Tools of Engagement

Page 30

What she should be was relieved that the man who seemed aware of her every flaw—and didn’t hesitate to point them out—was leaving. No more cracks about her cloven hooves. No more inappropriate comments about how her ass looked in yoga pants.

No more breathless kisses, either. Or those unexpected moments when she couldn’t help but unburden herself to Wes and, oddly, he didn’t make her feel judged. No more of his amused smile. No more of him riling her up at the exact times she needed to be riled.

Bethany realized they’d been sitting in the driveway of his house for a good minute and cut off the engine. Her gaze strayed to Laura in the rearview mirror, then dipped to where the red spot had been on her neck. His salve had done the trick, hadn’t it? But it hadn’t just been the medicine. After they’d bickered in front of his truck, she’d simply lost the desire to attack the area with her nails. Her stress had dipped to nonexistent, because Wes had a way of talking her through her tension without her even realizing it.

Expecting perfect can only lead to disappointment. Besides, it’s the flaws that give a person character. That’s where the beauty hides.

Oh God.

I don’t think I want him to go.

“Elsa, can we go inside?”

“Yes.” Bethany shook herself and exited the car, rounding the bumper to let Laura out of her booster seat. When she’d arrived at the school and realized she needed a certain kind of child seat to legally transport Laura, she’d panicked, but Judy was kind enough to let her borrow an extra. Bethany wasn’t even going to deduct points for the fossilized Cheerios inside the cup holder. “How’s the strawberry? I would have pegged you for a chocolate girl.”

“Uncle Wes likes strawberry,” said the little girl, hopping out onto the ground, as if that explained everything. Uncle Wes liked something so she liked it, too. “Where is he?”

Would Wes want his niece to know her mother was in town? She wasn’t sure. They hadn’t spoken about it, so she settled on a lie, even though it made her feel yucky. “He’s working a little late,” she said breezily, using the loose key to let them into the house. “What do you usually do after school?”

“Ummm. If Let’s Color is watching me, we color.”

“I see Uncle Wes has you using their illustrious nicknames.”

Laura giggled. “You talk weird. Can we watch infomercials?”

“Um, sure.” Bethany’s lips twitched. “Is that the norm in this household?”

“The what?” Laura asked, crunching into her waffle cone. “Uncle Wes watches them with me when I wake up too early.”

“Oh.” Somewhere in the region of her throat, her stupid heart was having an official summit with her ovaries. Translators and minute-takers were present and everything. A bagel tray had been ordered. It was all very alarming. “I’m sure we can find some infomercials. My favorites are the jewelry ones.”

The little girl’s eyes widened. “Like necklaces?”

“You like necklaces?”

“Yes! I don’t have any.”

“Well, we certainly can’t have that. Next time I come over, I’ll bring my costume jewelry and you can pick one.”

Laura’s resulting smile was a display of pink teeth and cone crumbles. “Are you my Uncle Wes’s girlfriend?”

“No! No, we’re just friends.” Bethany set her purse on the back of the couch and played with the straps. “Why? Did he call me his girlfriend?”

“No, Megan and Danielle’s mom did.”

“Oh, did she?” Bethany smiled, filing away that information. “Isn’t that swell.”

Laura flopped onto the couch lengthways in an apparent ice cream coma and Bethany scrolled the channels until she landed on QVC, where they were showing off an exquisite solitaire peridot pendant in a white-gold setting. “Do you have one of those?” Laura used her toe to point at the television screen. “I want that one.”

“We have so much in common,” Bethany said, sinking down into the couch and promptly finding herself with a pair of little girl feet in her lap. It was nice.

Very nice.

They’d been watching QVC for fifteen minutes, discarding their previous favorites for whatever bling was on the screen several times, when Bethany heard a car stop at the curb outside. It didn’t sound like Wes’s truck. Maybe it was one of the neighbors? With a prickle on the back of her neck, Bethany carefully set Laura’s feet back onto the cushion and crossed to the front window.

There was a woman climbing out of the back of what appeared to be an Uber. Her hair was unbrushed and she wore a man’s flannel. Though her eyes were shadowed, there was no mistaking the resemblance to Laura.

Becky tripped a little on the path on her way toward the front door, and Bethany knew something was off. Way off. Bethany didn’t know a lot about this woman, except that she’d been a foster child like Wes and hadn’t been able to cope with raising a child alone, at least for the time being. She also knew that Becky had used drugs before—and that meant she could be using them now. In other words, she needed to intercept Becky before she came into the house. No question. At least until Wes could get there.

As quickly as she could, Bethany shot off a text to Wes and opened the front door without making a sound, slipping out onto the stoop. She descended with the brightest smile she could muster, highly aware that this woman’s reception of her could range from friendly to hostile. Especially if she suspected Bethany was barring her entrance to the house. Come on, Wes. Get here.

“Hi,” she said, trying to keep her voice low, so Laura wouldn’t hear them from inside the house. “I’m Bethany.”

The other woman’s gait slowed, suspicion blanketing her features. “This is my house. What are you doing here?”

“I’m a guest. Of Wes.”

“Oh.” Becky rubbed her tongue along her gums. “He’s not here, is he?”

“No, he went to pick you up.”

She avoided Bethany’s gaze, her hands disappearing and twisting in the cuffs of her flannel. “I’m just here to get my kid.”

The bigger picture cleared. “You didn’t want Wes to be here when you came.”

“I don’t need to talk to you. I don’t even know you.”

“No, you don’t,” Bethany said calmly. “But Wes is on his way. Why don’t we just wait until he gets here?”

She coughed into the crook of her elbow. “I got a place to take her.”

Bethany couldn’t help the flame of anger igniting in her chest. Becky was just going to take Laura and go without telling Wes. She was trying her best to have empathy for this woman who was obviously going through something, possibly addiction, but she couldn’t help but want to rage on Wes’s behalf. He would have been devastated.

“Wes is coming. Let’s just wait.”

“I don’t have to wait to go into my own house. To see my own kid.”

“If you didn’t want Wes here, you know there’s a reason you shouldn’t.”

That logic took a moment to infiltrate, but when it did, Becky’s eyes filled with tears. She started to issue a rejoinder, but Wes’s truck came flying around the end of the block, braking hard where the Uber had been moments before.

His attention was locked on the window of the house when he climbed from the truck, relief crossing his features when he didn’t see Laura. He must have put on his hat after leaving Project Doomsday, but he took it off now and slapped it against his thigh restlessly, as if unaware of the nervous gesture. “Why did you have to do that?” Wes said finally, addressing his sister with a thick voice. “You’re unfit to see her if you’re playing these kinds of games, Becky. You left me in charge until you sorted yourself out. You made me promise I wouldn’t leave until you had. You haven’t. So what the hell am I supposed to do?”

“I do have my shit together, Wes.” She sniffed hard. “I’m living with my boyfriend in Linden. I got a job.”

“Boyfriend,” he echoed in disbelief. “You’re not even divorced yet.”

“If I could track his ass down, I would be!”

“Keep your voice quiet,” he growled. “She doesn’t need to see you like this.”

“I’m fine.”

Laughing without humor, he paced in a circle and came back. “You got a room for her in Linden? Babysitters? Have you enrolled her in school?”

Becky’s expression was the very picture of a woman treading water. “I’m . . . I’m going to take care of all that. Jesus. Give me five seconds.”

“Take care of it first and then we’ll talk.”

“You can’t stop me from seeing her.”

Strain appeared at the corners of Wes’s eyes. “No, I can’t. But do you really want her to see you like this? Or do you think you can do better?” Wes sent Bethany a pleading look. “Could you go inside and distract her? Please?”

“Yes, of course.” Bethany wheeled around and started to walk up the path, but then stopped and looked back. “Wes, could you give her my number?” she said for his ears alone. “No pressure. I just want to help.”

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