“If you volunteered to help me thinking it might be a nifty little inroad to sleeping together, you can forget it. Even if I wasn’t on a voluntary man hiatus, it wouldn’t be happening.”
Her stomach knitted waiting for his response. Why was she so worried he might disappoint her and renege on his offer to help? They didn’t have the kind of relationship where one could let the other down. They didn’t have a relationship, period.
Wes’s expression hadn’t changed a single iota. And it remained impassive as he used a booted foot to push off his truck. “If we’re going to work together,” he responded slowly, “you’re going to start giving me a little more credit.”
“Um, okay? Let me sift through the sexual innuendoes you’ve been making for a month and find this credit you speak of.”
He sliced a hand through the air between them. “Sex is off the table.”
Bethany reared back, truly awkward sounds sputtering in her throat. “It was never on the table, cowboy.”
His skeptical expression said he thought otherwise, but he wisely refrained from voicing his incorrect opinion out loud. “Look. I’m attracted to you, Bethany. Like hell. Would I like to spend a couple sweaty afternoons with you in the sack finding out if you fuck as well as you fight, yeah. I really would. But I wouldn’t use this job as leverage to make it happen. So like I said, sex is off the table now.”
“This isn’t going to work,” she wheezed.
“Because you want sex on the table?”
“Stop phrasing it like that! It’s sex. Not a placemat.” This was already spiraling out of control. “And this isn’t going to work because of the way you—”
“Get under your skin like an itch you can’t find with two hands? Feeling’s mutual and I can’t do anything about that.” He held out his palm faceup. “Keys?”
Wes was already striding past her. “I only spent a year working construction when I was nineteen, but it was enough to know this. First thing you’re going to want to do is give this flip a name. Personalize it. Make it matter.” He reached the front door, stopped, backed up, then kicked it open while Bethany gaped. “How does War of the Roses sound? Seems appropriate.”
Bethany hustled past Wes into the house, careful not to brush against him. “Now who’s making old-timey film references?”
“I’m not too proud to suck up to the boss . . .”
Wes’s voice trailed off when he stepped into the house beside Bethany.
Their sight adjusted to the lack of light at the same time.
“Shit,” they whispered in unison.
They might as well have been standing outside. Bethany didn’t know where to look first. The dirt caking the walls and floor? The boulder-sized hole in the ceiling, complete with tree branches snaking inside and growing along the exposed beams? Two windows were broken. The drip-drip-drip of water came from down the hallway, which was especially ominous because it hadn’t rained in a week.
“We’re calling it the Doomsday Flip.” She sensed Wes watching her.
Bethany hedged. “I don’t think I can . . . well, that is to say, surely one person couldn’t tackle this alone, so . . .”
“Hate to break it to you, darlin’, but I don’t think two people can tackle this one. Not if you want to stick to a reasonable time frame.” He squinted his right eye. “We have a hiring budget?”
There was no mistaking the easing of pressure in her chest when he used the word “we.” “Considering Travis gifted me the house, it’s a pretty healthy budget. We can afford additional labor.” She shifted. “But I want to make the decisions.”
He nodded once. “I’m hearing you, Bethany.”
How was this the same man who talked so bluntly about fucking back in the driveway? Who was Wes Daniels? A crass, innuendo-cracking good ol’ boy? An honorable guy who showed up to raise his niece at a moment’s notice and Zellweger’d in front of his bros? He vacillated too quickly between the opposite sides of himself. God help her if there were more layers to this man. Two was already confusing enough.
Wes produced a pencil from behind his ear and a notebook from his back pocket, flipping it open to the middle. “Let’s talk floor plan. What do you have in mind?”
You would think she’d never set foot inside a house before. Or logged a million hours listening to Stephen and her father talk measurements and layout. The very fundamentals of construction had been her bedtime stories. Now, given a blank canvas for the first time, as soon as she had a burgeoning idea, she discarded it, mentally citing a reason someone wouldn’t like it. Or it wouldn’t be exactly right. How long had she been standing there in silence, staring at the walls and begging them to inspire her?
“Talk it out,” Wes said, sounding almost bored, but when she glanced up, he was watching her intently.
Bethany swallowed hard and turned in a circle, her sandals making a sifting sound on the dirty floor. “We need it fully gutted, obviously. The kitchen needs to be twice as large, which will mean sacrificing the tiny dining room for a cozy breakfast nook.” She wet her lips. “This is a starter house for sure. Which means kids. Parents needing to watch them from the kitchen at all times. They’ll need extra dining space, so we can put in a chest-high dividing wall to double as a breakfast bar. Can we make the whole front of the house visible from the kitchen?”
“Is that what you want?”
What she wanted was a Yes, that’s a great idea. Apparently she wasn’t getting it, though. “Yes,” she forced herself to say. An answer that required relying totally on her own instincts. “That’s what I want.”
He made some notes on his pad, looking much older with his furrowed brow. “You brave enough to tour the rest of the house?”
She gave him an eye roll. “I think I can handle it,” she muttered, already stepping over some broken glass and picking her way down the hallway.
A rat came careening out of the first doorway and trucked a path right across Bethany’s foot. “Oh! Rat rat rat. No. Noooo!” With her screech echoing off the hallway walls, and potentially putting them in danger of the house collapsing, Bethany turned and scaled Wes’s body like a hysterical rock climber.
He dropped his pad and pencil just in time to accommodate her, his only reaction to raise an eyebrow. Getting her feet off the floor required locking her ankles at the small of his back and if she hadn’t been so squicked-out over her brush with rodentia, she would have noticed he didn’t so much as flinch or strain under her weight. She would think of it later, though. A lot. “First, we exterminate,” she heaved breathily beside his ear, patting him twice on the shoulder. “Can you take me outside, please?”
“Uh-huh.” In the slowest turn ever executed by man or animal, Wes started a sloth-like trek back the way they’d come.
“Can’t you go any faster?”
She ignored the shiver that traveled down her spine when his laugh tickled her neck. “Wouldn’t want to drop you, darlin’.”
“Your arms aren’t even around me. It’s all cling.”
“I just don’t want to lead you on. Sex is off the table, remember?”
“Move! My legs are starting to shake.”
He groaned and wrapped her in his arms, one beneath her butt, the other locking around the center of her back. “Bethany, I’m starting to think you say this shit on purpose to torture me.”
She struggled to formulate a response but couldn’t locate one. Not when synapses were firing in her brain, like coffee had been poured on a circuit board. She’d be lying if she claimed she’d never once wondered how Wes’s body would meld with hers. She’d also be lying if she claimed the reality wasn’t unnervingly better. His shoulders were the kind a woman could press her face into and laugh. They were . . . inviting. Warm. Strong. And they connected to a tan throat with lots of interesting stubble. Too interesting.
“You want me to disrobe for this exam?”
“What?” She jolted and slipped slightly lower in his hold and felt it. Felt his erection through the film of her skirt. Wes hissed, his gait slowing to a stop, and they just kind of hovered there in the entryway, gravity pressing her softness down on his thick sex, his breath rasping in her ear, Bethany’s trapped in her lungs. “Labor,” she forced out. “We need to hire labor. Let’s talk about that.”
The forearm resting on the small of her back flexed—and was it her imagination or did his lips brush her hair? “Labor. Right.”
A tremor meandered through her limbs. “We’ll have to look outside Port Jeff.”
She felt Wes’s internal vibration. One of his hands fisted in her skirt. “Bethany, if you expect me to focus on a goddamn word you’re saying, we can’t be one lowered zipper away from f—”
“Whoa. Don’t finish that sentence.” Wes acknowledging their compromising position out loud had the effect of a paintball to the face. What was she doing? She didn’t even like this man. She couldn’t nail him down as a type—and she never had that problem with men. They were self-involved pretending not to be self-involved, lazy, overly ambitious, or downright liars. Wes? He was just messy. That was the only category he fit into. No, wait, he was also too young. How could she forget that little piece of the pie? With a stern directive to stop being an idiot, Bethany unhooked her ankles, let her legs drop, and pushed away from his tense body. “There was a rat,” she said to defend herself. “He had bloodstains on his teeth and a definite air of menace.”