“Can you cut up my pancakes?” Charlotte asked for the fifth time since they’d got in line. Trevor and Sara were seated at the farm table because Trev was having a tough time waking up. It seemed that the excitement of the past week was catching up with him.
“Yep,” Austin agreed as he eyed the nearly empty tray of pancakes.
If there’s any left.
A new batch of visitors arrived at the B&B that morning, and they were big eaters. It seemed to take Karen and Sly by surprise. Austin had a vague frame of reference for what it took to run the bed and breakfast, but this week, when he wasn’t spending time with Sara and the kids he’d seen the larger scope of the workload it entailed.
He was even more grateful to Karen and Sly, who stepped in and seamlessly kept his grandparents’ legacy not just running but thriving. After the festival, when things settled down a little, he planned on sitting them down to formally thank them. And once Sara was done going through the books, he’d ask her if there was room in the budget to give them a bonus for their hard work.
But the big question was, would he be asking her that question over the phone, or would she agree to stay. An unsettled feeling had been resting in his gut since he’d popped the question last night of her remaining in Whisper Lake, and he wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t as if he regretted it or wanted to take it back, something just didn’t feel right about it.
“Austin.” Charlotte tugged on his arm. When he looked down, one of her arms was raised in the air, her way of asking him to hold her, and the other was bent as she rubbed her eyes.
It looked like Trevor wasn’t the only sleepy one this morning. Reaching down he lifted the little girl and she immediately wrapped her arms around his neck and laid her head on his shoulder.
Austin’s heart practically burst through his chest. His protective instincts went into overdrive as he held her with one arm and filled her plate with the other. In that moment he knew he’d do anything, anything, to keep her safe, to keep Trevor safe, to keep Sara safe. There was nothing more important to him than these three people that he hadn’t even known existed a week ago.
He still wasn’t sure how that was possible. It was hard for him to imagine a time in his life when he didn’t know that Charlotte’s favorite book was Clifford the Big Red Dog, or that Trevor was allergic to oranges, or that when Sara was working on one of her posts, she mouthed and sometimes whispered the words that she was typing.
What was more implausible still, was trying to imagine his life without them in it.
When he made his way back to the table Sara stood with her arms out to take Charlotte, who’d fallen asleep on his shoulder. He shook his head, not ready to let her go just yet. As far as he knew, the plan was still for Sara and the kids to leave tomorrow, and he wasn’t sure how many more opportunities he’d get to hold her.
After he set down the plate, he stepped one leg over the long bench that ran the length of the table, sat and then swung the other over, careful not to jar the sleeping princess.
“Well, it looks like breakfast is a bust.” Sara commented as she ran her hands through Trevor’s hair. He’d folded his arms on the table and was using them as a pillow as he snoozed.
“We can grab something later. What time is the rehearsal?”
“Ten.” Sara smiled up at him, with the look he was starting to recognize as appreciation for not being the only adult dealing with things like missed breakfasts, or scraped knees, or lost toys. The amount of respect he had for the woman sitting next to him grew exponentially with each passing day.
Last night she’d told him about her childhood, how she’d basically raised her siblings and then as soon as she was done with that, she’d gotten pregnant with Trevor. And she’d done all of it alone. But if it was up to him, she wouldn’t be anymore.
“What time did you want to go to the castle?” Austin asked, since he knew that Trevor had been looking forward to it all week.
Sara had been using it as a bargaining tool. If Trevor started to talk back, or whine, or misbehave, Sara pulled out the castle as the carrot on the stick. And it had worked like a charm.
“I was thinking we could go after the performance tonight.”
“What do you think about me taking Trev and you and Charlotte sitting it out?” Austin rubbed the little girls back. “It’s pretty spooky and I don’t want it to really upset her. I thought maybe you could go get this one cotton candy.”
That had been the leverage she’d used for Charlotte.
The same emotion he’d seen on her face when he’d filled her tires returned and this time there were tears accompanying it. “Thank you.”
“For what?” This wasn’t the same as him putting air in her tires. They’d all planned on going to the castle together.
“For being you,” she said simply before her expression changed and a wrinkle appeared between her brows as her gaze moved to just beyond his shoulder. “Austin.”
He looked to see what was causing her concern and what he saw took him a moment to process.
Brielle was standing in the doorway of the dining hall holding a baby. She looked…tired. Exhausted, really. And she was crying.
“Is that…?” Sara whispered beside him.
“Here, let me take her.” Sara began to lift Charlotte out of his arms, but in doing so it woke her up.
“No!” Charlotte groggily protested not fully awake as she tightened her grip on his neck. “No!”
“Go see Mommy, sweetie.” Austin said in a soothing voice.
Trevor stirred when he heard Charlotte getting upset and he asked where Austin was going.
“He has to go talk to his friend,” Sara’s voice was soothing and calm.
Trev looked up at Austin with panic in his eyes. “Are you still taking me down to the lake after breakfast?”
He’d promised Trevor that they’d go collect rocks this morning before the talent show rehearsal. Austin wasn’t sure what to say, he’d promised him but that was before Brielle had shown up.
“I’ll take you,” Sara chirped cheerily.
“No!” Trevor exclaimed. “I want Austin to take me! He promised!”
“Trevor Paul,” Sara spoke in a clipped tone as she worked to pry Charlotte’s arms from around Austin’s neck. He was trying to disentangle himself, but she was like a spider monkey.
He looked at her at a loss of what to do. Trevor was starting to get more worked up, Charlotte was crying, and he’d caused it.
“Just go, we’re fine.” Sara instructed with an assuring smile on her face when she was finally able to tug Charlotte onto her lap. Without waiting for him to respond she bent down and began speaking to Trevor quietly in his ear.
He hated walking away from them. Hated it so much it made him sick to his stomach. But he knew that he had to deal with Brielle. And he also knew that Sara had been right. He should’ve answered the phone.