Tools of Engagement

Page 31

After a moment, he nodded, temporary warmth moving in his face. “Yeah, darlin’. I will.”

Wes stared into the sunken eyes of his half sister and he could see her as she’d been at seventeen. Lonely, unsure of herself, just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Like he’d told Bethany, Becky had a harder time than him. He suspected he only knew the half of what she’d gone through while being wrung out by the system. By the time he’d met her, the damage had already been done. To both of them. He’d been too jaded by his experience to love her the way a brother should. The guilt he’d harbored over that might even be part of the reason he’d gotten on the plane to New York—and thank Christ he had.

Never in his life had Wes felt like he was standing in the right spot. Until now.

Not only with Laura. Or Bethany. Or the friends he’d made in Port Jefferson.

No, he was meant to be there standing in front of Becky at this crossroads in her life. This wasn’t about him. Or his pain. Or lack of belonging. It was bigger than any of those things. And for once, he wasn’t thinking about skating away and avoiding entanglements. This was it. He was going to let himself get tangled up.

The cool sweep of relief in his chest only reinforced his decision.

“Hey.” When his voice emerged unsteady, he took a long breath and centered himself. “Look at me and listen good.”

She crossed her arms and waited, her stance belligerent but her eyes full of tears. Damn, he hadn’t done enough for her. Not by a damn sight. But he could change that now. He could stop using his past to excuse his commitment issues and dig the hell in.

“You’re my sister and I care about you.”

Her arms dropped slowly to her sides.

“You’re a survivor and a fighter, all right? You’re going to come out clean on the other side of this and see your daughter again. You don’t have a choice. Laura needs her mother. She needs you, Becky.”

“That’s why I’m here,” she croaked.

“You’re here because you love her. Of course you do.” He stepped closer and put a hand on her shoulder, visibly stunning her. Had he ever even hugged his sister? “Look, there is no time limit on me being here. I’ve got Laura while you figure everything out. She’s happy here.”

His niece was happy . . . with him. It was still almost impossible to believe that he’d come here totally inept in all things family. All things children, love, and . . . permanence. But he’d created stability where none had existed before. Not only for Laura, but for himself. Jesus, he really wasn’t going anywhere. He was in this. And it felt right.

“Look.” Wes squeezed Becky’s shoulder. “If I can figure this shit out, Becky, anyone can.”

That got a watery laugh out of her. “Who are you anymore?”

“Your brother.” He swallowed hard. “I know I wasn’t a good one in the past. But you can count on me now, all right?”

Emotion clouded over her features. “I knew I shouldn’t take her. I just thought . . . it’s been so long. What kind of a mother am I, leaving her kid for over a month?”

“You made sure she’d have someone to care for her. That’s more consideration than we were given a lot of the time.”

“God knows that’s true.” She swiped curious eyes. “Who was that woman?”

Wes considered the question. “Let’s call her my reluctant girlfriend.”

They shared another bittersweet laugh and for the first time, he acknowledged the bond that lay between them. An acknowledgment that was a long time coming. Maybe it would change things. He didn’t know, but he had hope, and he was pretty sure the two people waiting for him inside the house had a lot to do with it.

Having that safety net gave him the courage to say what came next. “I don’t know how these things work, but I can find out about becoming Laura’s temporary guardian. If you’re open to that. It won’t be forever, but I want her to have some proof I’m staying as long as she needs me. I would have killed for that when I was a kid, you know?”

His sister cast a wistful glance toward the house, not speaking for several moments. “I think that could be a good idea. I’ll think about it.”

Wes let out the breath he wasn’t aware he’d been holding. “Becky . . .” He hesitated for a moment, then pulled her into a hug. “It’s going to be all right.”

Wes walked through the front door of the house, sending Bethany’s heart into a marathon. He was alone and Bethany didn’t know whether to be relieved or sad about that. For Laura’s part, she bounded off the couch like a shot, squealing and skidding to a halt in front of her uncle. Without missing a beat, he tossed her up in the air like pizza dough, catching her on the way down in a hug. “Hey, kid.”

She patted his back with sticky ice cream hands. “Hey.”

There was a smile on his face, but when he met Bethany’s eyes over his niece’s back, there was unrest spinning in their depths. “I wasn’t sure what to do about dinner, so I ordered pizza. Again. It’s on the way,” she said, her stomach full of helium. “I should go,” she breathed, stuffing her cell into her purse.

“Wait.” Wes set Laura down and ruffled her hair. “Can you go wash your hands for dinner and pick out a bedtime book for later? I need to talk to Bethany.”

Laura gaped at Bethany. “Is she in trouble?”

“Naw, she’s not in trouble.” He tapped her nose. “Go ahead.”


The little girl sped from the room, sliding in her socks as she rounded first into the hallway. Bethany remained rooted to the spot beside the couch watching Wes enter the kitchen and return with two bottled beers. He offered her one and she declined with a headshake, waiting as he drained half of his own. Twice he opened his mouth to say something, but closed it and shook his head instead.

Bethany’s feet were moving before her head issued the command. She stopped in front of Wes, plucked the beer out of his hand, and set it down on the table. And she put her arms around him.

Wes wrapped her in such a tight embrace, the breath in her lungs was expelled in a giant whoosh.

“I can’t leave Laura,” he muttered into the crook of her neck. “I can’t.”

Her fingers threaded into his hair. “No, of course not.”

“I mean ever.” He lifted his head, emotion rippling along his jawline. “I put Becky in another Uber back to Jersey. She’s not going to push seeing her daughter for now, but even if my sister gets her life on track, I think . . .” Self-doubt flickered in his eyes. “Laura needs me, right?”


He let out a hard breath. “I have to stick, Bethany.”

There was something familiar in the way he said those words. They sounded like every single time she’d questioned her own capabilities. Or done something that scared her, like flip a house, plan a wedding, lead a Just Us League meeting, or babysit a child. She knew that rush of fear for the unknown very well, and she suddenly felt connected to him in a way she didn’t think could be severed easily, to this man she’d once loathed. Or thought she loathed, anyway. Had any of her vitriol toward him ever been real to begin with?

Bethany didn’t know. She only knew she wanted to smooth the jaggedness inside of him now, the way she’d wished was possible for herself so many times.

“Wes,” she whispered, levering herself up on her toes until her lips landed against his surprised ones . . . and they tripped slowly into a kiss that was equal parts voracious and pure. Honest. He let himself be kissed, let Bethany hum comfort in her throat while mating their tongues, let her fingers twist in his hair and drag him down, before he grunted and tried to yank her up into his body at the same time. His arms were still around her as far as they could go and the embrace was so intimate, she could feel his entire body pulse, his inhales and exhales, the thick swells and sensual dips of his muscle. Could smell his sweat and deodorant.

The tempo turned desperate, but her need to give solace never abated, and she could feel him being undone by it. And it gratified her when Wes reached out for more, attacking her mouth and taking possession of the understanding she offered.

His right hand dove into her hair, gripping and angling her for deeper tastes, his body bowing over hers until she was almost bent backward. God, it was glorious, being needed this badly. Needing in return. Being in wordless agreement and not having to guess what a man was thinking. She knew every thought in his head because he was expressing it with his tongue, lips, and teeth.

It got to be too much, the pulse points throughout her body hammering, her mind reeling, her balance obliterated. So much feeling directed at one person and she was afraid of defining it, so she forced herself to put an end to the kiss and there they stood, still wrapped in each other’s arms, frantic breaths filling the scant space between them.

“Is that a yes to drinks?” he said, finally.

Bethany puffed a laugh. “Oh, now it’s drinks, plural?”

He brushed a hand over her hair. “One of anything could never be enough with you.”

There was a vicious tug in her middle. “Is that a fact?”

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