Wes pulled away from the curb in a state of shock and stayed parked at a red light until it turned green and the person behind him laid on the horn. A peek in the rearview told him it was Judy. To his right, the three girls were singing a song about raining tacos at the top of their lungs. What the hell was he supposed to do with them?
Nothing. He had to bring them home. He did not sign up for this.
He wasn’t a dad. He was a drifter, a former orphan, a man without ties, and that’s how he liked it. That’s how it had always been.
Wes was on the verge of asking Danielle or Megan for their address so he could drop them off, but his niece caught his eye. It was obvious she was reading his mind and knew he was already throwing in the towel. Her eyes pleaded with him silently to reconsider and something unfurled in the center of his chest. Something that had been wrapped up tight for as long as he could remember. He’d kept this box sealed shut for safety’s sake, but his niece climbed inside and made herself at home.
Before he registered the turns and avenues, Wes found himself on his porch, unlocking the door and making way for three tiny people to bound inside. While the newbies sprinted toward Laura’s bedroom, his niece stopped and put her arms around his waist, squeezing with all her might.
“I don’t know what happened, but I think I have friends now and they wanted to come over and what are we going to do, Uncle Wes?”
“You’re asking me?”
“Please! I have friends!”
She ran after her pals before he could ask what on God’s green earth she wanted from him. “Please, what?” he muttered under his breath, going to the fridge and starting to take out a beer before stopping himself. Without overthinking too much, he pulled out his cell and called Bethany. Because it felt right.
She answered on the second ring, her tone indicating she was still sore over his request that she wear the pink pants tomorrow. “Yes?”
“Is the adult supervision allowed to have a beer while hosting a playdate?”
“How should I know?” There was some background shuffling. “Are you in charge of multiple children right now?”
“It all happened so fast.”
A couple seconds ticked by. What the hell had he been thinking calling her? He hadn’t relied on anyone else to solve even his most insignificant problems since he was a child. If this wasn’t dangerous proof that he’d started to ask himself what if, he didn’t know what was. “Why are you calling me?” she asked.
“To find out if I can have a beer,” he answered, striving like hell to make the call casual, instead of letting himself need her. “Listen, never mind—”
“My father drank during our playdates,” she blurted. “Pour it into a mug and pop in a breath mint before their parents show up.” A moment passed. “You’re going to do fine. Easily better than I could.”
There she went again. Hinting at her own insecurities and making it impossible not to be one hundred percent honest. Wes stared hard at the reflective surface of the refrigerator. “Laura has been kind of down lately, saying she doesn’t have any friends. Which . . . I guess I brushed it off because of course she must have them. She’s cool and funny, right? But I think this is kind of important and I don’t know how to come through for her.” He turned and leaned back against the appliance. “We don’t have a lot of toys. I don’t even know if they’re still young enough to play with toys.”
“I played with my Barbies until I was nine.”
“Come over.” The request was out before he could lasso it, but he’d pictured Bethany throwing fancy dinner parties with dolls and he’d just . . . wanted to see her. Wanted her there. “I mean, come over?”
Silence. Then, “I mean . . . I guess two partially inept grown-ups equal one decent adult.”
Wes pushed off the fridge. “You’ll come?”
“It wouldn’t be a big deal,” Bethany said quickly.
“No, definitely not. Not a big deal.”
It was a huge deal. He’d asked for help and he was getting it.
Relying on someone else who seemed to have the power to make him happy, horny, frustrated, introspective, or pissed as hell. He’d kicked the rodeo gate open.
“I’d be doing it to help out Laura, of course. So she can make a good impression on her new friends.”
“Do you have snacks?”
Wes turned on a dime and started to rummage through his cabinets. “Some stale pretzel goldfish . . .”
His lips quirked up. “A bag of microwave popcorn.”
“Bingo. Fire that up and give them juice boxes.”
He listened to her footsteps on the other end of the phone and pictured her gorgeous ass twitching through the construction zone. Did he really ask her to wear those pink things again tomorrow? When the cameras would be back with all that lighting and zoom ability? “I changed my mind about the pants. Burn them.”
“I’m still expecting the flea collar.” He heard a door close. “I’ll just swing by my house to get out of these clothes—”
“By all means, get out of them here.”
“I’m not coming over if you’re going to act like a pervert.”
“It’s out of my system now. Promise.”
“Good. I’m hanging up now.”
A beat passed. “It’s for Laura.”
Bethany kicked off her nasty work boots on the porch and stumbled into her house, already stripping off her smelly T-shirt and yoga pants. She started to leave them in a heap in the entryway, only making it two steps before going back, gathering them up, and putting them neatly in the laundry basket.
“What are you thinking?” she whispered to herself on the way up the stairs. By the time she finished scrubbing her grimy skin and rinsing off, a full five minutes had passed and she still hadn’t answered her own question. Already she was spending entirely too much time with Wes; now she was going over to help him babysit? Multiple kids? What she knew about children could fit inside of a shot glass. She knew even less about them than she knew about renovating a house. What had possessed her to take both of these new challenges on in the same week?
Careful not to slip on the tile floor, Bethany wrapped a towel around her body and stood in front of the bathroom mirror. No time to fix her hair and that was a shame. Clean, straightened hair always boosted her confidence. Her shot glass of children knowledge consisted of one fact—they preyed on the weak. She could remember her own glee as a third grader when a substitute teacher waltzed in, thinking they were going to follow the lesson plan. Sorry, sucker. Not today.
Now she was going to be the sucker.
She’d volunteered to be one.
“Okay, okay,” she breathed, moisturizing quickly and applying the barest layer of foundation, followed by a swipe of mascara. “You entertain dozens of women every week. You can handle some kindergartners.”
It was true, she did entertain the Just Us League members every Saturday night, but she only made it look easy when in truth she was overthinking every word out of her mouth, analyzing her friends’ comments to death, looking for some proof they were aware of her flaws. She loved the club. Loved the spirit and honesty and the women. But some part of her had always seen it as temporary. How long could she make them believe she was graceful and funny and dazzlingly carefree? What happened when they started to see through her?
Not wanting to examine those fears too deeply, Bethany hung up the towel, hunkering down to make sure the corners lined up, then marched through her bedroom to the closet. On the drive home, she’d mentally set aside an outfit and she reached for the ruffled denim romper now, putting it on and then sliding her feet into a pair of pointed white flats. She ran a brush through her hair and put it back in a high ponytail and, after stopping at the fridge to grab a slab of leftover wedding cake, then sailed out of the house with far more confidence than she felt.
In a matter of minutes, she was pulling into Wes’s driveway, parking behind his truck. “You can do this,” she said brightly to her reflection. “You can help babysit three little girls and leave them none the wiser that you’re a shocking mess.”
Cake in hand, she climbed the steps to Wes’s front door.
She’d barely raised her hand to knock when it flew open.
“What took you so long? They’re down to kernels, woman.”
She came very close to smashing the cake in his face. And seriously, why did her brain force her to register how sexy he looked even when his mouth was letting out rude shit? He hadn’t even bothered to change, still decked out in his worksite finest, hair mussed with dust, T-shirt wrinkled with dry sweat and plaster flakes. When he leaned a forearm on the doorjamb and made a sound of approval while looking her over, top to bottom, she refused to acknowledge the sliver of tight stomach revealed by his elevated T-shirt.
Or the fact that she’d gone home to change just so he’d look at her like this.