Tools of Engagement

Page 21

Probably sensing his stare, Bethany looked up from her task of prying off a skirting board with the crowbar. “Um, hey,” she said. “How’s it going over there?”

“It’s going. How about you?”

“The mess is killing me.”

“Figured it might be.” He pressed his tongue to the inside of his cheek to subdue a smile. “It may not look like progress, but it is.”

“Progress needs a scented candle and a dustpan.” Bethany paused, looking like she had something else to say, but a grunt turned both of their heads to find Carl wiping sweat off his forehead with a rag and passing it to Ollie.

“My sciatica is on the fritz,” Ollie complained, leaning his side against the wall. “Hurts like hell.”

“My leg is still swelled up from yesterday,” Carl said.

“All you did yesterday was wipe out the craft service table,” Wes pointed out.

Carl snorted. “I wasn’t passing up those little rolled-up cold cuts. My wife made us go vegan. Cut out my sugar and coffee, too. If you thought she was miserable before, you should see her now.”

“Why can’t they just let us be retired?” Ollie intoned, staring off into space. “It’s like they were waiting for us to finally relax to start unleashing hell.”

“Mine did run me a bath yesterday,” Carl said. “Helped my leg some.”

Ollie elbowed him, looking like a cat with a canary. “I got a massage.”

Their sighs faded into groans, both men rubbing at their respective injuries. “Damn, that hurts,” Carl moaned.

“I think I pinched a nerve,” Ollie said.

“Are you sure you guys are up for this job?” Bethany asked.

“What?” Carl called. “We’re having a great time.”

Ollie snorted. “Best two days I’ve had in years.”

She shook her head at Wes, but there was a smile playing around her mouth. One that made the pad of his thumb itch to smooth over her lower lip. Maybe he should ask her out. Nothing that would spook her. Just a last-minute-drink-between-coworkers kind of thing. Lord knew he went drinking with Stephen, Travis, and Dominic down at Grumpy Tom’s often enough. This wouldn’t be any different.

At least that’s how he’d present it.

Wes cleared his throat hard. “Listen, Bethany—”

His phone rang noisily in his pocket. With a mental curse, he slipped off his working glove and took it out. Faded Calf Tattoo was calling him. She was his babysitter for that afternoon, which meant she would pick up Laura from school, bring her home, and watch her for the two hours that remained of Wes’s workday.


“Oh, hello, Wes.” Her voice wobbled with worry. “I’m so sorry to do this to you, but I can’t watch Laura today. My sister is having an emergency operation and I’m already on my way to New Jersey to be with her.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I hope it’s not serious.”

“Oh, she’s lived through three dirtbag husbands, so I doubt a gall bladder is going to take her down now. But she’ll need some coddling.”

Wes chuckled. Dang it, he was really starting to grow fond of these babysitters. “Let me know if I can do anything for you.”

“Will do. Sorry again.”

“Don’t be. See you soon.”

He hung up and checked the clock on his phone. Too late to call for a replacement, and even if it wasn’t, he didn’t like being a bother, especially when these women were already doing enough. Too much to be sent running to the school at the last minute on their day off. It would have to be him.

“That didn’t sound good,” Bethany said, having come closer during his conversation. “What’s wrong?”

It took him a second to collect his thoughts, thanks to the cute smudge of dirt on her nose. “I’m sorry, but I have to knock off early to pick up Laura from school. Marjorie had a family emergency.”

“Oh. Sure.” She tried to hide her panic, but didn’t quite succeed. “Sure, of course. You have to go.”

“I’ll make up for lost time tomorrow.”

Her shoulders relaxed by approximately one degree. “We will.”


“Were you going to ask me something?”

Yeah. Out for a friendly drink, when he really wanted to kiss her senseless. Right here and now, their audience of two be damned. She was looking at him differently today, her eyes more curious than disdainful. After that day she’d stormed the jobsite and he’d unexpectedly seen below her surface, he’d started wishing she’d change her attitude toward him. Now that she had, right on the heels of him acknowledging the temptation to try and be more to her, something inside him screamed to lighten the moment. Whether it was out of fear of the unfamiliar or simply not knowing how to be around someone he needed—how could he when he’d never experienced it before?—Wes gave her a slow once-over and spoke for her ears alone.

“Why don’t you give me some motivation and tell me you’re going to wear those extra-thin pink pants again tomorrow, darlin’?”

She cracked a disbelieving laugh. “Wear the same pants two days in a row?”

Wes fought a laugh. “That’s the part you took offense to?”

“I-I . . . no.” Her face colored. “I’ll wear the pink pants if you wear your flea collar.”

“First you talk about pegging and now I’m wearing a collar.” He rocked back on his heels. “The plot thickens.”

“It’ll never be as thick as your skull.” She dismissed him with a sniff, crunching through construction rubble on her way to her post. “Go home.”

“See you tomorrow, Bethany.”

“If only I had a choice, Wes,” she sang sweetly.

His encounters with Bethany used to leave him feeling charged up. If not satisfied, he’d damn well gotten pleasure out of it. While there was a definite spark in his belly after their exchange, it now felt unfinished. Their barbs were supposed to lead somewhere, weren’t they? Yeah. And he wanted to go there. Crazy enough, he wasn’t sure there was just sex. Instead of walking away and leaving her frowning, he wanted to keep going until it became a grudging smile.

That would satisfy him almost as much as sex.

Jesus. What the hell was wrong with him?

Wes felt Bethany’s questioning gaze on his back as he left the house. He got into his truck and drove to the school, arriving in the pick-up line just in time for Laura to begin her journey down the walkway. He hadn’t picked her up many times this year, but based on her complaints that she didn’t have any friends, Wes didn’t expect her to be flanked by two girls her age. They were lost in an animated conversation complete with hand signals and giggles, while his niece appeared to be floating on cloud nine between them.

He lowered the passenger-side window at the exact moment Laura did her Scooby-Doo impression, making the other girls laugh, and an odd sound puffed out of him.

Laura spotted him idling at the curb and waved enthusiastically.

Warmth spread downward from his collarbone. “Hey, kid,” he called. “Hop in.”

“Wait. Uncle Wes, Uncle Wes, can Megan and Danielle come over?” His niece literally shrieked the question at him from fifteen yards away. “Please? If their mom says it’s all right? Please?”

No. No way. He’d just figured out how to be passably decent at taking care of Laura. Throwing two more children into the mix could be disastrous. He searched for a distraction. Distractions always worked. “Maybe not today. I was planning on renting Tangled for us—”

“I love Tangled,” Danielle or Megan squealed. “I want to watch it, too.”

Rookie move, idiot. “I’m sure their mother has plans—”

A woman’s face filled his passenger window. “Hi, I’m Judy. Danielle and Megan’s mom. You’re Wes, right? Laura’s uncle?”

She stuck out her hand for a shake. He held up his grimy one apologetically. “Sorry, I just came from a construction site. Might want to steer clear.”

Judy’s expression was amused, but mostly distracted. “So, you’re taking the girls today?”

“Oh.” He scratched at his five o’clock shadow. “I . . . Am I?”

“I don’t think these sassy ladies are going to take no for an answer!” What started off as a jovial laugh turned dark, Judy’s expression becoming infinitely more intense. She leaned into his truck, knuckles turning white on the frame. “Please, take them. Even if it’s just an hour.”

Wes forced himself not to jerk back. “Think they can all fit in my truck?”

“We’ll make them fit.” Her smile returned, brighter than ever. “Girls,” she called over her shoulder. “Good news. Laura’s uncle is taking you for a few hours.”

“Wait. A few?”

Ignoring him, Judy pried open the passenger door and ushered the celebrating girls into the cab, throwing one seatbelt around all three of them. “Pick you up after dinner.”


She looked across at Wes. “My cell number is on the class contact list, if you need anything—along with yours. You got that email, right?” said Judy, closing the door without waiting for a response. Through the glass, she called, “Bye now!”

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