A while later, when he signed the documents, he put down Bethany’s address as Laura’s permanent residence and ignored the feeling of diving without a parachute.
Wednesday wasn’t so much a moving day as it was Wes and Laura throwing duffels into the back of his truck. Most of the things inside the house belonged to his sister, and at some point, he would probably need to help her move them, but as for his own possessions? There weren’t many. He’d arrived in Port Jefferson with his wallet, some clothes, and a cowboy hat. Not much had been accumulated since then.
He’d come home last night after filing the papers with the county clerk and told Laura they were moving into Elsa’s ice castle, but it had been disguised as a house to keep her powers a secret. At the time, she’d laughed and seemed excited. Now that they were en route, though, she was clutching her teddy bear a little too tightly, so instead of going straight to Bethany’s house, he drove to Main Street and parked in front of the ice cream shop.
Wes unhooked her from her booster seat and held her hand on the way inside, letting her order an extra scoop with rainbow sprinkles and gummy bears. They sat in the window quietly for a few minutes while Wes tried to figure out how the hell to approach the topic of her obvious stress.
Two females and their complicated minds were going to kill him.
He could already tell.
“Hey.” He nudged his vanilla-chocolate swirl across the table. “You want to try mine?”
He retreated. Took a few more bites. “What are you thinking about?”
Inwardly he sighed. Looked like he would have to give a little of himself to get the truth out of her. Confiding in people was something he’d once avoided at all costs. Who wanted others knowing they had sore spots and weaknesses? But getting to know Bethany, Stephen, Travis, and Dominic had made him realize . . . everyone had weaknesses. They just came in different sizes and shapes. Maybe he could impart some of that wisdom on his niece. “You know, this is going to be the fifteenth house I’ve lived in.”
She almost dropped her spoon. “Really?”
“How many have I lived in?”
“I think this will be three or four, kid. But you know the good news? You’re never going to catch up with me. Least not until you’re an old lady with a cane. Maybe not even then, because I’m not going to let that happen.” He paused, searching for the right words. “I know when I got here, it seemed like I was going to leave. That’s what I was used to doing. But you had to go and be wonderful. My plans changed and they include you now.”
A spark of joy went off in her eyes, but it faded little by little and she continued to tap her spoon against the tip of her ice cream mountain. “I want to move. I’m happy we get to live with Elsa.”
Wes frowned. Didn’t see that one coming. “Explain the pout, then.”
“I’m not pouting,” she exclaimed, rearing back.
He held up his hands. “My mistake.”
They went back to eating silently for a while, but Wes could see she was working on whatever she wanted to say. “This means my mom isn’t coming back.”
His spoon slowed on its way to his mouth. “She wants to come back, Laura. This just means she needs more time to do it.”
Slowly, she laid down her utensil and stared at the table. “It makes me feel bad to be happy.”
It took him a beat to untangle that, but understanding dawned. “Ah. I see.” He swallowed. “You feel guilty for not wanting your mom to come home.”
She shrugged her tiny shoulders. “It’s just better now. With you.”
Wes chose his words carefully. If he’d learned anything from Bethany, it was that women didn’t always need a solution, they just needed to get shit off their chests. His niece definitely didn’t need to hear she was wrong for thinking a certain way, but he wanted to help absolve her of the natural guilt all the same. “Hey.”
Laura glanced up. “What?”
“Did you know that only good people can feel guilty?”
She quirked a skeptical eyebrow, but he had her attention.
“It’s true. Think about it. You feel guilty because you think your feelings might hurt your mom if she found out.” He waited for her reluctant nod. “If you were a bad person, you wouldn’t care if you hurt someone else.”
“Oh,” she murmured. “But it would still hurt her.”
“Maybe. Yeah. But it’s not your job to make other people happy, kid. Especially not the people who are supposed to be making you happy.” He leaned back in his chair and gave her a narrow-eyed look. “Unless you want to let somebody sleep past six A.M. once in a while. That would be totally acceptable.”
Finally, he caught the ghost of a smile, but her eyes were still troubled.
“Tell you what,” he said. “I think it’s okay to be happy we’re moving in with Bethany. Why don’t you let yourself be happy for now, as long as you give Mom a chance when she’s able to come back? Does that seem fair?”
“I still won’t want to. Because . . . if she comes back, you’ll leave.”
“No.” He shook his head, mostly at himself, for neglecting to find the root of the problem sooner. He hadn’t realized Laura was afraid of him leaving, because no one had ever really been afraid of that before. “I’m sticking around either way, Laura. This is my home now. With you.”
Tears flooded her eyes. “And Elsa?”
“Yeah.” His own voice was a little scratchy. “And Elsa.”
Laura hopped out of her seat and ran toward him around the table, wrapping her arms around his neck. “I love you.”
A knot formed in his throat. “I love you, too.”
“Can we go to the ice castle now?”
He laughed, trying to be inconspicuous about swiping at his eyes. “We’d better. It’s rude to keep princesses waiting.”
Wes was not supposed to be the nervous one.
Bethany had enough nerves for the both of them. Not to mention, he needed to be confident for his niece’s sake. He didn’t want to present some mirage of stability for the courts—he needed it to be true.
But he probably should have paid a visit to Bethany’s house prior to moving in because he was not prepared. It was like stepping into a House Beautiful centerfold. There was a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies on the entry table, arranged in perfect stacks with purple flower petals serving as decoration. Candles flickered in huge glass globes from their places on shelves and her immaculate kitchen countertops.
Her carpet and furniture and goddamn near everything was pristine white.
He was moving a five-year-old into this place?
Bethany had stepped aside to let them in and was now crouched down offering Laura a cookie like some gorgeous domestic goddess, but his niece was too agog at her surroundings to reach for the perfectly rounded baked goods.
“It is an ice palace,” Laura whispered.
Bethany’s smile faltered a little and she stood, nearly fumbling the plate of cookies until Wes gripped her elbow and steadied her. “Hey.” He leaned in and kissed her mouth softly. “Everything looks amazing.”
She visibly calmed, and in turn, Wes did, too. Being able to pinpoint her insecurities and talk her out of them reassured him that they could do this.
They could not, however, keep this place sparkling clean forever.
Wes caught Laura by the back of her hoodie before she could step her dirty sneaker on the carpet. “Shoes off, kid.” He toed off his boots. “Here, look. I’ll do mine, too.”
“Is everyone hungry?” Bethany asked brightly, sailing off toward the kitchen. “I made spaghetti sauce—I just have to heat it up. I was thinking we could go check out Laura’s room first and then eat?”
Lord, the poor woman. Her heart had to be beating a thousand miles an hour. “That sounds perfect, darlin’.”
“Great.” She turned on a toe and gestured for them to follow her down the hallway. “Okay, so, it’s not decorated for a young lady just yet, Laura, but I thought we could chat and come up with your own design? Or maybe you want a certain theme . . .”
She opened the door to reveal a room one might refer to as a chamber.
More flickering candles. A fluffy cream-colored bedspread.
A mountain of beaded throw pillows.
Thick maroon drapes.
“This is my room?”
Wes held his breath, only letting it out when his niece squealed in delight and cannonballed into the center of the bed. Bethany slumped against the doorjamb, her eyes closing momentarily, and without needing to think, he reached over and braided their fingers together, bringing her hand to his mouth and resting his lips on her wired pulse. Willing it to settle.
But it spiked a second later when his niece rolled over and sat up, hair in eighteen directions. “Where are you sleeping, Uncle Wes?”
Bethany shifted. “Oh, um . . .”
Laura wiggled to the edge of the bed and leapt off, dashing between Wes and Bethany to an open door directly across the hall. She pushed the door open wider, disappearing into the darkness. Wes followed, flipping on the light to find a bedroom much like Laura’s, only with a forest-green color scheme. “You’ll be right across from me!”