Tools of Engagement

Page 19

“Cut!” called the director. “Did we get our before shots? Inside and out?”

“Still need to get the master!” a disembodied voice called from behind the blinding lights. “Backyard, too. Give us ten.”

“Great.” Justine made some notes on her clipboard. “We have to get across town for Stephen’s introduction, so let’s get some good demo footage. After that, we need some individual on-camera interviews with Wes and Bethany, together and separate. We’ll be doing this frequently to get your reactions.”

“To what?” Wes wanted to know.

“To everything. Construction progress, tension among the crew . . .” Justine looked around. “Speaking of your crew, do you have one?”

“That would be us, ma’am.”

Bethany shielded her eyes from the light, ducking down until she brought two senior-citizen men into view. One had a pair of cheater glasses tucked into the collar of his shirt; the other one appeared to be rubbing a bum leg.

Cheater Glasses waved at her, accidentally bumping his friend with a stray elbow. Which led to them griping at each other. “Didn’t know we were going to be on TV,” said Cheater Glasses. “I’m not going to be required to carry anything, am I? My back isn’t what it used to be.”

Back teeth grinding together, Bethany looked at Wes. “Where did you find them?”

He avoided making eye contact. “The hardware store.”

She stared.

“There’s a system,” he said curtly. “You’re not meant to understand it.”

“And thank God for that.”

Justine approached her, head buried in her clipboard. “Right. We’ll bring in some interns to help . . . flesh out your amazing crew. Note my sarcasm.”

Heat swamped Bethany’s face. The operation was already showing cracks, meaning she was showing them. It’s already happening. “We’d appreciate that, thanks.”

Justine sailed away, muttering something about rounding out the Grumpy Old Men franchise into a trilogy. Before Wes could introduce her to Cheater Glasses and Bum Leg, one of the college-age production assistants approached her with a sledgehammer. “Miss Castle, if you could come with me, please? We want to check the lighting on the wall you plan on demolishing first.”

She accepted the heavy tool. “Right. Which wall is that?”

The young man blinked. “You don’t have a starting point?”

“Oh, me? I have a starting point. Sure.” Bethany turned in a circle, the sledgehammer rebounding off her calf muscle. “That one?” She pointed at the water-damaged living room wall, consulting with Wes out of the corner of her eye. When he gave her an imperceptible nod, she let out the breath she’d been holding. “Yes, that one.”


Off went the PA, already throwing hand signals to the mobile lighting crew.

“So I’m just supposed to bury this hammer into the wall?” she whispered to Wes. “Just . . . make a mess? No exact science to it?”

“Not for this particular wall, no. There’s no plumbing, gas lines—I came through last week and marked them.” He indicated the orange spray-painted Xs in the kitchen and dining room that she’d neglected to notice until now. “We’ve got three load-bearing walls: one in the living room, one in the back bedroom, and the other in the hallway, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Load-bearing walls? Gas lines? If Wes weren’t here, she could have started a fire or collapsed the roof on day one. What had she been thinking agreeing to have this process broadcasted? What had she been thinking taking on this flip at all? Bethany wrangled her runaway panic and tried to focus on the here and now. “Okay. What if I hit the wall and it doesn’t even crack?”

“Bethany, you could probably flick a rubber band at that wall and it would cave faster than my niece when I accuse her of stealing cookies.”

Still . . . “Maybe you should demo the wall.”

Wes turned, giving his back to the room full of people and blocking her from sight. “You wanted to get dirty, Bethany. Lead your own project. That’s why we’re here. Now that it’s time to get started you’ve got stage fright? Shake it off.”

Easier for the rough-and-tumble cowboy to say. No one expected him to get through life without a single misstep. People had expectations for her and she couldn’t simply disregard her need to fulfill them. “When I made the decision to do this . . . I-I didn’t expect so many people to see me dirty.”

“Look here, darlin’. You’re the one who decided to compete with Stephen. This reality-show bullshit is on you.”

Heat wove its way up the back of her neck. “Does it really seem like a good time to remind me of that?”

“The perfect time, actually,” he said without hesitation. “It won’t hurt to be a little pissed when you swing that hammer.”

Bethany tilted her head. “That’s why you riled me up, isn’t it?” She waited but he said nothing. “You did the same thing when I was getting emotional at Georgie and Travis’s rehearsal dinner. Irritated me until I stopped tearing up—”

“I irritate you because it’s fun,” he said, chuckling. “No other reason.”

She narrowed her eyes at Wes’s odd tone. He seemed almost nervous over her believing there could be more to the timing of his ribbing. There was no time to analyze Wes’s reaction too deeply, however, because the director was watching them impatiently near the wall they’d designated as the first to go. “Okay, Bethany. Our production schedule is tight. Let’s make this a good take.”

Sledgehammer in hand and goggles in place, she swallowed and stepped into the brightly illuminated space. Through the refracted lens, she could see two dozen pairs of eyes on her, the stillness of the bodies making her stomach flip-flop. They were waiting. Watching her do something she hadn’t perfected. Oh God. They would be witnessing her employ untested skills for two weeks. They were going to know she was out of her element, a fraud, starting now. She didn’t have entertaining skills or the perfect outfit to fall back on. It was just her and a hammer—and two cameras capturing her every move.

When the director coughed, she turned to face the wall and ordered her arms to lift the sledgehammer. But nothing happened. Her hands started to shake on the wooden handle, her mouth losing all moisture. I’m going to be sick.

“Turn off the cameras,” Wes said.

“Excuse me? I’m not—”

“I said turn them off.” A presence warmed her back. Wes. His palm skimmed down her forearm and settled on her hand where it gripped the handle. “Hey.”

“Hey,” she whispered back.

“What’s wrong?” he asked into her hair.

Bethany couldn’t come up with a lie. It wasn’t merely the wall that had left her stalled out—it was the whole job. The whole house that surrounded them and what it meant. A test of her mettle. A barrier she would normally avoid, for fear she would run into it headfirst. It was just like her relationships with men. As soon as her past boyfriends started to become suspicious that she wasn’t Mary Make It Look Effortless, the persona she’d sold them, she started pulling back. Dodging calls, canceling dates, until they burned her by cheating or breaking up via an impersonal text.

It was almost a relief when that happened.

There was no more fear of being discovered.

She could start over again with a fresh slate and pretend like the last relationship never happened. But a house was different. It was forever. It was visible proof of her efforts and what they could yield. It couldn’t be erased by changing her status on Facebook and purging a handful of pictures.

“I’m really afraid to be bad at this,” she said now, the confession leaving her mouth unchecked. “At anything. It scares me. Like, a lot.”

“Great. Do it anyway.”

She huffed a laugh.

“If people were good at everything on the first try, they wouldn’t appreciate the journey to getting better,” he murmured against her ear, his fingers trailing back and forth across her knuckles. “Why are you really here?”

She wet her lips. “Because I want to prove I can . . . I want to know if I can do more than make things pretty. I’m getting too comfortable staying in my lane and . . . I never get a sense of accomplishment anymore. Everything always could have been better. Always. Maybe if I push and do something harder . . . I’ll feel it again.”

Somehow, she could sense his thoughtfulness. It was nice having someone shoulder her inadequacy issues for a few seconds. Even though she would surely regret telling him these personal things any time now.



“Your brother fucks up constantly.”

She perked up. “What?”

“You heard me. On our last job, he didn’t measure the bathroom door’s swing correctly, so it smacked off the toilet every time we opened it. Same job, he damn near electrocuted himself putting in the basement track lighting. The man yelped like a poodle who’d gotten his tail stepped on. And how many flips do you reckon he’s done?”

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