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Chapter Fifteen
Tender Boundaries

"... rejoice with the wife of thy youth."
~ Proverbs 5:18 ~

The disappointment stung even more than Matt expected. No wedding kiss. In his entire existence, there would only be one day with Beth like this one, and there had been no kiss.

The congratulations that followed the ceremony were only half heard by Matt. He took his family outside, amazed that his family now included Beth.

As they made their way to the parking lot, Matt couldn't shake the feeling that Beth watched him. He shot a glance behind him, and sure enough, she was staring. He weighed the keys in his hand, came to a stop beside his pickup. The large envelope with the marriage certificate remained tucked under his arm, thin and incredibly light for something that marked such a huge occasion in his life.

"Well, it's done." Matt shook his head, blew out a sigh that did little to relieve the ache in his chest. The moment felt surreal, dreamlike and at the same time frightening. The baby moved in the carrier Beth held, catching Matt's attention for a few moments as he struggled to gather his thoughts.

"What now?" Ethan asked, shoving hands deep into his pockets.

Recognizing the frightened stance, Matt took a deep breath, looked at Beth and found her still watching him.

"Please," she said, her voice just below a whisper, "tell me you're not sorry we got married."

"I'm not."

"You look like you are."

"I'm not." He gave a forced shrug. "It's only... I was expecting it to be different."

"We didn't have time to plan the wedding," the words tumbled from Beth's mouth in a dazed mix of panic and confusion. She hugged the carrier close, as though frightened by what they had done.

He placed a hand on Beth's arm. "I'm not sorry."

"But the wedding--"

"I'm fine with the wedding."

Green eyes filling with tears, Beth bit her lip. "Then why do you look disappointed?"

"It's not important." Matt sighed as he looked about the group, all the quiet faces. "Hey guys, lighten up. You're supposed to be happy at weddings."

Eyebrows raised, Ethan turned to Cassie. "I'm happy, how about you? You happy?"

Tears stood in Cassie's eyes. She smiled, rubbed her cheek against the back of her hand.

"Yeah," Ethan said with a dark chuckle, "this is one happy day. Congratulations, Matty."

"Cut it out, Ethan. The girls are almost crying as it is. Don't make things worse for them than they already are."

"I'm fine," Beth insisted.

"You don't look fine," Matt replied.

"Well," she paused, her bottom lip quivering, "you don't look happy."

Ethan groaned. "He just tied himself to someone he can't have sex with. Why should he be?"

"Ethan, I'm only going to say this once. Knock it off."

"You're not my father, Matty."

"I know I'm not, but Dad isn't here, and neither is Mom. You're stuck with me, so make the best of it and keep your mouth shut so I can think."

"Matty," Cassie tugged at his arm, "Beth is crying."

Matt looked over to Beth. Tears spilled onto her cheeks as she placed the carrier on the ground, then lifted out Dylan. Sobbing so quietly Matt almost couldn't hear, Beth cradled the baby close to her heart.

"Beth." He moved to her side, put an arm around her shoulders. "Please don't cry, Beth. Please don't." She turned into Matt's embrace, and with Dylan between them, wept without restraint while Matt hugged her tight with both arms.

He couldn't help feeling he had brought these tears on by not looking happy.

As sobs racked her body, Matt felt them tremor through his own. In the rush to get their marriage license, find a minister, and settle on the terms of their marriage, there had been none of the sentimental finery women were used to. Matt didn't mind skipping the flowers or the other fluff that followed a wedding, but that kiss...

Matt peered down at the tear streaked face nestled against his shoulder. Tilting Beth's chin back, he ignored the wide-eyed surprise of those shimmering eyes; he lowered his mouth to hers, and gently dropped a kiss on those trembling lips. It lasted only a moment-- that one soft touch-- but when Matt raised his head, the world swam around him in a dance of pleased shock.

"Wow," he breathed, smiling easy for the first time since their wedding.

Long lashes wet with tears, Beth blinked at him in a gaze of quiet wonderment.

"You owed me a kiss, Beth. I was aiming for your mouth, but all I got was forehead. Now I'm happy."

Unable to resist one last squeeze before letting go, Matt stepped back. The sobs quieted, the tears came less frequent. Where words of comfort failed, that one kiss soothed her, even upturned the curve of her lips.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, drying her face with the handkerchief Cassie offered. "I don't know why I'm making so much trouble over nothing."

"It's no trouble, Beth. I suppose this afternoon hasn't been easy for you."

Dabbing her eyes, she smiled at Matt. "It's ending nice. I'm grateful for that."

An easy feeling skipped through Matt's heart. She hadn't minded the kiss; maybe, even liked it.

He sure had.

Ethan stooped to pick up the empty carrier, his face contrite as he held it without being asked.

The power of a crying woman, Matt mused as he unlocked the pickup. Then Matt noticed how pale Cassie looked.

"Cass, when was the last time you ate?"

"I don't know." Cassie straightened her shirt, frowned when Matt continued to stare. "I can't remember, Matty."


A shoulder lifted, her face concentrated. "Breakfast, I guess. I ate some of Beth's waffles."

With a groan, Matt adjusted his hat, his eyes fixed on Cassie. "Do you have a headache yet?"

She shook her head. "Honest, Matty, I'm all right."

"Don't go fainting in the parking lot," he asked. "You're emotional because of all this wedding stuff, and to top it off, you haven't eaten. You're not in your period, are you?"


"Just checking," he replied, tossing the marriage certificate onto the dashboard.

"I'm not emotional!"

"If you say so," he said, taking the carrier from Ethan. Matt strapped it into the backseat of the truck, cinching the seatbelt to make sure it held fast. When he straightened, he noticed Ryan stood so close, the boy almost hugged his pant leg. "Hey, buddy." Matt took note of the somber face, the thumb sucking that made Ryan look even younger than his four years. "You're not scared, are you?"

Ryan shook his head, but didn't push away when Matt lifted Ryan into his arms. Matt expected the boy to announce his hunger, but instead of a complaint, Ryan hugged Matt around the neck. Then, with a small sigh, Ryan placed his head on Matt's shoulder.

It had been a long morning and afternoon, and at the end of it, all everyone needed was to be reminded that they weren't alone. Even Beth had needed that comfort.

The thought made Matt smile. Confident and self-assured as Beth might be, she had needed him.

"Let's eat out," Matt suggested, hoping to coax his family into a happier frame of mind. "We got married today, so I think a celebration is in order."

Beth handed the handkerchief back to Cassie, then received a hug from the girl. Time to get moving, Matt decided. They needed to leave this parking lot before one or both of the girls started crying again.

It ached Beth to let go of Dylan, even for the short drive to the Mexican restaurant on Mesquite Avenue where Matt suggested they eat. She followed behind his pickup, her resolve slipping a few notches at the memory of Matt and his unnervingly sweet gesture to stop her tears. It had been more than a gesture-- Beth felt it in her heart, though she refused to acknowledge it as anything more than a celebratory kiss. They had gotten married today. Of course there would be a kiss. But no more.

Not for her.

That would be the first and last kiss she'd ever get from Matt Taylor. The thought comforted and depressed her at the same time.

The old pickup pulled in front of the restaurant, and seeing no empty spaces beside Matt, Beth navigated to the other side of the building. The separate vehicles-- her alone in the car, the rest of them in the pickup-- the knowledge that she would return home alone, only seemed to underscore her loneliness.

Beth's mind refused to stop comparing her first wedding to the one a few minutes ago: Luke dressed up in a new tuxedo, handsome and grinning ear to ear as she moved down the aisle in the step-pause-smile cadence of the wedding march. The eager kiss before Luke scooped her into his arms, carried her through the hotel door, then kicked it shut to begin their honeymoon in earnest. Waking up beside Luke, feeling his hand brush her side, the warm intimacy of newlyweds discovering each other. It rushed back to Beth, real and vivid and tinged with pain. She struggled to forget. But to forget, would be to betray Luke.


She jumped at the sound of someone rapping on the window. Matt's frown jolted her back to the present, and she scrambled to collect her keys, her purse.

"You okay?" he asked as she stepped out of the car. He held the door open for her, closed it when she forced a smile. When she didn't respond, he waited.

"I was remembering."

"Remembering what?"

When Beth smiled, it felt shaky, so she stopped trying and asked to take Ryan's hand. To her quiet delight, the boy beamed when she promised he could have anything he wanted for dessert. The "within reason" she added when Matt's frown deepened, didn't seem to dampen Ryan's spirits, and Ryan even laughed when Beth swung their hands as they followed Matt and the others inside.

A waiter showed them to a table, Matt pulled Beth's chair out for her, and she sat down with a murmured "thank you." Everyone ordered from the menus, then Matt bottle-nursed Dylan on his lap while trying to stop Ryan from pestering Cassie with questions about who invented burritos.

"Why, the Mexicans, of course," Cassie answered with a patient roll of her eyes.

"But how did they get the idea?"

"Ryan." Matt gave the four-year-old a cease-and-desist look and the boy settled down.

A waiter carried a tray to their table, unloaded plates of hot food while Beth passed around a small bottle of hand sanitizer. When the waiter had gone, they joined hands, said a hushed prayer, then started eating while Beth tried to work up an appetite.

She noticed Ryan's sweet face light up when she cut his food for him, then tucked his napkin under his chin. When Ryan announced to Matt that she had done it "just like a real mommy," her eyes misted without warning. The past churned up fresh memories of another little boy, one who used to call her "momma," one who loved to give his daddy hugs and butterfly kisses at the breakfast table.

"Beth, you're scaring me." Matt stared from across the table, his eyes narrow, as though trying to see inside her.

Unable to answer, Beth hugged Ryan for the sweetheart he was, then pushed away from the table as her eyes began to burn even more. "I need to use the ladies' room. Excuse me."

Her feet moved across red carpet, past Mexican folk art wall murals and straight to the door with the "Señoritas" painted in bright letters. Beth thanked God when she found no one inside. She twisted on the faucet, cleaned her hands, then splashed cool water onto her face. It didn't matter that her makeup would wash off, she needed the cold to snap her mind into focus.

The door opened behind her, and Beth saw Cassie's reflection in the mirror.

"Matty sent me after you. He's worried."

"Please, tell him I'll be there in a few minutes."

The girl started to turn, hesitated, then came to Beth's side. She stood there, looking uncertain what to say or do.

Beth clutched the sink basin, bowed her head and wrestled to force back the grief. And all that cutting guilt. It came in strong waves, threatening to capsize her composure.

"Did you know..." Beth paused, not wanting to further alarm Cassie, "did you know sometimes grownups are as bad as children when it comes to fear?"

"I suppose." Cassie gave a weak shrug. "I don't think it happens very often, though. Nothing scares old people."

"Haven't you ever seen Matt afraid?"

"He's not a grownup," Cassie smiled.

An inadvertent laugh spilled from Beth's lips. "Spoken like a true sister." Beth grabbed a paper towel from the dispenser on the wall. She wet it under the running water, pressed the towel to her face. "People are afraid of different things, but do you know what frightens me most?"

Cassie shook her head.

"Being alone." Beth gazed at herself in the mirror. "It's easier to drown in grief when you're by yourself. I have to remember to trust God, to keeping living one breath at a time, and to do it without constantly looking back."

A knock sounded on the bathroom door. "Cass? Beth? You guys okay in there?"

"We're all right, Matty!" Cassie called over her shoulder.

"Is she okay?"

Cassie eyed Beth in uncertain hesitation.

"Cass, is she crying?"

"Not exactly."

Beth spoke up. "We'll be out in a few minutes, Matt."

The door swung open and Matt looked inside as an older woman pushed past him, on her way to use the restroom. The sounds of a fussing baby, the rocking sway of Matt before the door closed, all told Beth that Matt wasn't alone.

Time to rejoin life, Beth thought, rinsing her hands under the cold-water tap. She ripped a towel from the dispenser, then used it to twist off the faucet and open the door to keep her hands clean.

A few feet from the ladies' room, Matt held a fussing newborn that refused to be comforted. The decibel of Dylan's cries rose as she came near, his tiny face contorting into impassioned sobs that begged her to try and comfort him.

"Give that sweetheart to me." Beth reached for the infant, and Matt didn't argue. He placed Dylan in her arms, then swiped at his face with a shirtsleeve. Dylan had become the proverbial baby in the public place, the one everyone wished his parents would hurry up and quiet. Beth rocked and swayed, and tried to hush Dylan's frantic sobs, but for all their efforts, the cries didn't lessen. "He probably needs a diaper change," Beth said. "Cassie, would you go to the truck and get Dylan's bag?"

Handing over the truck keys to Cassie, Matt intently watched Beth as she waited by the bathroom for the girl to return.

Beth tried to smile, and found it came easier now that Matt was there. "I can use the changing table inside the ladies' room. It's nice to see this restaurant is so family friendly."

No response from Matt, only that long hard stare.

"Matt, I hope you're not going to ask me if I want out of this marriage. Because I don't."

A squinting frown creased his forehead, and Beth knew she had guessed his thoughts.

When the door pushed open, the woman flashed a bright smile at the baby as she moved between Beth and Matt. "They're adorable at that age, aren't they? Enjoy them while they're small!"

A pink flush crept up Matt's neck as he gave the older woman a polite nod. No doubt she thought they were married, and the baby theirs. All true... in a way.

After the woman left, Matt cleared his throat. "You feeling better?" he asked.

"I'm fine, Matt."

Skepticism crept into his features. He studied her a moment. "The last time I saw you looking this shaken, you were on the bathroom floor trying to convince me you hadn't OD'd on prescription medicine."

Denial sprang to Beth's lips, but for several moments, she couldn't speak. "I wasn't aware I looked so terrible."

"Beth," Matt touched her arm, "if you're ever in a bad way again, you'll tell me, won't you?"

"I'm not suicidal, Matt."

"I didn't think you were-- not anymore."

"Then what are you trying to say?"

Moving aside for another woman to pass into the ladies' room, Matt pressed his mouth shut until the door closed. "What I'm trying to say is-- you don't have to be inches away from taking your life, to be having a hard time. I get that. Life is rough, and things aren't easy." He sighed, looked off into the restaurant, then back at her. "I want you to know I'm here."

"Thank you, Matt. That means a lot."

"I don't want your thanks." He huffed out a sigh. "I want you to promise me not to suffer in silence. I'm telling you what I tell the others-- if you need help, speak up. Don't make me guess, because I'm not a good guesser. Especially when it comes to women."

"You're selling yourself short," she smiled, cuddling her cheek against Dylan's tiny crown of brown hair.

"I take care of my family, Beth."

"I can see that, Matt."

"Okay, then." He nodded to her, waited a beat. "So you're all right? Really all right?"

"I think so," she nodded.

"And if you're not later on?"

"I'll tell you."

"Okay," he sighed. "Okay. For the record, I didn't think you were in there popping sleeping pills. I give you more credit than that."

Something warm stirred in Beth's soul, like embers catching flame. She realized Matt's opinion meant a lot, and his confidence in her bolstered her spirit. The woman in the restroom came out, passed between them with a smile but said nothing. Beth wondered how much she heard, but it didn't matter.

A strong warmth burned in Beth's heart. Matt was treating her as a member of his family, and she basked in the glow of that comforting knowledge.

The food eaten, the dessert served and enjoyed, Matt reached for the bill the waiter left on the table.

"I'll take care of that," Beth said, picking up her purse.

"No, you won't." Matt pulled out his wallet. "This is my treat."


"Don't step on my feelings, Beth." He said it in dry humor, though she could find none in his dark eyes.

Though wanting to insist, she put away her purse and let Matt pay for the dinner. Beth knew his paycheck, and knew he must not have much money after all the expenses of raising his brothers and sister. And still he paid for dinner. Gallant or stubborn, Beth didn't know which, but she noticed the satisfied look on his face when he included a tip for the waiter.

The momentary tension eased away when Dylan began to hiccup from the carrier. Everyone smiled, and after collecting bags and jackets and children, they left the restaurant and stepped into the cold night air.

To Matt's gratitude, he observed the pensive wistfulness in Beth's eyes grow less and less, all evening long. Ever since their talk, she seemed happy, her face lit up with something that glowed from within. Pregnant women were supposed to have such a glow, but since Beth couldn't possibly be pregnant, Matt didn't know what to think. She looked full of life, at least, right up until they struggled over who paid for dinner. After she backed off, and they smiled over Dylan's hiccups, she seemed to improve once more.

Then they reached the parking lot and began to part ways.

Beth's sadness returned, and though she said nothing to betray it, Matt guessed she didn't want to sleep in an empty house by herself. The sky darkened with early evening, and Ryan slumped in Ethan's arms, Ryan's eyes half closed with spent excitement and a full tummy. They needed to go home, get some sleep. Since they outnumbered Beth five to one, Matt figured it would be easier for Beth to stay with them, than the other way around. At least for now.

"Cass," Matt tugged his sister to one side as Beth strapped the carrier into the pickup. "Ask her to share your room until we move. You don't mind, do you?"

Cassie gave him a bright smile. "I was already planning to ask you. She shouldn't have to be by herself, anymore."

Slinging an arm around Cassie, Matt gave her a quick hug. "Thanks for understanding."

"I understand more than you think I do, Matty."

Though he seriously doubted it, Matt let Cassie's remark slide by without comment. He watched Cassie go to Beth, saw Beth's face warm as Cassie offered to share her bedroom. When he heard, "It was Matty's idea," Matt hurried into his pickup. Cassie could have left that out, even taken honest credit for it, herself. Oh, well. At least he wouldn't have to picture Beth enduring an empty house until they moved in.

Instead, she would be crammed into theirs.

They stopped by Beth's place for the things she would need for the next few days, all of which filled two large suitcases and an overnight bag to capacity. At her suggestion, Matt and Ethan took apart Caleb's baby crib, then placed it in the back of the pickup truck. A good idea, Matt thought, if Dylan was ever to escape the carrier.

By the time they left for home, the moon and stars had claimed the pristine night sky. Ryan fell asleep in the backseat, and Cassie and Ethan yawned at such regular intervals, Matt found himself doing the same.

As Matt pulled into his neighborhood, he winced at the stark contrast between Beth's upscale house, and the trash-strewn front yards of these mobile homes. Dark shadows of broken down cars and trash no one bothered to haul to the dump, littered the front yards. Some kept their places tidy, but most didn't. Though the house Matt rented languished for want of attention, it didn't collect trash. Matt tried. He was still trying. Still struggling to live, to not give up on life. Maybe that made him a dreamer, an idealist. He didn't know. He only knew the day he stopped trying, would be the day he stopped living. The yard sure need to be weeded, though. Those dandelions sprang up everywhere.

When Matt came to a stop beside the curb in front of his house, Mrs. Lott walked across her tidy yard with a slip of paper in her hand.

Matt got out and greeted her.

"Your mother left a message," the old woman said, disdain creasing her wrinkled features even more. "That woman--" Mrs. Lott went stone silent as Beth's car parked behind his truck. Beth climbed out, an overnight bag under her arm. Reproof settled into Mrs. Lott's rheumy eyes as she looked to Matt for an explanation.

"We got married," he smiled.

"You did?" Mrs. Lott couldn't look more stunned if she'd tried.

In an effort to play down the suddenness of the marriage, Matt shrugged. "It was the only way we could keep Dylan."

"Dylan-- you mean Amadeus?" Mrs. Lott sighed, and the grim disdain returned. "Your mother told me all about her happy news. Another child she's abandoning, walking away from without a care in the world. It makes me so angry, I could spit."

"Well, angry or not, I couldn't keep Dylan without Beth's help." Matt put on his Stetson, slammed the door shut and smiled when Dylan began to cry. "Guess I woke him up. Cass," he stepped around the hood of the truck as Beth approached Mrs. Lott, "unstrap Dylan, would you? Ethan and I are going to set up his crib in the living room. What was Mom's message, Mrs. Lott?"

"Your mother told me to tell you," contempt filled Mrs. Lott's voice, "that she and Wade-- I take it he's the baby's daddy-- will get in touch with you tomorrow. About what, she didn't say, only that she'd get in touch. Oh, and she refused to leave her number. I asked her for one, so you could return the call, and she flatly turned me down. Said if she wanted to talk to you, she'd call you. That woman."

Though Matt didn't want to see his mom again, he needed to. She had to be told about Beth and the arrangements that were being made so the family could stay together. Eve had to agree to it, give her approval before she signed the papers that would make Dylan officially theirs. Mom has no choice, he thought, handing Ethan the hefty sides of the pricey looking crib. If Mom wants me to keep Dylan, she'll have to accept Beth as part of the family.

Cassie took the carrier to the women, and all at once, Mrs. Lott went into delighted grandmother mode. Matt smiled at her tender effusions. Neighborhood children like Ryan benefitted from the old woman's maternal love, a love she offered even though she had no grandkids of her own.

While the women enjoyed Dylan in all his babyness, Matt and Ethan took the crib into the house, piece by piece.

"For a crib, it sure is solid," Ethan muttered as they each lowered separate sides of the bed against the sofa. They looked over the lathed wooden ribs, the glossy dark finish. "It looks expensive."

"That's because it is," Matt said, running a hand over the impressive carpentry. He'd worked with wood before, had an idea of quality when he saw it. "This crib is made of mahogany."

"No kidding?" Ethan let out a whistle. "Just how rich is Beth?"

"I don't know," Matt shrugged. "Rich enough."

They carried the rest of the crib inside, reassembled it and then stood back to admire their handiwork.

Ethan grinned, jabbed Matt in the side with an elbow. "Kind of makes the rest of the place look like a dump, doesn't it?"

Matt replied with a grin of his own, though the same thought had occurred to him, as well.

The sound of approaching feminine voices cut short the boys' five minute break. Mrs. Lott carried Dylan inside, followed by Beth, who busily discussed with Mrs. Lott which baby formula was best for newborns. Ryan trotted at Beth's side, looking wide awake after that nap on the ride home. Matt groaned. That wide-eyed, bushy-tailed little boy was going to give him trouble when it came time to go to bed. Last of all, Cassie came in, set the carrier on the sofa and yawned. Unlike Ryan, Cassie looked worn out, and ready to fall asleep where she stood.

"How lovely," Mrs. Lott said, moving to the crib with Dylan in her arms.

"I'll get the mattress," Ethan said, going back to the truck for bedding.

The look on Beth's face as she went to the crib, laid a hand on the rail, made Matt's heart sadden with pity. "When Dylan is older, this will convert into a toddler bed." The wistful words made Matt think Caleb had never been old enough for that to happen. The boy had died at, what-- two years old? Two years old and still a youngster.

Leaving the women to talk, Matt went out to collect Beth's suitcases from her car. When he lugged them inside, Mrs. Lott prepared to leave.

"This is a big day for you," Mrs. Lott said, smiling at Matt as he moved his way through the living room, on his way to Cassie's bedroom.

"Yeah, I guess," he smiled, then disappeared into Cassie's room. It embarrassed him to think of telling Mrs. Lott that the marriage was in name only, even more so when he imagined admitting that to other men. With an attractive woman like Beth for a wife, what guy had a right to call himself a man when he didn't claim his wife in the bedroom? He strained, tried to hear Beth say anything to Mrs. Lott that might be construed as "in name only," but heard nothing. It's up to me then, he thought, dumping Beth's luggage onto Cassie's bed. He moved down the short hall, ready to make his confession to the elderly neighbor lady and to bear the humiliation that came with it.

To his surprise, Beth was saying good night, walking Mrs. Lott to the door, and promising to call whenever they needed a babysitter for the children. The moment Mrs. Lott left, Beth closed the door and blew out a sigh of relief.

Matt shot Beth a grin. "You didn't tell her, did you."

"Is that a question?" Beth asked.

"Not really." Matt shoved his hands into his pockets. "We're going to have to tell her, sometime."

"We need to discuss that," Beth said, going back to the crib where Dylan lay on his back, fast asleep, despite all the talking.

"What's to discuss?" Matt moved to the crib and smiled at Dylan, who looked even tinier in such a substantial piece of furniture.

Yawning, Ethan grunted a "good night," followed by an apologetic Cassie. Before Ethan left, Matt hollered after him to put Ryan to bed.

"Yes, father," Ethan said in a mocking tone. "Come on, Ry. Time for bed."

Ignoring Ethan's insolence, Matt turned back to Beth. "Like I said, what's to discuss? We tell people this marriage is in name only. End of story."

"It's none of their business, Matt. We're never getting an annulment, so they don't need to know. Do they?"

"Beth, after awhile, our friends won't need to be told anything-- they'll know."

"But this is our marriage, not theirs."

"I won't lie." Matt folded his arms in direct challenge.

"I'm not saying we should lie. I'm only saying, why bring it up if no one asks?"

Matt frowned. "What are you going to tell your girlfriends when they ask how I am in bed?"

Beth shook her head. "It's none of their business. Besides, I never talk about things like that-- with my friends, or anyone else except maybe my mom."

Shoulders slumped, Matt went to crash on the sofa. He propped his feet on the coffee table, pinned Beth with a long look. A stressful day and she still radiated beauty. "Beth, we're going to hurt feelings if we don't tell people it's in name only."

A thoughtful expression crossed her face. "What if we only confide that fact to our family and close friends?"

Silent, Matt thought it over.

"Matt, I don't want to have to tell people something that isn't any of their business in the first place. Why should we? This is our marriage, and like Pastor Mark said, it's none of their concern what happens or doesn't happen in the bedroom."

Wearily, Matt rubbed a hand over his tired eyes. "Mrs. Lott is a close friend, as close a friend as we have in this"-- he paused, smiled-- "this wonderful neighborhood."

"Then we tell her tomorrow. Or you can tell her," Beth added. "You know her better than me."

The hand dropped from Matt's face. "Do I sense a coward in the room?"

"I'm not a coward, I'm practical." A reluctant smile parted Beth's lips. "Okay, I'm not looking forward to telling anyone. I agree our family and close friends must be told, but I don't want to bring it up with others if it's not necessary."

Wild commotion sounded from the boys' room, then a second later, Ryan came speeding through the kitchen half dressed.

"Get back here!" Ethan shouted, bursting into the living room without regard to the newborn sleeping in the crib. "Matty, Ryan won't brush his teeth!"

A cry erupted from the mahogany crib, followed by a string of urgent sobs.

"Ethan, you woke the baby." Matt got to his feet, nodded his gratitude to Beth when she went to Dylan. "Now, what is this all about? And why are you in the living room in only your shorts?"

Ethan smirked. "This is what I always wear, same as you."

"Not anymore, not with Beth in the house. Let's take this into the boys' room." Matt picked up Ryan, then prodded Ethan back into the kitchen.

"This is our house--" Ethan started to argue, but Matt forced him back to their room before letting the debate go any further. "I don't see why I have to change the way I dress, just because Beth is here," Ethan finished, as Matt shut the bedroom door.

Matt set Ryan down, patted his small behind and ordered him into the bathroom to brush his teeth. When Ryan obeyed, Matt addressed his teenage brother.

"I'm tired of your whining. Beth is a part of this family, and you will respect her at least as much as you do me. Maybe that's asking a lot, but you had your chance to call off the deal, earlier today. That opportunity is over."

Ethan grimaced. "I knew she was going to be bossy. I just knew it."

"She is not the one telling you to pipe down. I am. Now what's the problem? Ryan is brushing his teeth, so that leaves the boxers." Matt threw up his hands. "So you can't roam the house in your underwear. Big deal. Get over it and move on with your life." In a moment of levity, Matt cracked a grin. "With all the problems in the world, you have to kick at that one?"

Ethan stared at Matt. "You know what this means, don't you?"

"No, I don't."

"Pajamas. Stupid PJ's. I'm not wearing them, Matty."

"Of course you're not wearing them. Only sissies wear PJ's-- them, and little kids," Matt added, seeing Ryan appear from the bathroom. "Tired, buddy? No? I'm afraid you don't have a say in the matter." Matt lifted Ryan, carried him over to the bed. "Let's say your bedtime prayer, then it's lights out."

"But what about my boxers?"

"Put on your pants before you leave the bedroom," Matt said, tucking Ryan beneath the covers.

The answer seemed to subdue Ethan's bent on pushing an argument. Ethan settled on the edge of the mattress as Ryan began his nightly prayer. The four-year-old asked God to bless his family, the next door chihuahua, Mrs. Lott and her lemon cookies, and the lady sleeping in Cassie's room.

"Her name is Beth," Matt whispered after the prayer had finished. He planted a kiss on Ryan's forehead, then went to switch off the lights.

"Hey, Matty." A big smile creased Ethan's mouth. "If you want any action tonight, vacate Cassie to the living room sofa so you and Beth can have some private time."

Turning the light out, Matt went to the bedroom door. "Mind your own business, Ethan."

"Yeah, yeah." Ethan yawned, then Matt heard the covers shift as Ethan got comfortable in bed. "Night, Matty."

What a long day, Matt thought, hauling himself through the kitchen, into the living room to finish his talk with Beth. He braced himself to resume their debate, only to find she had gone to bed. At least, that's what he assumed, for she wasn't in the living room. Matt checked Dylan, cuddled on his back in the safe position for babies, to lessen the risk of SIDS, then went to lock up the house for the night.

The front door secure, Matt went for the living room light switch when he saw Beth. She came from Cassie's room dressed in a white nightgown and a matching robe that skimmed her ankles. From the way the material moved, he guessed it was silk.

"Is the crisis over?" Beth asked, going to the crib to check on Dylan.

"Crisis?" Matt struggled to make his brain work. "Oh, the boxers. He won't do it again."

"Did you give my suggestion any thought?"

"Beth, I need to finish this conversation some other time."


"Because..." Matt gulped in air, wished he had been blind so he couldn't see that silk and all those curves.

"Matt, this nightwear is completely modest."

"If you say so." He backed away, stumbled over something on the floor but remained upright, and kept moving toward the kitchen. "We'll only tell our close friends and family. Good idea. Night."

He pivoted, ran to the bedroom and had to catch himself before he slammed the door shut. Man, if she was going to wear stuff like that, he was in big trouble.

After checking on Dylan one last time, Beth returned to Cassie's room where she shared a single mattress with a pre-teen who claimed she'd never had a "real roomie" before. At first, Cassie's enjoyment over the crowded arrangement baffled Beth, but the longer she heard Cassie talk, the more she realized the absence of women in the girl's life. Cassie now had a sister, the closest thing to a mother since the ever-absent Eve, and a girlfriend, someone to tell secrets to, exchange confidences with and simply pal around.

"You can have half the closet," Cassie repeated, going to the closet and making sure every one of the girl's hangers didn't encroach on "Beth's side." Beth also received the distinction of half the dresser drawers, the medicine cabinet in the attached bathroom, and the honor of turning "Cassie's room" into "the girls' room."

Beth didn't mind at all when Cassie snuggled beneath the blankets, then cuddled against her. There wasn't much room on the narrow bed, and Beth guessed the girl needed comfort. Though no one mentioned it, the dread of seeing Eve the next day had put everyone a little on edge.

With Cassie cuddled at her side, Beth went over some very private thoughts in silence.

It had been a mistake to go out there in her "safe" nightgown, not even a nylon garment and an ankle length robe that concealed everything. With Matt, there was no safe. Not with his past. She could not assume that simply because they were living in the same house, it would be all right to cover up with a robe and think there still wouldn't be a problem. Better to stay fully dressed outside of the bedroom, than to put poor Matt through such torture again.

Poor guy. If she could take it back, she would. She should have been more careful, more mindful of Matt's scarred past. Though unintentional, her carelessness had caused him distress, and the thought of it distressed her, as well. The boundaries of their agreement were being drawn, and Beth determined to live within them.

In the future, she would be more careful with Matt.

"... a prudent wife is from the LORD."
~ Proverbs 19:14 ~

"Can two walk together, except they be agreed?"
~ Amos 3:3 ~

end of chapter
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