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Chapter Two
Beth's Garden Nursery

"I [Matt] have refrained my feet from every evil way, that I might keep Thy word."
~ Psalm 119:101 ~

The employment application finished, Matt climbed into his pickup truck and started the engine. He didn't tell anyone of the surprise he had found in his mailbox, in the likely event this new lead should turn into another dead end. As Matt drove down the street, he recognized his pastor's car, heading straight toward the house. Matt groaned. Jerry Westhaven must have called their pastor, after finding out he'd been searching for a job. Determined to put off his pastor for as long as he could, Matt kept going and didn't turn around.

By the time the old pickup had been parked in front of Beth's Garden Nursery, Matt's prayers were coming one after another. He needed this job. God knew he did. "Well," Matt said in quiet prayer, "I'm doing all I can, God, so I'm depending on You to do the rest."

Putting on his Stetson, Matt swung open the squeaky truck door. There were very few cars in the small parking lot in front of the store, making him wonder if the nursery had come on hard times -- like himself. The thought crossed his mind that perhaps, even if he got the job, he might soon lose it if the nursery went out of business. Matt had to admit to wishful thinking, for he first had to get the job before he could lose it.

Seeing no one outside in the loading yard or the lattice covered entrance, Matt stepped inside the store. A young woman, a few years younger than himself and wearing a green T-shirt with the nursery's logo, looked up from where she stood at the cash register.

"May I help you?"

"I'm here about a job," Matt said, hesitating to turn over his application to anyone but the owner. "I don't suppose Beth is around?"

The woman narrowed her gaze, then suddenly her blue eyes grew wide with recognition. "You're that guy from yesterday!"

Uncomfortably, Matt shifted in his boots. "Could you tell me where Beth is?"

"Mrs. Carter is in her office," the young woman said, pointing to a doorway at the back of the store. "Are you going to work here?"

The slight ring of hope in her voice made Matt smile. "We'll see," he said, nodding his thanks before heading to the office. The young woman's name tag had read "Amy," and Matt began to wonder how many women worked at the nursery. So far, he had counted three, including Beth. Matt corrected himself -- she preferred to be called Mrs. Carter, and not Beth.

Grateful for the warning, Matt made a mental note and knocked on the closed office door. When no one answered, he tried again. He could hear two sets of muffled voices, one deeper than the other, speaking back and forth in animated discussion. Not wanting to make a nuisance of himself, Matt quietly waited outside the door. None of the words were distinct, though he tried not to make out what was being said, for he didn't want to eavesdrop. He heard a woman's voice, and then silence.

The name on the door was Mrs. Carter's, so Matt knew he had the right office. From the looks of the store, there was only one office, anyway. He checked the time on his watch just as the door opened. A grinning man brushed past Matt, and when Matt looked through the open door, he saw Mrs. Carter looking somewhat embarrassed as she straightened her shirt.

Sensing he had intruded on a very private moment, Matt awkwardly stood there, the form in his hand. The man must have been her husband.

"If you want to come in, then come in," Mrs. Carter said, waving Matt inside. Her voice sounded abrupt and curt, and not at all as though she had been expecting him. She took a seat behind her desk. "I don't have a lot of time, so make it quick."

"Someone left this in my mailbox," Matt said, handing her the employment application. "It had this note attached to it," he added, giving her the handwritten slip of paper. He paused, waiting to see her reaction. "I didn't know who left it, but I filled out the application and brought it over as instructed."

"I put it in your mailbox," Mrs. Carter said, casting a quick glance over the form before turning her eyes back on Matt. She had an uncanny way of making him feel that he was in trouble, and awaiting punishment for something he had done. "Sit down," she pointed her chin at a nearby chair.

Matt obeyed, relieved the application had come from her, and not someone else.

"Jerry Westhaven told me we attend the same church. Why didn't you tell me that, yesterday?"

This came as much of a surprise to Matt, as it apparently had to Mrs. Carter. "I didn't know. I'm afraid I didn't recognize you from church."

"Yes, well..." Mrs. Carter cleared her throat, "I don't attend church very regularly, so that must explain it." She turned back to the form, looking it over with an expert eye. "It says here, you worked in construction before you were fired for stealing." The green eyes turned back to him, quietly awaiting more of an explanation than Matt had written on his application. He had given no references to speak of, and that one admission of having been fired because of theft, didn't look good.

"My boss accused me of stealing supplies from the worksite," Matt said, reluctant to tell the truth, yet compelled by conscience to do just that.

Mrs. Carter raised her eyebrows.

"Instead of pressing charges, he fired me."

Matt couldn't miss the almost victorious look on Mrs. Carter's face, as though his admission had affirmed something she had thought about him all along. "That was very nice of your boss," she said evenly, her green eyes becoming a shade cooler than before.

"I didn't steal anything, Mrs. Carter -- I give you my word, I didn't."

This declaration of innocence procured a stiff smile, but little else. She perused the application, and Matt knew she had already made up her mind to turn him away.

"I've never hired anyone who didn't have at least some experience with plants," Mrs. Carter said, placing Matt's form on her desk, "but I suppose there's a first time for everything."

Matt stared at her in disbelief. "You're going to hire me?"

"Yes, but not because of you," Mrs. Carter said in a slow, deliberate tone. "I've heard our pastor speak of your situation, and no one is going to accuse me of forcing little children onto the street because I wouldn't give you work. From what I understand, you have two brothers and a sister?"

"Yes, ma'am, that's right." Matt felt desperate enough to take the job, even though Mrs. Carter had made it quite clear she didn't want to hire him. "Ethan is seventeen, Cassie twelve, and Ryan just turned four."

The ice in Mrs. Carter's expression melted a little, and Matt caught her glancing at the picture frame on her desk. From where he sat, he couldn't see the photo it held, but he wondered if she had children of her own.

"I can't pay you as much as your last job," Mrs. Carter said, turning the subject back to business, "but I can offer a fair wage for a fair day's work. I warn you though, steal from me and you'll be dismissed. I will not be as understanding as your former employer," -- she held up her hand to stop him -- "and if I find out you've been abusing this opportunity, I will press charges. Do we understand each other?"

"Yes, ma'am." Matt realized any defense he could offer would most likely be disregarded. His previous boss hadn't believed him either, so why should Mrs. Carter be any different?

"I pay my employees twice a month, and I expect them to manage their money responsibly, and not ask for any advances. This position is seasonal, meaning you'll only have it for a few months out of the year. If you had experience or some knowledge of plants, it might be different, but as things stand, I think my offer is fair."

Matt listened as she explained the finer points of the position, smiling when she told him he would only be a laborer and nothing more. Not a stranger to manual labor, Matt had no fear of hard work, only the lack of it. While Matt would've preferred a full position at the nursery, he didn't begrudge Mrs. Carter for not giving him one. As she had said, he didn't have experience, and at this point in his financial crisis, he rejoiced at the prospect of even a seasonal paycheck.

He agreed to work Tuesday through Saturday, and not to arrive late. As a laborer, he would be subject to the other two employees at the nursery, and would take direction from Mrs. Carter as well as them. Hearing this, Matt smiled grimly. He'd be taking orders from three women. God help him!

Then Mrs. Carter took him outside to meet Sylvia and Amy, his new coworkers.

Sylvia Northam, the woman he had talked to the day before, was an attractive woman, though her hair was as overdone as her heavy makeup. She called Mrs. Carter, Beth, as the two were evidently good friends. Sylvia greeted Matt with the same admiration she had shown the day before, and expressed genuine delight at his being hired.

"I told Beth you were a keeper," Sylvia said with a smile. "I hope you'll be happy here. I know I will!"

Mrs. Carter gave Sylvia an exasperated look, and then introduced Amy Warley, the young woman he had met at the cash register that morning. Nineteen years old and attending night school to further her education, Amy shook Matt's hand with more reserve than Sylvia.

"Matt starts work tomorrow," Mrs. Carter said, pulling a pair of worn gloves from the back pocket of her work slacks; putting on the gloves, she slanted him a wary glance, as though unsure if she had made the right decision. "I'll expect you to show up on time," she said, and then disappeared behind the store with a half open bag of mulch.

Their boss gone, Amy returned to the cash register, while Sylvia walked Matt to his pickup truck.

"So," Sylvia asked in a very casual manner, "is there a Mrs. Taylor?"

"No, I'm single," Matt said, not too surprised by the question. For some annoying reason, women often asked him that.

"So am I," Sylvia said, her smile deepening now that she had an answer to her liking. "In fact, I recently broke up with my boyfriend, so there's room in my bed again."

Matt said nothing, but hurried to his truck a little faster than before.

"I didn't offend you, did I?" Sylvia asked, looking worried as she quickened her step to match his. "You aren't gay, are you?"

"No, I'm straight," Matt said, wishing this woman would leave him alone. "I'm just not looking for a relationship right now."

Sylvia's black curls bobbed as she nodded her understanding. "No problem, Matt. If you're ever interested, let me know. I'll be around."

As Sylvia walked away, Matt breathed a sigh of relief. Since this job was seasonal, he needed to keep looking for work that would last all year round. And, Matt had to admit, getting away from these women wouldn't be so terrible, either.

On the drive home, Matt poured out his thanks to God. He had a job! Praise the Lord, he had a job!

For some ridiculous reason, Beth struggled with guilt after her interview with Matt Taylor. As far as she knew, no one had any idea of her interest in Skip. Even so, Matt's awkward appearance in front of her office suddenly made Beth feel she were guilty of something she hadn't yet decided to do. Of course, it was ridiculous, for Matt hadn't seen anything. When her conscience still bothered her, Beth reasoned she had nothing to be ashamed of, for nothing much had happened. Skip had only been acting like Skip, once more trying to coax her into something she couldn't be sure she wanted.

Beth bit her lip, recognizing the lie she had just told herself. She wanted what Skip could give her, a fact Skip himself had already known. Why else would he have persisted for so long? All the denials and claims of her not needing him, were utterly useless and pointless. They both knew it. She was resisting the inevitable, and as Beth thought it over, she decided -- once and for all -- to go through with it and call him that night.

Since God had robbed her of happiness, Beth determined to make her own.

When Matt arrived home, his next-door neighbor, Mrs. Lott, came out to meet him with Ryan at her heels. The boy immediately wanted to be picked up, and as Matt lifted Ryan into his arms, Mrs. Lott told him of the visit she had received from his pastor.

"He's very worried about you, Matt," Mrs. Lott said, as they stood in the dandelions in Matt's front yard. "He said he had a call from someone named Jerry, and was concerned you needed money. He said to give you this," Mrs. Lott said, presenting Matt with five hundred dollars, "and he promised to keep praying for you."

"Wow." Matt took the money, looking it over in his hand as though it were a mirage. "I didn't expect him to do this. I suppose I should give it back though; I just got a job down at Beth's Garden Nursery."

"That's wonderful, Matt!" Mrs. Lott said, smiling as Ryan clapped his hands. The boy didn't know why everyone smiled, but that didn't stop him from being happy. "So you'll be working for Beth Carter?"

"Yeah," Matt smiled, noticing Mrs. Lott's hesitation. "Why? Should I be worried?"

"No, it's only that -- " Mrs. Lott shook her head as though it were nothing important. "Don't mind me, Matt. I'm just an old woman who thinks too much. Do you still want me to keep Ryan for the rest of the day?"

"Thanks, but I'll take the little guy off your hands," Matt said, putting Ryan down so he could more easily talk with Mrs. Lott. "About Beth Carter -- "

"I'm sorry I said anything," Mrs. Lott said, turning to leave. Then she paused, sighed deeply, and gave him a tired smile. "She's a lonely woman, Matt, so be on your guard."

The warning took Matt by surprise, and he could only give Mrs. Lott an assenting nod.

"I'm glad you have a job again," Mrs. Lott said, her face wrinkling into a warm smile as she left. "You're a decent man, Matt Taylor. I hope you can stay that way."

Matt didn't know what to say, and thankfully, Mrs. Lott didn't expect a response, for she disappeared into her house without a word more. Though it seemed a strange warning, Matt sensed it might be useful to keep it in mind when at work. He thought it odd for a married woman like Mrs. Carter to be lonely, but then again, lonely people could hide a lot from public view.

And something about Beth -- Mrs. Carter -- seemed lonely.

Taking Ryan by the hand, Matt went inside to call his pastor. In good conscience, Matt couldn't keep the money without telling his pastor about the job, although he sure could use it to tide the household over until his first paycheck. To Matt's secret relief, his pastor told him to keep the money; with so many mouths to feed, he was sure Matt would need it, anyway.

As usual, Pastor Mark didn't press for information Matt wasn't ready to give, though Matt could tell he felt perturbed about not being told of the lost job.

"You've been able to trust me before, Matt, and I hope I haven't lost that trust. If you need help, I'm here."

"I know Pastor Mark," Matt said gratefully. "Ever since we moved to New Mexico, you've been a good friend. I appreciate this money, and I'll pay it back as soon as I can."

Pastor Mark laughed. "Stubbornly self-sufficient, as usual, Matt! You know you don't have to pay me back, but do what you feel is right."

After talking with his pastor, Matt climbed back into the pickup truck with Ryan. Now that he had some cash, Matt could buy food to last them to his first paycheck. Wouldn't Ethan and Cassie be surprised!

Beth wheeled her grocery cart down the long aisle, wishing she didn't have to stop for groceries on her way home. It seemed everyone else had had the same idea, crowding the sprawling store to near capacity.

She only had one thing more to add to her cart, and then she could be on her way. With all the people crowding the store though, she dreaded the wait she would inevitably endure in the checkout. Beth rounded the corner to get into the next aisle, when a newly familiar face caught her attention. Wasn't that her new employee? He was minus the gray cowboy hat, but those ruggedly youthful good looks couldn't have belonged to anyone but Matt Taylor.

For a moment, Beth watched Matt and the small boy beside him. That must be Ryan. She stared at the child with black hair and brown eyes, admiring his sweet smile, and the way he tried to help Matt by putting things into the cart.

"No, buddy," she heard Matt say, as he took a bottle of shampoo from the boy's hands, "we don't need this."

"Can we get hotdogs?" Ryan asked, taking hold of the grocery cart his brother pushed.

"More hotdogs?" Matt laughed, as the two started into the same aisle as Beth. "We had hotdogs, yesterday." As Matt said this, Beth suddenly found herself face to face with her new employee. "Mrs. Carter! what are you doing here?"

"What does it look like? I'm shopping." Beth winced at the sound of her own harsh tone.

Matt looked embarrassed, and for a long moment, neither one knew what to say.

"Is that your brother, Ryan?" Beth asked curiously, as the boy took off down the aisle ahead of Matt's grocery cart.

"Ryan, get back here!" Matt called after him. "Yeah, that's my brother." Matt grinned proudly as the boy returned to his side. "Ryan, this is my new boss, Mrs. Carter."

Beth smiled at the boy, and he smiled back without a moment's hesitation.

Someone behind Beth murmured something about them blocking the aisle, forcing her to move away from the small boy with expressive brown eyes. "It was nice meeting both of you," she said, waving a small good-bye to Ryan.

"Bye-bye," Ryan said, imitating her wave with one of his own.

She knew she shouldn't, but Beth couldn't help it, and turned for one last look at Ryan. The brothers had moved on, leaving Beth with an all too familiar sensation welling inside her.

"Stop it," she quietly scolded herself. Her eyes stung, and Beth blinked furiously to keep the tears back. Unwilling to make a fool of herself in the middle of the grocery store, Beth commanded her emotions and managed to take her place in a long checkout line.

As soon as she got home, she would call Skip.

"Small world, isn't it?" asked a masculine voice. Beth turned, only to find Matt and Ryan waiting in line behind her. "Why is it I've never noticed you here, before?" Matt asked pleasantly. "I shop here every week, and I don't think I've seen you."

"I usually go to the market across the street," Beth said, her eyes straying back to Ryan. "It went out of business, so now I have no choice but to come here."

Matt smiled politely, and Beth realized how her statement must have sounded. The market across the street had been a gourmet specialty store, and not a discount mart with the lowest prices in town.

Feeling uncomfortable, Beth faced her cart, her back to the brothers.

"Can we get this, Matty?" Beth saw the boy pick up a candy bar from a nearby display.

"No, put it back," Matt said firmly.

"But why? We never get anything, Matty."

"We're getting the ice cream, aren't we?"

"Yes," Ryan said, exhaling a disappointed sigh. Beth saw him return the candy bar, his small frame disappearing as he went back to Matt's grocery cart.

"Can we watch a movie, tonight?" Ryan asked, as the line inched forward.

"Not tonight, buddy, I've got work tomorrow."

"But," Ryan said with a whimper, "you said we could celebrate!"

"What do you think the ice cream's for?" Matt laughed.

"Do you think Mommy has ice cream?"

To Beth's consternation, someone in the next checkout spoke so loudly she couldn't hear Matt's answer. She only knew that when she could hear the boy again, his voice sounded with tears. Feigning an excuse to look behind her, Beth saw Ryan in Matt's arms, Ryan's head leaning against Matt's shoulder for comfort.

Matt gave her a strained smile. "It's time for his nap."

"Oh," Beth nodded, and faced her cart once more. She couldn't help feeling some curiosity, and would have paid to hear Matt's answer.

All too soon for Beth, her groceries were bagged and her receipt ready. She left the Taylors, still wondering if their mommy had ice cream.

Home felt as empty as ever before, even with the presence of Bailey, muzzling Beth's hand as she greeted him in the living room where he liked to sleep on the sofa. While she was at work, the old labrador retriever mix had the entire sofa to himself, though from his friendly tail wagging she knew he was happy to have her home -- even if it meant sharing the sofa again. He was much smaller than a purebred labrador, and as a consequence, didn't take much room on it himself; that didn't mean, however, he couldn't appreciate the liberty of stretching out on the cushions as much as he wanted.

The crumple of plastic grocery bags prompted Bailey to follow Beth into the kitchen. He waited to see if she had gotten him any doggie treats, and when his patience had been rewarded, Bailey plodded back to the couch for more sleep.

Some minutes later, Beth called Bailey to his doggie dish. Her own dinner sat in a skillet on the stove, its savory smell making her hungrier than before.

Taking her meal of vegetables and chicken into the living room, Beth sat down on the sofa. She thought about the phone on her nightstand. Skip would probably be home by now. He'd said he'd wait for her call, in case she changed her mind. The cushion beside her gave way as Bailey climbed onto the sofa; he rested his head on her lap, his large eyes looking up at her, begging for attention.

"How was your day, old boy?" Beth put down her fork long enough to give him a good scratch behind the ears. "Not so good, huh? Me either."

Bailey watched as she finished her dinner, his tail thumping the cushions when she set aside her plate. He knew she would pet him some more, and immediately rolled over so she could scratch his belly.

"Not now, Bailey." She gently pushed him from her lap. "I've got plans for tonight, and it doesn't include watching television and getting covered with dog fur."

Bailey didn't seem too disappointed, for Beth got up, leaving him the sofa.

Deciding to wash her dinner plate tomorrow, Beth went to the master bedroom and flicked on the soft overhead lights. Her gaze unavoidably went to the large empty bed. If she called now, he could be there in half an hour.

She sat down on the edge of the mattress to give herself a moment longer to think. "I hope Luke's not watching," she whispered, and picked up the receiver.

A woman answered Beth's call, and without a word, Beth hung up.

She'd call Skip some other time.

Macaroni and cheese didn't seem like much of a celebration, but to Matt, it symbolized a degree of normalcy. They would be eating like they used to, before he had lost his job and the hardship of the past few weeks. Of course, he couldn't spend everything on food, for their rent needed to be paid, and some bills would come due in the next few days. No, this celebration would be modest, but as Matt cooked dinner over the stove, he hoped the others would feel the same way and be happy in spite of the noodles.

"Matty?" Ryan came into the kitchen with a large photo album in his small arms. "Show me Mommy."

"I showed you Mommy when we got home," Matt said patiently.

Ryan frowned. "I want to see her again."

"Later, Ryan. I'm busy." Out of the corner of his eye, Matt saw Ryan heave a deep sigh. He wished his brother would forget about their mother, for the old wounds hurt every time they went over the past.

"Please, Matty?"

"After dinner," Matt found himself saying. How could he expect Ryan to forget, when he couldn't?

A sound at the front door distracted Ryan, and the boy ran to greet Ethan and Cassie as they came home from school.

"We're having mac and cheese!" Matt heard his little brother say.

"No, we're not," Ethan said harshly. From the tone of his voice, Matt knew Ethan had gone through another difficult day. "Matty! where are you?"

Matt tried to ignore Ethan's bad temper as the teenager came into the kitchen.

"Tell Ryan to keep his big mouth shut, if he can't tell the truth!" Ethan said, dropping into a chair at the table with his homework.

Lifting a lid on the stove, Matt showed Ethan what was cooking.

"See? I told you!" Ryan grinned, jumping about as Cassie joined Ethan at the table to do her homework.

"Matt, where'd you get the money?" Ethan asked, his surprise evident to everyone present. "Don't tell me you found a job!"

"All right, I won't," Matt said with a grin. He turned his back to the stove as the sounds of Ryan's laughter filled the kitchen.

"Oh, Matty!" Cassie jumped up to give Matt a hug. "I knew you'd find work, I just knew it!"

"How much does it pay?" Ethan asked, leaning back in his chair and propping his shoes on the table. For all his bravado, Matt could hear the relief in his brother's voice.

"Enough to get by," Matt said, returning Cassie's gentle hug. He didn't like sharing numbers with Cassie and Ryan, for he felt they were too young to bear the burden of such detailed knowledge. "I start work tomorrow, at Beth's Garden Nursery. It's only seasonal work, but it'll give me plenty of time to find a more permanent job someplace else." He let go of Cassie, only to notice she had started crying. "Cass, try to stop before you make yourself worse."

"I wish you'd grow up, Cass," Ethan said, opening a textbook across his outstretched legs to do some studying. "If you get yourself all worked up, don't expect me to help."

"Go wash your face and calm down," Matt told his sister. When she retreated to the bathroom, Matt shot a warning look at his younger brother. "She's not as strong as you, Ethan. Cut her some slack."

"I cut her slack all the time!"

Just then, Cassie quietly returned to the table to do her homework, and both boys changed the subject.

"Now that you have a job," Ethan asked, his voice steeped in disappointment even before he finished asking the question,"could we finally get another truck? I'm sick of walking everywhere, just because you have the pickup."

"How am I supposed to hold down a job without a vehicle?" Matt asked, getting out the dinner plates. "We can't afford another truck right now -- you know that."

Ethan groaned, his attention clearly not on his homework. "I don't know why I bother with this. Clay dropped out of high school, and he's making two hundred grand for hardly doing anything at all."

"Clay?" Matt swung around, leveling his eyes on Ethan. "I thought I told you to stay away from him. You keep clear of drug dealers like Clay. Do you hear me?"

"I hear you," Ethan said, flashing Matt a rebellious look that frightened Matt to his very core. Ethan said nothing more, but started his homework in heavy silence.

"Guys like Clay are always in trouble," Matt said, motioning Cassie to move her textbook so he could set the table, "and so are their friends. Hang out with them, and you'll throw your life away."

"You should know," Ethan said, plopping his books on the floor beside his chair.

"Yes, I should. You aren't going to repeat my sins, or our dad's. Get your feet off the table."

Ethan obeyed, his cheeks flushing with fresh anger at the mention of their father. "Dad was such a loser, Matty. He was only good at getting mom pregnant, staying drunk and chasing that high of his."

"And that's not going to happen to you." Matt waited for Ethan's response. "Agreed?"

"Agreed." Ethan didn't sound as though he really believed it.

"What happened in school today that's got you so worked up?" Matt asked, as he set a pot of macaroni on the table. The sound of silverware made Ryan appear without prodding, and everyone gathered for dinner.

Ethan gave a despairing sigh. "My guidance counselor is on my case again."

"What's he want?" Matt asked, hushing Ryan's pleas to say grace so they could eat. "You've been staying out of trouble, haven't you?"

Ethan shrugged. "He says I should be getting ready for college."

"College." Matt sighed, and suddenly he realized he was beginning to sound like his brother. "We don't have any money for college."

"That's what I told him," Ethan said, sliding down on his tailbone until he slumped in the chair like a defeated man. "He said my grades might be good enough for a scholarship, and that I should be thinking about my plans for the future. Plans -- he's always pushing me to make plans. What good are plans when I'm going to end up like you and Dad?"

"You're going to be better than me," Matt said, inwardly smarting from the sting of truth, "and if you don't do better than Dad, you're going to answer to me -- not your guidance counselor."

"Matty isn't like our dads," Cassie gave her oldest brother a sweet smile before turning to Ethan. "If Matty can be better than his dad, then so can you."

"Right," Ethan said with a smirk. "If I follow Matty's example, I should drop out of high school so I can be a loser just like him."

"Matty is NOT a loser!" Ryan said defiantly.

"He only dropped out so he could take care of us," Cassie said, folding her arms and giving Ethan a reproving look. Even in her anger, Cassie was never too confrontational.

"Okay, okay," Ethan sighed heavily, "I take it back. But my dad was a loser, and if anyone here argues the point, they'll have a fight on their hands."

"There won't be any fighting," Matt said, bowing his head to pray, "at least, not while I have anything to say about it."

Everyone but Ethan followed Matt's example, and after a prayer had been said over the food, and thanks had been given for the job, everyone helped themselves to the macaroni. When the pot had been emptied, Matt got up from his chair.

"Ice cream, ice cream!" Ryan said excitedly, seeing Matt open the freezer to get their dessert.

"Did you really find work, Matty?" Cassie asked, as Matt placed her bowlful on the table. "Don't forget the spoons, Matty."

"Here you go," Matt said, tossing Ethan some spoons. "Yup, I got a job, Cass. And a good one, at that. Mrs. Carter isn't paying the same as my last job, but it'll be good enough to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table."

"And ice cream!" Ryan said, his eyes fastened on Cassie as she tasted her dessert. "Why does Cassie always go first, Matty?"

Matt laughed. "How many times do I have to remind you that ladies go first?"

Anxious not to be late on his first day of work, Matt woke up well before he needed to. He stared at the glowing clock beside his bed, blinking to see if he were dreaming. No, it really was two A.M., and he had to get back to sleep if he didn't want to be a zombie the next morning. Giving his pillow a punch, Matt tried to get comfortable beneath the covers. In these quiet hours, alone in bed, he sometimes found himself wishing for Helen. The soft feel of her lips, the touch of her hand -- it had been a long time since he'd been with her. Matt shook his senses back to the present. Helen had been a part of his former life, a life without God, without hope.

Rolling onto his back, Matt let his arm drape across his forehead as he stared at the dark ceiling. All the reasoning in the world couldn't stop his senses from missing Helen. They had done much together, and now those memories haunted him without mercy. Matt smiled grimly. Another person he'd like to forget. Mom, and now Helen.

"I have to forget, God," Matt said in a quiet whisper, his lips mouthing the words to heaven. "I have to, or else I'll go crazy." He thought it over. Maybe he already was. He slaved at one dead end job after another, while worthless punks like Clay made more money than he knew what to do with. All Matt had to do was ignore his conscience, and sell drugs. Not a problem for people like Clay, but a big problem for Matt. He'd been a terrible sinner, but he'd never stooped to becoming a drug dealer.

"Help me get to sleep, God," Matt prayed silently. "Help me sleep, so I'll stop thinking."

Matt rolled onto his side, his hand feeling the sheets beneath him. Maybe he should take a cold shower. He glanced at the time. The night was passing at an agonizingly slow pace, and he needed that shower. He needed to wake up, and let consciousness sink in and chase away his ghosts. He felt alone, and without a friend.

Weariness warred against Matt's loneliness, until he decided against a shower. He must sleep!

As Matt asked God for help, a small boy climbed onto the mattress, a pillow clutched in his hand. His other hand was at his mouth, for Ryan habitually sucked his thumb in his sleep.

"Did you have a bad dream?" Matt whispered.

Ryan shook his head. "No, Ethan is snoring."

"I snore, too," Matt smiled, immediately glad for the company. "Here, I'll share my blanket." Matt tucked Ryan beside him in bed, and soon the boy fell asleep.

The ghosts slowly faded, and Matt felt a wave of comfort drift over him. He could hear the soft breathing of Ryan, and with each breath, Matt's loneliness eased. He knew Ryan would protest if he were awake, but since he wasn't, Matt planted a kiss on the boy's forehead.

"Thank you, God," Matt prayed to himself. "Thank you for my family."

The next morning, Matt awoke later than he had wanted, sending the entire household into a flurry of activity.

"Ethan, get out of the bathroom so I can use it!" Matt shouted at the closed door.

"Use Cassie's!" came the response.

"You've been in there for ten minutes," Matt protested. "I can't be late, Ethan!"

"Use Cassie's bathroom!" Ethan shouted at the top of his lungs.

"I can't!" Matt said, checking his watch. "Ryan's in there! Hurry up, Ethan, we're going to be late!"

The bathroom door slammed open, and a stinky smell wafted to Matt's nose.

"Couldn't you open the bathroom window?" Matt asked, waving away the smell but hurrying inside. "Would you take Ryan over to Mrs. Lott's house? I have to refuel the pickup, and that won't leave me much time to get to work." Matt didn't wait for Ethan's response, but slammed the door shut so he could use the toilet and then shave. He hadn't overslept by much, but one thing or another conspired to make him late, and that was the last thing Matt needed right now.

"Bye Matty!" Cassie said, pausing outside the boys' bathroom door before she ran out to meet the school bus. "I'll keep my fingers crossed for you!"

"I'd rather you prayed," Matt said through the door, "but thanks, Cass. Now get going, or you'll miss your bus!"

By the time Matt came out to find his car keys, everyone had left.

Closing up the house, Matt climbed into his pickup and started the engine. One last glance at his watch told him he'd make it to work on time.

When Matt parked his truck outside the nursery, a dark blue sedan was the only other vehicle in the empty parking lot. He wondered who the sedan belonged to, and if this meant the others had yet to arrive.

Retrieving the work gloves under the driver's seat, Matt climbed out of his pickup and put them on. Unable to find anyone outside, he passed beneath the vine covered lattice that framed the store's entrance. To his surprise, the door stood open.

"Hello?" Matt said, stepping inside the empty store. "Anyone here?"

"I'm sorry, but the nursery isn't open yet," a woman said from behind the cashiers counter.

Matt couldn't see anyone, and had to lean over the countertop to find the invisible speaker, on her knees, organizing some shelves.

"Come back later, when we're open," the woman said, without checking to see who had come in.

Early morning sunlight poured through the large store windows, flooding the room and casting secondary light on the woman kneeling on the floor. Though her face looked downward, Matt needed no one to tell him her identity. From the auburn hair and the braid at her back, he knew.

"Good morning, Mrs. Carter."

At the sound of his voice, Mrs. Carter looked up. The graceful movement bathed her pale skin in a soft semi-glow, stunning Matt into silence. Robbed of breath and speech, he felt a lump in his throat that made it impossible to swallow. How could a woman be so beautiful in faded overalls?

Her eyes met his, and for a moment both were silent.

Abruptly looking away, she turned back to her task. "It's nice to see someone finally showed up. What time is it?"

Pushing back the cuff of his glove to see his watch, Matt steadied his breath. He needed to be more careful. "It's nearly seven forty."

"I suppose it's still early, but I predict Sylvia will be fashionably late again, nursing a hangover from last night. Which reminds me, do you drink?"

"No, ma'am."

"Good. One party goer in this nursery is enough." Mrs. Carter stood up, her eyes not meeting his. "I guess none of us can help what our friends do, especially when we're not around to stop them from behaving rashly."

"I suppose not."

Mrs. Carter nodded absently, as though it mattered little what he said. "Wait here, and I'll bring you some work gloves."

"I brought my own."

Quickly glancing at Matt, Mrs. Carter hardly took the time to notice what he had on his hands before continuing. "You can start behind the store."

Wordlessly, Matt followed her outside to a large pile of bagged steer manure -- a very large pile.

"This shipment came in early this morning, and now we need it out of the way. Stack the bags in the shed, over there. When you're done, I'll tell you what to do."

"Yes, ma'am." Matt immediately set to work, glad for the activity. He hated to stand about without direction or purpose, when he had come to earn a paycheck.

It seemed only a few minutes had passed when Matt heard a friendly,

"I see Mrs. Carter has already put you to work."

Turning, he found Amy, standing near a flat of potted plants, a clipboard tucked under her arm.

"She did," Matt grinned.

Amy smiled, though her smile seemed a bit strained, and went back to whatever she had been doing.

Matt quickly checked his watch. Eight o'clock. Mrs. Carter wanted everyone to show up at seven-thirty, but the nursery opened at eight. It looked as though she might be right about Sylvia, after all. Shrugging, Matt returned to his job.

It was none of his business.

Though mildly cool, the wind wasn't blowing and it offered no respite from Matt's labors. Sweat formed on his face, running in small rivers down his neck before absorbing into his damp T-shirt. He removed his Stetson long enough to swipe a gloved wrist over his wet forehead. Those bags of manure were heavy.

"Tired?" asked a voice Matt quickly recognized as Mrs. Carter's.

"Not yet, ma'am," he said, replacing the Stetson and going back to work.

"If it's too much for you, you can quit."

"No, ma'am, I can handle it." Matt hefted a forty pound bag of steer manure onto his shoulder, and made his way to the shed.

When he returned for another bag, she had gone.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Matt redoubled his efforts. He didn't want to give Mrs. Carter any excuses to fire him.

"Hey, Beth!" a woman's shout made Matt turn to see who had spoke. Sylvia had finally arrived. "Why don't you get Matt to use the side loader, instead of lifting all those heavy bags by hand?"

Matt waited for an answer, having wondered that himself. How had these women managed to move the large flats he saw in back of the store, without a forklift?

"It's not working," came Mrs. Carter's reply.

From the puzzled look on Sylvia's face, Matt knew better.

He sucked in a deep breath. If his boss wanted him to do things the hard way, then so be it. He was getting paid.

For all of that morning, Matt toiled away, hauling one bag after another, until the pile began to look visibly smaller. The others stayed away, and Matt decided they didn't want to incur Mrs. Carter's displeasure by showing sympathy or giving him a different task.

Just before noon, some of the fear must have worn off, for Sylvia came to see his progress. She stood, arms folded, head shaking back and forth at the small pile of bags still remaining. "You've gotten a lot done."

Matt swiped at the sweat on his brow. "In another half hour, I can have this finished."

"No, it's time for lunch," Sylvia said, beckoning him away from the manure bags. She looked at him through dark sunglasses, her hand shading her eyes from further sunlight. "Beth said the side loader would be fixed, tomorrow."

"Sounds good," Matt nodded. "Is there anyplace I can get a drink of water?"

Sylvia's hand came down long enough to point at a hose beside the wall of the store. "You can drink from that -- all the employees do."

Matt tugged off his work gloves, tucked them in the back pocket of his jeans, and tramped across the dirt to the rolled up hose. He turned on the water, and holding the stream above his mouth, gulped down the cool water to wash the dryness away.

Having followed him, Sylvia leaned against the building, her head cocked to one side. "Is that all you have to say? Beth made you work like a dog, and you just shrug it off? What does it take to get you angry?"

Bending forward, Matt let the hose run cold water onto the back of his neck. "I'm not getting paid to complain. Besides, you said the side loader would be fixed."

"Well, you're certainly easy to get along with, I'll say that for you," Sylvia said laughingly.

Matt turned off the hose, letting the air evaporate the wetness from his clothes. "I can't afford to lose this job."

"So I gather." Sylvia straightened, her hands on her hips as she looked up at him from under a mound of black curls. "It's lunch break. Amy and I usually go to the restaurant down the street. Want to come with us?"

"Who watches the nursery while we're gone?"

"Beth, of course. Come on, lunch is on me."

Just then, Amy came out and joined them behind the store. "Is he coming with us, Sylvia?"

Sylvia looked at Matt. "Well?"

"I guess so," he shrugged.

Looking very sympathetic, Amy lightly touched his arm. "Matt, I'm really sorry -- " she caught herself before finishing the thought out loud. "I'm really sorry Mrs. Carter said the side loader wasn't working."

Matt noticed Amy's careful wording, understanding it to mean what he had thought all along.

The coolness of the restaurant almost made Matt shiver in his T-shirt, for he still felt a little damp. Placing his Stetson on the empty seat beside him, he waited for the women to return from their visit to the ladies' room. Their food would be coming any moment, and Matt decided to let himself enjoy this free meal -- although he fully intended to pay for his own food in the future. The meal that sat in the paper bag in his pickup wouldn't be wasted, for it would keep until tomorrow's lunch. Peanut butter sandwiches were like that.

He leaned back in his chair, watching the traffic speed past the large pane window a few feet away on his right. After all that work, his back would be plenty stiff tonight.

"Has our food come yet?" Sylvia asked, as the women returned to their table. Even though there were empty seats to choose from, Sylvia moved Matt's Stetson onto the table so she could sit beside him.

Seeing this, Matt placed the hat under his chair.

"Do you have family in Las Cruces?" Sylvia asked, leaning forward, gazing at him without sunglasses. Her eyes looked a little red, and she squinted against the light coming through the window.

"Let's swap places," Matt said, getting up from the table with his Stetson. He exchanged places with Sylvia, then tucked his hat safely beneath his chair.

"How rare," Sylvia laughed, "a gentleman! I wish my last boyfriend were this considerate. We'd still be together."

"Do you?" Amy asked, looking at Matt to say something.

"Do I what?"

"Have any family here in Las Cruces?" Obviously, Amy had been following Sylvia's question.

"Two brothers and a sister," Matt said, hoping his accepting the women's invitation for lunch hadn't been a mistake. He hated to be impolite, especially on his first day.

"How about a girlfriend?" Sylvia asked.

"Do you women always ask this many questions?" Matt asked, unable to conceal a smile; he had the bad habit of grinning when uncomfortable, and people often took it as a sign of good humor instead of what it really was -- embarrassment.

"I'm afraid we do," Sylvia said, brightening as a waiter stepped forward with their food. "I ordered the linguine," she told the waiter.

The women quieted down as Matt silently prayed over his food. When he opened his eyes, he found them watching.

"Beth said something about you both going to the same church?" Sylvia asked, before taking a bite of pasta.

Matt nodded, his mouth full.

"How long have you two known each other?"

Matt shrugged, swallowing his food. "We haven't -- not until the day before yesterday."

"Beth doesn't go to church too often," Sylvia nodded understandingly. "Ever since Luke died, she's pretty much stayed away."

"Luke?" Matt looked at Sylvia questioningly.

Sylvia seemed incredulous, her fork pausing midway between plate and mouth. "Luke was her husband. Didn't you know she's a widow?"

"No, I didn't." Contemplating this news, Matt took a drink from his glass. If Mr. Carter were dead, then who was the man in her office, yesterday? Matt began to doubt his gut instincts, for although he'd thought a private moment had been interrupted by his arrival, Matt hated to think so lowly of Mrs. Carter. Perhaps he'd been mistaken. Maybe it had only been a customer, or some associate talking over business -- grinning like he'd just gotten his hand into a cookie jar. Matt frowned. At any rate, he quickly reminded himself that, aside from praying for her, she wasn't any of his concern. Mrs. Carter was his boss, and he was her employee.

Nothing more.

"Let integrity and uprightness preserve me [Matt]; for I wait on Thee."
~ Psalm 25:21 ~

end of chapter
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