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Chapter Twenty
Date Night

"Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening. O LORD, how manifold are Thy works! in wisdom hast Thou made them all: the earth is full of Thy riches."
~ Psalm 104:23, 24 ~

With the Stetson and a red handkerchief tied over his nose and mouth, Matt figured he looked like a bank robber straight from some old western. The hat shielded him from the sun, the handkerchief, from the bombarding flies over the open compost heap behind the back lot. With back-breaking sweat and a shovel, he labored over old vines, pruned limbs, and decaying leaves. Beth called it turning the compost, but Matt called it a lot of work. According to her, this garbage had to be aerated, and properly moistened to hold just enough water so the microbes could do their work and turn all this organic material into mulch. Matt didn't pretend to understand everything Beth said-- not that he'd done much listening. After leaving the office that afternoon, he fiercely fought to keep his attention on work and not his attractive boss.

Good thing he was keeping their necking to a minimum. Anymore of those slow, slow kisses, and he might forget his determination to wait.

Matt plunged the shovel into the compost, turned the blade, then plunged again. He had pulled off his shirt several minutes ago, needing the breeze to cool his sweat. Who knew gardening was such work? The compost heap came to his waist, and though Beth placed it far enough from the store to prevent it from being an eyesore, he needed to cover it over with dirt when done, to contain any stink that might bother the nearby businesses.

The thought of getting off work kept him going. He had a date with Beth tonight.

When he paused to shoulder away the sweat, movement from the back lot caught his attention. Thank You, God, another customer. If Beth needed help manning the lot, she knew where to find him. For now, Matt focused on getting done before quitting time so he could go home to clean up for the big date. Heaving another shovelful of trash, Matt noticed the customer pass through the open chain link fence that ran the perimeter of the back lot.

Odd behavior for a customer. They didn't usually wander this far back, but then again, the back gate didn't usually stand open.

He plunged the shovel's blade into the heap, kept working as the attractive blond-headed customer in tan slacks and a light knit top came toward him. He paused, his lungs sucking in air while the flies accosted him from every direction.

"Something I can do for you, ma'am?"

The woman stopped, looked behind her, then took another step closer.

"What is that?" she asked, first eyeing the heap, then him.

Matt slapped a fly on his bare arm. "It's compost. Is there something I can help you with?"

"No, no," the woman smiled pleasantly, "I'm just looking."

With a shrug, Matt went back to work.

"Excuse me, but why are you wearing that kerchief?"

"It keeps the flies out of my mouth."


He kept working, expecting the woman to leave any second.

"Do you enjoy gardening?"

"Nope. Never tried." Matt heaved the shovel, flashed a glance at the woman in her high heels and gold chain necklace. "You do much gardening?"

"No, I'm afraid I don't have the time." The woman moved to the edge of the property behind the nursery, her small nose probing this way and that as though exploring another planet.

"Are you sure I can't help you, ma'am? There aren't any plants back here. Only me and the trash."

"No, no, I'm just looking."

Matt kept turning the compost. For a woman who didn't have much time, she sure stood around a lot. And for someone who didn't garden, the nursery was an odd place to stand around in.

"Do you enjoy working here?"

Matt stooped to pick up a shard of broken glass. Someone had been tossing trash near the heap, thinking it was garbage, and not an organic compost pile.

"I said," the woman moved closer, the florid scent of her perfume cutting through the flies and afternoon heat, "do you enjoy working at the nursery?"

"I guess," Matt said, pausing to adjust his leather work gloves. "I'll admit it has it's moments."

"Such as?"

"Ma'am, I wouldn't recommend you come any closer. This stuff might get on your clothes."

The woman lifted a delicately heeled foot, examined the ground and stepped back. "Just what about this job do you like most?" she asked.

Matt shifted the shovel to his other hand, straightened to get a better look at her. He sure wasn't going to tell this woman that kissing his boss in the office with the door closed had been the highlight of his day. But the expectant look in this woman's eyes made him wonder. She looked to be a few years shy of thirty, had a short blonde haircut, and conservative makeup. From the self-assured way she spoke, it made him think twice about her being a lost customer. She looked out of place, and yet, as though she had a purpose for being there.

"Are you from Social Services?" he asked.


"Social Services. Are you a case worker?

"No, no. Nothing like that. Are you almost done with that shovel?"

"Why? Do you want it?"

"Of course not. I only wondered when you were coming into the store."

Matt shrugged, and went back to digging. "Beth or one of the girls can help you find whatever you're looking for. I have work to get done."

"But you never answered my question. What about this job do you like most?"

The shovel stopped. Matt eyed her evenly. "Ma'am, I don't see how that's any of your business. If you don't mind, I have to finish this or get it done tomorrow, and I'm not eager to climb in the trash again. So if you'll just go back through that gate, I'd appreciate it. We don't usually allow customers back here."

"Are you always this rude? Whatever happened to the maxim, 'the customer is always right'?"

"Never heard it," Matt said, plopping a shovelful at his feet. He considered letting some of it fall beside her fancy shoes, but decided against it.

"Do you like working with Beth?"

"Excuse me?" Matt swiped off his hat, dried his forehead against his bare shoulder. "Are you a friend of hers?"

"You might say that. Do you like working with her?"

"She's all right." Matt planted the hat on, then adjusted his handkerchief. "Does Beth know you're back here, asking all these questions?"

The woman smiled. "Of course not. Do you like working with her?"

"I guess."

The woman nodded. "I'm told you married her."

"Yeah. So?"

"So do you like working with her?"

"Lady, I just answered that question."

The woman's brows furrowed in thought. "You're very different from him."

"From who?"

"From Luke."

The mention of Beth's first husband brought Matt from off the compost heap. The woman scooted several paces backward as he advanced. She stopped just shy of the gate.

"How am I different?"

"For one thing, you certainly know how to speak your mind. With Luke, I always had to guess." She pushed a hand with a gold bracelet into her slacks' pocket. "I always called him The Great Mumbler. He may have had exceptional bedside manners with his patients, but with us, he barely said two words together."


"Of course. Didn't you know? Luke was an ER physician at Las Cruces Medical Center."

"He was a doctor?"

The woman stared at Matt. "You married Beth, and you didn't know that about Luke?"

He shrugged in self defense. "It never came up. Beth is sad enough over his death, without me asking questions about him."

The woman regarded Matt for several moments. "Do you like working with her? The truth now-- none of this 'I guess' business. I would like to know."

From the way the woman behaved, Matt sensed she took herself seriously and expected others to do the same.

Thinking it over, Matt tugged the handkerchief down so he could breathe. The woman's brows went up, and he thought he saw her almost smile. Whatever that meant.

"Since you're Beth's friend, I'll tell you. Behind that desk, she's bossy and sometimes a pain to be around. But when she forgets she's my boss"-- Matt hesitated, grinned-- "she can be a lot of fun."

"Beth? Fun?" Merriment danced in the woman's face. "You aren't at all like Luke."

He shrugged, not knowing whether to take that as a compliment. "Whatever I am, she's stuck with me."

"I appreciate the candid answer," the woman said, turning to leave through the back gate. "Whatever you are, I suppose I'm stuck with you, too."

"Why is that?"

The woman gave a wry smile. "Beth's my older sister. I'll let you get back to your work." The high heels picked their way between the aisles of pots, then disappeared out of Matt's view around the store.

That was what's-her-name? Beth's little sister? Her name-- what was it? Matt searched for it, felt it on the tip of his brain but couldn't force it. He grimaced inwardly. Oh well. She asked for trouble by not saying who she was in the first place. If that woman didn't like it, there was little Matt could do about it now.

Half an hour later, Matt finished turning the compost as Beth wanted. He had voiced the opinion that the stuff would rot whether he turned it or not, but Beth informed him in her teacher voice that it would decompose faster if he followed her directions. The moment had softened considerably when he grabbed her for another kiss while the others weren't looking.

After stuffing the work gloves into his hip pocket, Matt locked the back gate, then pocketed the key. If Beth's little sister wasn't around, maybe he could pull Beth into the office. He put the shirt back on, moved through the pots, around the corner of the building and went inside.

As he adjusted to the indoor light, the sharp sounds of two women in the office caught his attention. Who was talking with Beth? The presence of Sylvia and Amy at the checkout told Matt the disheartening news. Little Sister was still here.

The women at the checkout didn't notice Matt as he moved past them, for their faces were trained on the open door, no doubt trying to follow every word of what was being said. It faintly amazed him that Sylvia didn't move closer to hear better.

Through the open doorway, the sleeve of a green nursery shirt moved into view. That had to be Beth.

"It was my decision," came Beth's voice, "and I made it the best I could."

"But you made it without taking any of us into consideration," answered Little Sister.

"I'm the one who married him, not you, and certainly not Dad or Mom."

"Maybe you married him, but now he's my brother-in-law and I resent not being consulted. You could have at least picked up the phone. I had to hear the news from Mom."

"Well pardon me for not bending over backwards to accommodate your feelings. I was getting married that day, and had a lot on my mind."

A few feet from the office, Matt froze in his tracks, not really wanting to walk in on the heated exchange.

"You weren't too busy to call. You just didn't want me discouraging you from going through with the marriage. So you made up your mind and did it without considering your family's feelings. Which is exactly why Brian won't speak to you right now-- because you won't listen."

"Fiona, I'm sorry you don't approve of my decision, but it was mine to make. Did you ask Mom or Dad's permission before you started dating Daniel? You were in medical school, and living with Mom and Dad at the time, but did you ask them about Daniel?"

"That's not fair, Beth."

"Oh, yes it is. I have my own life to lead, my own decisions to make, and I don't have to consult you about any of them."

There was a long stretch of quiet. Matt glanced over his shoulder, saw from the wide-eyed expression of Sylvia and Amy that they were soaking in every word that made it to the checkout counter. No wonder Sylvia didn't come closer. The sisters were really going at it, and no one wanted to get caught in the crossfire.

"You haven't consulted me," Fiona said finally, "because you never call. Sometimes, I don't feel like I even have a sister, only a stranger who sends me Christmas cards. And even that was missing last year."

"I didn't forget. I simply didn't feel like writing at the time. How could I put on a holiday face when I was dying inside? For those first three years after the accident, I forced myself to do just that, to say 'Merry Christmas' even though I didn't feel the least bit merry. Last year, I'd had enough. I couldn't keep going the way I was, but then something happened-- something really, really good happened to me."

"Let me guess. You met the musclebound guy who's turning your compost without a shirt on."

"You saw him?"

"Yes, I saw him."


"About half an hour ago."

Matt glanced at his watch. Fiona was right. It had been thirty minutes.

A slender arm faintly dotted with freckles crossed the doorway, tugged at the handle so that it started to close. "How could you go out there, when I explicitly told you I wanted to be present when you met him? Tell me exactly what you said to him, and what he said to you."

Deciding he was already in the crossfire, Matt forced open the door and surprised both women.

Making sure to close the door behind him, he shot Beth a grin. "The next time you two decide to have a private chat, I suggest keeping the door shut. Too many eavesdroppers in the store."

Beth paled, gave him a wary look. "How much did you hear?"

"Enough to know you ladies were talking about me." Matt pulled out his gloves, tossed them onto Beth's desk with a decided movement that said "I belong here, don't send me away." "I finished turning the compost, and covered it over with dirt like you wanted. The gate's locked-- here's the key back. Anything else need to get done before we close up for the day?"

"Matt, I don't know what Fiona said to you, but try not to take it personally. She's oftentimes too blunt for her own good."

"Kind of like your father, huh?" Matt didn't suppress his smile. "It seems you girls take after your dad more than I thought. Oh well. I guess if I'm to survive in this family, I'll have to work up a-- what is it when you get sick, then feel better because your body has built up its own defense?"

"An immunity?" Fiona offered.

"Yeah, that's it." Matt snapped his fingers. "I'll have to work up an immunity to Aiden Campbell's daughters, because, hey-- I'm too young to die."

Fiona's mouth curved into a smile. "You're going to need a lot of antibodies, Matt. The Campbells aren't pushovers."

"So I've noticed. But no matter. Beth can work on my antibodies later tonight. Right now, all I want is home and a hot shower."

"Which reminds me," Fiona addressed Beth, "about tonight-- there's too many of us to fit into one vehicle, so I suggest we meet at the restaurant."

Beth blinked at her sister. "What restaurant?"

"The one Daddy chose-- the one where he expects us to sit down as a family, so we can become better acquainted with certain recent additions." Fiona trailed her gaze to Matt and let the rest speak for itself.

Matt stiffened. He folded his arms, turned to Beth and silently dared her to break their date.

"Matt, perhaps we should postpone things."

"Tonight was your idea, Beth-- not mine."

"But Fiona and her family will only be here until tomorrow afternoon. She's only here right now, because she's on her second to last day of a leave of absence. Her resident shift at the hospital begins on Sunday."

Matt paused, then remembered Beth had once told him that Fiona was a doctor. "We can't help that. You didn't invite them, and neither did I."

"I know, but--"

"You and I need this time more than they do. Fiona doesn't need to know me very well, but you do. You said we needed this for us."

Beth colored, moved to Matt's side with her back to Fiona. "I told you not to expect a honeymoon, tonight."

"I know. I'm not."

The unconvinced look on Beth's face made Matt want to squeeze her close.

"I don't care how I sound. I need to be with you tonight, and I don't think that makes me selfish. Please, Beth. Don't make me beg."

Beth glanced at Fiona, then turned back to Matt. "I'll make a deal with you. If Dad made reservations, we postpone our date. If he didn't, we'll bow out of the family get-together, and take them all out tomorrow morning. Fiona will need the second half of tomorrow to drive back to Santa Fe to be ready for her shift on Sunday, but she can have tomorrow morning with us. What do you say?"

"Aiden probably made reservations."

Keeping her back to Fiona, Beth lowered her voice even more. "You were the one who didn't want to have sex last night. I'm sorry I'm making you wait before we can neck again, but these people are family. Give me something to work with, or Fiona will never let me forget this. Things are strained enough as it is."

"All right, Beth. You're right-- I was the one who wanted to wait. If I have to also wait before we can cuddle with our clothes on, then so be it."

She peered up at Matt. "You aren't angry?"

Everything in Matt wanted to plant kisses all over that upturned face, but he fought back the temptation. Fiona was watching.

"No, I'm not angry. Just..." he pushed out a breath, "a little disappointed, that's all."

"Let me call Dad." Beth pulled out her cell phone and flipped it open. She punched a button, waited. When the number answered, Beth spoke loud enough for Fiona to overhear. "Dad, it's me, Beth. Pick up the phone so the answering machine will turn off."

"What are you doing?" Fiona asked, her green eyes narrowing. "Daniel and I didn't drive all the way from Santa Fe so we could sit around and stare at the floor. We came here to see you and--"

"Daddy," Beth interrupted when a man's strong voice boomed in the earpiece of her cell phone, "Fiona just told me you were planning a family outing tonight. Did you make any reservations?"

For a second, Matt held his breath. He pictured them all sitting in some stuffy restaurant trying to make small talk, and possibly even being grilled by Aiden for the second time. Matt had only been half kidding about those antibodies.

"What are you talking about?" boomed the voice from Beth's cell phone. "You don't need reservations to have pizza delivered." Aiden's loud voice made Beth wince, but it gave Matt the news he was praying for.

A rush of relief and expectation flooded Matt. He leaned forward, kissed the top of Beth's head and inhaled the sweet scent of her shampoo.

"Daddy, Fiona said you wanted to take everyone to a restaurant."

"Fiona is wrong. Now what's all this about? You're coming home after work, aren't you?"

"Not exactly. Matt and I have plans for tonight. We're going out, and in fact, I was hoping you and Mom wouldn't mind keeping an eye on the kids. Ethan and Cassie will be there, so you won't have to do much."

"Going out? Where are you going?"

Unable to help himself, Matt nuzzled Beth's hair, played with the thick braid skimming her shoulder, and inhaled her scent as completely as he could.

She leaned into him and he pulled her close. "Daddy, Matt and I have a date to keep."

"What do you mean you have a date? A date with who?"

"Please don't tease, Dad. You know perfectly well with who." As Matt slipped his hand down Beth's back, her eyes began to close. She rubbed her cheek against his shirt. "Daddy, would you and Mom stay with the kids? Matt and I might get home a little late, so it would be easier if you both came to Matt's house to babysit." Beth's hand moved over the phone, shielding Aiden from overhearing. "Matt, please stop. My sister is watching."

"Hmmmm?" Matt only half heard the words.

"Matt. Please."

He nuzzled her ear. "I'm not doing anything. Much."

"Peanut, are you still there?" Aiden's voice broke the tender moment for Beth. Matt felt it by the way she stiffened in his arms.

"Dad? Yes, I'm still here. I had something to ask, but I forgot what it was."

"You wanted him to babysit," Fiona spoke up from the other side of the office. Matt chanced a glance in Fiona's direction and saw the reluctant smile. "Tell Dad not to worry about dinner. The Franklins will keep them company while they're babysitting. Tell him we'll bring pizza."

"Who are the Franklins?" Matt asked, half in dreamland with Beth, the other half trying to negotiate the conversation.

"Franklin. My husband's last name?"

"Oh. Beth, you hear all that?"

A slow, deep sigh moved through Beth. Matt felt it, and relished the way Beth fit in his arms. She had relaxed again, her face coming to rest under the crook of his chin. The phone slipped from her ear.

With a patient groan, Fiona moved to her feet, took Beth's cell phone and spoke to Aiden. After that, Matt didn't even try to follow the conversation. All his energy concentrated on not kissing Beth.

"Okay," Fiona closed the phone, then placed it on Beth's desk. "Everything is set. Dad and Mom will babysit at your house, and we'll bring pizza. How old are your siblings?"

"Man, let me think." Matt pulled away from Beth and forced his brain cells to work. Being so close to Beth made it nearly impossible. "Ethan's sixteen-- no, seventeen-- Cass is twelve, Ryan four, and Dylan is two weeks. That's all of them, except for me, of course. I'm twenty-four."

"I have four-year-old twins," Fiona said, the hint of a parental smile shadowing around her mouth. "I only asked, because they might be able to play with your younger ones. I didn't need to know your age."

Matt shrugged. "You'll probably hear all about it from your dad. He thinks Beth is too old for me."

"I beg your pardon," Beth interjected her voice between theirs, "but I believe Dad only pointed out our age difference. He never said I was old."

Matt smiled. "Your father called me a boy. And," Matt said with emphasis, "he said you had 'life experience.' You know what that makes you? Old."

"Ha. Just older than you." Beth put away her cell phone, a this-discussion-is-over expression written across her lovely face.

"Beth, I didn't hurt your feelings, did I?"

"Of course not."

"You knew I was only joking, didn't you?"

She gave a curt nod. "Let's get this place closed up before it gets any later. Tell Sylvia and Amy they can go home."

"I'll go tell Daniel the change in plans," Fiona said as she moved to the door. "Matt, it was interesting to meet you."

"Yeah, thanks. Oh, and thanks for setting up things with Aiden." He tugged at Beth's hand after Fiona left the office and closed the door. "I was only teasing, Beth. You're the perfect age for me. I wouldn't change it if I could."

A red blush painted Beth's cheeks. She weakly tried to move away but Matt held her tight.

"Beth." Matt tucked a kiss behind her ear, felt her body melt against his. Her face upturned, and before Matt knew it they were all-out kissing. His lips touched Beth's neck, he lingered.

"Matt, we have to close the nursery."

"I know," he mumbled. "I'll stop in a minute."

"It's strange, but seeing Fiona with you reminded me she's closer to your age than I am."

"Strange..." Matt repeated, only half listening.

"Are you sure you don't wish I was younger?"

"Mmm-hmm. I'm sure." Matt moved his mouth over hers and all conversation stopped.

If Beth's senses hadn't been so completely absorbed by Matt, Beth would have offered Fiona her large house for the babysitting, instead of crowding everyone into Matt's mobile home. If Beth hadn't been rushing to shave her legs for the date, she would have tidied the mobile home so her mom and sister wouldn't see carpets that desperately needed vacuuming. If it hadn't taken Beth and Cassie all of a half hour to pick out that classic black dress, then change their mind about the shoes half a dozen times, Beth would have done a lot of things differently.

But the black dress was not one of those things. It came to just above her knees when sitting, had simple lines and a modest V-neck that Beth hoped, flattered her figure. Cassie kept agreeing, but the girl's enthusiasm did little to quiet Beth's nerves.

What made it worse was the boys. Except for Dylan, their side of the house remained stone quiet, a testament to the unfair advantage men had in times such as these. Matt certainly didn't need to shave his legs, fuss over painted nails that would show in open-toed high heels, worry over which clutch purse to carry. Not that Beth had many purses, but it was the concept that mattered. Here she was, running around like there would be no tomorrow, when Matt was most likely shaving his face then throwing on a clean pair of jeans and a button-down shirt.

It hardly seemed fair.

"I don't look too dressy, do I?" Beth eyed herself in the girls' bathroom mirror. Her shoulder length hair flamed in a messy thicket of red curls and loose ringlets. It contrasted against her black dress in a dramatic brilliance Beth hadn't counted on. "This isn't going to work, Cassie. I look like I'm about to attend a dinner party, and even then, I wouldn't wear my hair down. With it down, I look like I'm trying to attract attention."

"Well, you are, aren't you?" Cassie stood beside Beth as they both stared at the mirror. "I think you look absolutely fabulous. If Matty's jaw doesn't drop when he sees you, then I don't know my brother."

"I'm not as sure..." Beth felt herself turn coward. "You don't think I look ridiculous?"

Cassie let out an exasperated sigh. "You want to look nice for your honeymoon, don't you?"

How could Beth explain things to Cassie, without hurting Cassie's feelings? This wasn't supposed to be a honeymoon, only a date. A simple date. Of course, Beth thought, as she smoothed a dab of foundation over her freckles, it was supposed to be romantic. Their one rule besides not spending much money was that it had to be romantic. Surely the dress fell into that category.

The girl returned to the open makeup bag, pulled out a bright-soft coral lipstick that Beth had completely forgotten she owned. It was the perfect touch to compliment the cool undertones of Beth's complexion.

"There." Beth examined the mirror, grabbed some tissue and blotted her glossy lips. She certainly looked different. Different than her usual rope braid, dirt-smeared jeans or overalls, and the ever-present T-shirt with her logo on the front. Maybe she could wear the floppy sunhat to hide all this hair. The hat certainly didn't keep those hideous freckles off her face. Even now, as she fussed over eyeshadow, those freckles seemed to mock her. Why, oh, why did she have to inherit her father's Scottish complexion? Why couldn't she look simple and elegant like her mom? A natural blonde who looked good in practically anything.

"You look so classy, Beth. Like you're someone famous preparing to be photographed by the paparazzi." Cassie feigned shock, turned a hand to the imaginary crowd and gave a slight wave. "No, no, I don't feel like having my picture taken today. What? How kind of you, I suppose I do have time for one or two autographs."

"Oh, Cassie." Beth gave her a smile, then returned to the eyeliner. "Please don't expect too much to result from tonight. Your brother is a very special person, but we've agreed to take things slow."

"Slow is good." Cassie sat down on the edge of the bathtub. "Just don't go too slow, or I'll never be an aunt."

Beth sighed. The girl had been warned.

A moment later, the slam of a car door sounded in front of the house.

Before Beth could ask who it was, Cassie ran off, then popped back with breathless news.

"It's your parents! They're getting out of their car! What do I do?"

"To begin with, you could open the front door."

With a gasp, Cassie darted out. She returned a few moments later.

"Now what?"

"Calm down, Cassie. I want you to take a moment and breathe. That's it. Now walk-- don't run-- and make sure our guests are comfortable. Tell them I'll be out in a few minutes."

"Okay." Cassie practiced her breathing, then left the bathroom at a forced subdued walk.

Beth fastened on gold earrings, then applied the last of the mascara. It would go faster, if her hands stopped trembling.

She moved into the bedroom, located The Shoes. The high heeled red sandals she'd bought on impulse last month, then instantly regretted. Until tonight, she'd never had the courage to put them on. Even now, as she secured the delicate straps circling her ankles, she asked herself if she actually intended to be seen in public wearing something so unlike her usual self.

The baby burst into loud cries from the living room, and Beth decided to clean up the bathroom later. She grabbed her clutch, a black coat, and headed into the living room at a dangerously fast clip considering the high heels.

The crying stopped as Beth stepped into the room. Dylan lay cuddled and content in her mom's arm, the picture of newborn innocence.

"It feels so good to hold a baby again," she heard her mom say to her dad.

Both parents looked up when they saw her, and Ethan looked up from his magazine on the couch.

"I really appreciate this, Mom. You too, Dad. Our next door neighbor is visiting her daughter and won't be back until next Monday, so you guys are lifesavers. Ethan knows what to do, but I feel better knowing you're here. I fed and changed Dylan about an hour ago, but there are bottles in the fridge if you think he needs another feeding. There's diapers in the bag, but there's more beside the crib. I don't know when Fiona is supposed to get here, but there's food in the fridge if you get hungry before the pizza arrives."

"Where are you and Matt going tonight?" Mom asked.

"I don't know. I guess we'll figure that out later. The important thing is that we make the attempt."

A grunt came from Dad. His hands in the pockets of a comfortable looking pair of slacks, he inspected his daughter. "You don't usually get so dressed up. I guess you weren't joking about going out on a date."

"No, Dad, this is no joke. I wouldn't look like this if it were." Beth hesitated, but had to ask. "Do you think I look all right? The dress isn't tight, the neckline doesn't plunge, but I somehow feel awkward."

"You look beautiful," Mom said with a predictability that for once, Beth felt grateful for. "Don't talk yourself into thinking otherwise. She's beautiful, isn't she hon?"

Beth waited for her Dad's approval. She sensed his unease was not in her clothes, but in the fact she was trying to look nice for Matt.

"Dad? Say something, please."

"You look just fine," he said finally, as though he'd had to pull the words out with industrial strength pliers. "I suppose he'll think so, too."

The "he" in question strode into the living room with Ryan on his hip. The moment Matt's eyes fell on Beth, she felt it. She could have been in a dark room, and she would have felt the impact. Ryan waved hello, but Matt kept moving as he stared.

And smacked straight into her father.

Dad gave him a glare that Matt didn't seem to register. From Matt's absent, slack-jawed expression, Beth wondered if he liked what he saw.

"She really cleans up, doesn't she, Matty?" Ethan ignored Dad's irritated glare. The teenager was relishing the victory. Beth was dressing up for Matt. Finally.

Beth put on her coat while Matt placed Ryan on the couch with Ethan. "I don't know when we'll get back, Mom, but we'll try not to be too late."

"I'm in no hurry to leave," Mom said, swaying back and forth with Dylan cooing in her arm. "We'll hold the fort until you and Matt get back."

A low mumble came from Dad. He went to go sit on the couch with the boys.

"Have a good time, Beth." Cassie gave her a quick hug, then opened the front door with a coaxing wave. "Don't come home until you want to, Matty. We'll be all right."

Without a word, Matt brushed past Beth and stepped outside. He had an odd look on his face, one that made Beth wonder if he was angry. She joined him by the truck and waited for him to say something-- anything, that gave her a barometer of how he felt.

He stalked to the passenger door, unlocked it, then looked down at her fancy high heels. "Can you climb into the truck in those things?"

Before she could answer, he swept her off her feet, slid her onto the passenger seat and looked back at the house. "Wait a moment, would you? I forgot something." He didn't pause for an answer, but turned toward the house in quick booted strides.

The black jeans and long sleeved button-down shirt were what she expected, though the hurried silence puzzled her. Perhaps dressing up was a mistake. When he returned five minutes later, his face looked flushed, as though recently embarrassed.

"What is it, Matt? Did Dad say something?"

"No, it was Cassie." He swung himself into the truck, pulled off his hat and shook his head. "She caught me in your room and asked what I was looking for. When I told her to mind her business, she went to your half of the closet, opened a shoebox and pulled out the condoms." Matt looked at Beth. "Did you tell Cass about that? Does she know what they're for, because I know I sure didn't tell her."

"Cassie did see the box, but I didn't explain. I told her it was something for grown-ups and put it in the shoebox."

"She knows, Beth. She knew what they were without us saying. Where would she find out about something like that?"

"Probably, from school."

"Yeah, probably." Matt tossed the hat onto the seat between them, then reached into his pocket and dug out keys. "She's growing up too fast. I wish I could bring Cassie to Christ before the boys at school start noticing her. It scares me silly to think of my baby sister with some boy who's promising her forever, when all he wants is now."

"Have you talked to her about sex?"


"She's the age for that talk, Matt. You need to reach her before she makes those decisions on her own. Do you want me to talk to her? It might come easier from a woman."

"No, I'll do it. I'm not trying to run out on her. She's my sister, and I'm standing in the place of both parents."

"Not anymore. You have help now, remember?"

"Thanks." He breathed a huge sigh that Beth could only interpret as relief.

"Matt." She touched his arm as he started the engine. "Why did you want my shoebox?" The question could have been worded differently, but she couldn't bring herself to say the words.

"You've got your hair down for only the second time since I've known you, and you have to ask me that?" Matt rolled onto the street, then pulled away as a dark minivan drove up to the house. "I think your sister arrived."

"Yes, that's Daniel and Fiona's. Matt, about the box--"

"Forget it, Beth."

"That's hard to do, Matt."

"Yeah, well, you were the one who got dressed up."

"It's a perfectly modest outfit."

"Yeah, but-- never mind. Just forget it, okay? We're getting through this date if I have to wear a blindfold to do it. You look great, by the way."

"Thank you. I'm sorry about the hair."

"Don't be." He kept his eyes forward, on the road and not on her. "I'm not sorry I'm going out with the prettiest woman I've ever seen. In fact, I feel uniquely blessed." Matt turned into the traffic as though he had a destination already in mind. "Next week, you decide where we go. Tonight, I choose first, all right?" He flicked a glance at her and she nodded "yes." "Wow, Beth." He said nothing more, but kept driving with his hands gripping the steering wheel.

Beth pushed out a sigh. Dressing up had been a mistake.

When Matt couldn't take the silence in the truck any longer, he switched on the radio. On the floor to his right, brightly painted toes started tapping to the music.

Eyes back on the road, Taylor.

The over-sweet smell of perfume filled the cabin, the scents mixing with his aftershave.

Mind the road.

Black fabric moved as Beth tugged at her skirt.

Keep watching that road.

The sound of her breathing nudged at him, and he cranked the music higher.

Beth spoke above the noise. "Would you mind if we turn it down? It's a little loud."

He punched off the radio. "You started it."



The sun visor came down, and Beth checked her makeup. Matt switched lanes, getting ready to take the next turn. She dabbed at the corner of her mouth, probably something to do with her lipstick. Her glossy fingers and toes matched. Was that on purpose?

Gritting his teeth, Matt forced his attention away from Beth. The city was putting in a new curb. Not very interesting, but good. Construction work on the new gas station was nearly over. That was definitely good. They needed another station when the one closer to home was full. That perfume-- jasmine, wasn't it? Yeah, jasmine and something else that smelled really good.

The light ahead turned red. Matt slowed the truck, came to a stop, then cranked down his window. He needed air.

"Would you please close that window, Matt? The wind messes up my hair."

The window cranked up. Matt leaned an elbow on the door. When was this stupid light going to turn green? Oh, that jasmine smelled good.

He leaned forward, punched the radio on, turned it up until even his own ears hurt. A delicate hand turned it off, but Matt refused to follow the hand back to its owner.

"Do you want to call off our date?" Beth asked.


"Then do you want to turn around so I can go home and change?"


"How about a haircut?"

"Very funny, Beth."

Silence. The light turned green, and Matt accelerated through the intersection. He turned into a fast food restaurant and parked in the waiting line for the drive-through. More silence. He expected Beth to ask questions, suggest what to order, do something besides sit there and be quiet.

After placing an order, Matt rolled into the parking lot to wait. Eighteen minutes for a bucket of fried chicken. He checked his watch.

"Are you sure you don't want to drive home so I can change?"

"We don't have enough time."

"We have eighteen minutes."

"Beth, I don't want you to change, all right? Just give it a break." He checked his watch.

"Why do you keep looking at the time? It's pretty much the same as it was a second ago."

Matt slanted her a look and paid for it heavily. "After our order comes, we have to be somewhere by a certain time or we'll be too late."

"Too late for what?"

"Would you be quiet, Beth? Would you? I can't even hear myself think."

Silence. When he looked at her out of the corner of his eye, he saw her crossed arms.

"You didn't have to yell."

"I didn't yell, Beth, I just asked you to be quiet."

"Well, then. I'll be quiet."

"Thank you."

The fabric moved, the jasmine saturated his senses, and he couldn't take his eyes off those slender feet with the toenails that matched her fingers. She had done it on purpose. He was certain of it.

Matt shoved open his door.

"Where are you going?"

"I need some air." He let the door stand open, took a few steps into the parking lot and sucked in the cool breeze. He checked his watch. He was cutting it close. "I'm going inside to get our drinks."

She shrugged. He shut the door.

When it slammed, he winced. Things weren't exactly going the way he hoped, but at least he wasn't late. Not yet. He had just enough time to make it, but if anything took longer than he thought, his surprise would be ruined.

"Please, God, don't let me mess this up." Matt went into the restaurant and sent up another quiet prayer. "Please give her a romantic first date with me."

A headache brewed behind Beth's eyes. It was getting late and she hadn't eaten anything since lunch. Why had she let Cassie talk her into wearing her hair down? The shoes, Beth took full blame for, but the hair was all on Cassie. Would Matt feel better if she blamed Cassie? The thought made her smile. Nope, it wouldn't.

Beth caught herself checking the bracelet watch slipped around her wrist. She had no idea why Matt seemed in a hurry, or why he wanted fried chicken when hamburgers would have been faster.

Then it came to her. Matt wanted the date to be special. Whatever he had planned for tonight, he wanted it to be special.

Somehow, it made her feel guilty.

The driver's side door opened, and Matt handed her two large cups of icy cola.

"They said the chicken's ready. I'll go back and get it."

Beth only nodded. He'd bought her a super large beverage, one that ensured she would need to find a restroom before the night was through.

When Matt returned, he placed the bag on the seat between them, jumped in, and started the engine. Again, Beth noticed the hurried set in his expression. Deciding to remain quiet to let him work out his own agenda, Beth settled back and placed the soda cups on the seat with her arm as a prop to keep them from spilling.

For the next several minutes, the shadows grew longer outside her window, and the landscape more desolate. She rarely had reason to come this far East, and the longer Matt drove, the more she had a sense of where he was headed.

They passed a sign announcing the White Sands National Monument-- a sea of stunning white sand that rippled like still moving waves.

But Matt didn't stop. He kept going, then turned up an incline, letting the four-by-four do all the work. He pushed forward, leaving the road behind them, and allowing nothing but desert and sky before them.

Beth watched Matt, but he said nothing.

The truck pulled to a stop beside a rise of desert plants partially covered by sand.

"Rule one," Matt grinned, turning off the ignition, "we're not supposed to spend a lot of money. I didn't. Even though dinner was on the pricey side, I made up for it by not going into the park."

"This area of New Mexico is lovely, Matt."

His face fell. "You've been here before?"

"Once. With Luke and Caleb."

"Oh." Matt unsnapped his seatbelt. "Rule two," he pushed on with determination, "it has to be romantic. This is the best part, Beth: the sunset is free."

"Is it?" She smiled and felt a surge of relief when Matt smiled in return. A genuine smile on a genuinely handsome face.

"Wait-- there's more." Matt opened his door, reached beneath the seat and pulled out an old work tarpaulin. He circled around to the flatbed, opened the tailgate and climbed up. Beth watched through the rear window as he spread the tarpaulin out like a picnic blanket. He straightened his Stetson and grinned at her. "Wait a moment, and I'll help you out."

She gathered the bag and colas, waited as Matt opened her door.

"Let me take the food around, then I'll come back and lift you down."

She nodded, choosing not to tell him that she could take off the shoes and get down on her own. He looked too happy, too pleased they had made it in time to watch the sunset.

When he came back, his arms reached for her, and she easily slid into them. The contact sparked a kiss that nearly had Beth pushed against the truck. He relaxed the embrace, swept her up and carried her around to the back of the vehicle. He placed her on the tailgate, and she leaned forward for another kiss.

"I better not," Matt said, a blush creeping up his neck.

He jumped onto the flatbed, helped her up and led her to the back where they could sit down. The bed had a slight wave to it, making Beth's navigation tenuous. The silly shoes kept getting in the way, but she noticed they made her helpless in a way that Matt seemed almost eager to compensate. If it hadn't been only a few steps, she felt sure he would have carried her again.

Matt tugged off his coat, put it down for Beth to sit on.

"You're going to get cold," she warned.

His grin widened. "Then I guess you'll have to keep me warm."

"Is that why you brought me out here? To keep you warm?"

"No, but it's a handy excuse."

Using his hand to steady her, Beth sat down on the coat. She buttoned her own coat against the growing chill, then reached for the restaurant bag as Matt took a seat beside her.

A large bucket of warm fried chicken comprised the entire meal. She placed it between them on the tarpaulin, then whispered a quiet prayer over the food that only Matt and God could hear. The ice cold cola was out of the question, though Beth did take an occasional sip to lessen the spice of the chicken. She finished before Matt, thankful for her headache's retreat and the calm settling into her soul.

Mountains ridged in the distance, but the expanse before her was entirely desert. The sky began to fade into brilliant color, and already Beth found a sliver of moon hanging above them.

"Don't get comfortable without me," Matt smiled, lifting the bucket out of his way. "God and I went to a lot of trouble to arrange this sunset. I don't know about God, but I intend to collect."

Matt put his arm around her shoulders. She settled against him. He let out a slow, contented breath.

Color splashed the horizon as the sun began its descent, dazzling Beth with reds and oranges and yellows, before at last turning to a deep pink blush. The colors grew dim until darkness sank around them, bringing with it the jewels of the night sky. Surrounded by such quiet beauty, it gave the sensation of being alone in the midst of a sea of open space.

A strong hand moved up her back, an eager mouth claimed hers. They cuddled against each other. For several moments they stayed that way, kissing and caressing and breathing each other's air. Then she felt the push of going backwards, felt the quick intake above her as the kiss kept deepening. Heard the hat fall softly onto the tarpaulin. He unfastened her coat, and gravity pulled him to her.

They kissed and caressed until Matt pushed away with a groan.

"Three words, Beth. Just three words."

"What do you want me to say? 'Yes, please?'"

Even in the blackening night, she saw his eyes grow intense. "Those aren't the words, Beth, and you know it."

"What do you want from me, Matt?"

"You know what I want."

She pushed herself upright, not wanting to argue on her back while he looked down at her. "We're married," she reasoned. "We don't need anything more than that to make love."

His chest rose and fell with each breath. He stared at her until she closed the coat with trembling fingers.

"Is 'I love you,' so hard to say?" he asked.

"I don't hear you saying it," she replied.

"Do you feel anything for me?"

"Matt, I'm willing to make love with you. How can you ask me that?"

"Love, love," he swiped at the air with a helpless moan. "You exchange those words like it doesn't matter. Love is different from sex. They're not the same thing. Say what you mean, Beth."

"Fine." She shoved back the hair that kept blowing into her eyes. "I'm willing to have sex with you. Is that what you wanted to hear? Is it?"

In a slow movement, Matt shook his head "no."

"Don't ask for something I can't give, Matt. It's not fair. When we married, we purposefully left love out of the arrangement. I never promised you love."

Matt's eyes squeezed shut. A breath pushed through his lips. "Do you feel anything at all for me?"

Having heard the same question for the second time in under five minutes, Beth stopped herself from a hurried response. "Yes, Matt, I feel something for you."

Hope peeked into his voice. "Can you tell me what that something is?"

When she didn't answer right away, he became frantic. She could feel it in his gaze.

"I don't think I can. I don't know what I feel."

"Then describe it."

"I can't, Matt. It's too complicated."

He sucked in a sharp breath. "I'm getting scared. Do you feel lust, or is it just me?"

"No, I feel it too." Beth looked away, trying to regain her composure.

"Is it just lust, or is it something more? Please tell me."

A breath caught in her throat, she held it, then pushed it out. "It's something more."

"Is it love?"


"Please, Beth. Do you love me?"

Something wet collected in her eyes and she brushed it away with her fingertips. "No, Matt, I don't love you."

For a long, drawn out moment, he didn't speak. "That sounded fairly definite. Are you sure?"


"How can you be sure, when you just admitted you feel something more?"


"Because, what?"

"Because my love belongs to someone else."

"Someone else? Are you seeing someone else besides me?"

"No, there's only you."

"Then who, Beth?" Alarm sounded in Matt's voice. "Who else?"

"Matt, you aren't going to understand."

"I don't understand now. Who else?"

She bowed her head. "It's Luke. My love belongs to Luke."

A frenzied laugh choked in Matt's throat. He leaned back, pushed both hands through his hair. "For a moment, you had me really frightened. I was beginning to wonder if Skip was still in the picture."

"No, it's just you."

"Uh-huh. Just me... and Luke. I don't understand. I thought he passed away."

"He did."

"Then why does he still get all your love? He's in Heaven, but I'm right here. Don't I get anything?"

"Matt, I told you I felt more than lust. Isn't that good enough?"

"No. No, it's not, Beth. I want your love. I realize if you don't love me, then I'll have to deal with it, but if I'm competing with someone else, I want to know."

Everything in Beth wanted to get up and put some distance between her and Matt, but the high heels prevented her from standing without Matt's help. "Would you take me home?"

"Not until we're ready."

"I'm ready now."

"Maybe so, but I'm not. Are you still in love with Luke?"


"Okay, that's understandable." Matt sounded desperately like a man trying to reason away gravity. "He was your husband, so it makes sense that you loved him. But he died. Isn't that supposed to make a little room in your heart for a man besides him? I'm not asking for the whole pie. If I have to, I'll settle for crumbs."

"Matt, please don't."

"I mean it, Beth. Do you have any crumbs left for me?"

Emotion choked her throat. She couldn't speak.

A low groan rumbled through Matt. He surged forward, kissed her with such fury she could do nothing but respond. His hands pulled off the coat, he pushed her onto her back and breathed into her ear.

"Say you don't have anything left for me. Say it. Say it, Beth!"

She turned her head away, but his hand turned her back. She gazed into those angry but intensely gentle eyes and felt her lips tremble.

"Do you have any crumbs left for me?"

Face to face with Matt in the private darkness of the hushed desert, Beth whispered her reply. "Yes."

It was all Matt needed.

As he lowered his mouth to hers and devoured his crumbs, Beth sent up a frantic prayer.

Please don't let him watch. Tell Luke to close his eyes.

Then all fear wiped itself from Beth's mind. Matt needed her, and every muscle of her heart strained to make him happy. This man who accepted crumbs but deserved so much better. This good man who needed so much more.

He held her like a starving man devouring the remains of someone else's meal. And when he began to pull away as though uncertain of the moment, Beth held him fast so that he was helpless to do anything but make love.

She would give him all she could tonight.

She only wished it was more.

"Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh."
~ Genesis 2:24 ~

end of chapter
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