“It will,” Bethany responded. “Of course it will.”
If there was one thing Bethany knew how to do, it was charm. She might as well have majored in schmoozing in college, with a minor in sweet-talking people with clipboards. They had this in the bag. Wes and Laura were depending on her and she wouldn’t let them down.
Something was eating at Wes’s gut, but he couldn’t quite give it a name.
He sat on the couch with Laura beside him, trying to concentrate on reading her Judy Moody, but Bethany kept drawing his attention to where she bustled back and forth in the kitchen.
She was in her element arranging chocolates on a plate and lighting candles. Her hair was pulled up, diamonds winking in her ears. She wore some kind of tight black one-shoulder dress that showed off her legs. Gone was the woman who’d been streaked with paint in lost-cause workout pants that afternoon. She was so beautiful; he could barely hear his own voice over the rap of his heartbeat. There was a jangle in her nerves, too, though, and it was impossible to ignore.
He’d done enough research to know that if the court-appointed visitor didn’t approve the home as a suitable place for Laura, they could potentially appeal the decision and try again. He was going to see the guardianship through, one way or another. That’s not what worried him. It was Bethany. Their relationship was so new, and while she’d grown more relaxed and comfortable in her own skin, he could still sense her occasional panic when their new living situation turned her into a fish out of water.
She might be worrying less and less about being perfect, but this single-minded intensity she was putting into tonight reminded him of Bethany Before. He was afraid if they failed, her old insecurities might come tumbling back out.
There was an anxious feeling in his gut telling him tonight’s decision could put a crack down the center of what they’d built. Had he put too much pressure on her? He was the one who’d said they would take things slowly. Maybe he should have tried harder to find an apartment for him and Laura while he and Bethany grew stronger?
As swiftly as his worries rose to the surface, he stuffed them back down. There was only enough room for one nervous person in this house and he’d already decided it couldn’t be him. He needed to be the picture of confidence at all times until Bethany knew for certain he wasn’t budging. Until then and as long as she needed, he was a boulder without a single crack. Solid.
The doorbell rang and Laura’s head popped up. “Is that them?”
His explanation to Laura had gone like this: The town had grown suspicious that Bethany’s house really was an ice palace being disguised by magic. Someone needed to come over and confirm no shenanigans were taking place. “Yes, that’s them.” He rose from the couch and pulled his niece to her feet. “Why don’t you go grab one of those chocolates Bethany put out? Wash your hands afterward.”
Laura ran off and Wes let out a long breath, moving to the entryway and meeting Bethany in front of the door. She squeezed his hand and stepped back so he could open it, revealing a thin woman in her sixties, arms crossed, with not so much as a hint of a smile on her face. Once again, Wes experienced that ominous click in his gut. “Daniels and Castle residence?”
“Yes,” Bethany said brightly. “Please come in.”
The woman entered the house unceremoniously, her eyes seeming to land everywhere at once. “My name is Paula.” She produced a business card from her jacket pocket and handed it over to Wes. “Just go about your night normally, please. I don’t require a guided tour. I’ll have a look around myself.”
“Oh, okay,” Bethany said haltingly. “Can I get you anything to drink? Coffee?”
“No, thank you,” Paula replied, already breezing past them.
Wes stepped close to Bethany and took her hand, but it was clammy now where before it was warm. “Hey. Come read with us. It’ll be fine.”
Her smile wobbled. “It will be fine. I know.”
Wes didn’t hear a word of the story he read to Laura for the next fifteen minutes. He was only aware of the methodical footsteps moving through the house, entering and exiting rooms. Laura found a comfortable spot under Bethany’s arm and started to nod off, and it seemed like nothing could go wrong. How could there be a negative outcome to anything when his niece was more relaxed than he’d ever seen her? Bethany had been transforming right in front of his eyes, slowly but surely, into someone who could laugh when pancake batter plopped on the ground and who didn’t mind loud cartoons. She was fucking extraordinary and the kind of woman Laura could benefit from having in her life, before and after her mother returned—and he had faith that his sister could and would come back.
There was no better place for his niece, and God knew there was nowhere else he wanted to be than right there with this woman he’d lost his heart to.
So why was his pulse ticking faster and faster in his ears?
He found out when Paula returned from her tour of the upstairs. One look at her pinched features and he knew.
“Can I speak with you outside, please?”
Bethany shot to her feet so fast, she almost lost her balance, but Wes caught her hand in time and brought her around the couch to the front door. He was grateful for the gentle snores coming from Laura because he didn’t want her to hear the bad news obviously headed their way. It was already hitting him like a crowbar to the stomach, the blow sending out reverberations of numbness. How did this happen?
“I’m sorry to do this,” Paula began, hesitantly. “I don’t want you to think this is a poor reflection of yourselves or your home, but after examining Laura’s environment, I can’t recommend this as a qualified living space for a child her age. Either she’s only moved in recently or no accommodations have been made to make this house kid friendly. It looks like an interior design showroom. Really, I find the home . . . cold.” At that, Bethany flinched and Wes closed his eyes. “You’ll have an opportunity to appeal the decision and I could be sent back for another visit, but for now . . . I’m recommending the temporary guardianship be put on hold . . .”
Wes didn’t hear the rest because he was too busy watching Bethany’s face and experiencing the slow erosion inside of his chest. And he couldn’t help but want to grab Bethany by the shoulders and shake her. Don’t fucking shut down on me now when I need you. It was too late, though. He could see that much clearly. Her brittle smile and distant expression had already moved into place, a mask to hide how she really felt about this failure.
No, not a failure. A setback.
Was there even the slightest chance he could make her see it like that? Did he even have the energy when his own disappointment was thick enough to choke him?
“Thank you,” Bethany said woodenly, as she closed the door behind Paula. They both stood there, but she was unable to make even the barest eye contact with Wes.
Humiliation ravaged her skin like fire ants.
Really, I find the home . . . cold.
The same had been said about her before by the men she put on ice, when they tried to get too close. All because she’d dreaded letting them in, all the way in, and having them come to that conclusion after meeting the real Bethany. That she was nothing more than an attractive package.
This home was an extension of her, wasn’t it? She’d put her heart and soul into every single touch, floor to ceiling. And it had been deemed cold.
All she could think to do now was minimize the pain of such a stark failure. She’d fooled Wes and Laura into believing she was the warm, settling-down type. But this had to prove what she’d been afraid of all along. She wasn’t the total package. She was an empty box dressed up in gift wrap.
“Don’t do this, Bethany.” She barely heard Wes’s rasped plea over the roaring in her ears. “Please.”
“Don’t do what?” she asked, dazedly.
“First of all, fucking look at me.” Oh God, she was. She was looking at this man she loved and he looked so defeated. She’d never seen him that way before, not even when she’d fired him. This was her fault. They’d cobbled together this wild idea that they could be a makeshift family and she’d been the wrong fit. What good was being a perfectionist if she couldn’t be perfect when it really counted? “Look . . . we’ll appeal it—”
“No, I . . . I mean, not here again. Obviously moving her . . . a-and you here was a bad choice.” She flung a shaky hand out to indicate the house. “It’s not for kids. Anyone can see that. This whole thing was crazy. It was crazy.”
“It wasn’t crazy. Stop saying that.” He caught the bridge of his nose between two fingers. “You’re not the only one who got punched in the gut here. I can be strong for both of us, but sometimes I need help. So I need you to keep it together for me right now.”
“I am keeping it together,” she said, making a break for the kitchen on wobbly legs. She just had to get away from the knowledge in his eyes. Bethany took a bottle of water out of the fridge, uncapped it, and took a hasty sip, desperately trying to control the chaos of her thoughts. The cool water sliding down her throat did nothing to help the sting of defeat, though.