Pa's Best Man
A WHIB for "Inger, My Love"
Warnings: Small spoilers for 'Inger, My Love.' In case you didn't know Ben and Inger were married… ;)
A/N: Just a little unanswered scene (in my humble opinion) from 'Inger, My Love.' After Ben proposes to Inger in the street they both go off in the opposite direction of the boarding house forgetting all about poor Adam! (Which they seem to do a lot in this episode…) This is my attempt to fix that. :)
Please excuse any mistakes I may have missed. No profit is being made from this venture into the past. Please enjoy and don't forget to let me know what you think!
For my best friend and her amazing new husband whom I had the pleasure and honor of pronouncing "Man and Wife" this summer.
Ben raced up Mrs. Miller's boarding house stairs two at a time, his feet barely touching the wood. His heart fluttered wildly in his chest, his thoughts flying in a thousand directions. His cheeks ached from the silly grin he knew must be there.
She said yes!
The question tumbled out of his mouth before his head even knew his heart's desire, that Inger Borgstrom becoming his wife was the only way to make his life complete. The fact that she knew before he did, before he could form proper sentences to sweep her off her feet only convinced him more. Making her Mrs. Inger Cartwright felt… right.
Ben almost skidded on the floor as he raced around the corner, using the banister as leverage. Heat coursed through his body, his hands shaking in excitement. He hadn't felt this bubble of warmth in his chest since-
He froze, his hand hovering above the door knob to his room. The room where Elizabeth's son was waiting, gathering their few possessions to move on, away from the most stable home the boy had known since leaving his grandfather in Boston. Who already at such a young age was ready to fall into step without question and follow his beloved father to the ends of the Earth. Without warning, Ben was about to turn this small boy's world on upside down again. Ben's stomach dropped to his knees. How would he ever explain to a young boy of five that remarrying wasn't going to dishonor his Mother's memory?
Ben wasn't even sure he had convinced himself, yet.
Ben closed his eyes, gently resting his forehead against the doorframe to gather his courage. A wave of shame washed over his body, leaving him with ice water in his veins. This major, life altering decision had been made without even asking the one other person who it concerned the most. Without even considering him.
Ben felt a small hiccup of air in his chest, a humor-less laugh. There was no doubt in his mind that Inger Borgstrom fell in love with little Adam Cartwright long before she had second thoughts about his father. And there was no hiding that it was a mutual love. Adam lapped up the motherly cuddles and affection like a puppy.
As much as he tried to be both Father and Mother to his boy, there was no substitute for the real thing. Especially when Ben was still only learning how to guide and care for the small boy entrusted to him. Mothering came so naturally to the Swedish woman, so warm, caring and full of light. As if she were sent from Heaven to look after all the lost children of the world as well as stubborn fools named Cartwright.
A calm washed over him, like a wave lapping on the shore. As if Elizabeth was giving Ben her blessing.
"Thank you, My Love." Ben whispered. "Thank you for sending me an angel to watch over your son." The grin returned to his face as he twisted the door knob and pushed open the door.
Adam sat on the bed. His fingers played absently with the latch of the carpetbag next to him his hat abandoned behind him. At the sound of the door opening, he looked up. Immediately, his eyebrows drew down, his eyes dark with reproach. "I hope you told Miss Inger you were sorry, Pa." The little voice was angry and reprimanding. "You said some mean things to her. You made her cry."
Ben knelt down in front of his boy, putting his hands on Adam's shoulders. "I know, Son. I was very mean to Miss Inger. I was very angry and didn't think before I spoke. Sometimes when we're upset, we lash out at the people we love most because we know exactly what to say or do to hurt them the most. But if we talk about it and say we're sorry, the love we feel makes us forget about the hurt and sometimes makes us love even more."
"Like how we do after a very necessary talk?"
Ben couldn't stifle a small laugh. "Kind of like that. Pa always forgives after you say you're sorry, right?" Adam nodded. "Miss Inger thankfully does, too."
"Good." Adam grinned up at his father. His eyes were lighter now and sparkling with mischief, just like his mother's. "You know, Pa. I can lend you my pillow if you need something for the wagon seat."
"We did not have that kind of a necessary talk, Young Man!" Ben's tone was betrayed by the light in his own eyes. "But we might have to if you can't remember to keep a respectful tongue when you're talking to your Pa!" Ben scooped Adam up in his arms and threw him over his shoulder. Adam giggled and shrieked, squiggling to get away as Ben delivered a few light swats to the easy target of his backside. A few minutes of play followed as Adam crawled over his father, away from the wiggling fingers trying to tickle his tummy. He was caught by two strong arms around his middle, however, when he tried to sneak around in a counter attack.
Ben sat down on the bed, settling Adam in his lap. He cupped the boy's cheek in his hand, drinking in the long, dark lashes fanning his cheeks and the small curls of dark hair that wrapped around his ears. This little miniature of Elizabeth had stitched his broken heart back together, becoming his sole reason for living. When he least expected it, Inger became the final medicine to heal his soul. Now convinced more than ever, he knew he was doing the right thing.
"Adam, Son." Ben started. He swallowed hard, trying to find the words to continue. "I've told you about your Mother, how she was a beautiful and kind lady whom I loved very much?"
Adam nodded. He frowned slightly, as if unsure where this conversation was going. Ben wrapped one arm around the boy, drawing him closer to his chest. Even at five, Ben knew Adam liked being in control.
"And how much I still love her. I think about her and miss her every day."
"But you said she's with God in Heaven watching us, right?" Adam said. "That's like being here, isn't it?"
"That's true, Son. But when I have to go to work and you have to stay in the room or the wagon by yourself you miss me, right? Even though I'm right down the street?"
"Of course! You can't tell me stories or play with me when you're working."
"It's a lot like that, Adam. Even though I know your mother is close, there's just no substitute for having her right here with me."
"Do you think she's helping God run things up in Heaven?"
Ben laughed. "I don't doubt your Mother letting her opinion on the matter be known." Lord knew he could never deny her requests when she turned those sparkling amber eyes on him. There was no way he could be the only one who turned head over heels when she batted her lashes and smiled, human or celestial.
"When I met your mother," Ben continued, his gaze drifting into the past as he absently rubbed circles on Adam's back. "I thought my heart couldn't possibly have room for any other person in the entire world. It was filled with your mother's spirit and grace that I thought if I found just one other person to love, there simply would be no place for them to stay."
"Like Mary and Joseph at the Inn?"
"Exactly. No room for anyone else, extenuating circumstances or not!"
"Extenuating circumstances. It's an exception to the rule."
Adam nodded seriously, testing the phrase out with his lips as this new bit of information was tucked away. "Is there still no room for anyone else, Pa?"
"Ah, you see. That's where I got it wrong. I met the handsomest little man you ever did see. He has dark, wavy hair and the most charming manners of anyone I know. He's smart as a whip and knows all the best jokes." Ben's voice grew soft as he looked down at his boy's face. "And his eyes look so much like his mother's. You don't happen to know an Adam Stoddard Cartwright, do you?"
"Course I do, Pa!" Adam giggled. He leaned back to better see into his father's eyes as he pointed his thumb at his chest. "That's me!"
"That's you, alright!" Ben laughed as he wrapped his arms around his son, drawing him close to his body. He rested his chin on his Adam's head. "The moment I laid eyes on you I knew that there was no limit on who I could love, that there was always room for more."
Though it took months for Ben to actually see his child. Through a wall of grief he remembered hands placing a small infant onto his lap, voices telling him to 'feed the baby', 'rock the baby', 'hold the baby', forcing him to go through the motions of fatherhood without the feeling. One day he looked down and instead of 'the baby' he saw Adam. His Adam.
And it was then that he knew he had to go forward with his last promise to Elizabeth, to raise their son among the tall trees of the west. Then that he knew his heart had found another precious life to love.
Adam snuggled into his father's chest with a contented huff of air, his small hands gripping the fabric of Ben's shirt. "As long as it doesn't get too crowded, Pa. I wouldn't want to get squished."
"You say you like being squished, my boy?" Ben lowered his voice and waggled his eyebrows. He tightened his hold on Adam, shaking him lightly in his arms. "How's this for a squishing, eh?"
Adam laughed, trying to get free. "I said no squishing, Pa!"
Ben relaxed his hold. "Oh, no squishing! My apologies!" His tone light and teasing. Father and son settled back into their comfortable repose, the edges of sleep sneaking into their thoughts as Ben gathered his courage to tell his son what was truly on his mind.
"Adam, there's still room in my heart to love other people. Just because I let others in, doesn't mean that I'll forget about your mother or even you. You understand that, right?"
"Course I do, Pa." Adam said. "There's lots of room for Mama and me and Gran'pa Stoddard and Dolly, even though she's a horse, and Miss Inger, too."
Ben looked down, unable to hide the surprise from his face. "How did you know that Miss Inger was in my heart?"
"Easy, Pa. She's in mine, too. You know, she's a real nice lady. I wish we could stay with her."
Ben wondered where his head was that his thoughts couldn't even stay ahead of a five year old child. Or was his five year old just that quick? What was he going to do when the boy became a moody teenager?
"I'm glad to hear you say that, Adam. I take it that means you wouldn't mind if Miss Inger came along with us to California? As part of our family?"
It was Adam's turn to look surprised. "Miss Inger is coming with us?"
"She is! I've asked Miss Inger… She's agreed to… Well, Miss Inger and I are getting married."
"You mean she's my new Mama?" Adam's voice squeaked with excitement. He jumped up, putting his hands on Ben's broad chest, noses practically touching. Ben steadied the boy with hands on his hips.
"Not just yet, Adam. She's going to be, yes. But there has to be a ceremony to make it official and legal."
"A ceremony?" Adam's head quirked to the side in question. "How do you make it official?"
"First we have to find someone to marry us. Usually a preacher, or some government leader if we can't find someone. But we'll probably ask Pastor Murray since he's right in town."
"Pastor Murray's a nice man, Pa. He tells really good stories."
Ben laughed. "While that's a point in his favor it's not necessarily a job requirement, Adam. He'll stand before us and any friends and family we invite and help us exchange vows to love and protect each other. He'll pronounce us man and wife and then Miss Inger will be your Mama."
Adam looked down at the floor for a moment chewing lightly on his bottom lip. "Does it have to be a Preacher who does it, Pa? Can't I pronounce you man and wife?"
"No, Son." Ben smiled as he ran his hand through Adam's soft curls. "Someday with the proper training you can marry folks, if you like. You have to go through a lot of schooling to do that. But for now I have something even more important in mind for you during our ceremony."
Adam's eyes grew wide, a breath caught in his chest in anticipation.
"I need you to be my Best Man."
"Sure, Pa!" Adam nodded enthusiastically. A moment later he paused, his face scrunched in confusion. "What's a Best Man?"
"What's a Best Man!" Ben said. "Why, it's only the most important job next to the preacher! You stand up next to me during the ceremony and be my moral support and you hold on to Miss Inger's wedding ring until it's time to give it to her. In ancient times the bride's family sometimes wouldn't be too happy about the wedding and they would try to stop it. A Best Man would stand guard during the ceremony so that they wouldn't attack or try and kidnap the bride. It's a job for one of the groom's closest and dearest friends. Think you're up to it?"
Adam stood tall and nodded seriously. "I can do it, Pa. I accept. I'll protect you no matter what!"
Ben laughed as he scooped Adam up into another hug. Little arms looped around his neck as a small head rested on his shoulder. "I know you will, Son." Perhaps the ancient customs weren't too far off. There were not going to be too many people adding their blessing to the union of Ben and Inger, there might even be those who tried to stop it. He suddenly pictured little Adam, a deep scowl on his face, waving a sword under a drunken Gunnar's nose. Darned if Adam wasn't getting the best of him, either.
"Did you have a Best Man when you married my mama?"
"I sure did. My brother, your Uncle John came back from the sea just in time. Apparently he pestered his captain to hurry especially so he could be there."
They sat quietly for a few minutes, both lost to separate thoughts. Ben was about to settle Adam on the bed, thinking he had fallen asleep when he heard his son's voice, quiet and unsure.
"Pa? You're sure my real Mama won't mind? About Miss Inger becoming my Mama?"
"Absolutely not, Adam." Ben replied. "Why, I think she knew you needed a Mama here to help Pa look after you and handpicked Miss Inger herself."
Ben felt the little shoulders relax. "Me too, Pa. Miss Inger's a real nice lady, you know. Mama and Miss Inger probably would have been really good friends, huh Pa?"
"I have no doubt about that." Ben said. His body began to rock slightly, contentment filling his lungs as warmth spread over him from his child in his lap, Inger on his mind and Elizabeth in his heart.
He sighed before taking a glance around the room. "Well, it seems we have a bit of unpacking to do, eh?"
Adam leaned back in his father's arms again, one eyebrow raised in serious question. "What do you mean 'we,' Pa? You're the one who packed us all up in the first place." Adam waited a fraction of a second before a cheeky grin spread on his face.
"Oh, very funny, you little scamp. Run down and grab some of the bags from the wagon and bring them back." Ben set Adam on the ground and sent him off with a light swat. "Quickly now, so we can go and tell Miss Inger the good news."
"About how she's gonna be my new Mama and I'm gonna defend you and keep her from being kidnapped!" Adam's chatter grew faint as he flew down the hall to obey his father.
Ben sighed, his body sinking slightly into the mattress. Maybe Elizabeth did orchestrate this whole thing. Out of all the towns, all the places he could have passed through, they might have missed each other.
"Thank you, Liz." Ben shifted his weight to stand and followed his son out the door to unpack their lives, if only for a few more months before going after his dream.