Tools of Engagement

Page 50


“It’s fine. We tried to fool them into thinking I was a mommy or some . . . happy homemaker, but I’m not. I’m not warm and welcoming. I never will be. I’m not even sure I want to be.” Her words tripped over themselves. “And now you just have to adjust.”

“I have to adjust. Just like that it’s no longer we.”

“Yup.” She scoffed. “You would have been better off with almost anyone else.”

His laughter was low and humorless. “Can’t say I’m surprised.”

With foreboding buzzing in her fingertips, she slowly set down the bottle of water. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means you were hunting for a flaw in what we’ve got here. A flaw in yourself. A flaw in us. So here you go, Bethany. Now you’ve got your excuse to cut and run.”

“I wasn’t looking for an excuse—”

“Bullshit.” He dropped a fist onto the kitchen island. “You’re pushing me away to minimize your own damage. And I can’t talk you back from the edge every time. Sometimes I’m standing on it, too.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, stricken. “I just think our expectations for this relationship got too high, too fast, and this is proof.” Oh God, she hated herself for every word coming out of her mouth, but she could only push, push until he finally left her alone where she could be mortified at her failure in peace. That woman saw right through me to the fraud beneath. “You’ll have a better chance without me.”

Wes appeared to be searching for patience, but he visibly couldn’t find any. He raked a hand through his hair, opened his mouth to say something and closed it again. She almost got down on her knees and apologized for every single word she’d just said. Almost begged him to pretend the last five minutes never happened. After all, they could fix the house and make it warmer for Laura. She knew enough from reading over Wes’s shoulder during the last week that unless the child was in danger in the home, the state wouldn’t take her away and they could repair the problem. Appeal the decision.

But in that moment, she genuinely wondered if Wes could do better alone. All her efforts to make this place homey had been totally lacking—and there was no escaping that fact. It had just been confirmed.

“We’ll be out of your hair as soon as possible,” Wes said, turning and leaving the kitchen.

A hundred-pound weight dropped in Bethany’s stomach. “Wait,” she wheezed, knocking the bottle of water off the counter. Now? All of this was happening now? She’d reacted first without thinking through the consequences. Wes was supposed to stop her from spinning out, wasn’t he? How had it gotten this far? “No. You don’t have to leave.”

Wes scooped his sleeping niece off the couch, stopping just before the hallway. “Yeah, I think we do.” He looked down at Laura. “I’ll let her sleep for now, but we’ll be out in the morning.”

Chapter Twenty-Five

Bethany creaked down the hallway of Project Doomsday, dragging her fingertips along the wall. She’d traded places with the house. This morning, it had been a hollow vessel while she’d been so full of new life and hope. Now she was the empty one and the house was full of furniture waiting to be arranged.

After Wes had closed himself in his room, she’d returned to the jobsite alone, for once devoid of her usual excitement over that final stage of bringing a space to life. Everything was wrapped in plastic, placed in the appropriate room, but all four of her limbs were deadweights, so how those objects would find their way to the correct corners and angles, she had no idea.

An exhale stole the remaining energy in Bethany’s body, sending her sliding sideways down the wall of the hallway and leaving her there in a heap.

What did you do?

She’d asked herself the same question ninety times since walking on unsteady legs out of her house and driving like a zombie across town. The answer was still hovering somewhere outside the reach of her consciousness, mostly because grasping anything beyond the pain of losing Wes was too hard.

A fresh wave of misery rose over her and she shivered.

Oh God. She’d lost Wes.

How, though?


Their relationship had been new, but strong. Every time a worry bubble rose to her surface, he found a way to pop it. Found a way to make her forget it ever existed in the first place. He helped her laugh away her fears and focus on the good. No, he’d made her feel the good, not just look for it.

Wes had fought her dragons valiantly.

And she’d . . .

Kept letting them out, expecting him to crash back onto the scene in his suit of armor every time, sword at the ready. Had she stopped fighting her own mental battles and left the chore up to him too often?


Yes, clearly she had. And everything he’d said to her in the kitchen tonight had been terribly accurate. She’d been looking for weaknesses in the foundation they were building together. She’d been up to her old tricks of searching for a way out so she wouldn’t have to face her imperfections.

God, it would have slayed her if Wes had shown her kind of reticence. Instead he’d been the steadfast one, never letting her feel anything less than secure. Yes, she’d been working on herself, but not quickly enough. She couldn’t sustain the blow of having her home deemed unsuitable and everything had fallen apart in the blink of an eye.

It was her fault. Entirely.

She’d folded like a cheap lawn chair and hurt the man she loved. And there was no mistaking that. He’d all but begged her with his eyes not to push him away. Now she’d lost the only person who’d ever looked over a list of her demons and signed up anyway.

Bethany pressed both hands to her face, letting salty tears trickle down along her palms to her lips, dripping onto her shirt. Oh man, she’d fucked up. She might have made herself more vulnerable to Wes than she ever had with another human being, but when it came down to brass tacks, she’d demanded a lot of Wes and given not enough in return. She was unreliable and wishy-washy and unworthy of someone with a heart that big.

Hastily, she wiped her eyes and looked up and down the hallway. It was the middle of the night, so there was nothing but lingering dust and a freshly cut lumber smell to keep her company. That’s what she deserved—to be alone.

The Bethany she’d been before Wes would have preferred to be alone.

Did she prefer it now?

No. God, no. Nothing got accomplished that way.

Bethany sat up straighter.

At the outset of this project, she’d set out to prove she could flip a house alone and do a better job than her brother. A better job than anyone. That wasn’t what she’d learned, though. She’d learned to accept help and be grateful for it. She’d learned it took letting down her guard and admitting when she made a mistake—like firing Wes or ordering the wrong size tile for the bathroom and a million other things she’d done along the way—to be successful. Perfection wasn’t success. It was impossible and frankly kind of boring.

It was the effort paid to the project that made her proud.

Not the outcome.

If only she’d made the same effort with Wes.

Bethany pushed herself up off the floor and walked to the living room, using her fingernail to scratch a piece of tape off the plastic wrapped around the couch. Was she going to learn from her lesson? Or was she going to pretend the last two and a half weeks never happened and crawl off to lick her wounds?

Honestly, the latter held the most appeal. Her knees were rubber and her eyes were gritty from crying. She wanted a certain set of strong arms around her and the knowledge that she didn’t deserve them was the most painful of all.

Still, she slipped her phone out of her pocket and dialed her sister, determined not to slip into the patterns that had landed her in this lonely, cold wasteland without the man who’d stood by her side when she didn’t deserve it.

“What’s wrong?” Georgie answered, sounding alarmed.

“Nothing is wrong,” Bethany said quickly. “Sorry to call you in the middle of the night like this. I just . . . need some help.” She swallowed. “I need your help staging the house for tomorrow. I can’t do it alone.”

A long pause. “Wait. Is this Bethany? My sister Bethany?”

A dull smile drifted across her lips. “Yes, it’s me.”

“Okay . . .” Georgie said slowly. “I’ll leave Travis sleeping and be right over.”

Travis piped up in the background. “Like hell.”

“She needs help staging the house,” came Georgie’s muffled voice.

“Bethany needs help?”


“Are you sure it’s her?”

Their voices faded out for a few moments amid the sounds of covers rustling, then Georgie was back. “Travis is coming with me. He doesn’t think I can handle the mean streets of Port Jefferson alone.”

“The more the merrier. See you soon.”

Georgie didn’t come alone. She showed up with half of the Just Us League members, including a sleepy-eyed Rosie, Dominic in tow looking stoic and protective of his wife as usual. Bethany opened the front door of the house, so taken aback by the sea of smiling faces staring at her, she stumbled sideways. They didn’t wait for her to greet them and they didn’t ask for an explanation; they simply filed past her one by one, a couple of the older ladies patting her on the shoulder as they passed. The house went from eerily silent to extremely noisy, as plastic was ripped with Stanley knives, boxes were broken down, and furniture was dragged across floors. Bethany stared at the chaos with grateful tears in her eyes until her type A genes couldn’t take it anymore and she joined the effort.

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