Tools of Engagement

Page 34

He’d missed her, but he hadn’t panicked until coming face-to-face with her on the site this morning. Every time he moseyed in her direction to make small talk or maybe get himself another one of those life-altering kisses, she suddenly had to go pick up materials or make a coffee run. He’d joked with her about being a cranky foreman, but it had become reality and he still—still—had fucking blue balls.

Wes threw down the pair of pliers in his hand and stomped outside to see where the hell Bethany thought she was going with a ladder. Unless she was planning on creating some kind of avant-garde lawn sculpture out of it, he wasn’t sure why she needed one. She was scheduled to work on the crown molding today, wasn’t she?

It was a terrible idea to approach Bethany in this black mood, especially while the cameras were rolling, but a man could only take so much. She’d kissed him like a man ought to be kissed the other night. The sweetness of it, the way it had felt like a promise . . . well, it had rocked him. Rocked him real hard. It didn’t make any damn sense that she should be avoiding him now. Unless something had happened between the time she’d texted him Friday night and now. But what?

“Bethany, I heard you’ve decided to retile the roof?”

At the sound of that question coming from Slade’s mouth, the coffee Wes drank that morning turned to bitter acid in his stomach. Bethany on the roof? She wasn’t trained for that. Hadn’t gone through a safety course or even a casual tutorial with him or someone with construction experience. More than once, he’d worked with men who’d been injured in falls from roofs and ladders on the construction site. The thought of Bethany shattering a femur or breaking her back broke him out in a cold sweat.

“Yeah,” he said slowly and, fine, maybe a touch sarcastically. “Mind if we put a pin in that genius idea for now?”

Bethany very carefully set down the ladder and crossed her arms. “I’m sorry. Does my foreman have a complaint to voice?”

“Your foreman,” he said witheringly. “Sure, we’ll go with that.”

Twin sparks shot off in her eyes. “Good.”

Wes reined in his frustration. What the hell had happened between them that he wasn’t aware of? She almost seemed relieved to kick off this argument. “Let’s turn off the camera and take a couple of hours to make sure you know what the hell you’re doing, all right? I don’t want you falling off the fucking roof.”

“We’ll have to bleep that,” called the producer.

“Bleep it, then,” Wes spat.

“I’ve watched plenty of roofs being tiled,” Bethany said.

Wes closed some of the distance between him and Bethany. They were surrounded by at least thirty others, but they might as well have been the only people there, for all the attention he paid them. “Watching and doing are two different things. Either we do some training or you keep your feet on the ground where they belong.”

She squared her shoulders. “You don’t make decisions for me.”

“Now, there is some truth to that, buddy,” Slade had the stones to pipe in. “Bethany is the official homeowner—”

“Jesus, Slade,” Wes interrupted, massaging his right eye with enough force to blind himself. “You are truly getting on my last fucking nerve.”


“Wes,” Bethany gasped.

“It’s bad enough I’ve got to work with camera cords and spotlights and Slade in my way”—his shout lost some steam—“but I can deal with all of that if you’re okay.” It came to him at once that he’d just revealed a lot in front of a large crowd of people, not to mention two cameras. “It’s a long fall,” he finished, trying to recapture some of his angry tone, but it didn’t work. Bethany’s jaw had dropped open and silence—for once—had fallen among the crew.

Bethany recovered, visibly shaking herself. “I’ll be careful. Ollie is going to show me what to do.”

“Lord. Don’t drag me into this,” Ollie said from his hiding place behind the lighting guy. “I didn’t think it would be a big deal.”

“It’s not a big deal,” Bethany enunciated. “Thank you for your concern, but I can manage not to plummet to my death.”

She had to go putting death in his head, sending his blood pressure sky-high. “You go up on that roof and I’ll carry you down over my shoulder, Bethany. You hear me? Tiling the roof is not a job for you.”

Yet. He should have said yet.

Her reaction had Wes regretting his words immediately. The stubbornness fled from her beautiful eyes, replaced with betrayal. It was too late for apologies or take-backs, though, wasn’t it? He’d royally screwed himself now. The hardheaded woman was backed into a corner in front of God and everyone. She had no choice but to call his bluff.

“Well . . . you know.” Her voice cracked, but she patched it fast. “You won’t have a say if I fire you.”

A sharp object got stuck in his throat. “Is that what you’re doing?”

Fear crept into her eyes, but she blinked it away. “Yes,” she said, lifting her chin.

They spent a good ten seconds in a stare down that Wes eventually won.

But as he stormed to his car, the ache in the center of his chest insisted he’d definitely lost.

Wes did what any self-respecting cowboy did when he had woman troubles.

He drowned his sorrows in a bottle of brew.

Outlander Ringtone had offered to give him the night off since she’d had an afternoon reprieve from picking Laura up from school yesterday. He’d jumped on it immediately. His mood was black and he didn’t want it affecting his niece.

“Want another?” asked the bartender on his way to ring up a round.

Wes eyeballed his empty bottle of Bud, weighing the pros of oblivion versus the cons of getting a six o’clock in the morning wake-up call while nursing a hangover. Was this parenthood? Constantly having to decide if a hangover was worth it? Not only that, there was this icky, sticky guilt over being out in the first place urging him to turn down another beer. Why did he feel guilty when this was his first night out in a month?

Hell, it wasn’t even nine thirty.

“Yeah,” he muttered, pushing his empty bottle toward the bartender. “Thanks.”

Truthfully, he’d rather be at home reading Laura a bedtime story instead of taking up space in Grumpy Tom’s, but sometimes a man needed room to think. That went triple tonight.

How had everything gone to shit so fast?

He still couldn’t make sense of it.

Three days prior to being fired by Bethany, they’d been right there on the edge of something more. God, he’d been eager to get there, too. She’d been so close to giving in and saying yes to their date. He was going to take her out, open doors for her, treat her like a queen, and fuck her to high heaven.

Now he’d lost his shot and his job.

His world had turned upside down faster than a bull bucking him onto his ass—and right at the time he needed to have his life together. He was serious about taking guardianship of Laura if he could get his sister to agree to the arrangement. Wes didn’t have any notions of keeping Becky from her daughter forever, but while he was her caretaker, he wanted to give her stability. He didn’t want her waking up every morning wondering if today would be the day he lit out of Port Jefferson.

Which brought him to his most immediate problem. Stability for Laura meant a steady income—and as of this afternoon, he no longer had that.

He couldn’t blame Bethany, either. All day he’d been replaying the scene outside the house. God, he’d been an idiot. Bethany’s whole reason for wanting to head this flip was to prove herself capable. He’d tried to rob her of an opportunity to further her confidence in herself. Shit, he was as bad as Stephen.

As if his thoughts had put up a Stephen Bat-Signal, the man in question walked into the bar a few minutes later, holding another note in his hand. Deep in concentration, Bethany’s brother almost walked right past Wes, but tripped to a halt before he could get too far.

“Wes. What are you doing here?”

“What’s it look like?”

Stephen settled into the stool beside Wes and ordered a Coke, smoothing his crinkled note out on the bar while he waited. “Is my sister giving you headaches?”

Wes held up a hand. “Let me stop you right there. I’m not here to gossip like a middle schooler.”

“Ah, you’re no fun.”

“Says the man who ordered a soda in a bar,” Wes drawled, bottle to his lips. “I see you’ve got another cryptic note from Kristin. What does this one say?”

“‘After every storm, there is a rainbow.’”

Lord, the woman was certifiable. “Let me ask you a question, man. Have you just come right out and asked her what the notes mean?”

“I can’t do that.” Stephen gaped at him like he’d just suggested they steal a cop car and do donuts in the town square. “She’ll be disappointed in me if I can’t figure it out on my own.”

“But you can’t.”

Stephen faced Wes on his stool. “One year, Kristin knitted me some socks for Christmas and I didn’t react with enough appreciation. I mean, they were socks. But she gave me the silent treatment straight through New Year’s.” He popped a straw into his Coke. “I finally figured out what was wrong. Turns out, they were exact replicas of my christening socks, right down to the little red crosses on the ankles.”

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