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Chapter Twenty-three
Intensely Serious Friendship

"This is my beloved, and this is my friend..."
~ Song of Solomon 5:16 ~

It amazed Matt that such a tiny baby had such walloping lung-power. Dylan put his entire being into each cry, as if every muscle in his body strained to one purpose. To get Matt out of bed.

To the little guy's credit, Dylan had won.

Matt rolled off the mattress, bumped into another, fought against the abrupt awakening, the confusion of beds and bags strewn across thick shag carpet. For a moment, he wondered who had changed the floor on him, then rubbed his eyes to get his mind working.

They had moved into Beth's home yesterday, and after that devastating moonlit talk, he had given up every hope of getting to sleep. By some miracle, he finally dozed off, only to be awakened by Dylan, screaming his itty-bitty lungs out.

He had wondered how things could possibly get worse, and this, it appeared, was his answer.

"Make him shut up." Ethan groaned with impatience. "I'm trying to sleep."

"Don't let me stop you," Matt shot back as the teenager stuffed a pillow over his head. "I'm coming, Dylan, I'm coming." Matt's little toe slammed into Ryan's toy box. He bit back a curse, hobbled to the crib where Dylan was giving a good impression of someone who'd just found out he had five minutes to live. "Okay, okay," Matt lifted the infant, felt the diaper and wondered where he'd put the diaper bag.

"Remind me never to have kids," Ethan complained wearily. "Dylan. shut. up."

"Knock it off, Ethan." Matt searched for the all-important bag, a baby with a loaded diaper cradled in one arm. "I can't find it."

"Can't find what?"

"The diaper bag."


"What did you just say?"


"Yeah, that's what I thought you said." Matt fought to control his temper, locate a flashlight so he could find the stupid bag. Fat lot of help Ethan was. As always, older brother had to clean up the mess, do all the hard stuff. This screaming baby wasn't his. He hadn't gotten anyone pregnant, and here he was, chief cook and bottle washer to a helpless newborn.

The thought sunk in, reached his heart and made him ashamed. The foul mood edged away, and Matt silently prayed for more patience. A lot more.

"Dylan, please, I'm trying." His sore toe bumped into the corner of a moving box, and Matt forced himself to stop and calm down. Getting caught up in Ethan's crankiness wouldn't do anyone good, least of all the baby. Someone had to take responsibility, and that person would be him.

A knock sounded on the bedroom door. Matt limped to it, opened the door and found Beth in her robe and nightgown.

"Do you need any help?" she asked.

"Hold him a minute, would you?" Matt handed her the baby, then went to go dig through the toys jumbled around the crib. Ryan had dumped out his things just before bedtime, and the floor was littered with booby-traps. "What time is it?" he asked over his shoulder.

"It's almost five." She rocked the baby, stepped inside and closed the door so the cries wouldn't carry to the rest of the house. Or so Matt hoped. How Ryan managed to not wake up was beyond him.

He felt the loops of the diaper bag, pulled it out from under a pile of Ryan-sized clothing and toys. Thank God. He motioned to the adjoining bathroom, and she followed.

He flicked on the light, shut the door while Beth placed Dylan on a generous sized changing table. At first, it seemed odd that such a thing would be here, then Matt remembered this used to be Caleb's room.

"Thanks, I'll take it from here." Matt unsnapped the sleeper, smiled at the baby boy who grabbed Beth's finger and wouldn't let go. The impatience of the moment slipped away, and all Matt saw was the newborn innocence before him.

Beth touched Matt's shoulder. "You look tired."

"That's because I am. You said it's nearly five? How on earth am I going to stay awake in church?"

"Go back to bed and get more sleep, Matt. I'll take care of Dylan."

"No, no. I'm up. Too late to pretend I'm not." He grabbed a baby wipe, cleaned the tiny bottom, dumped on talc powder before repackaging it in a fresh diaper. The attention brought Dylan's cries a decibel lower, then it stopped altogether, as if realizing his world was suddenly good again. Tiny fists waved at Matt. Dylan yawned and preceded to fall asleep on the changing table.

When Beth leaned forward to pick up Dylan, Matt noticed the nightgown move with her. He tried not to look, but his attention held fast. What would she say, he wondered, if he simply blurted it out? Beth, I love you. Or maybe, Hey, guess what? I'm crazy about you, so how about it? Do you love me now?

Matt shut his ears to the imaginary conversation, and to his subsequent begging. If only what he felt was imagined, he could almost bear it. Like a madman, he was still trying to hold out even though he had fallen in love before knowing if his love would ever be returned. It was severely difficult to keep his distance, like trying to stop the moon from orbiting the sun, and short of a miracle, was that even possible?

Oh, was he ever in trouble.

Beth softly moved to Matt, leaned her head against his and cuddled the baby between them. Matt swallowed hard. She swayed to a hummed lullaby, and Matt swayed with her, the scent of her hair, her skin, filling him with indescribable pleasure. His fingers skimmed her arm, and his senses willingly drowned themselves in her presence.

Her lips tugged into a smile. "Are you making love to me?"

His mouth caressed her cheek, her ear. "If you have to ask, then I must be doing it wrong."

"Then I won't ask, because this feels right. So very right." She snuggled against him, and he encircled her with his arms.

Her lullaby hummed against his heart, and it was all Matt could do to remember to breathe. Surely, she knew. How could she not? Couldn't she see what she did to him, how she made him feel? He recalled those damning words-- Matt, I don't love you-- and forced aside the pain to soak up whatever she gave him, those crumbs he'd begged for and she'd promised to give.

All the humming and swaying had put Dylan sound asleep, but Matt felt more awake than he had in a lifetime. That silk robe, or nylon, or whatever she had said it was, felt cool and soft to his touch. The outrageous curl of her hair, the flick of her long lashes against his cheek, tugged at him in several directions until he thought he would die. Surely, his heart couldn't take so much all at once.

"Oh, Matt." She sighed as his lips pressed behind her ear. "I could stay like this forever."

"Could you, Beth? Could you really?"

She nuzzled against his neck, and Matt closed his eyes to thank God for giving him this moment. This moment alone together, swaying in the bathroom with a sleeping baby. After a few hours of heartache in bed, this closeness balmed his soul. He could even face Ethan's griping and bear it with a smile. Screaming baby in the dead of night? Sure, bring it on. The way Matt felt right now, he could take anything and still be maddeningly content. The sensation steeped every pore of his body, every nerve attuned to her presence, and when they swayed in unison, the air held silent music that only they could hear. There was power in it, visceral and feather-like, surging strong like a hurricane approaching land, and yet so painfully soft it felt like the grazing kiss of Beth's lips against his neck.

His head dropped, his mouth found hers and that hurricane swept through him and left nothing in its path. The destruction was sweet and total and he surrendered to it completely.

The bathroom door jarred open, and a bleary eyed Ethan stared back at them. "Hey, bro. If you're going to make out, could you do it somewhere else? I gotta take a leak."

"Ethan, don't you know how to knock?"

"Yeah, but why do I have to? It's only you. Hey, Beth." Ethan moved past them, made his way to the toilet as Beth hurried out of the bathroom.

Ethan blinked at Matt. "What?"

Groaning, Matt left the bathroom to his teenage brother. Sometimes, that guy worried him.

Keeping quiet so Ryan wouldn't be disturbed, Beth returned Dylan to the crib, then paused by the bedroom door as Matt came to her.

"Sorry about that. At our old home, Ethan usually didn't have to knock on the bathroom door in the boys' room. He's used to barging in."

When Beth only smiled, Matt surged forward and kissed her. Her hand went to his chest, and even though he knew she was trying to push him away, she couldn't work up the strength to actually do it.

He smothered her with another kiss, and both her hands reached behind his neck to pull him closer. A toilet flushed, the bathroom door opened and Ethan shuffled back to bed.

"I'm out, if you guys still want the bathroom."

The interruption pulled Matt to a skidding stop. He breathed in Beth's air, leaned his forehead against hers and tried to steady himself.

She whispered, "We can't-- not here."

"I know."

She waited a moment, looked at his single mattress. "My mom is going to fix breakfast this morning."

He leaned forward, nibbled Beth's ear. "That's nice of her."

"Matt, as long as we behave, I'll share your bed until she calls everyone to breakfast."

His mind lost itself in a haze of soft kisses, the warm fuzzy air that clung to Beth and then to him. He registered something about behaving, and when Ethan began to snore loudly, Matt realized her meaning. They weren't alone, though he dearly wished they were.

He smiled, kissed Beth. "We could move Cassie."

"No, I can't--" she didn't finish her thought. Her hand touched his chest, and regret sounded in her hushed voice. "I'm sorry. I should probably leave now."

"Beth, you keep finding me tonight. You know you'll be back, so stay with me. I'll behave." He didn't wait for an answer, just tugged her behind him through the maze of beds and crib, to the single he called his own.

Without taking off her robe, she climbed in, then smiled when he joined her.

He nuzzled her ear, whispered softly. "Promise you won't leave me until I wake up?"

She nodded "yes," and he rolled her onto her side so he could spoon behind her. Her hand reached to pull up the blanket, and thinking she was trying to move away, he muscled an arm around her waist and pulled her close. She finally managed to grasp the blanket, though Matt did nothing to help as she tugged it around their shoulders.

With wild curls pillowed against his face, he held onto Beth and let sleep drag him into some much needed rest.

It amazed Beth to feel Matt's unconscious strength. The arm he'd fastened around her, pinned her in place, as though he were afraid she might disappear before he was ready to let go.

She touched a hand to his arm, felt his muscles and heard him groan with satisfaction. The man was asleep, and yet very much aware of her presence. The knowledge of it made her feel strangely powerful, and at the same time, more than a little trapped. The robe made her warm, and snuggled so close to Matt, she began to sweat. If only he'd let go long enough to take off the silly robe. She tried to pry the muscles off, but they held fast like so many bands of industrial steel.

Covering up with the blanket had been a huge mistake. Matt's breath warmed her neck, the blanket held in more heat, and the robe made the situation intolerable. It all worked to give the claustrophobic sensation of being smothered alive in a sauna.

"Matt." She jiggled his arm, but it only snuggled closer. "Matt, wake up."

Maybe if she tried to calm down, it wouldn't seem so hot. After all, this had been her idea.

"Matt, please wake up. Matt?"

Something stirred on the other mattress. Someone got out of bed, padded across the carpet to her side of the bed.

"What's your problem?" Ethan asked in a not-so-hushed voice.

"It's Matt. He won't let me go."

Ethan yawned hugely. "That's your problem, not mine."

"Would you lift his arm off, so I could get rid of this heat trap of a robe?"

It took a moment for him to answer.


"I'm thinking." He shrugged. "Okay, I'll help you." He strong-armed Matt back, and to Beth's amusement, Matt struggled against his brother. "Hurry up, I can't hold him much longer. Man, he's strong. What have you got him lifting at the nursery-- hundred pound weights?"

"No, manure bags." Matt shook off Ethan's grip, and the boys stared at each other while Beth sat up and finished hurrying off her robe. "Go to bed," Matt told his brother.

"Hey, I was only trying to help. She was getting too hot in that dumb robe."

Eyes narrowed, Matt looked as though he needed to give that excuse some thought. "Thanks. You can go now."

A grin tugged at the corner of Ethan's mouth as he left. "Night', Matty."

"Yeah. 'Night." Matt waited while Beth lay down. He turned her onto her side, snugged his arm around her, and burrowed into her hair like a dirt-starved gopher.

"You're not angry with Ethan, are you?"

"I'll think about it later."

A wide mouthed yawn sounded behind her, and before long, she heard the rush of breath that signaled sleep. Though she still felt like a slow baked potato, someone had turned down the oven and it made her entrapment much more enjoyable.

Pleasantly aware of the arm holding her tight, she fell asleep.

Small sounds moved in the background, stirring Beth from her slumber. She blinked open, looked about and saw Ethan pulling clothes from his backpack. He took them into the bathroom, shut the door as Ryan rolled out of bed.

"Ethan, I have to go." The four-year-old rubbed his eyes, looked mournfully at the closed bathroom door.

Beth got Ryan's attention, beckoned him to come to her side of the bed. "Do you remember which room is mine? You step out of this one, and the first door you see on the right, is mine. I have a bathroom-- Cassie will show you where it is."

"Which side is my right?" the boy asked.

"Hold up this hand"-- Beth touched his fingers-- "and make a fist. The side with the fist is your right. Now go out that door, take a few steps straight ahead, turn right, and knock to wake up Cassie."

"Okay." Ryan took a deep breath, concentrated on his fist as he left the bedroom.

Pushing against the arm that pinned her in place, Beth managed to wiggle onto her back. At so much movement, a low moan came from Matt. She caressed his arm, and the moan turned into a satisfied rumble.

"Matt, it's time to wake up."

His fingers massaged her side.

"Come on, cowboy," she touched his cheek and he smiled, "it's time to get out of bed and get ready for church."

"Five more minutes, Beth. Just give me a chance to wake up before you leave me."

"Leave you?" She traced a finger over the stubble of beard on his jaw. "You make it sound so final. I'm only going to my room, not leaving the state."

He nibbled her finger, raised his head to claim her mouth and kissed her as Ryan came back through the door.

Beth pushed Matt away. "Sweetheart, did you find the bathroom?"

"Cassie showed me," Ryan said, coming to Matt's bed with a curious grin. The boy stared at Matt, and Matt stopped kissing Beth long enough to stare back.

"Good morning, Matty."

"Yeah. Good morning. Oh, Ryan, no--" Matt groaned as the boy climbed onto the bed, sat on Matt's side then peered down into Matt's face. "Hi."

"Hi," the boy smiled back. "It's time to get up."

"So I've been told."

"Grandma's making French toast."

"She is, is she?"

"Uh-huh, and she said if I get dressed for church before anyone else, she'll let me go first."

"That's nice."


"What?" Matt sighed patiently, though Beth could tell he was enjoying his little brother.

"What o'clock is it?"

"I don't know, buddy." Matt turned to look about. "Anyone see my watch? Oh, thanks, Beth. Let's see, it's nearly seven."

"It is?" Ryan's eyes popped wide. He tugged at Matt's blanket. "I have to get dressed NOW!"

"Okay, okay, hold your horses." Matt looked at Beth and moaned softly.

"We'll find more time for us, later," she smiled.

"Yeah, I guess. Climb down, buddy. I'm getting up."

Beth put on her robe just as Dad came to the open bedroom door. He saw the robe, the slept-in bed where Matt was just getting to his feet. And said nothing before he turned back into the living room.

It was difficult for Beth to acknowledge her father's disappointment upon seeing her getting out of the same bed as Matt. She wished her parents-- her dad in particular-- would get used to Matt, or at least accept the fact he wasn't going anywhere. Matt was here to stay, and Dad needed to adjust to the idea of having a son-in-law he didn't necessarily approve of.

She noticed the pained grimace on Matt's face, and realized he had caught her dad's disappointment.

"Give it time, Matt. Dad will come around."

"If you say so."

The conversation at the breakfast table centered on what a busy day Saturday had been, and how everyone was looking forward to resting on the Lord's Day. Ryan got to eat his French toast and syrup, happy at being first to the table in his Sunday clothes.

No one commented on Matt and Beth's sleeping arrangements, and it relieved Matt to sense his parents-in-law understood he and Beth hadn't done anything serious with the boys in the same room. Mom dropped a hint about finding someplace for Cassie so Beth's master bedroom would be available tonight, and Matt breathed easier, if not more hopefully. The idea of having a honeymoon, a proper honeymoon with an actual bed for an entire night of privacy, was almost too good to be true. For some reason, Beth appeared uncomfortable with her mom's statement, but Matt chalked it up to nerves. Living in the same house with her parents wasn't easy.

Though Aiden seemed a little out of spirits, he excused any lack of appetite to the ache in his knee. Since he had popped two pain pills into his mouth before breakfast, it was a plausible claim.

It took Daniel a few minutes to wake up and smell the coffee, and Matt discovered the poor guy wasn't a morning person. Dan struggled to join the conversation, helped the twins reach the orange juice pitcher, and kept remarking at how quickly morning had come. Though he looked like he needed more sleep, he turned down the offer to stay home from church.

Today, it seemed, everyone was going. Even Ethan.

It shouldn't have surprised Matt when the church congregation met him and his family with rounds of congratulations and gifts of money tucked into wedding cards. That his marriage came out of nowhere and surprised many, was an understatement; that people viewed Beth as a kind of hero for marrying Matt and helping to care for the children, was generally accepted, though not a few kept glancing at them to discern any other feelings. Feelings more tender than that of simply rescuing the Taylors.

Now that the Taylors had been rescued, Matt hoped their attention would soon move elsewhere. All this scrutiny was making him nervous.

Jerry Westhaven, who owned the car dealership across the street from Beth's Garden Nursery, and who had been the one responsible for sending Matt to find work with Beth, seemed especially pleased by the way things worked out. He kept pumping Matt's hand and saying how glad he was that Matt had found happiness and a stable home for himself and the kids. The fact Jerry kept lumping Matt with the kids, tested Matt's good humor once or twice, but overall, Matt liked Jerry. He was a genuinely nice guy, and Matt owed him a great deal for letting God use him to place a certain jobless person into Beth's path.

That one good turn had forever changed Matt's life, and this morning reminded Matt to keep Jerry and his family in prayer. Like the nursery, the dealership had fallen on hard times, and Matt prayed God would not forget Jerry for the blessing he had been to the Taylors.

To Matt's chagrin, Pastor Mark delivered a sermon on the marvelous ways God provides for His children. Matt wholeheartedly agreed with the message, only it caused everyone to glance in intervals at the Taylors again. Oh well.

After the service ended, Pastor Mark pulled Matt aside and asked very discretely how things were going.

With a nodding smile, Matt understood his meaning. "It's not in name only anymore."

"Ah. That's what I thought." The pastor lowered his voice another notch. "To be truthful, knowing your past, I didn't think that particular arrangement would last for long. But it's for the best. The children will be able to see what a caring relationship looks like."

Matt noticed Pastor Mark's careful omission of the word "love," and decided the preacher hadn't jumped to any romantic conclusions. Smart man.

"You're where God wants you, Matt. I believe it with my whole heart. I pray He strengthens your marriage, and continues to lead you into the relationship He intends for you both."

Again, Matt had a hunch Pastor Mark understood more than he was being told, and Matt had to hand it to the guy. He noticed a lot.

Sunday lunch was eaten at Beth's table, and while Beth and her mom cleared away the dishes, Aiden announced his intention to go for a walk.

"Your knee, dear--"

"I know, Shannon, I'll be careful." Aiden gathered his cane, stood up from the dining room chair slowly, as if testing his knee. He nodded to Matt. "Care to come with me?"

From the direct way Aiden looked at him, Matt sensed the man wasn't asking a question. It felt more like a politely crouched command, than a casual invitation.

Unwilling to allow any intimidation to creep into his demeanor, Matt shrugged. "Sure, why not?" Matt got up from the table, moved with Aiden to the glass doors overlooking the patio. Matt glanced over his shoulder, saw Daniel wave good-bye to him with a grim smile.

Not exactly an encouraging sign.

"Dad?" Beth called after them before Aiden shut the door. "Where are you taking Matt?"

The worried tone made Aiden's brows draw together in a frown. "I know Matt is young, but he's not a child who needs his mother's permission to go where he pleases."

"Daddy, that's not what I meant."

"I know what you meant, Peanut." Aiden dismissed her and tried to shut the door. "I want to talk to Matt without an audience. Is that too much to ask?"

"Daddy, please be nice--" the door closed before she could finish.

"My daughter means well," Aiden stepped across the paving stones as Matt flicked Beth a parting wave of his own, "but sometimes, she fusses too much. I don't know how Luke put up with it."

The mention of Luke peeked Matt's interest. He followed Aiden around the pecan tree, past the greenhouse, and paused to look out over the vast tracks of farmland surrounding the property. A cool April wind blew against them, pushing at the slight clouds that rode the crystal skies.

"Did she follow us?" Aiden asked, not bothering to look back.

Matt shrugged. "If she does, we'll tell her to go away."

The blunt wording had Aiden grinning. "You're a very different man than Luke. Very different."

"How so?"

A sigh filled Aiden's chest. He exhaled, squinted against the late afternoon sun to look at Matt. "I suppose I should answer that question politely, out of respect for the dead. But since Beth didn't follow us"-- Aiden tossed a glance over his shoulder to be sure-- "and since you didn't know the man, I'll be honest."

Matt readied himself for the ugly truth.

"Luke Carter was overly mild, irritatingly quiet, lacked resolve to argue a subject through, and in short, was affable to the point of frustration. The frustration was entirely mine, I admit." Aiden stamped his cane against the dry ground. "The thing is, I don't like people coming at me from the side. You have something to say, I want a frontal assault. None of this passing messages to me through Beth, business. I need more patience, God knows I do, but Luke tiptoed around me so much, it was hard not to think him a coward."

"Was he?" Matt asked. "A coward, I mean."

"In all fairness, I can't say he was." Aiden blew out a breath, shook his head as a plane cut across the sky. "Luke lived in a constant pressure cooker at Las Cruces Medical Center. It's hard to say someone's a coward, when they spend their life as an ER physician, making life and death decisions every other minute."

"Was he a good doctor?"

"One of the finest." A hint of pride crept into Aiden's voice. "Did you know Luke met Beth through my son, Brian? Luke was one of Brian's mentors in medical school-- Brian thought a lot of him, said he was the most gifted physician he'd ever met. Brian invited Luke to come have Thanksgiving with him and his folks, and that's where Luke first saw Elizabeth. It was almost love at first sight-- I say almost, because I don't think my Beth gets swept off her feet very easily. But on Luke's part, yes, he was very much in love."

Matt sighed heavily. "I saw his picture in the living room."

"Yes, that was Luke. Handsome brute, wasn't he?" Aiden cracked a grin. "He was thirteen years older than my daughter, but had an enviable livelihood, a rock solid career, was a good Christian, and he loved Beth. As far as I was concerned, Luke had all the important bases covered."

Frowning at the ground, Matt kicked at a stone until it dislodged itself and rolled away.

"Oftentimes," Aiden continued, "you meet people who are careless about God. They let others do their thinking for them, and just nod in agreement at the appropriate places. Luke wasn't one of them. He thought for himself, and followed after God with a passion that I admit I didn't always understand. Of all the things I could say about Luke, he was most definitely a Christian."

The words weighed heavily in Matt's heart. All this painted a picture of an honest individual. More than that, this glowing testimony was proof that Luke had been the very worst kind of individual to compete against. In Matt's blind struggle for Beth, he found himself competing against... a good man.

Deep inside Matt, his heart ached fiercely for Beth. Luke would have needed to be lower than dirt for Matt to look good when compared to her first husband, but this-- this was far worse.

Aiden turned his green eyed stare on Matt, and Matt stiffened in ready defiance. He didn't know what made him ready for a fight, only that by Aiden's own admission, he preferred a frontal assault.

"If you were Luke, I wouldn't be asking this question. I wouldn't need to, because I'd already know where he stood, and I'd already know he'd hesitate long and hard before giving a dead level answer that might ruffle a few feathers. My feathers are intact, and I don't lose them easily."

"Go on, Aiden. Ask your question."

"You're a tough character aren't you."

Matt folded his arms. "Almost as tough as you."

A flicker of regard stirred in that green steel, but Aiden didn't back down. "I want to know if you love my daughter?"

"That's your question?"

"It is." Aiden waited, his hand gripping the shiny knob of his thick cane.

Matt knew Aiden wouldn't like his answer, but after that hard lead-up, there was no way on God's green earth Matt would back down and offer an untruthful response just to pacify Aiden.

"Yes, I love her."

"For how long?"

"For a while now."

"Do you understand my question? I don't mean lust, but something more substantial than that. Do you love Beth?"

"I understand the difference, Aiden."

"And you love her?"

"I do."

Aiden narrowed his eyes. "Does she love you?"

"You're her father, you tell me."

"No, no. I want to hear it from you. If I asked Beth myself, she'd very tactfully tell me to mind my own business. So I'm asking you. Does she love you?"

Everything in Matt screamed to form the lie, but he couldn't. He would not.

"No, she doesn't."

"Did she tell you that?"

"She did."

Thoughtful, Aiden fingered the cane, looked back out over the rows of farmland. "If my daughter says she doesn't love you, then you'd do yourself a favor and believe it. I didn't raise my children to be liars."

"I believe her."

"And yet you still love her."

Working his jaw muscles, Matt nodded. "Yes, I do."

A faint smile showed around Aiden's mouth. "Bravely spoken, for someone who's got most of his life ahead of him. And what are you going to do if she never returns your love?"

The direct question sparked a flare of anger in Matt. He jammed his hands into his pants pockets and willed himself to not show any ruffled feathers of his own. "If that happens, I guess I'll have to find a way to live with it."

Aiden pointed his cane at Matt. "You won't walk out on her, mistreat her because she can't love you?"

"I would never do that to Beth."

"Okay, son. Okay." Aiden returned the cane to his side, thumped the ground a few times in contemplation. "I believe you. I don't envy you your dilemma, but I believe you'll stand by your word. And I do have your word?"

"Yes, sir, you have it."

A broad grin flashed across Aiden's face. "You just called me 'sir.'"

Not wanting to add to his misstep, Matt remained silent. At least he hadn't called him "mister." Only boys called Aiden that.

Aiden gave him a sidelong glance before returning his gaze to the fields. "The longer I live, the more God surprises me. I never thought Beth would ever manage to find another of that stamp and caliber. They're still as rare as I once thought they were, and I admit I didn't expect to find one wearing a 'Rough Stuff' tattoo, but I'm glad to see the species isn't yet extinct. Kind of gives me hope for this world. Not much, mind you, but some."

"Excuse me?"

"Good men, Taylor. Good men." Aiden pointed to a dirt road between the fields. "Let's see where this leads. I'm in the mood to do some exploring."

For several minutes, Beth saw them behind the greenhouse, exchanging conversation with sharp glances and even sharper posturing. Matt's expression was mostly hid by the Christmas Ferns hanging in the greenhouse, but she could sense his anger by the broad angles of his shoulders. Her heart sank. What were they saying? More importantly, what was her father saying?

He didn't exactly have a good track-record with his sons-in-law, as Luke and sometimes even Daniel, could attest. But there had been a twinkle in her father's eye that morning, hard and unyielding, but at the same time curious. It was the curiosity that unsettled her. Her father felt he could push Matt, maybe more than he ever could Luke. Why? Because Matt stood up to her father, and her father liked to be treated in a head-on fashion.

Not unlike a head-on collision with a Mack Truck. The resulting wreck was enough to keep Luke from participating in such manly theatrics, but Matt... Beth had a feeling Matt shared some of her father's stand-up-and-take-it-like-a-man way of thinking. It didn't make Matt any less thoughtful, or Luke any more intelligent. It just made them different, and at this very moment, as she saw her father and brand new husband move off into the distance, she could wish away that difference completely.

If Matt returned home, shell-shocked from her father's rough treatment, she would have to be more vigilant in protecting Matt's feelings.

An hour passed, and Mom began talking about sending Ethan after them. Dad's knee shouldn't be stressed, and why hadn't someone thought to stop him before they left? As if anyone but Mom, or perhaps Brian, could ever stop Dad.

A half hour later, Ethan called out from the patio that they were on their way back. Ethan could see them, and in the unusual excitement caused by Mom's concern, Ryan and the twins, along with Daniel, went out to watch them cross the home finish line.

Of course, Dad's limp was worse, but he was grinning and even Matt seemed amused to see all the fuss over their return. They came into the living room like conquering heros, though one conqueror had a red face from the strain he had put on his weakened leg.

"What am I going to do with you?" Mom sighed, but hugged Dad, anyway. "Sit on that couch and don't get up until I say so."

"Now that you mention it," Dad said, planting himself on the cushions as though the idea had been his all along, "I could rest my eyes for awhile. Nothing works up a good Sunday nap like a long walk."

"Oh, listen to him talk. Anyone would think he wasn't in pain." Mom arranged a throw pillow behind Dad's neck, swatted his pant-leg when he tried to grab her by the skirt. "Such nonsense. If you even think of leaving that couch, I'll drive back to Phoenix without you."

"Now look who's talking nonsense." Dad grinned. "The woman can't live without me, and she knows it." He caught Mom's hand, brought it to his lips and gave her fingers a loud smacking kiss. "Who's the love of your life, Shannon? Come on now, tell us who."

The gesture calmed Mom, though she looked far from appeased. "You know very well who. I wish you'd take better care of yourself. You're not as young as you used to be, as twisting your knee on that ladder recently proved."

"I'm never going to live that down, am I? I would've been just fine, if the fuselage trusses had been properly secured. It was my fault, certainly, but age had nothing to do with it."

"Your knee, Aiden."

"All right, all right." Dad let Mom's hand go, but not before giving it an affectionate pat. "I'll be more careful, but only until I'm back in fighting condition. I hate all this rest and recuperation. It makes me feel useless."

"Then read a book." Mom spoke without the least bit of sympathy. "I mean it, Aiden. If you don't take care of that knee, you're going to find yourself in a wheelchair so you'll be forced to stay off your feet. I'll get Brian to find a nice big one, with large rubber wheels and a padded seat."

Dad frowned. "The woman's mercenary."

"I'm practical," Mom said with a final nod. "If you get bored, watch television."

With a hint of a smile, Daniel picked up the TV remote and placed it beside Dad. Dad stared at Daniel, and Daniel chuckled.

"If I were you, Dad, I'd try to make the best of it. I don't think Mom's going to back down."

With a mumbling groan that sounded something like a concession, Dad rubbed his knee, and watched as Daniel went to keep his promise to come to little Sarah's pretend tea party at the dining table.

In her usual way of finding something to keep the small ones busy, Grandma had given Sarah a handful of butter cookies, an old teapot, two mugs, and a plastic vase with a yellow rose for a bright centerpiece. Seeing father and daughter have their tea on the end of the elegant table, reminded Beth of a similar time when her own daddy had folded his long legs around a short play table to have pretend tea and make-believe cake with his little girl.

The tender memory made Beth smile. It was good to have such memories to help over the times when her relationship with her father became rocky.

While David and Ryan played on the floor with coloring books, Ethan parked on the second couch with a worn copy of A Tale of Two Cities tucked under his nose. After a few pages, his leg slung over the armrest in a relaxed teenager slump. At least Ethan was making himself at home.

Feigning nonchalance but looking very determined, Matt strode to Beth's side. He smiled, cast a longing look at the master bedroom, then at her.

When Beth shook her head, "no," he caught her by the hand and gave it a small tug.

Light conversation came from the kitchen as Cassie helped Mom start the roast chicken dinner planned for that evening. Dad dozed off on the couch, oblivious to the tiny tug of war happening right behind his back.

Matt pulled Beth's hand, and she resisted.

"Why not?" his lips silently mouthed the words. When she didn't respond, he leaned forward, whispered into her ear. "Your parents won't notice if we go missing for a little while."

He pulled her to the master bedroom, and she tugged him toward the nursery. His muscles won out, and he managed to wrestle her into the master bedroom before she could get past him. He locked the door, came to her in a burst of passionate kisses.

"Matt-- I can't-- please don't--" Even in her unease, she returned his passion, and he pushed her onto the bed. "Please, Matt--" she was silenced when he claimed her mouth, then felt his hand beneath her head.

"Beth, oh, Beth." He started to take off his shirt, then froze without warning. The grin faded, and his eyes locked with something on the nightstand.

She twisted about to see what he was looking at, and almost laughed at the thought of him seeing her ridiculous stack of to-be-read books, her own Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Then she remembered, even before her eyes landed on the photo frame. It had been taken on their fifth anniversary, the last one before the accident. His eyes had been so warm, so inviting, so devastatingly handsome, Beth's heart still ached whenever she looked at the picture.

"Man." Easing back, Matt locked eyes with Luke. Matt looked so young, so very young compared to Luke, it amazed Beth to see them side by side. When Matt turned away, she saw the soft bruised expression on his ruggedly youthful face.

"Matt, maybe we should go to the nursery."

"Yeah, okay." Matt climbed off the bed, buttoned his long sleeved shirt, dragged a hand though his loose brown hair. "Maybe we could take a rain check on that. After walking with your Dad, I'm more tired than I thought."

The ache in Beth's heart deepened, like a sharp edged knife pushing into tender flesh. She forced herself not to cry. "Do you want to take a nap before dinner?"

"I guess." Matt left the bedroom without looking back. He stopped just outside the door, his head bowed.

"Do you want some company to go along with your nap?"

"No thanks." He turned, went into Caleb's old room and shut the door.

One of the four-year-olds bartered with another for the brown crayon, Daniel accepted another cookie with his tea, and Dad snored on the couch with all the exhaustion of a man who had done too much.

Grief pulsed through Beth. She knew Matt was hurting, and didn't want him to be alone. Pushing into the nursery, she locked the door, then went to Matt's bed where he had flopped down on the mattress with an arm shielding his eyes.

When he heard someone come inside, he lifted the arm, then dropped it back. "Please, let me take my nap."

"I intend to, but not without me." Beth climbed onto the narrow sliver of bed beside him, and when he didn't move to give her room, she managed to snuggle half on, half off him. She turned her head to peer under the arm.

"I wish you'd go away, Beth."

The smile in his voice gave him away, and she leaned her face against his chest.

"I dare you to say that again, and mean it."

"Give me a moment."

Sensing her momentum, she pushed away the arm and found Matt fighting back a smile. She dropped a kiss onto his mouth. When she pulled away, he breathed in a deep, satisfied sigh.

"Okay, I'll give you more room." He scooted over and she moved into a more comfortable position. They lay there in silence, until Matt blew out a quick sigh and rolled her onto her back. "Who am I trying to kid? You came in here to chase me, the door's locked, and for the first time all day, we're alone. I'm not wasting this opportunity on a nap."

She smiled, let her finger trace across his lips. "Matt, are you still my sweet darling?"

A surge of emotion reached his eyes. "Always," he breathed.

The full force of that one word stunned Beth. Matt softly lowered his mouth to hers, and his intense gentleness was overwhelming. He clung to her, shared his bed with her, and she understood this bed was his-- his ground, his territory, his wife.

Even though he had backed away from the line drawn in her heart, Beth secretly feared one day, she would be forced to choose. Luke, or Matt? Since her love had been forever sworn to Luke, she feared to her very core it would leave no room for Matt. The thought terrified her to the point of panic.

This intensely serious friendship was getting out of control, and she wildly fought to keep her balance. Falling in love with Matt was not an option, a heart-wrenchingly tender choice she could never make.

End of story, period.

And yet...

When gravity pulls, and that direction is the same as the one you're currently traveling, it's difficult not to admit you're falling.

The loud splat at the end is a dead giveaway.

"Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned."
~ Song of Solomon 8:6, 7 ~

end of chapter
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