Tools of Engagement

Page 39

“Hey, Laura!” Bethany called, climbing down off the stepping stool. “You look so official in your hard hat.”

Laura beamed, showing off her missing bottom tooth. “Why aren’t you wearing one?”

“My head is hard enough. Ask your uncle.”

“I plead the Fifth.”

Bethany stuck her tongue out at him and if his niece wasn’t there, she would have been in trouble. The good kind. She seemed to know it, too. How long had they been staring at each other like there wasn’t an unholy racket going on around them?

Bethany shook herself. “So how are Megan and Danielle? I bet you’ve been planning your next tea party.”

“Yup.” The little girl leapt in place, landing in a cloud of sawdust. “All the girls in my class are coming to the next one!”

“They are?” Wes and Bethany choked out at the same time.

Laura nodded vigorously. “Uh-huh. I told them they can ride in the back of Uncle Wes’s truck and they’re going to ask their moms.” His niece shuffled in a circle and stooped down unexpectedly. “What’s this?”

Wes sidestepped to determine what she was asking about—and it was already too late. She’d closed her grubby kid hand around a small chunk of plywood with a wayward staple sticking out of the end. Laura yanked her hand back and let out a howl that almost struck Wes dead on the spot. “Ow!”

“Why’d you touch that?” He took her wrist and turned it over, his windpipe closing at the sight of blood welling on her pointer finger. “Oh my God. Oh my God, she’s bleeding.”

“What?” Bethany screeched and bumped back into her stepping stool, sending it skittering back on the unfinished floor. “Oh my God. What do we do?”

“I don’t know.” Was that his hysterical voice? “She’s never bled before.” His vision winked brightly at the edges. “It’s dripping now. It’s dripping!”

Laura wailed, tears literally squirting from her eyes. Was that normal? Or was that a sign that she was going into shock. Was he going into shock?

“Okay. Okay.” Bethany slid in front of Laura on her knees and ripped off the hem of her own T-shirt, wrapping it around the cut so many times it looked like Laura had a golf ball perched on her finger. “I . . . maybe . . . I think we just treat her like we’d treat an adult with a cut?”

“I don’t know. They must have separate medicine aisles for children and adults in the drugstore for a reason, right?”

Bethany chewed on her lip. “I don’t know how long that bandage will hold.”

“Jesus.” Wes picked up Laura in his arms and turned in every direction, no idea where to set her down. Were they the same blood type if she needed a transfusion? Could he give a transfusion if he was passed out cold? “What do we do?”

“This is my iPad finger,” Laura sobbed.

“Your truck. There’s a first-aid kit in your truck.”

“Okay, yes. Okay.” Wes carried Laura out the front door with Bethany right behind him. A moment later, he had Laura settled in the driver’s seat of the truck, Bethany having sprinted around to the passenger side to retrieve the kit. She tossed it to him across the console, neither one of them registering the fact that Laura was now making vroom-vroom noises and trying to steer the stationary truck.

Holding his breath, Wes slowly unwound the scrap of fabric from Laura’s finger and waited for the gore to show itself.

There was nothing.

He could barely make out the faint white line where the cut had been inflicted.

Slowly Wes lifted his gaze to Bethany, who was equally dumbstruck over the lack of bone protrusions and carnage. She let out a puff of laughter and slumped against the doorframe.

“You ripped your shirt,” he said dazedly, relief making him dizzy.

“It’s just a shirt.” She looked at Laura for several beats before giving Wes her attention again, and something important seemed to be occurring in those blue eyes. “It’s just a shirt.”

Something happened between them in that moment. Sure, her words weren’t intended to have a deep meaning, but as soon as she uttered them, the final line tying him to the past frayed a little more. What came before would always be a part of Wes, but these people and their well-being was what mattered. Having them close so he could care for them when they were hurt. Why would he ever want to run away from that? From being needed by this woman and this child?

“Uncle Wes.” Laura evaded Wes when he tried to apply Neosporin to her cut. “Can we take this thing out for a spin?”

He gave up on the Neosporin and pulled his niece into a hug instead. When he gestured for Bethany to join them, she seemed at a loss, but eventually climbed into the car and wrapped her arms around the two of them. And it was new and scary and he couldn’t imagine himself being anywhere else in that moment.

Bethany dropped the freshly cut bouquet of roses into her favorite rose-gold Prouna vase and fluffed the stems. They fell into a less-than-perfect order and she was surprised to find herself okay with leaving them that way. Usually, she spent a good six to seven minutes organizing each flower just so in preparation for the Saturday night Just Us League meeting.

Had she really changed so much in the week and a half since starting the flip?

She propped a hip against the kitchen counter and reviewed the last eleven days. She’d gotten messy. Dirt-under-her-fingernails, hair-in-a-sagging-bun, clothes-covered-in-construction-fallout messy.

Somewhere in the middle, she’d given a blow job with her knees buried in sawdust.

Yes, that last one made flower arranging seem a little less pressing.

Thankful for her remaining few moments alone in the house, Bethany closed her eyes and remembered the taste of Wes’s rain-slicked mouth, how sure his fingers had been moving in and out of her. God, had that been almost an entire week ago? How had she survived without more of his touch since then? Had he been employing reverse psychology by deciding to move slow? Because the suggestion of a prolonged timeline was making her Horny. With a capital H.

Long as you let me give this body what it needs, I can remember the boundaries tomorrow.

Sure, sure. Boundaries.

They needed to have those.

But like, how solid were those boundaries actually? What did they consist of?

The lack of ground rules was making her edgier than an unstyled bouquet of roses could ever hope to do. Maybe she would pay Wes a visit after the meeting. Just to clarify exactly what boundaries meant. No other reason.

Bethany realized she was fanning herself and pushed off the counter, flicking open another button on her blouse while making her final rounds of the house. Throw pillows were all aligned, snacks were placed strategically throughout the space, candles were lit, and the temperature was comfortable.

Standing in front of her couch, she drummed her fingers against her mouth. Then she reached for one of the white throw pillows, turning it enough to let the small tag show. That itch on her neck woke up, demanding attention, but she ignored it and walked away in triumph. Look at you. A rebel without a cause.

Today? Pillow tags and messy flower arrangements.

Tomorrow? Who knew? Maybe she would forgo makeup at the next meeting.

What was responsible for these subtle changes in her? Was Project Doomsday acting as a radical immersion therapy for perfectionists? Or was it Wes?

Despite the attraction she’d nursed for him since he arrived in Port Jeff, she’d made Wes the enemy because he was the only one who saw her flaws. Now . . . now she wanted to be around him more for the very same reason. It made no sense.

None of what was happening with Wes made sense.

For once, though . . . she was considering leaving a relationship unarranged.


If she could manage to let fate take its course, would she regret it?

A chorus of excited voices reached Bethany through the door before the doorbell started to ring. She smoothed her hair and made sure her bra straps weren’t peeking out of her silver metallic wrap dress. Her outfit tonight was fancy even by her standards, but she’d chosen it mostly because she felt sexy and less because she wanted to impress everyone. It had been a really nice change, slipping the thin material up her freshly showered, bare skin and not being inundated with worries that it wouldn’t be the perfect balance of understated and classy.

She’d gotten dressed for herself.

With a secret smile, which was also just for her, she opened the door and let in the milling group of women, greeting each of them with a kiss on the cheek and an inquiry about their job or family. And this time, she was really listening. Their words weren’t dulled by the constant buzzing in her brain or pressure to come up with a witty response. She was actually enjoying herself. More than she had in a long time.

Rosie arrived on the heels of everyone, glowing as she always did now that her marriage had been repaired, carrying fogged-up Tupperware containers on her hip. With a fall bite in the air, the evening had a cozy ambiance. Talk of Halloween costumes and Thanksgiving plans circulated in the breeze while Bethany passed out wine and champagne.

For once, Bethany took a moment to savor what she’d built with her sister and Rosie. This club of women that had come together with the sole mission of being supportive of one another. Celebrating accomplishments and consoling each other when they didn’t succeed. Bethany had been the one to come up with the initial idea for the Just Us League, but with a newfound clarity, she wondered if she’d done it for the right reasons. Had she hoped everyone else’s problems would distract from what was wrong in her own life?

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