“So Cletus told me I needed to change one thing every day. He wasn’t specific about what I should change, just that I should decide on the one thing myself.”
I continued. “At first I didn’t see the purpose, but—do you know?—Cletus was right. Something as trivial as paining my nails a different color made me feel like I could do anything I set my mind to.”
I continued. “Cletus also said-”
Billy cleared his throat. “Do you go to the jam session much? I think I’ve only seen you here a handful of times.”
“I don’t, actually. I’d like to, but Saturdays are busy. I’m usually making special orders on Friday night. I’ve heard you sing a few times, though. You should do it more often, you have such a nice voice.”
Billy smiled again, his eyes sliding to me then away. “Thank you.”
“And Cletus is amazing on the banjo. Last year he did a folksy version of Thriller, during Halloween. It was spectacular.”
Conversation was surprisingly easy with Billy Winston, once I stopped being afraid of saying the wrong thing. Instead of worrying, I just said whatever I wanted. He wasn’t a big talker, other than asking me questions, so I filled the silence. Sometimes what I said made him laugh. Sometimes it made him nod. Sometimes it made him cough.
But usually whatever I said made him smile. And that was nice. He was nice.
He pulled his truck into the community center lot and it was clear the jam session was already in full swing. The evening was chilly, so folks were dressed in coats.
I pulled my shawl over my shoulders and Billy opened my door, helping me from the car. I slipped my fingers back into the crook of his elbow while trying to suppress a new, and more powerful, flutter of excitement as we approached the community center.
I wondered if Cletus would be there. I wondered what he would think of my dress, and my hair in a bun, and my purposefully minimal makeup, and my nail polish. Even though I was nervous, I grinned at the thought.
“What are you smiling about?” Billy asked, giving me the side eye.
“I’m nervous,” I answered honestly, feeling breathless, then asked before I could catch myself, “Do you think Cletus is here?”
Billy’s mouth tugged to the side and he studied my face. “I’m sure he is. Why?”
“I wonder what he’ll think of my dress,” I admitted excitedly.
Billy chuckled and shook his head.
“What? What is it?” I pressed, searching his profile for a sign as to why he was laughing.
He pulled us to a stop and faced me. “Since this is a practice date, do you want me to give you a tip?”
I nodded eagerly. “Yes, please. All tips are welcome.”
“Okay. Here goes,” he gathered large breath, like he was bracing himself, and said, “When you’re on a date with a man, it’s probably best not to bring up a different man.”
My lips parted as my face fell. “I’m sorry. I keep talking about your brother.”
“No, no. It’s fine.” He reached for my hand and squeezed it. “This is a practice, no need to apologize. I’m not upset. But if this were a real date, you bringing up Cletus and wondering what he’s going to think of your dress would definitely rub me the wrong way. If I’m on a date, I want that woman to be thinking only of me. Does that make sense?”
I nodded, because it did make sense. “Just like, I probably wouldn’t like it—if this were a real date—if you kept bringing up other woman.”
“That’s right.” He moved my hand back to his arm. “You’ll want to keep the conversation about the two of you.”
I considered things as we walked. “Thank you, Billy.”
“For what?” He opened the double door for me, placing his hand on the small of my back to usher me inside. The entryway was full of people, but I hardly noticed them.
“Thanks for doing this, and for the tip. Thanks for sacrificing your Friday night.”
Billy covered my fingers on his arm with his hand. “It’s not a sacrifice, Jennifer.”
“Well, it can’t be pleasant.”
He grinned again and gave me an incredulous look.
“What? What did I do this time? Do you have more tips?” I needed to know. I hoped he filled the whole night with tips, so I would be an expert when the time came for a real date.
Billy’s grin faded as his piercing blue eyes moved over my face. If he’d done this just last week I think I would’ve fainted on the spot, mortified and terrified and assured of my own failure.
But so much had changed in a week. I wasn’t afraid of him anymore. I was changing, becoming braver. So I met his glacial eyes straight on and lifted my eyebrows encouragingly.
“You can tell me, whatever it is,” I whispered earnestly, stepping closer. “Like I said, all tips welcome.”
Finally, he said, “You have no idea how gorgeous you are, do you?”
I gaped at him, because that was not what I’d expected him to say.
But before I could recover, a stern voice to my left interjected. “She has no idea whatsoever.”
I turned and found Cletus standing at my shoulder. Startled, I stumbled a step to the side so I could see him better. What I found surprised me.
His jaw was clenched.
His mouth was curved into a frown.
And Cletus’ eyes, a dangerous and fiery blue, were narrowed on his brother.
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