Tools of Engagement

Page 14

“Hi, Laura,” she greeted the child. “Are you enjoying the party—”

“Elsa!” Laura’s eyes lit up. “How come you don’t babysit me?”

It took Bethany a moment to recover from the odd rush of pleasure she experienced over the child recalling her. Even if she remembered her by the wrong name and as a Disney character whom she apparently resembled. “I . . . well, I leave that in more capable hands.”

Laura’s forehead wrinkled. “What?”

Wes patted the child’s knee. “What Elsa is trying to say, kid, is that she ain’t the babysitting type.”

“What type is she?”

“Less make-believe, more make-miserable.”

Bethany and Wes traded toothy smiles.

“Did you make that ice, Elsa?” Laura pointed past her shoulder at the frozen swans. “With your powers?”

Not wanting to disappoint, Bethany leaned in and whispered in her ear, “Yes, but you can’t tell anyone. Our secret, okay?”

“Okay,” she responded in a hushed tone, though her feet were kicking in tandem against Wes’s shoulders. “Uncle Wes, make her babysit. Please?”

Wes was looking at her in a quiet way that made her dumb stomach flutter. “I can’t make her do anything, kid.”

Bethany opened her mouth, then closed it just as fast. Was she really about to offer to babysit? She didn’t know the first thing about entertaining a child. No, it was definitely better to have Laura believe her to be a fictional princess than to bring that illusion crashing down. And it would. “Um.” She clasped her hands together at her waist. “The cake is coming soon. You don’t like cake, do you?”

“I love it!”

Having distracted Laura, Bethany let out a relieved breath, but it caught when she saw Wes was still watching her in that knowing manner. Like he was trying to navigate the landscape of her mind and was making headway.

Or thought he was.

Good luck, buddy. I can’t even find my own footing in there.


She turned to find Stephen approaching with a bottle of Sam Adams in his hand—and she braced herself. Her brother drinking alcohol was never a good thing. He seldom imbibed, usually sticking to energy drinks and smoothies. He couldn’t hold his liquor to save his life, either becoming competitive or so sentimental about the past it made everyone uncomfortable. He was well within his rights to drink on Georgie and Travis’s wedding day, but she couldn’t help but think, Here comes something stupid.

“Hey there, Stephen,” Bethany said, looking pointedly at the little girl sitting on Wes’s shoulders so her brother would remember not to curse.

“Hey there,” he repeated, snickering. “I want to introduce you to Travis’s agent, Donny, and his girlfriend.” He turned in a circle. “Hey, where’d they go?” He waved at someone in the distance, who indeed turned out to be the slick couple Bethany had seen arriving earlier. They were flashy Manhattan types, comfortable in their formalwear, and they extended their hands to Bethany with practiced ease.

“Donny Lynch,” started the agent, bringing the woman forward with a hand on the small of her back. “This is Justine, my girlfriend.”

“Thank you for coming,” Bethany said, shaking both of their hands. “So nice to meet you.”

Stephen tipped his beer bottle toward the dark-haired woman. “Justine is a television producer.”

Justine lifted a shoulder. “Guilty.”

“I’ve been telling her Brick and Morty is prime reality-show material.”

Bethany sighed. Didn’t she have enough on her mind tonight? The caterers were making passes with hors d’oeuvre trays, but she’d only spotted a single cocktail waiter and the sit-down dinner courses would start soon. One of a thousand things could go wrong at any second. “Um. Why is it reality-show material? Because of the family drama?”

Justine perked up. “Family drama?”

“No,” Stephen said firmly, lowering his beer bottle. “Because of our unrivaled craftsmanship. We blow those HGTV hacks out of the water.”

“Now that’s a stretch,” Wes said out of the side of his mouth.

“I see,” Bethany said, sipping her champagne.

“I’m still interested in the family drama,” Justine pressed with a wide smile. “I’m sure it’s unavoidable, right?”

“We managed to avoid it for a long time,” Stephen answered before Bethany could confirm that yes, family drama ran in their veins. Apparently the drama only affected those who didn’t get to make the rules. “We’d still be avoiding it if Bethany didn’t ditch the dream team for a vanity project.”

Bethany’s mouth fell open at his casual description of something that could make or break her. Prove she was as perfect as everyone assumed . . . or fallible. “Vanity project? Really?”

Wes whistled under his breath. “That’s not how I’d have put it.”

“You’ve broken rank, have you, Bethany?” Justine prompted casually.

Her laugh sounded unnatural. “I am leading my own flip, yes, but—”

“You’re flipping houses at the same time. In the same town.”

“Yes,” Bethany and Stephen responded at the same time.

Justine whipped out her cell phone and pressed the button on what looked like a voice memo app. “Brother and sister, dueling flips, only one will emerge victorious. We’ll call it Flip Off.”

“I’m sorry, what?” Bethany broke in, her nerves beginning to crackle. “There’s no competition.”

“Isn’t there?” Justine raised a brow. “Even unspoken?”

“I mean”—Stephen shrugged—“I was certainly planning on kicking your butt.”

Bethany shot a pleading look in Wes’s direction, but he seemed a little preoccupied glaring at Stephen. How weird. She returned her attention to her brother. “We are not doing this at our sister’s wedding.”

“What am I doing?” Stephen asked, slapping a hand to his chest—great, he’d decided to go with competitive and defensive. When it came to being annoying, drunk men were right up there with telemarketers and thirty-second advertisements in the middle of an internet video.

“I’ll tell you what you’re doing—” Wes started in on Stephen, but Bethany laid a hand on his arm to waylay whatever he was going to say.

“Look.” Bethany gave Justine her best smile, noting absently that Donny was scrolling through his emails. “There’s really nothing interesting going on. Just a difference of opinion between siblings. Happens every day.”

“Right.” Justine nodded. “Stephen thinks he’s the only game in town and your flip couldn’t possibly compete . . .”

“And I know that’s bull—” She winced in Laura’s direction. “Baloney.”

“You think your flip will earn a higher appraisal.”

Bethany knew she was being manipulated, but that knowledge didn’t stop her hackles from rising. Maybe it was being in their parents’ backyard, the scene of countless races and rivalries with her brother. Maybe it was the desperate need to believe in herself out loud, since she couldn’t do it on the inside. But with all eyes on her and the producer’s question hanging in the air, Bethany heard herself say, “I know it will.”

Stephen sputtered. “You’re on.”

Wes dragged a hand down his face.

Laura mimicked him.

“Let’s see. Today is Sunday. If I manage to move a few mountains, I can have cameras at both properties on Wednesday morning. I’ll just need your contact information so my assistant can send you the details.” Justine tapped notes into her cell phone. “There will be some waivers and insurance, blah blah, but I know my boss is going to go nuts for this.”

“Flip Off is a great title,” Donny murmured without looking up from his phone. “Edgy. Cool. Good work, babe.”

“This is all happening so fast,” Bethany breathed.

“Yeah,” Wes spoke up. “Maybe we should talk about this?”

“Who is he?” Justine’s gaze ricocheted between Wes and Bethany. “Is this the boyfriend? Husband? What’s the connection?”

“That’s what I’d like to know,” Stephen thundered. “Actually, never mind. Please don’t tell me. My little sister literally just married my best friend.”

“He’s my foreman,” Bethany stated, handing Wes his hat back finally. How long had she been holding it? “That’s all.”

“He’s being a damn fool over her,” Laura said brightly, intercepting the hat and plopping it on her head.

Justine fanned herself. “Oh, this is gold.”

Bethany snorted, mentally sidetracked by what Laura had said. Was that something Wes had said out loud? Did he talk to his niece about her? Why did that make her insides feel like they’d been coated in warm wax? “I-it’s just run-of-the-mill family politics—”

“I assure you it’s not. You’re interesting, not to mention very attractive. Viewers like watching good-looking people sweat.” Justine paused the million-miles-an-hour typing on her phone. “There will be a prize, too, of course.”

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