Like all fans of the Winston Brothers series by Penny Reid, I’ve been awaiting the release of Beard With Me (the origin story of the series) with equal parts excitement and trepidation. I knew this would be a sad story, and part of me really did not want to read it - a big part of me. But I needed to read it - I needed to know why Billy Winston and Scarlet St. Claire (aka Claire McClure) were not together. I needed to know their history even if it was not pretty. Well, as it turns out, parts of their history are beautiful. Other parts are tragic.
Penny Reid has stated that Beard with Me is not a romance, it is a tragic love story. She also lets us know that it has some triggers - especially child abuse - to an extreme. So readers, be warned. However, those of us who have read voraciously through the series know that what happens to Billy and Scarlet is ugly. That part wasn’t a surprise although knowing didn’t make it any easier to read. The part that was a surprise was how lovely Billy and Scarlet’s story is.
Scarlet St. Clair is the daughter of the leader of the Iron Wraiths (Razor St. Clair). The Iron Wraiths is a nasty motorcycle gang that terrorizes Green Valley, Tennessee. Scarlet tries to distance herself from the Wraiths (and other Wraith offspring) but all the other kids in school avoid her out of fear. She is currently living in the woods deep behind the Winston homestead - alone at school, alone in the woods. Build a wall. One brick at a time. Don’t let anything in.
Billy Winston is the star quarterback and handsomest guy in school. He’s also working at the local mill, studying hard to get into college, helping his mom raise his five younger siblings, repairing the rundown house in his spare time, and doing everything he can to protect his younger siblings from their father, second-in-command of the Iron Wraiths.
Billy comes across Scarlet in the woods and knows this is trouble. He can’t have Razor’s daughter camping on his property as it will just invite trouble from the Wraiths. She needs to go. But then Billy realizes that Scarlet needs help and he can’t walk away, especially after he hears her sing. Can Billy somehow keep Scarlet safe? Continue to keep his family safe? Follow his dream to go to college? How about after he falls in love with Scarlet?
Billy Winston is beyond heroic. And he’s sixteen years old. He has so many balls in the air, so many people counting on him. Penny Reid has written the ultimate hero in Billy - smart, kind, handsome, funny, talented, and willing to do anything, anything to protect Scarlet and his family. My heart just ached for him.
My determination wavered at this last thought, of Scarlet anywhere but here. It had only been a week, just a handful of hours, but I knew without a doubt I’d miss her if she left. I will miss her. I redoubled my resolve. She deserved someone looking out for her first, someone who’d set aside selfishness for her sake. So, yeah, I would keep her safe, even if it meant sending her away. I would. I will. Whatever it takes.
Scarlet is equally amazing. Here’s a kid (fourteen) who has been given nothing in life, yet who is still kind and loving. She is distrustful of people but willing to give them a chance. Her dreams are small (a house with a kitchen where she can cook) but she is still able to dream. And after what she’s been through, that’s amazing.
She deserved so much better than the hand she’d been dealt. Maybe her struggles had made her strong, resilient, but she didn't deserve to be burdened with them. I loved her voice when she sang, but I suspected her spirit eclipsed it as my favorite thing about her. It was a miracle her father’s abuse hadn’t dulled her stunning spirit.
There are some amazingly beautiful parts to Beard with Me. The scenes with just Billy and Scarlet are so lovely, both of them being so open with the other. They are young and, remember, this is not a romance. But, it is clear to the reader that this is love - that Billy and Scarlet complete each other.
This was the best sound. Singing with Billy Winston and his guitar while fighting laughter. Never in my life had I been so happy. Never in my life had I imagined or dreamed such happiness was possible. And nothing existed beyond right now, this moment, and Billy’s smile.
There are spots of the great Penny Reid wit in Beard with Me but in the end, this is a tragedy. I’ve heard some readers say this series is too light or happy, and if you just read the first book or two, that may appear true. But by books three and four, it is clear that there is an underlying mystery at work here, that the story is much deeper and heavier than we thought. By book five, the series has gone a little telenovela or, as my daughters said when they read it, ‘shit hits the fan’. And Ms. Reid has been dropping hints all along the way about where we are heading. Brilliant.
It was a treat to see the Winston siblings as teenagers and younger. Readers of the series will enjoy more of Bethany’s insights (clearly that woman was a sage and a saint), Roscoe’s adorableness, Ashley’s sweetness, and Beau and Duane’s antics. We also get a good look at a younger Cletus and are given a much better understanding of the events that defined him. Oh, Cletus…
I still have questions I’d like to ask Ms. Reid after reading Beard with Me. What happens after Scarlet leaves? Is Ben a creep or a saint? And what the heck is wrong with Jethro; does he really think he is protecting the family? Hopefully book seven will have the answers.
This is not a stand-alone book (unless you like stories that end on a sad note). Beard with Me tells Winston Brother fans the background we need (and desperately want) to know about why Billy and Scarlet have been avoiding each other and their obvious feelings for each other for five books. The series needs to be read in order, as all the events are leading to the final book, Beard Necessities, which will be released in November. I’m equally excited and afraid for the next book too. Oh, Penny Reid, don’t let me down!!! In the meantime, I’m rereading the first five books in preparation - looking for those hints so cleverly placed along the way.
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