Truth or Beard
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Falling for the wrong twin never felt so good . . .
From the NEW YORK TIMES, WALL STREET JOURNAL, & USA TODAY bestselling series
Beards, brothers, and bikers! Oh my!
Identical twins Beau and Duane Winston might share the same devastatingly handsome face, but where Beau is outgoing and sociable, Duane is broody and reserved. This is why perpetually level-headed Jessica James has been in naïve and unhealthy infatuation with Beau Winston for most of her life. Whereas Duane and Jessica have always been adversaries. She can’t stand him, and she’s pretty sure he can’t stand the sight of her…
But after a case of mistaken identity, Jessica finds herself in a massive confusion kerfuffle. Jessica James has spent her whole life paralyzed by the fantasy of Beau and her assumptions of Duane’s disdain; therefore she’s unprepared for the reality that is Duane’s insatiable interest, as well as his hot hands and hot mouth and hotter looks.
When Jessica finds herself drawn to the man who was always her adversary, how much of her level-head heart is she willing to risk?
Truth or Beard is book #1 in the Winston Brothers series. Each book is a standalone, full length (110k words), contemporary romantic comedy novel, and follows the romantic exploits and adventures of one of the six Winston Brothers.
Release date: July 21, 2015
Print pages: 392
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Truth or Beard
“Not all those who wander are lost.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
I pulled into the Green Valley Community Center parking lot and scared the crap out of five senior citizens.
Even though it was Halloween, inducing heart attacks in the geriatric population was not on my agenda. Unfortunately for everyone within earshot, my truck made a ghastly, high-pitched whining sound. This happened whenever it idled.
The group of five jumped—obviously startled—and glared at me. Soon their glares morphed into wrinkled squints of befuddlement, their eyes moving over my appearance from my perch. It took them a few minutes, but they recognized me.
Everyone in Green Valley, Tennessee knew who I was.
Nevertheless, I imagined they were not expecting to see Jessica James, the twenty-two-year-old daughter of Sheriff Jeffrey James and sister of Sheriff’s Deputy Jackson James, dressed in a long, white beard sitting behind the wheel of an ancient Ford Super Duty F-350 XL.
In my defense, it wasn’t my monster truck. It was my mother’s. I was currently between automobiles, and she’d just upgraded to a newer, bigger, more intimidating model. Something she could plaster with bumper stickers that said,
Have You Kissed Your Sheriff Today? and
Don’t Drink and DERIVE, Alcohol and Calculus Don’t Mix, and
Eat Steak!! The West Wasn’t Won With Salad.
As the local sheriff’s wife, mother to a police officer (my brother) and a math teacher (me), and the daughter of a cattle rancher, I think she felt it her duty to use the wide canvas of her truck as a mobile pro-police, pro-mathematics, and pro-beef billboard.
I waited patiently for them to look their fill, giving them a small smile they wouldn’t see behind my beard. Being stared at didn’t bother me much. After a few more minutes of confused gawking, the gang of seniors shuffled off like a herd of turtles toward the entrance to the community center, casting cautiously confused glances over their shoulders.
As quickly as I could, I maneuvered the beast into a space at the edge of the lot. Since inheriting the truck, I usually parked on the edge of parking lots so as not to be that person who drives an oversized vehicle and takes up two spaces.
I adjusted my beard, tossing the three-foot, white length over my shoulder, and grabbed my gray cape and wizard hat. Then I tried not to fall out of the truck or flash anyone on my hike down from the driver’s seat. Luckily, my costume also called for a long staff; I leveraged the polished wood to aid my descent. The rest of my costume was negligible—a one-piece mini-skirt sheath dress with a low cut front—which made stretching and moving simple.
I was halfway across the lot, lost in delighted mental preparation for my father and brother’s scowls of disapproval, when I heard my name.
“Jessica, wait up.” I turned and waved when I found my coworker and friend Claire jogging toward me.
“I thought that was you. I saw the staff and cape.” She slowed as she neared, her eyes moving over the rest of my costume. “You’ve made some…modifications.”
“Yes.” I nodded proudly, grinning at her warily amused expression. Claire hadn’t changed since work; she was still wearing an adorable Raggedy Ann costume. Lucky for her, she already had bright red hair and freckles. All she had to do was put her long locks in pigtails, then add the overalls and the white cap.
“Do you like what I’ve done?” I twisted to one side then the other to show off my new garment and my high-heeled strappy sandals.
“Are you still Gandalf? Or what are you supposed to be?”
“Yeah, I’m still Gandalf. But now I’m sexy Gandalf.” I wagged my eyebrows.
Claire covered her mouth with a white-gloved hand then snorted. “Oh my God. You are a nut.”
A sinister giggle escaped my lips. I’m not much of a giggler unless I’ve done something sinister. “Well, I couldn’t wear it to work. But I love the irony of it, you know? All those stupid Halloween costumes that women are expected to wear, like sexy nurse and sexy witch and sexy bee. I’ve actually seen a ‘sexy bee’ costume. Am I missing something? Is there a subset of men who get off thinking about pollinators?”
“I agree. You can’t wear the sexy Gandalf costume to work. In addition to being against the dress code, you’re already starring in the sex fantasies of all your male students as their hot calculus teacher. If you’d worn sexy Gandalf at school instead of regular Gandalf, I think they’d go home feeling confused about their sexuality.”
I laughed and shook my head, thinking how odd the last three months had been.
Like me, Claire was a Green Valley native; also like me, she’d moved back to town after college. However, where I was here only temporarily—just for the few years until I paid off my student debt—Claire was here to stay. She’d become the drama and band teacher during my senior year of high school. Now we were coworkers. With her gorgeous red hair, light blue eyes, and a strikingly beautiful face, during my senior year as well as now, she was labeled the hot drama teacher.
I shivered as a gust of late autumn wind met my excess of bare skin.
“Come on,” Claire looped her arm through mine, “let’s get inside before you freeze your beard off.”
I followed her into the old school building. As we neared, I heard the telltale sounds of folk music drifting out of the open double doors.
It was Friday night, and that meant nearly every able-bodied person in a thirty-mile radius was gathering for the jam session at the Green Valley Community Center. As it was Halloween, the place had been decorated with paper skeletons, carved pumpkins, and orange and black streamers. The old school had been converted only seven years earlier, and the jam sessions started shortly thereafter.
Everyone in Green Valley would start their evening here. Even if it hadn’t been Halloween, married folks with kids would leave first, followed by the elderly. Then the older teenagers would go off, likely to Cooper’s field for a drunken bonfire. The adult, unmarried, and childless would leave next.
I was clumsily and hesitantly trying to find my way in this new single adult subgroup.
Before I left for college, I was part of the Cooper’s field, teenager, drunken bonfire subset, even though I usually didn’t stay long and never got drunk. But I always managed to find a boy to kiss before I left.
In my present predicament, where each individual from the unattached adult cluster (to which I now belonged) ended the evening would depend heavily on that person’s personal goals. If the goal was to have good, clean fun, then you typically went to Genie’s Country Western Bar for dancing and darts. If the goal was to get laid, then you typically went to The Wooden Plank, a biker bar just on the edge of town. If the goal was to get laid and cause trouble, then maybe get laid again, you went to The Dragon Biker Bar, several miles outside of town and home to the Iron Wraiths biker club.
Or, if you were like me—no longer an angst-filled, rebellious adolescent looking for boys to kiss—and the goal was to relax and grade a week’s worth of calculus assignments, you went home, put on flannel PJs, and turned on The Travel Channel for background noise and inspiration.
I spotted my father before he spotted me as a crowd had gathered; he was speaking animatedly to someone I couldn’t see. My daddy was standing at the table just inside the entrance where a big glass bowl had been placed to collect donations. He was, as always, wearing his uniform.
Claire stood on her tiptoes then tried leaning to the side to gauge the cause of the crowd. “Looks like they’re doing trick-or-treating. I see a bunch of kids in costume, and there’s a bucket of candy at the table.”
I nodded, glancing down one of the short hallways then the other. Music came from only one of the rooms, but there was a mass of kids going in and out of the five classrooms, each with either a decorated pillow case or an orange plastic jack o'lantern bucket to hold their treats.
I leaned close to Claire to suggest we skip the line and make our donations later when my eyes snagged on a red-haired, bearded man coming out of one of the classrooms, holding the hand of a blonde little girl—not more than seven—dressed like Tinker Bell.
I felt a shock—a jolt from my throat—travel down my collarbone to my fingertips, then weave through my chest and belly. I lost my breath on a startled gasp. The shock was followed by a suffusion of spreading warmth and levels of intense self-consciousness—the magnitude of which I hadn’t experienced in years.
My eyes greedily traveled over every inch of him, dressed in blue Dickie coveralls that had been pulled off his sculpted torso, the long sleeves now tied around his waist to keep the pants portion from falling down; they were dotted with grease stains and dirt at the knee and thigh. He also wore a bright white T-shirt and black work boots. His thick red hair was longish and askew, like he’d just run his fingers through it…or someone else had just run their fingers through it.
I knew it was Beau and not his twin Duane for three reasons. He was smiling at the little girl. Beau always smiled. Duane never smiled.
Also, he appeared to be helping the little girl in some way. Beau was friendly and outgoing. Duane was moody, quiet, and sullen.
And lastly, my body knew the difference. I’d always been reduced to a blubbering mess of teenage hormones at the sight of Beau. In contrast, Duane, though identical in looks, raised my blood pressure and made me a blubbering mess of self-conscious irritation.
My adolescent crush—nay, my adolescent obsession—was walking toward us, his attention focused solely on the child next to him. He looked like a ginger-bearded James Dean, only taller and broader. I think I forgot how to breathe. He was so dreamy. He was so dreamy, and I’d forgotten how much I disliked the word dreamy.
“Jess.” I felt Claire nudge me with a sharp elbow. “Jessica, what’s wrong?”
How some pre-teens lose their minds for boy bands, rock stars, and hot celebrities, I always lost my marbles for Beau. It all started when he climbed a tree to save my cat. I was eight. He was ten. He’d kissed me on the cheek. He’d wiped my tears. He’d held my hand. He’d hugged me close.
He was my hero. He’d saved my cat.
I wondered for a flash whether there was something truly wrong with me, whether there were other twenty-something women out there who still experienced paralysis at the sight of their first crush.
Shouldn’t I have outgrown this by now?
My voice was a weak whisper, and my mouth was dry when I finally answered Claire’s question, tipping my head just slightly toward the pair. “That’s Beau Winston.”
There was a little pause, and I knew Claire was looking past me to where I’d indicated.
“No.” She squeezed my arm with hers. “No, that’s Duane Winston.”
I shook my head, forced myself to look away, and met Claire’s eyes. “No, that’s Beau.”
Claire’s mouth hooked to the side as she studied my features; I’m sure my face had gone mostly pink, a byproduct of being blessed with freckles and an insane, persistent crush on the nicest, sweetest, funniest guy in the world. I wasn’t embarrassed, but I was impressively flushed. Growing up, whenever I’d been in the same room with Beau, he’d had that effect on me. Full-on butterflies in the stomach and music only I could hear.
“I’m telling you, that’s Duane. Beau’s hair is shorter.”
“Nope.” I shook my head again, more resolutely this time as I tried to regulate my breathing and body temperature. “I go a different kind of haywire around Duane. That must be Beau.”
In fact, Duane and I didn’t much get along. During the same episode that initiated and solidified my life-long adoration of Beau, my aversion for Duane had also been established. While Beau was climbing the tree to save my cat, Duane was throwing rocks at the branch. While Beau had been kissing my cheek, Duane had been rolling his eyes.
I could tell Claire was trying not to laugh as she added, “Cripes, you weren’t kidding when you told me you had a crush on that boy. Is this the first time you’ve seen either of them since high school?”
“No. I saw Beau once at the Piggly Wiggly during my sophomore year of college when I was home for winter break. He was buying bacon and green beans, and I stood behind him in line.”
She stopped trying to hide her smile and grinned. “This is fascinating to watch.”
“You, struck stupid. I mean, you’re Jessica James. You have this plan that ensures life-long freedom from commitment. All you ever talk about is traveling the world. You’re home just long enough to pay off loans and gain experience for your résumé. Yet here you are harboring a treasured memory of an encounter in the Green Valley Piggly Wiggly with Beau Winston. I bet you can recall that conversation word-for-word.”
I stared at her, wanting to deny it, but also not wanting to lie. She was right. I could recall the conversation word-for-word, action-for-action. He’d turned to me and asked if I’d mind passing him a gum package that was just out of his reach. I tried to shrug, but I’m sure it looked more like a minor seizure. Then I fumbled for the gum, accidentally knocking an array of breath mints to the floor.
He’d knelt and helped me pick up the felled mints, our hands had touched, I’d almost fainted, and I was certainly bright red. Then he smiled at me. I almost fainted again. Then he helped me stand, and I almost had a heart attack.
He’d asked, “Hey, Jess…are you okay?” dipping his head close to mine, his amazing blue eyes all sparkly and lovely and concerned.
I’d nodded, not able to speak because his hands were still on my forearms, and I’d gazed up at him. Butterflies and music only I could hear—that time it was Eternal Flame by the Bangles—drowned out the sound of his voice and the next words from his mouth. I did see that his lips curved in a barely there smile as he’d studied me.
Then my brother Jackson appeared and ruined everything by telling Beau to mind his own business. Beau shrugged—an actual shrug, not a semi-seizure—and turned back to the cashier. He’d paid for his bacon, green beans, and gum, and then left.
The thing was, I was not a shy person. Not at all. I considered myself confident and levelheaded. I had a brother, boys were not a mystery to me. But Beau Winston had always rendered me beyond completely tongue-tied. He rendered me stupid.
I was, in a word, completely ridiculous.
Okay, that was two words. I was so ridiculous, I’d lost the ability to count.
“Jess, seriously…are you all right? Your face is turning bright red.” Claire squeezed my arm, drawing my attention away from the sound of my blood pressure.
“Yeah.” I knew I sounded weak. “Just let me know when he’s gone.”
“You’re not going to talk to him?”
I shook my head quickly.
Her nose wrinkled; her eyes flicked over my shoulder briefly, presumably to his approaching form. She squeezed my arm again. “I’ve never seen you like this. This is not the Jessica James I know.”
“I can’t help it. If I talk to him I might faint.”
Claire tsked. “Two weeks ago, when we were in Nashville, you walked up to that sexy stranger outside the club and kissed him.”
“You bet me ten dollars to do it. Plus it’s not like that with Beau. Plus that guy was flirting with me. Plus I like kissing.”
“What do you mean? You don’t want to kiss Beau?”
I whispered frantically, “Of course I want to kiss him, but only in theory. Who is your famous crush? If a super-hot Hollywood actor who also happened to be a great person wanted to take you home—and the lights stayed on during the deed—what would you do? I mean, not in theory. Honestly, what would you do?”
Claire looked at me for a long moment then asked, “Would I get a heads up a few months ahead of time? So I could eat low carb and start working out?”
“Then, honestly, I’d run the other way.”
“Exactly! I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like, if he actually wanted to kiss me I think I’d die of mortification.”
“So you think of Beau like a celebrity or something?”
“It’s complicated. I have similar—but not exactly the same—feelings for Intrepid Inger, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and Tina Fey.”
“Intrepid Inger? Isn’t she that solo travel blogger you’re always talking about?”
“Yes. She is she.”
“Who is Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz?”
“The Father of Calculus. He’s dead.”
Claire twisted her lips to the side and she looked like she was trying not to laugh.
I shrugged helplessly. “I know. I’m a math nerd.”
“Yes. You are a math nerd. But you’re a math nerd who can totally pull off a sexy Gandalf costume.”
“Oh my God. I forgot!” My hand flew to my beard. “Maybe he won’t recognize me.”
Claire tsked. “Let me get this straight, you’ll kiss a random guy on the street with nothing but sass. But if you had to talk to one of your hero-crushes—a famous woman travel blogger, the father of calculus, arguably the funniest woman alive, or Beau Winston—you develop aphasia and faint?”
“Honey, Beau Winston puts his pants on one leg at a time. He’s completely normal. Why the hero worship? Go talk to him.”
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