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.
Bethany was a fifteen.
Which brought him to the third schedule: childcare. It was written in Bethany’s handwriting, and he ran his finger over the neat, feminine letters now, smiling over her color-coded system of deciding which Just Us League member would babysit Laura until he got home from work each day. She was never on the schedule herself, of course. Kids weren’t exactly her area of expertise.
Join the club, gorgeous.
What were her areas of expertise?
Turning him on and driving him nuts. And she excelled at them.
Good thing he was an expert at driving her nuts right back. Which brought Wes to his fourth and final schedule. Work.
Starting Monday morning, he’d have the opportunity to get under Bethany’s skin on an extended basis. When Wes landed in Port Jefferson last month, he’d had just enough construction experience on his résumé to land a gig with the local house-flipping gods, Brick & Morty. Their next project happened to be located right across the street from Bethany’s house. Yes, sir. Come Monday morning, he would be driving Bethany nuttier than ever.
Bring it on.
“Uncle Wes!” Laura shouted over an infomercial about revolutionary mops. “Apple juice!”
“Damn, kid. What did your last maid die from?” he drawled, prying open the fridge and taking out the yellow-and-gold container. “Do you want Cheerios?” he called over his shoulder. “Don’t wait for me to sit down to ask. Tell me now.”
A smile played around his mouth as he took down a bowl, dumping in a handful of dry cereal. He might be a far cry from the ideal father figure, but he had this kid’s quirks down to a science. They would need to begin figuring out her outfit by seven o’clock or she would panic and melt down. He frowned, trying to remember if he threw her favorite pink jean shorts into the washer.
“Apple juice!” his niece shrieked from the living room.
“Coming,” he droned, walking to the couch and handing her the cup before wedging the small bowl of Cheerios between her knees. “Don’t spill. This isn’t my couch.”
Laura sent him an uneasy glance and Wes cursed inwardly. Why had he gone and said that? She didn’t need the reminder her parents had split and left her in the care of a clueless bachelor. Wasn’t Wes being here in their place reminder enough? After the failure of his sister’s relationship, she’d called him claiming to need a breather from her responsibilities, including motherhood. With no childcare experience to speak of, he’d gotten on a plane in San Antonio and flew to New York, only to realize this shit was complicated. Raising a child was a damn sight more than providing food and shelter; it also involved a fair amount of mind reading, multitasking, and patience—all on a very small quantity of sleep.
Good thing Wes was only there to fill in the gap until his sister decided to be a mother again and came home. Just until I get my act together, she’d said, but a month had come and gone without so much as a text. Still, Laura didn’t need him reminding her their arrangement was temporary.
Wes sat down beside Laura and tucked her into his side. He waited a few minutes but she didn’t eat a single Cheerio, making his stomach sink. His dumb comment was just another prime example of his inability to do this. To be here, attempting to be a child’s caregiver. Knowing what would distract her and get her spirits back up, he snuck a Cheerio and popped it into his mouth.
“Hey,” she complained.
“Couch snacks are fair game. You want food all to yourself, you sit at the table. Everyone knows that.”
He shrugged. “Better eat them fast, before I snag some more.”
Laura turned her body to shield the bowl of dry cereal and shoveled a fistful into her mouth. Better. She was still mid-chew when her spine snapped straight and she pointed at the television. “Oooh. Instant Pot.”
Wes cozied deeper into the couch cushions. “Now we’re talking, kid.” He waited until she was distracted by the infomercial to work his mind voodoo. “You know, I’m no expert on making friends. But if I was hanging out in the classroom, pasting macaroni onto construction paper and stuff, just minding my own business . . . and one of the other kids did a perfect Scooby-Doo impression, I would want her at my craft table. Hundred percent.”
She sucked in a breath. “I do a good Scooby-Doo impression.”
“Oh, that’s right.” He snapped his fingers. “You do. How’s that go again?”
“Scooby-Dooby-Dooooo,” she howled, eyes crossing a little. “That one?”
Was he biased or should there be a talent scout knocking on their door? “That’s quality work, Laura. It’s like I’m in the room with Scooby.”