Tools of Engagement

Page 24

Her legs turned to gelatin, a foreign emotion swelling inside her. A big, heavy feeling with untapped power. “I . . . um. Um.”

Wes let go of her wrists and fell back a step. “My God, you don’t,” he said dazedly. “You don’t know.”

Bethany’s hands remained suspended in midair, a lot like the breath in her lungs that refused to come in or out. Part of her wanted to run from the kitchen, but the other part kept her planted. In front of Wes. You know you’re a fucking masterpiece, right? He couldn’t really mean that, could he? She was at her worst in front of him. This had to be a simple case of lusting for something he couldn’t have.

Yes. Obviously. He was a gorgeous man who’d been continually turned down by a woman. Getting her to cave might be nothing more than a point of pride.

Wes turned her until he could press her against the counter . . . and her noodle legs went from al dente to limp. “Don’t kiss me,” she whispered.

His sigh warmed her mouth. “I have to, baby. You’re ridiculous.”

“And that makes you want to kiss me?”

Blue eyes searched hers. “I don’t understand it, either. Just know once you’ve got my tongue in your mouth, you’re going to feel my lack of fucks that you’re thirty and I’m twenty-three. Those seven years don’t mean a damn thing to me . . .” He trailed his open lips along her jaw. “If anything, they’ll make us moan a little louder, won’t they, darlin’?”

Their mouths were so close, his breath was leaving the most delicious condensation on her lips. Oh God. This was it, he was going to kiss her. Right here, right now. She wasn’t going to be able to hide behind sharp words or snappy comebacks with her mouth occupied and shitshitshit this was going to be bad. He’d know by the time this kiss was over that he affected her. Physically . . . and more. Dammit, there was more, wasn’t there?

How was she supposed to be around him and like him at the same time?



“Uncle Wes! Elsa! Can we have our tea party now?”

Record scratch.

He pushed his face into the curve of her neck, latching onto a patch of sensitive flesh with his teeth, groaning in a way that sent a thrill screaming down to her toes. “God help me, I won’t survive these blue balls.”

Laughter shivered through her, but she was too stupefied by the state of her body and the things he’d said to respond.

“You think it’s funny? I come home on my lunch breaks while she’s in school and sometimes I just sit in the quiet, staring at the wall.” He made a pained sound, dipping his mouth to the hollow of her neck and licking, all the way around to her earlobe. “That’s a lie. I think about you.”


“You think about me, too.”

Her nod was subtle and grudging and she couldn’t take it back. Another impatient plea from the dining room had her sliding out from underneath Wes’s rigid body. “Remind me what I was doing.”

He ground the heel of his hand into one eye. “Plates, cups . . .”

“Forks. Tea. Okay.”

They both took fortifying breaths, then broke for the tea party.

Oh mama.

As soon as this tea party ended, she needed to get the heck out of Dodge.

What was that saying about the best-laid plans?

Chapter Thirteen

From his reclined position in a beanbag chair in the corner of Laura’s bedroom, Wes watched Bethany pause in the doorway. His intention had been to observe the tea party from the safety of the kitchen, but damn, was he ever glad he’d let Laura drag him to her bedroom to await Bethany’s official escort to the dining room table—and thus, the start of the game.

She swept in with an air of drama, pausing for several beats without saying a word, heightening the anticipation. “Attention! Attention, please,” she called to the three little girls who were already squealing and essentially losing their minds, simply because Bethany was taking their make-believe seriously, British accent and all. “May I speak to the lady of the house? I have a formal invitation from Her Majesty, the Queen.”

“Me!” Laura almost landed facefirst on the carpet diving for the letter Bethany held in her hands. “I’m the lady of the house!”

“Brilliant.” Bethany handed Laura a folded-up page they’d torn out of his latest Sports Illustrated. “The Queen requires your presence at afternoon tea.”

Laura pretended to read the royal invitation. “It says we’re all invited.”

Megan and Danielle cheered and hopped to their feet, joining Laura in a stampede that almost knocked Bethany on her gorgeous ass. She traded a dazed look with Wes. “They almost knocked me down to get to the drinks. This isn’t that different from a Just Us League meeting.”

Wes heaved himself out of the beanbag chair with a chuckle. “Hopefully the similarities end there. The last thing we need is these kids going home chanting about lady balls.”

Bethany’s mouth formed an O. “I’m going to start having the members sign an NDA. All of this leaking of important procedures is getting out of hand.”

“After Marjorie sang the song for me, it got stuck in my head, if that helps.”

“It does, actually,” she said, letting him see just a hint of her smile, before she turned to walk down the hallway and join the tea party. “Now, ladies,” Bethany said, clasping her hands together. “If I could have your attention, please, I would like to introduce your butler for this afternoon, Wes Dorkingham. He’s taking a break from his duties as court jester to serve the tea.”

The polite applause from the three girls lasted all of three seconds, before they started waving their teacups in the air and erupted with choruses of “Tea! Where’s my tea, Dorkingham?”

With narrowed eyes in Bethany’s direction, Wes picked up the plastic pitcher they were using as a teapot and poured lukewarm liquid into each of the cups. When he reached Laura and filled her cup, he didn’t even think, he just leaned down and kissed her on the crown of the head. He hovered there for a few seconds, wondering what the hell had possessed him to do something so . . . fatherly. She’d only cuddled up to him once on the couch—now he was kissing her on the head?

Laura tilted her head back slowly and smiled at him. It wasn’t the going-through-the-motions smile she’d painted on a lot when he first got to Port Jefferson. Now that he thought about it, he hadn’t seen that one in about a week. This one was bursting with something he couldn’t really name. It was definitely on the happy end of the spectrum, though, wasn’t it?

Yeah. His niece was happy.

Was it crazy to think he’d helped her get there?

Pressure started in his throat and cascaded downward. He almost had to set down the pitcher so he could feel around in his chest for the twisting sensation.

“What about dinner?” Danielle singsonged, breaking the spell. “We can’t have cake without dinner first.”

Wes cleared his throat. Noticing Bethany was watching him thoughtfully, he made his voice light. “Dang, girl. You haven’t even tried the tea yet. Are you one of those difficult customers?” On his second pass around the table, he spoke from the side of his mouth to Bethany. “Seriously, though. It’s almost dinnertime and I seriously doubt they want green bean casserole.”

“Oh God.” Bethany hid behind the fall of her hair, but not before he saw her watching him and Laura with a curious sheen in her eyes. “Um. Which Just Us League member made you that?”

“Come on, now.” Desperate to lighten the mood, he gave Bethany a light hip-check. “You know I call her Green Bean Casserole.”

Thankfully back to normal, she snorted. “You’re impossible.” She chewed her lip for a moment. “Go order some pizzas and I’ll stall.”

“On it.”

Wes set down the tea pitcher with a clunk and whipped out his cell, which, of course, had the closest pizza place on speed dial. They put him on hold and, with the music playing in his ear, he watched Bethany further work her magic—and that’s exactly what it was.

“All right, ladies, if we’ve all had our fill of tea, the time has come for the princess ceremony.”

“The what?” Laura asked, in a trance.

“The princess ceremony, of course.” Bethany clapped her hands together. “The Queen has brought you all here today to make you all official princesses.”

Wes was surprised when the roar of excitement didn’t shatter a window.

Bethany was killing it. And the craziest part of the whole situation was . . . she only seemed capable of enjoying their reactions for approximately two seconds before she visibly started worrying about what came next. Didn’t she know how far out of the park she was hitting this? She claimed to know nothing about kids, but she’d won them over faster than a seasoned babysitter could ever hope to do. He’d put money on it.

What the hell had made her so unsure of herself? His earlier epiphany that he’d contributed to her insecurities sat in his gut like a lump of lead.

He wasn’t done making it up to her. Not by a long shot.

Was it wishful thinking, or did Laura seem . . . happy? Very happy. She’d seemed that way all through the tea party and dinner. Afterward, Megan and Danielle had been picked up by their mother, but Laura didn’t seem to want Bethany to leave yet, asking her to read a story. And seemingly enjoying it. Bethany was struck by how satisfying that was. It was nice to know that someone was content, thanks to her efforts. Instead of wondering if they were disappointed in her or the job she’d done or a million other possibilities.

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