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Truth or Beard(5)

By:Penny Reid

Then it happened. His eyes flickered to the side, likely feeling my stalker stare, and he did a double take. His gaze ensnared mine. My throat worked without success, and I was a heat wave of cognizance. His stare narrowed just slightly as I continued to meet his gaze.

God, I was such a creeper.

I wanted to look away, but I physically could not. He so rarely looked at me. I felt like I was falling, my surroundings fading away—everything except him, and his goodness and magnanimity and blue, blue, blue eyes.

Annoyingly, the music only I could hear whenever he was near started playing between my ears—this time it was Dreamweaver by Gary Wright—therefore I missed the sound of his voice when he said, “Hey, Jessica.”

Instead, I guesstimated what he’d said based on the movement of his lips, and subsequently tried my best to turn down the volume in my head. I nodded at him, still unable to look away.

Then, horrified, I watched as he excused himself from Mrs. MacIntyre and Tinker Bell, and walked to where I was standing with Claire. I swayed a little, took a step backward as he advanced; Claire slipped her arm through mine and fit herself against my side. She probably thought I was going to either faint or make a run for it.

Unfortunately, I managed neither by the time he made it to where we were standing.

“Hey…Beau,” Claire said, the hesitation in her voice obvious. “You are Beau, right? Or are you Duane?”

He gave us a crooked smile that looked completely delectable and mischievous, his eyes darting between us. “You can’t tell the difference?”

Claire returned his smile with a small one of her own. Beau’s charm was contagious and addictive. I’d once overheard my daddy tell my momma that the six Winston boys had inherited their father’s ability to charm snakes, the IRS, and women.

I was also smiling, although mine probably looked dazed and weird. I was thankful for the long gray beard around my mouth. I hoped it camouflaged my expression of dazed, worshipful adoration.

“I’m pretty sure you’re Duane,” Claire said, then indicated me with a tilt of her head. “But Jess thinks you’re Beau.”

His eyes moved back to mine—somehow more intense, interested, and more piercing than they’d been before—and he swept me up and down again. On the return pass I saw what I thought might be appreciation, and that’s when I remembered I was wearing my ironic sexy Gandalf costume, which basically hid nothing except my face and hair.

The point of the costume was to irritate my daddy and Jackson, and amuse myself with delightful irony while doing so. I may no longer be the bratty teenager who left home four years ago, but I still enjoyed little tokens of rebellion against the overprotective males in my family. It hadn’t occurred to me until that very moment someone who mattered might look at me, my curves in this scrap of fabric, and see more sexy than irony.

“What’s this costume, Jessica? Are you a wizard?” His lips tugged to the side, but his tone deepened when he added, “I like it.”

The tenor of his voice paired with the words sent a new jolt racing through my body. But it was different than anything I’d felt in his proximity before. This wasn’t me going gaga for a childhood hero crush.

This feeling was…mature.

I gripped Claire tighter in surprise.

“She’s sexy Gandalf. She was going to be a sexy bee, but the shop sold out of pollinator costumes.”

Beau laughed—a sound that, for reasons unknown, I felt in my uterus—and reached for the beard at my navel. The back of his fingers brushed against my stomach as he plucked the length of synthetic facial hair from my inconsequential sheath of a costume.

“The beard adds a certain something…” He tugged just gently and winked at me.

Of course, my response was to stare at him mutely because the grin plus wink plus the light touch of his fingers meant I was terribly confused. Instead of outgrowing my crush, apparently I was now unwillingly compounding my adoration by adding new, very adult feelings. Some odd little corner of my brain briefly thought about the logistics of wearing this long white beard always, every day.

“Hey, if you tug her beard, she gets to tug yours,” Claire teased.

His smile growing, the redhead stepped forward and into my space, his eyes at half-mast as they glittered down at me. “Go ahead, Jessica…Touch it.”

He said my name like it was a secret. Beau’s words and nearness stole my breath.

I could smell him, and it just made me want to…want to…I don’t even know what. I’d had boyfriends before, guys I liked, but the sudden depth and breadth of my dirty, sordid thoughts took me by surprise and I felt a hot flood of confused alarm in my chest.