Stephen crossed his arms. “What about a title?”
“Why, whoever wins will be the Flipping King or Queen of Port Jefferson. Crowned on television and everything.”
Oh, dammit. Justine had them.
They were way too immature to turn down a shot at those bragging rights.
Bethany should not do this. The house they were flipping was a certified wreck with a fucking rat colony, in far worse condition that Stephen’s, and her lack of experience already had them at a disadvantage. She was on shaky ground when it came to her abilities to turn the house into a livable home, let alone an award-winning one. A home that people would see dissected on television.
She would be dissected on television, along with her talent for construction.
Or lack thereof.
Stephen and Bethany traded measuring looks.
Scared? mouthed her brother.
The dare twisted in the side of her neck like a corkscrew. “Nope,” she drawled, sounding a little like Wes. “We’re going to put you to shame.”
Stephen reared back with a harsh laugh. “It’s on.”
“Bring it, bozo.”
Bethany turned on a heel and left her audience gaping after her.
She made it around the corner of the house before she succumbed to the inundation of sheer, utter panic.
Wes had no trouble finding someone to keep an eye on Laura for a few minutes, since all four of her rotating babysitters were present at the wedding reception. As soon as his niece disappeared into a flurry of floral perfume and chiffon, he stalked off into the darkness where he’d seen Bethany disappear.
He was going to give her hell.
What in God’s name was she thinking signing them up to be guinea pigs for a new reality show? They had two senior-citizen crew members, no blueprints, and a decaying shell of a house to make presentable. They were looking at months of work and a shit ton of setbacks. He’d been prepared to tackle all of it head-on, but not with a camera in his face.
Or her face.
That’s what annoyed him the most—the thought of a film crew following Bethany around and catching all her little idiosyncrasies like fireflies in a jar. Sending out her image to thousands upon thousands of televisions. His back teeth ground together at the idea of her being consumed by anyone but him.
Wes stopped short and ran a hand through his hair, realizing he’d left his hat on Laura’s head. Before he confronted Bethany and asked her if she’d lost her ever-loving mind, he needed to get his shit together and stop thinking like a jealous boyfriend.
Sure, he was protective of her. Possessive, too. He put it down to a combination of respecting Bethany and being attracted to her, more than he’d ever been attracted to anyone. But his heart was not involved. It couldn’t be. If she chose to broadcast herself to households all across the country, there was nothing he could do about it—and furthermore, he didn’t have a say in that decision.
So rein it the fuck in, man.
Wes started toward the back of the house again, toward where he’d watched Bethany vanish. All right, he wouldn’t bitch at her about the cameras and make her believe him an even bigger chauvinist than she already did, but she was sure as hell going to hear about entering the contest, period. They weren’t prepared and—
Was that wheezing?
Wes spurred into a jog and turned the corner into mostly darkness, but there was just enough light from the festivities to see Bethany’s doubled-over form leaning against the house. His next step crunched some leaves and she straightened with a gasp, her hands immediately fluttering up to smooth her hair.
“Sorry.” Her voice was hoarse. “Sorry, is someone looking for me?”
She tried to breeze past Wes, but he caught her around the waist, bringing her close so he could study her face. No sign of tears, but her skin was flushed, eyes bright. Too bright. “Hey. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I’m fine.” She blew out a breath. “I’m going to head back.”
She rested a hesitant hand on his shoulder, contradicting her words.
Wes’s throat tightened. Just what exactly had he stumbled upon here? Bethany Castle was supposed to be cool as a cucumber, in charge, infallible. Not hyperventilating in private. “See, I was thinking of collecting that dance.”
Disbelief tackled him when Bethany seemed almost relieved, her other hand sliding up onto his other shoulder, meeting its mate behind Wes’s neck. If he breathed the wrong way, the moment was going to blow away like pieces of a dandelion, so Wes oh-so-carefully placed his hands on Bethany’s hips and eased her closer. She let him, her still-shallow breaths bathing his throat. “I know it looked like I was upset, but I wasn’t. I was just . . .”
He grazed the top of her head with his cheek. “You don’t have to say anything. Not unless you want to.”
“You’re learning, cowboy.”
“I’m learning how to say the right thing. Not necessarily think it.”
Oh Jesus, did he love holding her like this. All of her weight leaned on him, her mouth near his neck, belly cushioning his lap. He was getting a hard-on and knew she could feel it, but she seemed inclined to excuse what his body couldn’t help. Not with her so close, so pliant. Watching her walk down the aisle earlier in her short green silk dress, Wes hadn’t taken so much as a breath. Never mind what the whole getup did for her body, cupping and draping in places he shouldn’t be thinking about during a religious ceremony. With light shining down on her smiling face, she’d been . . . angelic.
For a split second, just a split second, he’d pictured her walking that same aisle in a wedding gown, and, hours later, he was still confused by the pressure around his windpipe. He couldn’t account for it. Marriage wasn’t for him. His life was a series of temporary situations and had been since he could remember. This—his life in Port Jefferson—was definitely temporary. Bethany’s life here was permanent, however, which meant she might very well walk down the aisle in white one day. And that thought kept replaying in his head like an aggravating pop song on repeat.
Wes brushed his thumb across her bare shoulder and she sighed, drawing his brows together. More than anything, he wanted to continue dancing with her like this, in the quiet privacy, savoring their truce, but something was bothering her. Enough to send her running from the wedding into hiding. He couldn’t force her to tell him what exactly was wrong, but maybe he could make her feel better.
Yeah, he wanted that more than anything.
“You know, we can still turn down this whole reality-show nonsense.”
Bethany laughed into his shoulder and he closed his eyes, tugging her just a little closer and praying he got away with it. “Thank you for toning down what you actually want to say.” She looked up at him. “You were coming back here to yell at me for being an impulsive idiot, weren’t you?”
Her low laugh wreaked havoc in his chest. “Go ahead. No one’s stopping you.”
“I’d rather know why you accepted the offer if it stresses you out.”
“I . . .” She seemed to be searching for an answer while staring at his throat. “I’m not sure there is one thing that doesn’t stress me out.”
He continued to turn them in a slow circle. “Grocery shopping?”
“Sure. A good hostess always has the right items on hand at all times. The Just Us League meetings are held at my house, and dairy allergies, gluten-free diets, vegan regimes . . . all of them have to be accounted for.”
“All right. How about baths? Those can’t stress you out.”
“Not if I add the right amount of essential oil.”
“Sex? Are you kidding me?” She wet her lips. “How is my lighting, is the man present, can he tell I’m not present, am I really as cold as men say because I can’t lose myself in these moments, is this creating an expectation, how does my butt look, where is his dog? I could go on.” A beat passed. “I shouldn’t be telling you any of this. You’re just going to use it against me.”
Damn. How did she make everyone think she had the world on a string when, in actuality, the world was holding her by one? Wes put his surprise aside and tipped her chin up. “I hereby solemnly swear to use nothing you said tonight against you.” His fingers spread out to span her jaw, his thumb sliding across her bottom lip. “I’ll just say this. If you’ve had time to think of all that bullshit during sex in the past, I completely understand the man hiatus you’re on.”
One of her hands smoothed down Wes’s chest and he held in a groan. “Are you implying you’d wipe my mind clean”—she lifted on her toes and brought her lips within a breath of his—“of all those distracting thoughts?”
“I’m flat-out telling you, Bethany . . .” He ghosted his mouth over hers, tasting her uneven exhale on his tongue. “I’d keep you too busy to think.”
She pressed her belly more securely to his lap. “Too bad sex is off the table.”
“Weddings don’t count.” He tilted his hips to let her feel his arousal, grazing her bottom lip with his teeth at the same time. “Everyone knows that.”