"Homegrown Dandelions"
A Contemporary Romance

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Plot Summary

Love can thrive in unlikely places...

After a tragic day years ago, Beth Carter was left to pick up the pieces and move on with her life. But she hasn't. She's shut herself to the world, and has vowed never to love again.

Matt Taylor is looking for work, but nothing more. His life is complicated enough with three burdens and a difficult past that won't go away. When Matt arrives at Beth's Garden Nursery to ask for a job, he meets its beautiful owner, and over time, finds something he hadn't expected. Surrounded by plants with fancy names, all Matt has to offer is a scarred heart-- that, and homegrown dandelions.
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Chapter Fourteen
Special Circumstances

"... I being in the way, the LORD led me..."
~ Genesis 24:27 ~

It felt strange not to start breakfast, hurry the others out of bed to catch the bus. But here he sat, snuggled with Dylan on the couch with early sunlight filtering through the living room window. Matt moved the infant to the carrier, stood up to stretch his legs and let out a full-bodied yawn. What a night, he thought, taking the carrier with him to the kitchen to stare at the note tacked to the fridge. He needed to call Ethan and Cassie's schools, let them know the Taylors wouldn't be coming in today.

Then he needed to tell Ethan and Cassie they wouldn't be going, and why.

Maybe he should have gotten more sleep, he decided, going back to the living room to use the telephone for the second time that morning. As if he could sleep with all this going on.

Cassie padded into the living room just as Matt got off the phone. She went straight to the carrier, her sleepy eyes brightening at the sight of their new brother.

"Don't wake him," Matt said, as she bent to touch Dylan's baby soft cheek. "He's been sleeping solid for awhile now, so let him rest."

"Isn't he precious?" Cassie said with a wistful sigh.

"Yeah, I guess." Matt scratched the back of his neck, glanced at the clock. "Get dressed, will you, Cass? I'd like to leave in the next hour."

"I thought you didn't work Mondays."

"I don't. We're going to Beth's house for breakfast."

At once, Cassie straightened, her face thoughtful and sober. "What about school?"

"I called and let them know you and Ethan won't be coming in today."

Cassie blinked, turned to gaze at Dylan with such heartfelt longing, Matt understood how much she wanted to keep their brother.

"Nothing's settled, Cass. Beth and I want this family to talk about it, and see what everyone thinks."

"Oh, Matty." Cassie's blue eyes held a sheen of tears. "I'd live in a cardboard box, if it meant we could keep him."

"You won't have to-- not with the nice house Beth has. Hey, you're not going to start crying, are you?" With a deep sigh, Matt went to his little sister and gave her a gentle squeeze. "There's no reason to be frightened. Beth is trying very hard to make this work."

"What if she finds out she doesn't like us, Matty? What if she changes her mind, and we have to give up Dylan?"

The string of what-ifs piled into Matt's mind, burdening his heart until he had no choice but to throw them off. "If Beth hadn't spoken up when she did, we'd have already lost Dylan. We just have to wait and see what happens, Cass. But don't worry, God will take care of us."

"You always say that."

"Well, He always does, doesn't He?"

"I suppose." Cassie gave a noncommittal sniff. The tears for the most part subsided, she went to change out of her pajamas.

Matt took the carrier into the boys' bedroom, tugged the window shade and let it snap open to announce that morning had arrived. Almost at once, groans of protest filled the room.

"C'mon guys," Matt pulled at the blanket covering Ethan and Ryan, "you got to sleep in late this morning, and now it's time to get up."

"Sleep in?" Ethan moaned from beneath the pillow he had stuffed over his head. "No way. It's Monday. We've got school."

"Not today you don't." Matt jerked off the blanket, exposing his brothers to the cool bedroom. "Up. Before I dump a glass of water over your sorry heads."

Groggy with sleep, Ethan pulled off the pillow and stared at Matt, his hair going in every conceivable direction but down. "No school?"

"Nope." Matt dumped the blanket back on the bed. "We're having breakfast at Beth's house. She's going to show us around, and see how we like it there."

A defiant frown creased Ethan's mouth. "I can tell you right now, I won't like it. I don't care if she is rich. We don't need her money."

"I hate to break it to you," Matt said with a humorless laugh, "we need it. It's marry Beth, or send Dylan packing? Remember?"

"My vote's 'no,'" Ethan said, burying his face into the pillow.

"Fine. Then you marry Beth, and I'll go to college."

A smothered moan came from the pillow. "Either way, I'm not going."

"Oh, yes, you are. Now get up, before I haul you out of bed. You too, Ryan. C'mon, guys-- she's making breakfast for us."

Heavy sleep blinked in Ryan's eyes and even the mention of food did little to wake him. Matt lifted Ryan from the bed, pulled off Ryan's pajamas, then dressed his limp little body for the day.

The entire lot of them, Dylan not included, showed up in the living room in shirts and jeans. Gone were the Sunday long sleeves and ties, the pink barrettes and lip-gloss. Cassie had pulled her short hair into an everyday ponytail, while Matt had simply run his fingers through his still wet hair in an effort to save time. In a show of defiance, Ethan pulled on a smelly black shirt as he entered the living room, then went to change when Matt pressed the issue to its natural conclusion. Change, or be left behind.

No matter how much Ethan complained, drug his feet and gave nasty looks, Matt knew the last thing Ethan wanted was to be left out of the decision.

Everyone dressed, fed, pottied and diaper changed, Matt loaded the family into the extended cab pickup. The small ones in the back, Ethan and Matt sat up front.

God, please give us wisdom, Matt thought as he started the engine. Beth can't possibly know what she's getting herself into.


Hair tucked beneath a blue bandana, and donned in old jeans and a garden nursery T-shirt, Beth worked the night through cleaning the house of dust and cobwebs. Necessity made it easier to force aside the guilt that squeezed her heart every time she moved through an area that held a vivid memory of Luke-- the books he had piled into the corner of the second master bedroom, the squeaky hinge he was always promising to fix.

Vacuuming the hobby room felt surreal, knowing Luke's "guy space" might soon hold children, and those children, not Luke's. Beth cleaned around the books, avoided the squeaky bedroom door by leaving it open, and busied herself with work until exhaustion made the grief more bearable.

They would be here soon. The family that wasn't Luke's, but might soon be hers. They would step into this house, and into the rooms that others used to call their own. Only the former owners couldn't object, because they were buried in a cemetery beneath a cold headstone that both father and son shared.

Enough, Beth thought. She had to keep moving, keep scrubbing and cleaning so she wouldn't have time to think. The first rays of the morning sun spilled through the East facing windows, coaxing Beth to leave behind the cleaning and get into the kitchen. She had promised Matt that breakfast would be ready when they arrived, and she didn't want to let him down.

With every window thrown open, a crisp New Mexico breeze moved through the house, filling it with an excitement Beth had never before remembered. It simply wasn't the fresh air, but something else even more tangible. Maybe it was hope, a second chance at life within a family, a life Beth had thought forever gone.

It seemed odd to be preparing food for so many, but it felt good, as though she had a purpose to do some real cooking, and not just the quick meals she fixed for herself. With only one at the table, the work never seemed worth it. After setting the scrambled eggs to low flame on the stove, Beth prepared the waffle iron, the mix, and every strawberry she had left in the refrigerator. Since this meal had been a favorite with Caleb, Beth reasoned it might go over well with Ryan. She hoped it would. Did the other two Taylor boys like waffles? Beth's fingers trembled as she cut the few strawberries she had into thin slices, hoping there would be enough to go around. If she had been thinking with a mind untainted from the pungent fumes of the industrial strength bathroom cleaner, she should have gone to the store, picked up a few things more sure to make the boys happy. Beth hurried around the kitchen, trying not to think about the time.

They would arrive any moment.

The sound of a vehicle pulling up in front of the house, sent shivers down Beth's spine. If she had any spine left, after the bravery it had taken to clean the house in the presence of her family of ghosts. Luke and Caleb were in Heaven, but that morning, Beth felt they had descended to follow her every move, to watch as she turned her back on them by joining another family.

Grief filled Beth as she wiped her hands on the apron tied about her waist. She had to stop thinking like that. Her heart belonged to Luke and Caleb. Surely, they knew that.

The doorbell rang, and Beth drew in a long breath to purge herself from the uncertainty clinging to her heart. She moved to the front entry, put her hand on the doorknob and prayed. The door opened, and four young faces-- Matt's included-- greeted her with solemn "hellos" and restive glances. The baby carrier hung from Matt's hand, Dylan stirring with the slight motion and the sound of voices. Cassie and Ryan stuck to Matt's side like glue when Beth invited them inside. Ethan wore a perpetual scowl as he followed Matt into the house, then slumped against the wall and folded his arms as though he were there out of protest.

"Hope we're not too early," Matt said. His gaze went to her head, and she could tell he did his best not to smile.

Suddenly remembering the bandanna, Beth tugged it off. "I must look terrible," she said, glancing to the entryway mirror. A smudged face with glaring red hair tied into a messy braid, stared back at her. "After a night of house cleaning, the place is presentable, but I'm afraid I'm not." She looked away from the sorry reflection, back to the Taylors. "If everyone is ready, I'll serve the eggs and start making waffles."

No reaction from Ryan, Beth thought with a dismal sigh. Oh, well. So much for that.

She showed them past the kitchen, invited them into the dining area where she had set the table for breakfast. Her eyes traveled to the carrier as Matt placed it on the table. The infant was looking about, his dark eyes going from one object to another. Ryan claimed the chair on Matt's right, and Cassie took the one on Matt's left. The small boy kept looking to Matt for assurance, while Cassie seemed content to just stay next to Matt. In a show of I-don't-care, you-can't-intimidate-me, Ethan took a chair directly opposite the others.

Despite the almost hostile looks from Ethan, Beth felt her heart beating easier. Seeing them had that effect on her.

She went into the kitchen, returned with scrambled eggs and a pitcher of milk.

"I hope everyone came hungry," she said, pouring Ryan and Cassie each a glass of milk while Ethan helped himself to the eggs. "I haven't made Belgian waffles in a long time. In our house, they were always considered something of a treat."

Ryan looked at her with cautious curiosity. "What are waffles?"

"Don't tell me you've never had Belgian waffles." Beth opened her mouth in surprise. "Fancy pancakes with powered sugar and strawberries? No? None of you? Well, you're all in for a surprise. My little boy couldn't get enough of them."

As Beth went back to the kitchen for the coffee pot, she hoped she didn't betray undue astonishment. Never had waffles? Of course they required a waffle iron, some patience to keep up with fast eaters and hungry stomachs, but still, hadn't their mom ever done that for them? Such a simple thing, and yet, it made Beth wonder what else Eve had neglected to do for her own children.

The cooking went at a steady pace, the children eating as fast as Beth could turn out waffles. After letting the younger ones go first, Matt gulped down waffles with maple syrup, strawberries and powdered sugar. He kept saying "Thank you," whenever Beth gave him more, so she continued to feed him until he at last gave a satisfied smile, and a "Thanks, but I couldn't hold another bite." Ryan ate with a large sloppy grin, a milk mustache perched over his mouth and syrup dabbled on his chin. More than once, Matt cleaned Ryan's face, and kept urging the boy to use his napkin. With full tummies, the Taylors seemed more relaxed than when they first arrived.

When Dylan stirred in the carrier, Beth looked to Matt for permission.

"Go ahead," Matt smiled. "You've been dying to ask ever since we set foot in this house."

"My clothes are dirty," she warned, but when Matt only shrugged, Beth got to her feet and moved around the table to pick up Dylan. "Who's the cutie-pie?" she cooed to the baby. Gentle hands lifted Dylan and he reached out and grabbed her bottom lip with tiny fingers. Large, dark eyes followed her mouth as it moved. "Such a sweet boy," Beth sighed, hugging the baby to her shoulder. "Has he eaten?"

Matt nodded. "I fed and changed him before we left."

Feeling more sure of herself, Beth pressed forward. "Would you like to see the rest of the house?"

In unison, the children looked to Matt.

"Okay," he said, scooting back the chair as he rose. "I told them it's all right to ask questions, so you've been warned."

With Dylan in her arms, Beth felt she could brave anything, even the four anxious faces that watched her closely as she talked about the house.

"This used to be the home of a popular architect in the area," Beth said, showing them to the right side of the building. "His parents-in-law lived with him and his wife, so the layout sprawls out to the left and right, kind of like two separate houses, but with a common living room, dining area, and kitchen."

As she talked, Ethan turned and looked through one of the three sets of glass double doors, lining the North wall of the adjoining dining area and living room, that offered a good view of the patio. Ethan jabbed Matt in the ribs, jerked his chin at the patio with an awed grin. Matt gave him a sharp warning look that even Beth couldn't ignore, then took a deep breath and continued to listen as she talked about the house.

"There's two main wings and a master bedroom on each wing. This one, the one on the right, is my room." Beth invited the group inside to look around, then closed the door when Matt tugged at Ethan's arm to stay where he was. Beth moved on to the second bedroom on the right wing of the house. "This is-- I mean, was-- Caleb's room. I was thinking it might do well for the little ones, but then it occurred to me you might prefer to have the girls on one side of the house, and the boys on the other." Beth led them inside a neat single bedroom with soft blue walls and an empty crib by the window. "We could repaint the room to suit Cassie," Beth offered, leading them to the adjoining bathroom. They looked at the bathroom, the bedroom, then at each other.

When Beth asked Cassie what she thought, Cassie smiled politely, but seemed at a loss for words.

"Let's move to the left wing," Beth said, leading them through the dining area and living room, to the other side of the house. "This is the second master bedroom, the one the architect's in-laws used." Beth opened the door, showed Matt and his family inside. "I was thinking you might like this room, Matt. It has a master bath, of course, and you could be near the boys. The room next to this is the guest bedroom, and it has its own bathroom and a nice closet. I thought it would do for Ethan, and the hobby room beside that could be converted into a nursery for Ryan and Dylan."

Looking intrigued, Ethan went to the glass double doors in the master bedroom and shoved them open, stepping out onto the small private patio that mirrored the one off Beth's room. "Hey, Matty, get a load of this."

His face creasing in a conscious frown, Matt followed the teenager outside. Ryan stuck to Matt's side so hard, Matt finally lifted the boy into his arms, where the child seemed much more happy.

With an encouraging pat on the shoulder, Beth coaxed Cassie onto the patio with the others.

"That's a pecan tree," Beth said, nodding to the tree North of the private patio. Matt had already met that tree, having earlier buried Bailey beneath the shelter of its sturdy branches. Deciding not to mention that for Ryan's sake, as well as her own, Beth went on. "The see-through building to the right is a greenhouse, and then there's the tool shed, and then, of course, at the opposite end of the house is my patio."

Beth moved down the patio steps from what she already considered as Matt's master bedroom, and onto the wide common patio that spanned between the two wings of the house. A Mexican-style breezeway traveled around the edge of the patio, while red brick paved the patio floor. The backyard had only nominal grass, for most of it was just dry dirt and gravel, but on the whole, Beth thought it didn't look too bad.

"Well," Beth turned to Matt, each holding a little boy in their arms, "what do you think?"

Matt blew out a heavy breath. "I don't know. It's all so... so big."

"Luke had plans to remodel, and at first suggested we rent out some of the rooms--" Beth stopped, bit her lip to control the tremor in her voice. "I never wanted tenants, so Luke had his parents stay with us for part of the year. They move around a lot-- Luke's parents, I mean. After Luke died, they stopped visiting." Beth forced herself to swallow back the grief welling in her chest. "I'm afraid if we convert the hobby room into the boys' nursery, they won't have their own bathroom."

Matt gave her an unconcerned smile. "They can use mine."

"Is it all right if I look around on my own?" Ethan glanced to Matt, then Beth for permission.

"Sure," Beth said, "but don't you have any questions for me, first?"

"What's to ask?" Ethan shrugged. "You and Matty are getting married. I don't think it's a great deal for Matty, but me? I could get used to this."

"Cass," Matt nodded to his sister, "would you take Ryan for a little while? I need to talk to Beth."

With Cassie and Ryan tagging after Ethan, Matt called to them to stay near the house.

"This place is amazing," Matt sighed, glancing about the patio, then through the double glass doors that looked back into the living room and dining area. "It's overwhelming. I don't know what to say."

"Say 'yes,'" Beth smiled.

Looking a bit skeptical, Matt turned to the private patio behind him, then at the one on the opposite end of the house. "Do you think it's enough distance between us?"

"As long as we're careful, I think it'll be enough." Beth tried to sound as positive as she could, though she felt more uncertain than she sounded.

"Right," Matt said with a drawn-out laugh. "You could be on the other side of New Mexico, and it not be far enough."

The candid remark didn't surprise Beth as much as she thought it would. It didn't even shock her. Unnerve, yes, but she felt no shock. "What I said before-- about this marriage being in name only, still goes. But if anything happens to change that..." Beth bit her lip and felt herself blush at Matt's frank gaze. "We're going to need another talk before either of us does anything rash."

"I'm not going to break down your bedroom door, Beth."

"I didn't say you were."

"I know where we stand," he insisted. "Don't worry, I won't do anything to change our agreement."

"That's not what I meant, Matt."

"Well, it's what I meant. You may have different ideas-- I don't know, and frankly, I don't want to know. I'm only staying here to raise the others, and to pay you back for your kindness." The Stetson had been left inside on the sofa, and Beth could easily see the dark eyes that flashed at her without concealment. "Don't try to get to know me any more than you already do, and don't wish yourself into my bed; I might not have the strength to turn you away, and then we'd both be sorry."

In the shade of the breezeway over the patio, Beth cuddled Dylan closer. She felt as though she had been slapped, but in an odd twist, she could summon no anger or resentment. Matt had cut himself off, without any hope of even discussing the possibility of their relationship turning into something more precious.

"Don't look at me like that," Matt leveled her a knowing glare. "I don't want your pity. All I want is what's best for the others. That's it."

"All right, Matt. I won't talk about it any further." She patted Dylan's sleeper, then decided to take the infant into the house to give him his bottle. She had seen the diaper bag on the living room sofa, and started to open a patio door to go inside.

"Beth." Matt called after her, and she turned to look at him.

Never before did she feel so sorry for Matt, than she did at that moment. He thought so badly of himself, he refused to even consider his own happiness.

"I didn't mean to bark at you."

"You didn't," she said with a sigh in her voice.

He swallowed, stared at the toes of his boots, then back at her. "The others need this to work, and I don't want to mess it up for them."

"You haven't, Matt."

He looked unsure. "You're giving up so much, and I have to jump down your throat."

"Would you cut it out?" Beth offered him a smile which he accepted with only the faintest of half grins. "Stop beating yourself up. I'm not offended that you spoke your mind, and I think we understand each other well enough to do the next logical thing."

"Which is?"

"We need to get a marriage license."

He scowled. "I thought you said logical."

"Matt, a few moments ago you admitted the children needed this."

"Yeah, yeah, I know."

"We need a marriage license," she said, allowing the necessity of the situation to lend force to her words, "and we need to get married."

"When?"

"I was thinking later this afternoon, after the children have had a chance to voice any objections or concerns."

Looking lost and more than a little bewildered, Matt let out a small groan. "Is it even possible to marry so soon? Isn't there a waiting period for the license or something?"

"Do you need to wait, Matt?"

"No, but isn't it the law?"

"There's no waiting period in New Mexico. We can get the license and marry as soon as we want. And considering the things we need to set in motion to keep Dylan, why not today?"

"Today." Matt sounded hesitant, but then his gaze shifted to the baby in her arms and he nodded in agreement. "You're sure about there not being any waiting period?"

"I have a confession to make," Beth said, biting her lip and then wincing when she realized her lip had become sore. "Last night, I didn't only clean the house, I went online and did some research."

"I see." A reluctant smile tugged at a corner of Matt's mouth. He took a deep breath, turned his head and watched the three children explore the back property. Matt's hair ruffled in the breeze with the look of a boy who wanted to play. Then his dark eyes turned on Beth, and the image of a child vanished-- but not so much, she still couldn't see the playful boy in those handsome features. "All right, Beth. I have to talk it over with the others, but I say let's do it."

Not a very romantic way to put things, Beth thought, looking Matt over in his untucked shirt and faded jeans, but then, this wasn't supposed to be a romantic moment.

Then why did a nervous-happy tingle insist on dancing its way to her heart?

When he sighed, she couldn't help smiling. "Don't look so glum, Matt. You're not losing your bachelorhood, you're gaining a house with no mortgage and a roof that needs repairs."

His brows went up in bemused delight. "No mortgage?"

"See? You're interested." Smiling, she took Dylan inside, and left Matt on the patio to talk to his brothers and sister in private.


Today. Matt thought it over, shut his eyes and prayed before talking to the others. He took in the farmland surrounding the property, the furrowed ground, the subtle smell of fertilizer that gave the definite impression of farm country. As Matt approached, he saw Ethan and Ryan crouched over an anthill, Ryan dipping a finger into the busy column before yanking it out with a shout of laughter. Cassie stood nearby, pushing the windblown hair from her eyes and waiting for nothing in particular. When Matt joined them, Ethan straightened and stared Matt in the eye.

"Well?" Ethan asked.

The irritation in the teenager's face annoyed Matt. "It's what you think it is. Unless you guys fight it, Beth and I are getting married."

"I thought so." Ethan folded his arms. "Congratulations, I guess."

"This is for the best, Ethan."

"If you say so." Ethan turned to look at the anthill. "When's it going to be?"

"Later this afternoon."

Ethan's head shot up, his eyes narrowed. "That's rushing things, isn't it?"

"Yeah, I guess it is," Matt caught the unspoken jolt of happiness from Cassie, "but Beth and I have a lot to get done before we can keep Dylan."

The frown on Ethan's face deepened, but he said nothing.

"Cass?" Matt addressed his sister. "Do you have anything you want to add before Beth and I go through with this? Like I said before, everyone in this family has to agree."

"I agree," she said with a quick smile. The sentimental hope in Cassie's voice stopped Matt from probing further. Knowing Cassie, she was weaving romantic notions he would only have to deny. Much better to leave the whole thing alone, than to get tangled in pre-teen logic.

"Ryan, what about you?" When the boy continued to play with the ants, Matt stood the four-year-old up and brushed the insects from his hand. "Ryan, Beth and I want to get married. Do you understand?"

The small boy puzzled over the question, then his eyes grew wide. "Does that mean we get to stay here?"

"Yes, but that's not what I'm asking you."

With an impatient groan, Ethan tugged at Ryan's arm to get the boy's attention. "Ry, Beth is going to be your sister-in-law."

"But I already have a sister," Ryan said, looking to Cassie in alarm.

"You're going to get another one," Matt said, moving the boy's head to make sure he held Ryan's full attention. "I need to know what you think."

"A sister!" Cassie gasped in unconcealed delight. "Oh, Matty!"

Ryan frowned. "But I wanted a mommy."

"Unless Beth tells you different, you'll have to make due with another sister. Cass, would you calm down?"

"Calm down!" Ethan gave Cassie a hard nudge with his elbow, nearly knocking her sideways.

"Hey!" Matt stepped toward Ethan. "Be more gentle with Cass."

"She's driving me nuts," Ethan said, shooting a scowl at Cassie. "Why can't she just shut up?"

The tension in the air pulled taut as Matt stared down his teenage brother. "What's gotten into you? You have a gripe, let's hear it."

"Yeah, I got a gripe." Ethan squared his shoulders. "It's bad enough having one in the family telling me what to do, and now there's going to be two!"

"Is that all?" Matt didn't want to press Ethan, but he had little choice. Beth had said today. "You told me yesterday that my religion was rubbing off on you. Is this how you show it?"

Frustration balled Ethan's fists, but he didn't move. "What if she kicks us out, Matty? Have you ever thought of that? What if she decides she doesn't want us anymore?"

"Beth isn't Mom."

"But what if she is?"

"Beth wouldn't do that to us. She's better than that."

The fists at Ethan's side opened, his fingers flexed, his system working through the tension and fear. "Why can't we just take Dylan and leave town? Go someplace they don't know us, and we tell everyone that Dylan is your kid. No one would bother us, then."

"I can't leave my job."

"You'd find another."

"How do you know?"

"You're the one always claiming God is looking after us. Let Him worry about it."

"God is looking after us, and I can prove it. He sent Beth."

Chest heaving, Ethan stared at Matt with a fear Matt understood. They would be placing a great deal of trust in one person, and if things didn't work out, the consequences would be high.

"Do you really believe that?" Ethan asked. "Do you really trust her?"

"I do." Matt forced himself to swallow. Make that two people; he was asking them to not only trust Beth, but to also trust him that this was the right decision. Matt prayed for wisdom, and felt God pushing him forward when Ethan's fists relaxed.

Eyes still wary, but now a little more trusting, Ethan backed down with a nod of cautious agreement. "Okay. My vote is yes."

A monumental gulp slid down Matt's throat. "Okay, then. I'm getting married today."


Seated on one of the living room sofas, with Dylan snuggled in her arm and nursing on a bottle, Beth heard a patio door open behind her. She looked up as Matt and the other children filed inside.

"We've got the go-ahead," Matt said, shoving his hands into his pockets while a beaming Cassie settled on the sofa beside Beth. "I guess I'm ready when you are."

"Dylan is almost finished," Beth said, noting the difference between Matt and Ethan's sober expressions, and that of smiling Cassie's. "Are you all sure? Once Matt and I do this, it won't be easy to undo."

A grunting, "I've got a question," came from Ethan as he dropped into the sofa next to hers. "What if Mom won't give us Dylan, after all? What then?"

Taking time to think the question over, Beth removed Dylan's bottle, then moved the newborn to her shoulder for an after meal burp. "I want to be a part of this family for as long as you want me."

"Which means?" Ethan asked.

"It means," Beth paused, choosing her words with careful consideration, "this will be your home for as long as you want it, whether Dylan is here, or not. This arrangement isn't just for the baby, but for everyone."

"But if Dylan wasn't in the picture, this wouldn't be happening, right?"

"Yes, that's probably true." A small burp sounded in her ear, and Beth lifted the baby back into the carrier. She turned to face Ethan and the others. "I admit Dylan is the primary excuse for this arrangement, but he's not my only excuse. To be honest, I don't want to live by myself. I want to belong again, to be really needed by someone besides employees and bill collectors. Perhaps you think it was selfish of me for proposing to Matt the way I did, but I keep telling myself that I won't be the only one to benefit. If you choose, Ethan, you could go to college. I can't promise it will be an Ivy League education, but I'll do everything I can to help you get into the best school we can afford."

"We?" Ethan slumped back on the sofa. He slanted a look at Matt, who remained quiet and standing. "Just for the record, no one bought my vote. I didn't say 'yes,' so I could get anything out of this, but Dylan."

Beth smiled. "I appreciate your honesty."

The suspicious gleam in Ethan's eye didn't fade, but he held his skepticism at bay. He said nothing as Ryan climbed onto the sofa and asked to hold the baby.

"Matt?" Beth offered Dylan to the oldest brother, and he stepped forward to accept the bundle. "I'll let you decide what to do about Ryan. Right now, I need to shower and get changed for the wedding."

The baby cradled in his arm, Matt looked Beth over. "Do you want me to go home and change into my Sunday clothes? We're going to look kind of silly, you all dressed up and me in my shirt and jeans."

"Please, Matt," she moved to her feet, and he stepped back to give her room. "I don't want to get married looking like this. I've been up since two, maybe even earlier-- I can't remember-- I'm covered in dust and grime, my nails are filthy and so is my face. And besides that, I smell."

"You look fine to me," Matt said, nodding to Ryan as the boy tugged at his shirt to hold the baby. "Shower if you want, but I was only saying, we're going to look lopsided if you get dressed up and I don't."

"Please, Matt."

He grinned. "I take it, you want me to change. All right, Beth, if that's what you want. Ethan, Cassie-- watch the little ones while I go home and get ready."

"Can I hold the baby?" Ryan directed the question to Cassie when she stood up to take Dylan from Matt.

"I'm getting hungry," Ethan said, checking his watch and groaning at the lateness of the day. "It's almost noon."

"Help yourself to whatever is in the kitchen," Beth called out before disappearing into her bedroom. She had a lot to do, and not a lot of time to do it in.

Today, she was getting married. Beth only hoped Luke didn't mind.


The drive home passed quicker than Matt thought it would, his mind somewhat dazed by what was happening. He jogged to his room, picked Sunday's clothes out of the hamper, then twisted on the shower. If Beth wanted things to be a little special, then so be it. She wouldn't be getting a big wedding, or anything nice, so if she wanted the groom to be at least presentable, Matt could hardly blame her.

The groom, Matt thought in numb wonderment. What in the world was he doing? And what would Pastor Mark say, when they showed up to ask for an impromptu marriage ceremony in a small corner of the church? He'd probably talk them out of it, or at least try to. After all the talking they'd done to get themselves into this situation, to find the courage and actually go through with the marriage, Matt wasn't so sure he wanted the added challenge of convincing his pastor that this was what God wanted.

Someone was going to a lot of trouble to keep this family together, and if it wasn't God, Matt didn't know who. Not even Beth, in all her loneliness, could orchestrate these special circumstances to fall out the way they did. And after taking into account the studying he had done early that morning, combing God's Word for wisdom and direction, Matt felt more sure than ever that he understood God's will.

In all probability, Pastor Mark wouldn't see it that way, but Matt sure did.

In ten minutes flat, Matt had showered and dressed. As he tucked the long sleeved shirt into Sunday's blue jeans, he wondered if he should kiss Beth. At the end of weddings, the guy was supposed to kiss his wife, wasn't he? Just because there wasn't going to be a honeymoon, didn't mean he couldn't kiss her, did it? Pastor Mark would expect a kiss, and so would everyone else. The alternative flashed through Matt's mind, and he pictured himself shaking Beth's hand after the ceremony.

Nope, Matt needed to kiss her. Perhaps just a peck on the cheek? He frowned as he grabbed his keys, locked the front door, then hurried back to the pickup. Maybe the direct approach would be best-- smack on the lips. Oh yeah, Matt thought, he could do that. For a few dazzling moments, he imagined what that kiss would be like, how it would feel to have her close.

Reality tumbled Matt back to his senses, or what was left of them after his fantasy lifted. Disappointment pulled at him as he remembered he had to live within the boundaries of their agreement. Kisses were dangerous-- Matt knew it, understood it without question, and yet, this was their wedding. If an exception could ever be found, surely today would be the occasion.

Just once, he decided, tensing his hands around the steering wheel as he headed back to Beth's house. Just this one time, he would relax his guard and kiss Beth.

A grinning idiot caught his attention in the rearview mirror, and Matt decided to ignore him. He needed to be happy, to let whatever joy existed in the moment, carry over to help pacify future disappointments. A marriage of convenience. Beth had all but called it that when she talked to Ethan, and it made sense to Matt. Was this a fair exchange? Right now, despite the sacrifice of not being able to marry for outright love, Matt felt as though he and the children were getting the better end of the bargain.

Except, of course, for that painful line drawn at Beth's bedroom door-- the door he promised not to break down.

"I have totally lost it," Matt breathed. "But crazy or not, I want that wedding kiss."


Wrapped in a bathrobe, Beth inspected the walk-in-closet and tried to picture herself getting married in one of those dresses. A knock at the bedroom door had her shouting to ask who it was.

"It's me-- Cassie."

"Come in, Cassie. I'm in the closet."

When the young girl came to where Beth stood at the racks of clothes, Beth gave her a smile. "I'm afraid I'm not ready yet. Is Matt back?"

With a shy nod of her head, Cassie leaned against the closet door. "He's in the kitchen with Ethan and Ryan, making peanut butter sandwiches. I hope that's okay."

"There was better than peanut butter in the pantry, but it's all right with me. I told them to help themselves, and that goes for you, too."

Cassie shrugged. "I'm not hungry."

With a small laugh, Beth resumed the dress hunt. "Leave it to a man to eat on the verge of making a life-changing commitment. Oh, well, maybe you can help me make a decision of my own. I can't decide what to wear to the wedding." The words sounded surreal to Beth's ears, prompting a quick pinch to the arm to ensure she wasn't dreaming.

"Beth?" Cassie tilted her pretty blonde head to one side. "Can I ask you a question?"

Somewhat alarmed by the serious tone of the request, Beth nodded to Cassie. "Ask away."

"Matty said you're going to be my sister. Is that true?"

Feeling more relieved then she realized, Beth blew out a small sigh. Of all the questions Cassie could asked, that one seemed safe. "Technically, I'll be your sister-in-law, but if you like, I have no problem considering you as my sister." It warmed Beth's heart to see the delicate smile on Cassie's face, the way the girl stepped forward to give Beth a heartfelt hug. "You're a sweet girl, Cassie. Thank you."

"I'm so happy," Cassie said, brushing the tears from her eyes. "I've wanted a sister for so long..."

"Now, now," Beth hugged the girl in the hopes of calming her down. She had seen the way Matt handled Cassie with great gentleness, and endeavored to do the same. "Try to dry your tears, Sweetheart. I think I understand. I have an older brother and a younger sister, and I can't imagine not having them around when I was growing up."

Cassie dried the tears and gave Beth such a sincere smile, Beth had to hug her once more before letting go.

"Aren't you still close with your brother and sister?"

"Not especially." Beth turned to face the dresses instead of the question.

"Why not?" Cassie asked, coming to Beth's side to stare at the same racks of clothes.

"Oh, many reasons, I suppose. They're both doctors, with successful careers and growing families. It's difficult for us to keep in touch, and when I'm around them, I often feel left out." Beth startled at her own honesty. She had yet to really admit that to herself, let alone to Cassie.

"You feel left out because your husband and little boy died?"

"Yes, I think that's true." The admission caused Beth pain, and she squeezed her lips together to stop from saying more.

With Cassie's help, Beth chose a soft gray, one-piece dress with long sleeves, matching high heels, and an elegant string of white pearls to wear at her throat. She put her hair up in an elegant French twist, applied makeup, added a touch of perfume, then announced she was ready to go.


What on earth was Beth doing in there? How long did it take a person to shower and change? His lunch eaten over an hour ago, Matt and the others waited on the living room sofas for something to happen. And then it did. Beth and Cassie came into the room, and Matt couldn't take his eyes off of Beth. She had that flaming red hair fixed in a fancy braid again, and a gray dress fitted over her slender curves.

"Well?" Beth asked. "What do you think?"

When Matt tried to swallow, his mouth felt as dry as New Mexico's famous white sands. "I-- I think you look fine."

"I'll take that as a compliment," Beth said with a smile. She placed her purse on the coffee table. "I've been thinking it over, and before we leave for the county clerk's office to get our marriage license, we need to make two calls. First, we should call our pastor and ask if he's available to preside over the wedding ceremony. Second, I need to call my parents and let them know what I'm about to do."

"Okay," Matt nodded in hesitant, though willing agreement. "I'll call Pastor Mark, and you call your parents. I'd tell my mom, but she didn't leave her number."

Pulling out his cell phone, Matt stepped into the dining area and speed-dialed his pastor's number. Matt already had a good idea of what the man would say, and tried to brace himself for the impending conversation. When Matt discovered Pastor Mark's cell phone wasn't turned on, Matt couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief. They could always find someone else to marry them. Then Matt thought of trying Pastor Mark's home number, and he dutifully made the call. When an answering machine announced Pastor Mark wasn't home, Matt decided to hang up without leaving a message.

There would be plenty of time to talk to him later.

Tucking the cell phone back into his hip pocket, Matt went to the other side of the open space, and waited for Beth. Through the glass doors, he could see her outside on the patio, an expensive looking cell phone pressed to a lovely ear. Her eyes trained on the red bricks, then turned upward. She shook her head, folded away the phone. When she stepped into the living room, he saw the bright smile on her lips.

"Mom and Dad weren't home. All I got was an answering machine, so I suppose I'll have to let them know after the fact, instead of before."

"Did you try their cellphones?" In all good conscience, Matt had to ask. If Beth could be talked out of this marriage, it would be better to get it over with now.

A smile curved Beth's lips. "They don't carry phones."

"Did you try your brother, your sister?"

Beth shrugged. "I'll tell them later. What about Pastor Mark? What did he have to say about our plans?"

"He wasn't home."

"Did you try his cell phone?"

"It wasn't on."

"Did you leave any messages?"

"Did you leave a message with your parents?"

The two stared at each other, and Matt knew she hadn't. He had to chuckle in spite of himself. "If we're about to make a tragic mistake, no one is home to stop us."

"Do you think we're making a tragic mistake?"

"No, I don't."

"Then let's go get married."

It sounded reasonable enough, though Matt wasn't sure how reasonable he felt when everyone went outside to his pickup truck and there wasn't room for Beth-- not with Dylan's carrier in the backseat. Driving her sedan, Beth led the way to the Doña Ana County Clerk's office in Las Cruces, while Matt and the others followed in his pickup.

Matt didn't remember getting out, unstrapping the baby carrier, following Beth into the building with his brothers and sister close on his heels. Ethan had to help him remember his address when it came time to fill out the paperwork, and when it came down to it, Matt couldn't even remember his middle name. It was Logan.

With no blood test, no physical exams, and no waiting period, Matt and Beth soon left the office with their marriage license.

He blinked at her, and she took a deep breath.

"Does this mean you guys are married?" Cassie wondered out loud.

"No, now we need someone to actually preside over a wedding ceremony." Beth dialed information on her cell phone. When she hung up, her face was sober. "There's no Justice of the Peace in Las Cruces. It looks as though we're going to need a licensed minister."

"His cell phone isn't on, Beth. I tried."

"Try again. Unless you know of someone else, we need Pastor Mark."

"I don't think he'll do it."

"You could always ask. If you're too afraid, I'll make the call."

"I never said anything about being afraid." Scowling at Beth, Matt pulled out his phone. "His cell phone is off, and he's not at home. It's just that simple."

"But you didn't even leave him a message."

"Hey, I didn't see you tying up your parents' answering machine."

That silenced her. Biting her lip again, Beth's absent fingers toyed with the strand of pearls about her neck in an unusual show of nerves. Finally, a crack in the porcelain doll. Matt swallowed any satisfaction he had at knowing she was just as nervous as he was, and tried Pastor Mark's cell phone number again. If they both were this nervous just calling up their pastor, how would they ever make it through the ceremony? That is, if Pastor Mark ever let them get that far.

To Matt's reluctant relief, the call answered.

"What can I do for you, Matt?" Pastor Mark asked in his usual upbeat voice.

Turning his back so Beth couldn't see any fear, Matt took a deep breath and summoned courage he didn't know he had. "I was wondering if you'd do me a big favor."

"Name it. Are you short on rent money again?"

Matt took a quick glance at Beth in her soft gray dress, classy high heels, and observed her attentive expression. She was listening to every word Matt said. "No, I don't need any money. I was wondering if you'd be willing to marry me and Beth." There, he had said it. Matt rubbed the back of his neck, grateful the moment was over.

Relief turned back to raw nerves when Pastor Mark fired a string of rapid questions at Matt.

"Marry? You? I didn't even know you were dating. Who is Beth? Have I met her?"

"You know Beth-- Beth Carter, the woman who comes to our church. She and I want to get married. We have the marriage license, but now we need someone to make it official."

"I'm sorry, Matt, I need to sit down. Am I hearing you correct? You... and Beth Carter? The same Beth Carter who owns and operates the garden nursery downtown? Your boss?"

"Yeah, that's the one," Matt shifted in his boots, unsure how to take his pastor's incredulity.

"And you proposed to her?"

"Pastor Mark, Beth and I want to get married. Is that so hard to accept?"

The minister gave an audible sigh. "I suppose this is more of a shock than it should be. I knew you and she were getting to be good friends-- you were confiding in her, that much I knew-- and I admit to entertaining a thought about that developing into something more. But your call stuns me, Matt. I never considered it seriously, and especially not so soon after you two met. What date have you set for the wedding?"

Matt gulped. "Today."

"Today? What's the rush? Is someone in trouble?"

"I suppose, in a way, someone is in trouble. But it's not what you think, Pastor Mark. Beth isn't pregnant, but there is a baby involved." Doing his best to stay calm, Matt explained the situation to the bewildered minister, not holding anything back or the fact it would be a marriage in name only. When it was over, Pastor Mark gave an audible sigh.

"I see," the minister said after another long pause. "Have you and Beth given this prayerful thought? Have you asked God what He wants you to do?"

"I'll pass the phone to Beth, so you can talk to her yourself, but I've asked God for help, and He answered. I've prayed and read my Bible, and talked it over with the others. Beth and I are dead serious about this."

"Matt, I'll be honest with you. I have grave reservations about this arrangement. You say it's a platonic relationship, but you'll be living together in the same house."

Indignant, Matt forgot he had an audience and his voice rose several notches. "If I say Beth and I won't have sex, then we won't have sex! I'd never lie to you about that!"

"Don't be offended, Matt. I trust your sincerity, but I need time to think this over. Please pass the phone to Beth."

Matt turned to see Beth staring at him, her lips parted in waiting anticipation.

"He wants to talk to you," Matt said, shoving the cell phone into her hand. He took a few steps back, paced and watched Beth's face as she spoke to the pastor.

Beth nodded. "Yes, we're serious."

Feeling a burst of self-conscious awareness, Matt turned to see Ethan with the baby carrier, Cassie and Ryan rooted quietly at Ethan's side.

"I didn't say a word," Ethan grinned.

The phone passed back to Matt, and Pastor Mark told him to bring everyone to the church office. They needed to talk things over before any decisions could be made.


Somewhat over the hill of middle-aged life, Pastor Mark had a full head of salt and pepper hair, a stomach that bulged (though he was losing weight with the help of the Lord), and lines that creased his face more and more over the years. When Beth saw him sitting behind the desk in the church office, she wondered if he looked older than his years because of the challenging situations his congregation got themselves into. With that patient greeting and tired smile, he looked as though he were yet again being tested by God through the people to whom he ministered.

When the pastor spoke, however, it wasn't weariness in his voice, but caution.

"I've been sitting here, thinking and praying over your plans. I want you to be aware that when you both take these vows, in the sight of God, myself, and everyone else, you two will be married. Though it's in name only, this will mean a sacred, lasting commitment."

"But what if we choose to have our marriage annulled in twenty or thirty years?" Beth asked.

With a low groan, the patient, tired lines on Pastor Mark's face deepened. "In all honesty, do you expect people to believe the marriage has never been consummated in all those years? It's a lot to ask of anyone. What I suggest is this: enter into the marriage with the sincere intention of staying together, abstain from sex if you both so choose, but don't be surprised when people refuse to believe your relationship is platonic. Truly, as long as they know you're both in this for the long haul, it doesn't really matter what they think. You're married, and what you choose to do, or not do, is your business. To a certain extent, you'd also be safe-proofing your marriage by not placing undue temptation in each other's way. Keep the marriage in name only, but make the marriage last. It's the best advice I have to offer."

Beth nodded. "Matt and I need to talk this over."

"What's to talk about?" Matt asked. "Unless you tell me you want out, I say we go for it."

"Are you sure, Matt? You'd be making a serious commitment without love."

"So? You'd be doing the same thing."

"This is big, Matt. Very big."

"No offense to you, Beth, but I don't have much of a choice. It's either give up Dylan, or go through with the marriage."

"In name only?" she asked.

"Yup," he nodded, "name only."

"Okay," Beth sighed, turning back to Pastor Mark, "we agree to make the commitment."

The pastor looked at each with a steady gaze, then closed his eyes as though in prayerful thought. "Matt, I don't know if I've ever told you this, but I've been petitioning God to give you a helpmeet to share in your burdens."

"You have?" Matt looked surprised. "I wish you'd told me that sooner. God might have worked things out differently if I had put a stop to those prayers."

His eyes opening, Pastor Mark smiled for the first time since their arrival. "Just as God called you away from drugs for a purpose, I believe all things will continue to work together for your good. Never underestimate Romans eight, twenty-eight." He remained silent a few moments, then beamed at the carrier hanging from Matt's hand. "What a tiny newborn. May I hold him?"

With a smiling shrug, Matt placed the carrier on the office desk, then scooped out a blinking Dylan with both hands. Matt lifted the infant into Pastor Mark's awaiting arms. "He has my Mom's eyes, and the rest I guess I have to credit to Wade."

"God must surely get the credit for such a child as this," the pastor said with marked tenderness in his voice. "So this is the reason two people are forever changing their lives. Such a small person, making such a great change." Pastor Mark looked up, smiled first at Matt, then Beth. "It would be my privilege to marry you."

Fifteen minutes after calling the needed witnesses for the ceremony, (Pastor Mark's wife and a next door neighbor), the two volunteers arrived in a hurried bustle of congratulations and apologies for being late. They admired the baby for several moments, prolonging Beth's nervousness over the life-altering commitment she was about to make. Matt looked patient but eager to get it over with, and after assembling everyone in the office in their proper places, Cassie as maid of honor and Ethan as best man, Pastor Mark began the ceremony while Dylan fussed in the pastor's wife's arms.

"Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this company, to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony..."

Beth felt her palms grow moist as she listened to the words. When Pastor Mark asked Matt, "Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife, to live together after God's ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou comfort her, honour her, and keep her in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?" and made no mention at all of love, Beth understood Pastor Mark had left it out on purpose. It hurt more than Beth thought it would, but she knew it was for the best. They were making promises that could be kept, not ones that were fancifully out of reach.

Matt gave a sturdy, "I will," and then it was Beth's turn.

"Wilt thou have this man to thy wedded husband, to live together after God's ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou obey him, and serve him, honour, and keep him in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?"

"I will." Beth admitted her voice sounded shaky, but she had said the right words. The sacred words that would make her part of a family again.

Then came time to exchange vows, and Matt and Beth quickly realized they had no rings.

"No matter, it's legal without them," Pastor Mark said, and continued on with the ceremony. Matt repeated the pastor's words, again leaving out any references to love, and then Beth did likewise. Afterward, Pastor Mark prayed, asking God for His divine help and grace, and then came the announcement,

"You may kiss the bride."

Matt stepped forward, and Beth lowered her head, his lips greeting her forehead in such awkward momentum, it felt as though they had bumped into each other by accident. When Beth looked up, she saw a frown forming around Matt's mouth. His eyes refused to meet hers, and he said nothing.

A gasp of fear lodged itself in Beth's throat. Was he experiencing second thoughts? Matt, who had shown no doubt during their talk with Pastor Mark?

Whatever passed through Matt's mind right now, the deed was done.

They were married and Beth suddenly found herself Mrs. Matt Taylor, and no longer Mrs. Luke Carter. The startling realization unsettled her, filled her with sharp guilt until Dylan rested in her arms and the guilt turned to gratitude.

Luke, please don't blame me, she thought, as both witnesses signed the marriage certificate. You still have my heart, Luke.

It's still yours.

Her poor dazed heart pounded so hard, it created a painful need for comfort. Clinging to the newborn until she dared not tighten her hold for fear of hurting him, Beth strengthened her resolve to remain practical.

Luke had her love, and Matt had her future. Somehow, she would make it work.


"God setteth the solitary in families..."
~ Psalm 68:6 ~

"And wherefore one? That He [the Almighty, in cooperation with Matt and Beth] might seek a godly seed [the children]."
~ Malachi 2:15 ~

end of chapter