Tools of Engagement

Page 38

“No ground rules. I’ll try not to maul you on the jobsite, but after hours . . .” He regarded her for a few seconds. “Just do what comes natural.”

“I have no idea what comes natural,” she whispered, her fingers tingling.

He came forward and kissed her softly on the mouth. “Figure it out with me.”

Chapter Nineteen

Balancing a tray of nachos, popcorn, and cotton candy, Wes and Laura made their way down the concrete tunnel toward the sounds of Travis’s amplified voice. It boomed over the loudspeaker in Bombers Stadium and if Wes wasn’t mistaken, there was an extra layer of smugness in the ex–professional baseball player’s tone this brisk Wednesday evening. Understandable, since the man was fresh off his honeymoon in Italy.

Until the reminder came up on Wes’s phone this morning, he’d forgotten about the complimentary tickets Travis had given him for tonight’s game. Since neither Wes nor Laura had ever been to a baseball game and the flip was on schedule, he’d popped a hat on her head, bundled her up, and headed to the Bronx.

They sidestepped their way down the packed row and took seats overlooking the third baseline. Out on the expansive green field, the game was already in full swing, the Bombers in navy pinstripes, their opponent in teal. A baseball game was nothing like a rodeo, but the energy of the crowd, the swell of their periodic cheers, brought Wes back to the bull-riding arenas of the not-so-distant past.

Did he miss it?

He glanced over at Laura, who was devouring a cloud of pink cotton candy, and laughed under his breath. No, he didn’t miss the past. There was a definite bittersweet spark inside of him knowing those days might never come to pass again. The lack of responsibility, the spontaneity. The cut-and-run mentality that kept him clear of any hurt or disappointment. He’d look back on that wild existence with fondness. But when he thought about bandaging up injuries wrought by being thrown from the back of a bull, he only appreciated where he sat now all the more.

Taking care of this kid could be the biggest adventure of all.

Did it scare him? Fuck yes.

Hell, if he wasn’t nervous about potentially raising a daughter, he’d need to get his head checked.

His niece had become a part of his life that couldn’t be carved out—and she wasn’t the only one. Now there was Bethany.

Yes. There certainly was Bethany.

Wes slipped his fountain Pepsi out of the cup holder and took an icy-cold swallow, ordering himself not to think about Monday night. Not in public sitting beside his niece. He’d have to wait until tonight to remember the way Bethany had looked up at him from her knees.

He removed his hat and swiped a hand through his hair, muttering to himself about wayward thoughts and reckless blondes who fell off roofs. Christ, she’d damn near sent him into cardiac arrest when she’d lost her balance and slid over the edge. He’d still be in that house yelling himself hoarse if she hadn’t shocked him into silence with that hug. If she hadn’t looked up at him with her huge blue eyes full of tears and relief that he’d come back.

Oh mama, he was in deep.

Deep as the ocean floor.

So deep it scared him. But he could not, under any circumstances, let it show. Because they couldn’t both be terrified. One of them had to be positive the relationship was going to work, despite their differences and tendencies to avoid lasting commitments. One of them had to be the weight on top of the stack of papers blowing in the wind. So it would be Wes.

He would not let her doubt.

As for himself, he was walking unfamiliar terrain and wasn’t totally confident in his ability to catch a snag in the line before it turned into an issue. He’d never felt this way for someone. Nothing had ever come close to this tight sensation in his chest. Urgency to have her nearby. The drive to see her, talk to her, hold her. There was no outlet or relief—it only built.

Wasn’t love supposed to be a euphoric rush of moonbeams and dandelions? His relationship with Bethany was kind of like walking through a minefield, but on the other side was the thing he wanted most. Her. Her trust. Her love.

Yeah, he loved her, all right.

Otherwise he wouldn’t be opening himself up to what he’d avoided his whole life. Being a quick stop on the way to someone’s real forever. He’d gone through it many times growing up and he was only starting to acknowledge the toll it had taken. Bethany was damn well worth facing his fears, though. The faith she’d slowly but surely put in him made Wes feel more equipped to fight for Laura, too. So she’d never have to experience the same hollowness he’d grown up with.

Wes sighed at his niece’s sticky hands and sat forward to pull a Ziploc baggie of wet wipes out of his pocket, handing her one. “How’s the cotton candy?”

Her wide smile revealed a row of pink teeth. “Good.”

He laughed and took out his phone to snap a picture, noticing for the first time that he had a voicemail from an unknown number. Intuition blew a shiver up his spine, but he kept his features schooled. After all, he had a very perceptive kid watching him. Wes took a picture, saved it, and waited until Laura was preoccupied by the happenings on the field again before he put the phone to his ear and listened to the voicemail.

“Hey, it’s me.” His sister’s voice was thin and quiet. “I thought about what you said and I think . . . I think you’re right. I’m not sure when I can give Laura the kind of routine she needs. Not with me workin’ nights. And I don’t want to rip her out of school when she’s only started kindergarten. If you still want to be her guardian, I think we should look into it. Not forever, you know? But for now. Just until I can figure some things out.” There was a long pause during which Wes could only hear the rapid thumping of his heart, the sounds of the game faded away. “Problem is, I’m going to need the money from the house. I know you’ve been making the mortgage payments, but I need to sell it now. So . . . you’d have to find a new place with Laura. Look, just give me a call when you have time, okay?”

Wes dropped the cell to his thigh and stared into nothing.

Jesus. How had he overlooked the fact he didn’t own the house where he and Laura were living? He’d moved in and taken over the monthly payments and forgotten all about the fact that his name wasn’t even on the deed. Now his sister was going to put the house on the market and that left him—and her daughter—without a place to live. How the hell was he supposed to obtain guardianship when the sand beneath his feet was constantly shifting? If he was looking at his life on paper, he would never deem himself a suitable caretaker.

“Uncle Wes, can I have a sip of your soda?”

He swallowed hard. “Nope, you’re on water, kid. You need to dilute the half pound of sugar you just consumed.”

She threw back her head dramatically. “Water has no flavor.”

“Sure it does.” Her reluctant interest would have brought a smile to his face if his guts hadn’t just been stomped on by an elephant. “Here,” he said, uncapping the bottle and putting it in her hand. “Only the most refined taste buds can pick up on it. It’s very hard to detect.”

Laura nodded gravely and took a long sip. “Oh!” Her eyes flew wide. “I got it. I got the flavor.”

“No way.” He slapped a hand across his chest. “Almost no one tastes it. You’re in a very exclusive club.”

She sat up a little straighter. “I know.”

They traded a serious nod and went back to watching the game, but Wes’s mind was furiously trying to come up with a solution to the new problem that had been dropped into his lap.

Briefly, he thought of asking Bethany for help, but quickly discarded the idea. Their relationship was too new, too fragile to start heaping more onto their plate. If acknowledging that made the earth uneven between his feet, he’d just have to deal.

Wes settled the hard hat on Laura’s head and hunkered down in front of her. He was going against his wiser judgment bringing his niece to the Project Doomsday site, but she’d been begging to come see where he and Bethany worked every day. She’d had a half day at school and the camera crew was filming at Stephen’s flip today, so he’d left at lunchtime to bring her over for a quick visit before he dropped her off with the babysitter.

“Now remember, don’t touch anything. Everything is dangerous.”

Laura bounced around on the balls of her feet. “Is Bethany in there?”


A smile spread across her face. Yeah, he could relate.

He smiled every time he thought of Bethany, too. Unfortunately, it was now Friday, and most of the time they’d spent together since Monday night was inside this very house—working, not kissing. Even with the addition of a half dozen interns provided by the network, they were going to come in under the two-and-a-half-week deadline by the skin of their teeth. Bethany’s nights had been spent pulling favors with décor companies to get furnishings shipped on time, and his nights had been spent researching guardianship.

Her smiles were all he was privy to lately—and he wasn’t complaining about it.

Matter of fact, when he guided Laura through the front door, Bethany turned from her position at the top of a stepping stool and one of those very smiles bloomed across her face. God, he loved her like this, covered in drywall and paint speckles, hair in what he’d started referring to as her Sunday Bun. He was counting the days until this flip was over so he could steal more than the odd kiss between sanding and drilling.

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