Tools of Engagement

Page 20

“At least thirty.”

“Right. Stephen has the most experience out of anyone, but he still messes up. We will mess something up, baby, but any mistake you make on this house is one that can be corrected, okay?”

The pressure in her chest lessened, slowly but surely. Was it insane that she . . . believed him? He was so unflinching. So sure. He didn’t seem thrown off by her admissions at all. “Okay.”

“Aim and swing. Hard. Let these folks get their shots, we’ll do our stupid interviews, and then it’ll just be you, me, and two geriatrics.”

Her laugh caught her off guard, as did the loosening in her middle. He’d done it again. Thinned out her worries like cookie dough under a rolling pin. The more often it happened, the less she believed his casual heroics were a mistake. Maybe he was just . . . heroic. On occasion. “That sounds good.”

“Doesn’t it?” He kissed her temple so quickly, she almost thought it was a figment of her imagination. “Give that wall hell, darlin’.”

“Can we record now?” the director asked drily, not waiting for a response. “And we’re rolling in three . . . two . . . one.”

Bethany heaved the sledgehammer up onto her shoulder, rested it a second, then used every ounce of force in her body to smash the metal into the Sheetrock. It split wide open and debris flew everywhere, leaving a giant hole behind. A few of the crew members whistled and Wes boomed a laugh. But she barely heard any of it over the wild applause in her own head. It matched the fast-paced tempo of her heart. It sped and sped like a propeller until she worried it might carry her away. In search of an anchor, she turned and found Wes amongst the lighting.

He was smiling broadly at her when she turned, but whatever he saw on her face caused it to slip, his Adam’s apple rising and falling in his throat. His recovery was far from instantaneous, but he eventually gave her a jerky nod.

There was a strong—horribly conceived—urge inside her to go to Wes, to see if he’d put his arms around her, but thankfully she was stayed by the sudden putrescent smell that filled the room.

“Aw, shit,” called one of the PAs. “We’ve got a dead rat in the wall.”

“We’ll do the interviews outside. Someone get an intern to bag the rat.”

Everyone groaned and filed out of the room.

Bethany followed the flow of people, still dragging the sledgehammer behind her until Wes took it out of her hands and propped it against his shoulder. Not looking like a sexy Paul Bunyan or anything. Definitely not.

Just before she exited through the front door, Bethany turned and glanced back at the house. She’d made one hole in the wall. Only one. But she wasn’t as apprehensive as before to commence the flip—and she couldn’t deny that the man walking beside her scowling at the cameramen had a lot to do with it.

Not good. Not good at all.

Chapter Eleven

Wes watched Bethany work across the debris-strewn floor, wood and ancient drywall littering the space between them. Thanks to Rat-Gate, followed by the start and stop of on-camera interviews that had taken over an hour yesterday, they were still only halfway finished with demo on Project Doomsday.

Bethany was avoiding him, as much as she could in a confined space where they could hear each other breathing. He supposed he was avoiding her a little, too, not that he could stop drooling over her in those dusty pink yoga pants. Where was her panty line? Would he be able to slide his hands down into those tight little things and get a hold of her butt cheeks? Would she like it?

Try not to get an erection while operating heavy destructive equipment, would you, asshole?

Besides, he was still unnerved by the way his heart had shaken like a martini when she’d laid into that wall yesterday, then turned around with that unchecked smile on her beautiful face. She’d looked right to him, dropping that happiness directly into his lap—and the subsequent squeeze between his pecs had landed like an attack. It hadn’t gone away, either. Was it . . . permanent?

Couldn’t be.

Bethany grabbed his attention when she moved to the kitchen, attempting to pry tile off the wall. When she couldn’t get one unstuck and whacked it with her crowbar in frustration, he set down his sledgehammer, fished a metal wedge out of his toolbox, and joined her. “Here.” He slid the tip of the tool in behind the tile and gestured for Bethany to hand him the crowbar, which she did. “Now you tap it. Like so.” The tile hit the floor. “The sucker’ll pop right off.”

“Oh, uh. Thanks.” She accepted the crowbar back and followed his instructions on the next one, smiling when she executed the move perfectly. “I like that. It’s clean.”

He leaned a shoulder on the wall, biting back on the urge to brush a layer of dust from her nose. “Do you like anything messy?”

Bethany narrowed her eyes at him and he held up his hands in innocence, letting her know he wasn’t trying to make the conversation dirty. Though he easily could have. Find him a twenty-three-year-old man who didn’t relate everything back to sex.

Her suspicions seemed to fade and she pursed her lips. “I allow my bun to be a tad haphazard on a Sunday morning. That’s about it.” She popped off another tile and gave a satisfied swing of her ponytail. “Don’t you like anything neat and orderly?”

Damn, she never failed to make him think. He liked it. In the past, women were just another part of his life he didn’t have to consider too hard. They were either coming home with him, or they weren’t. What was there to stress about?

With Bethany, he could almost see her filing away every piece of information he dropped, so he wanted to say the right thing. The honest thing. Not simply whatever she wanted to hear. She was too smart for that, anyway.

“I dust my cowboy hat off every night and I, uh . . .” Unbelievable. He could feel the tips of his goddamn ears turning red. “I store it in my closet in a hatbox.”

“You do?” Her eyes turned distant, like she was trying to picture him completing the nightly ritual. “What does the box look like? Is there tissue paper?”

“Hell, no, there isn’t any tissue paper.” He laughed, scratching the side of his chin. “There might be some shredded newspaper.”

Her gasp turned into a giggle. “That’s not even remotely different.”

Oh, hey. She’d never made that sound before. It was adorable and feminine and he’d let her watch him dust the hat off if she made that noise again. “Yes, it is. It’s entirely different,” he managed finally. “And Jesus, look at you. Turned on by the idea of proper hat storage.”

He watched her struggle through subduing her amusement and realized there was a smile stretching its way across his face. Hot damn. They were flirting without it devolving into a name-calling competition, and the relief of that, knowing they could manage that feat, was enormous.

“Listen,” she said. “I do the same thing with my Louboutins.”

His smile dropped. “Jesus Christ. Now you’ve gone and compared my manly hat to a lady shoe.”

She buried her face in the crook of her elbow, her shoulders shaking with mirth. In that moment, he could picture himself tickling her, maybe taking a playful bite out of her neck. Boyfriend-girlfriend behavior.

It brought Wes up short. He definitely didn’t want permanent. Settling down and walking one straight path for the rest of his life didn’t appeal to him. He always needed to be ready to move on, so he wouldn’t be caught floundering when the moment arrived. Quick, painless, easy. That’s how he lived.

A man who grew too comfortable and left himself no escape hatches eventually ended up stranded. A couple of times growing up, he’d let himself get comfortable with a foster family, only to find out they’d never gotten comfortable with him. They’d been angling to steer clear of him the whole time.

No one had ever needed him.

No one, except for his half sister. She’d relied on him to get her out of trouble so many times it had become draining, disappointing, but he couldn’t help answering the call. A small part of him wanted to be depended on. Even by someone who didn’t appreciate it or, hell, even thank him most of the time.

Bethany certainly didn’t need him. Sure she’d had a couple of weak moments, but if he wasn’t around, she’d simply get encouragement from her local support group. He’d merely been handy. Within reaching distance.

No, he definitely didn’t have any notions of staying in Port Jefferson. Still, every time Bethany glanced over and their eyes locked, his stomach wrapped itself around his fucking spleen. Yeah, it was safe to say his preoccupation with her went far beyond the average, casual hookup. The word “hookup” wasn’t even worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Bethany—and that became more and more true every time she made Wes privy to her thoughts.

I never get a sense of accomplishment anymore. Maybe if I push and do something harder . . . I’ll feel it again.

Wes always knew there were several leagues below Bethany’s surface, but she kept surprising him with another one. His sense of self-preservation told him to stop trying to locate her ocean floor, but this morning upon arriving at the house, he’d found himself vowing to aid her in finding that feeling. Accomplishment. He wanted to help give that satisfaction to her so goddamn bad.

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