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Chapter Ten
Just Friends

"There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a [woman]."
~ Proverbs 30:18, 19 ~

Relief breathed into Matt when he saw Sylvia leave for lunch. His relief wasn't as great as he would have liked, for Amy stayed behind to eat in the office. For once, Matt had wanted to be alone with Beth. Only for lunch, of course, and for what reason Matt couldn't explain intelligibly to his own satisfaction. He simply wanted to eat his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the same general vicinity as Beth, and to eat them without Sylvia or Amy watching.

The light sound of women talking gently echoed near the back of the store as Matt stepped inside after retrieving his lunch from the pickup. He'd never eaten in the store before, but knew Beth wouldn't mind for he knew the girls sometimes ate in the office. Struggling not to feel as though he were intruding, Matt crossed the floor to the open door, then stuck his head inside the office to see if there were any room for him.

Her feet crossed in the walkway, Beth was scooping out yogurt from a dainty container, the plastic spoon coming halfway to her mouth before she saw Matt in the doorway.

"Matt." She said his name in shock, as though surprised to see him. The spoon was returned to the container. "Is there something you want?"

From a chair near the desk, Amy smiled, her eyes traveling to the brown paper bag in his hand; without a word, Amy set aside her own lunch to retrieve a second folding chair from behind a filing cabinet.

"Oh, you're here to eat lunch." Beth moved so he could pass between her and Amy and get to his seat. She said nothing, but watched as he moved past her.

His elbow hit the filing cabinet, but he managed to squeeze into the space where he guessed Sylvia usually occupied. Wondering why in the world he had come, Matt opened his bag to pull out a sandwich. He shut his eyes for a silent prayer, then bit into the bread. The women remained quiet, though Matt did his best not to notice. He looked at the pasta salad Amy had in her clear food container, and tried not to wonder how it tasted. On the desk, Beth had prepared some sort of delicious smelling rice dish, and from the steam, he could tell it was hot. Puzzled, Matt looked about until he saw a microwave tucked into the far corner of the office.

"If you ever need to heat up your meal," Beth said, putting down her yogurt to pick up the rice, "you can use the microwave. And there's a mini fridge," she added, pointing to the object on the floor at his feet, "if you need to keep your lunch cold. Just be sure to put your name on anything that's yours; things have a tendency to disappear if you're not careful."

Amy smiled apologetically to Matt. "Sylvia accidentally takes things from the fridge that aren't hers, so it's best to write your name on anything you care about."

"Oh." Matt didn't want to comment on Sylvia, so he continued to eat his sandwich.

"I was just telling Mrs. Carter about this cute guy I met at the supermarket," Amy said, putting down her fork long enough to take a sip from a bottle of iced tea. "Like I was saying, we talked and I thought we hit it off pretty well. He kept finding an excuse to keep from walking away, and of course, I did the same; we must have blocked the aisle for a good ten minutes! Then what do you think? You'll never guess, not in a million years!" Amy paused for dramatic effect and Matt had the good sense not to guess. "I still can't believe it!" she glowed brightly. "This incredibly good-looking guy actually asked me out on a date!" She gave a loud squeal of girly delight, her face a picture of unrealistic expectations. "It was fate to meet like we did," she continued. "He's so absolutely perfect-- my knight in shining armor and prince charming all rolled into one." She shook her head as though no one could possibly have a differing opinion.

Matt sighed mildly. In his years of experience with women, there were some ways in which all of them were terrifyingly the same. This was one of them. A guy had caught her attention, and now the poor man would have to live up to those fantasy-filled expectations. How fair was that? He waited for Amy's elation to die down, then relaxed to eat another sandwich.

Leaning forward, Beth opened the mini fridge, pulled out another bottle of iced tea with a fancy label. She offered it to him, and without thinking, he accepted. He didn't even like tea.

Amy finished off the last of her pasta salad, took another sip from her beverage. "I've been around a lot of guys, but Joe is different. It's like when he sees me, he's actually seeing me, and not just something superficial like what I'm wearing or how my hair is fixed. I don't feel like I have to tell him what I'm thinking, he just knows."

Matt couldn't help groaning. "Do me a favor, Amy-- when you find out the guy can't read your mind, cut him some slack."

Amy laughed in good humor. "That is such a typical male response."

"Yeah, well," he paused, gulped down several mouthfuls of iced tea, swiped his mouth with the back of his hand, "this Joe hasn't even taken you out yet, and if he can't guess what you're thinking five minutes into the date, he's already fodder for tomorrow's lunch discussion."

"That is not true! It's simply not true!"

Matt slid back in the chair, rested the bottle on his knee. "Do you know what the trouble with you women is?"

Amy folded her arms. "No, enlighten us."

"You aren't realistic. You've been sold a bill of goods by every chick flick, romance novel, and fairy tale ending with 'happily ever after.' There is no such thing as a perfect match. You'll go out with Joe tonight, and when your feet never leave the ground, you're going to blame him for not sweeping you away. I tell you, the guy has lost and he doesn't even know it yet." Matt took another swig of tea, forgetting that he didn't even like the stuff; it didn't actually taste so bad, loaded down with sugar.

Amy stared at Beth. "Did you just hear what he said?"

"I heard."


"And what? Matt's entitled to his own opinion."

"But it sounds as though he doesn't believe in romance."

It was Beth's turn to smile mildly. "He never said that, and besides, there are other things in life besides love."

The young woman frowned. "Are you referring to sex?"

"What I'm referring to, what I'm trying to say," Beth spoke slowly, Matt sensing she was choosing her words very carefully because he was listening, "is that there's something else besides romance, something not as deep, but sometimes just as meaningful."

Amy nodded. "You mean sex."

"I mean friendship." Beth looked at Amy the way a teacher looks at a student, the way a more experienced person looks at someone who doesn't know any better. Matt was well acquainted with that look, and knew Amy's best choice was to back off.

Exasperated, Amy shook her head. "I hope I'm never as cynical about love as you two," she said, unable to resist a parting shot before leaving the discussion alone. Amy gathered her trash, dumped it into the waste basket, then went to go see to a customer.

"She's young and has a lot to learn about life," Beth said, sounding somewhat embarrassed by Amy's nonsense; after all, he had grouped Beth into the "you women" right alongside Amy, and Beth probably felt he thought she held the same views. "I prefer to be more levelheaded than that," Beth said, confirming Matt's hunch. "Falling so crazy in love isn't necessarily a good thing."

"I agree." Matt tipped his bottle to empty the last of the beverage into his mouth.

"Just look at her," Beth sighed, leaning forward in the chair and watching Amy, "she's chatting with that customer as though she's already forgotten about her disagreement. I wish I could shrug off things as easily." Beth was silent, then she turned and looked at him. "What she said about us-- it doesn't make us cynical, does it, Matt?"

He frowned. "No, it makes us realistic. We've both had love before, and like you said, we both know it's not all it's cracked up to be."

"I didn't say that-- not in that context," Beth said quickly. "I want love, Matt."

"But you want realistic love," he shrugged. "You can't even really call it love. It's more like friendship. There's a big difference between what you want, and what Amy is expecting tonight when she goes out with 'Mr. Right.'"

From Beth's silence, Matt knew she was in complete agreement.

Reality became abundantly clear to Beth after their conversation. Matt had only heard what he had wanted to hear, making him a more typical male than she had previously thought. He also didn't share her views of love, though after what he'd just said, Matt HAD been in love at some point in his life. Maybe even with Helen. Old girlfriends aside, Beth regretted trying to distance herself so far from Amy's romantic notions. Though she had spoken in defense of friendship, and had mentioned she thought crazy love wasn't always a good idea, Matt's idea of being realistic was still very different from her own.

And that, Beth surmised, potentially made Matt about as romantic as the toaster oven sitting on her kitchen counter. Deciding she liked him anyway, she resumed work with Matt very much on her mind.

As closing time approached, Beth wondered if it were too soon to offer to bring over another dinner for the Taylors. Would Matt allow it, and more to the point, was she being pushy? Overly eager? She walked a fine line, a line she couldn't define but knew was there. No, she decided, she would back off and make no mention of dinners or Mexican food. She would still continue her fight, but knew if she didn't be careful with Matt, he would come to resent her presence as an intrusion.

When Matt told her he had finished his work, and he offered no smile, her heart sank. Maybe she had already made herself too much of a nuisance, maybe he was angry with her for pressing him that morning for an answer. She had tried not to hurt him, and had approached him as a friend and not as a boss.

In her anxiety, she at first didn't notice Matt's hesitancy to simply leave, get in his truck and drive away. For once, he lingered, still not smiling, but not walking away, either.

Amy left as soon as she possibly could to rush home and get ready for Joe. Sylvia seemed to wallow in a dark mood all day, one that grew noticeably darker when she saw Matt remaining behind as she left the store. Beth knew Sylvia's jealously was getting the best of her, and prayed it wouldn't cause trouble for Matt.

As Beth went about shutting the nursery for the night, Matt remained outside. She glimpsed him through the office window, again when she moved through the store to the front door. He didn't leave, just stood by the gate with hat in hand, the retreating daylight casting a warm hue on his brown hair.

Then she realized what was happening. Matt was waiting for her.

Trying not to appear overly anxious, she took her time leaving the store, locking the door, then crossing to where Matt stood by the gate.

Beth tucked the keys into her purse. "It's been a long day."

"Yes," he nodded, "it has." Silence reigned supreme, until he added, "Long, but good."

"I appreciate your telling me about..." Beth paused, searching for the courage to speak the words.

"My addictions?" he ventured.

"Yes-- I appreciate your honesty."

He shrugged lightly. "I wasn't going to lie to you."

She smiled, but to her discouragement, he didn't. The Stetson fumbled in his hands, his eyes turned to the toes of his scuffed boots, then to the pavement, as if searching for something on the ground.

"Would you like to come over Sunday afternoon?" The offer came suddenly, without warning, and his eyes jerked up to meet hers. "For lunch-- I meant for lunch. After church service." He shrugged, though this time it was hardly a causal gesture. "It won't be anything special. I'm cooking, so..." he stopped, sighed heavily. "It won't be anything special."

Beth couldn't help herself, and smiled. "I can't imagine you doing anything, and it not being special."

"You're teasing me again," he said, a half grin tugging at the corner of his mouth.

She cocked her head to one side. "Maybe just a little."

"I thought you said you wouldn't play games with me."

"This is one game I don't mind playing," she said, feeling the full glow of his presence on her heart.

He slanted her a cautious look, but Beth knew he was pleased.

"So, are you coming?"

"You know I never turn down your invitations, Matt."

"There's a first time for everything," he breathed with a slight grin.

Even a first date. Beth didn't say it, but she certainly thought it.

Looking more confident than before, Matt put the hat back on. "Come around at one. It'll give us time to get the house ready."

"I'll be there."

"I'm glad we had that talk, Beth."

"Which one?"

He smiled broadly. "Both. It's good to know where we stand. Like you said this morning-- no unrealistic love, just meaningful friendship. I like that. Keeps things simple." He chuckled softly, the sound of his voice melting Beth until she thought her knees would buckle. "Not many women are as levelheaded as you, Beth. I guess that makes you special."

Despite the complete and utter lack of romance in his manner of speaking, Beth returned his smile without hesitation. Hadn't she told him she preferred to be levelheaded instead of crazy in love? She had-- she did-- but not so very levelheaded as Matt wanted.

"Don't show up early," he asked, breaking in on her thoughts. "The house is usually a mess Sunday mornings, and I'll need time to get the meal ready. It's not often we have a guest over for lunch."

Disappointment crowded her thoughts as Beth understood Matt didn't view his invitation as a date. Even so, she managed a smile. "I'll be as punctual as you."

He flashed a grin, then they both stood there until it felt awkward.

"Guess I should get going," he said, tossing a glance at his watch. "The kids are home by now, and probably wondering where I am."

"Thank you for the invitation."

"I'm not trying to settle our account, Beth."

Pulsing warmth spread throughout her being, small ripples of happiness erasing the sting of disappointment. She felt like a teenager again. Crazy.

He gave one of his half smiles, almost shy but at the same time unnervingly direct and very male. "I'll see you at work tomorrow."

It took Beth a moment to remember that today was only Friday; she would have to wait a full day before Matt's lunch. "See you tomorrow," Beth called as he strode to his pickup.

He turned to look at her one more time. She waved, and he tipped his hat. As the truck pulled away, Beth took a deep breath to steady herself. Matt had a way of looking at her so deeply, so thoroughly, she often thought he could see her soul. But that, she reminded herself with a quiet laugh, Matt would never approve. Such notions were too unrealistic.

On the drive home, Matt felt a mixture of bliss with an undercurrent of disappointment. He knew he shouldn't be, but Matt had secretly been disheartened when he heard Beth talking so warmly of a meaningful friendship. Sure, guys think women blow the whole love thing out of proportion, but friendship being just as meaningful as love? Ouch. Maybe love wasn't all it was cracked up to be, but he still wanted it.

And Beth didn't. She had made that clear with her "meaningful" talk with Amy.

"It's for the best," Matt rebuked himself as he came to a red light at an intersection. "You can't fall in love. It wouldn't be fair to Beth, not with everything you've done. Besides, she's not interested in you that way-- she couldn't possibly, not after what she knows about you." He punched on the radio, intent on getting his mind elsewhere. They were friends. He wanted-- no, needed-- to keep it that way, and yet... Matt sighed heavily. For all his past talk about friendship, whenever he looked at Beth, being friends was the furthest thing from his mind.

Matt rested his hands on the steering wheel, lightly accelerated when the signal turned green. "It's for the best, Taylor. I told her I could only give her friendship, and that's all she wants from me. Just shut up and be happy."

After being around Beth so much, it was good to know where he stood. Simple, uncomplicated friendship. In spite of his difficult past and scarred soul, she still wanted to be friends. Matt smiled with all his heart. She was special.

Instead of Ryan running to greet him at the door, Matt found his baby brother in the kitchen, licking grape jelly from his fingers.

"What are you doing? And why are you eating before dinner?" Matt moved quickly to Ryan, pulled the jelly jar from the boy's hand. "Where's Ethan and Cassie?"

Ryan smacked his sticky purple lips, grinning ear to ear with sugar coated joy. "Ethan is in our room, studying."

Groaning patiently, Matt lifted Ryan onto the countertop to clean his face and hands. "And Cassie? Where is she?"

"She's in her bathroom crying."

"Crying? What about?"

Ryan shrugged.

Grape jelly doesn't come off of small fingers fast enough, not when there's a twelve and a half-year-old crying in the bathroom. Matt hurried as fast as he could, calling out to Ethan for help but getting no response.

"Stay out of the jelly jar," Matt said, setting Ryan back on the floor. "I mean it, buddy. And while you're at it, go brush your teeth." He patted Ryan's bottom, then headed through the living room, down the short hall to Cassie's bedroom.

"Cass?" He banged on the door, fearing another menstrual crisis, and wondering what he would do if it wasn't. Having a preteen in the family was complicated even more by the fact the preteen was a girl. In a house full of boys, Cassie's troubles kept Matt on his toes. "Cass, open the door!"

He waited impatiently, straining to hear her cry. He heard nothing, then the soft footsteps of someone coming to the door. It opened, and Cassie looked out at him with red rimmed eyes.

Matt breathed deeply. At least she looked mostly coherent. "Have you been crying?" It was a stupid question-- he knew it-- but the words flew out of his mouth before he could take them back. He knelt, pulled out a clean handkerchief and dried her face. "What is it, Cass? Did you have a hard day at school?"

Cassie shook her head "no," then hugged him with more tears.

Helpless to do much else until she calmed down, Matt hugged his sister as Ethan sauntered down the hall, the teenager's hands shoved into his pockets. Matt immediately recognized the worried stance of his brother, then noticed with some shock that Ethan's eyes were red, as well.

"What happened?" Matt asked.

Ethan lifted a shoulder. "Mom called."


"I don't know-- an hour ago, I guess."

"What did she want?"

Ethan's careless attitude cracked a moment, and he sniffed back some tears. "What she always wants. Money."

"Did you promise her anything?" Matt was on his feet in an instant, Cassie still clinging to him. "Did you?"

"No, of course not. I know better than that, Matty."

"Cass," Matt looked down at her, his arm around the girl's shoulders. "Did you?"

The guilty look on her face said it all.

"Cass, how could you? You know what she'll do with it."

"She begged so hard, Matty! She said if I loved her at all, I would give her what she needed!"

"When is she supposed to be here?"

Cassie wiped her eyes. "Tonight or tomorrow. Please, Matty, this time it'll be different. She said she'd stay and make a birthday cake for Ryan."

"His birthday was weeks ago."

"But she really wanted to, Matty. She was sorry for missing his birthday, and promised to make it up to us. To all of us."

Distracted, Matt rubbed his forehead, nearly knocking off the Stetson in the process. "I've heard it a million times before, Cass, and so have you. You know better than to believe her now."

"But, Matty--"

"No buts!" Matt surprised himself with his own forcefulness. Cassie swallowed hard, and he rubbed her shoulder to stop her from crying again. "Cass, she doesn't care about us. If she did, she would have changed long before now." He looked steadily into Cassie's soft blue eyes. "She doesn't care."

A fresh sob escaped Cassie's lips, and Matt hugged her with all the fierce protection of an older brother. Their mother's promises hurt everyone, but especially Cassie and Ryan. They needed her so much, and she was never there. Not when it counted.

Matt looked to Ethan, reminding himself that even Ethan wasn't too old to be untouched by their mom. "Does Ryan know she's coming?"

"No." Ethan dried his face against his shoulder, turned and left the hall.

"Did Mom leave you her number?" Matt asked Cassie, patting his sister on the back, hoping she would calm down. Contact with their mother usually turned everyone inside out, causing fresh pain to old wounds that had never healed. "Cass, did she give you a way to contact her?"


Matt wasn't surprised. It was so like Mom to do that, to stay away and not show up until she wanted something from her children. If she gave them her cell number, they might actually call.

Standing in the living room, Ryan looked down the hall at Matt and Cassie, his small face worried.

"Ethan's really quiet, Matty," the boy said, coming to Matt with a somewhat fearful voice. "He locked the bedroom door, and won't let me in."

"Let him alone for awhile." Matt gave Ryan, and then Cassie a brave look to encourage them to do the same. "We need to clean up the house, pick up the toys in the living room, and do some major dusting before Sunday."

"Mom won't care about a messy house," Cassie said, brushing away the hair from her eyes. "She never does."

"It's not for Mom's sake." Matt looked at Ryan, saw the boy's face suddenly grow hopeful. "Mom's coming tonight or tomorrow--"

Before Matt could finish, Ryan began bouncing up and down, chanting excitedly, "Mommy's coming! Mommy's coming!" until Cassie begged him to be quiet. When that didn't work, Matt picked up Ryan, asked Cassie to get a head start cleaning the house, then carried the boy into the kitchen to begin fixing dinner.

"Mommy's coming!" Ryan couldn't hold still, absolutely refused to be quiet, and tugged at Matt's shirt so many times to ask when she would arrive, it wore on Matt's patience.

"I don't know, Ryan. Settle down and let me work."

When Ryan took his excitement into the living room, Matt tried to gather his sanity. It wasn't easy, not when one of the persons he least wanted to see made Ryan so very happy. He could still hear the boy chanting about his mommy, and knew he would camp out by the living room window to wait for her.

"Don't let her stay, God. Please, don't let her stay." Matt twisted off the top of a bottle of spaghetti sauce, dumped its contents into the pan to simmer. That's all he needed right now. Mom. She hadn't even arrived yet, and already the pain and resentment felt unbearable. He jammed the spoon into the pan, sloshed the sauce around until it splattered on his jeans. While he worked to get the stain out with a wet paper towel, Cassie came into the kitchen. She slumped against the refrigerator and watched him.

"Do you think she'll stay for long, Matty?"

"I hope not."

"But she could if she wanted to, couldn't she?"

"Cass..." Matt sighed, knowing how vulnerable Cassie was when it came to their mother. He tossed the paper towel away, turned back to the stove. "Let's not talk about it until she gets here, okay?" He glanced over his shoulder at Cassie. "She knows the rules. It's up to her."

He dumped pasta into a large pan of boiling water as Cassie moved to the stove to watch.

"She'll be good, Matty. Wait and see. This time will be different."

Matt muttered darkly. "Yeah, right."

"Please, Matty, give her a chance."

He wanted to scream that he'd given that woman who so glibly called herself their mother, all the chances he could, and it still hadn't been enough. It hadn't, and for all he knew, it never would be.

"I'll give her the same chance as I always do, but" -- he looked at Cassie -- "I won't let her hurt you or the others. That's a promise." Matt didn't know how good that promise was, considering his mom had already caused more than a little grief with just her phone call. "Not to change the subject, but why aren't you cleaning up the house?"

A weak smile parted Cassie's mouth. "Not to change the subject back, but why should I when Mom won't care?"

"Because," Matt said, turning down the heat beneath the sauce, "you're not doing it for mom."

Cassie looked at him curiously. "Then who for?"

He opened the cupboard door, took out four plates. The question had gone unanswered, and when Matt saw Cassie staring at him, he reluctantly replied. "Beth Carter."

Cassie's eyes grew wide. "You're inviting her to the house? As in a date?"

"No, no," Matt shook his head adamantly, "definitely not a date. Just Sunday lunch."

After a few moments of silence, Cassie smiled. "But you do like her?"

"Yeah, I guess so," Matt resisted the urge to tell Cassie to mind her own business; he was the head of the family, and if he liked a woman, it affected everyone, including Cassie. "We're not serious," he insisted. "We're just friends." Matt heard a chair scoot across the floor, turned to see Cassie taking a seat beside the stove while he worked.

"I think Beth likes you, Matty."

He smiled good-naturedly. "You do, huh? What makes you say that?"

"I can tell."

"I see," he gave a conscious grin, happy to divert Cassie's attention even at the expense of his own privacy. "Besides your as-yet-underdeveloped sense of women's intuition, how can you tell?"

Chin propped on the palm of her hand, Cassie looked at him with a faint sort of smile playing on her face, one that said she thought she knew more than she was saying.

"Never mind, Cass. Sorry I asked."

She laughed softly, half sympathetic to the vulnerability of his feelings, half delighted at his embarrassment. "I know something else, Matty. You like her, too. An awful lot."

Matt's first impulse was to deny it, but he knew it would be useless; Cassie knew him too well, and besides, Matt refused to lie to his sister.

"Don't tell Beth," he asked quietly. "I'd appreciate it if she didn't know."

Sadness tinged Cassie's smile, but the girl nodded that she would do as he had asked.

"Do you think we'll ever be happy, Matty?" Cassie breathed a long, wistful sigh. "I mean not just a little happy, but really happy-- so happy you don't have to second-guess what you're feeling. You just are."

The melancholy reflection made him frown. "We're happy... aren't we?

Cassie bit her lip. "I guess so."

"Since you've decided not to help me clean the house," he joked, shooing her from the chair, "help me set the table. Dinner's ready."

It took some difficulty on Matt's part to tear Ryan from the living room window, for the boy kept insisting that Mommy's car was pulling up to the house.

"Come on, buddy, we'll know when she arrives." Matt crouched to speak to Ryan. "She'll come up that walk, open that door, and find us in the kitchen."

"When's she coming?"

"I don't know, exactly, Ryan. Sometime tonight or tomorrow."

A marked look of disappointment touched his features as Ryan looked out at the street. "Maybe she forgot. Maybe she's not coming."

Matt sighed heavily. "She'll come."

"But if she forgot about us again--"

"She won't forget, Ryan. She needs money. She'll be here. You can count on it. Now come on, dinner's getting cold."

Sorrowful eyes looked at Matt, and the boy finally nodded. He took Matt's hand, allowing himself to be led to the kitchen. Matt regretted speaking so plainly to Ryan, and promised himself to be gentler in the future.

"Where's Ethan?" Matt asked Cassie, as he helped Ryan into his chair.

"Still in the bedroom," Cassie said between bites of spaghetti. Matt didn't blame her for eating without them. This evening, it seemed nearly impossible to get everyone seated at the table at the same time.

"Ethan!" Matt stepped toward the boys' bedroom, just off the kitchen, and rapped on the door. He didn't mind giving Ethan privacy when the teenager needed it, but they shared the same room, so when Ethan didn't open the door, Matt did.

Ethan lay on the bed, an arm draped over his eyes.

"Dinner time," Matt said, hoping the mention of food would nudge his brother from off the bed.

"Matty, can I go to Mrs. Lott's house when Mom comes?" Ethan raised his arm, looked at him pleadingly. "Do I have to be here?"

Matt rubbed the back of his head, wishing the visit were already over. "Mom's going to ask about you, Ethan, and she'll want to see you."

"But do I have to see her?"

"She's your mom."

"She's yours, too, and I don't see you falling all over yourself to throw out the welcome mat."

"Ethan, we don't have a welcome mat."

The teenager looked at him dryly.

"All right," Matt conceded, sympathetic to Ethan's wish, "but only if Mom comes tonight. I'll be at work Saturday, so you'll have to stick around for Cassie and Ryan's sake tomorrow. I don't want them to have to be around Mom alone. Even if it costs you a lot to do it, you're their big brother and you're going to watch out for them. Understood?"

The forcefulness of Matt's language didn't prompt any rebellion, just a grateful nod. Ethan rubbed at the redness in his eyes as though he were a little boy who had cried over his mommy, and not a teenager over his mom. "So why do we have to clean up the house before Sunday?" he asked, pulling himself up from the bed. "Someone coming over?"

"Yeah, Beth Carter."

"Your boss?" Ethan stared at him incredulously. "When did this happen?"

Matt blinked. "When did what happen?"

"When did you start getting so serious about Mrs. Carter?" Ethan asked, placing undue emphasis on the Mrs.

"She's a widow, Ethan."

"But she's your boss, Matty."

"We're just friends."

Ethan didn't look convinced.

"I only invited her over to Sunday lunch, okay? I admit, we're good friends, and I like her" -- Matt held up a hand to stop Ethan from interrupting -- "but we're not serious. Absolutely not. We really are 'just friends.' Now, can we eat dinner before Ryan and Cassie take all the spaghetti?"

It annoyed Matt that Ethan still looked skeptical. But, since they were both hungry, and it was spaghetti, Ethan dropped the subject, and the two remaining boys sat down at the table.

Dinner was a solemn event with Ryan popping into the living room every five minutes to check the window, Cassie looking conflicted over telling their mother she could come, and Ethan and Matt dreading her arrival. Since it was Friday night, and there was no school the next day, Matt allowed everyone to stay up later than usual to wait.

After an hour, Ethan could no longer take the suspense, and went next door to Mrs. Lott's house.

The evening grew long, and when it became apparent that their mother wasn't coming that night, Matt announced it was time for bed. He went over and retrieved Ethan, only to return to their house to find Cassie worrying over why mom hadn't come.

"She forgot," Ryan repeated. This prompted Ethan to remind Ryan that she often did. Matt hushed them both. Such reminders were unnecessary.

Nerves strained almost to the point of breaking, Matt sent everyone to bed. Before turning out the boys' bedroom light, he checked Cassie's room to make sure she didn't go to sleep crying. Whenever their mother re-entered their lives, the feeling of abandonment often resurfaced; it was all Matt could do to comfort the others, when his own heart struggled with the same cutting pain.

In the boys' bedroom, Matt let Ryan snuggle with him, the small boy needing reassurance that someone was there to take care of him as he fell asleep.

Night quieted the house, and Matt stared into the semi-darkness of the room, his soul once more repeating two promises that had given him solace in the past; they soothed the ache, balmed the pain, gave him hope that though people often failed them, God never would.

Matt's promises: "Can a woman forget her... child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, [she] may forget, yet will I [God] not forget thee. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands [nail prints from the cross]; thy walls are continually before me [always present with Matt]."
~ Isaiah 49:15, 16 ~

"When my father and my mother forsake me, then the LORD will take me up."
~ Psalm 27:10 ~

end of chapter
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One of my longtime readers, Myra Valcourt, has created a Facebook group just for you! "The Works of Judith Bronte" offers a forum to discuss the stories and characters, and a way to get to know other readers. I hope to see you there!