Tools of Engagement

Page 29

“It’s not a big deal. It’s just a stress thing.”

“When things aren’t going perfect.”

“Yes. Sometimes.” He heard her swallow. “All the time.”

The plow dug deeper. It killed him to know he’d once believed she had it all together, when in actuality, she’d needed someone to confide in. She wasn’t cool and unflappable the way people assumed. Not by a damn stretch. “I’ve got a first-aid kit in my truck. Let me put something on it and then you’ll leave it the hell alone for the day.”

“Don’t boss me around.”

Honesty made his voice raw. “I don’t like seeing this mark on you.”

Her lips parted on a puff of breath. “You can’t see it unless you get really close, but people will be able to see a bandage if you put one on. It’ll peek out.”

“Who cares?”

“I do,” she muttered. “I do.”

There was a lot going on here. Wes wanted to know every doubt and insecurity in her head, but he suspected if he pushed any more, she’d dig in her heels. In fact, he was going to be grateful for as much as she’d revealed this morning. He was willing to bet she didn’t do that with many people, if anyone. But she’d done it for the man she’d once claimed to hate.

It’s complicated, indeed.

“Just some salve, then, all right?”

She gave him a grudging nod and Wes led her to his truck, a hand on the small of her back. He kept an eye on her while retrieving the kit, in case she tried to make a break for it. She settled for drinking coffee and looking impatient instead, but he could see through her. Giving him access to the red blemish probably hadn’t been easy for her and he was . . . humbled.

A lot like he’d been last night when Laura said I love you.

These females were carving him up like a Thanksgiving turkey.

He wanted to kiss this one in the worst way, though, and the resulting knots in his stomach made his fingers unsteady as he applied the salve to the smooth base of her neck. But he’d never been a coward. Not a single day in his life. Plus she’d given him a strip of pride by letting him fix up her neck. Now it was his turn. “At the risk of complicating this more, Bethany, I want to take you out.”


“Don’t act like it’s some crazy-ass notion. You’d have let me take you to bed last night if I hadn’t sent you home.”

She gaped at him, but Wes could see gratitude in her eyes. This woman preferred sparring over coddling and he’d given her a way to stomach the latter. “I went home voluntarily, thank you very much. But even if I’d stayed, it’s a huge leap—huge—to land on dating.”

“I didn’t say dating. I said a date. But if you insist we’re dating, I’m not going to contradict you.”

“Were you working with polyurethane this morning? Did you sniff it?”

Wes laughed. “So you’re telling me you need some convincing.”

Bethany moved out of his reach. “I am not encouraging that.”

“You said it’s complicated, baby. Heard it plain as day.”

“I meant you give me indigestion.”

This woman. She was such a fucking work of art, it was torturous standing this close without holding her, kissing her, tickling her. Something. “One drink. Think about it. We already had a beer in my backyard. It’s not such a stretch.”

“In this town, it would be. One drink and people would start asking me if we’re planning on having one or two kids and if we’ve decided on a color scheme for the nursery.”

“A neutral yellow sounds about right.”

She dismissed him with a groan, leaving him standing at his truck. Right before she turned away, though, Wes caught sight of her blooming smile and he held on to that memory for the next half hour while Slade interviewed him on what would eventually be the porch. He was forced to pretend like the son of a bitch hadn’t tried to ask out his woman while answering questions like “Are you worried about losing? How worried? Do you wish you’d stayed with your original team? Would you like to know which team is farther ahead?”

Wes answered no to everything and didn’t elaborate, no matter how vigorously the director rolled his finger, begging Wes to keep going. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Bethany and the window guy moving from room to room, the middle-aged man taking notes on a clipboard until they were finished. Finally, the producers let Wes get back to work and called Bethany over for the same interrogation.

It wasn’t easy working with the cameras in his face all day, but they made a hell of a lot of progress while listening to Slade do the same pun-tastic takes twenty times. Bethany worked on sanding down the salvageable walls in the back bedrooms. Wes, Ollie, and Carl started framing the new floor plan, which would transform the dining and living room into the open concept space Bethany wanted.

The film crew started packing it in for the day around three o’clock, thank Christ. If someone approached Wes with a boom mic one more time and asked how he felt about their progress, he was going to snap that thing over his knee. Thankful for the chance to work a few hours in peace before heading home, Wes was getting ready to staple insulation into the frame he’d just installed when his phone rang.

His head fell back and he issued a prayer at the ceiling that it wasn’t the babysitter canceling again. If he kept cutting out early, they weren’t going to finish this job in time. But when he looked at the screen, ice prickled along his skin. It wasn’t Outlander Ringtone calling, it was his sister.


“Wes. Hey.”

Hearing the anxious note in her voice, he slowly set down his staple gun. “Becky. What’s up? Where are you?”

“I’m back. I’m in town.” Traffic buzzed past in the background. “I’m at the train station. Can you come pick me up?”

Bethany appeared in the room to his left, but stopped moving when she saw whatever expression was on his face. Shock? Dread? Both? “Where is your car?”

“Had to sell it. Can you come or not?”

Her agitation was like worms burrowing in his bones. Was she using again? He’d have to see her to be sure, but the defensiveness she was already employing had him leaning toward yes. And that meant he didn’t want her around Laura. Protectiveness lapped at his neck like a rising current, surprising him with its intensity. When he’d arrived in Port Jefferson, he’d been determined to do his best, but he’d never considered himself a better option than anyone, even his sister. He’d just been the only option. Now, though? He couldn’t help feeling like the gatekeeper between his niece and anything remotely negative. Not happening.

Becky wasn’t a bad person. She’d just grown up with very little guidance and it hadn’t been enough to overcome the challenges that came with being orphaned and moved around so often she couldn’t find stability. It was no wonder she didn’t know how to provide it now. But his sympathy for her didn’t override his need to do what was best for his niece.

“Yeah, stay where you are. I’ll come get you and we’ll talk, all right?”

Silence passed. “Fine.”

“See you soon,” Wes said, hanging up the phone. He smacked the device against his palm a few times, but didn’t feel the impact. “That was my sister. I’m sorry, I have to go pick her up. She’s at the train station.” His hands were unsteady when he tried to dial the babysitter. “I should let the babysitter know I’m going to be late. I don’t know what Becky’ll be like . . .”

Bethany appeared frozen, but recovered to say, “Cancel the babysitter. I can go get Laura. I don’t mind staying as late as you need.”


“Yeah. Yes. I know how to order a pizza.” She fussed with her ponytail. “Go.”

Wes didn’t think. He just did what felt right, leaning in and kissing Bethany hard on the mouth. “Thank you.” He slipped his key ring out of his pocket and detached the house key, tucking it into the front pocket of her jeans. “I’ll call the school on the way and let them know you’re coming.”

He only allowed himself a few seconds to watch the flush spread across her cheeks before he turned and left. On the way to the train station, one phrase repeated itself over and over in his head.

I’m not ready to go.

Chapter Fifteen

Bethany’s life was a landscape that never stopped changing.

Last week, she’d thought the flip would shake things up. That it would riddle her with anxiety and force her to confront the woman she’d become at age thirty. Apparently she’d only been half right.

She was now a member of an It’s Complicated arrangement.

Those words had come out of her very own mouth, despite her better judgment, and they’d never been truer than right now, with a five-year-old eating an ice cream cone in the backseat of her immaculate Mercedes, singing along to Katy Perry in between licks. What in the sweet hell was going on?

And why didn’t she mind it?

Driving Laura home was exactly where she needed to be, but more than that, she’d probably be enjoying herself, if it weren’t for the harbinger of Wes’s imminent departure hanging over the sunroof like a thunderhead. Weren’t they supposed to lock horns for at least another year? Was he going to leave now that his sister had come back on the scene? Why did that possibility make her short of breath?

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