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Chapter Seventeen
It's Complicated

"My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: He that keepeth thee will not slumber."
~ Psalm 121:2, 3 ~

Her parents were coming. Not today, thank God, but the day after. Matt couldn't fathom why that thought gave him so much comfort. Thursday would come, and he would face Beth's parents whether he dreaded their arrival, or not. Dig in his heels, refuse to look at the calendar-- it didn't matter. They were coming, and Matt found a new reason to distrust Thursdays; they were so tauntingly close to weekend relief, but still distant enough for anything to happen. And it had.

They were coming.

"Get a grip, Taylor," Matt told himself as he pushed the broom down an aisle of the store. A bushy plant sat on a nearby shelf, its pot covered by a bright bow and a plastic insert that read "Have a sunny day!"

He adjusted the pot so it faced the aisle. Plants had it made. They couldn't read the silly things people stuck into their dirt, and they didn't have in-laws. And plants didn't kiss. No geranium ever shook with such passion the way Matt had when Beth was in his arms. Man, what a dumb thing to do. If he wanted to torture himself, why not slam his skull into a brick wall? Repeatedly. It would hurt less than what he felt now. A third-degree burn would have been better, a toothache, a stupid broken bone. Anything but letting go.

Did Beth know how crazy that kiss had made him? He hoped not. He had to get through the day, go home, and face her there, as well.

At least Matt didn't have to repeat his mistake. Maintaining a twelve foot clearance from Beth at all times, ought to do the trick. Of course, so would changing his name and moving to Alberta. No kissing Beth, and no in-laws. The thought almost made him smile.

A customer forced Matt's attention back to work. Did he know where the trowels were kept? Which aisle, and did they have cushioned knee pads? Matt answered the questions, only to come face to face with an elderly woman with a yellowed plant that looked about as frail as she did.

A tattered pink sweater covered a gray one-piece dress and a hunched frame. Support hose came to just below her knees, and her shoes looked very much like house-slippers. The old woman gave Matt a frowning look.

"Are you the one I have to see about getting this fern replaced?"

"Excuse me?"

"This fern. I want it replaced."

When Matt hesitated a moment too long, she gave a quick sigh of impatience.

"This store sold me a defective plant, and I want it replaced." She held up the unfortunate object, poked it with a finger. "See? It's not supposed to be yellow. Beth told me it wasn't."

Something fell into place in Matt's mind. "Mrs. Palmer?"

"That's me," she said with a curt nod. "Now how about my Boston Fern? You going to do anything, or just stand there and ask questions?"

"Beth told me she would give you a refund. If you'll go to the checkout and tell the cashier--"

"I don't want my money back." The old woman pulled at the corner of her sweater. "I told you, I want this fern replaced. It's defective."

It's being overwatered, Matt thought with a sigh. Maybe being stuck in a pot wasn't so great, after all.

Beth had already told him she was willing to give Mrs. Palmer back her money, so he figured a replacement instead of the refund would be all right. He glanced around the store, remembered Beth was out back at the potting table.

Out of the corner of his eye, Matt caught Amy going into the office, heard Ethan's voice and realized Amy was talking to his brother.

Great. Just great.

"Young man," Mrs. Palmer gave him a retired teacher look-- a look much like Beth's, but older-- "I want to see your ferns."

"I think they're against the window," Matt said, nodding to the front of the store. He glanced at the office, saw Amy through the open door. Her head tilted as though listening, then she laughed.

"Show me," the old woman said.


"Take me to the ferns. My eyes aren't what they used to be, and I can't tell one plant from another."

"Then why do you want one?" Matt asked.

The question made Mrs. Palmer's face wrinkle in thought.

"You should have something you can see. Flowers, maybe. Something with big blooms." Matt craned his head for a better look at the office. He prayed Amy wouldn't flirt with his brother. Though Amy was nineteen-- only two years older than Ethan-- Matt didn't want Amy getting involved with a guy who was trying to become as reckless with his life as Matt had once been. Not that Ethan could easily outdo Matt's record, or even match it. The brothers differed, for while Ethan possessed rebellion, he lacked the total abandon Matt had experienced; and while Ethan enjoyed a degree of hope for the future, the word "hope" had been foreign to Matt throughout most of his childhood.

Hopelessness, reckless abandon, and addiction made a dangerous threesome.

"Mrs. Palmer, I didn't know you were here." Beth came toward them, and Matt caught the reprimand in Beth's eyes when she flicked him an annoyed glance. He should have found her, told her Mrs. Palmer had come. Tamping down some annoyance of his own, Matt endured the moment in silence.

"I have your money right here," Beth said, reaching into an apron pocket.

The old woman waved away the money. "None of that," she said, and looked at Matt. "I want flowers. Lots of them."

"You want a replacement? I can show you several good alternatives." When Beth started to lead Mrs. Palmer to another part of the store, the old woman resisted.

"I want him to show me," she said, a bony finger pointing to Matt.

"But he doesn't know anything about plants."

"He doesn't have to." Mrs. Palmer's face wrinkled into a warm smile. "I like him."

"I should warn you," Beth gave a feminine grin, "he's a married man."

Matt hoped he didn't appear as embarrassed as he felt. He kept glancing back at the office, wondering what Amy could possibly be saying to Ethan. When Sylvia joined Amy, Matt moaned out loud.

"What is it?" Beth asked.

"It's Sylvia. She's standing next to Amy and now they're both talking to my brother. I should have known better than to bring Ethan into a store with so many desperate women around."

"We're not desperate, Matt."

Matt gave Beth a half-hearted chuckle, and she smiled. "Okay, maybe some of us are. But Amy is getting serious about Joe, and I wouldn't be surprised if wedding bells aren't in her future. As for Sylvia... I'll go in there and make sure she retracts her claws before anyone gets hurt."

During this exchange, Mrs. Palmer seemed to forget her poor Boston Fern. In the face of such entertainment, Matt figured the old woman was getting her money's worth by just standing there.

"Show Mrs. Palmer some houseplants," Beth said, heading for the office. "The ones near the front will give nice blooms."

When Matt lingered to watch, Mrs. Palmer watched with him. Nothing much could be seen, and even less heard, so Matt headed his customer over to the houseplants near one of the large pane windows at the front of the store. Mrs. Palmer seemed content to stare at the plants with Matt, and he began to understand Beth's comment about Mrs. Palmer being lonely. He still struggled with Beth's assertion that the old woman was sweet, but maybe he wasn't paying enough attention. One plant pretty much looked like the next, just as Mrs. Palmer had said they would. When Matt noticed a pot mention on its tag "easy to care for" and "large dramatic blooms," he suggested it to Mrs. Palmer and she accepted the exchange without protest.

Clutching her new plant, Mrs. Palmer took a seat by the entrance to wait for her granddaughter to come and drive her home. She looked in no hurry to leave, and as long as she seemed content, Matt decided to smile and let her sit for as long as she wanted.

A few minutes later, all three women emerged from the office. Amy returned to the checkout, and Sylvia went outside, both employees looking their usual selves. A smile on her lips, Beth came to explain things to Matt-- and all within easy earshot of Mrs. Palmer.

"They weren't talking to Ethan," Beth said with a shake of her head. "It seems Cassie hit it off with Amy and Sylvia. They like her."

Matt breathed a sigh of relief. "Cass always was easy to get along with," he said, not at all surprised that anyone should like his little sister. "Cass is the gentle one in our family, Ethan is the most defiant, and Ryan--"

"Is a little angel," Beth finished with a smile.

"Well," Matt thought it over, "I was going to say rambunctious, but I guess he can be angel-like at times."

"And what are you, Matt?"

He narrowed his eyes. "Whatever I am, I'm no angel."

"How about gentle?" Beth asked. "Defiant?"

"When it's called for."

An unnerving smile played on Beth's lips. "I think I know something that fits you even better."

"You do, huh?"

"Yes, I do. You're a darling, that's what you are."

"Aw, Beth, cut it out." He didn't feel in the mood for being teased, but she only smiled and stepped forward. His heart did a backflip when she leaned against him, put a hand behind his head and drew him so close his hat slid back. Instead of a kiss, her lips grazed his cheek, pressed to his ear with a warmth that melted his insides.

How he wanted her.

"This is for kissing me," she said, her whisper low and lightly taunting. She moved out of his grasp, and his heart staggered after her.

"That's not fair, Beth."

"I disagree, Matt. I'd say we're even now."

He straightened his Stetson, and saw Mrs. Palmer smiling. "We're married."

"Oh, Matt, I think she can guess. Who else would I tease, but my husband?"

"Well," he yanked on the hat brim, "I wish you'd stop. Things are going to get more interesting between us, if you keep doing that to me."

"Funny you should mention it," Beth smiled, "because I was about to tell you the same thing."

He stared Beth down, and she didn't flinch.

"Okay, I get the message," he breathed quietly.

To his surprise, disappointment flickered into Beth's green eyes.

She hadn't been trying to stop him.

The impulse to do something stupid coursed through Matt. His heart shouted until his ears rang with the inward warning. He heard it loud and clear, acknowledged its truth by remaining still. She didn't expect him to say more, so Matt turned and forced himself to walk away. He walked, when all he wanted to do was hold her.

Did she understand? Did he?

One thought back to his past, and Matt had all the reminder he needed. Beth had no idea who she had married, and Matt wasn't about to tell her.

Revenge wasn't as sweet as Beth had hoped. Instead of playful encouragement, she had sent him away with profound sadness pooling in his eyes. She was getting out of practice, her flirting had backfired.

Maybe she had misread Matt, only seeing what she wanted to find. The possibility that he didn't want her, came to Beth like an unwelcome nightmare. She couldn't be wrong-- not about that. The way Matt kissed her at the potting table, then later, when she leaned against him and felt him tremble-- surely, it meant more than an ex-junkie wanting part of his old life back. It was there in his eyes, his touch, the way his mouth sometimes slipped into a smile when he looked at her.

It was real, Beth knew it was.

A curious glance from Sylvia and then Amy, jarred Beth back to work. They no doubt saw her and Matt together, but what of it? If Beth wanted to flirt with her husband, Beth figured she had all the prerogative she needed to keep going.

When they arrived home from work, Mrs. Lott informed Beth that she didn't have any message from Matt's mother. Eve hadn't shown up. Big surprise, Beth thought as she fixed dinner over the kitchen stove. The children seemed happier upon finding Eve's absence, and though Beth fought Matt for the privilege of being the one to prepare dinner, everyone relaxed enough to make the meal pleasant.

All through the evening, Matt kept turning his eyes from Beth whenever she caught him looking. Instead of being discouraged, Beth took his persistent interest as a good sign.

Wednesday morning broke early in the Taylor household. Beth made a breakfast of toast and orange juice, toted the little ones next door to Mrs. Lott while at the same time wishing she could take them with her, coaxed the older ones to not be late for the school bus, then climbed into the passenger seat of Matt's pickup without comment.

"You've been busy," Matt said, as he pulled away from the mobile home. "You didn't let me help out at breakfast, and now you just hop into my truck. No argument, nothing."

"I didn't see any point in fighting," Beth said with a smile. She leaned back in the seat, watched Matt behind the wheel. "Did you mind my running things this morning?"

He shrugged. "I guess not, though I'm used to being the one to ride herd over the kids. There's pretty much never been anyone but me to look after them, and it's hard to let someone else take my place-- even for a while."

"No one could ever take your place with those kids, Matt."

"I don't know about that." He sighed, his eyes on the road and not her. "When things get rough in my life, the responsibility I have to the others forces me to keep going. They're a lot of trouble, but God has used them to help me. It's hard to focus on your own problems, when you have to think about the rent, what's for dinner, is Ryan brushing his teeth?" Matt smiled. "Even when they don't need me, I need them. They keep me focused on what's important."

The easy way Matt spoke of his family, his tenderness and obvious affection, brought a sigh to Beth's lips. She liked this man. Really liked him.

"Whenever I'm doing too much, let me know and I'll step aside."

"I'm not griping, Beth. I appreciate the help."

"I know you do." She closed her eyes, let the air from the half open window on Matt's side caress her face. "You're sharing your family with me, so I promise not to keep them all to myself." When she peeked at Matt, she saw the smile on his handsome but cute face. Contentment washed over her, a feeling of true belonging mixed with something else even more powerful. She inhaled joy like a sailor who hadn't seen the ocean in years. When was the last time she felt this relaxed, this happy?

Not since Luke.

The thought put a lump in her throat. She hoped Luke knew she still loved him, that she could never love anyone but him. When Matt started whistling, his male presence in the truck became more palpable. Beth shifted in her seat, opened her eyes and watched the scenery pass outside the window.

Life was complicated.

The first half of the workday passed slowly for Beth. One of her plant wholesalers announced they were discontinuing the small trees she had been counting on to fulfill an upcoming order, so her morning had been spent on the phone in search of another supplier.

By lunchtime, she felt worn out but happy. Her trees were secured from a large grower in Santa Fe, ensuring the upcoming order would be fulfilled without more drama.

Then it happened. The one thing sure to turn any day upside down.

As Beth cleared the office of the trash left from lunch, Matt came to the door looking as though someone had just punched him in the gut.

He came to her chair, placed an absent hand on the desk. "Mom's here."

"You've got to be kidding." Beth stood up, looked out the office window and saw Matt's mother waiting in the loading dock. "This is certainly unexpected. How did she know where to find you?"

Matt shook his head, groaned. "When Mom found I wasn't home, she went next door and got it out of Mrs. Lott. Beth, we have to talk."

At the urgent tone in Matt's voice, Beth turned to face him. "What's wrong? Shouldn't we go out and speak to her, let her know you got married so you could keep Dylan?"

"This has to come first," Matt said, moving to shut the office door behind him. "I saw the look in Mom's eye when she came into the store just now, and we're in trouble. I think Mrs. Lott already told her we're married."

"But, Matt, isn't that a good thing?"

"It's not so much Mom knowing," Matt said, huffing out a quick breath, "but how she was told. Beth, you have to promise me something..."

Several minutes later, when Beth stepped out of the office with Matt, her hands were trembling. Never in all her acquaintance with Matt, had she seen him so adamant. Beth had no choice but to give her word, and now she was about to face the enemy.

The enemy. It didn't seem right that the mother of the children she now helped to care for, should be looked upon as the enemy. As Beth moved outside with Matt, and saw the hard-faced woman puffing on a cigarette, Beth tried to give Eve the benefit of the doubt. After all, this was Matt's mom, and in an odd twist of irony, Beth's mother-in-law.

Eve smiled at Beth through the haze of tobacco smoke, the cigarette perched in a two fingered hold in her right hand. "I hear congratulations are in order."

The well-honeyed tone sent a shiver through Beth. Now she understood why Matt had tried to prepare her.

"Thank you, Eve," Beth said in as cordial a voice as she could summon. "Won't you follow me? There's some nice chairs in the corner of the lot where we can sit in the shade."

The cigarette returned to Eve's lips. She nodded, followed Beth and Matt through the loading dock, to a corner where outdoor furniture had been set up in a shady area for customers to see how nice it might look in their own backyard.

"I must say, I'm surprised you were willing to tie the knot with our Matty." Eve chose a chair and sat down with an air of casual disregard. "One look at you, and I can tell you're out of his league. Matty is only fit for trash like himself." Eve grinned around her cigarette. "When it comes down to it, we both know why you married him. You're getting paid in bed, though he must be very entertaining for you to go through with such a drastic thing as marriage."

"Stop it, Mom." Matt clenched his fists and remained standing while Beth took a seat. "Don't you dare talk to Beth that way."

"I'll talk to her however I want," Eve said with a dismissing flick of her cigarette. "Send him away. I came to talk to you, not Matty."

"Please, Matt," Beth tried to give him a reassuring smile, "go back into the store so your mom and I can visit."

"Visit." Eve snorted. "That's a good one. The last person I 'visited,' I had to go through a pat-down search for contraband. You might like to know, Matty, your worthless two-timing father sends his regards."

The knuckles of Matt's clenched fists turned white. "My father is dead."

"You mean you wish he were," Eve said with a laugh. "Keep telling yourself that, Matty. One of these days, a cellmate will tangle with him once too often, and it'll be true."

"Dad died for me the moment he walked out on us, Mom."

"Whatever." Eve rolled her eyes, crossed her legs and waited for Matt to leave.

Beth nudged her head in the direction of the store, and after some moments of quiet hesitation, Matt left.

"Well, now we can get down to business." Eve grinned, dropped her cigarette on the dirt and ground it out with the heel of her shoe. "Mrs. Lott said Matty got married so he could keep the baby. As far as I'm concerned, I don't care why he did it. All I want is what's coming to me. My fair share, you know? Since you have money, I figure we can come to some sort of an arrangement. Maybe like a monthly allowance, huh? Matty wants to keep the kid, and you want to keep Matty. After we settle on a number, everyone will come away happy."

"I'm afraid I can't do that." Beth took a deep breath and kept going. "I can't give you any money."

"What do you mean? You're loaded, aren't you? This place is yours, isn't it?"

"Before we came out here to talk," Beth leaned forward, hushed her voice and prayed as hard as she knew how, "Matt made me promise to not give you a single dime."

"He can't do that-- not if he wants to keep Amadeus."

Beth tried to swallow the fear lodged in her throat. "Matt made it very clear: If I give you money, he walks away from the marriage."

"Then I think I'll take my baby back," Eve said, pulling a fresh cigarette from her purse. "What do you think about that?"

Though difficult to choke out the words, Beth endeavored not to show any weakness in front of Eve. "Matt said Dylan is yours, and that if you want to take him, that's your problem. Until you sign over Dylan, he's your responsibility, not ours."

"Dylan, huh? So you're dropping that dumb first name? It's fine with me, but it won't make Wade happy."

"Unless Wade is prepared to be a father, Wade won't have a choice."

A grim laugh sounded as Eve lit her cigarette. "So that's how it's going to be, is it? Then I guess I don't have any choice, either."

Uncertain what Eve meant by the last remark, Beth remained in cautious silence. She prayed Matt was right about his mom.

"Just for laughs," Eve asked, regarding Beth with eyes devoid of tenderness, "how rich are you? I saw the car in front of Matt's house. Very nice. And the crib in the living room had to cost you a bundle. I peeked through the window and saw it."

"I'm glad you approve," Beth smiled. She left the question unanswered, and Eve stared back.

"It's not fair, you know? I've spent all my life going from one loser to the next, and when one of my kids strikes it rich, I'm left out in the cold. Isn't that a kick in the head?" Eve didn't wait for a reply, but picked up her purse, stood up and flicked away her cigarette. "He'll throw you away. Once Matty has what he wants, he'll throw you away, just like he did Helen."

Beth stiffened.

"Didn't he ever have the guts to tell you about Helen? No? I can see from your face he hasn't. I'll tell you what-- go to Matty and ask him where his sweet Helen is now, and see if he'll answer. I'll bet you anything he won't. Ask him if his hands are clean, if he can sleep at night knowing what he did to that poor girl. Then ask yourself if you really want to stay married to my son." Eve turned, then swiveled and leveled Beth a glare sharp enough to kill.

"Mrs. Lott said something about your arrangement being in name only, though I'm not a big enough fool to believe it. But if it's true, and you really haven't gone to bed with Matty, then you might want to think long and hard about what sort of man he is before you give him something you can't take back."

The hatred twisted on that otherwise lovely face, sent a shudder through Beth. She watched in muted horror as Matt's mother strutted out of the nursery.

Half a second later, Matt came to the furniture corner and stared at Beth. "Well?" he asked.

"You were right." Beth stood, watched as Eve's figure disappeared around the corner. "Her threat was an empty one. She knows she could turn Dylan over to someone else, but I think she believed me when I said I wouldn't give her any money."

"Thank God." Matt blew out a sigh, collapsed into a chair. "Thanks for doing as I said, Beth."

"You didn't give me any choice, Matt."

He looked up at her, a wry smile playing around his mouth. "That hasn't stopped you before. You're one of the most headstrong women I've ever met."

Beth smiled. "And you're a very stubborn man. What if Eve had taken Dylan back?"

In a helpless gesture, Matt threw up his hands. "Dylan is still hers to take. Fight mom's right before she gives it up, and she'll never let go of Dylan. Give in to her demands, and she'll bleed you dry until it puts others in danger. The only thing left is to be firm and pray she'll back down. Mom doesn't want Dylan. We're willing to solve her problem. That'll have to be enough."

This time, Beth's smile didn't come without being forced. She stood there, arms folded, grateful Dylan still had the possibility of being theirs, and not Eve's. Despite her relief, Beth could not bring herself to celebrate. Though Matt had called a lawyer to begin the guardianship process, Eve had yet to sign anything, and then there was the matter of Helen.

"Thank God, Mom didn't come while your parents were here," Matt said, rubbing his face with both hands. He sounded tired, as though he could lay down and not wake for days.

Beth kept thinking. That wicked woman could say whatever popped into her head, enjoy a measure of triumph at Matt's expense. Eve could hardly be trusted to tell the truth. Then again, Matt had an ugly past, he acknowledged it freely and refused to tell Beth more. And hadn't Matt claimed he wasn't a good man?

"When Mom came walking through that door," Matt shook his head, "and I saw that exultant look on her face, I knew there was going to be trouble. I don't know what Mrs. Lott told my mom, but sometimes, my neighbor has a big mouth. I'm sure she thought she was helping, maybe even trying to reassure Mom that I could now afford to keep Dylan. See the nice car parked in front of Matt's place? And by the way, Beth owns her own business."

Trust. It all came down to how much Beth trusted Matt. Not the man he used to be, but the man he was now.

Beth moved over to him, placed a hand on his shoulder and he looked up. It didn't matter that his eyes held that dark look that made her think he wanted her. She couldn't trust the yearning in her heart, or the way her feet left the ground whenever he touched her. None of those things really mattered, for none of them held Beth's answer.

"What?" he asked.

Beth knew her answer lay in his heart, the very soul and character of who Matt was.

He looked at her. "What are you thinking?"

No, Beth thought to herself, she would not ask about Helen. Eve would not hurt Matt through her. Beth wouldn't allow it. Tilting her head to one side, Beth smiled. "I'm thinking I married the right man."

"You've been sitting in the shade too long," he said with a self-deprecating chuckle. "Did Mom give you a phone number, any way to reach her?"

"No. I'm afraid I forgot to ask."

"No harm done," Matt said, getting to his feet. "Mom knows where to find us."

As they walked into the store, Beth felt Matt's hand slip around hers. Labor had calloused those strong fingers, a life used to menial work and the outdoors. She felt his masculine strength, basked in the gentle touch of those callouses until they went their separate ways. In that moment, as she watched Matt return to his work, she thanked God for the direction her path had taken. This was the man she was supposed to have, the one God had chosen for her.

If only her parents could see it that way.

Thursday was to be like any other day. Beth had insisted. Just because they were going to take her parents out for a late lunch once they arrived, was no reason to be nervous. She needed to go grocery shopping, the mobile home had to be cleaned, a spare room of her own home aired and vacuumed to accommodate her parents, and an unofficial holiday of keeping the nursery closed so they could get everything done before the zero hour.

Ah, yes, a day like any other-- or so Beth tried to convince Matt. But the more she tried to convince, the more nervous he grew. While they tidied the living room of the mobile home, Beth's nerves became more apparent.

"You'll like Dad. He's very easygoing, and hardly ever yells."

"Yesterday, you said he didn't yell at all."

"Whatever you do, be yourself. Dad will know if you're being disingenuous."


"Avoid politics. Whatever you do, don't start on politics-- that, and government conspiracy theories. But you'll see, he's very easy to get along with."

"If he's so easy, then why haven't you two stayed in touch? From what I gather, you aren't necessarily very close."

"That's because Dad can be difficult."

"I thought you said he was easygoing!"

The hurried exchange left Matt confused and more than a little curious. He knew Beth did her best to evade his questions, and with all the running around getting things in order, the subject didn't come up until everyone had gathered again in Matt's living room, dressed in their almost-best.

"I wish we had time to go shopping," Beth said, licking a finger and then applying it to Dylan's tiny crown. She combed his hair, checked his diaper, made sure he looked "comfy" in his carrier. "Besides that sleeper, Dylan only has only the hand-me downs I gave him from Caleb. We should go shopping, Matt. We should take the whole family shopping and get everyone new clothes."

"I hope you don't mean right now," Matt said with a laugh. He was glad he hadn't opted for the necktie. This was Beth's parents, not Sunday services. Even so, he wore a navy blue button-up shirt and some black jeans. The shirt was long-sleeved, for Matt didn't want the "Rough Stuff" tattoo on his biceps to show. Mr. Campbell might not recognize the street name for marijuana, but Matt didn't want to chance it. The excuse of waking up after a drinking binge to find a tat of a drug he'd hardly ever used, probably wouldn't go over well, either.

Man, was he ever in trouble. Long sleeves were not going to hide what he was from Beth's parents. Then again, nothing would.

"Where did you say they live?" Matt asked.

"Phoenix, Arizona." Beth looked up from the carrier, smiled at Ryan as he struggled to smooth down his cowlick. "Let me help you with that, Sweetheart."

"So your younger sister lives in..."

"Santa Fe," Beth said, applying her own version of hair gel to Ryan's stubborn tuft.

"And your older brother?"


"Ah," Matt said, "with your folks?"

"No, in separate houses. Dad likes his independence."

"And your mom? What's she like?"

"Mom's mom," Beth said with a shrug. "For the most part, she goes along with whatever Dad wants. Hold still, Ryan, I'm almost done."

"And what does your dad usually want?"

"To be right." Beth shrugged, a gesture Matt noticed she did often when speaking of her parents. "Dad is opinionated, Mom compliant."

"And you?"

The sidelong gaze of green eyes made Matt smile. "I suppose I'm somewhere in the middle."

"Why aren't you closer to your parents?"

"Why aren't you closer to yours?"

Ethan sat on the couch, watching the back and forth like someone at a tennis match.

"Oh, please. You're not going to compare my folks to yours, are you? Your dad may have his faults, but at least yours is..." Matt hesitated, shot a glance at Ethan.

"Go ahead and say it, Matty. We like to pretend he's dead, but he's not."

Curiosity touched Beth's china doll features. When she looked to Matt for an answer, Matt groaned.

"Come on, Matt. I've been answering your questions."

"And evading others," Matt said with reluctance. "I guess you'll find out sooner or later. My dad-- the one I share with Ethan-- is serving life in prison for killing his girlfriend."

"Oh." The wide-eyed look in Beth's face caused Matt to wish he had kept that particular bit of family history, silent.

For pity's sake, at least wait until her parents returned to Arizona.

The slam of a car door put an abrupt stop to their discussion. Beth jolted upright, went to the window while Cassie straightened her skirt for the umpteenth time.

"That's them," Beth said, the urgency in her voice nearing panic. "I was getting worried they couldn't follow my directions." She turned, faced the living room and everyone in it. "When we go to the restaurant, remember, I'm paying for the meal. Please don't fight me on this, Matt-- not in front of my parents."

Too nervous to think about money, Matt ran a hand through his hair, then winced when he remembered he had combed it carefully. So much for that.

"Remember, be yourself," Beth said, rushing to Matt and promptly fixing his hair. The doorbell rang, and Beth shut her eyes.

"Do you want me to get it?" Matt asked.

Beth shook her head, squared her shoulders, then adjusted the black belt on her sleeveless dress as she went to the door.

"Peanut!" erupted from Matt's doorstep, along with, "Sweetheart, you're so thin!"

A large barrel-chested man stepped into the house, the cane in his hand contradicting the strength in his hardy face. Here was a man used to the elements. Matt didn't need Beth to tell him how her father made his living. Whatever it was, Aiden Campbell was used to the outdoors. He had Beth's flaming red hair, the green eyes, the sprinkling of freckles across his face. A green polo shirt deepened his gaze, and tan slacks gave him a casual but well-off appearance. When he stepped aside, a slender woman in casual white slacks, and a pale pink blouse followed. She had Beth's delicate complexion, but her hair looked blond, as though someone wove it from flaxen gold. Instead of the complying person Beth described, Matt found an alert woman, ready to speak her mind.

"If you were still in pigtails," Shannon Campbell waved a finger at Beth, "you'd be sent to the corner until you came to your senses."

"If she were still in pigtails," Mr. Campbell laughed, "she couldn't have gotten married. Well, Elizabeth, are you going to introduce us to your family?"

"Sorry, Dad." Beth turned to Matt and Matt saw the panic in her eyes. "Dad, I'd like you to meet Matt Taylor. Matt, this is my dad."

Matt had planned to offer a handshake, but when the older man just stood there with that appraising look, Matt felt unable to move. When Mr. Campbell glanced down at Ryan with a raised brow, the boy ducked behind Matt's pant leg.

"That's Ryan," Beth said with a smile. "Not too long ago, he turned four."

Though Mr. Campbell's face softened, he said nothing.

"This is Cassie-- she's twelve-- and the big one on the couch is Ethan-- Matt, you said he's seventeen?"

"Yeah, he's getting really old." Matt felt Ryan hugging his leg and half wished he could hide like his little brother.

Beth nodded again to the couch, where Ethan's hand rested on the baby carrier. "The small one is Dylan. He's fourteen days old."

"Are there any more?" Mr. Campbell asked with a wry chuckle.

Mrs. Campbell swatted her husband's arm.

"I was only asking," he frowned. His eyes tracked back to Matt while Mrs. Campbell moved to get a closer look at the baby.

That strong green stare narrowed on Matt, and Matt felt its full impact. Matt shifted in his boots, but faced Mr. Campbell like a man.

Seconds later, Mrs. Campbell had Dylan in her arms, and was smiling at Ryan. "Such cute little boys, Beth. And the oldest one isn't all that bad looking, either."

At his wife's comment, Mr. Campbell shot her a reproachful glance.

"Are we ready to leave for the restaurant?" Beth asked in a shaky voice. "I made reservations, and if we arrive too late, we'll lose our table." Beth took Ryan's hand, picked up her purse from the couch. "Ethan, would you bring the carrier? Ryan, do you have to use the potty again? Oh, Matt, don't forget to lock up the house when we leave."

"I always do, Beth."

"You don't want today to be the first time you forget, do you?"

Matt frowned. "Could I have a word with you in the kitchen?"


"Yes, now. Ethan, take the others out to the cars. I want a moment with Beth."

Wary amusement played on Mr. Campbell's face as Matt led Beth into the kitchen by her elbow.

With a huff, Beth freed her arm. "What is so important you have to drag me into the kit--" She was promptly interrupted by a sound kiss on the mouth. Matt wrapped himself around her, let the kiss deepen with everything he had. To the delight of his crazed delirium, she kissed him back.

When the moment became dangerous, Matt pulled away and gasped for breath. Wow, that felt good.

"Thanks, Beth. I needed that. Ready to go now?"

"Matt? What was all that about?"

He shrugged, though his heart still jackhammered in his chest. "It's been building all day. Stress does that to me." He pulled out his keys, tried to quiet the fire he had stoked by kissing Beth with such force. "I don't know about you, but I feel better. Let's go eat."

"Matt Taylor," Beth placed an unsteady hand over her heart, "if you keep doing that to me, I really will go crazy."

Matt only grinned. Maybe it was the grin of a maniac-- he didn't know, and for once, he didn't care. Desperate times called for desperate measures.

He was about to face Beth's parents in open conversation, and would need all the fortification he could get.

"Hope deferred maketh the heart sick: but when the desire cometh, it is a tree of life."
~ Proverbs 13:12 ~

"The desire accomplished is sweet to the soul..."
~ Proverbs 13:19 ~

end of chapter
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