Tools of Engagement

Page 25

She’d felt the same way when she swung the sledgehammer into the wall and turned to look at Wes—

She really, really needed to go home.

“And that is the story of how Fancy Nancy triumphed in her quest to find the unicorn,” Bethany finished, closing the book. “Good night, Laura.”

Laura put her arms up. “Hug.”

“From me?”

The little girl nodded.

“Oh.” Bethany leaned down and let Laura wrap her in a hug that pulled her hair and put a twinge in her neck, but was somehow the loveliest hug she’d ever received. “Would you like me to send in your Uncle Wes?”

“Way ahead of you,” said the man as he entered the room. “Did Nancy get that unicorn?”

Laura grinned. “Yes.”

“Oh good. I’m always worried.” Wes went down on his knees on the opposite side of the bed from Bethany and dropped a kiss on Laura’s cheek, chuckling when she strangled him with a fierce hug.

“I can’t wait for school tomorrow,” she said.

A smile was blooming on Wes’s face when he pulled back. “That’s great, kid.”

Laura snuggled into the sheets, turning onto her side. Almost as an afterthought, she said, “I love you.”

Bethany held her breath as she watched Wes’s easygoing expression be replaced with dumbstruck awe. “I love you, too,” he said, gruffly. “See you in the morning.”

Both adults left the room. Before they’d even reached the door, soft snores were coming from the bed. Quietly, they stepped into the hallway and Wes closed the door behind them. Then he just kind of stood there, staring into space.

“Is that the first time she’s said that to you?” Bethany asked.

“Yeah.” He scrubbed at the back of his neck. “Shit.”

“Shit, what?”

“Shit . . . no one’s ever said that to me before,” he said, dazedly. “Have a beer with me?”

“I really should go,” Bethany said, too quickly. No one had ever said I love you to this man? She was already having a very hard time remaining detached after watching such a personal exchange between Wes and his niece. Now her fingertips were numb from his admission. He looked like he’d been smacked in the face with a two-by-four and her own dumb heart was pumping like a revved motor in response.

This whole evening had already been an out-of-body experience, but she’d managed to retain a scrap of objectivity. After all, she couldn’t very well make it a regular occurrence. Reading bedtime stories to the adorable niece and spinning tea party narratives. Honestly, Bethany. Shouldn’t she be home updating her professional social media or tackling a design plan for the flip? Something productive?

As if he hadn’t heard her response, Wes herded her down the hallway—and she went, feeling a little like a pirate prisoner walking the plank. They stepped over stuffed animals and crayons until they reached the kitchen. Bethany hugged her elbows until Wes handed her an open bottle of beer, clinking his glass neck with hers.

“Come on.” He padded on bare feet to the back door, flipped the lock, and opened it, summoning her into the backyard with an inviting chin jerk. If she’d sensed she was walking to her doom before, she’d been wrong. The real trouble lay in the romantic outdoor setting.

Neither one of them was wearing shoes and the damp fall grass threaded through her toes. The beer was cold in her hand, the moon was bright, and the wind held just the right amount of chill. Plus he still had that kind of delighted shock on his face that was so sweet, she almost wished she’d never seen it. How was she supposed to go back to disliking him?

Wes tilted his face up at the moon and took several sips of his beer. She was helpless to do anything but watch the silhouette of his strong throat gulping down the liquid.

He squinted over at her. “Do you think she meant it?”

“Yes,” she answered honestly, pressing her beer bottle to the unusual tug in her chest. “Did you mean it?”

A beat passed. “Yeah.”

She swallowed. “Will you leave right away when her mother comes back?”

“That’s the plan. Move on and hope I made a small difference.” He blew out a breath. “There were people along the way that did that for me, when I was moving in and out of new homes. Teachers or a good foster parent who turned me toward a certain path and kicked me in the ass to get me moving. It doesn’t seem like much at the time and maybe it was nothing to them, but it was something to me. Maybe . . . for her, it’ll be me who does that.”

Her stomach jolted. “I didn’t know you were in foster care.”

He nodded once, but didn’t respond. In the glory of the moonlight, he looked older, more worldly and weathered. Or maybe it was the words coming out of his mouth. She didn’t know what it was, but all of it, everything, drew her closer.

“So Laura’s mother isn’t your real sister?”

“She is. Half. We have the same mother.” He seemed to gather his thoughts. “Becky had it a lot harder than me growing up. I could get hired to do manual labor and that made it easier to stay out of our foster home. Out of the way. There are good families out there helping kids, but the one where we were placed together . . . we weren’t as fortunate. Our foster parents had an issue with liquor and fighting. Money troubles, on top of it.” He squinted into the darkness. “Becky used drugs to cope. She stayed off them when she got pregnant with Laura and I thought she’d carved this new life out for herself in New York. But I don’t know. It worries me that she’s run off like this.”

Bethany couldn’t help but glance back toward the house, where Laura lay sleeping. What would this little girl have done without her uncle? As far as she could tell, no one in Port Jefferson had been aware of any discord between Laura’s parents. Definitely no one had spotted any drug use or she’d have heard. “Thank God you’re here, Wes,” she whispered. “You really stepped up.”

Her praise earned her a sharp look. A surprised one? “Yeah, well. I’m far from a saint. There’ve been a lot of times I’ve wanted to ignore Becky’s calls. I’ve just learned it’s easier . . . letting people pass in and out without trying to hold on or they just slip through anyway. But I’m glad I didn’t this time.” He made a jerky movement and took another pull of his beer. “This was one of those good stops along the way.”

“Along the way to what?”

He winked at her in the moonlight. “Gray hair and sciatica, I guess.”

She puffed a laugh, though she had a weight on her chest. “This isn’t just another stop along the way for you.”

He sobered. “It doesn’t feel like I’m supposed to . . . leave here. But I’ve thought that before.”

“Because of a woman?”

Now why did she ask that? Bethany mentally kicked herself. But before she could take back the question, Wes looked away from the moon and over at her, a combination of humor and heat snapping in his eyes. “No, not because of a woman.” He set his beer down on the back windowsill and came toward her slowly. “I spent eighteen years in and out of foster care. Lived in single-parent homes, stayed with married couples, retirees. When I was seven, the Kolkers took me in. They were warm and welcoming in the beginning. Happy. I let myself feel secure. But they eventually split over money troubles and I was spit right back into the system.” His throat worked. “I’ve found situations that felt right. Friends, a job, a foster family. I thought that was it. I’d stick. But it turned out I was just a stop along the way for someone else.”

Bethany could only partially relate to that. Her relationships had never been anything but pit stops, but at least she had a family and friends. They were constants for her. Constants Wes never had. “I’m sorry.”

Without sacrificing their cemented eye contact, he took out her ponytail and worked his fingers through her hair. “I don’t want sorrys from you.”

“No,” she whispered, wetting her lips. “You just want me to make this stop along the way more interesting.”

Conflict tightened his features. “Never lied about that.”

“No, you haven’t.”

His mouth was closer now, hovering just above hers. “Goddamn.” His gaze trailed over every inch of her face. “If there was ever a woman I’d stick for, darlin’—”

Bethany surged up on her toes and locked their mouths together. What was her other option? Hearing the rest of that sentence? No. No, sir . . .

Oh good God, his mouth felt great.

He didn’t lead her into some perfected dance or impose his will on her. He just let the kiss happen, let it unfold like an unwritten story. His uneven exhale filled her mouth and his body pressed close, slowly, swaying with the breeze as their lips parted and the tips of their tongues met once, twice. It was the exact opposite of what she would have expected from kissing a twenty-three-year-old man. It was unique to them and the moment and she could barely feel her fingertips.

Keep your head. Keep your balance.

Wes sipped at her upper lip and she quite helplessly melted against him, still on her toes, letting him guide his tongue into her mouth, sweeping it across hers. His fingers were gentle and reverent in her hair, his opposite arm finding a place wrapped around her hips, urging her close until their lower bodies pressed and they moaned into each other’s mouths.

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