Tools of Engagement

Page 33

Seriously? Her panties were wet after a brief text exchange?

She’d just showered and put on fresh clothes.

I’m not going to answer.

Bethany smacked the phone onto the table, facedown, but snatched it back up before five seconds had passed.

BETHANY: I’d take care of those nasty blue balls, of course.


BETHANY: With all that paint lying around, I can totally paint them a new color.

WES: If you were here, I’d have to spank you for that.

Her fingers hesitated over the screen, trembling. She couldn’t reply or she’d send back gibberish. That was all her brain was capable of producing with that image in her head. Wes laying her facedown over his lap and walloping her bottom with that warm, calloused palm.

WES: Why aren’t you here, Bethany?

That message, so different in tone from the last, struck a totally different chord. Now a pang of yearning joined her desire for physical contact. With Wes.

She missed him. After a matter of hours.

Bad. This is so bad.


Rosie bounced into the seat across from Bethany and she yipped, fumbling her phone and knocking over the red rose flower arrangement in the center of the table. “Oh my God,” she breathed, righting the vase before water could leak out and scanning the restaurant for signs that anyone had witnessed her clumsiness. “Sorry. I just didn’t expect . . . I didn’t think you’d be able to join me when you’re this packed!”

“Here I am,” Rosie said, watching Bethany with a bemused expression. “You looked deep in thought over here.”

“Huh.” She snuck the phone into her pocket. “Did I?”

“Uh-huh.” Rosie kept an eye trained on Bethany while ordering for them. “So let’s talk about Slade Hogan. He came in for lunch yesterday and I thought the waitresses were going to hyperventilate.”

“Oh yeah.” Bethany nodded enthusiastically and tried, without success, to recall the host’s face. “He’s a dish.”

“Worthy of ending your man hiatus?”

Bethany kept right on nodding. Until she started shaking her head. “No.”

Rosie arched a dark brow and leaned back with her just-delivered glass of wine. “Oh?”

“He did ask me out. I passed.”

Her friend gasped. A little too theatrically. “Why would you do that?”

“I can see where you’re going with this.”

“Can you?”

“Is this thing where you answer a question with a question a product of couple’s therapy?”

Rosie laughed into her sip of wine. “Sorry. It’s just that I hear so much gossip being in this place all day and you and a certain cowboy have come under heavy speculation. I wanted to hear it from your mouth.” She shrugged an elegant shoulder. “That wasn’t going to happen without a little goading.”

Bethany subdued her smile. “You’ve been spending too much time with my family.” She tapped her tragically unfiled fingernails on the table. “I’m neither going to confirm nor deny that there is something worth speculating over.”


She lowered her voice. “But if there was, I would need assurances that the phrase I told you so would not be uttered.”

“You’d only have your sister to worry about. But since she’s going to return from Italy in a sexual stupor, you’ve got a decent shot at her letting you off with a lofty sniff or two.”

Bethany hummed. “I guess I can deal with that.”

“Great. I’ll intercept Georgie when she gets home.” Rosie rubbed her hands together and leaned forward. “Tell this horny married lady everything.”

The suspense built while Bethany unnecessarily straightened her fork. “There has been some kissing. I’m thinking of sleeping with him.”

Rosie picked up her cloth napkin and hid her face in it, but not before Bethany caught her grinning. When she dropped it, her composure was back in place. “Oh?”

“Yes. I’m just not sure yet.”

“You were texting with him when I walked over here, weren’t you?”

“About the flip.”

“Construction talk really gets you going, huh?”

Bethany cleared her throat. “Was I that obvious?”

Rosie’s gaze meandered through the restaurant and landed on her husband, who—predictably—was already hard at work watching his wife. “Only to someone who’s spent a lot of time trying to repress their sexual needs.”

“There’s that therapy talk again,” Bethany said absently, drawing a pattern on the table. “Let’s say . . . and this is totally hypothetical . . . Wes stayed in Port Jefferson.” She laughed a little too brightly. “And wanted a”—she made air quotes—“relationship. Wouldn’t that be crazy? I mean, woooo. Come on.”

Rosie set down her drink. “Why would it be crazy?”

Bethany tried to be as casual as possible ticking off her fingers. “He’s seven years younger than me, he doesn’t have any career focus—construction is just what he’s doing now. I mean, he was a bull rider. And we fight all the time. It would be a complete disaster, start to finish.”

Her friend said nothing, simply waiting for her to elaborate.

“And . . . you know, he’s just not thinking this all the way through.” Her shoulder jerked. “Why would he want a relationship—hypothetically—with someone who can’t relax until everything is exactly perfect, but it never is. Ever. It would just get exhausting for him, being around that anxiousness. You know how I am.” She waved a hand. “I like things a certain way.”

“Yes,” Rosie said slowly. “But I never knew you second-guessed yourself. You always seem so confident.”

“I am!” She picked up her wineglass, ignoring the drops that sloshed over the side onto her hand. “No, I totally am. I don’t know what I’m talking about. Just thinking out loud.” Her throat ached with the forced lie. “So, tell me. Did you add a new string of lights to the ceiling? It’s an amazing touch.”

Rosie was obviously hesitant to let her change the subject, but relented. They were able to steal a few more minutes before Rosie went back to work, but long after her friend left, Bethany’s words hovered over the table. Until tonight, she’d never realized how firmly she kept her mask in place, even around her best friend. Even around her sister. She hadn’t realized it until she’d started allowing herself to be less than perfect around Wes.

Of course, he’d kind of ripped the mask off, but that was splitting hairs.

The point was, she’d been a dishonest version of herself tonight and it had never been more obvious. She’d never actually considered a relationship with Wes. Until they’d started working together, the very idea would have been laughable. But now? When Bethany tried to picture them together, as a couple, the vision made her . . . warm. Hopeful.


But those positive emotions didn’t keep her old fears from coming back to roost. Wasn’t there a reason she’d gone on a man hiatus in the first place?

She’d pushed her past boyfriends away for wanting to get too close.

For daring to expect more from her.

Knowing Wes would want more, total access to her heart, mind, and body—access she’d always been afraid to give anyone—made her want to backpedal before things got too comfortable. Too optimistic.

Before expectations were formed for a normal, healthy relationship that she had no earthly idea how she could fulfill. She definitely never had before.

How could Wes be happy with her when she didn’t know how to be happy with herself? Despite what Bethany’s heart was telling her to do, she could feel herself shifting back to her old patterns with men. If she didn’t let things get too serious, he couldn’t get sick of her, right?

A little time, a little space, and Wes would probably thank her for keeping things casual. And the disappointment she felt in herself?

It would fade with time. Wouldn’t it?

Bethany hoped that once she’d had a Wes-free weekend of repeating the mantra that the distance between them would get easier and she’d stop second-guessing herself that she’d actually be closer to believing it. She doubted she would, but no one had ever accused her of lacking a strong will . . .

Chapter Seventeen

Okay, folks, it is day four of the family-flip competition Flip Off, and the battle is certainly heating up! We’re on the jobsite that has been lovingly dubbed Project Doomsday.” Wes’s thumb and forefinger did their best to crush the bridge of his nose. At least if he ended up in the emergency room, he wouldn’t have to listen to Slade fucking Hogan’s made-for-television voice for a while.

Outside the window, Slade walked backward, the cameraman and lighting and sound guys following him to where Bethany was . . . Wait, was she carrying a ladder?


Wes didn’t have a clue.

As a matter of fact, he didn’t know a damn thing going on in her head because today was Monday and she’d been distant with him since Friday. Everything had been coming up roses when she left his house. They’d even traded some flirty text messages and he’d thought they’d well and truly turned a corner into . . . coupletown. Or at least approaching it. But all weekend, she’d been busy with the Just Us League and antique shopping for when she eventually staged the flip.

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