“The farmers are—excuse my language—pissed,” Billy said. “As are Kip Sylvester’s investors. He basically took their money and did nothing with it.”
I didn’t volunteer that Kip had done quite a few somethings with the money. For one, he’d paid his legal bills. For another, he’d bought himself and his girlfriend a big house in Maryville.
But I did say, “And Miller wants his cows back. He’s been trying to get Diane to sell them back since last spring, even offering the colossal two hundred thousand purchase price Diane paid. But she won’t budge and has sought a restraining order against Miller.”
I’d counseled Diane at the time not to seek the restraining order and instead to try to forge a partnership of some sort with Miller.
With regards to Jenn’s father, the court had granted a restraining order for both Diane and Jenn, which was good indeed. However, he and his lady friend—Elena— had been given just probation for their assault of Jenn last year. The prosecution had negotiated a guilty plea in return for a sweetheart deal of time served, no additional jail sentence. Much to my chagrin.
Then again, the deal had saved Jenn from having to testify in court. His admission of guilt had also greatly favored Diane in the divorce settlement, with Kip getting exactly zero of the Donner Lodge or Diane’s substantial portfolio. Just half the value of their house, the small vacation house and big boat in Key West, and that’s it.
He’d disappeared for a time after, only to reemerge in downtown Green Valley the day after Jenn and Diane’s restraining orders expired. The degenerate was planning something, and I felt certain it had to do with the farms he’d hoodwinked away from their rightful owners.
Don’t get me wrong, Nancy Danvish in particular held a good measure of my ire due to her—albeit ignorant—part in what happened last year. Nevertheless, she and Miller, the other farmers who’d been duped, and Kip Sylvester’s ring of investors had all been sorely cheated by Jennifer’s father. They were still angry, incensed even. I didn’t care about their woes, but I did care about justice. If Diane had sought to use their collective wrath against Kip, the common enemy, she could’ve destroyed him once and for all.
Sadly, Jenn’s momma was and would always be a reactionary, acting before thinking, where Kip Sylvester was concerned. Diane fundamentally lacked the foresight, patience, and sinister strategic acumen required to bring her ex down. At some point, I’d have to step in, organize folks, and just make it happen.
After the wedding.
“Oh! So Diane Donner has a restraining order against the farmer whose cows she bought? And that farmer is here tonight?” Sienna looked at me with wide eyes, engrossed.
“No. The restraining order against Miller wasn’t granted,” I clarified, sneaking another peek at Jenn. She still looked happy. Good. “Miller hasn’t made any threats against Diane, so the court ruled against her. I think he just really wants those cows back. But Miller has made threats against Kip.”
“Kip Sylvester.” Billy supplied the cretin’s full name once more.
“Kip Sylvester, Jenn’s father,” Sienna said, like she was trying to untangle all the ways folks in our small town intersected. “Kip was also the principal of the high school, right? Before running off with the school secretary, Elena Wilkerson—”
“Wilkinson,” Billy gently corrected. “And Elena’s sister is the one in jail for hitting Diane over the head and leaving her for dead last year by Old Man Blount’s bee boxes.” Billy sent me a quick glance, not voicing that Elena’s sister had also been the one who held Jenn and I up at gunpoint in Jenn’s house. The woman’s fifteen-year prison sentence included her attempt on our lives.
“So Miller doesn’t like Kip Sylvester.” Sienna took a sip of her wine, looking around at the crowd thoughtfully.
“No one likes Kip Sylvester,” I said. “Miller, Danvish, the Hills, Leffersbees, Badcock, Gangersworth, Lees, Lamont, Paytons—the list goes on and on.” It really did go on and on. I couldn’t think of a single person in Green Valley or the surrounding areas who didn’t wish ill on the man.
“He’s got a lot of enemies in these parts. If he knows what’s good for him, he’ll stay far away.” Billy glanced down at his glass, studying it, and I knew he had his own private thoughts on the matter.
We stood in contemplative wordlessness for a brief moment, and I again took the opportunity to seek out the sight of Jenn. She was now engaged in discourse with my big dumb brother, Beau. For the record, I meant dumb in the best sense of the word, sweet and loyal, like a dog. He and his lady friend, Shelly Sullivan, held her attention, and Shelly must’ve said something funny because Jenn—
“Oh my God.” I heard Sienna suck in a surprised-sounding breath a split second before she gripped my arm, clearly startled.
I covered her hand with mine. “Are you okay?”
“Cletus!” She stepped in front of me, blocking my view of the rest of the room. “If Kip Sylvester has so many enemies”—her unmistakably alarmed gaze arrested mine, and then jumped to Billy’s—“then why is he here?”
* JENN *
“Rejection steals the best of who I am by reinforcing the worst of what’s been said to me.”
– Lysa TerKeurst, Uninvited: Living Loved When You Feel Less Than, Left Out, and Lonely
Gasps from behind me distracted me and my momma from the joke Shelly had just told. She and Beau also seemed to find the sound distracting as her smile faltered at the swell of exclamations fluttering around us.
Laughter forgotten, both Shelly and Beau leaned to the side and peered around us. My friend’s reaction—flinching back, the way her smile immediately fell and her gaze hardened—was the second sign something was amiss.
“Oh good Lord!” my mother—who’d already rubbernecked to assess the issue—hissed at my side and gripped my arm. I started to glance over my shoulder too, but my momma’s hand tightened. “Do not turn around. Don’t give him the satisfaction.” She straightened her back, lifting her chin, her lips pinched. “I will deal with this.”
Despite my mother’s instruction, I turned and watched her walk toward the barn doors and to the couple who’d just entered. Now I gasped, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up painfully, and a shiver chased uncomfortable goose bumps over my skin as my stomach fell right to the floor.
“Diane.” The distinct disdain of my daddy’s voice rose above the remnants of conversation his presence hadn’t yet quieted. Just the sound of him . . . Oh no!
He wasn’t looking at me. Even so, my heart took off at a gallop, my throat suddenly dry, and a tremor of either fear or rage—or maybe both—made me feel unsteady on my feet.
“Jenn, I’m here.” Cletus, abruptly at my side, slid his arm around my waist like he knew how much I needed his support, his strong hands and assurances, his solid warmth, his strength; like he knew how much I needed him.
A relieved rush of air left my lungs, and I leaned into him, grateful beyond words for his timely appearance. “Cletus.”
“I’ve been here the whole time,” he whispered against my ear in a tone meant to soothe. “I’ve got you.”
I nodded, able to swallow around the rocks rising in my throat. Of course I’d known Cletus was here. I’d spotted him hiding (or trying to hide) along the far wall as I’d entered. Even though I’d felt his eyes follow as I greeted our guests, it had been obvious to me he had no desire to budge from the safety circle of his family.
And that was fine.
We would sit next to each other at dinner. I’d made certain our table’s seat assignments were occupied by his family, despite my momma’s protests such an arrangement would be gauche. Cletus didn’t have to venture into the crowd and chitchat if he didn’t want to.
But the sudden appearance of my deranged father and his equally deranged mistress had been enough to spur him into the crowd and to my side. I wasn’t surprised. When I needed Cletus, he was always, always there.
“This is awful. Why is he here?” I moaned, searching his handsome face. Both compassion and frustration were etched into the lines around his mouth and on his forehead.
“We’ll get rid of him.” Cletus smoothed his big, warm hand up and down my back while shifting his eyes to Beau. The brothers then stared at each other, as though communicating silently.
After a protracted moment, Beau leaned toward his older brother, his whisper urgent, “I’m sorry, Cletus. You’re not Duane. What do you want me to do?”
“He wants us to stand between the clusterfuck over there and Jennifer, blocking her from view so her father can’t see her,” Shelly answered, already pulling Beau by the wrist to position them both.
“Well, isn’t this nice. I guess the invitation to my own daughter’s engagement party got lost in the mail?” My father’s voice boomed over the continued murmurs and gasps of those assembled, like he wanted to make sure he was heard by all.
I couldn’t see much, not with Beau and Shelly now forming a wall between me and the unfolding ugliness, but I could make out the line of my mother’s stiff back, confronting my father all on her own. My heart lurched, hating she was over there all by herself, dealing with those people. I should be with her, helping!
I was just about to say as much when—just as abruptly as Cletus had appeared next to me—Billy Winston and Hank Weller came out of nowhere and flanked my mother, causing my lurching heart to soar. Thank goodness.
Yes. Thank goodness. Because, truth be told, I did not wish to face off with my father or Elena ever again. I still had nightmares and scars from the first time.
Momma said something like, “You need to go.” But she wasn’t talking to be heard by anyone other than my father, so I couldn’t be sure of her words.
Tearing my eyes away, I craned my neck, searching the stunned faces for folks from the sheriff’s office. “Where are the sheriff and Jackson?”
“They were dealing with Farmer Miller.” Cletus’s hand smoothed down my back again, his attention on me. “What do you want to do? Should we go help your momma?”
I couldn’t answer his question as I was still stuck on his earlier statement. “What? Miller is here too?”
What a disaster!
“I thought Miller was invited,” Cletus said as he, Shelly, and Beau moved as a unit, ushering me further into the crowd and behind Reverend and Mrs. Seymore. They paid us no mind, busy as they were gaping at the drama in progress.
“Miller was invited?” I found that impossible to believe. Farmer Miller had been badgering my momma about his—or, what used to be his—dairy cows for over a year. I couldn’t imagine my mother had invited him.
This was all happening so fast, I needed to think.
“I didn’t see him on the guest list but it seems like everyone else was invited—except your father. He was—most definitely—not.” Cletus’s words were hushed, presumably because he wanted to hear what was being said between my mother and my father.
Even if he hadn’t wanted to know, there was no escape from their rapidly rising voices.
“—will not tell you again, you and your paramour are not welcome here or within a hundred miles of me or Jennifer. Leave. Now.”
My momma turned like she was going to walk away, but something held her in place—or someone. Suddenly both my father and Billy were talking at once.
“No, no—you don’t walk away from me. We’re going to talk about thisss right here right now—”
“Get your hand off the lady.” Even from where I stood, I saw Billy’s broad shoulders move forward and in front of my mother.
Elena, clearly still miles off her rocker, spoke over Billy, “Don’t you threaten him!”
“You’ll know when I make a threat.” Billy’s tranquil baritone sent another shiver down my spine, but I didn’t mind. As usual, Billy Winston’s calm and understated demonstration of strength often gave me comfort.
Cletus and Beau shared a look, and I suspected they successfully read the other’s thoughts loud and clear this time.
But in the next moment my mother said, “It’s fine, Congressman Winston. These people desire a stage, and you can’t expect them to be decent about anything.”
“You sure are one to talk about decency, Diane.” Elena’s typical quiet timidity seemed to be absent tonight. “Everyone knows you’ve been cavorting with that biker trash—”
“Nor will he be satisfied until they’re given a stage, even if it means ruining his own daughter’s engagement party and everyone’s evening.” My mother carried on like Elena hadn’t just interrupted. “I know how his selfish, weaselly little mind works. So go ahead, Kip. What is it you’re so desperate for all these fine people to hear?”
My father didn’t respond right away. Rather, he allowed for the crowd to digest my mother’s words. Or maybe he wasn’t expecting her to acquiesce so quickly. Whatever the reason, he paused long enough for a murmur to rise among the partygoers before lifting his voice.
“As I was saying, I didn’t receive an invitation to this here party. I guess being a father isn’t much valued by the world anymore, nor does it mean much these days to people who defy God’s commandments.” My father paused here as though he expected my mother to respond, maybe defending her position on the subject. But when she said nothing, he continued, this time addressing our guests, “This woman—this fallen woman of ill repute—is allowing our beautiful, innocent daughter to marry the town s-simpleton, y’all know I’m right. And sseeing as how my ex-wife has always been a sshrieking banshee, an ungodly, unclean soul, we can’t be too surprised by the rudenesss.”
I sought out Cletus’s gaze and saw his focus had turned inward, his eyebrows pinched above his nose like his mind was working through a problem.
“Does he sound drunk?” I asked, wondering if I was the only one who heard the slur in my father’s voice.
“He sounds . . . something. Maybe drunk.” Beau nodded, his eyes wide. “You reckon that’s why he’s here? He’s drunk and thought it would be a good idea?”
“Billy should antagonize him,” Cletus muttered, like he was speaking to himself.
“Antagonize him? What are you on about?” Beau whispered harshly, echoing my thoughts while my father continued to rant more of the same nonsense about my momma.
Stealthily, I glanced around us to make certain no one had overheard. My skills from a lifetime spent quietly observing resurfaced. No one in our vicinity seemed to be paying us any mind. From the looks of things, they were fully distracted by the unpleasant scene.
However, I noted some people were more absorbed than others. Or rather, absorbed in a different way. Whereas folks like Reverend Seymore, Mrs. Seymore, Genie Lee, and Vanessa Romero were gawking, other folks—like Posey Lamont, Roger Gangersworth, Nancy Danvish, and Nikki Becker—weren’t gawking.
Yes, they were absorbed, but their expressions betrayed more than just simple curiosity or nosiness. Their features and their postures were intent, like they had a horse in this race and wanted to make sure their bets were going to pay off. Perhaps I noticed these individuals in particular because I didn’t trust them, not after their failed partnership with my father and their attempt to gang up on me and my momma last year.
Whatever the reason, and even though I was flustered, I took note.
“—you don’t tell me what to do, woman! ‘Wives, submit to your husbands.’ That’s what the Bible says! But you were willful, you’re to blame, for everything!”
“Now he’s quoting Bible verses?” Shelly seemed to be particularly perturbed by this. “I don’t care if he’s drunk, Cletus is right.”
“How will Billy antagonizing Kip help anything?” Beau looked just as confused as me.
“Billy gets Kip to punch him, then anything else Billy does is self-defense. One punch from Billy could put anyone in the hospital for a while.” Cletus replied. His frown held a distinctly scheming edge.
Though I shouldn’t have been shocked by the direction of Cletus’s thoughts—not after knowing him my whole life and knowing him intimately for over a year—I was.
“Cletus!” I shook my head vehemently. “Violence is never the answer.”
“Never say never.” With that dark proclamation, he pushed me—albeit gently—into Beau’s arms and, before I could comprehend his intentions, he left.
Now I gawked. I reached for him mindlessly, but it was too late. He’d always been surprisingly quick and agile for a man so broad and muscular.
“Do you want me to stop him?” Shelly asked, looking and sounding serious.
My tongue tied, I couldn’t answer. I wasn’t sure what I wanted. Everything was happening way too fast.
Cletus stepped between Billy and Diane. “As the aforementioned town simpleton and the fiancé of Ms. Donner’s lovely daughter, may I just say—”
“No, you may not!” Elena snarled, stunning not just me back into silence. The crowd, which had started to talk among themselves and shift toward the exits, abruptly held still and quiet. They seemed to strain, every person’s focus on the tiny blonde woman next to my father, seemingly a shadow who’d always been so quiet and meek.
Like me. No. Not like me.
Like old me.
But I knew better. I knew for a fact that Elena Wilkinson was just as dangerous as my father.
“Now, ma’am, really. Please use your inside voice,” Cletus chided, sounding entirely affable, like he was reprimanding a child. He then addressed my father. “Kip—in the spirit of mending fences, I’ll call you Kip and you have my permission to call me son—now, Kip, we all know why you’re here. You feel slighted, like you haven’t been given the proper respect due the father of the bride. And I think that’s something everyone here would be able to understand.”
A few flutters of surprised and uncomfortable laughter tittered around us, like folks couldn’t believe Cletus’s words, and I didn’t blame them. My father was universally despised in this town and any attempts by Cletus to mend fences would be met with cold shoulders from everyone gathered. I suspected the only reason people hadn’t left yet was because they wanted to see Kip Sylvester humiliated, and now Cletus was going to offer an olive branch?
But that wasn’t what Cletus was doing, not at all. Knowing him, I knew full well what he was about to do. I gripped Beau’s hand harder, which I didn’t realize I’d been holding until just this moment. Cletus did this so well, lulling folks into a false sense of security before he made them lose their minds with rage, befuddlement, or embarrassment, and then rage again.
“Oh no,” Beau said under his breath. “Here we go.”
“Cletus Winston, you shut your mouth.”
Elena’s vitriol had my father cutting in, “Elena, the men are talking. Let me handle this.” His tone remained superior despite his slurred words.
“Are we, though? Men?” Cletus paused here, and I knew it was for effect, before adding thoughtfully, “I mean, you’re not really a man, are you?”
“Now you listen to me—”
Cletus didn’t listen, he didn’t even pause. “You weren’t man enough to take care of your family or keep them together. You weren’t man enough to step up and cherish a wife as exceptional as Diane, a pillar of Christian charity and goodness in this community. Unlike this—what did you say?—woman of ill repute?”
I expected my father to lose it at this point, but Elena was the one to step forward. “You hillbilly, club-trash bastard. I’ll make you pay for what you did to my sister.”
Cletus continued like she hadn’t spoken, “And you’re obviously not man enough to keep your mistress from making you—a fallen man, a person of ill repute—look like a fool. Now an even bigger fool than you already were, which I didn’t think was possible. You two deserve each other.”
My father lifted his voice, spewing slurred insults that ran together and made no sense. But it was no use. Cletus’s voice was bigger, more commanding. Plus, Cletus wasn’t drunk.
“And in front of—I mean—the whole town is here. Literally everybody you know.” Cletus chuckled like he couldn’t believe it, like our guests had suddenly materialized. “How mortifying for you, but I reckon you’re used to that by now. So, on second thought, don’t call me son. I think I speak for everyone here when I say associating with you would be an embarrassment. Embarrassing even for the town simpleton.”
My father must’ve done something then, maybe tried to throw a punch, because a scuffle ensued and exclamations of surprise and distress from onlookers followed. I covered my mouth, trying to see past the heads and shoulders of those blocking my line of sight, but it was to no avail. Even in these shoes I was too short!
Without thinking, I left Beau and Shelly and pushed to the front, needing to see what was going on and that Cletus and my momma were okay. My father and Elena were psychotic, I knew this. I should’ve made them leave, I should’ve stepped in already, and now fear had completely gripped me. What if they wanted to hurt Cletus? What if all their failed business dealings and drained bank accounts meant they had nothing left to lose?
I was assaulted by the delayed suspicion, maybe they’d wanted this to happen? Maybe one of them had brought a weapon? What if they’d planned this?
Billy, bless him, held Cletus back, and my father was fighting off Hank’s attempts to do the same to him. Meanwhile, Elena was scratching at Billy and Cletus, and my heart seized for a split second as I braced myself for whatever was coming next, too paralyzed by the train wreck to think past my own bystander status.
Out of nowhere, like a miracle, Sheriff James’s voice boomed from somewhere, “Y’all cut this out, right now. Right. Now. Shame on you.”
Like a knight of goodness and righteousness, the sheriff was there. And even though he wore an I’m getting too old for this shit expression, he’d inserted himself between the parties, holding his hands up.
Elena screeched, “This piece of trash tried to—”
“You hush.” Sheriff James pointed a finger at her face. “Unless you’d like to be arrested, and don’t think I won’t.”
“They should be the ones arrested, this club garbage and her!” Elena smacked away the sheriff’s hand and charged at my mother.
My father was raving again. “Soon everyone will know what you did, the two of you. You’ll rot in jail! Jennifer will see then, she’ll come back to me then, begging for forgiveness!”
Mid-rant, the sheriff began forcibly pushing my father toward the door.
“All right, all right. We’re taking this outside. Jackson, Evans, Boone—” he lifted his hand toward the entrance of the barn, motioning to his deputies who’d just arrived “—take Mr. Sylvester and Ms. Wilkinson out. Ms. Donner, Billy, you’re with me.”
I’d almost caught up to Cletus, but then he moved like he was going to follow the deputies outside. Before he could, the sheriff turned and put a hand on Cletus’s chest, unveiled disappointment in his eyes.
Because I was close enough, I heard the sheriff’s whispered, “Stay here and apologize to Jennifer. She deserves better from you. Your momma would be ashamed, she raised you better. And, for the record, I expected better.”
With one more lingering hard look for Cletus, Sheriff James lifted his eyes and addressed the crowd, “I know I speak for Janet when I say we’ve been looking forward to celebrating Jennifer’s happiness and this engagement for many months. Let’s not let temporary unpleasantness cast a shadow over what is supposed to be a joyful event. Those cooks are working hard, and the tables are set. This is a party. You’ll never hear your sheriff say this again, but I’m insisting y’all go grab a drink. Or two. Possibly three.”
The sheriff’s attempt at humor was met with laughter that sounded less strained than relieved, like folks were happy to see a levelheaded adult step up and take over. The big man’s gaze gentled considerably as it settled on me, and he gave me a small, rueful-looking nod. Then with a visible rising and falling of his chest, he left, presumably to catch up with his deputies.
Cletus shoved his hands in his pockets, making no move to follow this time. My heart in my throat and needing to see for myself he was okay, I stepped next to him and slid my fingers around his wrist, drawing his attention to me as I pulled his hand free. I wanted to hold it. I might be mad later, but for now I just needed the reassurance of his touch.
His glare, icy and agitated, melted almost at once as it met mine, a flare of worry and pain turning his eyes a vivid blue. Someone—likely Elena—had scratched his face. Red, angry nail tracks stood in stark relief starting at his hairline, over his forehead, and down his cheek. He was bleeding.
I sucked in a breath. “Oh, Cletus.”
“Don’t feel sorry for me.” He brought my hand to his mouth and kissed my palm, his voice monotone. “I deserved what I got, probably more.”
Now I breathed out, feeling suddenly tired and relieved it was over, but—strangely—still not angry. “Cletus, can we . . .” I pointed over my shoulder with my thumb. After what had just occurred, I needed a minute with him, just the two of us.
He seemed to need it too. Wordlessly, he led us to the fringes of the crowd, out one of the side doors, and into the night. I let him guide me, wishing I were angrier, knowing I should be. He was so infuriating sometimes.
But Cletus was mine. And I was his. And I wouldn’t change that fact for anything in the world.
* JENN *
“Question everything. Your love, your religion, your passion. If you don’t have questions, you’ll never find answers.”
– Colleen Hoover, Slammed
“What are you thinking about?” I dabbed gently at the cuts on his face with a ball of cotton soaked in hydrogen peroxide and blew on the wound. The scratches already looked a little better, but he also had a wee little bruise under his left eye where my father had punched him. Apparently, Cletus’s plan had almost worked and would’ve been fully realized if Billy hadn’t held Cletus back.
After Cletus and I left the party, he’d taken us as far as the parking lot by the bakery. There, he’d seemed to hesitate. The Buick was just a few feet away. Eventually, as though finished with a wieldy internal debate, he’d grumbled and turned from the car. He took me to the Donner Bakery building instead. He’d unlocked it and opened the door for me, the bell jingling as we entered.
I’d walked past the storefront, the bakery case, and back to the kitchen where I’d grabbed the first aid kit while he’d flipped on the set of lights over the sink.
Presently, he lowered himself to the edge of the kitchen counter, and I stood between his legs. We were more or less at eye level, which made it easier to tend to his face.
Cletus hadn’t yet answered my question. I ceased dabbing at the wounds and leaned back a bit, catching his eyes. “Cletus Byron, what are you thinking about?”
The set of his mouth was distinctly grim, so I didn’t expect him to say, “I really love this dress.”
Something about the way he said it struck me as immensely charming, like he loved the dress, but he also hated the dress because he loved it so much. This dichotomous delivery of a sweet statement had me fighting a smile.
“Oh? You do?” I backed up a bit more and felt the reluctant slide of his hands release me from where they’d been resting on my waist. I turned to the side, modeling it for him. “Did you see the back?”
“I don’t need to see the back.” His eyes closed, like the sight of me overwhelmed him a little, and he moved to rub his forehead, wincing when his fingers made contact with the scratches. “Dammit.”
Crossing my arms, I watched as frustration played over his features. Confound it, but I wasn’t mad at Cletus. Yet I didn’t feel sorry for him either. Well, I didn’t feel sorry for him much. Cletus knew what he’d been doing.
“Actually—” he placed his hands on the counter at either side of his waist, his gaze on the floor “—what I was really thinking was I wished we were alone.”
“We are alone, silly. I don’t see anybody else here.” I laughed, coming back to stand between his legs and finish what I’d started. The scratch extended into his beard, and I swallowed around a thick knot of anger. As much as I wasn’t angry at Cletus, I was furious at my father and Elena.
The last time I’d seen my father was at his court sentencing last spring, where he and Elena had been given probation for what they’d done to us last year. I’d been . . . well, I’d been angered by the outcome. The court considered what they’d done “assault,” which was a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to 11 months and 29 days in jail, a fine up to $2500, or both.
Up to 11 months and 29 days in jail and $2500 for ruining my peace of mind. Good to know what the court thought it was worth.
They’d put their hands on me, harmed me, invaded my sleep and robbed me of my tranquility, and ultimately got off with a fine and probation. The injustice of it had left me feeling pretty bitter about the state of the legal system. I hadn’t admitted as much to Cletus, nor had I discussed it with anyone else, but a darkness had followed me ever since that day. Truth be told, I was coming around to Cletus’s way of thinking.
Perhaps it was necessary to take matters into your own hands if you wanted to see real justice served.
Maybe that’s why you’re not angry with Cletus now, even though you should be . . .
“I meant tonight. I wish we were alone tonight.”
“We’ll be alone later.”
“All of tonight.”
I lifted an eyebrow. “You’re being greedy.”
“With you? Always.”
I rolled my eyes so he couldn’t see how I loved his answer. “It’s only one night. Don’t you think the barn looks pretty?”
“It does . . . look . . . pretty,” he conceded, haltingly.
I ceased dabbing again, again catching his eyes. They looked as cagey as his words had been. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m not in a suit.”
“So what?” I glanced at the fit of his red shirt and black pants, admiring the shape of him and taking a moment to thrill in what I knew his clothes concealed. “You look perfect just as you are.” I meant it, scratches and all, he was perfect.
“Your momma expected menfolk to wear suits, and Jackson James knew to wear a suit,” he grumped, his hands coming back to me. But this time they settled on my hips, holding me a little tighter, his grip feeling somehow more possessive.
“So, aren’t you concerned we’re nearing the end of days?”
I looked at him blankly. “End of days?”
“Jackson James knowing something I don’t.”
I laughed again, lowering my eyes to his beard and the hidden scratch left by that—that—that harpy. The next time I saw her, I’d scratch her eyes out. So much for violence not being an answer. . .
“I don’t care whether you’re in a suit or not. It’s no big deal.” I shrugged away the dark turn of my thoughts and his concerns about wearing a suit.
“Jethro left some time ago to pick something up for me, so I’ll be suitably attired.” His tone was both officious and droll, a cute combo.
“That’s very funny.” I smiled appreciatively at his pun.
“Yes, I know. But Jenn, all this—” He reached for my wrist and lowered my hand; this time he was the one to catch my eyes. “Why are we doing this?”
“The fussy tableware, the suits, the guest list filled with acquaintances. We don’t need all that. We could’ve just had a small engagement party at the Winston house. Then your father—”
“I know we didn’t—don’t need it. But my momma, the staff here at the lodge, your family, they love us, and they want to show it. I was excited about tonight.”
He looked confused by my statement. “You were?”
“Yes, I was. I mean, not all the people I barely know. But what they did with the barn, everyone at the lodge pitched in to decorate, staying late and helping. They are excited. And your family helped too.”
“Shelly and her sculptures? Did you see the hearts? They’re beautiful. And Jess and Duane sending those fancy place settings over from England, brand-new for the lodge, and we’ll use them for the first time tonight. Sienna having a dress designed for me by one of her famous friends—and she designed my wedding dress. Billy arranging for us to use the governor’s silverware. It’s real old, special. Drew and Ashley arranging for those glass chandeliers to be flown in from a glass blower in Texas. Actually, Ashley did a lot. She’s responsible for the planning just as much as my momma, they did it together. Heck, Roscoe worked with Claire McClure to arrange the string quartet. Did you know that?”
“I—I did not know that,” he sputtered.
“He did. They did! Roscoe went to her with the idea and she made it happen, musicians she knows in Nashville. They drove all the way out here and my momma is putting them up at the lodge. Everyone is being so sweet, coming together to celebrate us and—so—I know we don’t need any of it, but it sure made me feel good, feel grateful that your family wanted to welcome me like this.”
Cletus’s confused frown persisted, and he stood from the counter, setting me to the side. Pacing away, he pushed his hands through his hair roughly. “Jethro didn’t seem to know.”
“Jethro has been pretty busy with Benjamin. I think he can be forgiven for not pitching in. I think Sienna said he’s getting about three hours of sleep these days. You know he doesn’t want a night nurse, and I guess I understand that, but—”
“I didn’t know either.”
“But isn’t it great?” I tracked him, bothered by his reaction.
“It is . . . great.”
I tossed the used cotton ball to the counter, irritated with Cletus’s continued agitation. “Then why do you sound so unhappy about it?”
“Because I had no idea it was happening!” In a rare demonstration of temper, Cletus’s voice rose.
He didn’t shout, didn’t yell, but it was an unmodulated, unintended display of feeling, something he never, ever did. Especially not with me. Even after being together for over a year. He was, for better or for worse, always controlled in my presence, his tone perpetually thoughtful and measured. Unless we were . . . well, having sex.
Intimacy, sex, making love seemed to be the only time Cletus allowed himself to let loose the reins he otherwise held with a white-knuckled grip, and not every time. Just sometimes. It drove me a little crazy.
I watched him now as he breathed out, seeming to shake himself. I remained silent because the thoughts running through my mind would likely sound absurd to anyone else. To me, Cletus was sexy as hell when his control slipped, when that edge entered his voice and the rough, sharp pieces of him were revealed. His eyes would narrow, flash, spark, and a gravel entered his voice, one that made my mouth dry and my tummy flip, made me chase my breath and my lungs squeeze.
I couldn’t explain it. It’s not that I wanted him yelling at me, or that I wanted him mad or frustrated. But I wanted uncontrolled . . . Passion? Desperation? Intensity? All three?
When I needed to rant and rave, I did with him. When I was angry or feeling desperate for his touch or frenzied because I missed him so badly, I showed it. But he rarely did. He stuffed it down, buried it, and that left me feeling oddly neglected.
I loved all of Cletus, was greedy for every part of who he was. This was a side he’d continued to keep hidden, only to ration out in bite-sized portions, and only in the bedroom, and only for a few minutes at a time. After, he’d put it away, high on a shelf out of my reach.
Requiring only a second to regain his slipped control, Cletus lifted his eyes, dimmed by forced calm and restraint, and spoke as though he measured each word with a mental ruler, “I’m sorry. It’s just that I have trouble with surprises, with feeling unprepared, and with crowds. Especially when I’m expected to—uh—perform in some way in front of people.”
I knew this, but it hadn’t been my intention to surprise him. “I don’t know what to say, Cletus. It’s not like we hid anything from you. You never asked about it, about the plans or how things were going. I honestly thought you knew.” He seemed to always know everything about everyone, sometimes before they did.
“I’ve been a little distracted,” he admitted, glancing to the side, an exceedingly small, wry smile tugging at the side of his mouth.
That made me blush, a hot surge of knowledge, a certainty as to what and who had distracted him, made my tummy flip.
He heaved out a breath, again shaking himself. “But, Jenn, as much as I appreciate what everyone did, if we’d kept tonight small and private, your father wouldn’t have had a chance to make a spectacle. Whatever the plans are for the wedding as of right now, we should rethink them in light of tonight’s events.”
That all sounded very reasonable, except—
“Nope. I’m not going to let my father’s behavior—what he does, or what he might do—dictate how I live my life. You helped me learn that.” Nor was I going to allow myself to mire in unhappiness now. Tonight was our night, dammit. My father was not going to ruin it and I refused to waste another moment thinking about him or Elena.
There. All done. Moving on.
Cletus grimaced, looking grumpy. “I suppose I did help you learn that.”
“And I was having a good time tonight. Sometimes it’s nice to get all dressed up. How many times do people get engaged? I only ever plan on getting engaged once.”
“That’s the right answer.” He looked considerably less grumpy until, abruptly, he frowned again. “Wait, Ash helped plan tonight?”
“Yes. Like I said, she and my mother basically planned it together. And they’re planning the wedding together.”
“What? How is this possible?”
“They actually get along just fine.”
“No, I mean, Ashley planning a wedding, any wedding. Drew has asked her to marry him several times, and I know for a fact she wants to say yes. She won’t commit to her own wedding, but she’ll gladly plan ours? And you know their babies are going to be incredibly cute.”
It was obvious thought of Ashley’s involvement in planning our nuptials renewed his agitation. “Cletus, it’s fine. If it makes Ashley happy, let her be happy. We’ve been through so much. It’s been a crazy year. Let’s enjoy this big fancy party we had nothing to do with organizing—tonight and the wedding. This is something my mother excels at and enjoys doing, so we didn’t have to do a thing.”
“That’s not the point—”
“And at no trouble to you or me. It’s not something that we need to worry about or fret over. You can just sit back and enjoy yourself.”
“Sit back and enjoy myself?”
“That’s right. Just relax. Everything has been done. You don’t need to do a single thing but show up and smile.”
“I am not accustomed to sitting back and enjoying myself. Nor smiling.”
“I beg to differ. You’ve done quite a bit of both with me.”
Another wry smile tugged at his mouth, but I could see he planned to keep arguing the point.
Obviously, he needed me to spell out the actual point. “The point is, let’s celebrate!” I crossed to my big, sweet man, slid my arms around his waist and tilted my head back to peer up at him. “Despite my father and that woman trying to ruin our fun, I want to celebrate with you. I want to celebrate us. I want to show you off, my brilliant, handsome fiancé. I want to show the world how much I adore you.”
Everything about him seemed to soften at my words, and I felt the moment he became putty, witnessed the precise second I’d won him over.
His arms came around me, his hands sliding from my back to my bottom. “You want to show me off?”
“Of course.” I brushed my lips against his, just a light touch. “Don’t you want to show me off?”
“Honestly?” He continued stroking me—back, hip, bottom—as he seemed to debate his answer. “I don’t know. Sometimes I do. Only if you’re keen on it, only if it’s something you want,” he added solemnly, knowing better than anyone how my parents had trotted me out as a kid and teenager when the attention used to terrify me. I loved him for wanting to take my past and my present feelings into consideration.
“But mostly—” his hands paused on my backside, his fingers gripping and pressing me to him possessively, his voice adopting just a faint hint of that gravelly tone I adored—”I want you all to myself.”
“Okay.” I grinned up at him. “Then if I don’t get my party, you have to attend to my every whim.”
His eyelids drooped, his eyes darkening to indigo, and a true smile laden with sinister thoughts—such a sexy smile—curved his mouth. “I’m fine with the party, and we should go back soon. But I’d also enjoy attending to your whims. Likewise, the thought of forever suits me just fine. Perhaps you could give me a task list of said whims, to get me started.”
“I know how you like your lists,” I whispered, my toes curling in my high heels as his mouth lowered to mine and I lost myself in it, in him, in the hot slide and press of his generous lips, the slick, knowing heat of his tongue.
He stroked the inside of my mouth reminiscent of how he’d feasted on my body last night before we’d gone to bed. My knees wobbled. Maybe we don’t have to go back to the party at all?
“Cletus,” I gasped, lifting my chin, untucking and undoing the buttons of his suit shirt because I needed the hot and hard feel of his skin and body right now. I was delighted to find he wore nothing beneath it. “You can’t kiss me like that if you expect me to think straight.”
“Who says I expect you to think straight? Let’s think crooked.” He toyed with the thin strap on my shoulder, pulling it down, placing a wet kiss where it had been, and sliding his fingers into the neckline of my dress, his knuckles grazing my breasts. “I thought I wanted you out of this dress, but now I think I’d like you to keep it on . . .” The words he’d left unspoken swirled around my head, making me dizzy.
Keep it on while we fuck.
He didn’t usually speak while we were intimate, and I’d started to suspect it was because he didn’t trust himself. We’d only had phone sex the one time last year and that was the most he’d talked—ever—during the deed. But just last month, after coming back from a boxing gym with Drew, sweaty and sporting a few bruises, he’d backed me into the door of my bedroom and growled in my ear, “I’m going to fuck you against the wall.”
It was like he’d flipped a switch in my brain. I’d gone from bemused to hot and ready in zero point three seconds. He hadn’t used the word since. Instead, he’d been not saying it, leaving the insinuation in the air between us, and it was driving me wild.
I couldn’t recall ever saying the word out loud. It felt so off-limits to me, so ripe with prohibition. It wasn’t proper, and maybe that’s why I loved the idea of doing it with Cletus. Like I was awakening to a new, primitive part of myself, essential yet forbidden, engaging in a naughty activity that—if caught—meant I would be punished, perhaps even shunned. And yet it felt crucial, necessary to use him, his glorious body. And to be used in the same way.
Not making love. Not cherishing each other’s hearts, minds, and bodies.
“Lift up your dress.”
I breathed out on a rush, my heart taking off, and immediately began to comply. “You’re not going to help?”
“I don’t know how it works, and I don’t want to break it.” Cletus had released me and worked on the complicated mechanism he called a belt, his movements unhurried as he stepped back to watch me gather the material of the skirt.
Are we doing this? Now?
“But where—?” I whispered the question, my thighs flexing as cool air met the newly exposed skin. In fact, my entire body felt taut, tight, tense.
“Lean back,” he ordered, already guiding me up to the countertop, catching on the front of my dress to yank it down as I finished pulling the skirt up.
Leaning over me, Cletus roughly palmed my breasts as they were exposed, twisting and pinching my nipple, making me whimper. A dark, appreciative grunt rumbled out of him as he gazed upon my bared torso and his hands where they touched me. He lowered and his mouth closed over the center of my breast, hot and wet. His tongue swirled, sucking almost to the point of painful, making my back arch off the table. My fumbling fingers sifted through the hair at the back of his head and pressed him closer. God.
It felt so good. Always so good, and I felt so lost. My upbringing had not prepared me, I’d not been raised in what folks now called a sex-positive household. And perhaps that was why every time we were together I always experienced nagging shame and worry, like it shouldn’t feel good and I shouldn’t enjoy it and I was a bad girl because I did.
“Open up.” Cletus moved a hand between my knees, pushing them apart, sliding fingertips up my inner thigh and cupping me over the lace of my underwear, massaging with a firm hand.
A clumsy moan slipped past my lips as I glanced down the topography of my body, watched him touch me. I trembled and he slipped a long finger into my panties and inside me, then drawing it out and painting a circle around the sensitized flesh at my center.
I closed my eyes against the sight of myself like this—my breasts out, my legs open and bare, the dress hiked up and pushed down—the sensations too much. “Oh God, I’m going to—I’m going to—”
He withdrew his finger immediately and pulled my underwear off, halting the coming crisis. I was so close, and we’d just started, but this is what he did to me. I was always so ready. All he had to do was look at me and I wanted it, him.
I heard him release his zipper and my sex clenched, aching, needful. The rustle of fabric preceded the sound of his pants falling to the floor. Then a pause. I didn’t open my eyes, but I knew he was rolling on a condom. A second later, he pressed his erection against me and stroked, making me pant and gasp, my fingers flex for purchase, my toes curl again. I couldn’t breathe, I wanted him so badly. But he didn’t enter me.
“You’re too close,” he mumbled as though this information were a problem to solve.
I opened my eyes and found him standing between my spread legs, his eyes on my breasts trailing to where the dress was bunched around my middle and lower to where he held himself just above where I needed him.
His shirt was open, showing off the gorgeous hard planes of his chest and stomach and lower. My mouth watered at the sight. If he didn’t take me soon . . . I opened my legs wider, an invitation. I needed him.
“Cletus. Please.” I was on fire.
He licked his lips. “Turn.”
“Turn?” I swallowed, my voice cracking, not sure I’d heard him right.
He was already moving me, hooking a hand behind my knee and tugging me down the countertop so I was on my feet again. He then turned me such that I was facing the counter instead of him. His knee spread my legs and he guided me forward before I could catch my breath. I lowered myself to my elbows, feeling thrilled and uncertain as a new ache pooled between my legs.
We’d never done it this way, him taking me from behind. We’d always faced each other. And, for some reason, not being able to see him or touch him—only feeling how he chose to touch me—ramped up my nerves anew and wound me tight.
I felt him shove my skirt higher, the cold air against my completely bared bottom and lower back just as I felt the thick, hard length of him push inside, opening me. I sucked in another gulp of air at the intrusion and closed my eyes, trying to hold myself away from the counter as he withdrew and then entered me again with a second quick thrust, again and again, his thighs making a slapping sound against the back of mine each time.
We groaned in chorus, and I could not believe what I was feeling. He was so deep and so everywhere and I was so full. The forcefulness of his movements rocked me forward and backward, making my breasts sway against the friction of the wooden countertop.
Instinctively, I tilted my bottom up, and the harsh sound he made followed by the raspy words “Good girl” sent a shiver of goose bumps racing over my exposed back and arms, pinpricks of delicious agony. In this position, my clitoris neglected, I felt like I’d always be just a hair’s breadth from unraveling, and it was the most exquisitely painful, tortuous feeling, all anticipation and longing and wanting. I hurt and I suffered, and I could not get enough of it.
“Are you okay?” he growled, sounding like he spoke between clenched teeth.
I immediately and enthusiastically nodded, a breathless and sobbing “Yes” spilling out of my parched mouth. “It feels so . . .” I didn’t know the word. I couldn’t think.
Why the hell hadn’t we done this before?
Why would he keep such a thing from me? After we were done, I was going to demand answers! I was going to—
“Oh my God!”
I think that was me who’d cried out because Cletus had reached around and slid a finger between my legs, circling then pushing that glorious little button and I was sent spiraling, falling as his movements grew harsher, lacking in rhythm or finesse, avaricious and wholly without his precious control.
He leaned forward, his other hand gripping my hip and pressing me down fully, the hard muscles of his stomach flexing against my bottom, his hips and thighs pushing and retreating inelegantly as I reflexively arched my back. My seemingly endless orgasm originated from somewhere deep within my body, this new place he’d invaded and touched with each animalistic stroke. And it just went on and on.
He’d finished, I knew he had, but my body still shook, and I cried out. He seemed to understand what was happening because he brought me to a standing position and sucked my ear into his mouth, one hand rolling and tugging at my nipple while the other petted and stroked between my legs, prolonging each of the cresting waves.
I was out of breath like I’d run a marathon, my chest heaving, my legs—all my muscles, in fact—unsteady. And when the last of the tremors abated, Cletus seemed to understand this too. He lifted me into his arms, holding me tight, close. My cheek pressed to the space over his thundering heart, I felt the rapid rise and fall of his chest as he also fought for air.
“I . . .” I started, but would never finish the thought because I had none. I had no thoughts. My brain had been wiped completely clean. I wasn’t even sure who I was anymore.
“Shh.” He kissed my forehead, leaned his hip against the counter and held me tighter. “Just . . . take a minute.”
So I did, and in that minute I had my first thought, This is what people mean by “mind-blowing sex.”
I thought we’d had mind-blowing sex before, but I’d been mistaken. This was it. Don’t get me wrong, we’d had some amazing sex, lots of sweet, wonderful, lovely sex. I’d loved everything we’d ever done, obviously. If I hadn’t loved it so much, then why else would I always be ready for my next dose? My next hit of Cletus?
But this? Chef’s kiss. This was the Michelin-four-star rating of making love.
Then I had a second thought, That wasn’t making love.
Then I had a third thought, If my appetite has been insatiable up to now, what’s it going to be after this? Am I doomed to be a Cletus sex addict?
. . . I could think of worse things.
“Jenn.” Cletus whispered my name against my hair. “As much as it pains me to say it, we need to get back to the party.”
As though fate wished to punctuate this, the lights over the sink turned off. After closing, they were set on a timer, partially to save on electricity and partially to discourage baking after hours, like I used to do all the time. We both chuckled at the kitchen-light fairies basically kicking us out, and I nodded, still winded.
My words sounded breathless. “You’re right, let’s clean up.”
I wiggled, and he set me down on the countertop. Cletus, kissing my lips and cheek, inspected me for a moment as though ensuring I was steady enough to hold myself upright. Apparently convinced, he pulled up his pants and turned, walking in the direction of the bathroom at the back. He completely disappeared for a moment, and I gingerly hopped off the counter, easing my weight to my feet still encased in high heels, and I winced—but just a little bit.
I was sore. Between my legs. That hadn’t happened since the first time we’d been together. Righting the straps of the dress first while I searched the darkness for my underwear, I couldn’t help but replay our encounter, not knowing how to feel.
Did we really just do that? Had I just pulled up my dress, bent over, and spread my legs in the place where I work?
“Here.” Cletus suddenly appeared, looking devilishly handsome in the dim light and seemingly all put back together—like we’d been in here holding hands instead of. . . ANYWAY.
He held out my underwear. His eyes were bright even in shadow, and I could see they were half-lidded as they lazily trailed over me. He looked at me like he was hungry, and I was dinner. Despite all the encore orgasms I’d just had, the effect hit me right between my legs.
I wondered what he was thinking, watching as he licked his bottom lip and drew it into his mouth. Was he just as insatiable for me? And if so, was he okay with that?
Tearing my eyes away, I pulled on the lace and fixed my skirt, telling my body to settle down. We were getting married for hootenanny’s sake!
Cletus cocked his head to the side while I smoothed my hands down the red fabric, working to get a hold of all this raging want always coursing through my veins whenever he was near. Maybe it was because he was my first, and I guess, my only. Was that why I felt so crazed for him all the time?
“Miraculous,” he said.
I surmised he meant the dress. “Right? The wrinkles are hidden, if there are any. It’s ’cause they ruched the outer fabric at the seams, see?” I turned to the side to show him the seam, and he stepped forward as though he were going to investigate.
Instead, his hands cupped my face and tilted my chin back. He stared at me with a vibrant intensity I felt all the way to my fingertips. “No, Jenn. Not the dress. You.” Cletus gave me a soft kiss, ending it by gently nipping my bottom lip. “You are my miracle.”
I sighed. And I smiled. And I felt like I was walking on a cloud instead of in four-inch heels, which was also probably something of a miracle. “You say the sweetest things.”
“I think you mean, I say the truest things.”
I laughed, and he kissed my forehead. He held me there, in the dark with his lips pressed to my forehead. “I love you so completely, with every cell in my body. I wonder sometimes if I’d cease to exist—just evaporate or disappear—if anything ever happened to you.”
“No.” I anchored my hands to his wrists and squeezed. “Don’t think like that. We’ve got our whole lives in front of us. There’s nothing anyone can—”
Three bangs in quick succession pierced the quiet moment, and not a second later Cletus had me on the ground beneath him, covering my back with his body.
“Gunshots,” he whispered in my ear. “From the parking lot. Don’t move.”
** END SNEAK PEEK **