Tools of Engagement

Page 53

“What a tool,” Bethany muttered.

“We can agree on that,” Stephen said out of the corner of his mouth. “So who is going to crack first and ask for an opinion on their flip?”

“Not it.”

Stephen cursed.

“All right! Here we go! Black Friday energy!” The director settled his hands on his knees. “Action.”

Behind Stephen and Bethany, whistles and woos filled the mid-morning atmosphere, calling more attention to her loneliness. This wasn’t right. She wasn’t supposed to be standing there by herself.

Slade disrupted her thoughts by stepping between her and Stephen, rubbing his hands together. “Two small-town flips, condensed into an incredibly short time frame. Brother versus sister. Ultimate bragging rights on the line.” Dramatic pause. “I have to say, both of you delivered beyond our expectations. But who will come away victorious?” He fired a finger gun at the camera. “Stay with us. We’ll be announcing the winner after the break.”

“Cut! Perfect, Slade,” called the director. “Let’s go right into the announcement next. Build the drama. Stretch it out. Folks, on my signal, cheer your faces off. Cameras ready?” He waited for a nod from the cameraman. “And . . . we’re rolling.”

Once again, the sounds of clapping and cheering filled Bethany’s ears, the bright lights blinding her until all she could see were vague outlines of human beings and blurs of color.

Slade’s voice cut through the noise like a buzz saw. “Flip Off is back, coming to you from Port Jefferson, Long Island! If you’re just joining us, we’re primed to announce the winner of a brother-sister showdown of epic proportions. How are you feeling, Stephen? Confident?”

Bethany’s brother puffed up his chest. “Always.”

“Bethany? What about you?”

“Nervous,” she breathed, the honesty beginning to come easier.

She only caught a hint of Stephen’s frown before Slade blocked her view. “Our judges have done a thorough inspection of both houses, and while both of you did an outstanding job, there can only be one winner. Without further ado . . . we’re going to announce who impressed them the most. The winner of Flip Off is . . .” He stopped talking for so long, Bethany almost pinched the host to see if he was alive. “Stephen! Congratulations, buddy.”

Bethany felt every camera train on her face and knew she should grin and bear the news, but she couldn’t seem to make it happen. It was insult to injury. She’d lost Wes, and now this home they’d worked on tirelessly for weeks had been declared a loser, just like their relationship. It hurt, like a nail in the coffin.

Still, she stepped around Slade, prepared to shake Stephen’s hand. “Hey, congratulations. It’s a well-deserved vict—”

“Now, hold on one second,” Stephen blustered, avoiding her hand. “What exactly were the judges’ criteria? Because my sister started with a ramshackle nightmare and I started with a slightly outdated house. And she had little to no experience, on top of everything.” His face was starting to turn red. “I just went in there and . . . Bethany, you killed it. All those little details are going to sell the place. The broken-up backsplash in the kitchen, those built-in bookshelves, and the ornamental trim you ran along the middle of the bedroom walls. I mean, what the hell were the judges even looking at?” He jabbed a finger at Slade. “My sister won. Announce it again.”

Somewhere in the distance, Bethany heard her mother burst into tears. “My children love each other.”

“Stephen,” Bethany said thickly. “You don’t have to do that.”

“I’m not blowing smoke, Bethany. You won.”

“Your house was beautiful, though. Your staging was spot-on.”

“You know why? I pulled up one of your past furniture orders and put everything exactly where you did.” He threw up his hands. “I just copied one of your old stages.”

A gasp went up from the crowd.

“Oh. Come to think of it, the arrangement did look pretty familiar,” she murmured to herself.

“The twists and turns keep coming on Flip Off,” crowed Slade.

Bethany swiped at the gathering moisture in her eyes. “You know what? I wanted to win. I wanted to have something positive to hold on to in the middle of the mess I made, but . . .”

“But what?” prompted the host.

She stared into the abyss of people behind the cameras. “It doesn’t feel right accepting the win without Wes here. My foreman. My . . . ex-boyfriend, I guess?”

Her mother was in full vapors now. “She already broke up with him? I didn’t even get a Sunday dinner out of it.”

“Wes saw every side of me while flipping this house. Stubborn Bethany. Scared, stressed, and silly Bethany. And he stuck it out. He was patient. More patient than I deserved. I would have spun out so many times if he wasn’t standing beside me, making me fall in love with him.” She could practically feel the cameras zooming in on her face, but she’d stopped hearing anything but the rapid pound of her heart. “So, maybe . . . hopefully six to eight months from now he’ll watch this show on his couch and he’ll hear he made a difference. Wes, you were always more than a pit stop for me. You were the destination. I just got lost on my way there one too many times—”

Wes stepped out of the blur of bodies and slowly removed his cowboy hat.

They stared at each other, five feet apart, the cacophony of noise falling into a hush around them.

“You’re here,” she whispered, rooted to the spot. Held there by the sheer overwhelming pleasure of being near Wes, seeing him, absorbing his presence. How did she ever go a day without him? How would she ever do it in the future?

“I’m here,” he echoed, taking a step closer. “Right where I’m going to stay. What about rock solid didn’t you understand?”

Bethany started to tremble. Was he forgiving her? Was she dreaming?

“I’m late because I was filing the appeal. Next time I saw you, I wanted to have a next time on the horizon. We don’t quit, Bethany. We muddle through it together. We’re in everything together.”

Her lungs released their contents in a rush. “I love you so much.”

His eyes became suspiciously damp. “I heard.”

Neither of them moved to close the gap between them.

“I promise to be rock solid for you, too.” A sound welled up in her chest and burst free. “I’m so sorry—”

Wes surged forward, dropping his hat at her feet in favor of cradling her face in both hands. He took a moment to search her gaze before his mouth landed on hers with eager precision. Determined fingers tangled in her hair, his tongue stroking hers in a way that was at once tender and hungry. “You’re my first home, Bethany, and my last,” he rasped against her lips. “I’m yours, too. And sometimes a floorboard is going to get creaky or a porch light will need fixing. We’ll repair it and be good as new. That’s love. I wouldn’t have known what love felt like without tea parties. Or a beautiful woman showing up at my window at midnight. Or that same woman opening up her home even though it scared her.” He kissed the tears off her cheeks. “I am your destination. And you didn’t get lost on the way to me, you just circled the block one extra time. Now park the goddamn car, darlin’, come inside and tell me you love me again.”

Her laugh was joyful and watery. This man was a marvel. Her marvel. Not to mention her future. “I love you.”

Wes pulled her into a tight embrace and kissed her forehead. “I love you, too, Bethany.”

“Hate to interrupt,” Slade broke in, making Wes growl, “but I don’t think you’ll mind what I have to tell you. There is an actual prize for this competition. Something slightly more substantial than bragging rights.”

“Make it good, Slade,” Wes said, never taking his eyes off Bethany. “I need to kiss this woman until she can’t taste the word ‘ex-boyfriend’ anymore.”

Slade laughed. “Stephen has officially conceded victory, making Bethany and Wes the winners of Flip Off.” He dangled a set of keys in front of their faces. “You’ve raised the house value and you’ll be receiving a check for the difference, plus a year in paid property taxes. How does that sound?”

Bethany and Wes turned to each other with identical expressions of shock. Wes recovered first, scooping Bethany up into his arms, parting the sea of crew members as he carried her toward the house—and over the threshold.

“What do you think?” Bethany smiled into Wes’s neck. “Should we keep flipping houses? We make a pretty good team.”

“We make the best team.” He set Bethany down and pressed her to the closest wall, letting his mouth travel over hers slowly, adoringly. “Just stay off rooftops during storms.”

“It’s a deal.”

Their shared laughter lifted and faded. “There’s one more reason I was late this morning, Bethany.” He reached into his pocket and took out a ring box, lifting it between them to the soundtrack of Bethany’s gasp. “We can wait a week or ten years, but I want you to know I plan on loving you straight through eternity. “

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