Tools of Engagement

Page 8

She didn’t answer right away. “Yes. It’s a lot quieter without them home.” A moment passed. “Do you know when my mom is coming back?”

“Soon, kid,” he lied, feeling like a bastard. “Probably real soon.” Not for the first time, he attempted to mentally reach out to his sister and nudge her into coming back, doing the right thing, even though he wasn’t capable of telepathy. “Hey, I was thinking, there’s no reason you can’t get double toys at McDonald’s tonight.”

Her heels rebounded off his chest. “Yes!”

Crisis averted. For now. How many more weeks or, hell, months would pass without word from Becky?

Trying to focus on the task at hand, Wes made a casual pass in front of the register, only stopping when the most Italian man he’d ever seen propped his meaty forearms on the counter. “Help you find something?”

“Maybe,” he answered, still scanning the shop, as if a construction crew might be sitting on one of the shelves. “I’m working on a flip over in Port Jeff.”

Dark bushy eyebrows went up. “A flip, heh?”

“That’s right.” Wes shrugged. “I guess if you knew some locals looking for something to keep them busy, we’ve got room for a few more.”

Laura pulled on his ears. “Uncle Wes is a show-va-vist.”

“Is he?” the man said, handing Laura a lollipop from under the counter without missing a beat, thankfully distracting her from embarrassing him any more while he was pretending not to desperately need help. The Italian shrugged back. “Might know a guy or two. The job going to pay well?”

Wes inclined his head. “It’ll pay well for the right crew.”

“My boys might be able to help out. They’re in college at night—”

“They ugly?”

The man reared back. “Hell no, they ain’t ugly. What kind of question is that?”

“Who else you got?”

“Uncle Wes, can we get that?”

This time his niece was pointing to a box full of laser pointers. “No way. I’m not waking up tomorrow with that thing shining directly into my eyes.”

She laughed. “How did you know? Can I get a shake at McDonald’s?”

The hardware store ritual was not going according to plan. Time to abort. “Listen, do you have anyone else in mind, or not?”

A man in overalls materialized to Wes’s right, wiping his hands on a greasy rag. With his salt-and-pepper mustache, Wes judged him to be in his late fifties. “Couldn’t help but overhear.”

Maybe the ritual was intact after all.

Keeping hold of Laura’s knee with one hand, Wes reached for a stack of paint sample pamphlets that sat near the register with the other, casually thumbing through the glossy pages. “Overhear . . . ?”

“You mentioned a flip, son?”

“Might have.”

Overalls lifted up his cap. “Well. There are a dozen more ugly, retired sons of guns just like me in this town.”

“It’s true. They live in my shop. They never leave.”

“We keep you in business.”

“You never buy anything!”

Ignoring the owner’s outburst, Overalls held out his hand for a shake. “Carl Knight. Good to meet you.”

“Ollie,” piped up another voice behind Wes. He turned to find an African American man with a WORLD’S BEST GRANDPA T-shirt, roughly the same age as Carl. “I’m not ugly, but I know my way around some plumbing.”

Carl smacked the counter. “We’ve still got some juice left in us, don’t we, Ollie?”

“Juice for days. At the very least, a couple hours.”

Wes’s lips tugged at the corner. “You two mind taking directions from a woman?”

“We’re married,” both men responded in unison.

Wes picked a pen up off the counter and wrote down the address to the flip. “See you boys on Wednesday.”

Bethany stood side by side with Georgie and Rosie, all three of them hunched over with hands on their knees. At the front of the workout room, Kristin bounced away to a remixed version of “Sweet Dreams,” her blond ponytail swinging right to left, her eyes closed, totally oblivious that everyone had stopped following her lead.

“Start from the beginning,” Rosie instructed, swiping at the perspiration on her brow. “You stormed the construction site . . .”

“I don’t storm. I glide.”

“What were you wearing?”

This from her sister, who’d been content with hand-me-downs until the age of twenty-three but could now tell the difference between business casual and smart casual. “An ankle-length floral skirt with my white strapless top.”

Rosie poked her in the side. “Oooh. Hair?”

“Down, wavy. I looked great.”

“You always do,” Georgie assured her. “What happened next?”

“I showed him the paperwork and announced my defection.” She bobbed a shoulder and followed a couple of Kristin’s dance moves, which—if she recalled 2008 correctly—were straight out of Britney’s “Womanizer” video. “That’s all. It really wasn’t that dramatic.”

Georgie rolled her eyes. “You know, sis, it’s actually more telling that you’re leaving out the Zellweger moment.”

“I’m not leaving it out,” Bethany rushed to say. “It’s just . . . inconsequential.”

“I don’t know,” Rosie said, delivering a healthy dose of side-eye. “My husband was present during said Zellwegering—”

“Okay, ladies, it’s not a verb. Can it stop being a verb?”

“And Dominic said it was quite a scene.”

“I suppose it was scene-ish,” Bethany hedged, ignoring the goosebumps that climbed her skin when she thought of Wes announcing he’d be going with her and stripping off his gloves. Why was it so annoyingly hot that he took off his gloves? “As soon as we met at the house, I made it perfectly clear that our temporary partnership would not include any physical benefits.”

“Besides you watching him work shirtless, you mean?” Georgie wiggled her hips. “I’d say that classifies as a major benefit.”

“Georgie, you’re getting married on Sunday. Wait at least a month after the honeymoon to commence your role as a horny old married lady.”

“Aw. Why else would I get married?”

Bethany’s laugh was pained. “Rosie, help me.”

“Sorry, Beth. Shirtless Wes is a definite benefit.” She bit her bottom lip. “You think he’ll wear his cowboy boots?”

Georgie reached across Bethany for a high five. “I was wondering the same thing.”

“Your husbands should be worried,” Bethany muttered, though she didn’t really mean it. Rosie and Georgie were facedown in a mud puddle of everlasting love with their dudes and they would be forevermore. Bethany couldn’t be happier for them. If there were two women who deserved men with unquestionable loyalty who worshiped the ground they walked on, it was her sister and Rosie.

Bethany would be lying, however, if her little sister getting married first didn’t bring about a certain . . . self-reflection. Seeing Georgie and Rosie so happy made her doubt, on occasion, that she’d been built for happiness herself. The kind of relationships they had with Dominic and Travis, the kind where all the walls were down? Didn’t that ever terrify them? Bethany didn’t even like her parents knowing she didn’t have her shit together, let alone someone she expected to be devoted, faithful, and sexually attracted to her. How could one just be themselves, be completely honest, and trust that it wouldn’t eventually send the person on his merry way?

Yes, while Bethany was totally thrilled for her sister and best friend, she could admit to being a little baffled by how the blind trust/unconditional love thing worked. She might have purported on occasion to being somewhat well versed in the world of men, but truthfully? She didn’t know a damn thing about the opposite sex—and it had taken her until exactly this second to admit it. To herself, anyway.

In high school and college, she’d dated liberally and without major commitments, more focused on getting her degree in design and carving out a long-term way to practice what she loved. When she’d settled back in Port Jefferson after four years at Columbia, she’d started seeing men in a more permanent light. Her first serious boyfriend was a bond trader named Rivers. They’d dated exclusively for six months before she found out he’d been back together with his old girlfriend for five. And thus had begun a steady stream of handsome, exciting, successful men who would later prove to be less substantial than dust.

She’d been on a mighty tear the night they formed the Just Us League, in this very room, as the theater director boyfriend she’d been seeing had made for greener pastures, claiming her work schedule didn’t leave enough time for him. A lot of her boyfriends had made this same complaint. A lot of them had pursued other female company because of it, when in truth, her working hours weren’t that demanding.

But the more time she spent around someone, the higher the chance that they would see her faults. They might force her to accept that she wasn’t the warm, fuzzy relationship type, and in reality, she was kind of . . . cold when it came to men. When it came to a lot of things, really. She didn’t seem capable of relaxation or contentment. Her agenda always seemed to include moving and planning. If she stopped and let herself try to enjoy life, enjoy men . . . maybe she wouldn’t. Couldn’t, even. Maybe some of her past boyfriends’ claims that Bethany was cold were correct.

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