Tools of Engagement

Page 27

The strain of relief left Bethany and she slumped, depleted, over his shoulder. Wes turned and walked them into the house, her legs dangling around his hips. All the way through the kitchen, the living room, and the hallway, she told herself to put her damn feet on the ground and go home, but she kept silencing herself in favor of one more minute in his arms. She had a million questions, like . . . mainly, didn’t he want an orgasm? That erection pointed toward an enthusiastic yes. But also, what happened now? Were they completely done being enemies? Did he expect to hook up with her again? Like on a regular basis? Was she okay with that?

Wes slapped her on the ass. “Stop thinking so hard.”

Bethany’s mouth fell open and she started to sputter a protest. What came out instead was, “What about you?” All breathy-like and simpering. “Don’t you want me to take care of, um . . . that?”

A male grunt. “I’m good.” He let her down in front of the door and laid a final firm kiss on her mouth. “It’s going to drive you nuts leaving something undone and that guarantees me a next time with you.” He winked. “Good night, Bethany.”

She walked to her car on Rubbermaid legs, wondering if the whole afternoon had been a dream. And refusing to acknowledge how much she wanted to stay asleep.

Chapter Fourteen

It was still dark the following morning when Wes walked into Grinders, the coffee shop on Main Street. He was gritty-eyed and more than a little cranky, to tell the truth. Sending Bethany on her merry way when she’d been inclined to return sexual favors had seemed like the only option at the time, but around two in the morning, he’d started wondering if he’d fallen out of the Stupid Tree and smacked his head on a couple of branches.

There in the darkness, he’d envisioned himself putting down roots in Port Jefferson, maybe even trying for something real and lasting with Bethany. Something more than sex. Or the wanting of it, rather.

He’d been up and pacing before the ink dried on that thought.

It was getting harder and harder to deny that Bethany made him wonder if more than a vagabond existence was possible. If maybe his presence in Laura’s life was positive and could continue to be that way.


But what about the hard lessons he’d learned in foster care? Was he going to completely disregard them now? Life could seem stable one minute and get shaken up like a martini in the next. Without warning or a satisfying reason. Was he setting himself up for disappointment? Loss?

Needing to clear his head with some manual labor, Wes had dropped off Laura at Outlander Ringtone’s house early this morning so he could make up for the time he’d lost on the flip yesterday. Demo was complete, thanks to Ollie and Carl proving their salt (and pepper), and this morning he was getting to work on framing out the walls they’d knocked down due to water damage. Bethany’s budget had allowed him to hire some garbage removers to haul off the debris, including the mangled floorboards, ancient appliances, and old insulation.

Wes could only hope a full day of woodwork would keep his mind off his own wood. But he wasn’t holding his breath. Not when he was already counting the minutes until Bethany showed up on the site. God help him, he couldn’t wait to see how she’d act around him now that he’d rung her bell a little bit.

Had she been everything he’d fantasized about?

Not even close.

She’d eclipsed anything his brain could have conjured up by a good thousand miles or so. All those times he’d gone home to his empty house during lunch breaks and beat off in Bethany’s honor, he’d imagined angry sex. Hate-fucking, to be exact. That wasn’t what he’d gotten. You didn’t have sex, Wes’s dick reminded him.

“No shit,” he muttered, sidling up to the counter of the sleepy coffee shop and waiting for the owner to mosey out of the back room. Oldies played from a radio on a corner shelf, just below a sign that read PILATES? I THOUGHT YOU SAID PIE AND LATTES.

Damn, that usually got a laugh out of him.

Wes leaned onto his elbows and buried his face in his hands, memories from the night before infiltrating like ninjas. No, there hadn’t been anything angry about last night. The whole evening, even before he’d brought Bethany out into the backyard, had been so . . . nice. The tea party, stealing touches with Bethany in the kitchen, putting Laura to bed and getting the L word dropped on him like a sack of stones. For the first time in a long time, he’d just lived in the moment without reminding himself it would end.

He’d let himself belong.

Bethany had a hell of a lot to do with that. Yesterday, they’d both been feeling their way in the dark. Together. Learning as they went.

Their relationship was supposed to be simple. They were going to swipe at each other until one of them gave in and pounced. But when it came time to pounce last night, he’d been more concerned with trust. Building a foundation. His mind kept telling him things weren’t possible, but his . . . heart had cotton stuffed into its ears.

Two college-aged kids, a guy and a girl, stumbled out of the back room, tangling ankles, both of their faces inching toward fuchsia. “Sorry for the wait,” said the girl. “What can I get you?”

Wes tried not to let his theory that they’d been making out show on his face. “Large coffee, please. Black.”

Before he’d finished placing his order, the bell rang over the door and in walked Stephen. Bethany’s brother had a frown on his unshaven face, distracted by a note in his hand, so it took him a moment to register Wes standing at the counter. Wes tipped his hat. “Morning.”

Stephen rolled back his shoulders. “Well, well. If it isn’t the competition.” He sauntered his way through a few tables, the note at his side. “I see I’m not the only one getting an early start. Where’s your partner in crime? Powdering her nose?”

A bug of irritation crawled up his neck. “Women don’t powder their noses anymore, man. This isn’t the fifties.”

The eldest Castle slowed his gait. “What do they do?”

“I don’t know, but it’s liquid and it lasts all day. That’s what the commercials tell me.” Wes took out his wallet and dropped the appropriate amount of singles on the counter. “And anyway, Bethany has been getting her hands dirty, just like she said she would. Don’t underestimate her.”

“Ah, Jesus. I know that tone you’re throwing at me. I know it because I heard it from Travis when he innocently started hanging out with Georgie.” He put air quotes around the word “innocently,” causing him to drop the note in his hand. With a curse, he stooped down to pick it back up. “All of a sudden, he was an expert on my kid sister and now you’re doing it, too. Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this time it’s not going to end in an Italian honeymoon.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean—” Wes reeled his curiosity back in like a ten-pound trout. “You know what? Keep it to yourself.”

Stephen crossed his arms, leaned back against a table, and waited.

Wes took his time with his first sip of coffee. “I mean it. I don’t want to know.”


“Can I get you something?” called the guy behind the counter.

Stephen pushed off the table. “I’ll have a fresh squeezed orange juice, please.” He sniffed at Wes’s coffee. “Some of us want to live long, healthy lives.”

“Then I’d stop trying to piss everyone off.”

His old boss barked a laugh. “You’re in a mood.” He drummed casual fingers on the counter. “Maybe you want to talk through your renovation plans?”

Wes tilted his head. “Now, Stephen. You wouldn’t be asking me for inside information on the competition, would you?”

“Please. Like I need help winning.” Stephen unwrapped a straw and attempted to pop it into his orange juice cup, missing the hole several times. He stopped trying with a withering sigh. “I do need help with something, though.”

“What’s that?”

“What else? Kristin. She’s been leaving me these notes around the house.” He waved the piece of paper still wedged between his knuckles. “There’s some kind of significance to them, but I can’t figure it out.”

Wes held out his hand. “Want me to give it a read?”

Stephen hesitated. “As long as you don’t tell anyone the contents. Especially my sister,” he stressed. “Not that I can even decipher the contents, but still.”

“Not surprised. You still think women powder their noses.” Wes took the note and read the handwritten lines.

Things are going to change. Yes, sir. You can count on that.

Signed, your steadfast wife

Wes kept his features schooled. He was seriously regretting his promise not to tell Bethany the contents of the note, because he knew she’d get a kick out of them. Her sister-in-law was definitely as crazy as Bethany claimed. She was obviously hinting at the fact that she was pregnant, but instead of outright telling Stephen, she’d decided to terrorize him first. After that snide comment about Bethany, Wes couldn’t resist getting in on the fun.

He handed the note back to Stephen on a blown-out breath. “I don’t know, man. Sounds like she’s mighty unhappy. You been giving her problems?”

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