Beauty and the Mustache(4)

By: Penny Reid

Jethro sighed, but he was still smiling. Come to think on it, he was smiling a lot, which was not typical for him. “Come on, Ash. We need to be at work in two hours. Cut us a break.”

I blinked at him and briefly considered that I might be dreaming. “You have a job?”

Jethro’s smile dimmed, turned brittle. “Yes. I have a job, baby sister.”

I felt the stern line of my mouth soften and the back of my neck heat with renewed embarrassment. I had been gone a long time, and I had no desire to insult or hurt anyone, least of all my brother. He’d never shown any outward concern for me growing up, but he was still my brother.

Billy poked his head around the hood of the car and glared at me. Even though I was younger than both of them, I’d been the only consistently responsible child of the seven Winston brood when we were growing up, and the only girl. My brothers had always seen me paradoxically as an authority figure and a doormat.

I imagined it was similar to how they viewed my mother.

I fought the jitteriness still plaguing me from the titty-twister tempest and took a calmer approach. “Look, my flight just got in at two this morning, and I’ve had less than three hours of sleep. I’m supposed to be at the hospital in Knoxville at eleven to find out what’s going on with Momma.” I sighed and put my hands on my hips. “I just need some sleep.”

“Bethany is in the hospital?” This question came from the stranger. My back stiffened at his use of my mother’s first name.

Billy walked to the side of the car and leaned against it. “When I came home two days ago, she’d left a note.”

“What kind of note?” The Viking asked; I didn’t want to notice but he had a delicious growly and authoritative quality to his voice.

Stupid growly commanding Texan Viking voice.

“She said she was sick and had to go to the hospital,” Billy explained.

My throat tightened as my eyes moved to the cement floor of the garage. I suppressed the wave of worried panic. I reminded myself that I hadn’t been home in a while, and maybe she was sick with the flu or just needed a vacation from the craziness that was living with my brothers. Maybe she was completely fine.

“I didn’t know she was sick,” the blond man said, coming to stand next to me, my shoulder at his bicep. In my peripheral vision, I noticed that he’d folded his arms across his sculpted chest, his right hand covering his left nipple.

“No one did,” Billy said, looking straight at me. “Not even Ash,” he added in a slightly sardonic tone.

“Why didn’t you tell me? What exactly happened?” An unmistakable air of privilege and authority hung heavy around the stranger. “Start from the beginning,” he demanded.

A gathering ache of frustration set up camp at the base of my neck. This man, this unknown person, sounded so entitled, as though he should be kept in the loop regarding what happened to my mother.

Maybe it was my lack of sleep; maybe it was the stress of not knowing what was going on with my mother; maybe it was because this man’s sense of entitlement reminded me of every ivy-league ignoramus medical doctor I’d had to endure at my job in Chicago, but I had no patience for this behemoth at my shoulder despite his colossal handsomeness and the fact that I’d assaulted then molested his man-nipple.

I glared at his unkempt beard and longish blond hair, both of which annoyed me now, then shifted my stare to his silver eyes. “Why is this any of your business? And who the hell are you?”

Mr. Blond Beard considered me with impatience, as if I were gum on his shoe. I returned his malicious glower, as if he were gum in my hair.

I heard Jethro clear his throat, and I saw out of the corner of my eye that he gestured to the stranger with a greasy rag. “Ash, this is Drew Runous. He’s my boss.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Winston,” he drawled, extending his hand in a show of ironic southern politeness, like older church ladies use when they say “bless your heart,” and what they really mean is “you couldn’t find your way out of a small shed with a map, lighted signs, and an escort.”

But his face held no amount of pleasure. In fact, he looked positively aggravated by the audacity of my existence.

“Likewise, I’m sure.” Ignoring his offered hand, I returned his ironic southern politeness with my own vitriol-laced volley.

When I’d left Tennessee eight years ago, Jethro’s “job” was selling weed to vacationing teenagers then stealing their cars. I guessed that this self-important blond toolbox was likely in a similar trade.

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