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Chapter Sixteen
A Good Man

"A good man obtaineth favour of the LORD..."
~ Proverbs 12:2 ~

"Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favour of the LORD."
~ Proverbs 18:22 ~

When Matt cracked open his eyes, nothing felt different than any other morning. When he rolled over and bashed in the alarm clock's snooze button for five more minutes of sleep, the day before never even occurred to him.

Then he heard a woman's voice coming from the kitchen, and all of a sudden it hit-- he was a married man.

Wow. How had that happened?

Even before he felt wide awake, the thought twisted in Matt that his wedding night had been spent alone. The memory of Beth in that soft robe came before him, and it was all he could do to push the image from his mind. He swung his legs over the side of the mattress, rubbed his face and tried to get his mind right.

A pan rattled in the kitchen, followed by the click of the gas range. With a twinge of regret, Matt realized Beth was making breakfast. He should have gotten up early, made sure she didn't do any housework. After all, Beth was sort of his guest. Wasn't she?

The sounds of breakfast stirred Ryan before they did Ethan. The boy climbed from bed, went into the bathroom, and after a few moments, Matt heard the toilet flush.

"Is she still here?" Ryan asked, coming into the bedroom with a hopeful face. "Is Beth here to stay?"

"Yes, she's still here." Matt scratched his leg, gave Ryan a sidelong look. "I didn't hear the sink just now."

A sly smile crossed Ryan's face.

"You did wash your hands after you flushed the toilet, right?"

"Ethan said I don't have to."

Matt blinked. "He what?"

"Ethan said I don't have to wash my hands if I don't touch anything dirty."

Reaching for a pillow, Matt hurled it across the room to where his teenage brother lay sleeping. "Ethan, wake up."

"Why?" came the groggy reply.

"Did you tell Ryan he didn't have to wash his hands after using the toilet?"


"He says you did."

A hand pulled the pillow from his head, and two half open eyes peered out at Matt under a messy fringe of bed-tossed hair. "What are you talking about?"

Matt stared at Ethan. "Do you wash your hands after you take a leak?"

"Of course I--" Ethan stopped short of finishing. "Not all the time."

"Well, wash up. All the time." Matt stood, pulled on some jeans and a pair of heavy work socks. "This family is going to start shaping up. I don't want Beth thinking we grew up in a garbage bin."

"Speak for yourself. I don't care what she thinks."

"Get out of bed, Ethan. Beth is cooking breakfast, and if you don't start moving, I'll tell her not to feed you."

After firing a scowl at Matt, Ethan sat up in bed and stared at the sheets until Matt threatened to haul him off the mattress.

Some days, it didn't pay to be the older brother.

Tugging a work shirt from the closet, Matt put it on as Ryan twisted off the bathroom faucet after washing up. His face expectant with a rare treat, Ryan went to the bedroom door and swung it wide open. Aroma wafted in from the kitchen, heavy with the scent of eggs and toast and syrup.

Eyes wide as saucers, Ryan turned to Matt with a wide grin. "French toast, Matty!" In Ryan's excitement, he raced off, but not before slamming the door shut behind him.

"Wonderful." Ethan got out of bed, pulled on some jeans and stared at Matt with a dismal sigh. "Beth just got here, and already she's using up our groceries for just one meal. Someone should go in there and tell her that food is supposed to last all week."

Matt glared at his brother. "You keep your mouth shut in front of her. She doesn't know that."

Silence fell between the boys as they finished dressing. Matt stuffed his work gloves into a hip pocket, stooped to tug on his boots.

"You going into work today?" Ethan asked in alarm.

"It's Tuesday, isn't it?"

"But what about Mom? Isn't she supposed to come?"

"I suppose." Matt shrugged. "She wasn't exactly explicit in her message."

"What if Mom comes while you're still at work?"

"Then we'll have to hope you'll be home from school by then to talk to her."


"Ethan, you can't avoid her forever. I know you don't like her, but it's only Mom. If she drops by, tell her to come back in the evening when I'm home." Picking up the Stetson, Matt opened the bedroom door, went into the kitchen with Ethan hard on his heels.

"Do I have to talk to her, Matty? Couldn't you stay home from work this one day?"

"Good morning," Beth smiled as they came to the table. She set a plate before them with more of the French toast Ryan was already enjoying. She flicked a smile at Matt, then went to the stove where slices of egg-dipped bread sizzled in a skillet.

Placing the hat beneath his chair, Matt sat down and smiled at his sister's bright face.

"You're looking chipper this morning, Cass. Is your new roommate treating you all right?"

"She's given me half her closet," Beth said, flipping the bread over with a slotted turner.

Matt grinned. "With all that luggage, I have a hunch you're going to need the space."

"Matty," Ethan dumped himself into a chair at the table, "can't we leave Mom a note on the front door? Does she have to know I'm home? Do I have to let her in?"

"If you and Cass are home, then yes, you have to let her in. Ethan, she's our mom."

"I wish you'd stop reminding me."

"Then Mom is coming?" The brightness in Cassie's face dimmed. "Matty, do we have to be here when she comes?"

"I wish you guys would calm down and relax a little." Matt reached for the syrup, noticed a certain small somebody had left sticky fingerprints on the bottle. "Ryan, wash your hands."

"Please, Matty," Cassie leaned forward in her chair, "when school lets out today, couldn't we come to the nursery? We could wait there, then go home and face Mom, together."

"The school bus doesn't stop at the nursery, Cass."

Ryan examined a hand. "I already washed. Do I have to again?"

Ethan's face twisted into a scowl. He folded his arms, ignored the plate Beth set before him. "I'm not waiting around for Mom to show up."

"Please, Matty," Cassie's begging grew more desperate with each passing minute. "Don't make us face Mom without you."

"Guys, come on," Matt set down his fork, looked first at Cassie then Ethan. "I'm not asking you to face a firing squad. Just deliver a message to Mom and wait for me and Beth to get home. Ryan, go wash your hands."

With a thoughtful look, Beth took the remaining chair at the table. "They could come to the nursery, Matt. It's all right with me."

"I'd have to go get them, Beth. Like I said a moment ago, the bus doesn't stop at the nursery."

Beth smiled. "I think I can arrange some time off with your boss so you can pick up the kids."

"That's nice of her," Matt said in a sturdy tone, "but the kids will stay here."

"Matty, please?"

"Cass, I don't want the girls at work to meet the rest of my family. Things are going to be interesting enough there, as it is."

A gasp parted Beth's lips.

"We have to tell them, Beth. Ryan, I told you to go wash your hands."

"But I didn't take a leak, Matty!"

"I suppose we can't keep it from Sylvia and Amy," Beth said with a sigh.

"Does this mean we can't come?" Ethan asked.

Matt gave a grim chuckle. "I never said you could in the first place. Ryan, would you get up and go wash your hands before you spread syrup everywhere?"

"I've been thinking," Beth stared at her French toast, then turned her green eyes on Matt, "maybe you wouldn't mind being present when I call my parents, today."

"Sure." Matt lifted a shoulder. "I'll talk to them, let them know I'll take care of you."

"Thanks, I'd appreciate it. They don't know you, and I'm sure all this will come as quite a shock-- not that you're shocking, mind you. It's just that--"

"I'm a total stranger," Matt finished. "I get it, Beth. You don't have to explain. Are you going to tell them everything?"

"They're my parents, Matt."

"Yeah, I guess." Matt felt his stomach turn at the thought of Beth informing her Dad and Mom of his past-- or at least, the part of his past that Beth knew about. Thank God he hadn't told her the rest. Her Dad would drop with a heart attack, if he knew his daughter had married such a man.

The grim faces of Ethan and Cassie added to Matt's growing heaviness at the prospects for the day. The morning had yet to really begin, and already he wanted to start over.

"Okay, I give in." Matt leaned back in his chair with a groan. "If Beth is willing, you guys can wait at the nursery until we get off work. The girls are going to be curious, but I suppose if it'll buy me some peace at home, it's worth it."

Beth smiled her approval.

"Okay, then." Matt shook his head at the thought of what he might be getting himself into. "I'll come get you guys after school. I want you both to do your homework, though. This isn't a vacation."

Ryan came back to his chair, held out his hands for Matt to see.

"Thanks, buddy."

"Can't I come to the nursery, too?"

"Nope. You and Dylan will keep Mrs. Lott company, next door."

After breakfast, Matt and Beth took the smaller ones to the elderly neighbor. Matt asked that if Eve showed up, to tell her to come back in the evening when everyone would be home. Seeing an opportunity to tell Mrs. Lott the truth, Matt took her aside and told her about the marriage being in name only. To Matt's relief, the old woman took the news in quiet understanding. They were doing a good thing. Even Mrs. Lott didn't need to be told every single last detail to understand that.

For about five minutes, while the kids raced to their school bus, Beth and Matt struggled over who's car to drive into work. Even though it didn't make sense to take separate vehicles, Matt flat out refused to accept a ride from Beth.

The stubborn cowboy.

Deciding not to fight, Beth climbed into the passenger seat of Matt's pickup. Of course he would drive, after all, it was his vehicle and why he didn't want to take her car, in the first place. He wanted to be the one behind the wheel. The words were never said, but very much implied. If she was coming with him, then come. Otherwise, they were going to be late for work. This male reasoning did little to ease Beth's already busy mind.

She wished the morning had gone better, that Matt would flash his easy smile-- the one she had seen after their wedding kiss. By the grim set of his mouth just now, she guessed he felt as depressed as she did. Maybe even more so.

When Matt pulled into the garden nursery's parking lot, Beth breathed a sigh of relief at being the first to arrive. She popped open the pickup door, stepped out while Matt planted the Stetson on his head.

"Let me be the one to tell them, Matt."

"I won't fight you for the privilege," he said with a wry grin.

Beth gave him a long look. "If I don't decide to tell them everything?"

"Do you really think we can hide it? The kids are going to be here, remember?"

Biting her tongue, Beth shut her eyes. Everything was happening at the same time, the same day. Why couldn't God space things out, give them a chance to breathe before the next hurdle presented itself?

"I can do all things through Christ," Beth breathed, remembering the Bible passage she had studied earlier that morning. The promise came as welcome encouragement, especially when a horn tooted behind her as she unlocked the store entrance.

"Sylvia's here," Matt said with a hint of irony. "For once, she's here before Amy."

Dark shades covered Sylvia's eyes, her glossy curls bouncing as she made her way to where they stood by the entrance.

"Good morning, Beth."


The red lips below the sunglasses parted in an unsettling smile. "I thought I'd surprise you, and come in early, today."

"This isn't early, Silvi. This is what being on time looks like."

An impudent smirk crossed Sylvia's face.

They went inside, and Sylvia moved over to where Matt stood by the counter, waiting for work instructions. Nothing was said, but Beth saw the flirtatious smile, the way she leaned over the counter to show off her figure to its full advantage in front of Matt.

Matt turned to Beth, a pleading look in his eyes. Whether he wanted to be out of the store and away from Sylvia, or desired something more from Beth, Beth didn't feel confident enough to guess. She did, however, sense his relief when she handed him the gate keys and told him to go out back and water the plants.

With Matt out of the way, Beth went about her morning routine while Sylvia watched.

"When Amy comes in, I have some news to tell you." Beth ignored the sudden jolt of interest from Sylvia. She sensed, rather than saw, the narrowing eyes behind the dark glasses.

"Does this have anything to do with why you closed the nursery, yesterday?"

"It does," Beth said, not bothering to look up. "Please start work in the office by finishing the paperwork you left from Saturday."

With an impatient sigh, Sylvia left Beth alone.

A half hour later, while Beth worked a calculator at the office desk, she heard Amy's voice coming from inside the store. It seemed but a moment between Amy's arrival, and Sylvia's holding Amy by the arm in Beth's office doorway.

"You can let go now." Amy pulled her arm free from Sylvia. "What's all this about?"

Sylvia gave a glowing smile. "Beth has news to tell."

"Is Matt still out back?" Beth asked, ushering them inside. She got up, closed the office door for privacy, then returned to her desk.

"Yes, he's out back." Sylvia folded her arms. "Give, Beth. We're here, so what's the news?"

Beth leaned back in her swivel chair. "I got married yesterday."

"What?" Visible shock registered in Sylvia's face. "You? Married?"

The incredulous wording gave Beth the direct impression Sylvia thought it impossible.

Doing her best to ignore the insult, Beth pressed on. "It was a small ceremony, with only a few people present. I'm not an overly sentimental person, but it was a happy occasion and I'm sorry I didn't have time to invite you both."

"Who's the guy?" Sylvia asked in an offhanded manner.

Beth allowed herself a smile. "Matt Taylor."

Sylvia blinked, her imperious act coming to a dead stop. "You can't be."

"I'm afraid I am, Silvi. Matt is taking another brother into his family-- a newborn baby boy-- and he needs my help raising the children. It's not the most ideal situation for romance, I'll admit, but I don't mind saying that the marriage has made me very happy."

"Are you sure about this new brother?" Sylvia asked. "Maybe Matt is trying to pass off his own kid as a brother, just so you'll feel sorrier for him."

"I don't appreciate that kind of talk in my office, Sylvia."

Sylvia pressed her lips together, and Beth enjoyed the momentary silence it brought.

Unlike Sylvia, Amy didn't show much emotion. Though Amy looked pleased by Beth's news, Beth figured Amy didn't have the courage to say it out loud and had decided to take refuge in cautious silence; as a consequence, after Sylvia and Beth's exchange, the conversation ended with Beth excusing them back to their work without anything more said about Matt Taylor, his baby brother, or the marriage.

Shutting the office door for a few moments of quiet, Beth leaned forward in the chair, put her head in her hands and breathed. She had told them all they needed to know. If they ever found out more, she could always tell them to mind their own business.

The plants watered, Matt headed into the store to find Beth. Sylvia wasn't anywhere in sight, but Amy sat perched on the stool at the checkout, chatting with a customer who was just leaving. When Amy saw Matt, her face broke into a smile.

"Where's Beth?" Matt asked.

Amy wiggled her eyebrows. "So it's not Mrs. Carter, anymore?"

He smiled. "Beth has told you, huh?"

"She didn't say much," Amy said, her head tilting to one side in a teasing manner, "but she did tell us that you've made her very happy."

"Beth actually said that?"

"I can't remember if those were her exact words," Amy said with a smile, "but something to that effect."

Embarrassed for having asked the question, Matt gave a quick nod, thanked Amy for her congratulations, then moved off to find Beth.

From the sounds coming from the office, Beth was on the phone. He stepped through the doorway, waited for her to get off.

"That's because you're overwatering, Mrs. Palmer. The leaves shouldn't be yellow. Yes, I know you're being careful, but do you remember what I told you last time? Boston Ferns don't need a lot of water, in fact, they're very drought resistant. Yes, if that's what you wish, I can give you a refund. Thank you, Mrs. Palmer. I'll see you later today."

Beth hung up the phone, blew out a tired sigh. "That was Mrs. Palmer. She's killing the fern I sold her, and is now blaming me because it's turning yellow."

Matt shrugged. "Then don't give her money back."

His suggestion was met with a dismissing wave. "For the most part, she's a sweet old woman with a very lonely life. I refuse to fight her for the sake of a few dollars. Have you finished watering? Good, then I want you to rotate the pots, placing the best ones in front for display purposes. When you're done, hose down the loading dock and then join me at the potting table to help with transplants. Any questions?"

Beth's teacher tone rubbed Matt the wrong way, but he ducked his chin and went outside to do his job. He had wanted to ask what Beth had told the girls, and how the news had gone over with Sylvia. The teacher tone had cut him off, however, and Matt struggled with the helpless feeling it left inside him.

Not long after he began sorting pots, Sylvia rounded the building and went to the herb section of the nursery's open lot out back. She hunted around, found what she was looking for, and without even acknowledging Matt's presence, went into the store with a potted sage in her hand.

Content that at least he didn't have to talk to her, Matt went about his work with a sense of relief. It didn't last for long.

"I didn't know you were that serious about her," sounded behind his back, and when Matt turned, he found Sylvia. She stood a few feet away, the dark sunglasses tucked into her hair. "Beth says you're making her happy. Is it true?"

Though his heart beat fast at the thought of Beth saying that, Matt returned to the pots. "If that's what Beth said, then it must be true."

A snort came from behind his back. "You know what everyone will think, don't you? That you married her for her money. They might be too polite to say it, but they'll certainly think it."

"That's their problem." Matt shrugged, but the barb had made a direct hit.

Sylvia moved into another row, faced Matt over the potted geraniums separating them. "You don't even love her."

Matt's head snapped up. "You assume a lot."

Her bright red lips parted to hurl a retort-- Matt could feel it coming-- then they pressed shut with a frown.

"It's not fair. Beth went through one husband, and now she gets another. What about me? When's it my turn to find a good man?"

Unable to think of a single thing to say in reply, Matt went back to work. As Sylvia stalked off, he fought to keep from smiling. He didn't deserve the backhanded compliment Sylvia had flung at his feet, but it made for an amusing joke. Then the smile slipped away, leaving regret in its wake. A good man. How he wished that description fit him.

Hands on the steering wheel, Matt waited at the stoplight while Cassie sat in the backseat and talked of her day. He didn't mind the conversation, provided it only went one way. He didn't feel like talking, and neither did the teenager next to him. Ethan had shoved his text books onto the seat between him and Matt, and whenever Matt made a sharp turn, they slid to one side.

According to a brief remark Ethan had made getting into the pickup, his day had totally crashed. Coming from Ethan, that could mean anything.

"I wish you could always pick us up, Matty." Cassie smiled at him when he glanced in the rearview mirror. "This is a lot better than the school bus."

"The bus stinks," Ethan said with a groan. He put an elbow on the door, looked out the window. From the reflection on the glass, Matt saw the despondency in his brother's face.

"Before I came to get you guys," Matt said, deciding to speak up now instead of at the nursery, "Beth told me her house is far enough from town, it's out of range for the school buses."

"What?" That got Ethan's attention. "Then how are we supposed to get to school?"

"Beth suggested we buy a minivan big enough for the whole family, then one of us will give up our vehicle so you can drive yourself and Cassie to school."

"My own truck? Are you kidding?"

"Who says you're getting my pickup?"

"She's paying for the minivan, isn't she?"

"Yeah. So?"

"So I figure you won't want to owe her anymore than you have to. That means I get the truck."

Matt frowned. "You think you know me that well?"

"Hey," Ethan grinned, "we're brothers, aren't we?"

The comment made Matt smile. "I thought you'd want Beth's sedan over this old junker."

Ethan shook his head, slumped down in his seat with more good humor than Matt had seen for a long while. "This junker might be old, but it's a cool set of wheels."

"It is not." Matt shot Ethan a glance. "The paint is chipped, the bumper is dented, and the seats are torn. Just what makes it so great?"

"I dunno." Ethan looked through the side window. "It's your truck. I always thought it was cool."

Neither one said anything more, and when Cassie started talking about the joys of avoiding the school bus, they let her talk uninterrupted.

Ethan's compliment lifted Matt's spirits, though Matt didn't know why it should. The truck was most definitely lacking in coolness, and he was most definitely not someone to be emulated. The fact that his brother, to some small degree, looked up to him, only deepened Matt's responsibility to set a good example. A good man would know how to set that example. All Matt could hope for, was to not mess up too badly in front of the others.

At least Matt wasn't here to see her being so silly. It wasn't as though she had given birth to Dylan. So why should she feel so anxious about leaving Dylan with Mrs. Lott? The woman could handle children-- Beth had no doubt of that-- but she wished she had fought to bring Dylan and Ryan into work today. They would surely get under foot, but it had to be better than calling Mrs. Lott every hour, on the hour, to ask how the small ones were doing.

The last call had been the most touching, with Ryan grabbing the receiver to tell Beth all about the tent he had made from an old blanket and Mrs. Lott's kitchen table. The eager sweetness of Ryan would have made the rest of the day go quickly for Beth, had not Sylvia thrown a tantrum at being made to do something she felt was Amy's responsibility. Amy had engaged Sylvia in the ensuing firefight, and Beth had taken a few hits in the process of breaking up their argument. When women fight, it isn't necessarily with fists. Words are a more likely weapon, and after the words that had been hurled between Sylvia and Amy that afternoon, they were no longer speaking to one another. It was, "Mrs. Carter, tell Sylvia this," or "Beth, tell Amy that..." Amy still had trouble calling Beth, Mrs. Taylor, but Beth figured with enough gentle reminders, Amy would soon catch on.

Beth hoped Luke didn't mind.

When Matt's pickup pulled into the parking lot, Beth came out from the loading dock to greet the Taylors.

"We're probably going to regret this," Matt said, coming to Beth with his hands jammed into his pockets. He turned as Cassie and Ethan joined them.

"You both can use my office desk to do your homework," Beth said, motioning to the store entrance. "Matt will show you where it is."

"Couldn't I help out?" Cassie asked, propping her books on one hip. "I don't have much homework."

Matt tapped Cassie on the shoulder. "Schoolwork first, other stuff second. Come on, I'll show you the office."

When the Taylors had gone inside, Beth went to the potting table to start those transplants. She had to hand it to Matt for keeping the children on task. Even though he had dropped out of school, Matt wasn't about to let that happen to Ethan or Cassie.

Striding around the building, Matt came to the table already wearing his gloves. "I set them up in your office," he said, lifting another bag of potting soil for Beth. "I'm thinking about calling Mrs. Lott to see if Mom has shown up yet."

"She hasn't." Beth noticed the startled look on Matt's face and smiled. "Shown up, I mean."

"How do you know?"

"Well..." Beth paused, embarrassed to admit her weakness in front of Matt.

"You've been calling her, haven't you? To check on Dylan."

"Is there anything wrong with that?"

Matt groaned, shook his head with a small chuckle. "Our mom doesn't care about us, even half as much as you do."

"Caring isn't hard, Matt. You're a lovable bunch."

Matt slanted her a sidelong look, but made no comment.

Once every so often that day, a dark look would flash into his eyes like the approach of a thunderstorm. She noticed it usually happened after he'd been caught staring at her, and when she dared to meet his gaze, he would look away, and the storm would temporarily clear. It was moments after such a storm, that Beth's cell phone rang in the large pocket of her canvas apron.

Hoping it wasn't Mrs. Lott to inform them of a mishap with the children, Beth pulled off her work gloves and took out the phone. One look at the display, and her concern eased.

She put the cell phone to her ear, heard the familiar voice that always made her feel loved.

"Hi, Mom."

"I'm sorry to take you away from your work, Sweetheart. We just heard the message you left on our answering machine this morning. Is something wrong? Are you hurt?"

Beth looked at Matt, saw the understanding dawn in his face. "No, I'm not hurt, and nothing is wrong. Is Dad around?"

"Aiden!" Beth heard her mom call. "Pick up the extension in the bedroom! It's Beth!"

The Stetson came off, and Matt swiped at his brow before putting it back on. "So this is it? You're going to tell them right now?"

"I'd like to get it over with," Beth said, covering the phone with a hand so her mom couldn't overhear. "You don't mind, do you?"

Arms folded, he shook his head. "Nah. It'll be a piece of cake. You'll introduce me to your dad, he'll yell at me, disown you, and then I'll never have to face him again. I figure the whole thing will only take a few minutes."

"Dad doesn't yell."

"Okay-- talk to me sternly. In the end, it's the same difference. Is he on the phone yet?"

"He must be in the bathroom," Beth smiled. "Hello, Mom? What's taking Dad so long?"

"I'm here, Peanut," a man's voice boomed over Beth's cell phone. "What's the big news?"

Beth shut her eyes. Breathe, she told herself. Just remember to breathe. Something grazed her knuckles, and when she opened her eyes, she realized Matt was taking her free hand in his.

"Mom, Dad-- do you remember how you kept telling me to move on with my life? To not keep living in the past?"

"Sure do, Peanut. What about it?"

"I've decided to take your advice, Dad. I got married."

The long dead silence over the phone told Beth what her parents could not. Shock. Absolute shock.

Matt squeezed her fingers. "When he starts yelling, pass me the phone."

"Who was that, Peanut?"

"That was him, Dad. That was Matt."

"Pass him the phone, then."

"Daddy, he's a good man--"

"Give him the phone, Beth."

Swallowing her dread, Beth handed the cell phone to Matt. He let go of her hand, took the phone and Beth felt the loss of his reassuring touch.

"Mr--" Matt looked to Beth, suddenly wide-eyed and frantic.

"Campbell," Beth whispered, realizing Matt didn't know her maiden name.

Matt swallowed. "Mr. Campbell."

Beth leaned into the cell phone pressed to Matt's ear, until she could hear the sound of her father's voice, booming loud and clear.

"So you're the one who married my daughter?"

"Yes, sir, I'm the one."

"How long have you known her?"

"Not long."

"A few years?"

"No, sir, a few weeks."

Aiden grunted. "Are you a Christian?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, that's something, anyway. When did this happen?"

"I was a teenager when I accepted Christ--"

"No, no, the marriage. When did it take place, and why didn't Beth tell us before it happened? You wouldn't have had anything to do with that, would you?"

"No, sir, I tried to get her to call. Beth said she'd tell you later."

Beth swatted Matt's arm, and despite the stress of the situation, Matt grinned.

"What, sir? Oh-- I think she was afraid you'd try to stop the marriage."

A booming chuckle filled the cell phone, so that Matt held it away from his ear until her father quieted.

"You're certainly different than Luke, that's for sure. I appreciate your candor-- what was your name, again?"

"Matt. Matt Taylor."

"I like your honesty, Matt, but you'll forgive me if I don't welcome you into the family. My daughter has just informed me she's gotten married, and to someone her mother and I have never met. Beth says you're a good man, but how are we supposed to know if that's true or not?"

"I'm not a good man, Mr. Campbell. I'll tell you that straight off."

Beth shook Matt's shoulder to get him to stop, but when he moved away and she could no longer hear, Beth leaned in to resume her eavesdropping.

"Would you care to explain that?"

"Yes, sir. I'll do my best. I'm a former drug and--"

Beth snatched the cell phone away from Matt before he said one word more. "Dad, if you have any questions, I'll be the one to answer them. Matt told me all about his past before we married, so I can tell you anything you want to know."

Matt held out his hand for the phone. "Beth, I should be the one to tell him."

"This is my father, Matt-- not yours."

"I'm not afraid of him, Beth."

"I know you're not, that's why you're not getting this cell phone back."

"Peanut, put Matt on the phone."

"What do you want to know, Dad? If Matt was ever a drug addict? He used to be, but not anymore. He's also admitted to once having a sex addition, but there's no way I'm going to let him shame himself over the phone to someone he doesn't even know. Not just so he can satisfy his conscience by answering your questions, himself."

A pause. "He's no coward, then?"

"No, Daddy, Matt is definitely not a coward. He's been taking care of two brothers and a sister all by himself since he was a teenager, and now he's taking in another baby brother he just found out about."

"From the way you're painting him, he sounds like quite a man."

"He is, Dad. One of the finest." Beth moved to another location to avoid the insistent hand grabbing for her cell phone. "The responsibilities are too much for Matt to handle alone, so I volunteered myself. We married in name only, Dad, but this marriage is for life. You'd better start getting used to him now, because he's not going anywhere."

"Shannon? Do you hear what your daughter is saying?"

"So now she's my daughter again, is she?"

"We're coming out there to meet him," Aiden said in a tone that would brook no opposition. "If you don't have room for your mother and I, we'll stay at a hotel. But we are coming."

"There's plenty of room, Dad. You know that."

"After this unexpected bomb, I'm not sure of anything right now. Shannon, start packing. We'll leave tomorrow morning and be in Las Cruces in time for a late lunch."

"You have a doctor's appointment, tomorrow," Beth's mother said in a patient tone. "I want to make sure your twisted knee is healing as it should."

"Then the day after-- Thursday-- we'll head out to New Mexico and meet the man our daughter has chosen. I tell you, Shannon, it's a fine day when we're the last to know when one of our children has gotten married."

"Dad," Beth interrupted, "I haven't told the rest of the family yet."

"Your sister, your brother? They don't know?"

"Mom, I didn't have time."

"Very well, I'll call them myself," Shannon said with a sigh. "Elizabeth, you're sure of this man? Very sure?"

"Yes, Mom. I'm sure."

"We'll see you Thursday, Peanut."

After exchanging good-byes, the line went silent as people hung up their phones.

Beth tucked the cell phone into her apron, turned to see Matt staring at the toes of his boots.

"Why did you tell them all that stuff about me?"

"Because it was true."

"No, it's not."

"Matt, please look at me."

When he finally did, Beth saw defiance glinting in his eyes and it put her on guard.

"I did not tell them one single thing that I didn't believe in with all my heart. You can either choose to accept it, or not. But I will not stand by and let you tear yourself down like that--" Beth let out a surprised gasp as Matt stepped forward, pulled her into his arms and claimed her mouth. His insistence made it impossible to think, as did the hands that pressed her to him.

Then all at once, he yanked away, leaving Beth to yearn for more. She could hear Matt's quick intake, her own rushing pulse easily matching his.

He sucked in air, leveled her a piercing look.

Beth put out a hand to steady herself against the potting table.

"Great. That's just great." Matt huffed out a breath, his mouth parting in a humorless chuckle. "I can't even keep my word to you. The others are counting on me to make this work, and I had to go and pull that stunt."


"No, Beth." He chuckled again, his eyes turning shades darker than before. "Save all those lofty words for your parents. Tell them how great I am-- I don't care. Just don't say all that stuff in front of me. I know what I am, and hearing you..." he clamped his lips together. "If you knew me-- really knew me-- you'd never even think those words, let alone say them out loud."

"I know all I need to, Matt."

The deep sadness in his eyes caught Beth even more off guard than the rush of the second kiss. He moved away from her, went to the side of the building and ran the garden hose over his head for several moments. Beth knew he had to be freezing, for though the sun was out, she knew how cold the water from that hose could be.

Without looking back, Matt disappeared into the store, leaving Beth to piece together her shattered senses. After seeing all the water he had doused himself with before retreating, Beth took a measure of comfort in knowing that the impassioned kiss had at least cost Matt as much as it had her.

All that passion, and after she had been trying to be mindful of those boundaries, more careful with Matt and his scarred past. After being so careful, he'd still snatched her up and kissed her, then dropped her without warning.

Fine. She could live like this. Matt might drive her crazy in the process, but if he did, Beth was going to take him with her.

"Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon."
~ Song of Solomon 4:11 ~

end of chapter
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