With a humorless laugh, Wes turned and stamped out of the house, leaving his back muscles rippling in his wake.
He started talking as soon as Bethany exited the still-open door behind him. “If it’s all right with you, I’ll round up some men to put on the payroll.” As he said it, he settled his thumbs in the loops of his jeans, like he was going out to wrangle some cattle in a few minutes. “I can’t be here every minute of the day. I’ll have to leave to collect Laura from school and I won’t feel comfortable leaving you with just anyone.”
Her right eye twitched at his high-handed tone. “You’ll be leaving me with myself, cowboy. A responsible human woman.”
“Bethany, you can make the rules about everything else. But you’re going to learn real quick that I won’t compromise your safety.”
“My God.” She slapped her hands over her face. “This is a scene straight out of a Western. Next you’re going to call me little lady and hock a loogie into a spittoon.”
Wes tossed back his head and laughed.
“I’ll be in charge of hiring,” she said with a tight smile, gliding to her car.
The infuriating man stepped into her path, the humor bleeding quickly from his face. “I’m taking care of it. No compromises.”
She poked him in the right pec. “This feels suspiciously like a macho male ritual where you insinuate yourself as leader of the pack, then make the rules of engagement regarding the available female.”
“Allow me to clear up your suspicions. That’s exactly what this is.”
Bethany blinked at least seventeen times. “We agreed sex was off the table! Even though it was never even remotely on the table!”
Wes crossed his arms. “Doesn’t mean I want it on the table for anyone else.”
A look of wonder wafted across her face. Why was she even surprised by this behavior? One evening several weeks back, while Rosie and Dominic had been smack in the middle of splitsville, the girls had embarked upon a night out in the city that was promptly crashed by the men. Wes included.
A very nice downtown-finance-style gentleman had just purchased her a cocktail and was complimenting her dress when Wes plucked the drink out of her hand and slid the guy a twenty to cover it, his gaze telling him pointedly to Beat it, bitch.
“This chauvinism is unacceptable in the golden age of female superheroes and pegging, Wes.”
She sensed he was trying not to laugh. “You know, I kind of sensed you’d be into tying up a man and prodding him to death.”
Bethany waved her hands. “I didn’t say I was into it.”
“Sure about that?” He tucked his tongue into his cheek. “It was right there on the tip of your tongue.”
“I’d like to shove my foot up your ass right now. Does that count?”
His eyes crinkled at the corners. “I’ll do the hiring. You call an exterminator and a landscaper. Carve out some time this week to go pick out materials. Tile, flooring, cabinets.”
“The wedding is coming up this Sunday. No sense in taking on the job of finding a crew when you’re already swamped.”
She could concede this one thing or stand there arguing for another month, and frankly, she was beginning to almost enjoy sparring with Wes a little too much. Best to get out of there now. “Fine. You’re in charge of hiring.”
“Great. Let’s aim to demo next week.”
Bethany nodded and gave him a wide berth as she headed to her car. She settled her hand on the driver’s-side door and stopped, tapping her nails on the white curve. Wes’s eyes were on her. She could feel them. Climbing into her car and driving away without another word would be exactly what he expected, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it just yet. Because as obnoxious as this man could be, she didn’t feel nearly as alone or daunted as she had this morning.
“Thank you.” She sniffed. “Okay?”
“Okay.” He winked at her. “We can still pretend to hate each other, if it makes you feel better about accepting my help.”
She brushed her hair back. “Who’s pretending?”
His lopsided smile was a fixture in her rearview mirror as she drove away.
What in God’s name had she gotten herself into?
This was Long Island, not Texas, but Wes was banking on some things never changing. And in Texas, when a man needed help, he went to the local hardware store. There was a good reason for that. In a hardware store, a man only had to drop the barest hint about his project and dudes started pouring out of the aisles touting the best advice. This was a ritual that saved men from having to actually ask for help while also making other men feel useful. Kind of like the “leave a penny, take a penny” of masculinity.
Being that Brick & Morty had all the best construction hands from Port Jefferson on the payroll, Wes picked up Laura from school and drove to the neighboring town of Brookhaven. She rode on his shoulders through the sticker-covered front door, making the overhead bell tinkle a second time with her fingers.
He breathed in the competing smells of paint, polyurethane, and sawdust, taking his time toward the back of the store. No need to appear too eager for advice. This kind of thing required timing and a visible lack of enthusiasm.
“Uncle Wes, can we get that?”
Wes’s steps slowed even more. It never failed to jar him a little when Laura referred to him as Uncle Wes. Hell, after a month of five A.M. wake-up calls, he’d earned the title, hadn’t he? And they were related by blood, even if Becky, Laura’s mother, was only his half sister.
The fact that he’d had any family had come as a shock to him. Becky had shown up where he’d been living just before his sixteenth birthday, at a temporary foster home in San Antonio. A year younger than Wes, she’d been skinny and wary of her new, temporary parents. Wes had been wary, too. Especially when he found out, via their foster father, that he and Becky shared a mother and thus, the state had been attempting to place them together for a long time.
He’d been transferred among enough families at that point to know getting attached to anyone was stupid. So he’d ignored Becky for a while, until she started following him around, living in his shadow. She didn’t need to say a word for him to surmise she’d had it worse than him. Her deer-in-the-headlights expression told him the ugly gist of the story. Because of that, because he knew the system could be harder on girls, he’d broken his rule and started covering for her when she didn’t wake up in time to complete her chores. When they were moved to separate houses, she continued to call on him when she needed to be bailed out or when she was scared and needed a place to sleep, which usually ended up being his closet.
Not for the first time in the last couple of days, Wes wondered where Becky’s “breather” from motherhood had taken her. Back to Texas? Further up the East Coast? It was anyone’s guess. The one predictable thing about his sister was her unpredictability. She’d proven that many times, not the least of which was getting pregnant with Laura at seventeen.
Shaking himself, he followed the direction indicated by Laura’s grubby finger—really, he needed to start carrying baby wipes or something—landing on a garden gnome. He’d learned quickly that no matter where he brought his niece, be it the post office or a walk down the dang street, she would find something for sale she desperately needed. An outright “no” never worked, because a denial was always followed by no less than seventy-five groans of “PLEASE, UNCLE WES.” So he’d started getting creative and distracting her with bullshit.
“A garden gnome?” He snorted. “Why do we need a fake one when we’ve got the real thing?”
Her knee jerked and caught him in the chin. “What?”
Wes tested his jaw. “You heard me. We’ve got a whole colony of them protecting the house. They don’t get to running around until you start snoring, but I’ve caught them in action a time or two.”
“You’re lying.” She paused and he could picture her pursing her lips, brow furrowed in thought. “What were they doing?”
“Playing ring-around-the-rosy. Chasing cats. Trying to steal my truck.”
Her giggle made him smile. “Can we get McDonald’s for dinner?”
“Depends. What’s on our food calendar for tonight?”
“Green bean casserole.”
Wes winced. “I could go for a Big Mac.”
“Yay!” She folded her hands on his head. “What are we doing here?”
“I’m being a chauvinist. You’re just along for the ride.”
“What’s a chauvinist?”
“In my case, it’s someone who’s being a damn fool over a woman.”
Laura sighed. “Oh.” Her fingers fidgeted in his hair and he could almost sense her working up to something. “I think my mom called my dad that name once.”
Her voice was glum. “Yeah.”
Something pointy turned over in his middle. “Did they call each other names a lot?”