Tools of Engagement

Page 52

Wes stayed really still, hoping his lack of movement might work the same way as avoiding a bear attack. “Okay. That’s nice, I guess.”

“Yeah, but you and Bethany aren’t married.”

This was it. He was going to be mauled by a bear. He’d never wished harder for Bethany to be standing next to him. She wouldn’t know what the hell to say, either, but that was the beauty of the relationship. Whether it was an impromptu tea party or a bleeding finger, they muddled through it together. Fuck, he’d blown it with her. His first and only time in love and he’d barely made it out of the starting gate before letting Bethany down.

He’d let Laura down, too.

Look how happy she is. How is she going to react to moving again?

“No,” he rasped, finally. “Bethany and I aren’t married.”

“Then what vows are you newing in there? Can people make vows even if they aren’t married?”

She nudged him out of the way and he followed her into the hallway, toward her room. And it was a good thing her back was turned, because he was probably white as a sheet. “Yeah, sure . . .” he started, and thought of words he’d spoken to Bethany in the dark.

I’m rock solid, Bethany. Okay? Put your faith in me. I’m here with you because you’ve been my woman since the beginning, even before you realized or accepted it. I’m standing right here and I’m staying right here. There is nothing you or anyone could do to make me want to be somewhere I couldn’t hold you.

Something jagged lanced his throat. He’d said that to Bethany.

He’d meant it, too. What the hell had he been thinking, telling her they were going to leave? Would she ever believe another word out of his mouth?

“Yeah, people who aren’t married can make vows,” he finished, dropping onto the edge of Laura’s bed and burying his pounding head in his hands.

“Oh.” Laura sounded disappointed. “But you can still also make the married kind, right?”


He lifted his head to find Laura sprawled out on the bed beside him. It struck Wes how comfortable she was in this room, no matter what the hell it looked like. It wasn’t about the décor . . . it was the feeling she got being inside the room. Inside this house.

Where the hell did anyone get off saying Bethany’s home wasn’t suitable?

Laura spoke again, diverting his anger. “I don’t know. I have a mom already. But I could have two. Couldn’t I?”

A rake clawed at his insides. “You want Bethany to be your mom?”

He swore there were stars in her eyes when she sighed. “Yeah. Do you?”

“No, I don’t want her to be my mom.”

Laura giggled and his lips curved into a smile, despite the desolation making his chest burn. This whole situation suddenly struck him as unfair. Sure, he knew the court had a responsibility to make sure kids went to a safe home, but Lord, what he would have given back in the day for someone who cared about him the way Bethany cared about Laura. She’d set aside her insecurities and become a fixture in his niece’s life, picking her up from school, protecting her from potential pain when Becky showed up, given her a home. A warm one, to hell with what that woman said about it. They were just new at this.

But he didn’t want to be new at anything without Bethany.

He needed her.

Laura needed her, too. And he’d completely failed to let her know that when she needed to be reassured most. She’d given him an out, because she’d been scared, and he wanted to punch himself in the face for taking it.

She needed to know he would never, ever take an out.

That he would never even think about it.

“You mind spending a few hours with Let’s Color, kid? I’ve got some work to do.”

Chapter Twenty-Six

In an effort to juice every ounce of drama from the competition, the producer sent Bethany across town with the camera crew—and Slade—to have her tour Stephen’s flip prior to the winner being announced. When they parked at the curb, Wes’s truck was no longer in her driveway across the street. Had him and Laura left for good?

Her stomach took a dive at the thought.

Just get through this morning.

Easier said than done. Her knees almost buckled upon stepping over the threshold of Stephen’s flip. The first-glance effect was spectacular. He’d opened up the entryway and carved a little mudroom into the east wall. A pendant light caught the sunshine and projected fragments of rainbows on the lemon sorbet–colored walls. Oak floors beckoned her deeper into the open floor plan and she could only gape at the changes. Bethany was well aware that the cameras were documenting her every reaction, but she didn’t have room to care.

Right in this spot, just under three weeks ago, Wes had Zellweger’d for her.

“If we can get through a meeting without biting each other’s heads off, then we’ll consider working together.”

“We’re just going to pretend you have other options, huh?”

“Are we having a meeting or not?”


Even then, he’d been winding through her insecurities like a maze. How could it have taken her so long to realize Wes was a hero in disguise?

“How are you feeling about your chances?” Slade asked, coming up beside her in a classic construction-man pose, arms crossed, legs braced. “Are you surprised by what your brother managed to pull off without you?”

“Yes, actually. I am.” She let out a long exhale and advanced into the living area, shocked once again by the tasteful elegance. “Looks like I’m not the only decorator in the family. I couldn’t have done it better myself.”

Slade displayed a half grin. “You sound worried.”

His cajoling tone, along with the bright camera lights, amplified her headache. “We could definitely lose. But losing won’t make me any less proud of our house.”

“Speaking of we, where is your foreman?”

A pang caught her in the sternum. “I don’t know.”

Around her, the camera operators shifted, as if they were excited by the subject of Wes and wanted to get a better angle. “Do you have any regrets about trusting him with so much responsibility?”

“No. No, I have a lot of regrets, but trusting Wes will never be one of them. I’m not sure if he could say the same about me.” Burning pressure greeted the backs of her eyes, and she cut through Slade and the director, heading for the door. She piled into the middle seat of the network van and took deep breaths to steady herself. And then the van was moving, Slade and the director chatting loudly in the front seat about potentially changing his wardrobe for the big announcement. It made her wish for Wes so badly. Made her wish for one of his eye rolls or drawled comments in her ear.

Chaos reigned back at Project Doomsday, interns running between trailers and the house, landscapers helping to set up shots of the exterior—Ollie and Carl being interviewed out front in tuxedos, which would have made her laugh out loud if her heart wasn’t dragging behind her like tin cans.

The van door slid open to Bethany’s right, drawing her attention. “Both houses have been toured by three impartial real estate agents and given an unofficial appraisal. Your brother is inside touring Project Doomsday so we can bank his reaction shots. When that’s over, we’re going to bring you both out on the lawn and announce the winner. Your friends and family are already being arranged in the shot.”

“Oh.” Sure enough, in the distance she could see everyone on her favorites list, including her parents. Her mother was wearing the same dress she’d worn to Georgie’s wedding and applying lipstick in an endless coral oval. “Great.”

As Bethany was escorted from the van to the staged filming area, butterflies swept through her stomach, surprising her. All morning, she’d been hollow and calm—heartbroken, to get technical—but now . . . she wanted to win. She needed the win. Not for herself, but for her and Wes. She desperately needed something positive to come from their relationship. Sure it had been painfully short, but it had impacted her like nothing else. Their time together might as well have lasted a decade and she needed something to show for it. For the changes he’d inspired in her, for the unconditional support he’d given.

Bethany reached the crowd of family and friends, everyone speaking to her at once and none of the words penetrating. Stephen exited the house, capturing her attention. He was wearing a shirt that read ONE HUNDRED PERCENT THAT FATHER without an iota of shame and Bethany could only shake her head.

“You’re really going to wear that on television.”

“Kristin got one for you, too.”

“Do either of you need a bottle of water?” a harried intern asked.

“We’re fine,” Stephen answered for them, sending the young man scurrying off into the swelling crowd of crewmembers. “It’s okay, Bethany, you don’t have to congratulate me on the pregnancy. Saying congratulations twice in one day would be too much.”

“Oooh, you should have saved that zinger until the cameras were rolling.”

Her brother shrugged. “I’ve got plenty of them.”

“All right, everyone,” shouted the director, holding up a hand. “I like the energy here. Let’s keep it going, so I can get a panning shot of the audience. On my signal, everyone cheer like your lives depend on it. Like you’re outside of a Best Buy on Black Friday, or whatever excites suburbanites.”

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