Tools of Engagement

Page 32

“Damn straight.” He nipped at her bottom lip. “I’ll ask you again, is that a yes?”

She drew a circle on his chest, finishing with a playful finger shove. “It’s an I’ll think about it.”

Wes growled. “God, you make me fucking crazy, Bethany.” He picked up a piece of her hair and twisted it around his finger. “When I walked back in here, I didn’t know up from down. Now I’m halfway to solid. How’d you do it?”

“You should know,” she whispered, unable to look him in the eye. “You’ve done it for me, more than once now.”

Admitting that was so exposing, her body broke his hold involuntarily. Though she immediately wished to be back in his arms, she all but dove for her purse, slinging it over her shoulder. When she chanced a look at Wes, he was tracking her movements with single-minded intensity. “Stay.”

“I . . . have plans,” she blurted.

His eyebrow ticked up. “Come again?”

“With Rosie.” Not that her friend knew about said plans, but Bethany was in sudden need of tequila and girl talk.

He grunted, but didn’t relax. In fact, there were thoughts churning behind his gaze. A multitude of them. “I asked Becky to think about giving me guardianship. Of Laura.” She was given no time to process that revelation, because Wes advanced on her, not stopping until her head was tilted back and their fingertips were brushing, his breath feathering her lips. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m here to stay, so when you get in bed tonight and think of me, remember to change the way you do it. Instead of that one sweaty session where we break the headboard, I’d be in your bed night after night after fucking night, learning what makes your thighs shake. We’d have to lose the headboard altogether.”

Her ears turned into wind tunnels. “You don’t make the design choices in this relation—”

“Relationship?” he prompted when she cut herself off, his tone triumphant. “When you’re ready to say it out loud, I’ll be waiting right here.”

Catch your breath. “With your blue balls?”

“They’re more of a blackish purple at this point.”

“Ouch.” The doorbell rang and she took the opportunity to escape his magnetism. “Good night, Wes.”

He groaned. “Good night, Bethany.”

Bethany opened the door to the pizza delivery guy and asked him to wait, unable to resist a final glance back at Wes over her shoulder. She found his powerful arms crossed, hair still mussed from her fingers. So masculine in his dirty work clothes, it should be a crime. “Your pizza is here,” she said, her tone more suited to a poetry reading.

He reached for the wallet in his pocket. “Thanks.”



She swallowed hard. “If Becky says yes, you’re going to do an amazing job.”

A muscle popped in his cheek. “Thank you.”

Get out of here while you still have the willpower.

Her reserve of the stuff was running dangerously low.

Chapter Sixteen

Every time Bethany walked into Buena Onda, something new had been woven seamlessly into the atmosphere. Rosie wanted the restaurant to be an experience, and Bethany could safely say she’d accomplished that task.

Tonight, there was a string of lights, an angled rug hugging the floorboards, a new picture on the wall. Only a decorator’s eye would pick out the changes, they were so subtle, and the ambiance never changed. It was always a warm hustle-bustle. A noisy welcome that she could sink into and decide what journey to let the menu take her on.

She’d been right to come here tonight. Bethany weaved through the tables toward the back of the restaurant where Rosie would be putting together takeout orders and supervising the kitchen, and the sparkling depth swallowed her up in a hug. She waved at Dominic where he sat at his reserved table, sipping a beer and reading the evening edition of the Daily News. Several patrons called out to her or lifted their glass, not-too-discreetly whispering in her wake.

Nothing malicious, just Port Jeff gossip. Well earned, too. She’d given them quite a few topics to choose from by defecting from Brick & Morty, signing on for a reality-show competition, and being caught after sunset at Wes’s house. Not to mention picking his niece up from school, a distinctly domestic activity.

Remembering the way Laura’s feet felt in her lap, she experienced some hollowness in her throat. What were Wes and Laura doing right now? Eating pizza and watching infomercials? It scared her a little how badly she suddenly wanted to turn around, leave Buena Onda, and go back.

In other words, she definitely needed the break. She’d been around Wes so much during the flip, she was due some distance and perspective. He was getting to her in ways she didn’t anticipate. Fine, she’d always been annoyingly attracted to him physically, even after she’d decreed him a low-down asshole. What was she going to do now that the truth had surfaced? Wes had more layers than she’d given him credit for. He was slightly damaged from an unstable past, funny, observant, and Jesus, he could kiss. She’d never, ever experienced kisses like the ones he’d laid on her.

Most important of all, he was a stand-up man. My God. He’d asked for guardianship of his niece tonight, taking on a challenge that would scare even the most independent adult.

Yes, Wes was brave and full of heart and . . . she really needed a reality check before she did something stupid like fall for the man.

A few yards away, Rosie passed through the swinging door out of the kitchen and into the staff station, a nook built by her husband that contained shelves laden with cutlery, coffee paraphernalia, hot sauces, and other condiments. She did a double take when she saw Bethany. “Hey, stranger! I haven’t seen you since the wedding,” Rosie said, stacking and organizing what looked like credit card receipts. “How is the flip going?”

Bethany clasped her hands beneath her chin. “Amazing, of course. I’m in charge.”

Even though Bethany made her friend laugh, she didn’t get as much pleasure out of it as usual. Because she wasn’t being honest. In truth, she likened the flip to flying down railroad tracks without brakes. That would shatter the illusion she’d worked so hard to create, though, wouldn’t it? Even with her best friend?

In the space of seconds, she’d gone back to being the woman who never showed a single weakness. The woman who hid behind style and bravado, who would never admit she didn’t know how the hell the flip was going. Wes told her it was going fine and they’d been seeing daily progress, but arriving at the hazardous mess every morning made her stress and self-doubt flare up. Each day, she put her head down and focused on whatever project she’d chosen. It helped to put on blinders and do one thing, but stepping back and realizing what a massive undertaking she’d shouldered? It was hard. She wasn’t coping the way she presented to the cameras. She wanted everything perfect now. Until then, the unfinished mess was a reflection of her.

Her fingers crept toward her neck, itching to attack the spot Wes had put salve on earlier this morning, but she forced it down to her side. “I can see you’re swamped,” she said to Rosie, waggling her eyebrows. “Definitely a good problem to have, right? I’ll just grab a table and if you have time for a drink, come join me. No pressure!”

Rosie smiled. “Okay.” She craned her neck to look past Bethany. “Take the two-top by the window. I’ll send over the waitress.”

“Two-top. Look at you with the restaurant lingo.”

With a little shimmy, Bethany headed back toward the front of Buena Onda, winking at the people whom she suspected were whispering about her. Her smile remained intact, but on the inside, a million thoughts pinged around her skull. Were they laying odds that her brother was going to win Flip Off? Were they calling her a cougar for making time with a twenty-three-year-old man? Could they see her lack of a manicure, thanks to her grueling new gig?

Bethany curled her nails into her palm and took a seat at the table in front, thanking the waitress who handed her a menu. Though she was positive her appearance was serene, she was kind of sweating sitting alone, especially with all the whispers, so she took out her phone—and found a text from Wes. A laugh tumbled out of her before she could stop it.

It was a picture of him blowing on his credit card while QVC advertised a diamond broach in the background. But the best part was Laura mid-cheer on the couch, her delight obvious.

Bethany pressed her smiling lips together and texted back.

BETHANY: Always hold out for diamonds. The kid knows her stuff.

WES: This is bad. She’s no longer accepting Cheerios as bribes. If I end up promising her jewelry to get five more minutes of sleep tomorrow morning, you’re in trouble.

BETHANY: Am I? That’s not my credit card.

WES: You’ll have a cranky foreman on your hands.

BETHANY: Awww. Don’t be cranky.

WES: How are you going to cheer me up?

Bethany coughed quietly and scanned her surroundings, wondering if anyone noticed the way she was pressing her thighs together. These text messages weren’t even naughty. Not really, even if they seemed to be veering in that direction. But she could hear Wes’s gruff Texas drawl in her ear and imagine his hands molding her hips, cheating lower to her butt, squeezing.

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