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Chapter Twenty-two
Secrets of the Heart

"Turn away thine eyes from me, for they have overcome me..."
~ Song of Solomon 6:5 ~

Matt had to hand it to Ethan. For someone about to be ripped out of familiar ground, Ethan accepted the impending move with admirable calm. Not even the prospect of being transplanted into a new neighborhood made him show anything but impatience to get back to his book.

Pulling out some old moving boxes that were collapsed in the back of the boys' closet, Matt thought it over. Beth's place wasn't exactly located in a neighborhood. He remembered no nearby houses, no private property that wasn't gouged with the furrowed rows of farmland. They would be moving from nose to nose urban sprawl, to a kind of privacy that only the wealthy or exclusive enjoyed if they weren't farmers, themselves. It would be a big change, but one Matt welcomed for the sake of the others. There would be no local gangs to bully Ethan into joining, no teenage vixens to entice Ethan into trouble, no neighbors who used drugs while they thought no one looked, no trash piled high in front yards, no drunken shouts in the streets after dark.

For Ethan's sake, and for the sake of the others, Matt was grateful to be leaving.

For himself, he could wish the move came later or even never at all. This rundown neighborhood might be an eyesore, and occasionally even dangerous, but it was his ground, his territory. Sure, the house was rented, but he still paid for the right to be here. The lawn had weeds, but every dandelion belonged to him. As he opened the collapsable boxes for Ethan and Ryan to get started, Matt felt the sadness of leaving behind a place he considered as his.

He stalked into the kitchen, started running water in the sink for the breakfast dishes while Beth talked on her phone to Aiden. Attractively casual in a pea-green nursery shirt and faded jeans, Beth waved her free hand in conversational gestures that had Matt both grinning and marveling at the same time. How did any woman have the right to look so good, and to do it without trying?

The loose braid showed she hadn't paid much time in front of the mirror, so she wasn't trying to hit him over the head to notice her. That cute black dress had been a definite effort to please him, but this unassuming beauty bloomed whether she tried to or not. It didn't matter to him what she wore or how she looked-- he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. With that woman who held his naked heart in the palm of her unknowing hand. It inspired a vulnerable, open feeling that made the unsteady bump of his heart crave for more assurance. A gentle touch, a whisper of forever-- something, anything to ease this terrible longing.

Beth's sweet darling needed her.

Without the least bit of shame, he traced her in his mind, for once allowing himself the secret pleasure of wanting her without having to stop himself from thinking such thoughts. The longing grew, forcing Matt to careen to a stop before his heart tripped like a circuit breaker with too much electrical load. Only a cold shower or Beth herself, could reset his heart after such an enthusiastic jolt of distress. And she could distress him so easily.

No, Matt, I don't love you.

At the memory of those words, he squeezed his eyes shut.

Oh Beth, help me.

Sudsy hot water splashed against his shirt, and Matt hurried to turn off the faucet. "What a mess," he muttered, grabbing a dishrag and stooping to sop up the waterfall spilling onto the floor.

"Matty?" A pair of flowered sneakers stepped beside the lake.

He glanced up, half amused Cassie didn't think to help him clean the floor. "What is it?"

"Do we really have to move?"

"Of course we do. Careful not to step in the water."

The shoes inched back, the toes still staring him in the face. "Couldn't we add on to this house, so it's big enough for everyone? All we need is another bathroom and bedroom for you and Beth. The boys can share your old room, and I can keep mine."

"Our house is nowhere near as nice as Beth's, Cass."

"I know." She still sounded reluctant, so he pushed on.

"It's more practical for us to leave this place, than to make it bigger."

A sad sigh slipped from Cassie. She leaned against the counter, and when he looked up, he saw her slight face pinched with heartache.

"When you think you're going to have a panic attack, I want to know about it. All right?"

She nodded, moved back some as he stood to wring out the towel.

"I realize this sudden move might be difficult for you to take in all at once, so I want you to remain calm. Would it help if I put you in charge of Dylan? Stay clear of all the packing, and just concentrate on Dylan."

"Matty, I don't want to leave." Wet glossed her eyes, and a large tear slipped down her cheek. "Please, Matty, can't we stay?"

"Hey, don't start crying." Matt rinsed off his hands, turned to his baby sister before she dissolved into panic or sobs. "Cass, don't think about it. Take a deep breath." He hugged her when the tears came faster, and resigned himself to the fact she needed to cry. "Please, don't panic," he whispered. "We're leaving here as a family, and just like Ryan isn't going to leave behind any of his toys, I'm not leaving any of you behind. Just remember that, Cass. Our address may be changing, but we're still a family."

He knew just which comforting words to offer, for he understood Cassie's fear of change. She suffered so much neglect when little, not knowing from day to day if she would be forgotten by a drunk mother and the current boyfriend who helped spend the grocery money on booze and drugs. They habitually abandoned Cassie and Ethan, and it shamed Matt to remember all the times he'd come home to find Cassie crying and Ethan angry at the world. As the oldest, he should have been there for both of them.

Even for Matt, life in those difficult days was like living on forever shifting ground, always negotiating the change that meant no one loved you, that no one cared. In his own way, Matt figured his uncertain childhood was one reason why he'd clung to Helen and his old life so hard. They numbed the pain of not being wanted.

Bringing himself back to the present, he rubbed Cassie's shoulder. "Try to have a good time, Cass. Play with Dylan and let me know if you feel panic coming. Okay?"

The girl nodded, wiped her eyes and began to calm down. He hugged her, but didn't send her away until she left him of her own accord.

"Do you have your cell?" he asked.

Cassie nodded.

"Don't get caught up too much in the excitement of the move. If you need to talk to me and I'm not around, you have your phone."

She gave Matt a weak smile, then left for the living room where he heard her telling Dylan what a good baby he was. The worst of the crisis averted, Matt returned to the dishes. He glanced at the table, and realized Beth was off the phone.

"You're a good brother, Matt."

He lifted a brow. "Eavesdropping, huh?"

She smiled. "My parents will be here within the hour. They're bringing Dan and the twins."

"I thought they had to be back in Santa Fe before Sunday."

The answering smile on Beth's lips had Matt craving for his sweet darling all the more. "They're a gift from my sister. Fiona is leaving Dan and the kids here to help with the move, and Dad will drive them to Santa Fe, next week. So it appears we'll have some guests for the next few days."

Even though Fiona's gesture had been a kind one, the news made Matt frown. He placed the last of the dishes into the drainer. "No one's using Cassie's room right now."

There was no need to explain what he meant. Beth gave a surprised little laugh, but stopped halfway. "Is this how you hold out?"

Nothing in Matt flinched. "They're going to be with us awhile. I'll take whatever time with you I can get."

"Within the hour, Matt. If the traffic's light, they'll be here sooner than that."

"Then I'd better start praying for a traffic jam." Matt crossed the distance between them, hauled Beth onto her feet and tugged her close. He kissed her so soundly, so completely, he had to stop to catch his breath. "Just give me a few minutes," he whispered. They kissed, and he pulled her through the living room, past a smiling Cassie, and down the hall to the girls' bedroom.

To his delight, Beth didn't try to stop him, but locked the door behind them.

She knew they shouldn't have indulged in passion when so much work remained to be done. To deny him a few minutes of privacy didn't seem fair, though, especially so close to their honeymoon. And he needed her so much. She sensed it wasn't the mere intimacy he wanted, but something deeper in Matt that cried for more. That needed more.

If she couldn't give him love, then Beth determined to give all the physical intimacy he wanted. Only when she heard the slamming car doors did she try to stop him.

"Matt, my parents are here."

He snugged closer beneath the sheet, his arm muscled firmly around her so she couldn't get away.

"Matt." She whispered his name, and it sparked more kissing. "Please," she mumbled. "We can cuddle later."

"Five more minutes," he begged.

Beth closed her eyes and let Matt hold her until Cassie knocked on their door.

"We'll be out in a moment," Beth called. "Matt, let me go." She couldn't help herself and answered his kiss before shoving him away. "Help the boys pack up their room, and I'll start in Cassie's. Tell my parents Cassie will look after the baby, so Mom won't take Dylan from her. Matt, please. I can't do this unless you cooperate."

A heavy sigh moved through Matt. He let go, though it clearly pained him to do it.

After Beth dressed, she pulled off the blankets and sheets, and began folding them into neat piles. Though he offered to help, Beth sent Matt into the living room to greet her parents while she slid the mattress onto the floor. Standing it on end, she began to dismantle the bedstead just as her Mom came through the door.

Thank Heaven, she didn't see the messed up blankets, Beth thought with relief. Beth smiled, kept working while she thanked her mom for bringing help.

"I'm not sure how much help two more four-year-olds will be," Mom said with some amusement, "but I intend to enjoy every blessed moment. Here, let me help you with that."

It's a known fact mothers don't get the credit they deserve. As Beth watched out of the corner of her eye, the feeling that her mom hadn't been put off the scent by the hastily dismantled bed, sounded as a known certainty in Beth's mind. She didn't know how Mom could possibly know, only that she did.

"Does Dad know?" Beth asked. The question came from nowhere, but Mom didn't seem surprised.

"Of course he does. Do you think he's blind?"

Though Beth wanted to ask when they first suspected, she guessed the answer would only embarrass her further and decided to keep quiet.

When Mom offered to start sorting through the things in the closet, Beth hurried her into the living room to help Cassie look after the children. It would never do to let her mom find a certain shoebox hidden in the closet. The reminder made Beth whisper something into Matt's ear the next time she saw him. He needed to make that doctor's appointment soon.

Since Dad's knee required rest, and his family wouldn't let him do otherwise, he remained on the sidelines and handed out large doses of helpful advice. Rooms were taken apart, the floors crowded with scattered belongings like some garage sale gone amok. People shouted, "Which box does this go in?" or "What do I do with this?" while Ryan, David, and Sarah played tag, and in general, got under foot. When the disorganized mayhem reached its height, Beth was grateful Matt had given Cassie charge over Dylan. The girl sat wide-eyed on the couch with her brother teddy-beared in her arms, sometimes near tears at the mention of leaving their home, other times caught in the excitement of so much activity. Though Dylan fussed and cried, the sheer noise seemed to overwhelm him and his cries came sporadically.

What Beth wasn't able to fit in the packing boxes Matt had saved from his last move, she folded and neatly arranged into large blue trash bags that had "KEEP" scrawled in black marker on the sides so they wouldn't be mistaken for garbage. She combed the girls' room from top to bottom, and every hair clip, sock, and doll from Cassie's childhood was packed away for the move. She didn't bother asking Cassie if anything could be thrown away, for she feared the girl might melt into tears at the mere suggestion. Leave her home and throw away her dolls? No, Beth didn't see any point in asking such an obvious question. Cassie was maturing-- that much had been proven when Beth realized Cassie had outgrown much of her wardrobe-- but at heart, the twelve year old was still a little girl. Beth recognized the fact, and appreciated Matt's thoughtfulness whenever it came to handling his sister's vulnerability.

Despite Aiden's helpful declarations of what he thought should be done, chaos reigned in the boys' room. Ethan argued with Matt over what to keep, and what to throw out. The brothers disagreed over everything, until Matt threw up his hands and announced Ethan could do what he liked with his things. Give them away, or sell them-- Matt did not care, though Beth noticed Matt held onto everything in his own possession. Every ratty T-shirt in Matt's section of the closet was packed away, along with battered pairs of boots, torn jeans, and a crumpled cowboy hat smashed beyond recognition. A guitar case made a brief appearance as Matt moved it from the closet, and placed it behind the boxes.

Wondering if she could ever coax Matt into playing for her, Beth headed for the kitchen to begin the next round of packing. After seeing his threadbare closet, she decided Cassie wasn't the only one who desperately needed new clothes.

The kitchen cupboards and drawers were emptied, one by one, the contents sorted and disposed of in quick order. The scratched plastic mixing bowls landed in the trash, as did the assorted collection of chipped glassware, the non-matching silverware, the empty ice cream tubs someone had squirreled away beneath the sink, the wads of twisters and used rubber bands that tangled with plastic straws in one of the drawers, the snips of expired coupons jammed together with outdated school flyers-- they all went into the trash. The blender she kept, as well as the hardworking frying pan that sat forever on the stove.

"Whoa." Matt stepped from the boys' room and made a beeline for the trash bag. "You're throwing away my cowboy mug? And this dinosaur cup is Ryan's."

"It's a toddler sippy cup, Matt. Ryan has probably outgrown it, and even if he hasn't, when you unscrew the top, it smells like rancid milk. That mug you're cradling was broken at some time, its handle glued back on at an awkward angle. It's barely usable."

"Hey, this is my stuff you're talking about. Just because it's been over-loved, doesn't mean it's trash. See this mug? Cassie dropped it when she was five. When Mom told her I'd be angry when I found out, Cassie glued the handle back on, all by herself. And that sippy cup-- Ryan picked it out when he was still in diapers. What else do you have in that bag?" One by one, Matt pulled out the mixing bowls, picked out the wads of twisters, sighed in dismay when he saw the ice cream tubs and even recovered the mismatched silverware. "You're throwing these out? Beth, how could you?"

"Is that a serious question?"

Matt held up a forlorn plastic tub with no top. "When you're house painting, you need something to clean the brushes in. These are perfect for that. And what's going to catch the drips under the kitchen sink?" Matt stooped, opened the cupboard and slid it back in place.

"Wouldn't it be simpler to just fix the drip?"

"I will. I just never got around to it. What'd you do with the rubber bands?"

"Matt, they sell new ones at the store."

"But those cost money. These are free." Matt returned to the trash bag and rescued several more items, including the rubber bands. "Do me a favor, would you? Don't throw any bags out, until I've had a chance to go through them."

"Okay, fine." Beth folded her arms. "I'll remember that in the future."

"I bought these things, Beth. They're mine."

The fact he owned those sad rubber bands seemed to be more important than their actual usefulness. She huffed an irritated sigh. "Except for those keepsakes, all that junk belongs in the trash."

A stab of regret swiftly followed.

Matt's eyes avoided hers as he grabbed the two cups, dropped them into the topmost ice cream bucket with his twisters and rubber bands, and took the whole stack into the boys' room.

"Matt, wait--" she stopped short when a loud thump came from the living room.

"He's okay," Dad called. "He's not hurt."

Intent on finding out who the "he" was, Beth pushed into the living room with Matt hard on her heels.

"Now, now, Sweetie," Beth heard her mom say. "He was running, and tripped, that's all. He's just fine, aren't you?"

Tears welled in David's eyes. "I want my daddy! Where's daddy?" When Dan rushed forward to check his son, the frightened youngster eagerly reached for him and Dan scooped him up.

Tears threatened Sarah as she watched her twin cry in Daddy's arms. Grandma gave her a consoling hug, and Beth kept hearing, "there, there," peppered throughout the comfort. A scraped elbow was presented to Dan, and the booboo was duly kissed with all the parental sympathy a child could wish. When Dan offered to clean the elbow in the bathroom, Ryan moved around the accident scene to come stand beside Matt.

Beth saw Ryan tug at Matt's pant leg.

"What is it, Ryan?"

"Where's my daddy?"

The question must of punched Matt hard, for Beth noticed a flicker of pain reach his eyes.

"I don't know, buddy."

"Can I go see him?"

"I don't know where he's at, Ryan."

The boy sighed, hugged Matt's pant leg until Matt lifted him up.

"It's okay, buddy. It's okay." The older brother hugged the younger, and Ryan seemed more than a little grateful for the comfort. He leaned his head against Matt's shoulder, and started sucking his thumb like someone much younger than his four years.

After witnessing the sad scene with Ryan, Dad and Mom went about trying to make the children smile, even telling the freshly bandaged David they would have ice cream sundaes after lunch. Though the prospect of food brightened Ryan's face, he clung to Matt like a kiddie magnet on a refrigerator door.

Ethan went to finish up in the boys' room, while Beth returned to the kitchen. In the living room, she heard Dan talking with her parents about Fiona and the kids, while David found a new game to play with his sister. The booboo now long forgotten, David yelled with laughter, his play as boisterous as before.

Faced once again with the stack of plastic mixing bowls, Beth placed them, and everything else, straight into the moving boxes. She kept everything, even the bottle caps and broken handled scissors.

Still holding Ryan, Matt came into the kitchen and watched in silence. He set Ryan down. "I'm sorry, Beth. I shouldn't have lost my patience."

She closed a box and secured it with tape. "You're not the one who should be apologizing. Those things held sentimental value, and I should have been able to see that without your telling me."

"But you couldn't know that old cowboy mug was something I wanted to keep."

"I should have known, Matt."

"You're being silly, Beth. You can't read my mind, and I shouldn't expect you to."

"Matt, I'm trying to apologize. I was wrong, and I admit it."

"But you weren't wrong."

"Yes, I was."

"Do you have to be so pigheaded about it?" Irritation flashed in Matt's eyes, and Beth tried to accept the fact he had called her silly-- and even worse-- pigheaded. After such a wonderful start to the day, things were going downhill fast.

"If we can accept each other's apologies, maybe we should forget it ever happened," Beth suggested.

"Yes. Thank you." He sighed deeply. "What's for lunch?"

Uncertain, Beth hesitated before moving on. "Are you just saying you accept so I'll stop talking about it, or do you really accept my apology?"

"Beth, please." Matt rubbed his face. "Ryan, why don't you go play with David?"

The boy looked at Beth, then Matt.

"Are you fighting, Matty?"

"No, we're... uh, we're discussing things. Run along and play." As Ryan obeyed, the phone in Matt's pocket began to whistle the tune to an old but familiar spaghetti western. As the melody began to "Wah, wah, waaah," Matt answered the call. "Cass? Are you all right?" He stuck his head into the living room, and Beth heard him laugh. "Yes, you can give Dylan to Grandma. Don't use this phone unless you really need to, okay? My heart drops to my toes every time you use it to call me." Matt strode back to Beth, tucked the phone into his pants pocket and sighed. "Now. Where were we?"

Seeing his fatigue, Beth tried to push away her tangled concern and answered with a smile. "I was about to tell you what was for lunch. We have peanut butter and one loaf of bread, but no jelly."

"No jelly?" Matt frowned, tugged her shirt until she leaned against him. "Someone forgot to go to the grocery store."

"Matt, I really am sorry. It was wrong of me to presume I could throw out your things without permission."

"Hush." Matt claimed her mouth, and all discussion came to a stop.

Since Aiden and Shannon had promised the kids ice cream after lunch, and since there was no way the children would ever forget, it came as no surprise when Aiden announced he was taking the family out to eat. Everyone piled into their vehicles, and Matt followed Aiden's car into the heart of Las Cruces.

He glanced at the beautiful woman beside him, her green eyes covered by sunglasses. It made him smile to know Beth had climbed into his truck, even though her father had offered a seat in his sedan. It probably wasn't a compliment to Matt that the offer had been made, but Matt took it as a good sign that Beth turned it down.

Lunch began without any major bumps, though Dylan didn't stop fussing until Matt lifted him out of the carrier and let the newborn sleep while being held. With Matt's free hand, he ate his hamburger, kept an eye on Ryan, and trained both ears on what was being said at the table. While Beth and Mrs. Campbell talked among themselves, Aiden had somehow gotten Ethan into something that passed for polite conversation.

In the process of the exchange, Matt learned his father-in-law was in the business of aircraft restoration. He owned a hangar workshop in Phoenix, and was hired to restore aircraft and warbirds from private collectors and sometimes even museums. He tinkered with a few vintage cars, but the airplanes, it seemed, were the heart and pulse of Aiden Campbell.

When Luke's name came up, Matt guessed Aiden and Luke shared a love of flying, for Beth had said Luke was a pilot. He hoped the conversation would turn in that direction, for Matt wanted to know more about the man he was competing against for Beth's love. To Matt's disappointment, Aiden switched to politics and Matt noticed Ethan's interest quickly dropped soon after.

The ice cream sundae promise kept, the group headed back to the mobile home and started loading the vehicles with boxes and bags labeled "KEEP" on the sides. Aiden wasn't allowed to help because of his knee, but he sat behind the wheel of his car, ready to get rolling.

Even with three vehicles, the move would require more than one trip. For all of that afternoon and into the early evening, they ferried back and forth, dumping all the belongings of the Taylor family into Beth's spacious entryway.

When the last of the boxes had been stowed in Matt's truck, Aiden's sedan and Daniel's minivan met him in front of the mobile home.

Aiden rolled down his window, and nodded to Matt. "I guess that's the last of it, huh?"

"Yeah. I need to turn the key over to the landlord. I'll have to pay the last of the rent, but aside from that, we're done here."

"Dinner," Aiden said with a decided nod, "is on me."

It didn't seem fair, for Aiden had treated everyone to lunch. Matt feared any protest might be seen as ungrateful, and held his peace. He followed Aiden and Mrs. Campbell to a restaurant for the second time that day, and found himself at yet another table, listening to the clatter of dishes in the background and the hum of conversation. Matt waited for Luke's name to come up, but when no one ventured in that direction, Matt had to settle for news of how Brian-- Aiden's one and only son-- was doing, and of how much his family practice flourished in Phoenix. Since Brian was a stranger to Matt, Matt took the news with relative calm.

When the cars turned toward home, instead of returning to Matt's old neighborhood, they headed South, to Beth's sprawling adobe dream-house. Tonight, everyone, including Dan and the twins, were supposed to sleep under Beth's roof. Even in that large house, Matt didn't know if there would be enough room.

And, he had to admit, the thought of where he might sleep did cross his mind. Would it be anywhere near Beth? Or maybe he should make the resolution to sleep alone, no matter what. He had to keep reminding himself that holding out meant keeping his distance from Beth.

At least, whenever he could possibly help it.

To Matt, the house felt warm when Beth flicked on the entryway lights. Family poured inside, edged around the Mount Everest flowing from her entryway, and streamed into the living room with tired groans. Night blackened the three glass double doors that lined the North wall, the living room lights casting a soft glow onto the paving stones of the patio. Most of the entire wall was of glass, giving a kind of surreal perspective to Matt's tired mind. Beth lived rich. She might not feel like it, but that didn't change the fact this place felt like it belonged on the cover of a glossy magazine.

Thankfully, the baby slept through the drive home, and even now, as Matt checked him in the carrier, Dylan's chest kept rising and falling in newborn slumber. Picking one of the two couches, Matt set the carrier down, then took a seat next to it while Ethan plopped down on Dylan's other side. The baby jarred awake at the sudden movement, then closed his eyes and went back to sleep.

Matt reached over, thumped the back of Ethan's head.

"Hey, what's that for?"

"That was for waking the baby. Next time, be more careful."

"Yeah, yeah. Whatever."

Tomorrow was Sunday, and Mrs. Campbell gave Beth the day off from cooking. Mrs. Campbell bustled into the kitchen like a woman on a mission, while Beth followed after her to make sure they would have enough food to get through the day without any stops at the grocery store.

Working his shoulder muscles, Dan yawned as two four year olds dumped themselves onto the couch behind him. Ryan came to Matt, and with all the confidence in the world of being accepted, climbed onto Matt's lap with a huge yawn.

"Whew." Dan stretched out. "I honestly didn't think we'd get everything done before nightfall."

"I really appreciate the help," Matt said, as Ryan slumped against Matt's chest to watch the grownups with half open eyes. "It would have taken much longer on our own."

"If you really want to thank someone, thank Fiona." Dan sat down beside his almost asleep son, David, and gave the boy an affectionate pat. "She knew you'd need help and mentioned the fact in my presence. I, being the loving and attentive husband that I am, picked up on the subtle hint and promptly volunteered."


"I agree." Dan flashed an easy smile that made Matt feel more at ease in these foreign surroundings.

Just sitting on that couch made Matt feel like an intruder, only he hadn't noticed feeling that way before. Why now? He looked about, and spotted a large porcelain picture frame in a display case against the wall. The man in the photo gazed at Matt with unblinking eyes. A slightly younger version of Beth stood at his side, giving a contrast between their ages that pegged the man at least ten years older than Beth.

That had to be him. Luke.

The broad forehead gave an immediate impression of intelligence, as did the thoughtful turn of the mouth. Though some might say the cleft in the chin was endearing, Matt did not suspect himself of jealousy when he decided that the man, overall, was not at all good looking. If Matt stared him down, glimmers of meanness rose to the surface of those striking blue eyes. Every cruel trait imaginable could be found in that slight smile, the tilt of his chin, the blue scrub shirt that declared doctor. Why, if Matt let himself linger a few moments more, he could almost celebrate the man's demise.

Matt blinked, jerked his attention away from the picture frame. Beth had loved that man, and still did-- with every fiber of her aching heart-- and Matt hated himself for his unkind thoughts.

"Where's my backpack?" Ethan sat up, breaking in on Matt's self loathing. "I know I had it with me when we left our place, but I don't remember bringing it in. Matty, it had my toothbrush and my change of clothes for tomorrow."

"It's behind the mattresses," Cassie said, coming from the mountain with a borrowed overnight bag tucked under an arm. "I had to dig around for mine, but Ryan's and Matty's bags are behind the mattresses, along with your backpack."

Searching the couch, Matt realized an important oversight. "What happened to Dylan's diaper bag? I can't find it."

Cassie gave him a sisterly look.


With a smile, Cassie nodded to his feet. "You brought it in with Dylan."

"Did I?" Matt leaned forward, saw the bag and blew out a sigh.

Dan chuckled. "A missing diaper bag is no joke, so I feel for you."

"Elizabeth, where are you going to put the children?" Aiden moved to meet Beth as she came into the living room. "I don't think there's enough beds to go around, so someone's going to have to sleep on the couch with Daniel."

"Give me a moment, Dad." In her arms, Beth held some outrageously fluffy towels, and Matt wondered if they were new. "With a little bit of maneuvering, I don't think Dan will have to share the living room. David and Sarah can keep the guest room, Mom and Dad can remain in the second master bedroom, and Matt and the boys can have Caleb's room. There's nothing in there right now, so if maybe Matt and Ethan don't mind assembling the two beds from their old room, that will just leave Cassie and Dylan. Dylan can sleep in his carrier and Cassie-- where are you, Sweetheart?-- you can share my room. You don't mind staying with me a little longer, do you?"

"Cassie will be with you?" Aiden seemed amused and even gladdened at the news. Matt could almost hear the churn of his thoughts. Aiden's innocent daughter wouldn't be sleeping tonight with someone who sported a "Rough Stuff" tattoo on his bicep. In the hurry that morning, the old tat had completely slipped Matt's mind, and he'd pulled on a sleeveless shirt without thinking to grab something with more sleeve. The oversight hadn't escaped Aiden, for Matt had seen him staring at the tattoo long and hard during the move.

Nice, huh?

That's all he needed right now, a good excuse to lower Aiden's opinion a few more notches. Matt could only hope Aiden didn't understand that his son-in-law had been drunk enough to flagrantly brand himself with the street name for marijuana. Ah, Matt. What a guy.

Surrounded by family and sleepy children, Matt craved for his old friend Meth. He wrestled back the longing, replaced it with desire for a certain woman, then forced himself to let go of that, too.

No need to wonder if he would be with Beth, tonight. That decision had been made for him.

Let it go, Taylor. Just let it go.

As he surveyed the mess in the entryway, he couldn't help but think how even the boxes and trash bags looked poverty stricken on Beth's gleaming tile.

They acted like guests. Beth wished they didn't, but none of the Taylor family relaxed enough to appear happy they were there. Only Dylan accepted the new surroundings with no display of awkwardness. The infant burbled on Matt's shoulder as Beth led them to Caleb's old nursery, located on the right wing of the house next to her master bedroom.

"I'm hoping to turn this into Cassie's room," Beth said, as the boys filed inside with their sister. The kids stuck together like magnets, and Beth prayed they would one day view this home as theirs. "We'll repaint the room whatever Cassie wants, and maybe get her some new furniture... I don't know yet, but maybe." Beth sucked in a deep breath, realized they looked tired and dispensed with the interior decorating. "It'll only be temporary, until Dan and my parents leave, but there's enough room in here to set up your beds."

Emerging from whatever deep thoughts had been troubling Matt, he looked about and quietly assessed the situation. "Ethan," he elbowed his brother, "we'd better start pulling out the bedsteads and mattresses. While we're at it, we might as well reassemble the crib so Dylan won't have to sleep in the carrier. Cass, would you take Dylan for me? Ryan, hey, buddy, don't go to sleep on the floor. Cass, maybe you could help Ryan find his toothbrush and pajamas."

With a nod, Cassie accepted the infant, then took Ryan's hand. "Come on, Ryan. I know where your bag is hiding."

"Is there anything you need?" Beth asked, still holding the fresh towels she intended for the adjoining bathroom. "I can give you some clean bedlinen, maybe a few more pillows to make things more comfortable."

"That's all right. We've got our own pillows and blankets. I hope you didn't go to any trouble on our account." Matt looked at the towels. "You didn't buy those just for us, did you?"

"Oh no, it only occurred to me a few minutes ago to put these in the bathroom for you and the boys."


"If you need anything..." Beth hesitated, "if you need anything at all, let me know."

Matt didn't answer. He looked at her, his gaze roaming just a bit. Then without a word, he went to go help Ethan.

Flushed with the touch of that gaze, Beth's soul did a little pirouette, a quiet happy dance deep inside her.

Too bad she couldn't think of a way to find some privacy for her and Matt, tonight. Perhaps, if she gave Cassie a sleeping bag, the girl could spend the night in Luke's hobby room...

Luke. Beth stopped.

Her heart eased back from the pure pleasure of the moment, and resumed it's quiet pulse. She inhaled slowly, and went to go reorganize her bedroom so Cassie would have room to unpack.

Quiet settled in the master bedroom, contrasting against the activity that had filled the house only two hours before. Beds had been made, pajamas found, teeth brushed, and by now, Beth guessed everyone had fallen asleep.

Everyone, that is, except her. The covers tugged as Cassie rolled onto her side, her eyes closed, her breathing the steady rhythm of sleep. If only Beth could follow her example. For some odd reason, sleep just would not come.

If Beth had the room to herself, she would curl up with a book and read. Although, she admitted she had done precious little of that in a long time. Her to-be-read stack on the nightstand leaned to one side, as though ready to topple if she dared to add another volume to her symbol of procrastination. She absently wondered why she bothered to keep adding books to the pile, then wondered why she bothered to wonder. Luke had never liked the reading light on while he tried to sleep, and the habit had persisted long after it no longer mattered.

The steady tick of a distant clock added a touch of curiosity to the red clock that glowed by her pillow. Why couldn't they make digital clocks to tick, add some realistic ticking noise, to show it was actually doing something besides lighting up LEDs?

Oh, she must be more tired than she thought to be thinking such nonsense.

Determined to sleep, Beth shut her eyes and tried picturing nothing. She had heard it helped people get to sleep, but after struggling for several moments to keep her mind from wandering into something, she gave up. Nothing didn't work.

Beth sat in bed, reached for her robe and tried to very carefully get up without waking Cassie. She tip-toed to the glass double-doors in the master bedroom, opened them quietly, and stepped onto her private patio. Stars littered the sky like so many tiny diamonds, flashing and winking at admirers, distant and yet so very near. Beth closed her robe, tied it shut and breathed in the sharp air.

Something moved. A shadow sat at the wrought iron table on the main patio, its form silhouetted against the dim light showing through the glass double doors that lined the living room. For a brief moment, Beth thought of retreating into her bedroom and dialing 911.

"Matt? Is that you?"

"Sorry. I thought no one would be out here." He turned to leave, but Beth quietly called him back.

"It's okay. I wouldn't mind some company. The truth is, I couldn't sleep."

The shadow grunted. "Neither could I."

"Matt, are you happy here?"

"What makes you ask that?"

"I don't know," Beth gave herself a moment to put the feeling into words. She stepped off the private patio, moved around to the table that sat between the two wings of the house. She shivered as she sat down on the cold iron chair opposite Matt's. "You seemed distant, tonight. I couldn't help thinking you didn't really want to be here."

"It's my first night, Beth. Give me a chance to get used to the place."

"Do you like it here?"

He waited a moment before answering. "Do you want a polite answer, or something closer to the truth?"

"I prefer the truth."

Matt shrugged, his white T-shirt showing well against the darkness. "I guess I'm homesick."

"You'll get used to it. Just give it time."

"Yeah." Matt sighed. "Time." He looked over his shoulder, through the glass doors, into the living room where Dan slept on the couch. "Dan really knows how to snore. Even from the bedroom, you can hear him. I guess he's not disturbing anyone else though, because I'm the only one out here."

"You're not the only one, Matt. I'm here." She reached a hand across the table, touched her fingers to Matt's cold arm. "I'm sorry about the sleeping arrangements. I couldn't think of a way for us..." Beth stopped, remembering that she had thought of a way. Luke's hobby room. She pulled back her hand, folded her arms and sighed. "I hope you're comfortable in the nursery."

Silence. So much silence, she wondered if he were busy thinking of an answer.


"What?" she asked.

"Nothing," he sighed. "Just Beth. I like the sound of your name."

"I don't see why. There's nothing special about it."

Matt leaned back in the chair. "It's your name. That's enough to make anything special."

Warmth hugged her heart, touched her cheeks and pushed back the cold of the night. "That's a nice thing to say, Matt. Thank you."

He crossed his ankles and looked up at the sky. "I can't get over all this quiet. It's almost deafening."

Beth smiled. "I suppose after living where you have, this is a big change."

"Hmmm. Change."

Matt sat silent in his chair, his bare arms folded, most likely against the cold, his thoughts private and hidden from everyone but God. Maybe she should pray and ask God what Matt felt, what he needed from her right now-- besides the obvious, of course. That, she already knew. The fact that he hadn't already pulled her aside into some private area, meant he was trying to keep his distance.

Somehow, that awareness made her wish he would. Intimacy would make them forget, and desire would ease some of the strain she felt while sitting alone with him in the dark. She wanted him to ask, or even take, because it was his right, but he didn't. Then she thought of Luke, and was glad he didn't.

Oh, why did life have to be so complicated? So full of unexpected pain?

"I remember--" Beth stopped, wondering if she should continue her thought out loud in front of Matt. "Luke used to love a passage from Jeremiah, chapter nine. 'But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth Me, that I am the LORD which exercise lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the LORD.' Luke said his goal in life was to be someone who understood and knew God. Luke reasoned that if it wasn't possible, God would never have said what He did."

Matt remained silent.

"Long after Luke passed away, I kept remembering something a friend of my mom's said to me at the funeral. 'Sometimes, God takes the best first.' She was right. Luke was the best." Sharp grief welled within Beth. She bowed her head, willing herself not to cry. "I miss him, Matt. I miss him so much."

"I know." His hand reached across the table and touched her shoulder. He opened his mouth to say something, but no words came.

She eased out a breath, waited, then trusted herself to speak. "It's good to have a friend again. Someone I'm really close to, someone who understands and knows me. Kind of like Luke wanting to understand and know God. It's a sign of friendship."

Matt squeezed her shoulder.

"Thank you for being here, Matt. I know it's presumptuous to think I could ever be as good a friend to you, as you are to me, but I'll try. As God is my witness, I'll try."

"Beth." Matt stood, came over and pulled her to her feet. She expected a kiss, and instead found herself in a tight hug, at once fierce and protective, but at the same time thoroughly gentle. She leaned into the hug and let the warmth flood her soul. Once again, she felt the bond that connected them to each other, and yet could find no easy sentiment to do it justice. She struggled to describe the fullness brimming within her, and at last settled on one word.

A single precious word.


Never before had that word meant so much to her, as it did now. Even though he made no effort to kiss her, Beth knew he wanted to. She took him by the hand, pulled him into the deep shadows of the night and kissed her sweet friend.

They held back, not trusting the night to conceal their private intimacy. When he whispered his need to leave her, she understood, and kissed him good night one more time before they parted to their separate rooms.

Glowing as warm as the sun, Beth climbed into bed and found it impossible to sleep. When her eyes at last closed, she dreamed of her darling, her friend, Matt.

In the nursery, Matt laid awake long into the night. Beth had acknowledged that his knowing and understanding her, was a sign of friendship; but it was the things she hadn't said, that touched a tender wound in his heart. That knowing and understanding was also a sign of something more, something greater that lay just beneath the surface of their friendship. It was that something wonderful that Beth wouldn't or couldn't acknowledge.

Helplessness crowded around Matt. He had a desperate problem, and it poured from his heart before God in prayer. Holding Beth while she grieved for someone else, had made that problem crash through Matt's defenses like a car barreling down a highway with no brakes.

There was no use kidding himself any longer. He was in love with Beth. Head over heels, hopelessly and deeply in love with a woman who kept calling him friend.

She needed his intimate friendship, and he desperately needed her love.

Things couldn't possibly get any worse than that.

"... [God] knoweth the secrets of the heart... Trust in Him at all times... pour out your heart before Him: God is a refuge for us."
~ Psalm 44:21, 62:8 ~

"... Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God."
~ James 2:23 ~

end of chapter
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