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Chapter Nineteen
About Us

"A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger."
~ Proverbs 15:1 ~

Am I glad to get home." Ethan dumped himself onto the living room couch with a dramatic groan. He watched dully as Matt placed a wide awake Dylan into the crib beside the coffee table. "I hope you're not expecting me to go visiting tomorrow. I don't care who's coming-- I won't go."

"Save it for later, Ethan. Just save it for later." Matt leaned against the crib railing, took off his hat and sighed.

"I didn't like him, Matty."

"Shut up. Beth will hear you." Matt turned to see Beth standing in the front door, Ryan and Cassie at her side. "Sorry you had to hear that, but your dad didn't exactly strain himself with niceties."

"No, that's not my father's way." Beth ushered Ryan and Cassie inside, then closed the door to the rowdy sound of rap blaring from a car as it cruised past the house. "Dad can be blunt, so try not to take it personally. He's not always easy to be around."

A half grin tilted Matt's mouth, and he didn't try to contradict her. He tossed the hat onto the sofa, started pulling off his boots where he stood.

"Ryan, go change into your pajamas."

"Aw, Matty, do I have to?"

Matt pinned the boy with a weary look. "Yes, you have to. If you need help, get me or Ethan. Now scoot."

Head drooped, Ryan dragged his feet into the kitchen. A few moments later, he called out in a hopeful voice, "Are you sure I have to?"


"Okay, okay. I'm changing."

With a loud groan, Ethan pulled himself off the couch. "I'm going to bed." He started for the kitchen. He paused, turned to look at Matt. "I mean it. I'm not going anywhere but school tomorrow."

"I heard you the first time, Ethan. We'll talk about it later."

"I just don't like that guy--"

"Later." Matt glared at Ethan. "If you're going to bed, then go. I don't want to talk about it now."

Ethan's shoulders slumped in a defeated posture. He shook his head and left.

"Now that I said that," Matt gave a half-hearted grin as he stepped over the discarded boots, "I'm going to bed, too. Cass, don't stay up much longer. You've got school as well."

"I know." Cassie let out a tired sigh. "'Night, Matty."

"What? Oh, yeah. Good night."

Cassie smiled at Beth before moving down the short hall that led to her bedroom.

Thoughts swirled in Beth's mind. Now was obviously not a good time to talk to Matt. She went to the crib, and noticed Dylan needed a change. She spread a towel on the coffee table, lifted the kicking newborn out of the crib. He blinked at her, his dark eyes wide and sweet and staring.

"Who's a sweetie-pie? Who? You are! You are!"

Dylan gaped at her, his hands balled into tiny baby fists. She placed him on his back to be changed, and some of those tiny fingers found their way into his mouth. He sucked and stared, then gave a wide yawn. He had a busy day, too.

As Beth changed Dylan's diaper to the sound of more baby-talk, Matt trudged out from the kitchen, and swiped up his boots.

"I forgot. My truck is blocking Mrs. Lott's driveway." Matt stamped on his boots, then reached for the hat on the sofa. "Hey, Dylan. Are you wet again?" He gave a generous smile to the baby, then strode out the front door.

Rethinking the situation, Beth hurried Dylan into the crib. Maybe now would be a good time, after all.

When Beth went to Cassie's room, she found the girl in her sleep shirt and climbing into bed.

"Cassie, I have a big favor to ask, and I don't have much time to explain."

He didn't usually block Mrs. Lott's driveway, so why had he tonight? Matt switched off the ignition, leaned back on the battered upholstery and blew out a sigh. Time to face facts. His mind had been elsewhere. With someone else, to be honest.

With a certain redheaded wonder who had him going weak in the knees. And when that redheaded wonder moved in his arms... Whoa. His heart either jackhammered wildly, or it stopped beating altogether. And letting go? Brutal.

Each time made it only harder to let go, though Matt knew he had to do just that. He had to command himself like a man. Stop grabbing her every time he had a chance, and stop wishing things were different between them. Hoping only made the hurt worse. Hadn't he always told that to the others? High time he started remembering that, himself.

Matt shoved open the truck door, stepped out and looked at the mobile home. It sat tucked in the semi-darkness of this rough neighborhood, surrounded by dandelions and the trash of others. Light glowed from the curtained living room window, and Matt pictured Dylan kicking his tiny feet while his diaper was being changed. He saw Beth, cooing those silly things and looking so sweet while doing it.

No doubt about it, he was on dangerous ground. The danger didn't come from the gangs that prowled this neighborhood, but from the china doll cooing to his baby brother.

He had handled danger before, and he would handle this. The only defense against this particular danger, however, had him shifting in his favorite worn boots.

No more kissing Beth. Next time, he might not be able to let go. Better to stop altogether, than to risk that.

As he went up the dirt walk, he kept pushing away the hurt that wouldn't be ignored. He would almost rather give up meth again, instead of that gut twisting, cloud soft feeling of her against him.

When Matt went inside, he saw Dylan in the crib, already fast asleep. He tugged off his boots, then his eyes tracked to the sofa. A bed of blankets and pillows had been arranged on the couch cushions, and his little sister lay neatly tucked beneath the covers.

"Cass?" Matt lowered his voice, not wanting to wake the baby. "Why aren't you in your room?"

The girl smiled prettily. "I'm sleeping here tonight."



"Because what?"

Cassie rolled her eyes, though she didn't stop smiling.

"I'm tired, Cass. If you don't have a good reason to be on that couch, pick up your things and go back to your room."

"But, Matty..."

He waited. "But what?"

A timid moment overtook Cassie. She smiled and shrugged, and looked at the hall, behind Matt.

He turned to follow Cassie's gaze.

And went weak in the knees.

Standing outside Cassie's door, stood Beth, dressed in that silky robe and nightgown he had seen before. Her hair hung unbound over her shoulders, free from braids and French twists. The translucent glow of her skin, the red fall of tangled curls, made her look like one of those collectible dolls that sit beneath glass to be admired.

Matt forced himself to breathe.

"I see you found Cassie." Beth came toward him, her manner easy and almost careless, as though oblivious of her own ravishing beauty.

A quality Matt found very attractive.

"I asked Cassie if she minded sleeping on the couch, and she said she didn't. So here she is."

"Yes," Matt turned, glanced at Cassie, "here she is. But why?"

"I thought we could use some time together."

Suddenly at a loss for words, Matt paused to collect himself. With just one sentence, Beth had shattered his iron resolve and scattered the pieces beneath her pretty little feet.

"We need to talk, Matt."

"I'll say we do." He swiped off the hat, started to put it back on but stopped. "I hope you don't think we're going to talk in there-- in Cassie's room?"

"Would you prefer I go next door and ask Mrs. Lott for her guest room?"

"Oh no, don't drag Mrs. Lott into this. We'll talk right here. Just as soon as Cassie goes back where she belongs."

"But Matty--"

"Why is everyone bent on arguing, tonight? I said go to your room, and I meant it."

"Cassie, stay where you are." Beth took Matt's hat, tossed it aside, then grabbed hold of his hand and pulled him toward the bedroom. "We need privacy, Matt, and that place is as good as any. Better than most, I'd say, seeing the children are pretty much on the other side of the house."

That feminine hand covered his, and already Matt's heart did a good imitation of a jackhammer. He followed her into the bedroom, then stepped aside so she could shut the door.

He kept a careful distance as she moved to sit on the edge of the bed.

"I meant what I said, Matt. We need to talk."

"I think I know what about. You're in that silky number, and we're here, by ourselves."

"This isn't silk, it's nylon, and there's nothing wrong with us being alone. We're married, and we both made the commitment to stay in this marriage for the long haul. You aren't risking a thing by having this talk."

"Oh, yeah, I am. I'm risking my sanity." Matt drew in a steadying breath, hoping to slow the thudding against his ribs. "You want to talk, go right ahead. But I can already tell you my answer."

"Won't you even give me a chance before you make up your mind?"

"Beth, you sprang this on me without warning. This is as good as I can do." Matt searched for a place to sit, noticed the tiny vanity table against the wall and shoved the feminine stuff off to one side. He sat, felt the legs of the vanity give a little, but didn't move when they held his weight. "Go on, Beth. I'm listening."

She sighed. "Why do you have to be so bull-headed, so like a man?"

"Maybe that's because I am one." Matt frowned. Somehow, that didn't come out right.

"I think," Beth said in a calmer, more even tone that showed a struggle to remain objective, "we need to make a change to our agreement. It seems pointless to continue the way we have..." she paused, colored a little, and went on, "to continue the way we have and not do something about it."

"Speak for yourself. Me? I'm doing great."

"Matt, please take this seriously."

He folded his arms. "Did you have anything more to say before I go?"

Worry etched itself onto the porcelain doll's face. It turned self-conscious. "Is it because I'm not attractive enough? I know I'm nothing special as far as looks are concerned, but I'd think I was better than nothing."

"Stop talking like that." Matt spat out the words as though trying to rid himself of a bitter taste. "You're beautiful, and you know it, so stop trying to heap guilt on me. I've got enough as it is." He studied her face, then changed his mind. "On second thought, I don't think you know what a knockout you are. You couldn't look at me with such gratitude in your eyes, if you did."

"Matt, please--"

"NO." He stared at the door, wishing with all his might that he had never come inside. Even now, he wanted to get to his feet, and head for that door. "You don't know what you're getting yourself into, Beth. It wouldn't be fair. You don't know what I am."

"Are you trying to protect me, Matt?" His gaze slipped back to her. "Is that why you won't tell me about certain parts of your past? Because you're protecting me?"

His back stiffened. "Don't change this into something it isn't. I don't want you to know. That's enough."

"No, it isn't-- not when it's coming between us. Matt, please tell me."

He looked at Beth in all her innocent, protected childhood. She had no idea of what he had done, and if she did... Matt wasn't about to take that risk. She thought him a good man. If he told her the truth, there would be no way to regain her good opinion. It would be lost forever.

"Okay, don't tell me." She folded her arms to match his. "We can get along without the disclosures. You've warned me. Okay. I'm willing to live without knowing all of your past."


"Don't make fun of me, Matt Taylor. Those children deserve a mother, and I intend to make sure that opportunity isn't thrown away simply because you refuse to talk."

Matt chuckled grimly. "That's funny. I thought all this time that's what we were doing-- talking." He glanced back at the door, wondering if now would be a good time to test his legs. Sure, he was weak-kneed at the sight of her, but that didn't mean he couldn't walk away.

Without warning, she stood, came toward him until he could feel her breath on his face.

Her lips touched his, and for the life of him, he couldn't fight it. God help him, he couldn't fight. His breath came in quick gulps, he felt himself being pulled toward the bed. Somewhere in the back of his brain, reality tried to break through. He couldn't hear it, but when she started taking off that robe, it struck.

He had forgotten. He ran to the door, swung it wide open and hustled into the living room. Shoving a hand into the pocket of his jeans, he found the truck keys. He didn't stop to answer the bewildered look on Cassie's face as he hurried out of the house. Even if he could, Matt wasn't so sure he wanted to explain everything to his baby sister.

Some things, a guy had to keep to himself.

Dumbstruck, Beth sank onto the bed. She had scared him away. Beth didn't think herself capable of scaring Matt simply by taking off her robe. Was she really that ugly? Her nightgown-- the one made of washable nylon and utterly lacking in romance-- concealed her figure so much the robe wasn't necessary. She didn't look attractive, but Beth had hoped Matt wouldn't notice. Once he started kissing her, he wouldn't care.

Or so she had thought.

Tears at such a time were ridiculous, though not wholly unexpected. She kept wiping her eyes, telling herself she wouldn't cry, yet wetting her fingers every time she brushed away the suspicious drops. As Beth shut the door Matt had flung open, those gasping sobs struggled to the surface. Fearing the children might hear, she dropped onto the bed face down and wept.

How much time passed, she didn't know, or care. She only knew the disappointment of the truth-- that despite those kind words about her beauty, he had turned her away.

A short knock sounded on the door. Before Beth thought to ask God to keep her situation from Cassie and the boys, Matt came into the bedroom. He turned, shut the door, and stood with his back to her for some time.

In his left hand, he clutched a small shopping bag.

When she tried to sniff away more tears, he turned.

"You've been crying."

A laugh caught in her throat. "You're very observant."

She smeared her eyes as Matt sank onto the edge of the bed. She pushed herself up, sat beside him, hoping against hope for a chance to make things right.

"I'm sorry I made you cry." His shoulders heaved with a great sigh that sounded old beyond his years. Then a boyish grin formed on his mouth. "I ran out of here so fast, I forgot my boots." His socked toes wiggled, and Beth smiled.

She didn't want to ask, fearing the answer to her very core, but she had to know. "Why did you leave?"

He tossed her the bag.

"What's this?" Beth opened it, noticed it came from a pharmacy and pulled out a box. "Protection? You left me to get protection?"

"I knew this was a bad idea." Matt shoved off the bed.

"Why, Matt? We're married."

"Do you want an STD?" The question snapped out of him, and he took another step from the bed. "I haven't had a physical in over two years, so I thought we should keep this safe."

"Two years?" Beth tried to concentrate. She struggled to think through the haze of shed tears and rejection. "You used drugs two years ago. Does this have anything to do with that?"

Silent, Matt stared at the carpet.

"I'm going to make another wild guess," Beth said, putting the box on the bed beside her. "You were with Helen, and that's why you used meth."

Matt looked up at Beth. "You think you're smart, don't you?"

"Tell me I'm wrong."

"You're not, but it wasn't only Helen's fault I started using again." Matt shoved his hands into his pockets. "She brought the drugs, but I used them of my own free will. I don't have any excuses for what I did. It was wrong, and I knew it."

"Then why did you do it?" Beth asked.

Matt stared at her for a long time. He shrugged. "Habit, I guess."

"I don't suppose this is your secret past?"

"Are you kidding?" Matt gave a wry chuckle. "Honey, if this was all I'd done, I would have told you long before now." He looked at the box, then at her. "I can't do this, Beth."

"Can't, or won't?"

He eyed her evenly, as though weighing his words with care. "I want things to be different between us, but not like this."

"I don't understand. What's wrong? Is it something about me? I'm not pretty like Helen?"

For a moment, Beth feared Matt would turn angry. He tensed at the question, then came to stand before her as she sat on the bed.

"Is that why you were crying?" he asked. "You thought I didn't find you desirable?"

With Matt standing over her, Beth felt oddly intimidated by his presence. His hand touched her shoulder. He pushed her back onto the mattress, lowered his mouth to hers and sent all trace of doubt into outer oblivion. It was total and complete.

She was wanted. Truly wanted. Something much deeper than relief coursed through her, something that spoke to her very heart. She touched Matt, and he came up for air.

"Beth. I can't do this." He pushed away, climbed off the bed and rubbed his face with both hands. "I won't do this-- not like this, not with you. It's going to be different with you."

"Matt, I don't understand." Beth sat up again, this time clinging to the assurance that kept her from bursting into manic tears.

"You aren't the problem, Beth. I hope you believe me when I say that."

"I do."

"Good. That's good, because it would tear me up to see you crying again. The thing is," he sucked in a breath, "the problem is with me, but it's not just me. It's us."

"What do you mean?"

"Us, Beth. We aren't what we should be to each other-- not to do something as big as this." Matt gestured to the bed. "This would be big. Monumentally big, and I want it to mean something if it happens."

"But it would mean something, Matt. It would mean we are truly man and wife."

Matt shook his head. "I want it to mean more. I've never been married before, and I want it to mean more than 'the big I do.' I've spent my life with sex not meaning what it was supposed to, and I don't want it to be that way with you. We're married, but it's not enough. Not for me."

Beth swallowed hard. "This is sobering talk, Matt."

"You started it."

They stared at each other in the silence of Cassie's bedroom. For several long minutes they faced each other. The word "love" hung in the air between them, but it remained unsaid.

Matt nodded. "I should go now."

"Where will you go? Matt, please, we'll work something out."

He gave a grim half-smile. "I meant, I should go to my room. I'll send Cass to you, if she's still awake."

"What about us, Matt?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. Guess we'll have to wait and see."

"I wish you didn't have to wait."

"It's all right. You aren't ready, and neither am I."

The look of disappointment on his face grieved Beth. As he turned to leave, she moved to her feet and came to him.

"Matt, just one more thing before you go." She leaned in to him, covered his mouth with hers and gave the longest kiss she could manage.

When it came to an end, he touched his cheek to her hair. "Oh, Beth. Promise you'll never leave me."

"I won't leave."

A sigh sounded against her ear. She felt his breath on her neck. "As long as I know you won't walk away, then I'll know there's still a chance for us."

"I'm sorry, Matt."

"Hey, I couldn't say it, either." He pulled away. "I guess love is harder than I thought." His fingers caressed her face, and she closed her eyes, hoping to prolong the contact. "It's all right, Beth. We'll get through this."

She pressed another long kiss to his lips. He hugged her fiercely, then pushed down the hall, through the living room without checking Cassie, and into the kitchen. The subtle sound of a door shutting, signaled Matt had gone to the boys' room.

If Cassie was awake, the girl didn't come to ask what happened. Concluding Cassie had fallen asleep upon seeing Matt's return, Beth went back to the bedroom alone.

She clicked off the light, sank onto the mattress while her mind replayed Matt's cherished words. He had asked her to stay-- had made her promise not to leave him.

A wistful sigh escaped her lips. She touched her heart, only to find Matt had taken it with him.

It took patience not to slam the bedroom door shut, but Matt forced himself to be quiet. Ryan and Ethan were asleep, and one glance at the clock explained why. Two-twenty in the morning. No wonder the house felt empty.

Matt stalked into the adjoining bathroom, grateful that the lateness of the hour was good for something. He could count on some privacy, without one of the others intruding on his alone time.

Not that he wanted to be alone. By all rights, he should be in that tiny bedroom down the hall, enjoying the fact he was married. "The big I do" wasn't enough? How lame was that?

He twisted the shower on cold full blast, then stepped under the torrent with all his clothes on. Sopping wet didn't matter. He needed relief. Cold shuddered through his body, his teeth chattered. It took man-sized willpower to remain under that shower, but Matt forced himself to stay.

Cold was better than that awful longing. The memory of her haunted him, and he struggled to get free.

He braced a hand against the shower wall, let the water roll off him until he could take the cold no longer. Shivering like an eskimo without a coat, Matt squished in his wet socks to the towel rack. He jerked off a towel, dried his face, then his hair.

Without warning, the bathroom door swung open. Ethan strode inside with that still asleep look plastered on his face. Groggy-eyed, the teenager used the toilet without comment as Matt continued to towel himself off. The toilet flushed, then Ethan shuffled past Matt, and back to the bedroom.

So much for privacy.

Wearing dry boxers, Matt padded to his bed, the single mattress shoved against the wall that was all his own. As he climbed beneath the covers, he spotted a small body cuddled against his pillow. Ryan slept soundly as Matt scooted him over, then claimed most of the bed for himself.

What did a guy have to do around here for privacy?

With an arm draped over his eyes, Matt let himself think about Beth. Dangerous, he knew, but he couldn't help wondering how close she had come to saying the words he needed to hear before he could take her to bed. She felt bad that she couldn't say them. So did he. She felt guilty about it-- those mind boggling kisses proved it-- but still, something stopped her from speaking those words.

Face it, Taylor, he thought miserably, she's not in love and never will be. He had been an absolute idiot to turn her down.

And yet...

As much as he wanted Beth, he wanted something else even more. Holding out probably meant more cold showers and even worse heartache, but some things Matt valued more than sex. In the old days, he would have laughed himself stupid to hear anyone say such a dumb thing, but now? Now, he wanted more.

For all the mess and trouble that pancakes required, Beth enjoyed her payment in the syrupy smiles of Ryan and Cassie. The girl came to Beth early that morning, and had been crushed to learn the honeymoon hadn't taken place. Beth swore Cassie to secrecy, not wanting to shame Matt in front of Ethan, and Cassie had agreed. Even so, Beth saw the disappointed expression on Cassie's face as Cassie glanced at Matt's empty chair.

Ethan had come to breakfast, but not Matt. Even sending Ryan to tell Matt there were buttermilk pancakes hadn't done the trick.

Couldn't she do anything right? Beth wondered. Aside from the consolation Matt had given, last night had been worse than disastrous, and this morning looked to fare just as well. She wondered if she could talk Ethan into seeing what kept his older brother, when Matt came to the table in faded jeans and a garden nursery shirt.

"We saved you some pancakes," Cassie said, covering her mouth politely so she could speak while eating. "They're awfully good, Matty."

"That comes as no surprise," Matt said, throwing a playful wink at Cassie. "Beth makes the best pancakes in the world. Someone pass the syrup?"

More than once, Beth tried to catch Matt's eye, to see if she could also catch some of his thoughts; more than once, however, the stubborn cowboy purposefully evaded her gaze. She poured his coffee, kept his plate filled, and tried to act like a sane person should. Hard to do, when her mind kept occupying itself with Matt.

"Are you guys going into work, today?" Ethan chewed with an open mouth so that bits of pancake crumbled onto his shirt. He pointed a fork at Matt. "You look like you're ready for work."

"I am."

"But I thought those people were coming today."

"They are, I guess." Matt shrugged. "What about it?"

Ethan stopped chewing. "Aren't you going to stick around to meet 'em?"

For the first time all morning, Matt glanced in Beth's direction, though their eyes never met. "Unless I'm told otherwise, this is a workday like any other."

Beth spoke up. "We can't afford to keep the nursery closed. Matt's right-- we'll be going in this morning."

Now it was Matt's turn to point a fork at Ethan. "You guys have your homework ready?"

"Yeah, I did it this morning, while you read your Bible. What about those people?"

"Why are you so worked up about them? They're only Beth's family."

Finding a sudden disinterest in eating, Ethan stared at his plate. "Do I have to go back and see that man, again?"

Matt took a gulp of coffee, then picked up his fork and stabbed some pancake. "What have you got against Beth's dad?"

"I would think you'd never want to see him again. He insulted us every chance he got."

"I believe," Matt said, pausing between mouthfuls, "he said those things about me-- not you."

"But he meant us." Ethan pushed back from the table with an irritated groan. "Why are you defending him?"

"Because he's Beth's daddy." Matt shot a look across the table at Ethan. "He cares about his daughter. I don't blame him."

A surge of quiet hope pulled at Beth. Maybe the night hadn't been so disastrous, after all.

"Well, I do. He said everything short of calling us white trash."

Matt heaved a weary sigh. "I wish you'd stop disrespecting Beth's father in her presence. In case you haven't forgotten, she sitting right here." Matt glanced at her in an offhand way, then his eyes held when he noticed she watched him. He hadn't been expecting her to watch. Beth felt it in his eyes. He hadn't expected it.

She smiled. He grinned.

"That guy thinks he knows everything about us. Just because he has money, and we don't, doesn't give him the right to tell us what to do. I hate smart-mouthed people who tell you where and when to get off. After they've put you in your place, then they want to be thanked for it."

"Huh?" Matt broke free from the moment, and Beth sighed inwardly. "What are you talking about?"

"Him. Mr. Campbell. Beth's dad." Ethan leaned forward. "What planet are you on? Didn't you hear what I said?"

"Yeah, sure I did." Matt cleared his throat. "Mr. Campbell wanted to be thanked. I don't know why he should, though. It was Beth's idea to take them out to lunch."

"It's like talking to a brick wall." Ethan elbowed Cassie. "He kept tossing in bed last night, and Ryan finally left him. I think maybe he's coming down with the flu."

Cassie frowned. "Who? Ryan?"

"No, dumbbell, Matty."

"Hey! Don't call your sister names."

"I'll call her anything I want." Ethan sat straight in the chair. "What's with everyone this morning? Except for Ryan, you guys look goofy. Like you didn't get any sleep."

"I got sleep." Cassie bowed her head, but Beth caught the hidden smile.

"Time to get moving, guys." Matt shoved back from the table, told Ryan to get his things so they could bring the small ones next door to Mrs. Lott's.

"But what about those people?"

"I don't know, Ethan. They'll get here when they get here. Now move it, before you're late for the bus."

On the ride into work, Beth said very little. She watched Matt out of the corner of her eye, from the passenger seat of his pickup. The radio blared country music, some twangy tune about God and country and an unfortunate three-legged dog that got run over by a tractor. When the owner of the dog lost his childhood sweetheart to a twin brother, Beth clicked it off.

"Hey, I was listening to that."

"So was I. How anyone can hear all that heartache and call it entertainment, is beyond me."

A grin tugged at Matt.

"I've been thinking," she began cautiously. She noticed the grin vanished. "I think we should spend some time together outside of the bedroom."

"Does now count?"

"I mean it. We should set aside some time to work on us. Years after my little sister was born, Mom and Dad implemented date night. They set aside one evening out of every week to go out and do something romantic together. Mom said it helped strengthen their relationship."

"I'm listening." From the intent set of his mouth, Beth knew she had his attention.

"I was thinking if you agreed, maybe we could start Friday night."

"What? You mean, like in a date? A real date. You and me. Dating."

"My parents do it, so why not us?"

"Yeah, I guess. Why not? Sorry, Beth, but you have a tendency to spring these things on me without any warning. Most of the time, I feel like I'm running to catch up."

The encouragement made her smile. "I think there should be two rules to date night."

"Uh-oh." Matt blew out a sigh. "Rules."

"First of all, date night should be capped at a certain dollar amount. Nothing extravagant or overboard. The idea of this is to spend time together, not spend money."

The truck turned into the nursery's parking lot. Matt pulled to a stop, but remained in the vehicle. "That sounds practical. What's the other rule?"

"It has to be romantic."

Matt sucked in a breath, his eyes turning thunderstorm dark as he looked at her.

She touched his arm. "I think we should do this."

Matt blew out the breath he evidently had been holding. "Wow, Beth. You sure know how to knock my socks off when I least expect it."

"I'm not saying anything is going to happen, Matt. I'm only saying--"

"Yeah, I understand. It's not a honeymoon, just a date."

Someone stepped from the store entrance, though Beth didn't care to notice who. Right now, Matt was the only one who mattered.

"You, me, and romance." He grinned. "That's something we haven't tried yet."

"Let's try, Matt."

"Okay. Friday night, then."

Sylvia rapped on the windshield to get Beth's attention.

Beth leaned toward Matt. "You do know what today is, don't you?"

"Don't tell me I've already forgotten an anniversary."

Beth smiled. "Yesterday was Thursday, so today is..."

He leaned in, kissed her eagerly, and she moved into his arms. She had wanted him to kiss her, but felt she had no right to ask. Not after last night.

It wasn't until several moments later, that Beth remembered Sylvia. When Beth emerged from Matt's strong embrace, she found Sylvia watching them with a wide mouthed gape. Just as well, Beth thought, climbing from the pickup. If Sylvia or Amy had any suspicions that this marriage wasn't quite normal, that passionate kiss should put those speculations to rest.

There were no emergencies, nothing important that Sylvia wanted. She simply wanted to know when Beth and Matt were coming inside. The impertinence of Sylvia's urgency, and the jealous pouting that followed, did little to dampen Beth's spirits. Though business at the nursery picked up that morning, all Beth could think about was Matt. They ate lunch in her office, along with Amy and Sylvia, but Matt was the only one she noticed.

When Sylvia left, and then finally Amy, Matt shut the office door to be alone with Beth. She noticed his hands stayed at her back when they embraced, they didn't stray or caress as before. And though they did no talking, she felt his caution.

He backed away, and she forced herself not to pursue or beg. His hand rested on the office door, ready to go back to work, and yet, she saw the wavering hesitation in his gaze.

She smiled when he stepped back to her. For a husband and wife who didn't officially love each other, they sure spent a lot of time kissing.

"Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth... His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me."
~ Song of Solomon 1:2, 2:6 ~

end of chapter
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