She beamed. “Now you do it.”
He did it terribly on purpose. “I can’t compete. You’re the master.”
“Thanks.” His niece crawled up under his arm and laid her head on his chest. “We don’t glue macaroni to paper at school anymore. We have iPads now.”
Instead of addressing her implication that he was out of touch, Wes looked down at the top of Laura’s head, frozen. This was new. She’d never cuddled up to him before.
Unsure exactly how to proceed, he relaxed his arm around her shoulders, settled them in as a unit, and went back to watching the television. If there was a weird flip in the middle of his chest, he ignored it. Probably just fatigue or something.
Bethany walked through her living room, toothbrush stuck in her mouth. Using one hand to scrub her pearly whites, she ran the admiring, opposite hand over the jeweled throw pillows that decorated her couch. She wiggled her toes in her thick white carpet and sighed happily, moving the brush to her back teeth and cleaning them with a vigorous circling of bristles.
Tonight’s Just Us League meeting was set to begin in an hour. Their official positivity whiteboard was arranged at the perfect angle in the living room, and the blinds were drawn to an optimal position, allowing in the right amount of Saturday evening light, made hazy by late-fall weather. Champagne flutes were arranged on the kitchen island, waiting to be filled with bubbly. She’d lit a candy-apple candle upon returning from her hair appointment, and the interior of her home called to mind a small-town harvest festival.
“God, I’m good,” she said, the words garbled by her toothbrush. A dribble of white foam cascaded down her chin and she swiped it away. “Ew, Beth.”
She jogged up the stairs to her en suite bathroom, the glowing flicker of her favorite vanilla candles swaying against the white tile, before she spit into the sink and wiped her mouth. She turned her good side to the mirror and smiled, giving her blond hair a gentle tousle.
“Welcome, everyone. What smell? Oh, the candle? I picked it up at an outdoor bazaar in the Hamptons while shopping for artwork to stage our latest flip.” She leaned close to the mirror and ran her tongue along her top row of teeth. “Glamorous? Me? No. You’re so sweet.”
She pushed away from her marble vanity, turning on her big toe and entering the bedroom. Two outfits were laid out on the bed. A cream-colored cashmere sweater that left one shoulder bare, paired with black leather leggings. And a red turtleneck dress. Since she usually wore the former with boots and wouldn’t be leaving the house, she went with option one and slipped on a pair of gold ballet flats to complement the ensemble.
“You’ll do,” she whispered, looking over her reflection with a critical eye. “You’ve worn this before, though.”
Bethany scratched at the side of her neck on her way into the walk-in closet. Her pulse started to hammer beneath her fingertips and she forced herself to stop scratching before she left red marks. She didn’t have time for an outfit change now. Georgie and Rosie would be arriving any minute to help set up for the meeting—
The front door opened and closed downstairs, the voices of her younger sister and their best friend drifting up the stairs.
She took a centering deep breath. “Be there in just a minute!” she called cheerfully, yanking hangers off the racks and running a mental checklist of the outfits she’d worn since the inception of their women-powered support group. If the members knew she was agonizing over her outfit, they would laugh at her. Tell her she was being silly. Heck, some of them wore variations of the same ensemble to every meeting, didn’t they?
They weren’t Bethany Castle, though.
No. They were a hell of a lot more authentic.
Realizing she was scratching at her neck again, Bethany forced herself to stop, finding a silk emerald-green tunic at the back of her closet with the tags still hanging from the wrist. She snapped them off and pulled the garment over her head, speed-walking toward the stairs. Before descending, she tucked her hair artfully behind one ear and fanned the irritated skin at her neck. Then, fingertips casually trailing down the banister, she greeted Georgie and Rosie with a smile. “You ladies look like I need a cocktail.”
Georgie laughed from her perch on the kitchen stool. “On it,” she said, popping the cork from a chilling bottle of champagne Bethany had arranged in a silver bucket beside the flutes.
“I’m on food,” Rosie called, sticking a tray of something delicious looking into the oven. “Beth, we need to have a serious talk about Georgie.”
“I’m right here,” Georgie protested. “You can’t miss me.”
“Let me guess.” Bethany accepted a glass of champagne and took a small sip. “This is bachelorette party related.”
Rosie nodded. “She won’t commit to a plan. She’s noncommittal.”
Georgie threw up her hands, splashing champagne onto the island. “I don’t want one. The wedding is the party. I don’t need a pre-party party.”
Bethany stuck out her bottom lip. “Pre-parties serve a purpose. It will save you from drinking too much and stumbling through the cha-cha slide on your wedding day. You’ll have gotten it out of your system.” She grabbed a folded kitchen towel and wiped up the fizzy splotch of alcohol. “Besides, I’ve already planned it. There’s a binder with colored tabs and everything.”
Rosie snorted into the back of her wrist. “Knew it.”
“What?” Georgie sputtered, before falling silent for a moment. “Details, please.” She shifted on her stool. “You know . . . so I can say no. Firmly.”
Bethany smiled into a sip of champagne. “You won’t say no.”
Her certainty wasn’t unfounded. As a professional house stager for her family’s company, Brick & Morty, planning, executing, and beautifying was Bethany’s purpose on this earth. When presented with a blank canvas, she took light, shadow, spacing, practicality, and wow factor into account—and she turned an empty shell into a home. No stitch out of place or book spine askew. Perfection. Something inside her never stopped yearning for that tip-top mountain peak. That awed reaction she received at the end of her stages. That rush of accomplishment.
At some point that quest for perfection had bled into every other aspect of her life and continued to bleed, and bleed, but that was a positive thing. Right?
When she realized her hand was curled too tightly around the champagne flute, she set it down with a flourish and smiled. “We’re starting with brunch at the Four Seasons, moving on to an afternoon of pampering—you’ll be getting married hairless and shiny, you’re welcome—and we’ll round the night out with a harmless orgy. What’s not to love?”
“Stop. Oh God.” Georgie coughed, eyes tearing. “Champagne. Burning the insides of my nose. So painful.”
“Tell her the real plan, you evil woman,” Rosie scolded, biting back a smile.
Bethany rolled her eyes. “Fine. We’re ending the night with a combined bachelor-bachelorette dinner at Buena Onda. Mom and Dad will be there, too. I knew that’s what you’d want. Travis and Georgie forever. Yada yada. You make me sick.”
Georgie jumped off her stool and threw her arms around Bethany’s middle. “I love it. I can commit to this.” She squealed and attempted to crush Bethany’s ribs. “Thank you. It’s perfect.”
Bethany kissed her cheek and waved her off. “You’re welcome.”
The doorbell rang. Bethany picked up her champagne flute again, holding it with a loose wrist, and put on a bright hostess smile on her way to the door. Details mattered. Every detail mattered. When she opened the door with a flick of her wrist, leaned a hand high on the doorframe, and tossed her hair, taking a dramatic sip of champagne, the women on her porch saw exactly what she wanted them to see. A woman who had it all together.
A woman who made everything look effortless.
Ten minutes later, two dozen women were settled in, some on the couch, others sitting cross-legged on the floor or even standing. Bethany took her place in front of the whiteboard and picked up her marker, twirling it between her fingers and giving the room a sly look.
“Shall we open with our song?”
A cheer lifted the already-joyful atmosphere. Their theme song was totally ridiculous, had been cobbled together after way too many drinks, and was sung to the tune of “Jingle Bells,” but it was theirs. This club was theirs. It was hard to believe they’d grown from three members who’d had the misfortune of being early to Zumba class . . . into this.
That night, she’d been good and fed up with the male population, having been cheated on by a community theater director. She’d noticed her friends were in similar situations and decided to bolster her journey to a man-free lifestyle with a club where women supported women. Now they were a veritable faction of ass kickers who met weekly to discuss their goals and support one another in that journey. She’d watched the meek grow mighty in this very room, witnessed her own sister and best friend reach for their professional dreams.
Each week, Bethany stood at the whiteboard and listed accomplishments so they could be seen in black and white. Or gold metallic, as it were.