Tools of Engagement

Page 51

It took until dawn and a lot of hoarse instructions before the house was arranged as she’d envisioned. She didn’t experience her usual dose of satisfaction, though, because the person she wanted to share the joy with the most wasn’t there. He was getting ready to leave her—and rightly so.

With yawns aplenty, her impromptu decorating committee started to leave and she stood at the door, thanking each and every one of them until they’d all driven off to start their days, undoubtedly exhausted. Travis, Georgie, Rosie, and Dominic all lingered behind, cleaning up the last of the unpacking mess.

Georgie came up beside Bethany, laying her head on her shoulder. “It looks amazing. You should be really proud.”

“I barely recognize it,” Travis added, turning in a circle to take in what was once his childhood home. “And that’s a damn good thing. Nice going, Bethany.”

“Thanks.” Her heart beat heavily in her chest. “I didn’t do it alone.”

Rosie handed her one of the coffees Dominic had gone out to pick up at the gas station, and asked gently, “Wes is home with Laura, I’m assuming?”

Bethany didn’t miss the curiosity in her friend’s tone. She’d obviously noticed that something was wrong. “They’re at my house. They moved into my house.”

Four sets of eyebrows shot up.

“I don’t know how long they’ll be there,” Bethany continued stiltedly. “I’ve ruined everything.”

“What is . . . everything? If you don’t mind me asking.” Travis shot his wife a look. “You’re supposed to keep me abreast of the gossip.”

“I wasn’t abreast of it myself,” Georgie murmured, studying Bethany’s face. “Whatever it is you think you ruined, it’s fixable. We’ll help.”

“I appreciate the offer.” She thought of Wes the last time she saw him and shook her head. He’d been devastated over Paula’s decision and she’d left him to flounder. She’d cut and run emotionally, just like he said. Abandoned him with cold words when he needed her the most. How could he trust her ever again?

He wouldn’t.

But her journey to common ground with Wes had taught her so much, and she wouldn’t abandon what she’d learned like she’d abandoned him in his moment of need.

“I have to tell you guys something.” She paced away from the group to look out the window. “I second-guess myself constantly. I overthink every word and every decision and I push people away so they won’t find out I’m actually a mess. I don’t have it all together. I’m just pretending to be the . . . beautiful, dynamic creature you all see before you. All the time.”

Everyone was silent for a few beats.

“Thank God,” Georgie breathed, bringing Bethany around. “Bethany, congratulations, you’re human. Nobody in this room is perfect.”

“Not even me,” Travis said, winking.

Georgie hip-checked him.

“If we made you feel like you needed to be faultless, we’re sorry,” Rosie said, coming forward. “You just make everything look so easy, it’s hard to imagine you struggling like the rest of us.”

“You asked for help tonight, though.” Dominic coughed, visibly uneasy being the center of attention for even a second. “That probably wasn’t easy. Wouldn’t have been easy for me, either.” He looked at his wife. “Before.”

“And you’re talking to us now,” Georgie added. “Saying the problem out loud is half the battle. Like when I told you I was in love with Travis at Zumba class.”

“Let’s not refer to that as a problem,” Travis growled.

“It was at the time,” Georgie qualified, reaching out to take hold of her husband’s hand. “But it grew into something beautiful. Problems don’t have to go away—they can change shape or you can make them work for you.”

“She’s right,” Rosie said with a soft smile. “You don’t have to change everything about yourself. Sometimes you just have to add a little honesty and it makes all the difference.”

Was Rosie right? It seemed like she might be. Bethany stood in front of her closest friends and family feeling exposed, yes, but also lighter. More herself than ever. Why did this lesson have to come a day late? Last night could have played out so differently. Instead of trying to push Wes away, she could have told him the truth. That she was embarrassed over the failure and horrified that she’d disappointed him. They could have talked about it and moved forward together. More than that, she could have found out how he felt about having their house deemed unprepared for guardianship of Laura.

She’d lost that privilege now, hadn’t she?

He’d never take another risk on such a self-centered head case.

“Thanks, guys,” Bethany said, clearing the rust from her throat. “And thanks for coming out in the middle of the night to help me. I never could have done this alone.” She turned in a circle to observe the Cape Cod–style dwelling in all its spit-shined glory. “Now will it be enough to beat Stephen?”

The pit in Bethany’s stomach yawned wider when she realized winning Flip Off was no longer important. Not when she’d already lost what mattered most.

The next morning, Wes discovered the true meaning of being a parent. Yeah, there was dress shopping and waking up at five A.M. But mostly it was smiling and being engaged through the terrible moments. When he got out of bed Saturday morning, after sleeping approximately twenty minutes the whole night, the house was empty. Bethany had to be off staging the house, and not being there with her didn’t sit right. Not at all. They’d started the project together and they should be finishing it together.

As he leaned against the doorjamb watching Laura brush her teeth, he wished he could go back and handle his argument with Bethany differently. Lord, did he wish.

What good had it been for him to be the stabilizing presence for stupid little things like the mark on her neck? Or reassuring her that he didn’t care about morning breath? If he couldn’t be strong when she had a major spiral, none of that other shit meant a thing.

He could have wrapped his arms around her last night, kissed her, and said, “We got some bad news, baby. Let’s sleep on it tonight and attack it fresh in the morning.” What if that’s all it would have taken to talk her back down?

Instead he’d blown out of there, pissed and hurt.

Hell, he still hurt. She’d thrown salt into his wound and he’d been too down to deal with it. But right now, he could only think of Bethany. Was she feeling this god-awful, too?

He might never know. She’d likely never want anything to do with him again. A man who couldn’t be solid during her hardest moments didn’t deserve her at all.

Eventually he would have to figure out a plan for him and Laura. If Bethany didn’t want them living there, he’d respect that, even if he wasn’t convinced that was the case. Bethany loved Laura. There was no mistaking the way she looked at his niece. The way she softened every time Laura said her name or sat on her lap. Still, he couldn’t wait for Bethany to come down from the ledge to file the appeal for guardianship. It had to be sooner rather than later and he couldn’t imagine putting that pressure on Bethany again right away.

“We’re doing show-and-tell at school on Monday,” Laura said, around her toothbrush.

“Oh yeah?” Wes tried to bury the heel of his hand in his eye socket. “What are you going to bring?”

“Bethany’s magnolia candle. I already put it in my backpack.”

“Why the candle?”

She spat into the sink. “It smells like her.”

His heart lurched. “Yeah. It does.”

“I like the way she smells. I like everything about her.”

“I like everything about her, too.” Even the crazy parts. Last night in the kitchen, he’d loved her through that entire argument, hadn’t he? He loved her so much now, his hands ached with the need to touch her face, stroke her hair. She must be working so hard staging the house and he wasn’t there to tell her she was extraordinary. That she could do anything.

“Uncle Wes?”


She arched an eyebrow at him. “You haven’t really been sleeping very much in the bedroom across the hall from me, have you?”

It hurt to smile, but he couldn’t help it. “No, kid. Not really.”

“Danielle told me what you and Bethany do at sleepovers.”

He froze. “Oh yeah? What’d Danielle say?”

Laura hopped down off the stool Bethany had put in front of the sink, so she could reach the mirror. Had the home visitor even considered that? All the little touches Bethany had added, like a canister of Cheerios in the kitchen and the Disney princess shampoo in the shower? He hadn’t even asked her to do those things. “She said when her mom and dad have sleepovers,” Laura continued, popping his thought bubble, “they new their marriage vows.”

Christ. He was not mentally prepared for this conversation when his head felt like it was buried in cement. “New? Do you mean . . . renew?”

“Yeah.” She smiled brightly. “They new them.”

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