Tools of Engagement

Page 23

Dammit, though. She had, hadn’t she?

Someone really needed to overthrow her as leader of the Just Us League. She was a total fraud. It was just that no one had ever seen her in the states of dishevelment to which Wes had borne witness. He’d had the audacity to see her angry, crying, racked with stress, dirty. The utter nerve of him. Was it so much to ask that she be allowed to cast her usual spell for one afternoon?

“Step aside, cowboy. I brought cake.”

“And here I thought you were dessert.”

She held up a single finger. “You get one pass. That was it.”

His smile flashed white in his stubbled face and for a few, valuable seconds, she almost forgot he was twenty-damn-three. “I’ve been suitably warned.” He pushed the door open wider and eased out of her way. “Is that wedding cake?”

“Yes.” She stopped short in the entryway, her fingers dancing over the plastic wrap. “Did you . . . like the cake at the wedding?”

He crossed his arms over his big chest. “Never met one I didn’t like.”

She hummed. “And what about the food?”

“Before I moved to Port Jeff, I was existing on Subway and whiskey.”

“Well, that was predictably unhelpful,” she muttered, starting to walk away.

“Hold up.” Wes ceased her movements by wrapping a warm hand around her elbow. “Someone say they didn’t like the food?”

Her stomach pitched. “Did someone say that to you?”

“No. The food was great. My five-year-old had to remind me it’s rude to take home shrimp in my pockets.” He stumbled over the last word, frowning to himself. “I mean, not my five-year-old—”

“I know what you mean,” she breathed softly, alarmed by the scratch in her throat. “So, um . . . you liked it, then? There was so much left over . . .”

He raised a brow. “And you’ve been worried all this time the guests hated the food. Food you didn’t even cook?”

“I arranged it.”

“Did I mention the open bar?”

“Okay, you’ve made your point.” She turned and strutted into the living space, all too aware that she definitely felt better about the leftover wedding food. Like, completely better. Absolved. So much so that she was breathing easier than she had since Sunday night. “Where are the girls?”


Three little girls barreled into the living room from the hallway and proceeded to jump up and down in front of her. Expectantly. “Oh, um. I have cake,” she rasped, apprehension starting to sneak into her belly.

“Cake and popcorn! Don’t tell our mom.”

“Your secret is safe,” Bethany said quickly, searching her memory bank for some hint as to what five-year-olds were into. Wait. Rewind. There it was. Inspiration had struck and not a moment too soon. Laura was looking up at her with big round eyes as if Bethany held the secrets to pre-pre-pre-teen happiness. “And . . . you know, the best way to eat cake is with tea.”

All three children grew very still and unnervingly quiet.

Had she flubbed it?

She adjusted the plastic wrap, even though it was perfect. Not a single bubble or overlap. “T-tea party?”

An eruption of happy, ear-splitting shrieks sent Bethany back a step, her relief followed by a laugh. She bit her bottom lip to keep her smile from dominating her whole face and met Wes’s gaze where he stood in the kitchen, a coffee mug poised halfway to his mouth. And oh. Just ohhh. He didn’t hide the way he was looking at her fast enough and Bethany knew she’d wake up tonight thinking about the mixture of admiration, gratitude, and pure, bottomless longing in his eyes.

Her body reacted like she was sitting on a dryer during the spin cycle, heating and tightening in kind of an embarrassing way that definitely wasn’t appropriate for a children’s tea party. “Well,” she managed. “You need guests, don’t you? Go round up some dolls or stuffed animals and I’ll set up the table.”

They moved down the hall in a commotion of flailing limbs, speaking over one another. Bethany crossed to the kitchen table and set down the cake, tucking a loose hair back into her ponytail.

“She does have some stuffed animals, right?” Bethany whispered to Wes, who nodded slowly while sipping from his mug, eyes steady on her over the rim. “Good.”

“What I don’t have is tea. I’m guessing that’s mandatory for a tea party.”

Bethany winced. “Who lives next door?”

“The Santangelos.”

“Ah! They went to school with my parents. I’ll be right back.”

Five minutes later, after persuading Mrs. Santangelo into giving them an assortment of decaf tea, Bethany reentered the house to find the girls arranging teddy bears and a family of stuffed penguins around the table, talking animatedly. While Wes continued to hide in the deep recesses of the kitchen.

“You look terrified. Go sit down.”

Wes hesitated. “I’ve seen this movie. As soon as I pull my chair out, one of them is going to ask where babies come from.”

A snort-laugh flew out of Bethany without warning and she smacked a hand over her mouth, too late to stop the cringeworthy sound. “Pretend you didn’t hear that,” she said briskly, dropping her hand away.

“Why? I liked it.”

“You love when I give you new reasons to make fun of me.”

Wes dipped his chin and gave her a look that said Oh, come on. “All right, let’s clear this up now, since you’re here saving my biscuit.” He crossed the kitchen in her direction. “Am I actually making fun of you, Bethany? Or am I just riling you up because it’s the only way you’ll give me the time of day?”

His question thwarted her concentration, and she paused in the middle of searching for a teakettle in the pantry, finally spying one near the back. “What? That’s not true.”

“It is. You decided you wanted nothing to do with me the first time we met.”

She frowned while putting the kettle under the sink tap and turning on the water. “You tried to run game on me in front of my brother.”

“I did, didn’t I?” He gave her a slow wink. “Reckon I couldn’t help it.”

Bethany ignored the weight that continued to sink lower and lower in her belly. “Yes, you’re falling all over yourself to sleep with a woman you find so ancient you can’t even comprehend her movie references.” She moved to the stove and situated the kettle over a burner. “That’s probably why when you hit on me, it feels like a trap.”

Wes was silent so long, she had to look over to make sure he hadn’t left the room. But no, there he was, frowning at her from the shadows. “A trap?” he said, finally, his voice hard. “Explain that.”

There was a nervous flutter in her throat she couldn’t explain. “I don’t know. Why are we talking about this?”

“Because we are.”

She rolled her eyes. “I guess it feels like . . . when you proposition me, it’s just another way of poking fun. At me. Okay? Fine, you’re attracted to me, but maybe it’s just the chase making you that way. You’ve only pointed out how much freaking older I am nine hundred times, so you don’t really . . . want me like that.” With a hard swallow, she removed the lukewarm water from over the flame. “You’re waiting for me to accept so you can have the ultimate laugh at this old witch’s expense. I actually admire this long game you’re playing.”

He was staring at her like she’d just risen from the floor in a plume of smoke. “Jesus Christ, you really believe that bullshit, don’t you?”

Yes. Until that very second, Bethany didn’t realize how deep she’d shoved the insecurities regarding their age difference. Could anyone blame her for thinking his intentions toward her were less than sincere? Every man she’d ever dated had been a flatterer. Compliments were an indication that a man wanted to sleep with a woman, wasn’t it? Not outright vitriol, like the kind she shared with Wes. If there were some lines she was supposed to read between, she didn’t have the right decoder ring—and that was a Christmas Story reference he would probably laugh at her over.

Bethany started opening cabinets. “Could you help me set the table? I need plates, cups, napkins—”

“I made a mistake.”


He took her wrists and turned her to face him. “Hey, I made a mistake.” His chest rose and fell. “I should have left our age difference alone.”

Bethany looked everywhere but at him, because his intensity was doing weird things to her midsection. “Wes. You’re making a big deal out of nothing.”

“Out of nothing? You’ve been doubting how I feel about you this whole time—”

“How you feel about me?” In a rush of panic, she tried to pry her wrists free, but he held on. “Back the truck up.”

He closed his eyes, appearing to count to ten. “Fine. I’ll back up. You’ve been doubting how bad I want you because I made some stupid jokes.”

“I . . .” She attempted a casual laugh. “I guess? Sure.”

“How?” He was visibly bewildered. “Bethany, you know you’re a fucking masterpiece, right?”

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