Tools of Engagement (Hot & Hammered #3) by Tessa Bailey

Chapter One

Wes Daniels cracked an eyelid.

The streetlamp outside the house let in just enough light for him to make out the silhouette of his five-year-old niece sitting on the end of his bed, wearing his cowboy hat. If these freaky wake-up calls weren’t a regular occurrence, it would have scared the living shit out of him. The first time, he’d almost started shouting for the ghost child to go toward the light. His niece was an early riser, however, and this routine had been well established over the last month.

Didn’t mean he had to accept it.

“Nope. Still dark.” Wes pulled the comforter up over his head. “You have to stay in bed until the clock says six, two dots, double zero, kid. We talked about this.”

“But I don’t want to go to school today.”

“School isn’t for . . .” He lifted his head and checked the clock. “Lord. School isn’t until nine A.M. That’s four hours from now. You could fit one and a half major league baseball games into that.”

She was silent a moment. “I don’t have any friends at school.”

“Sure you do.” When she didn’t respond, Wes sighed, reaching over and turning on the lamp, finding a super-serious child peeking at him from beneath the brim of his tan felt hat. How on God’s green earth am I responsible for a five-year-old? He asked himself that question several times a day, but the absurdity of the arrangement struck harder in the morning time. Wes cleared the sleep from his voice. “What about the girl with the Minnie backpack? You two seemed pretty chummy when I dropped you off yesterday.”

“She’s best friends with Hallie.”

“That means she can’t be your friend, too?”

Laura shrugged and pursed her lips, a clear indication she was about to change tactics. “My stomach is going to hurt in four hours.”

Time to face facts. He wasn’t getting that extra hour of sleep. Hell, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d woken up in the actual daylight. If only my friends could see me now. In the not-so-distant past, Wes would have slept straight through a hangover and woken up just in time to hit the San Antonio bars all over again with whatever cash he’d managed to scrape together rodeo riding. Even now—he was just shy of his twenty-fourth birthday—this was prime oats-sewing time.

But everything had changed with one phone call. He’d been yanked from a party lifestyle free of responsibilities in Texas and dropped onto a foreign planet, also known as Port Jefferson, Long Island. To raise a child.

Good thing it was temporary.

And hell, what wasn’t?

Wes swallowed the hard object in his throat and rolled into a sitting position at the edge of the bed, reaching for his discarded shirt on the floor and tugging it on over his head. “Come on, kid. Let’s go see what infomercials are on. Maybe we’ll get lucky with some cooking demonstrations.”

Laura brightened. “Maybe Instant Pot.”

He ruffled her hair and helped her off the bed. “Here’s hoping.”

No sooner had Wes gotten Laura settled on the couch with a blanket did she request apple juice. While retrieving it from the kitchen, he leaned down and scanned the various schedules taped to his refrigerator. There were goddamn four of them. Four schedules. To say it was a rough transition, going from no schedules to four, would be putting it lightly.

Schedule one: kindergarten. Every day was a something day. Bring a silly poem to share with the class. Wear yellow. Dress like a superhero. For the love of God, wasn’t homework enough? Wes wasn’t even sure what PTA stood for, but when he found out, he was going to show up at a meeting and solve the mystery of who was behind these crazy-ass something days. He or she probably had fangs and a maniacal laugh.

He sighed and rested his head on the fridge a moment before focusing on schedule two, aka the Almighty Food Rotation. There was a local group of women called the Just Us League and they’d taken it upon themselves to bring him and Laura labeled containers of food when they found out about his situation. At first, he’d been pleased as hell to inform them he didn’t need charity, but he had just enough humility to admit they’d be eating pizza every night without the meals.

Not to mention, the Just Us League organizer was Bethany Castle, and Wes didn’t turn down chances to be in her vicinity. No, sir. Only an idiot would. He might have taken a few hits to the noggin after being tossed off the backs of some angry bulls, but Wes wasn’t a fool. He knew a ten when he saw one.