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Chapter Thirteen
Keeping the Family Together

"Horror hath taken hold upon me because of the wicked that forsake Thy [God's] law."
~ Psalm 119:53 ~

Even after the jasmine had cleared, Matt's thoughts tangled in a helpless jumble of horrified anger against his mom, and numb shock toward Beth. His arms felt weak, his legs tired. For all of the fatigue, he could have been hard at work on a construction site, instead of coming away from Sunday lunch with a lovely guest. And what a guest she had turned out to be.

For a fleeting moment, Matt imagined himself accepting the proposal. Then the absurdity of it all came crashing down around him, and he shook himself back to reality. No, he had to refuse. Beth had gotten caught up in the moment, and so had he. Insanity had to be the only explanation. Sane people didn't make rash, life-changing decisions based on one afternoon. It had been unbelievably generous of Beth to make the offer, but he had to turn her down. He just had to. This was simply too much, too huge a proposition to actually work. Desperate or not, there could be no other answer. The baby would be put up for adoption.

His mind made up, Matt went inside.

Of course, everyone had gathered in the living room, crowded around Beth and the infant. Even Ethan hung about the sofa as Amadeus stared in awe at the girls who cooed to him in non-stop babytalk. The biggest offender was Cassie, who couldn't seem to stop marveling. So the baby was cute. Big deal. Ryan had been cute at two weeks old, too. He didn't remember Cassie drooling over Ryan back then, so why should she start marveling over this one? Of course, Matt had to admit, as he plopped into a living room chair-- far away from the sofa-- when Ryan was a newborn, Cassie was about eight years old and still emerging from the coma of her traumatic childhood. As Matt thought back on it, even then, there had been some cooing and "best baby" remarks from Cassie.

A gurgle from Amadeus brought a fresh round of "Sweetie-pies" from the girls.

Matt groaned. That kind of behavior must be genetic with women. For once in Cassie's life, Matt needed her to be perfectly sensible and unemotional. He needed her to face the facts, to not look at things with sentimentality attached to any decisions.

"Can I hold him?" Ryan asked, looking up at Beth with an endearing little-boy smile. "Please? I'll be extra careful!"

Another sigh slipped from Matt. Ryan, not you, too, Matt thought with a surge of despair. Come on, buddy. You're not going to let me down, are you?

"I'll give him his bottle, and wipe his chin, and-- can't I hold him, too? Pleeeeeese?"

Aspirin. Matt needed aspirin. As he made up his mind to search the bathroom cabinet for some, Beth shifted the baby to her shoulder. Matt paused as he watched Beth pat the tiny sleeper on the back; when an equally tiny burp erupted from Amadeus, a purely involuntary smile found its way to Matt's mouth. Beth put an arm around Ryan, gave the boy a hugging squeeze. "Let's give your big brother a chance to hold him first, all right?"

At once fearful, Matt lifted a hand to turn down the offer. "Thanks, but I'll pass."

"But you haven't even had a good look at him," Beth said, her voice baby-playful, as though she were still talking to Amadeus, and not a grown man. "Don't you want to say 'hi' to your new brother?"

"Not really." Matt shifted in the chair. He wished Beth would leave so he could do the responsible thing and call the social worker.

"Oh, yes, let Matty hold the baby!" Cassie, traitor as she was, jumped off the sofa and came running to Matt with a happy glow on her face that put to rest any hopes Matt had of her being reasonable. "Oh, Matty! He's the sweetest baby ever! Beth offered him the bottle, and he just started sucking on it as if he knew what to do all along!"

Determined to be the reasonable one, Matt gave a patient smile. One that would prove to everyone that he wasn't about to lose all proportion of reality just because a baby was in their midst. "Ryan did the same," Matt said, crossing his ankles. "Ryan took to the bottle like a natural. I guess it runs in the family."

"I guess so," Beth smiled, as she lowered a tiny human toward Matt. Seeing he couldn't escape, Matt opened his arms and accepted the infant.

For a heartbeat, Matt refused to look down at the life in his arms. He could feel the slight heft, the scent of baby formula. It gurgled, and Matt turned his gaze on the tiniest baby he had ever held. The dark flashing eyes so like their mom's, half open and tuckered out from an already momentous day, peered at Matt with the awe of someone who still couldn't grapple with the shapes and voices he saw. The chin quivered, ready to let out a cry.

"There, there," Matt said, patting the blanketed bottom, feeling the cushioned, tiny diaper beneath his palm, "don't cry, buddy. Don't cry. I know all of this is new and probably a little frightening, but you're with family. There, there." Matt offered his finger-tip, and Amadeus began sucking it fervently. "Poor little guy. Everyone you know has run out on you, haven't they?" Grief tugged at Matt's throat. He couldn't speak. All he could do was hold the baby he knew he couldn't keep.

A gentle hand touched Matt's arm. He looked up, saw Beth smiling at him. She said nothing, but something shimmered in her eyes and she bit her lip, just as she did a few hours ago when she had made him that outlandish proposal.

"Here," Matt held the baby out to her, "I have to get some air again."

Quiet alarm touched Beth's features. She took the child and remained by Matt's chair, as though trying to penetrate his silence and figure out what everyone's future held. This one innocent baby-- though helpless to act for itself-- had the potential to change every single person there.

"On second thought," Matt got to his feet, stared at the kitchen. "I need to clean dishes." He took one last look at the baby falling asleep in Beth's arms, then went to go tackle the cooked-on-grease left from the hamburgers.

To Matt's annoyance, Beth followed.

Rolling up his sleeves, Matt cleared the table, placed the dishes in the sink and then ran hot water over the detergent until mountains of suds revealed he had dumped in too much soap. Matt yanked off the water. He could feel Beth staring at him.

"Did you tell them?" he asked, plunging his hands into the scalding water and quickly jerking them back when the pain registered in his head. He had to calm down, force himself to think.

"No," Beth's voice came in a hushed whisper, "I didn't want to intrude by speaking to them without your permission."

Matt tossed a glance over his shoulder. "You're picking a fine time to be shy," he said with an ironic laugh. "You wouldn't be having second thoughts about your offer, would you?"

"No, I'm not." Beth's answer came so swift, it unsettled Matt.

"I'm afraid I can't say the same for myself," he said, jamming the faucet handle in the upward position, splashing water onto a sudsy plate and at the same time, soaking himself. "Great. I'm making a mess." He shook off the plate, dropped it into the wire rack, then stared blankly out the window. In the darkening evening, he saw nothing besides Beth's reflection staring back at him, the baby on her shoulder, her body moving in a slight sway to rock the baby to sleep.

Matt turned to face Beth. "This will never work. You know that, don't you?"

She shook her head in disagreement. "I think it could-- if we both want it badly enough."

"Want what badly enough?" Ethan asked, sticking his head into the kitchen. When Matt remained silent, Ethan moved past Beth, and came straight to Matt for an explanation. Cassie soon followed, her face puzzled and sober. Something big was happening, and the older ones could sense it.

As usual, Ryan wanted to be where the people were, and came to stand on tiptoes and look at the baby napping on Beth's shoulder.

True to her word of not wanting to speak about the proposal without permission, Beth remained silent, her eyes trained on Matt.

"Come on, Matty. Give. What are you guys talking about?" Ethan folded his arms. "Is this about calling Social Services to take Amadeus?"

"It's about the baby," Matt confirmed. He went to the table, pulled out a chair and offered it to Beth. "We need to have a family meeting, and in light of everything, you'd better join us."

"What does she have to do with this?" Ethan refused to sit even though Ryan and Cassie were now finding places at the table. "I mean it, Matty. I want to know what's going on."

"Calm down, Ethan. Nothing's going to happen unless this whole family agrees."

"Agrees to what?"

"Sit down."

"Not until you tell me."

Matt sucked in a steadying breath. "After Mom left, Beth and I had a talk."

"A talk about what?"

"Sit down, and I'll tell you." Matt stared at Ethan so hard the teenager finally obeyed. The usual feelings of abandonment that often followed in the wake of their mom's visits, were only magnified by the question of what to do about Amadeus. But for the order of their birth, that baby could have been any one of them-- a fact that didn't set easy with any of the Taylor children. It sharpened Matt's guilt all the more, and made him willing to gather at the table and hold this family meeting.

"Okay. I'm sitting." Ethan leaned back in his chair and stared hard at Matt.

The baby in Beth's arms stirred a moment, and everyone's eyes turned on Amadeus.

Cassie sniffed-- the first indicator Matt had of the girl's impending tears. "We don't have to give him away, do we, Matty?"

"It's not that simple, Cass. We don't have the room, and I don't make enough money."

Ethan swallowed hard. "If I go to college..." he hesitated, as though unsure where his thoughts would lead, "if I went to college, there would be enough room to keep Amadeus."

Shaking his head, Matt tried to explain. "If you went to college, and actually moved out of the house, it would mean you're paying board somewhere, and that's money we don't have. In fact, unless you get a large scholarship, you couldn't go at all."

Frustrated, Ethan blew out a breath. "Well, we can't just give him up!"

"The way things currently stand, I'd have no choice but to do just that."

"You can't, Matty! That's our brother!"

"What more do you want from me, Ethan? I quit school to take care of this family. I took jobs no one else wanted, I gave up on any personal life of my own, just to take care of you and the others. So far, I've given everything I can. And, God help me, I'll keep on trying to do what's best for you and the others."

Ethan scowled, though his frustration had lowered a few notches and his voice sounded calmer. "I didn't say I wasn't grateful."

"I'm not searching for gratitude," Matt said, leaning back in his chair. He looked at Beth, took a deep gulp of air. "As I was saying, the way things stand, it isn't possible to keep Amadeus. However, Beth has made an offer that I think we should at least consider."

Eyes narrowed, Ethan glared at Beth. "She wants to take the baby."

A whimper came from Cassie's direction. "You wouldn't take him from us, would you?"

"No, Sweetheart, of course not."

"But Matty said--"

"Everyone, just hold your horses until I get the whole thing out," Matt said, raising a hand to hush the table. "Beth didn't offer to take the baby. She offered to take all of us."

Bewildered silence fell over the kitchen to such an extent, Matt felt certain no one understood. Matt cleared his throat. "The thing is... what happened is this-- Beth asked me to marry her so this family could stay together."

"She what?" Ethan froze in his chair, not moving, not even flinching, as if he had heard Matt wrong and would be told otherwise in the next breath.

"Beth asked me to marry her."

"That's what I thought you said. And what did you tell her?"

"I said I would think about it." The shock in the kitchen intensified as Matt went on to explain Beth's proposal. "If Beth and I do this, it would be in name only. It wouldn't be a real marriage, just an agreement to live in the same house and take care of you guys."

A scowl crept over Ethan's face. "You're not serious."

"I'm afraid I am."

"You'd be willing to marry her, to live in-- what did you call it?-- in name only, just because of us?"

"Can you think of any better ideas? If anyone here can, please don't keep them a secret."

"What about welfare?" Ethan asked. "If there's another kid in the family, they'll give us more government aid, right?"

"Yes, technically, that's true. But this house is still too small for so many, and besides that," Matt ran a hand through his hair, trying to lessen his own agitation, "I'm not sure a judge would give me custody of another child. With my record, I'm doing good to get you three, let alone another one. The judge could easily argue that I couldn't handle so much responsibility, and he might be right. I'm just not sure I can handle all this on my own. I wish I could, but I have my limits."

With a heavy groan, Ethan scooted onto his tailbone, shook his head and frowned. "So it's marry Beth, or send Amadeus packing? Some choice."

"Hey, watch your language," Matt said, shooting his brother a warning look before casting a sidelong glance at Beth. "She's only trying to help. Considering the choices, her offer isn't all that bad. The family would stay together."

"Yeah," Ethan snorted, "you only have to marry someone for the rest of your life to do it. Matty, I know you like her, but MARRY? Have you lost your mind?"

At the grim reference to his sanity, Matt squeezed his eyes shut. "The arrangement would only last until the kids are grown up and moved out."

"And until then," Ethan said with a snort, "you couldn't date, marry someone else, or have sex. Sounds like a great plan to me. You have lost it, bro. I'd never even consider such a thing."

"Then be grateful you're not me." Matt felt his jaw tighten as he returned Ethan's glare. "What do you want from me? You want to keep Amadeus, don't you?"

Unable to offer any kind of retort, Ethan shoved away from the table, then stalked over to Beth. "Could I have my brother?" he asked in such a surly tone Matt grimaced.

"Of course," she said, and handed over the infant.

Without a word, Ethan left the kitchen with Amadeus.

"Well," Matt sighed, "that went well. Cass? Ryan? What words of wisdom do you have to offer?"

Wide-eyed and confused, Ryan rubbed his nose and looked to Cassie for help.

"I'm sorry," Matt said quickly, running both hands through his hair until he felt a degree cooler. "I shouldn't take this out on you."

Somewhere along the way, Cassie's eyes had cleared and she no longer seemed to be verging on tears. Still, Cassie looked funeral solemn, and Matt sensed she understood the impact of this decision.

"He's only trying to protect you, Matty."

"Who? Ethan? That'd be a change."

"I mean it, Matty. None of us want to see you sacrificing your future happiness just for our sake."

"Future happiness? Cassie, life isn't a fairy tale with happily-ever-afters all over the place. Besides, it's not like this would last forever. It'd only be for a few years."

Cassie looked skeptical.

"Okay, more than a few years, but that's not the point. If-- and I use that word sparingly-- if I'm willing to go through with this, would you consider the offer? How badly do you want to keep Amadeus?"

"But what about you, Matty? You aren't going to be happy."

"Yes, I will." He gave Cassie a firm, decided nod of the head. "This family will be together, and that will make me happy."

"But, Matty--"

"I appreciate everyone looking out for me, I really do. But this isn't about me. This is about you, and Amadeus, and the others."

The words must've carried into the living room, for Ethan appeared in the kitchen doorway, the baby cradled in his arm. Matt considered the slumped shoulders, the downturned mouth of his brother.

"I'm touched by your concern, Ethan. I'm also a little surprised."

The teenager shrugged, or gave as much of a shrug as he could with a newborn. "I guess all that religion must be rubbing off on us."

Never before had Matt received any kind of admission that his testimony had made an impact on his brother. It touched Matt deeply, and he couldn't respond. He waited several long moments, cleared his throat, and observed the baby in Ethan's arms. The newborn was getting hungry again, and trying to suck Ethan's shirt.

Matt sighed. How that reminded him of baby Ryan, when their mom had stopped breastfeeding Ryan and Matt had become Ryan's legal guardian.

"I'm not asking for a vote right now," Matt said, tapping the table to punctuate his words, "only to get you guys thinking about Beth's offer. I want you to think about it-- really think about it and what it would mean to this family. We could keep Amadeus."

Ethan rolled his eyes. "That name!"

"I know," Matt's strained but genuine laugh went far to lighten the tension in the room, "if he stays, we're changing that name!"

"You could always shorten it," Beth said, venturing to speak for the first time since assuring Cassie that she wasn't going to take their brother away. "Dylan Taylor is a good, solid name. It sounds much better than Amadeus."

Suddenly quiet, everyone in the kitchen stared at Beth, and Matt guessed they all had similar thoughts. If they went through with this, Beth would become family.

After her suggestion, the conversation came to a stand-still. Beth expected to be grilled by the Taylor children, but when no one asked a single question, she realized the fear hanging in the air. What had just been proposed would mean a huge change for everyone.

Pushing back from the table, Matt got to his feet, came to Beth's chair to help her up. It was an unnecessary act of gallantry, and Beth understood the true motive behind it. She needed to leave, to let them think without her listening to every comment they spoke out loud. Matt ushered her into the living room, and Beth looked back one last time at the baby Ethan held. It had taken her some restraint to not warn Ethan to hold the baby properly, but the teenager seemed to know what to do without being told; after all, it hadn't been so very long ago when Ryan had been that size.

"Do you still have Ryan's crib?" Beth couldn't help asking as Matt led her outside to her car.

The question caused Matt's step to pause, his face to cloud over in dismal thought. "No, we sold it before we left Houston. Come to think of it, most of Ryan's baby stuff was either given away or sold."

"Houston?" Beth smiled at the new piece of information. "I didn't know you were from Texas. I suppose that explains the cowboy hat and those boots that never seem to leave your feet."

Wariness played on Matt's face. He took the car keys from her hand, opened the driver's side door for her. "Yeah, we're from Texas," he said, handing her back the keys. "We're from an ugly, run-down neighborhood where drugs, gangs and prostitutes are more common than the tumbleweeds." He stepped into Beth's way as she moved to get inside the car. "Dear old Dad introduced me to pot when I was nine. By the age of twelve, I was hooked on meth and about as tweaked as Dad. I tagged along with him to his drug dealer, because I didn't want Dad to get cheated and return home with less drugs then he should've. What's the matter, Beth? You don't look like you're feeling well."

True, Beth did feel a little sick, but Matt's challenge gave her courage she felt sure he didn't intend. "You can't scare me, Matt. My mind is made up. If you say 'yes,' I fully intend to go through with my proposal."

A slow, heavy sigh parted Matt's mouth. He looked at her intently. "Then nothing you've heard today is giving you second thoughts?"

She smiled in spite of his graveness. "To be honest, I'm having second, third, and fourth thoughts. But any bouts of lingering hesitation are overcome whenever I look at Amadeus, and Ryan, and Cassie, and even Ethan and yourself. You need me. I know this is the right thing to do."

The reluctant tenderness melting into Matt's eyes only confirmed Beth's opinion.

"If you want it, I still have Caleb's crib," Beth said, brushing past him to climb behind the wheel of her car. "Tomorrow is your day off, but if you need to speak to me, you have my number." Beth turned the key in the ignition, shut the door as Matt took a step onto the curb to watch her leave. The tenderness she had only seen moments before, had faded into the same mask of serious thought she had seen on all the faces of the Taylors that evening.

For all her bravery, Beth's hands trembled as she drove away. What in the world was she getting herself into? God willing, a family.

When the dark blue sedan had disappeared down the street, Matt pulled himself from the curb and returned to the others in the house. Ethan had placed Amadeus back in the carrier, and was now in the kitchen rummaging through the fridge while Cassie remained in the living room to watch the baby.

Cassie smiled as Matt came to sit beside the carrier.

"Do you think Beth means it?" Cassie asked, her eyes fastened on the baby as Matt lifted the boy out to check his diaper.

Uncertain, Matt shook his head. "She says she does. Whatever else she might be feeling, Beth is keeping it to herself."

Propping her chin on a hand, Cassie leaned forward and smiled as she watched Matt take the baby bottle from off the coffee table. He offered the nipple to Amadeus, and the infant took to it without any coaxing.

"Cass, why don't you go help Ethan find something for dinner? It sounds like he's making a mess in there."

"That's because Ethan is building more of those monster desserts," Cassie smiled, as Ryan's eager voice chanted from the kitchen, pleading for Ethan to add another handful of candies to his ice cream tower.

"I'm glad Beth isn't here," Matt sighed in relief. "She would probably disapprove. We haven't even had dinner yet. I guess I should go in there and put a stop to it."

"Please, Matty, we need to smile right now. Let's finish our special dessert. Just the five of us."

"Five--" Matt startled at the number, then looked down at the sweet innocent feeding on the bottle. "Oh yeah, I forgot. We have another Taylor in the house. What do you say, Dylan? Care to watch us eat?"

Cassie giggled when the baby only shut his eyes and continued to feed.

Forcing aside the sober decision that faced them all, Matt smiled. "If you'll get my dinner, Cass, I think I could use some of that ice cream. This little guy isn't the only hungry man in the family."

Dinner was eaten without mentioning Beth or their mom, or anything that even remotely touched on what to do with the baby. Everyone relaxed, and ate their dessert while Dylan slept in the carrier.

Then came bedtime. Loaded with so much sugar, Ryan had a great deal of difficulty holding still while Matt tried to dress him in pajamas. When Ethan took over the job of fitting a wriggling little boy into bright blue PJs, Matt cleaned the kitchen while Dylan's carrier sat on the table. They didn't have a crib, and until other arrangements could be made, Dylan would have to remain in the carrier. But definitely not on the table, Matt smiled as he lifted it down and headed for the boys' bedroom.

"Do I have to sleep, Matty?" Ryan asked, bouncing up and down on the king-sized mattress he shared with Ethan. "I don't feel sleepy yet! Do I have to?"

"Yes, you have to. And stop jumping on the bed." Matt set the carrier on his own real estate-- a single mattress shoved against the wall. Here, the carrier would be in no danger of falling off. Feeling more than a little unnerved by the responsibility of yet another life in his care, and not wanting to make any mistakes, Matt placed a blanket around the base of the carrier to ensure it wouldn't topple over. Still revved with all that sugar, Ryan kept jumping and laughing. Yup, Matt thought darkly, Beth wouldn't approve. But the thought made him frown. When had he started caring about Beth's approval of how he raised the children? Matt checked his watch. As of four o' clock, that's when. She had sat on his back step, and with a straight face, had proposed marriage. Now his mind kept toying with the idea of actually accepting her offer.

"Ryan," Matt captured the boy before he bounced off the mattress and into the drywall, "it's time for bed. Come on, buddy, help me out and lay down."

"Is she going to be my new mommy?" Ryan asked, as Matt placed him beneath the covers.

The question made Matt swallow hard. "Is that what you want?"

Ryan looked thoughtful. "Can she make grilled cheese?"

"I'm sure she does."

"Without the crust?"

"Ryan, you can't remove the crust. It's food, and you're not going to waste any of it."

"Can she make popcorn?"

"I would think so. Tossing a bag into the microwave isn't exactly rocket science."

"Can she make a birthday cake?" The hopefulness in Ryan's face couldn't be missed. Matt thought back to their mother's empty promise, and his chest grew heavy.

"Yeah, Beth can make a cake. Come on, let's pray and then it's time for you to get to sleep."

Night prayers over, Matt returned to his own sliver of the room while Ethan went into the boys' bathroom to brush his teeth. Matt stripped down to his boxers, then climbed into bed while Dylan stared at him in infant wonderment. Or maybe it was infant ignorance-- Matt didn't know which. He only knew the baby kept staring at him, a non-speaking witness to the life going on around them.

"You're going to sleep, too, aren't you, Dylan?" Putting his head down on the pillow, Matt lifted a hand and let the boy grab hold of his index finger. "You'll be quiet tonight, won't you?"

Ethan stuck his head into the bedroom, toothpaste dribbling down his chin like a rabid dog. "Is that what we're going to call him? Dylan?"

Matt turned, saw the toothpaste and groaned. "Go spit in the sink."

Ethan disappeared, then a moment later was in the bedroom undressing like Matt. "You're going to let Beth tell us what to name the baby? I hope you're not going to let her boss us around."

Tugging his finger and playfully testing Dylan's grip, Matt sighed at Ethan's protest. "She didn't boss anyone, and Mom and Wade were the ones to name this guy-- not me. I'm just shortening it."

The overhead light switched off, and the room went pitch black until Matt's eyes adjusted to the darkness.

"Yeah, well," Matt could hear Ethan grumble from the next bed, "she'd better not try to tell me what to do. I'd tell her to get off my case and go bother someone else."

The resentment in Ethan's voice didn't go unnoticed by Matt. In a way, he understood his brother's feelings. To have someone outside their family make such a bold offer, and to be so desperate as to actually consider it, frightened Matt. While they had endured difficult times in the past, they had always managed to get by, and to do it together-- most often without anyone else's help besides the government aid. Trouble had toughened Matt's self-reliance, and made him wary of trusting anyone so completely that they could be in a position to hurt him or the others.

His thoughts gradually slipped away, and Matt fell asleep until about two in the morning, when a baby's wail jolted him awake.

Crying his heart out, Dylan startled everyone in the bedroom. Ethan jumped to turn on the light, and Matt inspected the carrier.

"Is he all right?" Ethan asked, his voice groggy with sleep but still concerned.

Matt lifted Dylan into his arms. Almost at once, the crying lessened.

"I think he just needs to be fed and changed," Matt said, tossing the diaper bag into the carrier, and then grabbing the carrier with a free hand. "Go back to bed, guys. I'll take Dylan into the living room."

Turning off the light, Ethan yawned as Ryan burrowed under the covers. "Night, Matty."

Blowing out a tired sigh, Matt went into the kitchen. The cries came at a lower decibel than before, though Dylan's face still held a flushed, red glow. It must take a lot of determination to cry with such forceful intensity, Matt thought with a yawn.

After warming baby formula in the microwave, Matt poured it into a baby bottle, then checked the temperature on his wrist. Stifling another yawn, Matt took the operation to the living room couch and stopped himself from plopping onto the cushion as he was used to do. Ignoring the night chilliness of the room, Matt moved the baby to the crook of his arm.

"Okay, okay, here's your bottle," Matt said, offering the nipple to Dylan. The cries immediately quieted when Dylan began to feed. Matt checked the clock. It was early, but he didn't feel like trying to get back to sleep. He leaned over, pulled the Bible out from under the sofa and opened it on his knee while Dylan kept feeding.

Matt tugged the pad of paper from between the pages, then unclipped the pen. It was difficult to find undisturbed time every day to work on his Bible study, to just read God's Word without being interrupted by one thing or another. But two in the morning was as good a time as any, and Matt seized at the opportunity. He worked on the study he'd started a few days ago, then began another, this time, focusing on the dilemma before him.

Dylan turned his head, and Matt removed the bottle. He burped the little guy, then felt the diaper and smiled when he touched squishy warmth. Without doubt, Dylan was good and ready for that change.

Happily taken care of, Dylan fell back to sleep with a full tummy and a clean diaper.

Letting his tiny brother nap in the crook of his arm, Matt returned to the Bible study, adding verses and thoughts as he went. He wished God would send an angel, give him a vision, anything that would tell him what to do. Three verses in particular stuck out at him, and he referred to these over and over: God would provide for their needs (Philippians 4:19), God would give him wisdom (James 1:5), and God would instruct him which way to take (Psalm 32:8). Several other promises came before him, and Matt finally set aside the pad and closed his eyes to pray.

After pleading with God to give him wisdom, a thought crossed Matt's mind. He turned his head, stared at the phone sitting on the battered end table beside the sofa. She wouldn't be awake. She couldn't possibly.

Needing to talk, Matt decided to try. If he got her voicemail, he'd just apologize and say he'd call back later.

Baby Dylan stirred when Matt leaned forward, grasped the telephone with his fingertips, then pulled it to his side. He was about to dial the number, then remembered her card was in his pants pocket. Let it go, Taylor, a voice sounded in his head. You'll just wake her up, and then you'll look like an idiot.

But Matt couldn't leave it alone.

In his bare feet and Dylan still fast asleep in his arms, Matt went to the boys' room, felt about the foot of the bed until he found his jeans. Matt stalked back to the living room, sat down on the couch, pulled out her card and stared at the feminine handwriting on the back. He would call. Definitely. Hand on the receiver, Matt hesitated. He jerked it back, a second thought turning him chicken. Sucking in a deep breath, he shook off the feathers, lifted the receiver and punched in the number. To his amazement, the call answered on only the second ring.

"Matt?" Beth sounded fully alert, not at all as though she'd been sleeping. "Is the baby all right? Do you need anything?"

"Dylan's fine. I just thought I'd call."

Beth's soft laughter sounded like music to Matt's tired ear; he could listen to that voice, forever, and still want more.

"I know what you mean," she breathed in amusement, "after what happened Sunday, I couldn't sleep, either. Although, I'm guessing you're having help staying awake. Did Dylan wake you?"

"He did." Matt gave the baby a small jiggle to nudge him back to sleep. Dylan seemed to enjoy the attention, and gave an answering gurgle. "I'm in the living room, reading my Bible, and I remembered something Ryan asked me before bedtime."

"Go on," Beth coaxed. "What did he ask?"

"Among other things-- mostly food related-- Ryan asked if you were going to be his new mommy."

This drew stunned silence from Beth. Matt strained to hear her reply, and when he heard nothing, he pressed the receiver to his ear and asked if she were still there.

"Yes, I'm here. Ryan asked that?" Matt heard a deep breath, and then a hushed, "Wow. And what did you say?"

"I didn't have a chance to say anything. The subject quickly moved on to food and grilled cheese sandwiches. Without the crust."

Here, Beth laughed. "I never cut off the crust. It's too wasteful."

"Same here," Matt smiled. "But all of Ryan's questions got me thinking. The others hardly know you at all. You're a stranger to them-- a stranger who asked to be a big part of their family. I think it might be a good idea for everyone to get together and talk about the decision. And maybe give them a chance to know you better."

"That sounds like a good idea, Matt."

"The thing is," he pressed on, trying not to let frustration bog him down with everything that needed to be done, "we don't have a lot of time to make this decision. I'm afraid if Social Services finds out I have Dylan, and that he's here to stay, they might act before we're ready."

"I understand."

"I'm amazed you haven't told me to shut up yet," he said in relief.

"Matt, this was my idea."

"Yeah, I guess it was. Anyway, we're going to need time to get married, move to your place, find a lawyer and start the paperwork. I'm also going to need Mom's full co-operation, but I have no idea when she'll contact me again. The thing is, all this is going to take time. Probably only a few months, but it's still far away enough that we need to get the ball rolling. We need to start acting before Social Services gets involved."

"I understand, Matt. If you're willing to let Ethan and Cassie have a day off from school tomorrow, I suggest you and the others come over to my house first thing in the morning. I won't open the nursery, so I'll be home to show you around. As I said, it's a big house and I'm sure we can find an arrangement that will work for everyone. And you tell Ryan and the others that I'll be happy to answer any questions they might have for me."

Not knowing what to say, Matt let her talk. This woman would be sacrificing a great deal, just to raise someone else's kids. That not only earned Matt's admiration, but also his respect. When she came to a pause, and nothing came afterward, Matt decided to ask her one more time.

"Are you sure about this, Beth? I mean absolutely sure?"

"Are you?"

"Not yet, but I'm getting there," he sighed, rocking Dylan as the infant continued to doze. "Ethan is determined to keep the baby, and Cassie already has her hopes up that this is going to work. She'd be in large puddles of tears right now, if she thought otherwise."

"I understand, Matt. I've raised a lot of hopes."

"Mine included," Matt said, hugging Dylan a little closer. "We've been let down by people with good intentions, before. A neighbor lady in Houston once called Social Services, thinking she was doing us a favor. For a short while, Ethan and Cassie got split up and put into foster homes, and I had to work with a lawyer to be appointed their legal guardian. Ryan wasn't born yet, and I suppose in the end, things did work out for the better. But I can tell you, it wasn't a happy time for any of us."

"How old were you at the time?"


"That's very young to have such responsibilities."

"I was old enough." Matt forced himself to relax his grip on the receiver. Bringing up those old memories had rubbed salt into old wounds, renewing his caution about Beth Carter. He would be risking a lot-- what or how much, he couldn't be certain. Matt only knew if he accepted her proposal, he would be taking a risk not even he could calculate. "This talk isn't easy for me, Beth. All this time, we've managed to get along with just the four of us."

"I'm willing to help, Matt. "I'm willing to do anything within my power to keep your family together."

"You'll be taking on a load of responsibility," he warned. "Those kids come with a lot of baggage."

"The house is big, so there will be room for all the baggage they've got," she said with a smile in her voice.

"I'm serious, Beth. They have scars you can't see. It won't be simple."

"I'm serious too, Matt. I know you haven't had an easy life, but I'm willing to take you on."

"This isn't about me, it's about them."

"All right," Beth retreated, and he didn't pursue the subject any further.

Matt preferred to leave himself out of the conversation. If he went through with this, it would be for them, and them only.

"If you're willing to wait, I'll have breakfast ready when you and the children arrive," Beth said, resuming her usual no-nonsense tone. "Since I'm already up, I'll start cleaning the house so you'll be able to see it without the dust and cobwebs."

It sounded like a joke, but Matt couldn't be sure. For all he knew, that house had sat mostly empty, ever since Beth's husband and little boy had died in the plane crash. It was yet another reminder of how lonely Beth's life had been.

"See you tomorrow?" she asked, waiting for him to accept the invitation.

Matt looked down at Dylan, cuddled against his chest and sleeping with abandon. "Okay. We'll be there."

"I promise, Matt-- I give you my most solemn word-- I won't let you or the children down."

"Thanks." Matt didn't know what else to say. What else could he? I owe you one?

"You promise to bring the children?" The hope in Beth's voice sounded so palpable, Matt could almost touch it.

"I promise."

Without having to see her, Matt knew she wore a smile.

"I'll see you then," she breathed.

"Okay, bye." Matt moved to hang up the receiver, but stopped when he heard,

"Good night, Matt."

He swallowed, feeling as though something must surely be getting lodged in his throat besides his tongue.

"Night," he blurted, and quickly hung up the phone. Inhaling a deep sigh of relief that the call was over, he turned his eyes once more on Dylan. Sometimes, that woman could render him speechless with just a few words.

Twenty-four hours ago, if anyone had told him he would ever consider marrying Mrs. Carter for the sake of the children, he would have thought they'd lost their mind. He might not marry her still, but every time Matt looked at Dylan, the likelihood of the brothers ever parting, grew less and less.

"God help us," Matt sighed. "But you know what, buddy? I have a sneaking suspicion God already is."

Not wanting the baby to wake the others for a second time that night, Matt decided to stay in the living room. He momentarily placed Dylan back in the carrier, then pulled on his jeans. A blanket from off the bed, quickly tossed around Matt's bare shoulders, kept out the encroaching chill as he sat on the couch and felt night turn to morning. With Dylan cuddled in Matt's arms, his blanket keeping them both warm, Matt watched his infant brother sleep.

"But my God shall supply all [Matt's] need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus."
~ Philippians 4:19 ~

end of chapter
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