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Chapter Twelve
For the Sake of the Children

"I have spread out my hands all the day unto a rebellious people... A people that provoketh me to anger continually to my face..."
~ Isaiah 65:2, 3 ~

With a defiant thrust of her chin, the dark haired woman turned to the man at her side. "I haven't even said 'hello' yet, and already my eldest is taking me on a guilt trip. I don't need this."

"Hey, Matt. Long time no see," the man acknowledged as Matt stepped into the living room. "Hope we're not interrupting anything important," the man said, his eyes flicking to Beth as she moved from the table to look over Matt's shoulder. "The car kept breaking down, then we got a flat tire and had to scrape up the money to get it fixed. You know how it is."

Matt folded his arms. "Yeah, I know."

The man awkwardly switched the carrier to the other hand. "Eve and I thought we'd like to see you and the kids. See how you're doing, and all that."

"We're still here," Matt said, as Ryan moved closer to his mom. The boy tugged at Eve's hand, and when he couldn't get the woman's attention, Ryan edged even closer and hugged her arm. "When did you guys get back from Nashville?" Matt asked in a sturdy tone.

The man's face quickly paled. He glanced at Eve, and when she sat down on the sofa with a dark smile, he turned back to Matt. "We never made it that far-- to Nashville, I mean. Thing is--"

"Don't bother explaining anything, Wade." Eve flashed her displeasure at the man. "Matty will only use it against me. Won't you, Matty?"

"Aw, come on, Eve, don't be like that." Wade took a seat on the sofa beside her, placed the carrier on the floor next to his feet. The infant had stopped crying, though the newcomers didn't seem to notice either way. "We agreed in the car to not fight with the kids, remember?"

"I resent being treated like garbage in my own home," Eve said, folding her arms and glaring back at Matt.

"This isn't your home, Mom." Matt went to shut the front door, which until now, had been left wide open. "If you don't like it here, you're welcome to leave."

This prompted an alertly apologetic look from Wade. What a mess, thought Beth. I hope he's not that baby's father. Wade was a picture of a beaten man-- worse, a man who had even given up trying to keep himself clean. His unwashed hair poked out every which way in a disheveled mop, his dirty jeans looked as though he had been sleeping in them for some time, and he wore a shirt that had stains splashed across his chest. From the smell, Beth guessed it to be alcohol.

"She'll behave-- won't you, Eve?" Wade looked to his girlfriend-- for that was what Beth supposed Eve was, Wade's girlfriend-- and waited for her to agree.

Unlike her boyfriend, Eve Taylor had well groomed hair and pearl white teeth. She had a striking face, fine features and flawless skin that revealed the source of Cassie's beauty. Like Wade, however, Eve reeked of alcohol, though Beth couldn't be sure if the smell came from recent consumption, or simply from unlaundered clothing.

By now, Ryan had climbed onto the couch and claimed Eve's lap. Eve responded with a deliberate show of forced warmth. "How's my baby boy?" Eve asked Ryan in a motherly tone that had Ryan beaming ear to ear. "I wish I could have been here to make your birthday cake, but I promise, I'll make you one just as soon as Matty is done talking to me and Wade."

"What do you want, Mom?" Matt moved in front of the sofa, arms still folded. Beth noticed his gaze travel to the infant more than once, as though he were afraid to ask the obvious question.

"Yes, that's mine," the woman said with a snorting laugh. "Mine and Wade's."

Wade grinned as he lifted the carrier onto the sofa. He looked as though he wanted to say more, but Matt's glare kept him quiet.

"When did this happen?"

"Is that any way to speak to your parents?" Eve asked, getting to her feet and pushing away Ryan with as little tenderness as one would shove away an annoying problem.

"Wade isn't my dad." Matt stood toe to toe with his mom, while Cassie shrank into a corner and kept silent. "You haven't been our mother in years. Tell us what you want, so you and Wade can visit before leaving."

Eve's mouth twisted into a thin smile. Beth sensed Eve would have loved to retaliate with some kind of threat. Something to punish Matt, make him twist with even more pain.

"I need money," Eve said at last, spitting out the words as though they tasted bitter on her tongue. "Wade had to pawn his guitar for gas money. If you could loan me five hundred, I'll pay it back as soon as Wade and I get on our feet."

"I don't have that kind of money."

"You've got a job, don't you?" Eve pinned her son with a look intended to extract guilt. Then those eyes flashed at Beth, and Eve seemed to momentarily forget the five hundred. "Who's she?" Eve asked Matt.

"She's my guest," Matt replied evenly, stepping in between the women in an obvious attempt to stop the discussion from going any further. "I don't have any money to give you. Everything I make goes to keeping food on the table and the electricity turned on."

"You won't let me forget, will you? You just won't let it go." Eve turned to face Wade, who remained on the sofa with Ryan and the carrier. "Matty's father kept popping pills and drowning himself in booze. Spent all we had on drugs, and guess what? Matty blames me!"

"You were doing them too, Mom!"

"And so were you!" Eve leveled Matt a hard, unforgiving look. "Don't give me that holier than thou attitude. You're no better than me. Look at Helen. That poor girl is still suffering because of you."

As though he had just sustained a blow to the stomach, Matt swayed on his feet but maintained his balance. "Wow, Mom. You sure know how to hurt the ones you love."

"Are you going to give me the money, or not?"

"I don't have any money to give."

"What about you?" Eve faced Beth, and Beth felt herself grow bold in the woman's angry presence. The infant let out a small cry, but it went unnoticed by Eve. "Well? You look like you've got money. I need five hundred, but a thousand will get me out of Matt's hair for the next two months."


"Stay out of this, Matty. Let your girlfriend speak for herself."

"Beth isn't giving you one red cent."

"Is she paying for your habit, Matty?" A wicked smile spread across Eve's features. "Or are you turning her into another Helen?"

"Mom! Don't!" Cassie emerged from the corner, tears running down her cheeks. "Please, Mom, just go! I'm sorry I ever said you could come!"

"Not without my money!" Eve stared at Beth. "Well?"

Once again, Matt placed himself between Beth and Eve, effectively blocking them from each other.

"Get out." Matt breathed the words in such cold anger, it frightened Beth, though Matt had directed them at Eve, and not her.

"Now, now," Wade stood up from the couch, deposited the carrier on the cushion next to Ryan. "Calm down you two. You guys know how you get on each other's nerves. Let's not do anything rash."

An impatient sigh escaped Matt's lips. "I wish you'd get down to what you really want."

"Your mom told you-- a few hundred dollars."

"What else?"



"All right, all right." Wade gave another of his weak smiles. "Eve and me was hoping you might let us crash on the living room sofa for a couple of days."

"I suppose, but you'd have to obey the rules of the house," Matt said, his voice brinking on frustration. Beth knew without asking that Matt didn't want them to stay. It was obvious.

"You and your rules." Eve laughed, the sound flat and humorless. "I'd rather sleep in the car."

"Have it your way, Mom."

The sharp glare Eve sent her son chilled Beth to the core.

Shoulders slumped in defeat, Wade glanced at the sofa where Ryan was letting the baby hold on to his finger. "There's something else--"

"The answer is 'no,'" Matt cut off without apology. "I know what you're about to ask, and I won't do it."

Wade stammered helplessly. "It's not that I don't want the kid."

"Then why'd you get Mom pregnant?"

"Hey, man," Wade's smile had an oiled look to it, as though he were slithering around something naughty but didn't want to say it out loud. "I'm not saying we're the most responsible parents around, but give us a little credit for not getting an abortion, okay?"

"Well, good for you," Matt gave a heavy laugh. "And here I thought you were going to give the baby away. I apologize, Wade. I misunderstood you."

Wade stared at Matt for several seconds, then gave a nodding smile that sickened Beth. "Okay, you got me," he grinned, holding up his hands in mock surrender. "I won't deny it. Eve and I can't handle the responsibility, so we're going to leave the kid with you."

Matt straightened. "What gives you the right to do that without my permission? No, I mean it-- don't shrug and turn away! What gives you the right to walk in here and drop your responsibilities without so much as a promise from me that I'll even take care of him? What's wrong with you? That's your child!"

"I know it is," Wade said defensively. "I'm not saying it isn't. It's just that I'm not cut out to be a father."

"And I am?"

Wade didn't respond.

"We can't take him," Eve said, not betraying a bit of emotion at the announcement.

"I can't either, Mom."

"What do you want us to do, Matty? Put him up for adoption? Do you really want that?"

"I can't take another one." Matt's voice rose several notches. "I know I've told you in the past that I want to keep the family together, but I can't take in another mouth to feed. We're barely staying afloat as it is."

"Well," Eve said, gathering her purse, "that's not my problem. Give him away for adoption if you have to. I've done all I can. Come on, Wade."

"You can't leave-- not like this!"

"Matty, I just can't handle it anymore."


"When Wade and I get settled, I'll let you know where, so you can send over any papers that need to be signed."


"This is for the best, Matty." For the first time since Eve's arrival, Beth saw the woman soften just a fraction. "I'm irresponsible and heartless. You've accused me of that often enough, and it's true. We both know Amadeus will be better off without me."


"I'm the one who named him," Wade grinned. "You can change it, but I thought since you and I both like music, you wouldn't mind him keeping the name."

"Bye, Matty. The birth certificate is in the carrier." Without looking back, Eve left the house with Wade.

The door hung open, Wade not bothering to close it in his hurry to depart.

Stunned, Beth watched Matt stand there, expressionless, in a state of stunned disbelief. It was only when Ryan ran past Matt through the open door to go after his mom, that Matt finally emerged from his trance.

"Ryan, come back here!" Matt hurried after the boy while Cassie slumped in the corner, her face pale.

"I'm going to be sick," Cassie mumbled.

Knowing she was needed, Beth went to the girl, helped her up, then walked her to the nearest bathroom. As they moved, Cassie trembled against Beth, as if seeking comfort from anywhere she could find it. After witnessing such heartless words coming from her own mother, Beth could only imagine Cassie's grief.

The baby had been left unattended in the living room, so Beth kept going back and forth between Cassie and the baby to make sure no one's needs suffered from neglect. Beth had just crouched on the bathroom floor beside Cassie when the front door slammed shut. The noise jolted Cassie to ask in a numb voice if her mom had changed her mind and come back.

"I doubt it, Sweetheart," Beth said as gently as she could. "Do you want me to check?"

Cassie nodded, and Beth went back to the living room where she found Ryan cradled in Matt's arms. The boy sobbed for his mommy, refusing to be consoled by Matt's assurances that mommy still loved him. When Matt offered to put Ryan down, the boy clung to Matt all the harder.

"It's all right, buddy, I understand." Matt rubbed Ryan's back; the motion seemed to gradually soothe Ryan, and he finally leaned his small punkin head against Matt's shoulder in a resigned sigh.

"Mommy's not coming back."

"Not today, Ryan. Can I put you down for a moment?"

Ryan gave a vigorous "no." He didn't want to be without Matt.

Sucking in a deep sigh of his own, Matt took Ryan back outside. Beth moved to the window to see Matt picking up a diaper bag from off the curb, apparently where Eve and Wade had left it. When Matt returned, he dumped the bag on the sofa beside the carrier.

The look of complete and utter weariness etched in Matt's face reminded Beth of Pastor Mark's warning about the effect Eve's visits usually had on her son. Raw anger, dulled by grief and horror-- that's what Beth thought Matt felt right now.

His eyes raised to meet hers.

"She left it on the curb." Matt stared at Beth with a blank expression, still dazed by the shock of what had just happened. "She just left it on the curb. I guess I should be grateful she didn't leave the baby on the curb, as well."

"Cassie is sick," Beth said, not knowing what else to say. "She's in the bathroom."

"I can't believe Mom did that. I just can't believe it." Matt sank into a chair, Ryan still in his arms. "You said something about Cass-- I suppose I should go to her." Matt looked at Ryan, then turned to Beth. "Would you help her? My arms are full at the moment."

Beth nodded her willingness. "Leave Cassie to me. I'll take care of her."

"I just can't believe it." Matt turned his eyes to the window, an absent hand still rubbing Ryan's back. "I thought she might try to get me to take him, but not like that. Cold as ice. Both of them."

Beth returned to Cassie, and seeing the girl had calmed down a little, helped Cassie up from off the floor. Already a timid soul, Cassie seemed even more fragile as Beth walked her into the living room to take a seat on the sofa.

Pulling her knees to her chest, Cassie eyed the carrier where the infant slept. "Somebody should tell Ethan."

Before Matt could respond, the back door to the kitchen opened with a loud bang. Ethan walked into the living room, then looked at Matt with a sober grimace.

"What did Mom want?"

Matt nodded to the carrier on the sofa.

"Oh, man." Ethan sank into a nearby chair, his face slack jawed in astonishment.

"What are we going to do, Matty?"

"I have to call our social worker."

Cassie looked more than a little alarmed. "But she'll take Amadeus away!"

"Amadeus!" Ethan sat up with a jolt. "Is that what they called it?"

"This isn't a stray puppy, Cass. We just can't keep him because we want to."

"It figures they'd call him that." Ethan slumped back in his chair. "Wade is such a loser-- he can't be a musical genius, so he names his kid after one. Talk about delusions of grandeur."

"We can't give him up, Matty!"

"I don't have a choice, Cass!"

"You wouldn't give me away, would you?"

"Of course not. But that's beside the point--"

"Please, Matty!"

"Cass..." Matt sucked in a deep breath, and Beth sensed he was again nearing the breaking point. Like a hanger being flexed back and forth, Matt was showing the strain.

The baby woke, and not being able to find its mother, began to cry in fits of plaintive wails.

Unable to stop herself, Beth went to the carrier, peered down at Matt's newest sibling. Such a small child, truly a newborn infant. Its legs kicked, the fists clenched, and the tiny face turned bright red with each cry. Beth looked to Matt for permission.

"Go ahead," Matt sighed.

Heart fluttering with excitement, Beth scooped the baby into her arms, cradled it close and soaked in the sensation of holding a new life. It had been so long.

"That kid is a boy, isn't he?" Matt asked, as if he were unsure whether Wade was bright enough to know that Amadeus-- the eighteenth century composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart-- had been a man, and not a woman.

Beth unsnapped the thin sleeper, peeked beneath the edge of the diaper, then smiled to Matt that the baby was indeed a boy.

"Why couldn't Mom have a girl?" Cassie asked, looking about the group for agreement. "We already have three boys. Why couldn't I have a sister?"

"At the rate Mom's going," Ethan said with a dark laugh, "you might get your wish, Cass. I thought Mom said she was getting her tubes tied. After Ryan was born, she swore on a stack of Bibles she's get herself fixed so this wouldn't keep happening. Now look. Out popped another one."

"I guess she forgot," Matt said dully.

"This baby still has the stump of an umbilical cord," Beth said, feeling reality hit her full force. "This child can't be over two weeks old."

Leaning over, Matt felt about the carrier until he pulled out a birth certificate. "You're not off by much, Beth. Amadeus Dylan Taylor was born ten days ago at the Corpus Christi Medical Center."

"Corpus Christi!" Ethan sat up again. "Are you trying to tell me Mom has been in Texas all this time, and she never told us? So much for Nashville!"

"I see Wade didn't bother giving Amadeus the benefit of his last name," Matt said, tossing the certificate back into the carrier.

"This baby really needs a change," Beth said, wrinkling her nose at the smell.

Willing to help, Cassie reached for the diaper bag. She opened it, looked to Matt, then to Beth with a discouraged sigh. "There's only two diapers left, and no baby formula. Not even a baby bottle."

"I guess Eve has been nursing, and formula hasn't been necessary," Beth said, side-stepping the obvious lack of maternal thoughtfulness from their mother. Eve had known Matt and the kids wouldn't be prepared, so why hadn't she at least warned Matt that the baby had nothing to eat?

Beth didn't like to consider the ugly truth that Eve simply didn't care.

The same grim fact registered on Matt's face, and he lifted Ryan onto the floor without asking Ryan if he wanted to be put down.

"I need some air. Would you watch the kids for me, Beth?" As Matt got to his feet, Beth felt the rawness of his emotions. He looked off balance, as though someone had beaten him and he was struggling to keep his composure. "I'll go by the store and get some formula. Oh, and some diapers." Matt rubbed his face. "Anything else I'm forgetting?"

Feeling desperate, Beth turned to Cassie. Knowing Matt, he would stay strong as long as Cassie was watching. "Would you do me a big favor and go with Matt?" Beth went to her purse, handed Cassie some money. "Here's fifty dollars. Buy as much formula, baby wipes and diapers as you can."

Matt stiffened. "That's not necessary, Beth. I can handle it."

"I know you can, but I want to help." Beth expected him to protest, put up a fight and tell her he would pay her back. When Matt didn't, she grew even more concerned. That wasn't like him.

"Go with Matt, Cassie. I'll have this baby cleaned and changed by the time you get back."

Grabbing his jacket and keys, Matt headed for the door with Cassie following close behind.

"What a day," Ethan groaned, as Beth one-handed a hotel towel from the diaper bag. "By the way, thanks."

The unexpected gratitude puzzled Beth.

"I know why you wanted Cass to go with Matty. You're trying to keep him from using again."

"I thought it would be good for him to have some company," Beth said, not trying to undermine whatever confidence Ethan had in his big brother.

The teenager lifted a shoulder. "You're probably right. This hit Matty hard."

Even though Ethan didn't say it, Beth caught the underlying fear in his voice. Those kids counted on Matt for everything-- from the food they ate, to the fact they were still together as a family. It was a miracle of God's mercy that Matt was trying to do the right thing by his brothers and sister, that he had overcome his personal troubles enough to step in for their absent parents. Such circumstances would be hard for anyone, let alone a young Christian with no support besides his community church and an elderly neighbor who baked lemon cookies.

The pure delight of cleaning the baby, putting him in a diaper, wrapping him in the receiving blanket to rock to sleep-- everything gave Beth more joy than she had thought possible. After Caleb's death, she believed her heart had been shattered into so many pieces it would never beat again. Five minutes of cuddling the baby had Beth thinking otherwise. Thirty minutes after that, she was rethinking her entire future.

When Matt returned from the store with Cassie, they found Beth on the sofa, the baby sleeping in her arms, a smiling Ryan snuggled close at her side.

Ethan stepped from the kitchen with a plate of dessert and greeted Matt. "Everything on the table melted and had to be thrown away. But there's more in the freezer."

"I'm not hungry." Matt dropped the shopping bags on the coffee table while Cassie went to go sit on Beth's free side and admire the baby. Even in his numbed state, he had to admit the three of them made quite a touching scene.

"He's so darling!" Cassie cooed, playing with an itty-bitty hand. "He has Mom's eyes-- see, Matty? Isn't he positively precious?"

Matt ignored the invitation, and stalked into the kitchen to get something to eat. He didn't feel hungry, but it was better than being in the living room. Head buried in the fridge, he could still hear Cassie talk about how wonderful Amadeus was. Matt harrumphed. Amadeus. What a name. Saddle your little boy with a dumb name like that, and he'll never be able to hold his head up in public. Not to mention the hard time he'll get from the other kids at school.

Thanks Mom. Thanks Wade. What a pair. Matt plucked an apple from the fruit drawer, slammed the fridge shut. Ryan's voice carried from the next room, exclaiming how the baby already had tiny fingernails.

Unable to take it a moment longer, Matt jerked open the kitchen door, and retreated to the relatively quiet backyard. It wasn't really a backyard, just dirt and mesquite, and of course rocks. Plopping himself on the back step of the mobile home, Matt bit into the crisp apple. Not even the cool breeze could make him feel easier. If only Mom hadn't forced him to make all the hard decisions.

The door opened, and Matt didn't bother to look up. He knew it was Beth. He could smell the jasmine.

"I left Amadeus with Cassie. I thought maybe you and I could talk."

Not really sure he wanted to know why, Matt didn't invite her to sit. True to form, she did anyway.

For a long painful minute, she didn't speak. Hearing what she had that afternoon, Beth had to be thinking the worst about him and the children. What a family. What a total and complete mess. It was a wonder Beth was still here.

"How are you doing?" she asked finally.

Inspecting his apple as though he'd just bitten into a hidden worm, Matt shrugged. "I've been better. And you?"

"I'm serious, Matt. How are you? Really?"

He frowned, slanted a look at Beth. "How am I supposed to be? I just found out that even though I didn't think my mom could sink any lower, she's found a way to do just that. Besides that, I'm fine."

"Are you always this sarcastic when you're having a difficult time, or am I seeing the exception?" She smiled, and the gesture made Matt feel more comfortable somehow.

"I hadn't realized I was getting as bad as that," he said, lowering the fruit with a shake of his head. "My self-loathing can get out of hand sometimes. I have to be careful. It can lead to trouble before I know it, and then--"

"I want to help you, Matt."

"I'm not going to fall apart, if that's what you're thinking." Matt tossed the apple away with a flick of his wrist. "Come out here to soothe the ex-junkie? Is that it?"

"Please, Matt... I'm not trying to make things harder for you than I'm sure they already are. I know you're hurting. Just please try not to take it out on me. I'm on your side."

Growling at his own callousness, Matt stood up and paced several feet from the back step. He slowed, turned and faced Beth.

"I'm sorry I barked. I'm sorry you had to be here when Mom came, I'm sorry lunch was ruined, and I'm sorry I'm punishing you for my failures. I'm sorry for the whole thing."

Beth raised her eyebrows in seeming amusement. "When you're busy loathing yourself, you really don't hold back, do you? Why don't you apologize for the national debt while you're at it?"

Matt scowled. "Now you're the one playing games."

"How was this afternoon Matt Taylor's fault?" she asked, assuming a casual pout. "Let's see-- your mom's insensitivity and basic disregard for her own children? Nope; I didn't see you twisting her arm to say and act the way she did. Lunch being ruined? Again, I disagree; the hamburgers were actually quite good. And what was that last one-- you punishing me for your failures? There weren't any failures, so you can't punish me for things you never did. In short, I refuse to accept a large portion of those apologies."

Matt didn't back down. "Mom mentioned Helen. You're not going to ask me what she was talking about?"

"I wasn't intending to. If you want to tell me what happened, I assume you will when you're ready."

"I'm not ready."

"Then I won't ask."

His heart calming to a steady rhythm, Matt thought it over. "You don't blame me for refusing to take Amadeus?" He waited, fearing the answer in spite of her kind defense.

"No, I don't blame you." The words were hesitant enough to make Matt's insides twist about in uncertainty. "The way things are right now, I don't see how you can possibly keep him."

Matt frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"I mean," Beth paused, as though she were choosing her words very, very carefully, "you have an option I don't think you've yet considered."

"What option? Leaving him on someone's doorstep? Are you volunteering to be that doorstep?"

Beth bit her lip-- a warning sign if Matt ever saw one. "Not exactly," she breathed in a quiet voice. "I'm volunteering me."

Suddenly, Matt understood. The ground beneath his feet swayed, as though the grand-daddy of all earthquakes was doing its level best to knock him flat.


"Please, Beth, don't say anything more."

"But you'll think about it?"

"What's to think about? The answer is 'no.' It's bad enough you're my boss. Anything more than that is out of the question."

She cocked her head to one side. "I'm guessing Social Services won't let you keep the baby. The house is too small for so many people, and you don't make enough money. Am I right?"

Matt didn't respond, though he didn't have to. Beth was right and she knew it.

"It would be for the children, Matt."

In the desperate need to fight Beth's reasoning, Matt grasped at the first thing he could think of without pausing to weigh his words. "No way, Beth. I'm not making a lifetime commitment to someone I don't love."

If it hurt, she kept it from him. Her eyes lowered, and for several moments she said nothing. "It wouldn't have to be forever. Just until the kids are old enough to not need me anymore."

Matt shook his head. "I can't accept your proposal."

"It's not a traditional wedding proposal," she said, her gaze boldly rising to meet his. "This would be in name only. I'm simply offering a way to keep your family together. If another proposal needs to be made in the future, I'll let you be the one to make it."

Unsure what to make of that last remark, Matt ignored it and pushed on. "You're my boss."

"I'm your friend. It's worked so far, hasn't it, Matt?"

"I don't know, Beth. Everything is happening so fast."

Beth leaned forward, Matt thought, in an effort to give her words more force. "I believe I have something to offer, not only to the baby, but also to Ryan and Cassie. I can help them. And I think I can even contribute something to Ethan's welfare, not to mention your own. I can help take care of you and the kids, remove some of the burden from off your capable shoulders. You're already doing so much for them, I want to help. You once helped me, now I want to help you."

"I thought you said you weren't going to settle our accounts?" Matt asked.

She smiled cryptically. "We can work that out some other time."

"You're crazy."

"Maybe I am," she threw up her hands, "but until the guys in white jackets come to haul me away, I have to make due. In the meanwhile, what do you think?"

"Where would we live?"

"In my house."

"Where would we... you know, where would we sleep?"

"There are bedrooms in separate wings of the house. We would each take one. There's quite a few rooms, actually. Ethan could have his own bedroom, but I think it might be best for Ryan and Amadeus to share the same space while they're both so young. What's your opinion?"

"I repeat-- you have totally lost it. That baby has messed up your thinking! You're a rational woman, and here you are, throwing away several years from your future to assume responsibilities that aren't even yours!"

"I want to do this, Matt. I need this."

"You can't possibly."

"I need to feel useful again, like God has saved me for a reason besides keeping that nursery open day after day. You taught me to be grateful for my life, and I am. But I need to do something besides operate a business. I want to belong in a family again, and you need to keep yours together. We can help each other."

"But at what cost?" Matt continued to stare at her, insistent that he get an answer. What she was suggesting was huge.

"The cost doesn't matter, it's a price I'm willing to pay."

"Twenty years' worth of price? Beth, that baby is what-- not even two weeks old? What you're proposing will continue until he's at least old enough to move out of the house and start a family of his own."

"I know," she nodded. "I wouldn't dream of breaking up the family by backing out of our deal before then. When the kids are old enough to not need us anymore, we'll be free to make our own plans."

"You're crazy."

"You've already made that abundantly clear," she smiled.

"Beth, you're not only going to be stuck with the kids for at least eighteen years, you're also going to be stuck with me. In spite of the separate bedrooms, that's a big commitment."

"I know."

"I'm going to need time to think it over."

"I understand. I'm not asking you make up your mind, tonight. Just put off calling Social Services until you've given my suggestion some serious thought."

Matt folded his arms. "All this for the sake of the children?"

"You need some looking after, yourself," she smiled. "You run yourself too thin, Matt."

"I don't need a mother, Beth."

She smiled sweetly. "You need someone."

"I already have someone-- three someone's and counting."

Brushing off her pale green dress, Beth moved to her feet. "Just think about it," she said, and then disappeared into the house.

Alone, Matt groaned loudly, not caring if the noise happened to provoke a neighbor's wandering chihuahua into wild yaps. As if Beth had to remind him to think. As if he could do anything right now but think of what she had just said, and the way she had said it.

Maybe he was more deluded than he had thought, but Beth was doing more than volunteering. She was offering herself in a way that triggered every alarm he had into high alert.

Or maybe not.

Matt rubbed his face with both hands, wishing he could do the day over again. Knowing how hard he wished for things he couldn't have, he was probably kidding himself. Beth liked him, but not that much-- not crazy enough to be in love with him. What had she called it? Crazy in love. No, she wasn't crazy enough for that.

But she was insane. No woman in her sound mind would have offered such a proposal. And no man with an ounce of self respect would accept it.

The problem was, she was desperate and so was he.

Knowing what he did now about the depths of his mom's cruelty, Matt would have offered to take that baby from the start-- whether he later gave up the child or not. At least the baby wouldn't be with her. But knowing his mom, if she had thought he actually wanted the kid, there would have been a steep price tag attached to her compliance.

Oh well, Matt thought. What's done is done.

Now if he could only shake the jasmine from his senses, he could think more clearly.

"Ointment and perfume rejoice the heart: so doth the sweetness of a man's friend by hearty counsel."
~ Proverbs 27:9 ~

end of chapter
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