Tools of Engagement

Page 35

Wes knew he must look stupefied. He was. “How the hell did you figure that out?”

“My mother came over for dinner and saw them. Kristin had left them out on the mantel, but I was too naive to realize she was trying to give me a hint.” He nodded as if that explanation was completely normal. “Anyway, my mother knew right away and commented on the resemblance of the socks. So Kristin threw them in the fire.”


Stephen leaned in. “She wanted me to figure it out.”

Was this Long Island or Mars? “That sounded like a horror film, but thank you, I guess.”

“Thank you?”

“Yeah,” Wes said, sipping his drink. “My own lady troubles don’t seem quite as daunting now.”

“I knew it.” Stephen wrapped smug lips around his straw. “Bethany ghosted you, didn’t she? Wasn’t sure how she’d manage it since you’re working together, but my sister is resourceful.”

Goddammit. Why had be mentioned trouble? The last thing he wanted to do was listen to Stephen talk a bunch of nonsense about Bethany. But he was also one beer deep, heartsick, and confused about what had actually happened between them. He’d been caught in a weak moment. “What do you mean, she ghosted me?”

“That’s her thing. She casts her line out into the water.” Stephen moved his Coke aside so he could mimic fishing. “The man bites. And then she throws the whole damn rod back into the ocean while the poor sucker is still attached.”

The back of his neck prickled ominously, but he scoffed. “How long have you been working on that metaphor?”

“It’s my mother’s, actually, and there’s more,” Stephen responded, squinting back down at his note. “So there’s the rod floating on the ocean, the man is hooked at the end, and Bethany stands on the boat blaming the fish.”

Wes’s entire life, he’d avoided any kind of long-term relationships. This right here was why. Stephen had clearly lost his fucking mind and what was to blame?



Sure, Stephen’s wife was a complete loony toon, but Wes would have been standing on the outside laughing at this manner of conversation a few months ago. He’d have ridiculed Stephen for letting himself get played like a fiddle. Now it wasn’t so funny. Because he was the hooked fish and if he closed his eyes, he could see Bethany standing at the bow of a ship, watching him sink.

Yeah, she’d caught him, that was for damn sure. He’d never imagined how much he would love having a hook through his lip, either. But this woman. This woman had made him earn her trust, her respect, her laughter. Each of those accomplishments made him feel more capable as a man. A potential partner for her. Someone who could not only be in a lasting relationship, but maybe even be good at it.

Was he just going to swim off now when they’d come so far?

No. He was going to jump back into the goddamn boat and throw the rod down at her feet. Let her know he wasn’t going anywhere. She’d caught herself a Texas man and he refused to sink like the chumps she’d dated before. More important, he was going to figure out why she continued to throw the fish out with the rod.

A crack of thunder sounded outside, as if the heavens approved of his new course of action, and rain began to pelt the windows of Grumpy Tom’s. The downpour sent the smokers scurrying inside using their jackets as shelter.


The forecast didn’t call for rain. He’d checked as recently as this morning, to make sure there would be no bad weather causing them delays. Back when he’d been the foreman and he was paid to have contingency plans in place, anyway. He’d need to drive over to the jobsite and put some tarps on the roof.

With a sigh, he took out his wallet and signaled the bartender so he could settle up. “I need to get to the site,” he told Stephen. “Fired or not, I can’t let all that hard work go to waste.”

Stephen spit Coke onto the bar, earning a stony look from the sleepy barman. “She fired you?”


“First of all, welcome back to the winning team,” Stephen said magnanimously. “Second, I don’t know why I’m surprised. This is classic Bethany.”

Wes flicked an irritated wrist, sending a twenty fluttering down onto the bar. “Have you ever asked Bethany why she pushes people away or do you just bitch and moan about it behind her back? Maybe there’s a good reason she does it. You ever thought of that?”

“You’re defending her?” Stephen sputtered. “She fired you!”

“I pushed her to it. It’s on me. And I don’t want back on your team.”

Stephen stayed silent a moment. “There’s obviously something going on between you two or she wouldn’t have pulled her parachute.”

Ire pinched his nerve endings. “Oh, fuck off with your metaphors. What is wrong with everyone in this town? No one can just say what’s on their minds?” Wes plucked the note up off the bar and tossed it into the air. “Your wife is pregnant, you moron.”

“She is?”

“Yes. And I’m sure he or she will grow up completely stable.”

To Wes’s shock and horror, Stephen launched off the stool and threw his arms around Wes’s shoulders, cry-laughing noisily. “I’m going to be a dad.”

Wes sighed and patted him on the back. “Congratulations.”

Finally, Stephen pulled back with moisture-filled eyes. A loud beep had Bethany’s brother disengaging to pull his cell from his front pocket, his rapturous expression turning to exasperation. “Just got a text from Bethany. She wants to know if a staple gun is waterproof.” He flicked a glance at Wes. “Sounds like she’s way ahead of you on the roof situation. You better go.”

Wes’s heart took an elevator up to his throat. “What? Text her back. Tell her to wait for me—”

The phone beeped again. “Never mind,” Stephen read aloud. “I googled it.”

Wes propelled himself out of the bar into the rain, visions of Bethany slipping and falling chilling his blood.

Apparently one more fight was in order before he won her back.

Although, had he ever had her in the first place?

Chapter Eighteen

Bethany spit rainwater out of her mouth and did her best to unfold the tarp blind. No matter how she positioned herself on the roof, the rain seemed to slant directly into her face, so she planted her feet shoulder-width apart and sarcastically thanked Mother Nature for this glorious piece of timing.

She was not too proud to admit she should be anywhere but a rain-slicked roof during a storm. In fact, she would even have given the job to Wes, if she hadn’t fired him in the bonehead move of the century. But she’d spent six hours on that roof this afternoon, her hands were torn to shit, her back was sore, and something felt broken inside of her. So she was going to salvage her hard work, dammit, and everything in the line of fire beneath the leaks while she was at it.

Her right boot slid a little bit, but she righted her stance in time to get the tarp open. Going down on her hands and knees, she spread the blue covering and stapled it into place as close to the roof’s edge as possible. The wind and needlelike raindrops made it almost impossible to see what she was doing, but surely the worst of it would be over any second? The forecast said overcast through tomorrow. They’d all been lied to! Who would be held accountable?

She was being dramatic, but whatever. She was soaking wet on a roof beneath a full moon and there’d been a rocky turbulence inside her since that afternoon. Even before the rain started, she’d been pacing in her living room, unable to sit still. This wasn’t right. She shouldn’t have this awful foreboding in her stomach because of a man.

It was never like this.

At worst, when she decided her association with a man had run its course, she felt mildly peeved when they didn’t try and get back in her good graces. Not that she ever let them. But the chance of Wes deciding she was too much trouble . . . it really truly scared her.

He’d hung in there through countless traded insults and arguments. He’d witnessed a near panic attack at Georgie’s wedding. He hadn’t even flinched at the ugly mark on her neck. Would the blow she’d dealt to his pride be the final straw?

She hadn’t wanted to fire him.

He was the Zellweger to her Cruise.

There were feelings. She had feelings.

Bethany adjusted the hood of her jacket so the rain would stop dripping in her eyes and set about laying out the second tarp. She secured one corner, then crawled slowly toward the opposite end of the roof as the blue tarp flapped in the wind. The coarse material of the shingles bit into her knees through her jeans, but she welcomed the distracting pain.

What was it that really scared her about Wes leaving this afternoon and not even looking back once? The slam of his truck door reverberated with such finality. It was the sum of her fears, wasn’t it? That a guy would finally know all the negative things about her and leave. Isn’t this what she’d been avoiding for so long?

The proof that she was imperfect.

Bethany swallowed hard and picked up the pace of her crawl. Making it across the roof, she applied the final staple. There. Done.

Still . . . maybe she should check for unsecured openings. She’d lost Wes today. She wasn’t going to sacrifice all the hard work they’d accomplished together on the house, too. The added blow would be unbearable. Just a few more minutes and it would be perfect—

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