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Chapter Eighteen
The Wounded Spirit

"The spirit of a man will sustain his infirmity; but a wounded spirit who can bear?"
~ Proverbs 18:14 ~

The restaurant was impressive. Fancy chandeliers hung from the ceiling, gilt frames lined the walls with historic photos from Las Cruces' past. The ornately carved tables spread with white linen, the lush plants in the elaborate terra cotta planters-- everything gave the impression of very old, very fancy, and very expensive. No wonder this place was supposed to be a historic landmark.

Maybe he should have worn his necktie, after all, Matt thought, as the party of eight were led by a maitre d' to a table in the center of the room. Beth was definitely pulling out all the stops to impress her folks. She didn't have to worry about him fighting over who picked up the check. Not this time. It would take one or two of his paychecks, just to cover this happy outing.

Beth had used that word-- happy-- along with how glad she was her parents were there to eat the fancy green salad, the sliced roast beef, the potatoes and gravy. Surprisingly hearty food served up on painted china. Though Aiden Campbell gave a grunt of approval when a plate was set before him, Matt had the impression the man would have been just as happy at a fast food joint. Even the smile on Shannon Campbell's face seemed strained. They might be classy people, but they were evidently very practical ones. Matt caught the mother whispering to her daughter, and from a word or two Matt overheard, he understood Shannon thought the place too expensive.

Though the truth pained Matt, he faced it without sparing his own feelings. This finery was mostly for his benefit, not her parents. If Beth put Matt and his family in a nice background, they might look better to her dad and mom. Not a pleasant thought, but Matt couldn't blame her. He was as common as dandelions. So were the rest of his family, in their almost Sunday best and nervous silence. But only an idiot would mistake Beth for a dandelion. As he sat next to Beth in her red sleeveless dress, Matt felt she looked like a rose crowded among weeds.

Mr. Campbell's hard stare could be felt from across the table, making Matt wonder if that was how the man saw him. As a weed that needed to be uprooted.

Fork paused midway between plate and mouth, Mr. Campbell nodded to Matt. When he spoke, Shannon hushed her talk with Beth.

"You have a job, Matt?" The question came with a hard stare, one stringent enough to peel paint off wood.

The roast beef lodged in Matt's throat. He forced it down with a swallow of water, replaced the crystal glass and nodded. "Yes, sir. I work at the nursery."

Mr. Campbell grunted. The fork moved to his mouth, his jaw worked the beef but his eyes remained on Matt.

"Been married before?" he asked around the food.

"No sir."

"Why not?"

"Dad," Beth broke in, "why don't you try another of those buttermilk biscuits?"

"I'm talking to Matt," came the solid reply. "How old are you?"

"You already know how old I am, Dad."

"Keep out of this. I was asking him."

"I'm twenty-four, sir."

Mr. Campbell grunted. "You look younger."

"So I've been told." Matt tried to hide an inward grimace. According to Beth, he looked like a teenager. Oh yeah. He needed a beard.

"Do you know how old my daughter is?"

"No sir."

"She turns thirty next June."


"Stay out of this, Elizabeth. I'm trying to make a point. You like that classical stuff, but Matt-- what's your taste in music?"

"Country, I guess," Matt said with a shrug.

"There. Do you see?" Mr. Campbell pounded his hand on the table, causing Cassie to jump. "You two have nothing in common."

"I also like sacred music," Matt continued. "Old time gospels, traditional hymns, worship music."

"So do I," Beth smiled. "Sometime, I'd like to hear you sing. Cassie tells me you're quite the musician."

"Yeah, well. Cass is being kind."

"Maybe you could play for us, tonight."

"Not a chance." He shook his head, almost pushed away from the table and got up to leave. No way was he playing or singing in front of Beth's parents. And definitely not in front of Beth.

"We're getting off topic, Peanut. The point is, you two have nothing in common, no foundation for a lasting marriage."

"I don't agree, Dad."

"Well now. There's news. We disagree."

"Aiden," Shannon placed a hand on her husband's arm. "You promised."

"Yes, yes, I know. I'm trying." Mr. Campbell's frown darkened his entire face. Those green eyes again, that hard stare as he turned to Matt. "Beth said you and she aren't going about this marriage in the traditional sense. Is that right?"

"That depends on what you mean. We're married, we exchanged vows before an ordained minister. Someone even threw rice."

"Dad, we really are married."

"I know you are, that's why your mother and I drove all this way at a moment's notice. What I'm trying to get at-- what I've been trying to say all along-- is that you and this, this boy here, have made a commitment that can't possibly last."

The muscles in Matt's jaw tensed. "I'm not a boy, Mr. Campbell."

"Men call me Aiden, boys call me mister."

"I'm no boy, Aiden."

A gleam of approval flashed in Aiden's eye, but his voice remained unmoved. "You and my daughter don't have enough in common. She's older than you, has had more life experience, and as a man and wife, you aren't even sleeping together. It's unnatural. The marriage won't last."

Heat simmered in Matt's veins. This may be Beth's father, but he certainly wasn't his. "I've had life experience, or have you forgotten?"

"I haven't. I remember what Beth told us." Aiden tossed the fork onto the fancy plate. "My daughter was raised right. I kept her from running around with wild boys when she was a teenager, and now she's grown up and married someone like you. Yes, I said someone like you. How am I supposed to feel, knowing my sweet little girl is with a..."

"A drug addict?" Matt finished. "I gave that up when I turned my life over to the Lord."

Aiden leaned forward in the chair. "Can you honestly tell me you haven't used drugs since then?"

A hot coal burned in Matt's throat. He tried to swallow. "No, sir-- Aiden-- I can't make any such claim. I've used meth since then, but not in years."

"How many years?"

"Two." The admission burned Matt's lips but he refused to lie. "I used meth before we came to Las Cruces. It's why we left Texas. I wanted a clean start."

"And you want me to be glad you married my daughter?"

"No," Matt felt his hands tighten into fists, and forced them back open. "I don't expect you to be happy. I don't expect anything but your disapproval. I have no defense for what I've done, and I won't start by making excuses for it now." Matt paused. "I know I'm not good enough for your daughter, but nothing I can ever say or do will change that."

Aiden's suspicious eyes narrowed into hard slits. "Self-deprecation is an art form with some, as is flattery. I don't believe you meant that."

Matt leaned forward in the chair, matching Aiden's posture. "If I'm man enough to take on four children, I'm man enough to take on you. Beth is better than me, and that's no lie."

A grin flashed across Aiden's face. It disappeared just as suddenly, replaced by a heavy frown that seemed to pull at every feature.

"Shannon, did you hear what this man just said?"

"I heard," the woman said, "and if you both don't lower your voices, so will everyone else in the restaurant."

Aiden dismissed the comment with a grunt. He leaned back in the chair, looked at Beth. "What's the matter, Peanut? You look pale. Are you feeling okay?"

"Oh, Dad."

"May I ask something, Matt?" Shannon spoke quieter than her husband's booming voice. "Did your difficult past ever come up during the guardianship for your siblings?"

"No, ma'am, under the circumstances, my lawyer said it wasn't much of an issue and to not bring it up unless we had to. I had the full support of Mom and everyone's fathers, so there wasn't any argument that I shouldn't get the children. If I couldn't handle the responsibility, my lawyer said Child Services would."

"May I ask if you have a criminal record?"

The question made Beth sit up straight, as though unsure what Matt might answer. After all, Matt had a father serving life. What more could be expected from the son. Right?

"My record is clean, ma'am. I may have grown up wild, but no one has ever hauled me away in handcuffs."

The candid reply made Mrs. Campbell squirm in her seat. She fumbled with the gold chain around her neck and gave a slight smile that made Matt wish he'd been gentler.

Throughout the discussion, Ethan wore a deep-rooted scowl. Matt sensed the teenager's indignation, but prayed his brother continued to keep his mouth shut. Matt had all the drama he could handle with Beth's parents.

Aiden nodded to Matt. "Do you expect any problems with Dylan's mother? Beth said there might be trouble."

"Mom might make a few noises now and then," Matt shrugged, "but she doesn't want Dylan any more than she wanted the others."

"The others?" Mrs. Campbell cocked her head to one side, much like Beth. "Are you referring to yourself, and the sweet children here at the table?"

"Yes, ma'am. Mom never really liked us, but it's all right. You get used to it after a while." Matt shot Aiden a look. "A real man doesn't call his mother-in-law by her first name, without her permission."

Aiden gave a flicker of a grin. He folded his hands across his stomach, then passed the basket of biscuits to Beth. "Have one. I hear they're buttermilk."

"Oh, Daddy."

"Don't 'Oh, Daddy,' me. If one of these children ever gets married without any warning to you or Matt, I hope you'll remember today. And remember one other thing, Beth-- I'm holding back."

"I know, Dad, I was just hoping you'd hold back more." Beth took one of the biscuits, split it in two, buttered both sides, then gave half to Ryan.

If only Matt could be as happy as Ryan, sitting there with butter on his chin, eyes wide and expectant for dessert. At least someone was having a good time.

Too timid to speak with so much going on between Matt and Aiden, Cassie kept her head bowed and her eyes on her plate. A good way to keep Aiden from talking to her, but Matt knew the precaution was unnecessary. Aiden Campbell was saving his displeasure for one person, and one person alone. Matt.

Even now, as Matt lifted Dylan to still the newborn's cries, Matt felt the hard stare from across the table.

Please, God, help me last through dessert, Matt prayed in silence. When Matt returned Dylan to the carrier, the waiter came forward with pecan pie, fancy vanilla ice cream, and small pastries that held Ryan's full attention. He prayed the boy ate fast, not wanting to stay at the restaurant a second longer than necessary.

The gourmet dessert held no enjoyment for Matt. He stuffed down a slice of pie, took a few gulps of iced tea to keep from choking, then sat back to wait. Couldn't these people eat any faster?

When dessert finished, Ryan visited the men's room with Matt. By the time they returned, the women were making end-of-dinner conversation. Matt wished the men could do likewise; Aiden and Matt simply stared at each other and remained silent. Wasn't that pie nice? Didn't the waiter mention those pecans had been grown here in Las Cruces? Aiden offered no comment to the conversation, and neither did Matt.

Right now, Matt couldn't care less about pecans. He was more than ready to get out of that restaurant and hope he never had to come back. When the women started gathering purses and getting to their feet, Matt grabbed Dylan's carrier with one hand, Ryan with the other, and headed for the door. A glance over his shoulder showed Beth paying the bill.

One other person seemed to want escape almost as much as Matt. Cassie followed hard on his booted heels, all the way into the parking lot beneath the lights that were just beginning to flicker on. To Matt's alarmed dismay, Ethan dared Aiden by remaining behind.

"Please, God, don't let that idiot get me into trouble with the Campbells," Matt hissed through his teeth. "The water's hot enough."

A cold evening breeze made Matt hurry the keys from his pants pocket. Dylan fussed, and Cassie bent over the carrier to tuck the blanket in a little more.

"I wish we could go home," Cassie said with longing.

"Of course we're going home. Who said we're not?"

"Beth. She said we were taking her parents to her house to get them settled."

"What does that have to do with us? Why do we have to come?"

When Cassie shrugged, Matt bit back a curse. It took patience to unlock the truck, fasten the carrier into the backseat, when all he wanted to do was curse the situation until his shoulders stopped tensing.

As the others came into the parking lot, Matt shot a glance at Beth. If Beth thought he would go to her home, only to give Aiden another try at him, she had another thing coming.

"Matt," Beth moved to his side as he held the backseat door open for Cassie, "we're taking my parents--"

"Cass told me. I'm not going."

The hurt look in Beth's eyes caught Matt by surprise. Surely, she understood.

Beth cast a quick glance at her parents as they automatically moved to Beth's car.

"I apologize about my dad. I know he's opinionated at times, but I did try to warn you."

"I'll give him one thing"-- Matt let out a grim chuckle-- "he didn't yell." Matt's eyes tracked Ethan as the teenager thrust one last scowl at Aiden before climbing into the pickup.

"Matt, he's my dad. He's only trying to look out for me."

"I know that, Beth. That's why I'm not angry with him."

A puzzled frown tilted Beth's lips. She pushed a loose strand from her eyes and stared at him as though trying to read his thoughts. "You're not mad at my father?"

Matt blew out a frustrated breath. "I'm mad at myself."

"Why?" She waved away a call from Aiden to hurry. "I don't understand."

"How could you not? You were sitting at the table. You heard every word."

Another shout prompted a sigh from Beth. "We have to get moving. Dad's knee is acting up, and I want to get them settled before it gets late." Beth hesitated, and Matt could feel the plea of her velvet green eyes.

"All right. I'll come."

"Thank you, Matt. I really appreciate it. I want Dad to get to know you better."

"He knows me well enough, as it is," Matt said before rounding the hood of the pickup. He ducked into the cab as she opened her mouth. The question lingered in her eyes, and knowing Beth, it was also on her lips. What had he meant by that remark?

Matt hoped she wouldn't pursue it later. She didn't understand, and in a way, he couldn't blame her.

Aiden didn't know Matt's ugly secret, but then again, neither did Beth.

The wounded spirit behind Matt's dark eyes unsettled her. From his own admission, he wasn't angry with her father. Still that wounded look haunted her. What was it? Shame? Regret? Or simply her imagination filling in the blanks Matt refused to finish?

Beth glanced in the rearview mirror, saw Matt behind her, his headlights visible against the shadows of the retreating sun.

Only two years ago, he had used meth. Two years-- not five or ten, as Beth half imagined, half hoped it might be. She had assumed that since the past was over and done with, it had no bearing on the present. Like a bad dream to be gotten over and then forgotten. But two years was recent. It also meant the former temptations must still be strong. His relapse into drugs unnerved her more than she liked to admit. But hadn't he warned there were things he was holding back about his former life?

Maybe this was one of them. Maybe this was the worst of it-- that he'd used drugs when Ryan was two years old. Bad, yes. Disturbing, absolutely. But if this was all there was to Matt's dark past, Beth felt she could learn to live with the knowledge. He had changed-- he proved it every single day-- and he loved his family, took careful pains to raise the children right.

Matt was a good man. As certain of that as Beth felt, she also sensed the relapse was not the worst of Matt's history.

The unease in her stomach increased when her father let out a heavy sigh.

"I wish you hadn't married him so fast."

"There wasn't time, Dad." She flicked a glance at the passenger beside her. With her father's long legs, it was difficult to sit in the backseat without hitting his sore knee against something. So he occupied the seat beside Beth, his presence felt even when silent. "I wish you hadn't been so hard on him, Dad."

"He took my little girl. What did he expect?"

"In case you haven't noticed, I'm not so little anymore. I'm a grown woman, capable of making decisions on my own."

Hoping her mom might agree from the backseat, Beth hesitated before continuing.

Her father didn't wait. "How much did you know about this man before you handed over your future?" Aiden turned his parental gaze on Beth, making her feel five years old again. "In your rush to get married, how much did you know before you exchanged vows?"

"I found out all I needed to, Dad."

"Ha." Even without Beth looking, she knew he wore a frown. "Even a child can make rash decisions."

A retort welled within Beth, but she clamped her mouth shut. She refused to fight. Soon, they would be home, and her father would face Matt again. She had to keep calm. If only she hadn't talked Matt into coming. Perhaps he wasn't angry with her father now, but the day wasn't over.

Darkness kept claiming more and more of the landscape, so by the time Beth pulled off the highway, and onto the dirt road that led to home, stars began to show in the night sky. Beth parked in front of the house, glad to at least be home, even if it was only for an hour or two until she got her parents settled. The automatic timer for the porch and outside window lights had clicked on, lending a welcome atmosphere to the vast stretches of dark surrounding the adobe house. Despite the tension gathering in the backseat as Matt's vehicle pulled beside hers, Beth struggled to rise above the situation. Seatbelt still on, she asked her parents to stay in the car a moment longer.

"Dad, I'm only going to ask this once. Please be nice to him."

"He's not a little boy to be constantly protected, Elizabeth. He can take care of himself."

She turned in the seat and looked at her father. "Matt is my husband. Please treat him with respect."

"Respect that isn't earned, isn't respect. It's pity."

"Dad, I refuse to argue. Be nice to Matt, or I'll send him home right now."

"Do that," her father grinned. "I'd like to see what he does."

The slam of a truck door cut Beth short from pushing the subject any further. She hurried out, went to Matt as he opened the door to the extended cab.

"I changed my mind, Matt. You'd better go home."

A frown creased Matt's mouth as he stopped Cassie from climbing down. "What's going on?"

"Dad is being Dad, that's what's going on. I don't want you two getting into a fight."

"I won't."

"That's great, but Dad won't let you walk away without one."

The shoulders straightened, and Matt's jaw firmed. "I'm not walking away. If he wants a fight, that's his business."

"Matt, I am asking you to go home."

"No, Beth, you're telling. There's a big difference."

"Don't do this to me-- not in front of my father. Please."

Without warning, Matt slammed his fist into the side of the pickup. He made no cry of pain, no wincing expression to show it hurt. He just stood there, glaring first at the ground, then at her.

"Hey, watch it, Matty. That's my truck you just put a dent in." Ethan gave a broad grin from the passenger seat. He seemed glad they were fighting, but then, Beth hadn't missed the constant flashes of anger from Ethan when her father had gone after Matt.

Things weren't going too well between the Taylors and the Campbells.

Whipping off his Stetson, Matt swiped at his forehead. After a moment of deliberation, he put it back on with a determined tug. "Beth, if that's what you want, I won't go into your house. I'll stay out here with the kids. But I want you to know that I'm not leaving without you."

"Did you hurt your hand?"

"Forget the hand, Beth. I'm not leaving here without you. If you don't like it, tell your dad. I don't care."

"You don't, huh?" Aiden stepped toward the pickup with a decided limp. He sent Beth a disapproving look, one she couldn't miss a mile away. "If you're coming inside, Matt, then come. Beth, go unlock the front door. You're keeping us waiting."

"No need, Beth. I'll do it." Matt took her keys before she could stop him. His tone had calmed, though the same look that haunted her before, shone in his eyes now. "Would you help the others out of the truck?"

She answered his request with a nod, gave a smile she hoped might lessen the tension.

When Beth turned, she saw to her stunned shock, Aiden offering a hand to assist Cassie down. Sometimes, people surprised Beth, although those people weren't supposed to include her own parents.

When her father offered the same help to Ryan, the child broke into a loud, frightened cry. Beth stepped forward to calm Ryan, but Matt ran from the house to scoop the four-year-old into his arms.

"He's just tired," Matt said, patting his brother's back and giving him a comforting hug. Ryan buried his face against Matt's shoulder, and whimpered when Matt offered to set him down.

Her father sounded apologetic, even sheepish at being the cause for Ryan's tears. "I didn't mean to frighten the child."

"I know you didn't." Matt gave a low chuckle. "He's had a long day, that's all. Ethan, start hauling their luggage inside. And while you're at it, stop glaring at Aiden."

The teenage glare turned on Matt.

"Now, Ethan. Or do you want my pickup while you're still young enough to enjoy it?"

The threat worked. Ethan jumped from the truck, then trudged to Beth's sedan. Matt tossed Ethan the keys, and Ethan popped the trunk.

"I forgot how dark it gets out here in farm country," Aiden said, giving the sky a long upward glance. "No city lights to get in the way of stargazing."

The remark struck Beth as odd, but then she noticed the quiet that followed. The men stared at each other, then to her amazement, her father went to help Ethan with the luggage.

"I'll take the baby inside," Shannon said, casting a smile at the baby carrier already hugged in her arms. "Such sweet children. You're doing a good job with them, Matt."

"Thank you, ma'am."

"I won't mind if you call me 'Mom.' My first son-in-law has that privilege, as does my daughter-in-law. No reason you shouldn't as well. Would you like coffee before the drive back to Las Cruces?"

"Thanks, I'd appreciate it." Beth wondered if Matt would call her "Mom," but he seemed too self-conscious to make the attempt so soon.

"Hey, Cass!" Ethan shouted with a large suitcase under each arm. "How about some help with the front door?"

When Shannon went inside with Cassie and the baby, Beth remained beside the pickup with Matt. Ryan still protested at being put down, but when Ethan called from the house a few minutes later, claiming Mrs. Campbell had cookies on the table, Ryan couldn't get down fast enough.

As Ryan disappeared inside, Beth hoped for the opportunity to talk to Matt. Before she had the chance, Matt had her by the arm. He pushed her against the truck, and kissed her so soundly, her mind went blank. Absolutely blank. Then she felt his hand, and all future rational thought seemed out of the question.

"Beth," his mouth pulled away from hers, and she felt the quick intake of his breath. "I need you to help me, Beth. I can't take you to bed. Don't let me get that far, all right?"

Before she could answer, he reclaimed her mouth.

Her fingers sifted his hair. The hat tumbled to the ground. Then a familiar voice called from the house, stopping Beth but not Matt.

"Hey, you two. Mom's got the coffee ready."

"We're coming Dad!" Beth called from behind the truck. Thank God, her father couldn't see them. Matt kept trying to kiss her, and when she didn't kiss him back, he pushed away with a soft moan.

He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, and when Beth straightened her dress, she felt him watching.

Matt stooped, grabbed the hat and looked back at the house. "They're waiting," he said, his voice as unsteady as she felt.

"I know. I'll be along in a moment."

He huffed out a sigh. "I need some of that coffee." Without looking back, he started for the house.

Braced against the pickup, Beth watched Matt stride away. She wanted to ask why he couldn't take her to bed, but feared the answer so much she said nothing. Considering Matt's former addictions, whatever she wanted, he wanted even more. And if he was backing away, then it must be for a very good reason.

Whatever it was, it had to be significant to prevent a former sex-addict from sleeping with his wife. The wording of the thought made Beth wince. Either she was drop dead ugly, or he had a deep dark past that wouldn't stop.

Some choice.

By the time Beth made it inside, Cassie and Ryan were napping on the couch beside Dylan's carrier, while the others were at the kitchen table with their coffee. Even Ethan drank the brew.

Strange, Beth had never really noticed that before. A family of coffee drinkers.

"None of you are going to get a wink of sleep, tonight," Beth said, going to the stove to put a kettle of water on for some decaf tea.

"It's about time you came in." Aiden put down his mug. "I was about to send a search party after you."

Beth passed over the comment, and so did her father. He continued, almost without pause.

"By not telling your family about this marriage, Brian refuses to call you, and Fiona is angry you cheated her out of attending the wedding."


"I know, Peanut, I know. There wasn't time."

"I wish you'd stop calling me Peanut." She leaned against the counter, folded her arms and waited for the kettle to whistle.

Beth's mother gave a familiar smile, one that announced she knew something Beth didn't. Beth knew that expression well.

"What is it, Mom?"

"Fiona will be here tomorrow."

"What?" Beth straightened. "She's coming?"

"With Daniel and the children," Shannon nodded. "I called her after I came inside, and she wants to meet Matt. Brian will take a little longer to come around, but Cathy has promised to work on him. We're hoping everyone will arrive before the week is out."

Looking numb, Matt turned to Beth. "Who's Cathy?"

"My-- excuse me-- our, sister-in-law."

"And Fiona?"

"My sister."


"My brother. Daniel is Fiona's husband."

"And Fiona is coming..."


"I see."

"Do you? My family is descending like a plague of locusts, and by the time the wind changes, I'm afraid there won't be anything left of the former Matt Taylor."

Matt gave a handsome grin, though Beth thought she detected terror in his eyes. "If I can survive your parents, I can survive a brother and a sister."

"Bravely spoken, but my parents aren't gone yet."

Matt smiled, took a swallow of coffee and said nothing.

"Man, I am never getting married." Ethan scooted onto his tailbone, nursed his mug with both hands. "Things get way too complicated once the big 'I do' enters the picture."

Matt sat up a little straighter. "You aren't going to get serious without it."

"Without what?"

"The big 'I do.'"

"I'd like to see you make me."

"No, you don't, Ethan. If I find out you're messing around without the big 'I do,' her angry parents are going to be the least of your troubles."

"You should know about angry parents," Ethan said, raising his mug in a mock toast to Matt.

"You aren't going to follow in my footsteps, Ethan."

"Yeah, yeah. I'll stick it out through high school, maybe even go to college, and you'll still be neck deep in the big 'I do' without any of the benefits."


"Okay, I'll shut up." A scowl plastered across Ethan's face. "I'm just so tired of people pushing us around, Matty. When's it our turn to push back?"

"I'll let you know." Matt sounded weary. He took a swallow of coffee, placed the mug on the table and got to his feet. "I'll go check the others."

As Matt left the kitchen, Aiden shot one of those disapproving looks Beth knew so well, at Ethan.

"If I were you, I'd cut your brother some slack."

Ethan glared at Aiden. "Yeah? What do you know?"

"Since Matt is your brother, I certainly don't know as much as you," Aiden said, getting to his feet with the help of the cane. "But that's the point, isn't it?"

Ashamed, the teenager hung his head.

Beth watched her father move toward the living room. "I'll say good night to Matt, then I'm off to bed. Good night, Peanut. Ethan."

Ethan made no reply.

When Aiden left, Shannon turned to the young man. "Have you ever had a grandfather?"

Ethan shrugged. "None that I remember."

"It appears you have one now," Shannon said with a smile. "Beth, I think I'll follow your father's example and turn in. Don't wait much longer before you drive back to Las Cruces. I want you to get some sleep, so you'll be well rested when Fiona arrives tomorrow."

Beth smiled, though the prospect made her wish she had been an only child.

Too harsh, she realized later, as she followed behind Matt's pickup on the drive home. Even though the Campbell children didn't always get along, nothing could change the fact they were family. They'd get through it somehow.

Watching the rear lights of the truck in front, Beth knew she had a bigger problem than her sister.

If something didn't change in this name only marriage, Beth feared they would not make it to their first anniversary. Things could not keep going this way, with Matt torturing himself, and her, every time they were alone. At the rate they were going, this marriage would fail before it had a chance to even start.

Something must change. It had to.

The children needed them to stay together, and so did Matt. Whether he ever admitted it or not, the stubborn cowboy needed someone to take care of him.

Whatever it took, Beth resolved to make the relationship work. God had placed her in this family for a reason, and she would not fail that purpose. Of course, if she went through with a change, things might become more complicated between her and Matt. Perhaps even messy.

Beth sighed. As if they needed more complications. The paperwork for Dylan's guardianship was being set up, Eve and Wade were probably living somewhere in town, Beth's parents were here, and tomorrow, Fiona and her family would join them.

Now was not a good time for messy. As Beth pulled behind Matt's pickup in front of the mobile home, she knew in her heart she had no choice.

It was a risk she had to take.

"To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven... A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance... a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing... a time to keep silence, and a time to speak..."
~ Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4, 5, 7 ~

end of chapter
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