Casually, Wes picked up the phone and navigated over to his text messages, reading aloud. “Three forty-seven P.M., yesterday. ‘Laura won’t eat her granola bar.’ My reply: ‘Tell her she can dip it in pudding.’” Wes caught a hint of a smile curving Bethany’s mouth before she reinvested herself in the sample book. “A day earlier: ‘Laura claims you let her watch Judge Judy.’ My reply: ‘You’re damn right I do.’ Real scandalous stuff here, Bethany.”
“Those are Laura’s babysitters.”
“Call them what they are. Heroes.”
She flicked him a surprised glance. “It’s nice of you to acknowledge them like that.”
“Before you go giving me credit, please know I have them listed in my phone as”—he scrolled through his most recent texts—“Green Bean Casserole, Outlander Ringtone—”
“How did you recognize the Outlander ringtone?”
“She told me when I asked. And now I know way too much about a redhead named Jamie.” He shook his head. “Faded Calf Tattoo—she’s my favorite—and Let’s Color. She’s always got a fresh pack of Crayons holstered like some kind of blue-haired gunslinger.”
Bethany was having a harder time not smiling now and Wes was enjoying the hell out of watching her fight the amusement. “I fear you’ve made the classic male error of assuming women aren’t in a constant state of evolution. What happens if Outlander Ringtone switches to The Crown theme song, or Faded Calf Tattoo starts wearing her winter jeans?”
Now he hadn’t really considered that, but Bethany had a point. He’d never been around a woman long enough to watch one evolve, but he reckoned they must. Hell, he’d been a bull rider until early this fall and now he was a substitute dad. If that wasn’t an evolution, he didn’t know the meaning of the word.
Had Bethany evolved?
Would she evolve after he left?
Wes shooed away the weird tightening in his throat. “And here I thought my nickname system was foolproof.”
“Good thing you don’t have my number.” She flipped the page a little quickly. “I’d hate to find out what I’d be listed under.”
“Who says I don’t have your number?”
Her blue gaze slowly met his and he was momentarily hypnotized by the lighter flecks just around her pupil. “Excuse me? You do have my number?”
“Faded Calf Tattoo coughed it up.” He winked. “Told you she was my favorite.”
“Marjorie?” She gasped. “She’s a retired human resources manager.”
Wes stretched his legs out. “Ethics are no match for charm, darlin’.”
“Oh, shut up.” She eyed his phone, looked away, came back. “How am I listed?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
She drummed her nails on the tile samples for several seconds. “Fine.” Her spine ironed out. “Doesn’t matter to me anyway.”
“I can see that,” he drawled.
Captain Foot in Mouth materialized in front of them. “Are you finding everything okay? Can I help or make suggestions?”
“We’re good,” Wes and Bethany said at the same time.
Off he went again.
Wes watched Bethany pet a square of gray-and-white speckled tile while he played back their conversation. By asking who had been texting him, she’d definitely been fishing to find out if he was dating, although she’d probably go with an orange-and-lime-green theme in the bathroom before admitting even a remote interest. Still, it was progress. Maybe he could make some more.
“Marjorie is coming to the wedding on Sunday,” Bethany murmured, almost to herself. “I’ll look forward to teasing her about being susceptible to cowboys.”
“All my babysitters are going to the wedding. Had to take Laura out shopping for a fancy dress so I could bring her along.”
Bethany turned those sparkling eyes on him again and his stomach rippled. “What kind of dress did she pick?”
He fought off a wave of uncertainty over his styling abilities—of which he had few. “I don’t know.” His shrug was jerky. “We bought some pink deal.”
“Pink. That’s all you’ve got?”
“It has sleeves.”
“Oh. Well.” She shook her head at Wes and he cursed himself for not spending more time on Google before taking Laura shopping. Sue him for being overwhelmed by the astronomical number of websites dedicated to children’s fashion. Bethany didn’t seem inclined to take him to task over his ineptitude, but he was surprised when she asked, “Do you have any idea when Laura’s mother is coming back to Port Jefferson?”
“No. Soon, probably,” he said too quickly.
She studied him a moment. “You don’t sound confident in that.”
He swallowed. “That might be because . . . I’m not.” Wes wasn’t used to the soft way Bethany was looking at him and he caught himself leaning closer before she could notice. “I just wish she’d give me a call. For Laura’s sake.”
There was a slight scratch to Bethany’s voice when she responded. “Of course you do,” she said, shifting in her seat. “In the meantime, my mom will make a huge deal out of Laura at the wedding. She misses us being miniature.”
When he would have made a crack about her being old, this time he zipped it.
“So I’ve got my date for Sunday,” Wes said slowly, a truly hideous thought occurring to him. “What about you, Bethany? You bringing some chump in a designer suit?”
“Maybe.” She hoisted a blond eyebrow. “How will you pay him back for my drinks this time? It’s an open bar.”
Wes ground his back teeth.
“Relax, cowboy. I’m still on my man hiatus.” She turned another page. “Not that it’s any of your business.”
He begged to differ. “What exactly prompted this hiatus?”
“The realization that men are so simplistic they keep women listed in their phones under names like Let’s Color.”
“Jesus, Bethany. I know her name is Donna. Sue me for cheating a little with reminders after you introduced me to forty women of roughly the same age and physical description in one night.”
He was referring to the evening the Just Us League got wind of him, a single twenty-three-year-old man taking care of a child on his own, and they’d arrived on his doorstep like Port Jefferson’s version of FEMA. He’d woken up the next day wondering if he’d dreamed middle-aged women organizing his underwear drawer, but no. His jocks were now rolled up in balls according to color.
She pursed her lips and cut him a look. “I’m . . . sorry. For that one little assumption, nothing else.”
“Well, shit.” He kicked up his boot, crossing it over the opposite knee. “Are pigs flying outside?”
Bethany didn’t respond right away. “I’m on hiatus because my last boyfriend cheated on me. When I caught him texting one of his theater students, he told me I was distant and cold. Basically it was my fault. It wasn’t the first time that had happened with a boyfriend, either. In fact, it was becoming something of a pattern. And I guess I need a little time to recover before trying again. If I try again. Are we even now?”
Fire ants crawled up his throat. How badly had she been hurt to swear off men? Had she been in love with these pieces of shit? “I didn’t need you to cut yourself down to size for me. I’d never ask that or enjoy it.”
“You’d rather do it for me?”
“I’m just giving as good as I get, darlin’. Sounds like you picked men who couldn’t keep up like I do.” A pink blush stained her cheeks and there it was, that same way she’d looked at him Monday morning, when she’d felt his cock between her legs. Her lips parted and she appeared to be controlling her breathing with a hard-fought effort. Those blue eyes swam with awareness and caution—a combination that made his jeans all the more confining. “I’ll show you how I’ve got you listed in my phone if you dance with me at the wedding on Sunday.”
She snapped out of her trance with a scoff. “Forget it.”
He waved his phone. “Sure about that?”
A few beats passed. “One dance?”
“If you can pry yourself off me afterward.”
“I think I’ll manage.” She plucked the phone out of his hand between her finger and thumb, looking all prim and sexy as she scrolled. “Bethany Motherfucking Castle,” she read, wrinkling her nose. “Is that meant to be a negative connotation or a positive one?”
“I said I’d let you look. Didn’t say I’d explain.”
Cogs turned behind her eyes. “Well, I suppose since you have my number and we’re flipping a house together, I should probably have your number, too.”
She sifted through her purse and extricated her phone, trailing her finger in zigzags over the screen before arriving at her contacts. She punched in a few letters before sliding it in front of him.
“Cute,” said Wes, typing in his number under the heading Send to Voicemail.