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Chapter Twenty-one
That Family of Yours

"Yet setteth He the poor on high from affliction, and maketh him families like a flock."
~ Psalm 107:41 ~

He waited in his socked feet, watched the wind wrestle with the bushes that scattered across the desert sand. Wind tugged at his open shirt, chilling his skin with the cold that settled in with the going down of the sun. He leaned against the side of the truck, not heeding the wind or the darkness. Five minutes. He'd give Beth five minutes before going back there to make sure she was all right. He'd lent her his boots, given her the flashlight from the toolbox in his truck, and watched while she trudged behind a sand dune for privacy. Then the flashlight clicked off.

Women. She'd gone behind a sand dune, but that wasn't enough. She had to be sure no one else could see. As if any of the infrequent cars on the road half a mile back were watching.

"What's taking you so long?" he called.

"You were the one who bought me that huge drink," came the answer.

Dragging a hand through his hair, Matt tried to get his brain working again. All clear thought had crashed to a complete stop when he held Beth, and now it was time to think.

The fact that tonight had happened, wasn't all that surprising. The real miracle was that he'd held off for as long as he had.

If only he'd waited. Matt forced out a long sigh. If only he'd held out a little longer, waited for her to say more than that simple "yes." He lifted his wrist, lit up the display on his watch.

"It's getting late," he called.

"I'm hurrying," came the reply.

Draping his arms over the side of the flatbed, he watched the distance for the flashlight to come on. His toes dug into cool sand and the thought crossed his mind to watch out for scorpions. He would, just as soon as Beth gave him back his boots.

"Are you sure you don't need any help?"

"I'm sure."

He sighed. For a simple bathroom break, she sure was taking a long time.

The beam of light flashed on. He straightened as she appeared from behind the sand dune. She walked oddly, almost a sliding shuffle, for her dainty little feet couldn't fill his shoes. He grinned as she handed him back the flashlight.

"I appreciate the boots. All this sand would have been impossible in my high heels."

The wind kept tossing her already wild curls, and his mind struggled to follow what she said. He mentally traced the curve of her lips, the soft contour of her cheek as she turned her head.

Awkward silence hung heavy between them for several long moments. Her coat covered that cute black dress, and a pale hand kept pushing the hair from her eyes. He should ask for his boots back, but he kept standing there, feeling the heft of the flashlight and the steady thump in his chest.

"Matt, we need to go home."

"I know."

"Matt?"

"Just a moment longer, Beth. I'm not ready."

A stiff breeze shoved past them, and for the first time that night, he noticed the cold.

"I hope..." Matt groaned, rubbed the back of his neck as helplessness crowded around his heart. "I hope tonight wasn't a mistake."

Beth remained silent. He feared what she thought.

"I didn't want this to happen, you know. Despite the appearances, I didn't plan this. I didn't mean for us to--" he was going to say "make love," but stopped short. He'd asked for crumbs, and though she'd given herself to him completely, his heart still felt empty. It was that emptiness that unsettled him.

"I know you didn't mean for this to happen." Beth folded her arms, warmed herself against the chill that was taking a bite out of Matt. "This needed to happen though, and I'm grateful we got it out of the way."

"Out of the way?"

"Matt, we're married. It wouldn't have been fair to keep torturing yourself the way you have. We both knew this was someday going to happen. It'll be easier to live under the same roof now."

Something twisted inside Matt. Whatever it was, it hurt.

In a move of quiet intimacy, she stepped into his arms, hugged herself to his chest while his open shirt flapped helplessly in the wind. Her warmth melted into him so completely, it carried away the hurt.

"I wanted it to be different with you." Matt pushed away, but only an inch or two. He couldn't bring himself to break all contact with her. "Beth, tell me it's different. Tell me this meant more to you than sex. I'm not asking for love-- I know you can't love me-- but I have to know it meant more than convenience or even lust. We're married, but I want it to mean more. It has to mean more."

Something wet splashed against his skin. He pushed back her hair, and saw tears slide down her cheek.

"Oh, Matt. I don't know what to tell you."

"Tonight has got to mean more. It just has to." He wrapped his arms around her, felt her tremor against him and hugged her for everything he was worth.

"It meant more." She murmured the words in a private hush. "It meant more than I probably should have let it."

His fingers grazed her cheek. Her chin tilted up, and his mouth found hers.

He pulled away, trying to give himself room to breathe, to think. "You promised me crumbs. I'm not too proud to remind you of that. Give me crumbs, Beth. Give me all the crumbs you can find. Don't let me starve to death in your arms."

She pulled him closer, and they kissed with such passion, Matt knew their night was not yet over.


It was midnight when they started the drive back home. A little like Cinderella turning back into an ordinary servant girl, Beth thought with some dismay. But her prince had not disappeared into a castle. He sat behind the wheel, his eyes glued to the road in quiet thought.

She looked down at her crooked dress, the dusty coat and winced in horror at the thought of her parents-- her Dad especially, seeing her look so disheveled. So recently with a man. "Would you stop at the next gas station? I'd like to clean up before we get home."

Matt cast her a sidelong glance, and nodded.

When Matt left the highway and pulled into a small station, Beth took off her high heeled sandals and borrowed the boots so she could climb down without help. They had more than enough gas to get home, so Matt could stay in the truck and not miss his boots. At least, she hoped, he didn't miss them very much.

The tiny bathroom was clean, though Beth didn't trust its appearance. Public restrooms were always to be distrusted, a message her mom often repeated during Beth's childhood. It was right up there with always closing the toilet lid and never applying too much eyeshadow. Too much only made a woman look cheap. It amazed Beth to review her list of do's and don'ts, and to realize they mostly came from her mom.

She brushed her dress with a dry paper towel, shaking loose the dust and sand of the night. She shook out her coat, ran fingers through her curls to give them a more orderly appearance. The smudges of mascara were cleaned away, and she applied a fresh coat of lipstick. Satisfied that she had done all she could, Beth returned to the truck where Matt waited for his boots.

While she fastened the thin straps around her ankles in the light of the gas station, Matt tugged on his boots, then buttoned his shirt. Wrappers, paper cups, and the empty bucket of chicken were discarded in the store's trash bin. Matt tidied the flatbed, stowed away the tarpaulin, then climbed back into the cab.

They said very little on the drive home. The closer they came to Matt's neighborhood, the more nervous Beth grew. Clutch purse, shoes, coat-- she had everything. It sounded silly, but would her parents be able to tell? Did it matter if they did?

The sight of the familiar minivan parked in front of Matt's mobile home and tucked behind her parents' sedan, caused Beth a stab of panic. They were all here. No one had gone home.

The pickup came to a stop behind the minivan, and Beth sent up a silent prayer. Fresh from her honeymoon, and very conscious of that fact, she tugged at her dress, fluffed her hair, then waited for Matt to lift her down now that she was helpless again in her own shoes.

When she slid into Matt's arms, he hugged her fiercely. How she wanted to stay there, standing in his arms instead of going inside to face her family.

The slam of closing truck doors brought someone to the living room window.

No sign of dread or embarrassment could be found on Matt's face. He angled his chin toward the house and kept moving with her at his side. She had to admire his cool. He made no pleas to keep their intimacies secret, no promises to hide the fact from her parents. In truth, he seemed more relaxed, more at ease with himself. Maybe the fatigue of the day had caught up to him, and he simply had no energy left for nervous worry.

He flashed Beth a handsome grin, tugged her close for a quick kiss just as the front door opened.

To Beth's relief, Cassie rushed out to meet them.

"Did you have a good time?" the girl asked, her face young and hopeful. "Was it romantic?"

"It sure was," Matt said, enveloping his free arm around Cassie. "Did you have dinner yet? I hope you saved us some pizza."

How Beth admired him. He didn't miss a beat, but moved up the dirt walk with an arm around Beth, and another around Cassie. The brave man even laughed when Cassie told him she had talked Beth into wearing her hair down. Did he like it? Sure he did, and it was sweet of her to help out. Matt was having an actual conversation as they stepped inside, increasing Beth's admiration with every passing second.

She took a deep breath, held it as she saw the family scattered about the room.

A thread of tension pulsed the air as everyone greeted them and Dylan cried at the top of his lungs. The tension didn't surprise Beth, though she had thought it would come later, after everyone had a chance to speak their mind. Then Beth caught the exchange of irritated glances between Fiona and Dad, and realized their arrival had interrupted some kind of argument. Whatever it concerned, she didn't need any guesses to know it probably had to do with Matt. Even Matt grew quiet, though his arm stayed firmly around Beth.

"Did you two eat dinner?" Mom asked from the sofa. Dylan wailed in the crook of her arm and she worked to settle him down, an innocent bystander of the drama around him. "If you're hungry, there's leftover pizza in the kitchen-- that is, if Ethan hasn't eaten it already."

Dad sat tight-lipped beside Mom on the sofa, his arms folded, his brow wrinkled in frustrated energy. It was an expression Beth knew well. How many times had she seen him look just like that, right after telling him they couldn't agree and to let it drop? More occasions than Beth wanted to remember.

"Hey, Beth. Don't you look snazzy."

Beth turned to smile at her brother-in-law, Daniel Franklin, who sat in a nearby chair with his daughter asleep on his lap. He was not what Beth would term an outright geek, but a definite layer of nerd coated his journalistic and literary tendencies. He was reliably sweet, always discussing some book he read or who wrote what in the national newspapers, and had the tendency to push his glasses up, whether they were sliding down or not. At least Fiona had broken him of the habit of wearing a pocket-protector. Nothing spelled geek like seeing a row of pens weighing down a shirt pocket.

Dan pushed up the wire-rimmed glasses, gave Beth one of his usual bright smiles, then flicked his glance to Matt.

Beth tugged at Matt's sleeve. "This is Fiona's husband, Dan."

"Nice to meet you," Daniel said, unable to free his right hand for a proper handshake. "Cassie told us you instituted your own version of date night, just like Mom and Dad's. I hope it was pleasant."

"It was, thanks."

Beth turned to Cassie, who stuck fast at Matt's side. "Why don't you take Sarah to your room and get some sleep? I don't think everyone's ready to go home yet."

Matt gave Beth a questioning look, obviously not knowing who Sarah was. Beth nodded to the child on Daniel's lap.

"Oh-- Sarah. Right." Matt nodded. "That's probably not a bad idea. Go on, Cass, you look like you're half asleep already. Where's Ryan and Ethan?"

"Ethan is in the kitchen," Mom said with a slight yawn, "and Ryan is in the boys' room napping with David."

Matt looked to Beth, and Beth smiled. "The other twin?" he guessed.

"I tried to get this twin to lay down," Dan said, rising with his daughter still fast asleep, "but she didn't want to miss a single moment of being with Mommy. Now that she's nodded off, maybe I could put her on Cassie's bed?"

"Sure, I don't mind," Cassie said. "My room's down the hall." While Dan carried his little girl to the bedroom, Cassie kissed Beth good night, then Matt, then went to where Dylan still fussed in Mom's arms. "Good night, Dilly. Isn't he the most wonderful baby ever?" Cassie beamed over the small head, feathered his dark hair, then planted a kiss on his soft cheek. "Good night, Grandma, Grandpa." The girl flashed a tired smile to Fiona, called good night to the kitchen, then went to her room as Dan came back down the hall to resume his chair.

"They're very sweet children," Mom said to Matt. "I've been enjoying every minute with them-- though I've been having some trouble calming this one down." She offered the crying baby to him, for Matt looked like he wanted to hold his brother. Even Beth could see the way he kept watching the baby. "You take my seat and see if you can't do any better," Mom offered, "and I'll go fix everyone some coffee."

Beth was still getting over the fact Cassie had called her parents "Grandma" and "Grandpa," and that they had probably encouraged it, when Fiona asked Beth if they could go outside for a walk.

"Hold up, Beth." Matt spoke from the sofa, his arms full with a quieting newborn infant. "This neighborhood can get rowdy after dark. I'd feel a lot better if you kept to the backyard and left the kitchen door open."

"We will," Beth told him, and the girls filed out of the living room, past the kitchen table where Ethan read from an open book with leftover pizza, and into the dirt lot behind the mobile home. It wasn't really a back yard, so much as a quiet area that didn't face the street.

"He seems nice, Beth. The way he looked out for you just now-- I like that. He's been taking good care of you?"

"He has," Beth smiled. "I'm glad you like him. What were you and Dad arguing about? Did it have anything to do with Matt?"

"Oh, no. It had nothing to do with our family." Fiona blew out a frustrated sigh. "Dad wanted to discuss a topic of interest, and I made the mistake of letting him. I have to remind myself not to be drawn into one of his debates, but it's never that easy. I still can't wrap my mind around the fact that our dad doesn't believe Neil Armstrong ever set foot on the moon. It was all lights and trick photography, and never mind the scientific evidence."

"Is that what the argument was about? Neil Armstrong?"

Fiona gave a grim nod. "Which reminds me why we rarely have family reunions. Brian is just as bad as Dad when it comes to conspiracy theories and off-the-wall politics, and between the two of them I lose it. I shouldn't let Dad push at me like that, but I do. I hate it when that happens, but then again, when does that not happen?"

Sympathetic, Beth let her silence speak for itself.

"Enough about Dad. I came out here to talk about you and me. I've been doing a lot of thinking, and while I don't take back anything I said to you at the nursery today, I have to admit it hasn't only been your fault that we haven't kept in touch. I haven't picked up the phone when I could have, so we share the blame. Half and half." She gave a playful tug to Beth's hand. "You look stunning. It's been ages since I've seen you look like this. And those shoes-- I love them. Aren't you full of surprises lately?"

"Admire the shoes all you want," Beth said with a smile, "but you can't borrow them. Not even if you promise to put them back where you found them. Same goes for my clothes."

"But it's just for one day." Fiona laughed in a girly squeal. "Pleeeeease?"

The women laughed as Ethan stuck his head out to see what was going on.

"We're fine," Beth called to him.

With a grunt, Ethan went back to his book.

"We were closer when we were little." Nostalgia sounded in Fiona's voice. "What happened to us, Beth? I know we've never been exactly the closest of sisters, but we used to keep in touch more than this. You know, looking back, I think it was sometime after Luke's accident when I started noticing a growing divide. More and more, you went your way, and I went mine."

"That's because things changed." Beth steadied herself, trying to speak around the edges of what was still a very painful subject. "Until recently, it's been difficult to be around you. I don't mean you as a person, but you as a wife and mother. Fiona, I lost my husband and only child in the same day, and soon after, you gave birth to twins. It felt as though God had ripped my family apart, robbed me of my perfect baby, then gave you not only one, but two. I wasn't even left with a husband. It felt unfair, and I couldn't look at you for a very long time and not feel envious." Beth felt her voice break, paused, and pressed on. "I'm deeply sorry for that. I've been angry with God for so long, I'm only just beginning to realize how much it's affected my relationships."

"So you're a mommy again." Fiona gave a slight smile, one that showed she was thinking. "When I had David and Sarah, I felt guilty, but I didn't know how to tell you that. Especially when you were so busy bearing the guilt of what happened to Luke and Caleb."

The comment quieted Beth from going any further on that subject. She didn't want to talk about it, if she could possibly help it.

"I'm sorry, Fiona. I really am."

"So am I," Fiona said quietly. "The last time I remember you in Santa Fe, you dropped by the hospital to say 'hi.' My pager kept going off, and we never had time to sit and talk. Just 'hi' and 'good-bye,' and that was all I had time for. I admit I haven't been the most accessible person. Just ask Dan and the kids."

"I've been meaning to ask," Beth said, moving a little away from the house so Ethan couldn't overhear. "Why are you on a leave of absence? Aren't they hard to get while you're still a lowly resident?"

"Very lowly," Fiona grinned, "but they're not as hard to get these days. Things have changed since Luke's time." The grin faded, and she sucked in a deep breath. "I'd appreciate you not telling this to Dad or Mom. I'd tell Mom, but she spills everything to Dad."

Beth braced herself for bad news.

"Dan and I had some problems in our marriage. Not big ones, mind you, but enough for me to take some time off from work so we could concentrate on our relationship."

"Oh, Fiona."

"Before you go wide-eyed and concerned," Fiona managed a smile, "Dan and I are better now. We've done some reorganizing, and we've worked some things out. It hasn't been easy, especially since Dan lost his job at the newspaper."

"Dan lost his job? When did this happen?"

Fiona gave Beth an are-you-kidding-me kind of look. "We haven't been keeping in touch, remember? It happened recently, and the reason I don't want Dad to know about the marriage problems, is because Dad already blames me for Daniel losing his job. I wouldn't move when the newspaper wanted to promote Dan, so it's my fault. Which is true, but Dan and I made that decision together. We agreed we couldn't move while I'm still in my residency, so we stayed and Dan turned down the promotion. It eventually cost him his job, strained our marriage, and if I'd told Dad that, he'd only blame my career."

"I would hope Dad would be more fair than that, Fiona. You and Dan made the decision together."

"I would hope so too, but I don't want to risk another discussion." Fiona blew out another breath. "I'm just hoping and praying Dad will cool off by the time we go back in. Why is it so difficult to talk to our parents? It feels like ever since we've been old enough to hold an opposing view, Dad has been set on convincing us of his way of seeing things. Not that I necessarily always disagree, but why does it have to be exactly the same opinion as his? He raised us to think for ourselves, so why should he be so astounded when we don't happen to agree?"

"How well are you and Dan keeping up with the bills? I have to be careful how much money I offer since the nursery is struggling, but I could give you enough to get over any shortfalls."

"The nursery is struggling?" Fiona looked as though she could hardly believe her ears. "When did this happen?"

"For a while, I guess. Business has picked up in the last so many days, but overall, it's not very good."

Fiona shook her head. "This is what happens when we don't stay in touch. Keep your money. Heaven knows you'll need it, especially since you've taken on so many children and a new husband. Wow, Beth. How are you fixed for money? Do you need a loan, emotional support, collateral-- I don't know, anything to keep the store running?"

"I don't mind the emotional support, but I think we'll be fine for the rest. There's still the land Luke and I bought as an investment, and there's some stocks that are still doing well. I want Ethan to go to a good college, so I'll probably have to sell something to make that happen. We need another vehicle, and the family needs new clothes. I'm sure there's more on the list, but I think we'll be fine. We should have enough."

"Do Mom and Dad know?"

"I don't think so. I haven't had much time to really visit with them yet. So much has been happening."

"Ryan told me about Bailey passing away. I'm so very sorry." Fiona grasped Beth's hand. "I know how much he meant to you."

Tears came to Beth's eyes and Fiona squeezed her in a tight hug. Beth's emotions were running close to the surface tonight, especially after her date with Matt. She wanted to tell Fiona of how she'd struggled with hopelessness after Luke died, of how close she'd come to taking her own life. Beth thought about it, then decided to keep quiet. Such sobering news would be too big for her sister to burden in silence; Fiona would feel a responsibility to go to their parents, and Beth wasn't ready for that. Some things even a sister didn't have to know.

But God knew. And so did Matt.

Matt again. Beth couldn't help smiling through her tears. Of all the people on the face of the Earth, Matt had become her closest and dearest friend. When had that happened?

Patting Beth's shoulder, Fiona stepped back and breathed in the cold air.

Beth sniffed, dried her eyes and wiped away what was left of her mascara. "Are you sure you don't need money? What are you and Dan going to do without his income?"

"Well, for one thing, Dan and I agreed he shouldn't get another job."

"What?"

"Dan is going to pursue his dream of becoming a published novelist, and before you say it won't be enough to pay the bills, we already know it won't. We're going to move into a smaller house, reduce some of our expenses until I complete my residency and start making more money, and he'll start writing novels and homeschool our kids."

"Does Dad know any of this?"

"Yes."

"And what did he have to say?"

"Not much. According to him, the government is brainwashing children left and right, so he's all for homeschooling. When it comes down to it, Dan and I want something better for our kids-- an opportunity for them to get a Christian education from their dad, and not some stranger. Anyway, Dan and I are happy about the decision, and we're thankful Dad seems to be, as well. The same goes for Mom, but no surprise there. I'd say all families have a similar level of dysfunction, but then again, Daniel's parents seem fairly tame compared to ours, so I might be biased."

The sisters stared at each other then quietly chuckled.

"Are you happy with him, Beth?"

"I am. Happier than I deserve. How about you?"

Fiona's smile came easily. "I love Daniel. I'm probably more in love with him now, than when we first married."

It seemed wiser not to make any response, so Beth only smiled. She and her sister were on different paths, and moments like this one made that painfully obvious to Beth.

Fiona touched Beth's arm. "We should keep in touch more often."

"After your residency is finished, we will." Beth looked back to the open door. "As a doctor's wife, I know very well that your free time is extremely precious. Your husband and kids come first, as it should be."

Fiona sighed, but they both knew Beth was right. A dog barked in the distance, punctuating what truly was a beautiful night.

"I hope you don't mind"-- Fiona paused to smile-- "but it's getting so late, we won't be joining everyone for a big breakfast. Dan and I need to get the twins back to your place, sleep in, eat a very quick meal in the morning, then start the drive home. I have to check in early Sunday morning, and I can't afford to be late. Too many are depending on me."

Beth smiled. "That's a doctor's life. It's quite a gift, though, helping others, saving lives. I always admired that about Luke, but the same goes for you and Brian. My family may be eccentric at times, but they're quite a bunch. I wouldn't trade them for anything."

"Well, thank you. Same goes for you." Fiona looked at her with admiration. "Marrying someone so he can take care of his brothers and sister is not your run-of-the-mill heroism, but the role looks good on you. I can see God is blessing your decision, and I pray it continues to work out."

When their Mom appeared in the kitchen doorway, announcing that it was almost two, the women knew their talk was over. They went inside and found Ethan dozing at the kitchen table, his head resting on his arms. An empty pizza box lay beside him. The smaller children were asleep, and even Matt looked as though he had trouble keeping his eyes open when Beth found him in the living room with the men.

Thankfully, Dad seemed back to his usual self and held no grudge against Fiona. Beth didn't think he would, but it was with relief when she saw them hug and make up. The big breakfast in the morning was called off, though Beth's parents promised to come by the nursery and visit.

Sleeping children were gathered, and goodbyes were exchanged all around. As both vehicles pulled away, Beth lingered in the doorway to enjoy the night a moment longer.

"I'd close that door, if I were you."

She looked over to Matt, who had gone back to the sofa with Dylan.

"It's a rough neighborhood," he reminded.

She shut the door, locked it, then went to sit beside the brothers.

"That family of yours." Matt smiled wearily. "After you and Fiona left, your Dad did most of the talking. He made his case for why NASA never sent anyone to the moon and I kept my mouth shut until Aiden changed the subject. Daniel did the same, and when we were free to talk, I found out he's outlining some weird sci-fi novel he's excited about. For a writer, Dan seems like a nice guy."

"I'm sure he appreciates your not holding that against him."

"Hey, I try." Matt gave a lazy smile. "I thought my family was messed up, but yours... well, yours are not as messed up as mine, but they're still not exactly what you'd call normal." Matt yawned, adjusted the baby on his chest and smiled when the newborn pushed his tongue out in his sleep. Beth caressed the baby's soft cheek, felt its tiny fingers and dimpled hand.

As silence settled between them, Beth leaned her head against Matt's shoulder.

"Beth?"

"Hmmm?" She tipped her head back, saw the thought lines creasing Matt's forehead. "Why are you looking so serious?"

"What happened tonight, I mean, what happened between us..." she caught the hitch in Matt's breath and sensed he was preparing to say something difficult. "I know what we did changed things, but I don't think we should make what we did a habit. I think," he slowed his words into a measured rhythm, "I think we should keep our distance, and only find privacy together when we have to let off some steam."

Beth sat up. He looked completely serious.

"That sounded rehearsed. You've been thinking over how you wanted to say that. Haven't you."

"I'm holding out for more, Beth, but in my own way. Does that make any sense?"

"No, but then I don't think I have any choice."

"Sure you have a choice. You could tell me to get lost, throw a tantrum, start a fight. I don't think you'd move out though, so I'm not risking that."

The smile went to her lips before she could stop it. "You think you know me that well?"

"Yeah, I do." His hand massaged Dylan's back in light circles and the small chest rose in a contended sigh. "He sure is cute, isn't he?

She gave an absent nod. "Does this mean we're not going to rearrange our family so we live in the same bedroom like normal couples?"

"I'd rather not."

"And if I did?"

He looked at her. "I'm going to need more than crumbs, before that happens."

"You aren't going to be able to hold out, Matt. I know you. We'll keep finding privacy, and eventually we'll share the same bedroom every night because it'll be more convenient."

A slight smile tipped his mouth. "I intend to hold out better than that."

"What if you can't?"

"Then it'll be my problem, not yours. Beth, I don't want to turn what we have, into the same relationship I had with Helen. I used to take her for granted, and even though I told myself I loved her, we only stayed together because of the sex and the drugs. That's not going to happen to us. Not if I can help it."

"Did you love her?"

He shrugged. "Sometimes I think I must have, then other times... I don't know. I like to think I'm different now, that I'm not the same person I used to be. I was addicted in more ways than one, and I don't want us to share the same bed every night just because it's convenient. It has to mean more."

"You keep saying that," she sighed patiently. "As important as love is to a marriage, I don't think it's absolutely necessary."

"Was it necessary for you and Luke? Was it, Beth? You loved him-- I know you did-- and yet you sit there and tell me we can get along without it." He pulled away, but ever so slightly. "How long do you think this marriage is going to last, if we don't at least try to love each other?"

"I am trying, Matt."

"But it's not easy, huh?" Heartbreak sounded in his voice. "I'm going to fight for this relationship, even if it means competing for your love. I mean it, Beth. I'm not going anywhere. I'm in this for the long haul."

The controlled passion of his words made it impossible for Beth to do anything but hug him. "You don't have to compete for me. There's no one to compete against."

He shook his head in disagreement, but when she leaned her head against his shoulder, he kissed her hair. His hand kept soothing the baby, even though Dylan was sound asleep. She touched Matt's soothing hand, and recalled his statement a few moments earlier about Dylan.

"Yes, you're right, Dylan is very cute." Beth stroked Matt's hand and heard Matt sigh deeply. "He's a sweet darling, just like his big brother."

She turned her eyes to Matt, and he met her gaze without flinching. He absorbed her appreciation like a dry sponge soaks in water, and bit by bit, the confidence eased back into his expression, and the smile returned to his eyes.

"Whatever happens between us, Matt, we're not going to break up this family. Agreed?"

"I agree. Do you really think"-- he paused, searched the room for eavesdroppers before continuing-- "that I'm a sweet darling?"

She poked him in the side. "Coward."

"I may be," he grinned softly, "but I'm also a sweet darling." Matt dropped his head back and closed his eyes. "Oh, Beth, between you and your family, I'm worn out." His hand searched for hers, and when she took it, he nestled his cheek against her hair. "If I'm your sweet darling, will you be mine?"

The wording of the question caught her off guard. She faltered, then squeezed his hand in quick reassurance.

"Thanks, Beth. My sweet darling."

Their fingers linked together, Matt sucked in a gentle breath that seemed to fill him with an almost painfully pleasant sensation. It reached through him, pulled her close and refused to let go, long after he fell asleep.

Whatever Beth had gotten herself into by marrying Matt, the connection that bound them together ran deep and strong. It would not be denied, even though Beth refused to give it a name. She gently stroked Matt's arm and let the moment sweep through her like a softly surging summer rain.

Yes, he truly was her sweet darling.


When Matt woke the next morning, he was stretched out on the couch by himself, and Dylan was back in the crib. The hungry scent of eggs wafted in from the kitchen, coaxing Matt's eyes to open even more. He sat up, scratched his side and noticed Dylan was awake.

"Hey, little guy. Ready to get up? Or are you going to lay around all day?"

Dylan blinked, but not necessarily at him, then shut his eyes.

"That's right. Go back to sleep. I go to work today, but your job is to sleep, eat, poop, and get bigger. For a baby, that's a lot to manage all in one day." Matt hauled himself to his feet, stared at the clock until the fog of slumber cleared from his mind. It was still early enough to have breakfast, then drive into work on time. Since the family breakfast with the Campbells had been cancelled, this Saturday morning would be like any other.

"Beth," Ethan's voice called out from the boys' bedroom at such a loud pitch, Matt heard him from the living room, "what'd you do with my sneakers? I can't find them anywhere."

"Did you look under your bed?"

"Yeah, but-- oh-- never mind. I found them."

Matt checked the crib. Still sleeping. He was looking forward to when Dylan got a little older, when he could play with him and carry him around on his shoulders the way he had with Ryan. Yeah, Matt was looking forward to that.

A western tune played from his pocket. He pulled out the cell phone, opened it as he shuffled into the kitchen. "Hello, Matt Taylor speaking." He smiled at the beautiful woman cooking his breakfast, gave her a peck on the cheek as he moved into the boys' bedroom to shower and change. "I'm sorry, could you speak a little louder? I can't hear you."

The bathroom door was closed, and Matt could hear Ethan running the shower full blast.

"This is Francine Simmons-- you hired me to oversee the guardianship process for your brother. On the papers you filled out, I noticed you gave your wife's address as your current place of residence. Have you moved in yet? If you haven't, I strongly urge you to make the move before I file these papers with the District Court on Monday. I don't anticipate Social Services sending out anyone, but then again, I think it's good to be prepared in case they do. We don't want to be caught off guard, and from what you told me, your old address really is too small for so many children. We wouldn't want anything to hold up the process, unnecessarily."

While Matt waited for the bathroom, he spent the next several minutes talking to his lawyer. With all the events taking place in his own life, he'd forgotten about the urgency to act before Social Services became involved. Had he heard back from his mom yet? Did he know where she was? Since she and Wade had yet to sign anything, they would need to be served a summons so they really needed her to contact Matt. Easier said than done.

He got off the phone, left the shower to Ethan, and headed into the kitchen.

Beth stood at the table, scraping a large mountain of fluffy scrambled eggs onto five plates.

"That was our lawyer," he said, feeling the weight of what he'd just heard. "We don't have as much time as I thought. We need to move out of here, today." While Beth stared at him in subdued panic, he relayed the particulars Francine had explained to him. They needed to start praying Eve and Wade showed up in time, so the guardianship could go through without any trouble.

Going in to work this morning was out of the question. Beth understood the urgency and readily called Amy and Sylvia to stop them from coming into the nursery. They had a day off, but the Taylors were going to be busy.

While Beth fed everyone, she made a list and had Matt jotting down all the things that needed to be done. "We can get Dad and Mom to help. We have three vehicles between us, so that should make things go faster. Anything too big for your pickup, I suppose we'll have to rent a moving van."

Ethan huffed out a laugh as he dropped into his chair. "Like we're going to put our battered couch into your house. I don't think so. Except for our mattresses and Dylan's crib, it's going to be all boxes and bags."

"Ethan's right," Matt said, shoveling scrambled eggs into his mouth as he spoke. "Anything too big for the truck, should probably be staying here."

"Beth told me all about your date, Matty." Cassie beamed him a sunny smile from across the table. "I think it was terribly romantic of you to watch the sunset together."

Matt slanted a look at Beth, but Beth only smiled.

"You watched the sunset?" Ethan paused his breakfast long enough to give Matt a brotherly look of approval. "Way to go. Did you get lucky?"

"None of your business."

"Okay, okay. But knowing you, you probably did."

"Let it drop, Ethan."

The teenager stared at Matt a few moments, as though trying to read Matt's face. With an affirming nod, he went back to his food and the open book on the table.

It was odd seeing Ethan so engrossed in something with no flashy advertising and no illustrations. Matt slanted to get a look at the open pages, then elbowed Ethan. "What's that?"

"A Tale of Two Cities. Dan had it in his car, and gave it to me. It's not a blockbuster action, but it's cool in its own way. The guy gets his head chopped off to save someone else's life, so he turns out to be a hero. Don't go spreading it around that I'm reading this stuff, okay? We may be moving out of this dump, but I still have to hold my head up at school."

Matt turned the book over to read the cover. "Charles Dickens-- he wrote that Christmas Carol movie, didn't he?"

Ethan elbowed Matt. "It was a book before it was a movie. I haven't read it yet, but if it's anything like this one, I might give it a try."

"Dan gave you this?"

"Uh-huh. He knows a lot of junk about writing, grammar, that sort of thing. He's pretty cool."

Matt smothered a grin. The nerd with the glasses was cool. Though he felt a pang of jealousy over his brother's admiration of Daniel, Matt was glad to see Ethan interested in something that educated people liked. The last thing Matt wanted was for his brother to turn out the way he had-- a high-school dropout with experience in all the wrong things in life. He wanted Ethan to make something of himself, to be different than his dumb brother who was only fit for manual labor.

The reflection discouraged Matt, but he didn't have time to beat himself up. Not today. After breakfast, they had to pack up, and leave this rundown neighborhood behind.


"And now, Lord, what wait I for? my hope is in Thee."
~ Psalm 39:7 ~

end of chapter
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