It had been some time since Carlie and Alan had been together in the town hall, standing before the panel and the traveling judge who made it out when necessary from Laramie. The last time she had stood in this room with him had been for the trial and sentencing of her brother, Daniel.
That had been a year before, just after their wedding, and Alan was impressed with her then, standing at his side with her head held high. He was even more impressed by the recently turned five-year-old standing between him and his wife, her smile as beautiful as her mother’s.
“Well, with everyone’s consent, I suppose that makes this official,” the judge declared, a rare smile on his cragged face as he finished signing the documents in front of him. “You may now officially be known as Miss Josie Ellis-Lansky.”
Josie jumped, spinning away from her mother and up into Alan’s arms as he reached down to grab her. He hugged her close to his chest, feeling her happy tears stain the neck of his shirt. He could feel his own building in his eyes, not quite tracking down his cheeks yet. He hadn’t known there could be a moment to him as important as the day he had married Carlie.
Officially adopting Josie was that moment.
For a year, he had lived under the same roof with her, watching her grow and falling more in love with her as the days passed. He had been warned that his love might be different for Josie than it would be for his own child, should he and Carlie decide to have them, but growing to love her as he did, he couldn’t imagine ever loving another child any more than he did her.
She was smart, courageous, and caring.
“Thank you,” he called out gratefully to the judge over Josie’s head of wild curls as Carlie curled into his side, hugging both him and Josie, as well.
“No, Sheriff Lansky, thank you. It is rare in my position that I get to preside over such happy affairs as this,” Judge Roberts answered back with a pleased smile.
“Then, please,” Carlie interrupted, her voice chock full of the emotion surrounding them, “join us in our adoption celebration in town square.” She invited him readily, adding to the number of people that Alan knew were already there and waiting.
The judge grinned, sitting back and folding his hands over his stomach. “After I finish up here, I’d be honored to stop by,” he accepted.
Alan couldn’t wipe the grin from his face, even as he and his little family left that building, the warm air swirling around them as they stepped out once more into the town.
Josie chattered about something to Carlie, the both of them laughing and talking back and forth, but Alan was in a world of his own. He didn’t need to be a part of that conversation, not now, so full of the moment and everything that had transpired. Josie had called him her hero for over a year now, regaling anyone who would listen about how he had saved her from the bad guys.
Carlie liked to say the same, speaking of the way he had saved them.
He wasn’t sure that it was him who had done the saving, though.
Not in reality. He had done his job, he had tried his best, but Carlie and Josie were the two who had saved him in the long run. His house was now full of colorful drawings and laughter, the sheriff’s station even decorated with Josie’s art and touches from home from Carlie. They had filled his entire life with beauty and love, filling in spaces he had never known to be empty before them.
“The Lanskys!” Voices cried out in celebration as they turned into town square.
The entire area was wreathed in streamers and decorations, food piled on several tables and everyone around them celebrating. It seemed every person, both from town and the surrounding areas, had all come out to join them.
Sam and his wife Eloise stood off to one side, waving at them from next to Della and Billy. Around their feet, their twin almost-toddlers practiced standing up and falling, Josie catching sight and pushing at Alan’s chest so that she could be let down to rush over. Her fascination with her young cousins had never wavered, nor had her devotion to them.
“She loves them,” Carlie laughed, taking Alan’s hand and interlocking her fingers with his.
“I love her,” Alan answered, pulling Carlie into his side and putting his arm over her shoulder. “And I love you,” he whispered into her hair, kissing the side of her face sweetly.
“The not-so-new parents!” Mrs. Dean called, coming toward them from one side with her husband following closely behind. She reached for them both, kissing both of their cheeks and grinning with a blush in her cheeks to show her pleasure. “Congratulations on making it all legal for you two, we’re so happy for you! All three of you!”
Mr. Dean smiled behind her. “And for us, gaining such a wonderful son-in-law,” he added, chuckling at his wife’s side-eye for overshadowing her.
“Oh, I’m so happy for you two,” Mrs. Dean gushed further, before a shadow passed behind her features. “Did… uh,” she paused, clearly uncomfortably. “Did the judge say anything about having any letters on him?” she asked carefully.
Alan watched Carlie for a reaction, proud of her when she just smiled sadly and shook her head no. Mrs. Dean seemed to deflate for a moment, her grief clear in her expression, before she hurried to start pointing out to Carlie how many people had shown up.
Alan knew what she had really been asking.
Mrs. Dean had never given up on Daniel, even after his being sentenced to prison. She wrote to him every day. Daniel hadn’t answered once in the year that she had been doing it. She always seemed to grieve that, though her letters still got sent out, and she no longer dragged the rest of the family into that business.
She and Carlie had come to a gentle understanding, working on rebuilding their own bond instead of fighting over something neither of them could change. Alan hurt for both of them, but he was also incredibly proud of how they had handled it.
“Josie?” Carlie asked suddenly, whirling about with panic on her face.
It had been too long without her seeing Josie, and Alan knew that she still worried over her immensely. Even a year later, Carlie had to know that Josie was with her or Alan. She trusted others with Josie, even to watch her, but her worry sometimes cropped up randomly.
“Over with Della and Billy still,” Alan reassured, glad to see her relieved smile as soon as he said it.
He knew she appreciated that he kept such a close eye on her, too, she had told him often enough over the last year, always seeming so surprised that he was willing to do so. He didn’t admit that the same anxiety sometimes seized him, as well. The thought of losing either of his girls was near unbearable.
“Sheriff,” Reverend Orwell greeted as he came to stand alongside him. “Congratulations!”
“Thank you,” Alan answered with a grin of his own. Reverend Orwell, especially after having married them, remained a close friend to them both. Carlie still saw him, Alan knew, once a week to go over the changes in her life and continue processing the grief from all that she had been through.
“I never thought I would actually see her this happy,” Reverend Orwell admitted softly, smiling at Carlie as Josie ran up to hug her around the knees. “She was so full of sadness and grief, even in my profession there was little I could actually offer her—”
“Reverend!” Alan disagreed vehemently, “She credits you often with helping her process and handle her grief!”
“Oh, I provide advice and a listening ear, to be sure. Especially when she still has those pangs of guilt that arise from moving on so fully after the loss of her first husband, but you, Sheriff…” Reverend Orwell smiled. “You brought her out of that darkness and showed her a new light. And she, I think, did so for you, as well.” He hit the nail on the head, making Alan feel all the more validated.
“She and Josie are my light,” Alan admitted softly.
Reverend Orwell clapped his hand on Alan’s back, understanding and appreciation in the simple gesture. “Uh-oh,” he laughed, “here comes trouble.”
Della and Billy made their way over to them, carrying their twins behind the path Carlie had carved when she ran over.
“Brother!” Della greeted, the tiredness that had gripped both her and Billy so fully in the first few months of Vanessa and Ian’s life long gone and replaced by a happy vibrance instead.
“You two look ecstatic,” Alan greeted with a smile. Both Billy and Della shared a look, their grins breaking out once more.
“The twins are finally sleeping through the night!” they both cried at once, laughing over the words. All the adults in the circle that they had unintentionally formed laughed at their excitement, chuckling as they put both twins back to the ground.
Vanessa and Ian immediately crawled and fumbled their way toward Josie, laughing and giggling themselves.
“You just wait, Alan,” Della promised ominously. “One day, you will know the excitement of a baby sleeping through the night.”
“What are you talking about?” Alan laughed. “We’ve babysat for you! I’m pleased my niece and nephew are finally giving you two rest.” He furrowed his brows at their resulting laughter, not understanding when everyone else around them joined in, as well.
“Oh, honey,” Carlie soothed, patting his arm as she came to stand back at his side. “It really isn’t the same. You missed Josie’s newborn phase, and when I told you she wouldn’t sleep…” She trailed off, wincing at the memory and shaking her head. “It’s a totally different sort of pain when you are the one in charge of the babies who refuse to sleep for days and months on end than just the one night here and there.”
“Yeah,” Josie chimed in from where she was playing with Vanessa and Ian on the ground. “Because I’m a big girl! And I’ve been a big girl, Daddy!”
Carlie bit her lip, looking up at Alan.
He would never get over being called Daddy, the pride and love blooming in him at just the word so intense. He knew it got to Carlie, too, but he also knew she was staring at him for a different reason. He had to agree with her. Surrounded by their closest friends, already celebrating as they were, there had never been a better time to break their news.
Alan pulled Carlie to him gently as she leaned her shoulders against his chest, allowing him to circle his arms around her from behind and rest his hands gently on the small round beneath her dress that she had been so patiently hiding.
“Actually,” Alan said, clearing his throat, “about that.”
Everyone turned expectantly to them, varying degrees of confusion on their face.
“Alan will be having to deal with the newborn stage soon enough,” Carlie hinted, resting her own hand over Alan’s lovingly.
“Ohhhh! Are we bringing Nessa and Ian to live with us?” Josie cried out in excitement, turning around with a sudden interest.
Billy and Della laughed, looking confused. “No,” Della answered before Alan or Carlie had a chance. “They’re definitely staying home with us where they belong! Anyways they’re over their newborn stage, they’re more than a year o…” Della trailed off suddenly, comprehension dawning on her features and her eyes widening as she spun to face Carlie and Alan. “NO!” she gasped.
Billy stared at his wife in confusion, along with Mrs. and Mr. Dean. Mrs. Dean, though, followed Della’s gaze. Her eyes landed on how Alan was holding Carlie’s belly, and the way it stuck out just marginally from where it should. She had only just begun to show.
“Oh, my goodness,” Mrs. Dean muttered, tears springing to her eyes.
“Oh, my goodness, what?” Billy demanded irritably before it finally hit him too. “Oh. Oh!”
There was a silence around them as the adults teared up, staring at Carlie and Alan in awe and happiness.
“What?” Josie demanded in irritation, her little voice breaking from where she still sat on the ground. “What do you mean? What is no? What is oh my goodness? Is this another thing that only grownups can know? Because I don’t like the secrets that only grownups can know. Just because you know, you don’t think it’s rude, but it is! It’s so rude!” Josie burst out, her little eyes narrowed as she swung her gaze from one adult to another.
“It’s a secret for Josie to know, too,” Carlie assured her daughter, biting back a too-wide grin.
“A secret we hope Josie will like,” Alan added, leaning his chin down onto Carlie’s head.
“Well, what secret is it?” Josie demanded aggravatedly. She, even sitting like she was, put her hands on her hips as she searched for the answer.
“In a few months, we’ll have a baby in the house,” Carlie said gently, watching Josie carefully for her reaction.
“But what baby?” Josie sighed, still not quite catching on.
“Well,” Alan chuckled, not the least bit worried about her reaction. He hadn’t told Carlie, but Josie had been badgering him about how one got a sibling and how she could get one since only two months after she had moved in with Alan. “Our baby, Josie-girl,” he explained. “Your mother’s and mine. Your sibling.”
Josie stared for a long moment, not seeming to quite believe him. As the news settled, though, her eyes widened and she bounced in place, tears brimming in her eyes as she bounced up and down. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” she cried exuberantly, dancing in place in celebration. “Today is the best day ever,” she cried. “I told you Grandpa! I told you if I asked, I would get one!”
Mr. Dean chuckled in amusement, shaking his head and catching his daughter’s surprised gaze.
It seemed Alan wasn’t the only one she had been confiding her wishes in.
“The best day ever, huh?” Carlie teased, though she too had happy tears running down her face.
“Yeah! Daddy is my real daddy now, we’re having a big party for me, and I got my biggest wish of all? Best day ever,” Josie sighed, picking Vanessa up and hugging her tight. “Oh, I hope it’s a girl!” she cried. “I want a sister!”
Della cackled from the side, and Billy covered his own mouth to hide his.
“Do you two hope the same?” Mrs. Dean asked, still obviously reeling and deliriously happy with the news.
“I wouldn’t mind a boy,” Carlie admitted despite Josie’s sudden glare. “I have a perfect girl, it’d be nice to have a boy… but I’d be happy with another daughter, too.”
“I hope it’s a boy, too,” Mr. Dean confessed with a laugh.
“What about you?” Billy asked Alan, eyebrows raised.
“I hope it’s twins!” Della burst out before Alan could answer. “Or triplets! Just like you hoped for me.” She cackled, catching Alan’s gaze and trying to rile him. “Then you would go from one to four overnight!”
Alan just smiled, shrugging slightly. “I’m happy either way, with however many babies,” he admitted to his sister’s surprise and Carlie’s worried gasp. “As long as they’re healthy. We can have more, we can stop after this one… I have everything I want,” he said with a press of his lips into the side of Carlie’s face. “Anything after this? Is just extra.”
As the conversation picked back up around them, Alan just smiled. He meant what he said; it was as true as it had ever been, surrounded by the people that he was, with his pregnant wife in his arms and his daughter celebrating the news of said pregnancy so happily.
Carlie squeezed his hand, lifting her face, and he could see his love reflected back at him through her darkly expressive eyes. He hadn’t known, all those months before, that catching sight of her beautiful gaze across the street would so change his life in this way. He hadn’t known what heartache and worry was coming… and he wouldn’t change a bit of it for anything in the world.
He was right where he was supposed to be.
Alan was finally home.