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Chapter Eleven
Lunch with the Taylors

"Cast thy burden upon the LORD, and He shall sustain thee: He shall never suffer the righteous to be moved."
~ Psalm 55:22 ~

Something tugged at Matt. He ignored it, intent on getting a little more sleep before the alarm went off. Then it came again, the insistent tug at his shoulder that refused to go away. Reluctant to crack open his eyes, Matt gave in only to find Ethan standing by the bed.

"What do you want?" Matt asked, casting a quick glance at the glowing clock. "I've got another two hours coming."

"Sorry, Matty."

"Then why'd you keep shaking me?" As Matt's bleary eyes came into focus, he regretted the sharp reply. Ethan looked miserable. "What's wrong? You sick or something?"

"No, I'm fine." Ethan slumped onto the narrow mattress beside Matt, raised a leg onto the bed, propped the other foot against the floor. "I was just thinking about Mom."

"Oh." Matt let his head fall back onto the pillow. He had forgotten. They were expecting her today. Ryan moved on Matt's other side, reminding the boys to keep their voices low or they would wake the child.

The teenager drew a knee to his chest, wrapped his arms around the leg in an unconscious need for comfort.

"Don't let her worry you, Ethan. Try to go back to sleep."

"I can't."

"Then try harder." Matt didn't feel in the mood for another painful reflection about their mom. He drew an arm over his eyes, sighed when Ethan didn't go back to his own bed.

"Matty? Could I ask you something?"

"Do you know what time it is?"

"Yeah, I know."

"I've got work today, so make it fast."

"What do you think she wants? It's something big. I can feel it. She's traveling too far to just ask for a few dollars. We haven't even seen her in over a year."

"I know." Matt sighed, disappointed the same thought had occurred to Ethan. Last time they knew, their mom had moved to Nashville so her musician boyfriend could get a job in country music. The entire plan had been a joke, including the boyfriend. That guy couldn't stay sober long enough to break into a car, let alone the music industry. The dread that gnawed at Ethan also chewed its way through Matt. Mom was probably on her way back from Tennessee, her dreams and hopes broken yet again.

"I wish she'd just forget about us the way she does the rest of the time," Ethan sighed, his voice laced with heartache. "It hurts when she does things like this and I hate it. I hate her. Sometimes, I wish she'd just die and leave us alone. Why can't she leave us alone, Matty?"

"I dunno," Matt put an arm around Ryan, cuddled the boy as he thought over Ethan's words. He didn't know what to say. A better person than him would know, but he sure didn't. "Whatever she's done, she's still our mom. I guess we owe her that much."

Ethan raised his voice, leveled his frustration at Matt. "We don't owe her anything."

"Hush," Matt checked Ryan, saw Ryan hadn't stirred. "Keep your voice down. I had a hard time getting him to sleep and if he wakes up now, he'll be up for good." Come to think of it, Matt rubbed his face with a small groan, now that Ethan had gotten him thinking about Mom, he wouldn't be able to get back to sleep, either.

In the dark bedroom, the older boys talked in quiet tones about their mother. They speculated about what she wanted until they exhausted the subject and were left in quiet dread of the possibilities.

A small movement at Matt's side caught both boys' attention; they smiled when Ryan began sucking his thumb in his sleep.

"He's going to be bucktoothed if he keeps that up," Ethan remarked, leaning forward to pull the thumb from Ryan's mouth. "He's still a baby, isn't he, Matty."

Matt smiled.

The boys remained together for the rest of the morning, Ethan relaxing his usual tough guy act to the point of cracking a joke at the breakfast table and making Cassie laugh. After the tension of yesterday evening and all that waiting, they needed a reprieve.

The drive to work was hard for Matt, knowing he had to leave Ethan and the others by themselves to meet their mom. He prayed as hard as he knew how, that everything would go all right.

Pulling on leather work gloves, Matt strode into the store and found Beth in her office, talking to someone on the phone. She signaled for him to give her a moment, excused herself from the caller, placed a hand over the receiver so she wouldn't be overheard.

"Do your usual watering, Matt, and then watch the register. Amy called in sick today-- said she didn't feel like coming in after her big date last night-- so you'll have to cover for her. I'll show you how we run things at the checkout, just as soon as you're done and I'm off the phone. All right?" Beth's tone sounded in control, kind, and a little like a teacher instructing her classroom that play period was over.

Did Beth know she sounded like his kindergarten teacher? Matt couldn't be sure. Maybe she couldn't help it. Maybe she was bossy by nature, and being her own boss made things worse. He chuckled to himself as he unwound the garden hose. It didn't really matter. He was stuck with the fact he liked her. He also needed to keep this job. To save his self-respect the sting of further guesswork, Matt concluded she hadn't meant to sound so controlling. As she stepped outside and smiled at him, Matt knew it truly didn't matter. He could endure much worse just to have that smile beamed in his direction every so often.

"When you're done watering, meet me at the checkout," she called.

He waved, then went back to work. Okay, it mattered a little. One day, though, it really wouldn't. His daydream grew bold, and he imagined himself respectable, well off financially with a house in a safe neighborhood for the kids and a cool set of wheels in the driveway. His clothes would be nice-- hey, since it was his daydream-- designer labels, and because the clothes were expensive, they would somehow make him look more attractive for a certain woman. Sporting a pair of designer shades, and driving those cool set of wheels, Matt pictured himself pulling into the nursery, getting out and sauntering into the store to sweep Beth Parker off her sensible little feet. Then she couldn't give him that teacher tone again-- not if she ever wanted to get kissed.

Reality hit Matt hard. Such thoughts were dangerous, and more than that, they were painfully impossible. "Never wish for what you can't have" had always been his motto, and now wasn't a good time to forget it. He berated himself for daydreaming, all too aware of how much he had just punished himself by imagining Beth in his arms.

He had done it to himself, and now he had to pretend the hot sting in his eyes was sweat and not something else.

Tugging off the gloves, Matt shoved them into his back pocket and went into the store. Beth waited for him at the checkout desk, her smile fading into a look of concern when she saw him.

"Having a hard day?" she asked.

"Not especially," he said, stepping up to the counter. Matt hoped that didn't count as a lie. He lowered his head, allowed the brim of the Stetson to get between him and that velvet green stare of hers.

"If I didn't know you any better," Beth sounded incredulous, "I'd say you've been--"

Matt snapped up his chin, his eyes narrowing into a dare.

"Never mind." Beth backed away a step, but remained at the counter. As she explained the way she wanted him to tend the checkout, she never once met his eyes.

After three hours, Matt decided keeping an eye on the cash register wasn't all it was cracked up to be. He could tidy nearby displays and organize the "Beth's Gardening Tips" flyers on the counter, but he still felt restless. He wanted to be outside. The store felt cooler than working outdoors, but he didn't mind the heat or the sweat. He never had. At the moment, being cooped up behind a desk seemed like the worst possible punishment. When Beth passed in front of him to talk to a customer, Matt changed his mind. Not having that daydream was worse.

At lunch, instead of moving into the office, Matt opened his lunch bag on the checkout counter. Sylvia hadn't shown up, and so half the workday had been spent with just Beth and Matt and a whole lot of silence.

"You aren't going to join me in the office?" Beth asked, after he'd started his meal alone. She leaned over the counter to look at him, the first direct look since he'd backed her down with that silent dare. "Would you like to talk about it, Matt?"

The unexpected question made Matt momentarily choke on his food. "Talk about what?" he asked.

"About what's bothering you," Beth said, tilting her head to one side and looking unbearably cute in the process. "You are having a difficult day. I was hoping you'd let me help you, but from that look on your face just now, I get the feeling the turtle has just ducked its head back into its shell. Hasn't it?"

A non-question he didn't mind not answering.

"If you need a friend, Matt, you know where to find me." She gave him a gentle smile, pushed away from the counter, then went back to the office and to the rest of her lunch.

Staring at the uneaten remainder of his sandwich, Matt no longer felt hungry. How had she done that? Managed to make him feel so dazed and lightheaded and yet so tenderly guilty. He didn't understand it, but he knew he felt it. All she had to do was tilt her head, speak to him in the quiet, private way she sometimes had of speaking to him, and he felt strangely better. Happy even, and then at the same time a little guilty. Matt sighed. It was complicated.

He wadded the paper lunch bag, made a two point shot as it passed into the waste basket by the entrance. They hadn't had many customers that morning-- no surprise there-- and he decided to pay a small visit to the office to see Beth. Just to say hi.

The door stood wide open, giving Matt a good view of the office. Beth sat at her desk, staring out the window, her face quiet and thoughtful. The polite thing to do would be to announce himself, but Matt couldn't-- not yet. He stood there, watching her, and in that moment, he felt tempted to return to his daydream. This time, his feelings throbbed with longing, and something even more fatal. Lust. Not good, he decided, and turned to leave. The movement caught Beth's attention, and she swiveled the chair to catch him just as he stepped away from the door.

"Matt," she said, halting his retreat, "have you seen any signs of Sylvia, yet? I tried her cell, but she's not picking up."

"I guess that means she's decided not to come in, today," Matt said, grateful for something else to think about. He folded his arms, leaned against the door jamb. "Does she do this kind of thing a lot?"

Beth dropped her trash into the waste basket. "Not often. Then again, she's not often jealous of me. It feels strange. I'm usually the one who envies her." Beth slanted Matt a quick glance that he decided not to answer.

"I'd better get back to the counter." He moved away from the door, paused, went back to find Beth at her desk sipping from a tea bottle. "My mom's coming today," he told her matter-of-factly, "that's why I might not seem like myself right now."

Beth put down the tea. Her china doll face turned thoughtful again.

"Every time mom drops by for one of her visits--" Matt couldn't finish, his voice having hopelessly caught in his throat. "It's hard," he said at last, when the moment had passed and the pain had subsided. "It makes everything hard, even coming into work and seeing you."

"If you hadn't come in, I'd be here all by myself," Beth said with a soft smile.

"It's just..." Matt couldn't find the words to explain what he felt.

"You're hurting," she finished for him.

The lump in Matt's throat grew. He couldn't answer, or let her know that she was right and that he desperately needed a friend right now. More than that, he needed her. Matt couldn't speak his feelings, so he just gave an indifferent shrug and tried to clear his throat.

"Do you have my phone number?" Beth opened her desk drawer, pulled out a business card and turned it over. "This is my private number. I carry my cell phone with me at all times," she said, taking a pen and scrawling on the back of the card. Then she held up the card, offered it to him without explanation.

She didn't have to.

It was an invitation to call her when he needed someone to talk to, when he needed a friend most.

Without a word, Matt stuffed the card into his pants pocket, turned and went back to the checkout counter. Comfort flickered inside his soul like a candle braving a storm.

Throughout the day, Matt slipped his hand into the pocket to feel the crisp edges of Beth's card. She couldn't possibly know how much her gesture of quiet kindness had meant to him.

It pained Beth to see Matt looking so forlorn. The news of his mother's impending visit explained everything though, even the sad look in those soulful brown eyes that pleaded for comfort. Beth couldn't help feeling protective. It took all her self-restraint to not go up to Matt and give him a great big hug, but she refrained herself, knowing he would object.

So Mrs. Taylor would be visiting the kids. From the little Beth had learned of the woman, she had not been impressed. Pastor Mark had almost nothing good to say about Mrs. Taylor, besides her possessing at least enough sense to let Matt have guardianship of the children. It is never a positive sign when the only good thing to be said about a person is their willingness to let go of responsibility. The thought of those children having to suffer without any kind of a mother to comfort their hurts, sparked every protective instinct in Beth's soul. She had felt that instinct before, when going to help Cassie, and it resurfaced now.

Not surprisingly, Matt kept to himself for the remainder for the day. Beth let him seek her out if he wanted company, and before leaving for home, he had done just that. It had only been a quiet smile, a "see you in church," followed by a lingering gaze that had left her weak in the knees. As Matt's truck left the parking lot, Beth wondered what kind of a reception he would get at home, now that his mom was there.

The first thing Matt noticed as he neared his house, was the absence of any vehicles parked out front. Frowning, he parked the truck and checked his watch. Maybe Mom had hitchhiked again, and her ride had already left. Or perhaps Mom was out with the kids, shopping at some mall with someone else's credit card; she'd done that before with one of her ex-boyfriend's cards, joking how much the creep would hate her when he got the bill.

Worry knotted Matt's stomach as he got out of the truck. The inviting memory of meth taunted him, whispering how with just one hit, all of his troubles would vanish and he'd feel unspeakable relief. An intense memory of Helen flashed before him, and Matt stopped in his tracks to fight back and get his mind right. Stress didn't help. It made his cravings worse.

Just get in there and face Mom, he thought, moving up the dirt path to the front door. Get it over with. I'll feel better afterward.

The door swung open before he could reach for the handle. Matt braced himself for Mom, and instead came nose to nose with Ethan.

"Where is she?"

Ethan shrugged. "She didn't come."

"What do you mean she didn't come?" Matt roughly brushed past Ethan, barged into the living room where Ryan lay belly down on the carpet with one of his coloring books. No Mom. Matt shoved aside a chair on his way to the kitchen, rammed his fist into the kitchen table when he found it empty.

"Matty, I told you, she's not here."

Matt turned, glared at Ethan, aware of the faint trace of fear in Ethan's face.

Ethan swallowed hard. "Are you using again?"

"What makes you ask that?" Matt retorted.

The teenager shrugged, shoved his hands into his pockets and stared at the linoleum.

The realization that he was scaring Ethan, caused Matt to think twice about his own actions. Gripping the back of a kitchen chair, Matt forced himself to calm down. He needed the dread and the waiting to be over, but it wasn't.

"Do you think she's coming, Matty?" Ethan looked at him, his voice expectant, as though Matt had all the answers and knew everything.

"How should I know? Mom didn't give us her number." The pained look on Ethan's face turned Matt's frustration into regret. "Sorry, Ethan. I shouldn't have snapped at you."

One shoulder lifted in a careless shrug, and Ethan gave one of his nothing-can-faze-me looks. "I'm not a baby, Matty. You don't have to sugar-coat anything for my sake. I can handle the truth."

"The truth is," Matt sank into the chair, "I don't know where Mom is, and I don't even know if she's still coming."

"Mommy's not coming?"

Ethan turned abruptly, and both brothers saw Ryan in the kitchen doorway.

"How long have you been standing there?" Ethan demanded.

"I've been waiting for Mommy all day," Ryan said, ignoring Ethan and coming to stand by Matt's knee. "Where is she, Matty?"

Weary, and helpless to say it out loud in front of those who relied on him so heavily, Matt pulled Ryan onto his lap and gave the boy a hug. The non-answer brought tears to Ryan's eyes; the boy understood more than Matt liked, and the disappointment crushed Ryan.

"I hate her," Ethan stomped to a chair, yanked it from the table and dropped into it so hard Matt thought the chair would break. "I wish she'd die and leave us alone!"

A pale face in the living room made Matt realize Cassie had heard and seen everything. She offered a weak smile, and when Matt returned it, she straitened as if she'd just been given a shot of courage.

"I'll fix dinner, Matty," she said, coming into the kitchen as though she were in charge and not him. "Go rest on the sofa. I'll let you know when the food is ready."

"Cass," Matt sighed with a half smile, "I appreciate what you're trying to do, but you can't cook."

"You can say that again. I'm still recovering from the last time she volunteered."

"Don't tease her, Ethan."

"Who's teasing?" he grinned at Matt.

"Please, Matty, I can handle it. You've been working and need the rest."

Matt wanted to argue that he'd done nothing all day but hover near a cash register and speak to a few customers. He shouldn't be this tired. Frustration nipped at his heels again, and Matt pleaded with God to give him help.

"I can help, Matty." Cassie's offer broke in on Matt's prayer request.

Deciding not to get in God's way, Matt lifted Ryan and took him into the living room. Ethan followed.

"Want me to park him in front of Mrs. Lott's television?" Ethan asked as the boy promptly climbed onto Matt's lap on the couch.

"No, I don't mind him." Matt smiled at Ryan, hugged the boy then closed his eyes to pray in silence. God's help was there, all Matt had to do was ask for it.

"What are you going to do about Mrs. Carter?" Ethan wondered, dumping himself onto the cushion beside Matt.

Matt's eyes opened. He stared at Ethan. "What about Mrs. Carter?"

"She's coming tomorrow afternoon, isn't she?"

"Yeah. So?"

Ethan rolled his eyes, a habit Matt had hoped he'd outgrown. "What if Mom comes while Mrs. Carter is here?"

A deep sigh filled Matt's chest. He let the air out slowly, willing himself to relax.

"Are you going to call off the lunch?" The teenager looked a little too pleased with Matt's predicament for Matt to be comfortable.

"I probably should," Matt finally admitted. He had been looking forward to it, and the thought of not seeing Beth tomorrow, of not talking to her and seeing her at his table, discouraged his already tired heart. "Beth is coming. I'm not letting Mom get in the way of our lunch."

"But what if Mom comes?"

"We don't know she will."

Ethan raised his eyebrows. "For money? Mom not show up for money?"

"Then Beth will meet our mom."

"But, Matty--"

"I'm not calling it off, Ethan. I want tomorrow."

"You see her all day," Ethan flashed a teasing grin. "Isn't that enough for you, Matty?"

A heartbeat away from retaliating with an untruth, Matt stopped, and defended himself in the only other way he knew how.

"We're having hamburgers."

Ethan sat up straight. "With the fancy buns?"

"And the pickles you like so much, and I'll even let you pick the dessert when I go shopping after dinner this evening."

Folding his arms, Ethan smiled in triumph. "Coward."

"Call me what you want," Matt said, as he released Ryan back to his coloring book. "I'm too tired to fight."

Every time the cell phone rang, Beth's heart quickened in the hopes it might be Matt. Two telemarketers and a wrong number later, she resigned herself to the reality that Matt didn't have an overwhelming desire to call her. Not an easy thing to accept, but Beth did, and without a great deal of disappointment. The man she liked might be vulnerable at times, but he had a stubborn strength that didn't often ask for help. When the cell phone remained quiet for the rest of the night, it didn't surprise her.

For a long time it hadn't been customary for Beth to attend church, but as of tomorrow morning, that would change. This is a milestone for me, she thought, climbing into bed and sinking into the warm covers. I've been given yet another chance at life. Don't let it slip through my fingers, God.

Before the sun peeked over the Organ Mountains, Beth rose to pick out a soft green sleeveless dress that reminded her of Spring. After a long struggle, her thick tangle of curls finally submitted to a french braid. To her annoyance, a few strays escaped to frame her face in long wisps of red and auburn; they stuck to her mouth as she smoothed on a light lipstick and she was forever clearing her lips of the hair. Beth had always joked how her hair had a mind of its own, but this morning she didn't feel like laughing. She wanted to look her best, but not to look as though it were on purpose. Matt wouldn't like that.

Locking the house before she left, Beth climbed into her car, placed the Bible on the passenger seat. Luke had given her that Bible when they were married, calling it a foundation to build their marriage upon. Luke. What would he think of her right now? Going to church not only for God, but also for another man.

Luke would want me to be happy, she told herself, quieting her thoughts long enough to enjoy the mild New Mexico morning. Luke wasn't here, but she was. Whatever twinges of guilt she felt, she had to remember that.

When Beth arrived at church, her hopes were gradually disappointed. She couldn't find Matt in the congregation, although she knew he and his family had come. Pastor Mark had told her he'd seen them, commented how good it was to see her in church, and expressed dismayed surprise when Beth happened to mention that Matt's mother was in town.

"I spoke to him for ten minutes this morning, and he never once mentioned his mother." Pastor Mark's disappointment creased his face with concern. "This is troubling news. In the past, after one of the times his mom came for a visit..." the pastor hesitated, as though he thought better of saying anything more. "Matt had a very hard time, afterward. His difficulties returned and it frighted the children. This was before Matt moved to Las Cruces, but he told me about it so I could pray for him and be aware of the danger." The pastor sighed, but his eyes remained fixed on Beth. "That guy needs a friend. I've tried, God knows I have, but he fiercely keeps his problems to himself."

"You're afraid his 'difficulties' might return?" Beth asked, her question as guarded and measured as Pastor Mark's retelling of events.

A gleam of understanding brightened the pastor's eye. "He's told you, then?"

"Some of it. Enough to comprehend what you're trying to tell me without violating Matt's confidence."

"I had wondered if he might choose you to talk to. Interesting." Pastor Mark spoke to himself more than to her, and when he awoke from his reverie, he gave a smile to Beth. "I pray for him daily. I ask God to keep him from returning to his former pain, and to give him a sufficient helpmeet to share his burdens."

The warm smile that followed made Beth uncomfortable.

Before she could say "We're just friends," the pastor shook her hand and moved to a small group of teenagers who were talking about something he had said during the service.

Pastor Mark's well-intentioned comments, combined with her previous guilt over Luke's wedding Bible, unsettled Beth's heart and deepened her conflict. She couldn't even be sure she loved Matt, and that uncertainty gave her a small measure of comfort. If Beth's reasoning made any rational sense, she deferred to another day to figure it out. For now, all she wanted to do was drive home, freshen up and look forward to one o'clock.

As Beth pulled up to the Taylors' house, she felt a flutter of nerves in her stomach. She wondered if their mother had already left, and if she hadn't, how she should behave to Mrs. Taylor. As she straightened her hair in the rearview mirror, Beth noticed the living room curtain move. The front door opened, then Cassie came down the walk as Beth got out of the car.

The young girl's smile reminded Beth once more just how pretty Cassie was.

"Matty's almost ready," Cassie said, shyly hanging back until Beth stepped forward to give her a hug. "We missed seeing you in church. Matty went all over the building, searching for you." Cassie's blue eyes sparkled. "He said he was looking for Pastor Mark, but I knew better."

Not knowing how to answer Cassie, Beth smiled and followed the girl into the house. Four-year-old Ryan abandoned his toys on the living room floor and came to stare at her.

"Hi, Ryan," Beth said, smiling at the neatly buttoned long-sleeved shirt that, in all probability, Matt had forced him to wear. Normally, Ryan wore T-shirts like his brothers.

"Hi," Ryan sniffed, lifting an arm to rub his face with his sleeve. "Are you going to get another doggie like Bailey? I sure liked him."

"I liked him, too," Beth said, taking a seat on the sofa as Ethan sauntered into the room and plopped into a chair. Ethan wore long sleeves, as well. "I don't know if I'll ever get another dog, Ryan. It broke my heart when Bailey went to Heaven and I don't know if I can go through that again."

Ryan looked puzzled. "Your heart's broken? Are you dying?"

Ethan groaned. "Of course she's not dying. It's a figure of speech, Ry."

The boy climbed onto the sofa and offered his coloring book to Beth while he pursued his line of questioning. "Then you aren't going to get another doggie until your heart's fixed?"

"Leave her alone, Ryan," Cassie said, taking the seat on Beth's other side.

Crestfallen, Ryan heaved a sigh of disappointment. "Bailey was the best doggie in the world."

"Yes, he was," Beth said, admiring the little boy's round face and long lashes. Matt and Ethan bore a striking family resemblance, and while Ryan had similar though darker hair than that of his brothers, his features were more pronounced. He had what Beth termed a "punkin head," that is, his head was round and he had large, expressive brown eyes.

Elbows propped on his legs, Ryan looked at her with earnest interest. "When do you think your heart will get fixed?"

Having apparently heard from the kitchen, Matt burst into the living room, went straight to the sofa and captured the boy with an apologetic grin. "Sorry he's being such a nuisance, Beth. I think I told you once that Ryan is nuts over--" Matt stopped dead in his tracks, his attention on her hair, her dress, her face. "You look really good."

The frank compliment made Beth grow warm. "Thank you, Matt. I'm sorry I didn't see you at church. I did look."

"So did I." One side of his mouth pulled into a half-grin, and his gaze didn't falter. Beth supposed having his family present made him feel more at ease, more confident that nothing regrettable could happen with so many watching. He had warned her about his addictions, and the warning hadn't fallen on deaf ears. Beth understood, or rather, thought she understood and respected the distance Matt put between them.

From Matt's arms, Ryan beamed a broad grin. "We're having hamburgers," he told her happily.

"Is that so?" Beth smiled at Ryan, then glanced back at the young man holding the boy and found he was still watching her.

Nose up, Ryan looked at his brother. "I'm real hungry, Matty."

"Okay, I guess I've made everyone wait long enough. Go wash up, Ryan. You too, Ethan."

Ryan frowned. "Why don't you ever tell Cassie to wash up?"

"Because she doesn't need to be reminded," Matt replied, patting Ryan's bottom as he ran from the room. Matt straightened, still smiling as they heard Ethan and Ryan debate over who got to wash first at the kitchen sink. "I'm glad you could make it," Matt said to Beth, his face betraying he felt much more than gladness at seeing her again.

"Thank you for inviting me," she smiled, standing up from the sofa. She noted the long button-up shirt, the tie Matt wore.

"Oh, that reminds me--" Matt excused himself, hurried into the kitchen, returned a few moments later with a small box. "I know you like tea, so I got this for after lunch."

"Thanks, Matt. I know it was a sacrifice."

He grinned. "Yeah, well, we don't have company very often. I've got the last of the hamburgers finished on the stove. We don't have an outdoor grill, just the stove."

"Smells good," she said, trying to lighten Matt's self conscious apology. "Could I use the kitchen sink a moment to wash up?"

"Sure." He stepped aside, let her move past him into the kitchen where Cassie was setting out napkins on the table.

"Matt, how did the visit with your mom go?" Beth asked as she washed her hands beneath the running tap.

"She didn't come."

Beth turned, saw Matt didn't look too disappointed. "I expect she'll turn up sooner or later." He shrugged. "As far as I'm concerned, no news is good news."

"Maybe she's not coming," Ethan said, going to the table and locating a place to sit down.

A lighthearted grin touched Matt's mouth. He lightly cuffed Ethan as he moved to the stove. "I thought you were so all-fired sure she was coming-- 'Mom not show up for money?' Remember?"

"A guy can change his mind." Ethan slid onto his tailbone, folded his arms and assumed an indifferent attitude. For all his posturing, Beth sensed he and Matt were beginning to have a good time. "You've changed your mind often enough," Ethan shot back. The teenager turned, grinned at Beth. "Matt kept changing his clothes this morning. You'd think he was getting ready for a heavy date, and not just Sunday morning services. Ouch!" Ethan scowled at Cassie, who had slipped into the seat beside him. "Why'd you kick me?"

Cassie cupped a hand to Ethan's ear, whispered softly but not so softly Beth couldn't overhear. "Don't embarrass Matty."

Still cocky, Ethan shrugged off the admonition; Beth noticed however, he didn't crack any more jokes at Matt's expense.

The hamburger platter on the table, Matt set out the buns, pickles, ketchup and mustard. He filled the cups with soda pop and ice, then passed them out on the table.

"Where do you want me to sit?" Beth asked. Matt pulled out a chair, and when she sat down, gently pushed it under her. It had been ages since a man had pulled out a chair for Beth, and the single act of gentleman-like manners made her smile more than she probably should.

Everyone at the table, Matt took the chair next to Beth's. "We usually hold hands when we pray," Matt said, taking Beth's hand with a conscious smile. They bowed their heads, and Matt thanked God for the good sermon, the good food, and the good company. As Matt said, "Amen," he gave her hand a quick squeeze before letting it go.

Such a small affectionate gesture, and yet Beth thought it terribly sweet.

One by one the hamburgers disappeared, and when it came time for dessert, Ethan was the one to get up and go to the freezer and not Matt.

"We never get to have this unless it's a special occasion," Ethan said, pulling out a box of ice cream sandwiches. Beth was puzzled, then understood when Ethan set it on the counter and began assembling more ingredients: soft chocolate chip cookies, chunky peanut butter, whip cream, chocolate coated candies, chocolate sauce, crushed graham crackers. Then Ethan began constructing towers of layered desserts onto five plates.

Beth could feel herself gain five pounds just by watching.

Like a chef who'd just escaped from an insane asylum, Ethan gave Beth a strangely endearing maniacal grin. "There's about a zillion ways to do this, but this is my own special concoction."

"Oh my," Beth gasped as Ethan shoved one of the plates before her.

"You don't have to eat it all," Matt said in a rather apologetic voice. Then he added, most helpfully, "I'll finish what you don't want."

"I'll take you up on that," Beth said, taking a small bite of the monster dessert. "You guys must burn calories left and right to eat like this and still be in good shape."

"If anyone wants seconds," Ethan declared, "there's plenty to go around."

"We don't always eat like this," Cassie confided to Beth with a shy smile. "I can't eat the whole thing, either."

"It's very good," Beth had to admit-- in a very fattening, diet busting, going to have to run nine miles just to work this off, kind of way.

Just then, Ryan's head bobbed up from his plate. He looked into the living room, jumped from his chair and took off.

"What's got into Ryan?" Ethan frowned.

"You didn't hear that?" Cassie asked in surprise, pushing away from the table and going into the living room. A car door slammed, and from the way the children had reacted, it hadn't been the first.

Ethan stared at Matt, and Matt stared at his plate.

"I've lost my appetite," Matt said, as excited sounds flooded from the living room-- the front door opening, the cries of "Mommy! Mommy!" and then the deep voice of a man, saying something Beth couldn't understand.

Gripping his spoon, Ethan stared at Matt. "Can I go to Mrs. Lott's? Please, Matty!"

With a dark laugh, Matt shut his eyes. "Go."

Bolting out the back door in the kitchen, Ethan disappeared without even remembering to take his dessert. A second later, Cassie came to Matt's chair, her eyes wide and tremulous.

"What is it, Cass?" Matt stood up, looked over Cassie and into the living room.

Unsure what had startled Cassie, Beth followed Matt's gaze. What she saw put a lump in her throat and an ache in her heart.

A middle-aged man and a dark haired woman stood in the living room, a carrier dangling from the man's hand. An infant's cry filled the house, tiny, helpless, and probably in need of a diaper change. The woman tossed a glance at the carrier, then turned to look into the kitchen, her eyes traveling directly to Matt.

"Hello, Mom." Matt's voice sounded heavy, on the point of breaking. "Ethan warned me you'd want something big. Don't prove him right."

"The LORD... will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble. And they that know Thy name will put their trust in Thee: for Thou, LORD, hast not forsaken them that seek Thee."
~ Psalm 9:9,10 ~

end of chapter
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