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Chapter Twenty-four
Making It Count

"And ye shall seek Me, and find Me, when ye shall search for Me with all your heart."
~ Jeremiah 29:13 ~

If Aiden minded their absence late Sunday afternoon, he didn't let it show at the dinner table. He ate and talked without once giving Matt the hard steeled gaze that commanded "hands off my daughter." Interesting, Matt decided, and tried not to act as though he noticed. Aiden had earlier called him a good man, even compared him to Luke, and it appeared Aiden had yet to take it back. Though Matt felt Aiden's assessment came from the relief of Matt's promise not to mistreat Beth if she could never return Matt's love, Matt didn't take Aiden's compliment lightly. Matt knew enough of Aiden's veracity to believe Aiden had given his actual opinion.

Odd, but Matt felt as though he understood his father-in-law. For all the difference in age and background, they shared a certain degree of sameness that they both recognized and respected. Matt didn't feel he deserved that respect, but after the long walk that afternoon, the two men had came to an understanding. They both loved Beth, and the knowledge of it seemed to comfort Aiden.

If only Mrs. Campbell could also understand, without things being painted in bright colors for her to see them. Beth didn't want to move Cassie out of the master bedroom, and Mom just couldn't understand why, until Beth took her outside for a private talk. When they came in, Mom tried to find another arrangement that would work, but Beth stopped her before she finished getting the words out of her mouth. They would be fine the way things were. In a day or two, after Dad drove Daniel and the twins home, she and Matt could take the twins' room. This was said without Daniel in earshot, and though Mom wanted to "make it work," Mom finally backed off and let Beth handle the situation the way she wanted.

Even though the thought crossed Matt's mind to toss a mattress on the floor of the hobby room, he held himself back and kept quiet.

He was getting good at keeping quiet.

His past still held a doozy of a secret, and oh, by the way, he had fallen in love with Beth. It seemed no matter which way he turned, he had to bottle in what he felt. And it wasn't getting any easier.

That night, same as the night before, Beth squeezed in beside Matt, and they shared the nursery with the boys. It pained Matt not to have privacy, but he strangled himself with patience. Spooned behind Beth, he clutched her hard until she whimpered and her hand moved to his arm. He nuzzled into that wild mass of curls, pressed his lips behind her ear. Those soft fingers caressed him, until the hand fell away and he heard her sleep.

He wanted to shake her gently until she looked into his soul and understood he loved her. They had made love that afternoon, and not once had the word "love" passed between them. Did she understand? Did she realize those long caresses, those gentle kisses came from deep inside him? He felt as though she were digging herself into him, wrapping her slender fingers around his naked heart, and squeezing him within an inch of his life. Love was a desperate, terrible thing, that needed to be acknowledged.

That afternoon, he had tried to woo her-- to not take, but give. He had been so gentle it nearly killed him, but she had to know. He needed her to know. She was different. All that wanting, all that needing, hadn't come from simply lust. It had come from love, and to Matt, that made all the difference in the world.

Did she understand?

His secret love burned him, scalded him from the inside out. She had to know. He already knew it would give her pain, and that reason alone kept him from hauling her into the bathroom, waking her up and spilling out his heart at her feet.

Despite the pain, something had to change.

He couldn't live this way, with love wrenching him one way, and her, the other. How many times during those soft kisses, had she tried to soothe him with passion instead of love? He had wooed her with gentleness, and she had answered with something very close to lust. He wanted to grab Dylan, return to the bathroom and get her to hum that lullaby so they could sway and reclaim that tender moment. Had he been dreaming? Was he so delirious, had he felt something that wasn't really there? Matt couldn't be sure, but sometime after she had asked him if he was still her sweet darling, and he had said "yes," he had felt an undercurrent of resistance to his gentleness. As much as he thanked God for that afternoon, it had been a bittersweet experience.

There was no way around it. He had to tell her. She wouldn't like it, but they had to find a way to live with it. She would want to keep Dylan, Ryan, Cassie, and even Ethan. She didn't want to be alone so she would tolerate unwanted love. She would tolerate Matt's love.

Wouldn't she?

Uncertainty made him clutch her harder, until once again, her hand raised to touch his arm. She patted him, then went back to sleep.

Okay, tomorrow. He'd tell her in the morning and get it over with.

Until then... he rolled her onto her back and kissed those sleeping lips until they responded to his touch. He hugged her, buried his kisses against her skin and prayed for courage.

It seemed to Beth that Matt was intent on keeping her awake the entire night. Just when she fell asleep, his lips would stir her awake and she would find herself kissing him. He held her until she slept, then kissed her awake with such gentleness, it nearly brought tears to her eyes. He hunted her incessantly, gave her no mercy when she needed to sleep, and yet held her with such exquisite tenderness she wanted to shake him and tell him to cut it out.

The boys were asleep in the nearby bed, and the knowledge of it held them back from anything more demonstrative. But still, she felt as though he were trying to tell her something through his actions, instead of nestling his mouth against her ear and whispering what he wanted.

Whatever it was, Beth was certain he wanted something. What that something was, she refused to recognize, but it was there, lying between them, getting in the way even though she struggled to ignore its presence.

When morning came, she ran.

Matt jolted awake. He reached to Beth's side of the mattress, and grimaced when he found it empty. He fisted his hand, closed his eyes and bit back the curse he felt teetering on the edge of his tongue. She'd escaped while he slept, and now he had to go hunt her down.

He should have told her before morning. Before breakfast.

Rolling out of bed, he grabbed his jeans and noticed Dylan was missing from the crib. She must have him.

Pulling a shirt over his head, Matt strode out of the room and went in search of Beth. Sneaky of her to get up before he did. It almost made him think she knew he wanted to tell her something-- something that she probably didn't want to hear.

Tough. There wasn't a romantic bone in her body that didn't belong to Luke, but she would have to get over it and accept the fact that another man loved her. It would give her pain, but she'd survive.

How he'd survive, was another matter.

"Hey, Dan." Matt nodded to the man folding blankets on the couch. "You seen Beth?"

"I think she's still in the kitchen." Daniel pushed up his glasses, smiled as he piled the thick blanket with the others. "You and Beth missed breakfast, but Mom said she'd fix you scrambled eggs when you got up."

"Thanks." Matt pushed into the kitchen, and found Mom cleaning the stovetop. Beth was nowhere in sight.

"Good morning," Mom smiled, and went to the fridge to get some eggs. "Beth said to let you sleep in since you don't go into the nursery on Mondays. I fixed breakfast for the kids, and made sure they ate before Ethan and Cassie left for school."

"Man, I forgot all about that. It's Monday." Matt fisted his hand, shot Mom a look. "Did Ethan take my truck?"

"Yes, he said he had your permission."

"Yeah, I guess he did. Where's Beth?"

"I believe she left for work a few minutes ago."

"She what?" Matt twisted around to find a clock, any clock that would give him the time.

"If you're looking for Dylan, Dad has him and the little ones in the second master bedroom. I believe they're watching the Sesame Street DVDs Daniel brought from home."

"Great. Just great." Matt slumped against the counter. Beth had escaped twice that morning, and now he had no truck to get into town. He looked up to see Mom still standing at the refrigerator with a carton of eggs.

"Do you want some breakfast?" she asked.

"No thanks." Matt shoved away from the counter. "I must be losing my mind. Your daughter has me one step away from total insanity and I've never been happier in my life. It's driving me nuts."

Smiling, Mom put the eggs back in the fridge. "Dad told me about your talk yesterday. Even though I already suspected it, I'm glad you love Beth."

"Yeah, well tell that to her." Matt rubbed the back of his neck. "No offense, but you and Aiden raised one determined woman. I thought I had her last night, I thought I was close. All I needed was to work her more, wear down her resistance, and this morning she got away. I'm stupid, so stupid-- I should've talked to her before morning." He pounded the air with his fist. "I don't suppose I could bum a ride from you into town?"

"Did you and Beth have a fight?"

"We're working on one." Matt looked about for a clock. "What time is it?"

"I think it's after eight-thirty."

"That late? Then the store's already open."

"Is something wrong between you and Beth?"

"You could say that." He paused, realized he might have been too abrupt and tried to slow down enough to thank her. "I'm grateful you and Dad are looking after the kids. I appreciate your feeding them, and all the babysitting you've been doing. And I really appreciate your help during the move."

Mom nodded. "But you'd like me to please mind my own business."

"I wasn't going to say that."

"Weren't you?" Mom toweled down the island counter. "It's what Beth would say."

"I'm not Beth."

"Then you wouldn't mind a little advice?"

"Sure," he lifted a shoulder, "especially if it'll get me a ride into town."

Mom gave a slight smile, set aside the hand towel and looked him in the eye. "I don't pretend to understand everything that's going on between you and Beth, but I want you to know I appreciate the way you've been treating her. This situation is, I'm sure, not easy for you, but I admire your character for not taking it out on my daughter."

"It might be too soon to thank me," Matt nodded, "but I appreciate the fact you appreciate it. So what's your advice?"

"To continue loving her, if you have the courage." Mom inhaled deeply, looked past the kitchen, through the dining room and out the glass doors. "Patience isn't an easy thing to ask a man, but Beth is still getting over Luke's death." Mom looked back at Matt. "Surely, you already know this."

He nodded. "It's been really tough on her."

"Do you also know she blames herself for his accident?"

The question caught Matt by surprise. "Pardon?"

"Then you don't know." Mom bit her lip, much the same way Beth did when she was thinking. "I'm not sure how much she would want me to tell you. She hardly ever talks about it, even though I'm certain she hasn't forgotten.

"After Luke died, Aiden and I tried to pull her out of all that guilt, all that grief. She buried herself so completely, shut herself off from everyone so entirely, that for a long time she couldn't speak to us without it turning into an argument. She later apologized, but I couldn't help feeling that we'd somehow lost a part of her. When she called to tell us she'd gotten married, I hoped that someone had been able to cut through all that grief and reached her."

"Mom, I--" Matt huffed out a sigh. "I don't think it's a good idea to pin all your hopes on me. I don't know anything about her feeling guilty about Luke's death, but so far, I've basically struck out with her. She's been making love without the love, and it's killing me." Matt shook his head. "I don't know what to tell you. I'm trying."

"Please keep trying."

He reached for something to comfort Beth's mother, but couldn't find the words. Frustration balled his fists, and he cast about for a clock before remembering there wasn't one in the kitchen-- at least, not one he could find.

"Wait here a moment," Mom said, then disappeared into the living room.

Matt had difficulty not jogging out of the house and braving the freeway on foot. Crazy, he knew, but he had to get into Las Cruces.

When Mom came back in, she handed over car keys with some sort of airplane hanging from its keychain. She was letting him take their sedan.

"Thank you." Gripping the keys, Matt forced himself not to run out the door. He wanted to say something nice to Mom, but his thoughts kept racing back to Beth.

Mom touched his arm. "Go to her."

He pushed out of the kitchen with one thing, and one thing only, on his mind. Beth.

Frustration nipped at Beth as she stared at the clock on the desk. Sylvia had come in late as usual, but Amy still hadn't shown up. Served her right for keeping people on the payroll who chronically had trouble getting into work on time. For once, Beth wanted to see them arrive when they were supposed to. She pushed back the stray lock of hair that had pulled from her braid. On days like this, she felt like snipping her hair short and forgetting she owned a brush.

If only Matt had let her sleep, she would have been in a better mood. If he had taken her somewhere private and let off some steam, instead of pushing at her defenses all night, she would have been able to shrug off Amy's tardiness. Instead, Beth was chasing back a headache with two Tylenol, and thinking of ways to punish Sylvia for spilling fish emulsion in aisle three. The stench filled the store, and Beth hoped it wouldn't keep customers from staying long enough to buy something. She needed the business.

She needed employees who showed up on time, and she needed a husband who didn't keep pushing at her at all hours of the night. Oh, but he could kiss. The feel of him tugged her back to last night, and she fought to reclaim her focus.

Little by little, Matt was driving her crazy.

She shoved her hands into the loose pockets of her baggy overalls. The store was empty, save Sylvia sulking by the cash register with a tabloid that proclaimed the breakup of yet another celebrity couple.

Not a good day for relationships, Beth thought darkly. Forgetting to put on her sunhat, she started to go outside when someone came into the store. Since Sylvia was busy, Beth went to go see to the customer.

The man wanted a wheelbarrow, but since his wife did more gardening than he did, would a garden cart be a better choice? Beth led him to the carts, showed him something within his price range. Someone came through the store entrance.

"I don't know," the man hesitated. "It's not very well built."

"I'm afraid if you want something better, it'll cost more." Beth showed him the next step up which had a more solid construction. Her eyes flicked around the store. And skidded to a stop when she saw Matt.

The Stetson was in his hand, and he was headed in her direction. The grim determination on his face had her heart skittering for some place to hide.

She moved to the other side of the man, showed him another garden cart.

"This one's too heavy," the man said, going back to the second model. "Does it come with a warranty?"

"Uh..." Beth snapped her eyes back to the cart, struggled for composure. "I'm sorry, what was the question?"

"Beth," Matt beelined down the aisle, "we need to talk."

"Does this one have a warranty?" The man pulled on the handle, turned it over to inspect the bottom.

"Yes, I think--"


"Not now, Matt. Yes, I believe there's a twelve month warranty on this model."

Matt huffed out a sigh, shifted his weight from one booted foot to the other, then back again. When she dared to meet his gaze, she shuddered inwardly at the intensity she saw flashing from those dark eyes.

"Does it come in any other colors?"

"Excuse me?"

"The garden cart. Any other colors than black?"

"No, I'm sorry. Black is all there is." Beth refused to look at Matt. It simply wasn't safe.

"I guess this one will do." The man sighed, nodded, then hoisted the cart upright. "Do you have any shovels?"

"Yes, follow me--"

"Beth." Matt pressed closer, and the man backed off with his garden cart, obviously having gotten the message, and ducked down the next aisle.

She placed her hands on her hips, shot a look at Matt. "That wasn't necessary."

"It was," Matt insisted. "He was in the way."

"He's a customer. He's supposed to be in the way."

"I have to talk to you."

"Talk to me later. I'm busy."

He surged forward, kissed her until her back knocked against the display rack. She pushed him away, heard him struggle to catch his breath as they stared at each other.

"Matt, go home."

"I need to talk to you, Beth. Please."

The struggling desperation in Matt's voice made her knees weak. Morning stubble darkened his jaw, gave him a rugged look that only added to the danger straining between them like binding wire about to snap.

"I have to tell you something." He took a step forward, stopped when she tried to move away. "You aren't going to like this."

"Then don't say it." Beth turned to see the man in the next aisle watching them. He resumed his shopping, and Beth could hear the squeak of the garden cart as it was pushed to the checkout.

"Beth, could we go into your office?"

"I don't think so." Beth shoved the lock of hair from her eyes, swore she'd hack it off the first chance she got. "If you have something you want to say, then please get it over with. I have work to do."

A sigh erupted from Matt. "Do you have to be so stubborn?"

"I am not stubborn. I'm dedicated."

"You're dedicated, all right. To a cold grave, and a man gone for four years."

"Don't say that. You've got no right."

Hurt shot into his eyes. His jaw clenched, and she began to regret her words.

He looked away, then turned back to her with a strong undercurrent of force in his gaze. "The office. Please."

"Okay, fine." She led the way past the checkout where Sylvia and the customer had been watching, then went back to switch on the speakers. Background music floated from different parts of the store where speakers were hidden behind planters. Beth took one look at Matt, punched the volume higher, then stalked into the office. If she and Matt were going to fight, at least Sylvia and the customer wouldn't hear them.

Without a word, Matt closed the window office blinds, shut the door for privacy. Beth wished he hadn't.

"I'm not going to make love in here."

He shook his head. "I didn't come for that."

"Then why did you come?"

He backed away from her, as though he didn't quite trust himself. "You aren't making this easy, Beth."

She shoved her hands onto her hips, waited for him to speak. And desperately prayed he'd change his mind and go home.

"I went by my place before I came here." He fumbled the hat in his hand. Strong fingers, firm hands. Beth closed her eyes to push away the intimate feel of Matt's presence.

"Beth, just hear me out a moment. I have to get this out. I have to, or I'll go insane. I can't hold it in anymore."

"Hold what in?" She opened her eyes, and dared him to say it to her face.

"Wow, you're good at that." He sat on the desk, hiked a boot on the mini fridge. "You should get that patented-- the Beth Carter cold shoulder. You could put it on the shelf next to the pesticides. Put a sign over it-- 'How to get rid of unwanted pests.'"

"Matt, you're putting words in my mouth that weren't there."

"Maybe." He looked down at the floor and sighed. "It's funny, but working around all those plants out there, I couldn't tell you the proper name for any one of them."


He shook his head. "People come up to me and ask questions, and I have no idea what they're talking about. Those fancy, scientific names you rattle off to customers are really something. I can't do that."

"I don't expect you to."

"Yeah, I'm only the hired help."


"It's okay, Beth. The truth sometimes hurts, but it doesn't stop it from being true."

The hard line Matt was taking had Beth wishing he'd left the office door open, if only to keep herself from melting into his arms. Five feet away, and she could still feel him.

"I don't know how to break this to you"-- Matt placed his hat on the desk, brim side down-- "I know how much you don't want crazy love."

"Matt, please don't."

"I have to. It's killing me not to tell you."

Hot seared her eyes. She blinked, willing back the tears that wanted to escape.

"I love you, Beth. God help me, but somewhere along the way, I fell in love. I can't tell you when it happened, only that it did and that I'm not sorry I fell. I know it'll hurt you, but when we got married it backed us into a corner that forced us to look at each other. I've been looking, Beth, and I like what I see. I like you a lot, and that liking has turned into love."

Beth covered her trembling lips.

"I'm crazy about you, and I've tried to show you that. You may want sensible love, or no love at all, but I'm afraid I'm way past that point. I've fallen hard."

Those tender words, framed in that steadfast tone, had such impact she couldn't move.

"I know I'm not much. You called me trailer trash once, and you're not that far off." He reached under the Stetson, pulled out a small bundle of weeds bound with a garbage bag twister. "Like I said, I went by my house before I came here to give myself time to think. While I was parked on the street, I saw these dandelions in the front yard." He looked over the yellow desert flowers with their fine-toothed leaves and narrow stalks. "I've always thought of you as a rose, something cultivated and looked after, probably labeled with a fancy scientific name that meant you're out of my reach. But me, I'm nothing but ordinary dandelions."

Her breath caught as he offered her the sunny blooms. "I'm not asking you to return my love, Beth. I'm only asking you to accept it."

She reached for his hand, felt his rough fingers, caressed them tenderly. And took the dandelions.

He stepped away from the desk, and she felt him watch as she hugged his gift to her heart.

"It's not fair to you, Matt."

"Let me be the one to worry about that." He moved close. She sensed he was testing the waters by touching her cheek, then he reached his arms around her like a drowning man reaching for a life jacket. She felt his desperation, alive and vivid with love.

"Matt, I shouldn't accept these dandelions."

"Too late now," he said, swallowing her in a huge embrace.

"Matt, I can't--"

"Hush, please hush. Don't say it. Once was enough, and I don't think I could live through hearing it a second time. You don't have to say it. I know." His lips touched the tip of her nose. "I love you, Beth. I'll love you till the day I die. Say you'll let me love you."

"It wouldn't be kind." She tried to reason with him, but he wouldn't hear it. His lips eagerly sought hers, and once again she was crushed by exquisitely tender love. She gripped the dandelions, and lost herself in that engulfing kiss. "I'm sorry, Matt."

He said nothing, but hugged her so tight she had to gasp for breath.

"Oh, you smell of jasmine. If you wanted me to stay away, Beth, you shouldn't have put that on. I love you and I love that jasmine." He sought her mouth, kissed her while she blindly reached for the lock on the door handle. They needed the privacy.

Love hugged her, smothered her with kisses, then sucked the air from her lungs until she gave up trying to categorize her feelings with careful labels. Just like she organized plants in the nursery, or product in a display. Matt blew her away with his love. He offered it without hesitation, needed her to accept it so desperately, she felt helpless to do anything but comply.

When they were both thinking more calmly, she tugged a cold water bottle from the mini fridge while Matt pulled on his shirt. She unscrewed the cap, took a long bracing drink, then handed the bottle to Matt so she could finish fastening her overalls.

It still didn't seem fair to accept those wonderful dandelions, those sweet homegrown dandelions with the upturned faces filled with bright sunshine. They came with such love, it left her speechless, grasping for something suitable to say, something to say thank you. Something besides what they'd just done.

He set the water on the desk, came to her and hugged her tight.

"I love you."

"You keep saying that."

"That's because it's true, and I like hearing the sound of it. I love you. I love you, Beth."

"Each time you say it, I feel guilty I can't say it back." She pulled away, picked up her dandelions and admired their beauty. After today, she'd never again look at these weeds in the same way. Suddenly they were precious gifts, each one holding a promise that someone loved her.

"Don't feel guilty, please don't." Matt slid an arm around her, pulled her back against him in a warm cuddle. "I don't need to hear it to be happy. I swear I don't." His lips curved upward, and she was caught in his boyish smile. "Those green eyes," he mused softly. "Deep green with flecks of gold, and they're flashing at me like emeralds. I'm a rich man, I'm blessed." He kissed her, and she melted into him like butter on a fresh biscuit right out of the oven. Melted into every nook and cranny of his love, held on as he enjoyed the feel of her in his arms.

She felt swallowed alive by Matt, overwhelmed to the point of tears. She hadn't basked in so much love since Luke had held her. She could almost close her eyes and pretend it was Luke, but no, that urgency again, that exquisite gentleness that was all Matt's. Against such absolute gentleness, she had no defense. None whatsoever. Before she could stop them, hot tears spilled down her cheeks.

"Don't cry, Beth. Please don't cry." He kissed her, and she gulped in his love like a fish returning to the sea. His hand smoothed her hair, pulled her closer. He kissed her wet cheeks, trembling lips, even her chin, then held her until the tears stopped from the sheer joy of his love.

By the time she opened the office door, she felt weak but outrageously happy. Happier than she felt she deserved. Matt had asked for so little, there was no room to question his feelings for her. It left her wide open, somehow changed even though she'd never said anything about what she felt for Matt.

He had pulled her out of something deep and dark, and the light on her shoulders felt foreign and yet strangely familiar. She had walked this way with Luke, had seen the scenery before, and yet... this was different in a way she couldn't understand. The ground beneath her feet felt like granite, the full weight of the earth warning her that if she fell, there would be no soft place to land. One wrong step, and down she'd go, filled with guilt for the man who couldn't be there to defend himself against Matt's love.

Beth remembered her mom saying that all things happen for a reason, that God doesn't do anything without one.

As Beth watched Matt leave the store, on his way home, she tried to find God's reason for the turn of events in her life. From one perspective, things seemed to be working out cruelly against Luke, and yet from another, it seemed as though Matt's love had been planned by God since the beginning of time. It didn't make any sense.

Love didn't make any sense.

Ignoring Sylvia's curious stare as Beth pushed past the register to work out back, Beth sent up a silent prayer to Heaven. She couldn't live this way, couldn't go on taking Matt's love without giving something in return. Her parents hadn't raised her to be so unfair, and she knew something would have to change. Matt had fallen in love. Poor man, he fell in love with his wife, and now it was all on her. She had to be the one to change.

Fear tightened her stomach as she rounded the building.

She was being forced to choose.

Reaching out, she braced herself against the potting table and commanded herself to breathe. She would not faint. She would not pass out. She would pray and plead for mercy.

When the blood had drained back to her head, Beth pulled the cell phone from her pocket. And called her mother.

The air still held a thrill of wonder in it as Matt headed for home. The sedan clipped past buildings, then the open spaces of farm that signaled he was nearing Beth's house. His pulse raced, but he could see straight and he was breathing. He was alive. He'd told Beth how much he loved her-- or at least had tried to-- and he was still alive.

That was good. Wasn't it?

He turned the sedan off the highway, followed the dirt road that led to the house. Beth had turned him inside out then back again with that dazed look of overwhelmed emotion on her face. But she had accepted his love. She hadn't necessarily tried to talk him out of it. She'd come close, saying it wasn't fair to him, but that was okay. He could handle himself just fine without her worrying about his feelings.

The car rolled to a stop. He shut off the engine, sat with the keys in his hand while the strong breeze carried tufts of white dandelion seed over the hood of the car. He turned, noticed the expanse of green, yellow and white spilling from beneath the protection of the tall tree that stood to the left of the house.

So there were dandelions here, as well. No huge surprise. Those things could grow anywhere, and did.

Matt swung open the car door, stepped out and tried not to acknowledge the ache in his heart. He was alive all right, but sadness dogged every step he took. He couldn't breathe without it clogging up his heart.

The memory of her reaching out and locking the office door, teased a smile from the sadness. Oh, yeah. He was in love. No doubt about it.

Tossing the keys into the air, Matt caught them, grinned, and went inside.

Mom's voice came from the kitchen, the kind of voice that sounded as though she were on the phone. Matt skirted the kitchen, rounded into the living room where Aiden sat watching television. Or rather, sat with the mute button on.

"What are you watching?" Matt asked, feeling confident enough to sit beside his father-in-law and toss the keys back to him. "Thanks for the wheels."

Silent, Aiden nodded, crammed the keys into his slacks pocket. He stilled, angled his ear toward the kitchen.

"Who's Mom talking to?" Matt asked.

When Aiden didn't answer, Matt grew uneasy. He got up to check the kitchen, leaned in the doorway, and listened. Mom had her back to him, and was standing beside the fridge, speaking in a low, concerned voice.

"Sweetheart, calm down." Mom sighed, shook her head with the receiver pressed to her ear. "You're hyperventilating. No, calm down before you pass out. Now take a deep breath, and start again from the beginning."

Okay, Matt thought, that had to be Fiona, because the Beth he knew would never hyperventilate. Beth was too steadfast to be such a thin flower that it couldn't find its breath. He thought of the red rose with its thick-stemmed backbone to bear a heavy bloom. Matt admired the rose for its strength, its ability to defend itself with thorns against predators-- men in love and over-sentimental women. Beth would never hyperventilate. She was too sensible for that. It had to be Fiona.

"I don't understand, Sweetheart. He said he loved you. Isn't that what you wanted?"

Wait just a moment, Matt thought, and froze in his mental tracks. Mom could be talking to Fiona, though chances were high it was the other daughter. The one who'd just been kissed.

"Calm down-- you're speaking too fast. Why would Luke mind? Sweetie, he loved you. He'd want you to be happy again."

Okay, no question about it now. It was definitely Beth.

"No, I don't remember you ever mentioning anyone named Skip. You were dating him? Oh, Beth, not a married man."

Now Aiden moved into the doorway beside Matt, his face stone serious.

"You broke it off-- that's good to hear. Beth, wait... Beth, I'm trying to understand. I really am. Let me see if I can get this straight: Skip was never a serious threat, because he didn't love you. You were safe from falling in love, even though that's what you wanted, just not with Skip because you could never love him and he didn't love you. I'm not sure that makes any sense, but keep going."

Aiden elbowed Matt. "Who's Skip?"

"Some guy Beth knew," Matt said, trying not to lose his place in the one-sided conversation.

Mom leaned against the center island, her back still to the men. "Okay. You wanted Matt to love you--"

Matt turned hopeful.

"And that's not good, because he really does love you?"

The hope turned into numb heartache.

"Beth, do you want Matt's love, or don't you? Stop dragging Luke into this. It wasn't your fault, you don't owe him that. He wouldn't expect it of you, Sweetie."

Frowning, Aiden shouldered past Matt, went around the center island to put his ear closer to the receiver. Matt wished he could do the same.

"Beth, no, no. Take a deep breath, you need to stay calm--" Mom stared at the phone, then at Aiden. "I think she just fainted."

His heart in his throat, Matt tore out of the kitchen, only dimly aware of Aiden's presence behind him. He fumbled for keys in his pants pocket, then realized he'd given them back to Aiden.

Matt was in the lead, but by the time they reached the front door, both men tried to go out at the same time. Shoulder to shoulder, they couldn't make it, until Aiden finally stepped back and let Matt push through first. Mom followed on Aiden's heels.

"I told Dan to look after the kids," Mom said, as she hurried around to the passenger side.

The rear doors were locked, and Matt waited a frantic moment for someone-- anyone-- to unlock the door so he could go with them. Aiden switched up the lock, and Matt climbed in.

"You just came back from the nursery, didn't you?" Aiden shot Matt a look by way of the rearview mirror. "What did you do to her?"

"I didn't do anything." Matt couldn't get his hands to stop shaking long enough to fasten the seat belt and gave up. He pictured Beth unconscious somewhere, and all because of him. She had fainted, actually passed out. Beth was more solid than that, although he had to admit she'd been under a lot of stress, lately. He knew, for after last night, he had been the cause of it.

Mom turned in her seat. "You don't suppose she's pregnant, do you?"

"No, not possible." Matt shook his head. "We've been using protection."

"I don't need to hear this right now," Aiden said as he jerked the car onto the freeway. "She's not pregnant, Shannon. That's not what's going on here, and we both know it."

"She's blaming herself," Mom said with a knowing nod. "I had hoped she was over it, but she's still blaming herself for what happened to Luke."

"What do you mean? What happened to him?" Matt leaned forward in the seat. "I thought Luke died in a plane crash."

"He did, he did." Mom covered her mouth, her thoughts straying even as she spoke. "For once in my life, I wish we carried a cell phone."

At this, Matt remembered his was still in his pocket. He pulled it out, punched Beth's number and waited. "Come on, Beth. Pick up."

It rang, then rang again. On the third ring, Matt heard Beth's voice.

"Matt, is that you?"

"Who else would be using this number? Beth, are you all right? What happened? Mom said you fainted."

"I-- I think I must have. Silly of me, really. I was talking to Mom, and I guess I panicked."

"But are you all right? Are you hurt?"

"No, I'm fine. My pride's a little bruised, but I'm okay."

"What's she saying?" Aiden demanded from up front. "Peanut, we're coming! Hold on!"

"We're on our way to the nursery," Matt told her. "We thought you needed help."

"No, please, no." A loud sigh sounded in his ear. "Okay, I'll meet you guys here. Nothing's broken, and I didn't even hit my head on anything, so please tell them to calm down."

"Give me that phone," Aiden reached over his shoulder, waited for Matt to pass the cell phone up front.

As much as Matt didn't want to, he gritted his teeth and passed it to Aiden.

Aiden put the cell to his ear, said something, then handed it to Mom.

"She hung up." Aiden shot another look at the rearview mirror, and it bounced back hard at Matt.

"I didn't do anything to her." Matt wrestled to stay calm. "I only told her I loved her."

"And that's it? That's all you did this morning?"

"Yes-- no, wait. We made love in her office."

"Figures," Aiden muttered. "You two have been chasing each other hard the past few days. I don't suppose you'd consider giving her a break?"

Matt unclenched his fist. "I would, if I thought she needed one."

"Aiden, please. This isn't helpful." Mom pursed her lips, rubbed her forehead as though fighting back a headache. "They're on their honeymoon, for pity's sake. What do you expect?"

"I was only asking a question," Aiden said, as Mom handed the cell back to Matt. "Why aren't you calling her back?" Aiden asked.

"If she wanted to talk to us," Mom reasoned, "she would have stayed on the phone. She knows we're coming, doesn't she Matt?"

"Yes, she knows." Matt held onto the cell phone. Never in all his life had a woman passed out when he told her he loved her. Of course, Beth was only the second woman he'd ever told that to, so he didn't have a lot of experience to go by. Helen had been his first, but she hadn't passed out at his news.

The cell phone rang, and Matt answered without even checking caller ID.

"Matt?" The emotion in Beth's voice trembled, like someone balancing on the edge of someplace high and trying to find the guts to jump off. It put a lump in his throat the size of a basketball. "You're coming, aren't you, Matt? You're coming with Dad and Mom?"

"Sure I am, but you don't sound so good."

"Matt, I need to tell you something."

"Is that her?" Aiden nearly swerved into the oncoming traffic. "Give me the phone. I want to talk to her."

Matt scowled into the rearview mirror. "She called me."

"Matt, please, I have to tell you something."

"I'm here, Beth. I'm here."

She hesitated. "Do you think someone would hold me to a promise I made when I thought it was the right thing to do? Can I change my mind later?"

"I don't understand. You have to be more specific."

"Do you think," Beth quavered again and Matt braced himself for the kersplat of something hitting the ground, "do you think Luke would hold me to a promise that he might not want me to keep?"

"Beth, just think about that for a moment. If it's not good for you, then of course he wouldn't. If I were him, I sure know I wouldn't. What's this about?"

"I'll tell you when you come."

"You're not going to pass out again, are you?"

"No. Just hurry."

"Your dad's pushing the speed limit as we speak."

"Okay, I'll see you soon."

Before Matt could stop her, Beth hung up. He put away the phone, worried over the odd conversation he'd just had with the woman he loved.

"What did she want?" Aiden asked, a little less demanding this time.

"I don't know." Matt was at a loss to know what to tell him. "She mentioned something about a promise to Luke, then said she'd explain when I got there."

"So," Aiden sighed, that one word hanging in the air for several moments, "this has something to do with Luke, after all. I thought as much."

"Mom," Matt slid forward on the seat, "earlier, you said Beth felt guilty about Luke. What did you mean?"

"After Luke died," Mom's voice sounded wistfully painful, "Beth folded up like a lawn chair and shut down. She barely made it through the funeral, with those two caskets setting side by side-- one big, the other small. So small."

"Don't talk about it, Shannon. It'll only make things worse."

"I want to talk about it. I think we should. For a year after the accident, we couldn't talk to Beth without it turning into an argument, so we got used to holding our peace."

"That's because she wouldn't listen. Just stayed in bed all day, crying. The nursery shut down for a year, and Beth wouldn't let us stay to take care of her. Life just stopped for her." Aiden sighed deeply, and Mom turned in her seat to look at Matt.

"Before the accident, she and Luke had a fight-- a fairly big one, according to her. She said some things she regretted later, some very hurtful things that wounded Luke when he left the house with Caleb. The three of them were supposed to fly down to his parents' house in California to celebrate his mom's birthday. Beth never got on the plane."

"The Carters had no right blaming her for what happened," Aiden said with a huff. "They don't know things would have worked out any differently if the fight had never taken place. Only then, we'd have been burying three caskets instead of two."

"The crash was investigated," Mom said, "and it was concluded that pilot error was to blame. Luke was an excellent pilot, and that hurt his parents to hear. I think shifting blame to our daughter was just a way for them to handle the pain. He was their only son, you know."

Matt didn't know. Most of this was news to him, but then, he and Beth didn't usually talk about their past, especially to each other. He was busy trying to forget his, and she was struggling to live with hers. Both, it seemed, had carried a lot of baggage into this relationship.

The conversation stopped as the sedan pulled into the nursery parking lot. Matt jumped out before Aiden had a chance to pull the keys out of the ignition, sped into the store, took off his hat and scanned the aisles.

"She's in the office," Sylvia said, sitting at a stool beside the register. "She fainted next to the potting table, and I helped her inside. She looks paler than usual, but then, Beth always did look washed out."

Biting back a retort, Matt shoved his way to the back of the store, past garden displays and two surprised customers.

Through the open office door, he saw Beth sitting in her swivel chair, her elbows on her knees, her head in her hands. She looked up when he entered. Sylvia was right, Beth did look pale.

Thankfully, he didn't have to coax Beth into his arms. She came with a grateful cry, and said nothing as he stood there holding her.

The sound of Aiden and Mom didn't distract Matt from looking Beth over. He pulled her around, moved her arms, felt her head for bumps or bruises. Aside from the distress on her face, she looked unharmed.

As Aiden stepped into the office, Beth hid herself against Matt. Matt kept his arms around her, held her even tighter while Aiden stared in relief at his daughter. Mom hurried forward, brushed past Aiden and hugged Beth. Even with Mom hugging Beth from behind, Beth didn't let go of Matt.

"I'm sorry for scaring everyone. I'm all right."

"You fainted, Sweetheart." Mom looked at her daughter squarely. "I've never known you to faint before-- not even when you were pregnant with Caleb."

"I know. Who's watching the children?"

"Dan's taking care of them," Matt said, as a sigh moved through Beth. She closed her eyes, leaned into Matt and he felt her fatigue. Too many emotions rolling through her that morning, too many things she had to think through. Matt could feel her trying to think something through, could almost hear the gears in her head turning, and hugged her all the tighter. He didn't understand what was happening, but whatever her problem, he wouldn't let her go. He'd be there no matter what.

Aiden frowned. "Give her some room to breathe. You're holding her too hard." He limped to the chair, sat down with a groan. In all the hurry, everyone had forgotten his twisted knee.

Mom checked Beth's forehead, though Matt had already done the same and could have told her there wasn't any temperature. Mom caressed Beth's cheek, then stepped back to look at them. Matt could only imagine the picture they must have made. He could feel their eyes on him, and he couldn't help squeezing Beth even harder.

To his amazement, Beth didn't complain.

He looked down at her, nestled and hidden against his shoulder. "What did you want to tell me?" he asked.

Conflicted emotions chased across Beth's face. Her knees buckled, and Matt scooped her into his arms and carried her to the desk. He set her down on the desk, let Mom rub one of Beth's hands while Aiden rubbed the other.

"I'm not going to faint," Beth told them.

"Are you sure you're not pregnant, Sweetie?"

"No, Mom, I'm sure."

Pale, and still trembling like a leaf, Beth pulled her hands from them, then looked at Matt. "Oh, Matt. What have I done?"

"I don't know," he hesitated. "What have you?"

She reached out, touched his cheek with gentle fingers. He melted against her hand.

She opened her mouth, waited a breathless moment as Matt's heart stopped. Then she pushed out the words, "I've fallen in love with you."

The entire world came to a screeching halt. The earth must've stopped spinning on its axis, because to Matt, time stood absolutely still.

"No kidding?" he asked.

She shook her head. "I'm afraid not. When you fell in love, I guess I must have tumbled in after you. Do you mind?"

A breathless laugh caught in his throat. Did he mind? She knew the question was unnecessary. He took her hand, pressed his lips to her palm and stood there, unbelievably light and oh-so happy. Beth, however, looked as though she were five seconds away from toppling off the desk.

Matt started rubbing her hand. "Beth, honey, you need to pull yourself together."

Aiden grabbed her other hand and followed Matt's example, while Mom checked Beth's forehead.

"Mom," Beth said it in so helpless a tone, she could've said Mommy, and it wouldn't have sounded any different, "how could I do this to Luke?"

"Luke is in Heaven, Sweetheart. I'm sure he doesn't mind. In fact, I'm guessing he's weeping tears of joy now that you've started loving again."

"But I promised him, Mom. Before they lowered the casket, I gave my word to never love another man but him. I made a vow to Luke that I didn't keep."

The way she worded it, made Matt feel strangely guilty.

"Seems to me," Aiden said, giving Beth's hand a pat between rubs, "you're being too hard on yourself. You're not having an illicit affair, you got married and fell in love with your husband. Nothing wrong with that."

"But Luke--"

"Is dead. You've got to let him go."

"But Daddy, it isn't fair to Luke. I never had the chance to tell him I was sorry."

"So you're going to spend the rest of your life ignoring what's right in front of you?" Aiden flashed a glance in Matt's direction. "Is it fair to this one? Is it? You didn't marry a pushover, Beth. He's made of stronger stuff than that, but even Matt has his limits. Don't push him away out of loyalty to Luke. Matt and Luke deserve better than that from you. They loved you for a reason, and it's high time--"

"Dear," Mom placed a hand on Aiden's shoulder, "don't say anything you're going to regret. I think Beth has the message."

"Bah. I was just getting to the good part." Aiden flashed a smile at Mom, and continued to rub Beth's hand until she winced and he had to surrender the role to Matt.

Beth's hand tightened around Matt's. "Could I speak to him in private?"

"Who-- Matt or Luke?" Aiden asked.

"Oh, Daddy."

"Okay, okay." Aiden pulled himself out of the swivel chair. "I'm only checking. If you start having long discussions with Luke, I'm going to get Brian to give you something to set your mind right. A sedative, or something. Grief does things to people, you know."

"I'm not that far gone, Daddy."

"Glad to hear it." Aiden hobbled out of the office, and Mom shook her head.

"You have your talk, but then I want you to close up shop and come home. You've been through enough for one day, and I want to see you rested and smiling before you open this store tomorrow. It isn't healthy to work yourself down to the bone."

"Thanks, Mom. I'll close up in a few minutes."

"You could also stand to put on a few more pounds--"

"Thank you, Mom." The gentle but firm tone pulled a smile from the concerned mother.

"Of all my babies, you've always been the most determined. That's a good trait to have, Elizabeth, as long as you maintain your balance and keep moving forward. You've been living in the past long enough. It's time to live your life." Mom hugged her daughter, heard someone clearing their throat, and turned to see Aiden standing just outside the office.

When Dad stepped inside to claim his hug, Beth gave her parents a smile that reminded Matt that even though these people sometimes had their differences, they truly were a family. After she thanked them for coming, the Campbells went into the store to let the newlyweds talk in private.

Letting the door stand open, Matt took a seat on the desk next to Beth. She looked at him, and he grinned. He couldn't help it.

"I'm glad you're happy, Matt. You deserve to be."

"No, I don't." Matt touched her hand. "I haven't seen you this shaken since Bailey died. I'd ask if you're certain you love me, but one look at you, and I know. You don't rattle easily, so you must have jumped."

"Excuse me?"

"Jumped, made the plunge, slipped on a banana peel." Matt dove his hand in a downward motion. "Any way you get there, it all ends up in the same place. You fell in love. I have to admit, when you fall, you really go for it. Nose-dived right into it, clutching me all the way."

The look in her velvet green eyes narrowed, and a smile hinted at her lips. "After this morning, I could say the same about you. I only fell because you took me with you. Even though I admit I've been leaning heavily in your direction for some time, it's still more your fault than mine, that I fell."

Matt grinned, then let the grin slip away as he remembered Beth's vow to Luke.

"He'd want you to be happy, Beth."

"I know. I keep telling myself that."

"Then keep saying it, because it's the truth. Aiden said Luke was a good man."

"He was."

"Then he would want the woman he loves to be happy."

Her eyes registered surprise. "Loves-- that's present tense."

"Well," Matt shrugged, "just because the guy's in Heaven, doesn't mean he stopped loving you. If I were him, I'd feel the same way. Even though I'd wish you were with me in Heaven, I'd know that since God didn't take you, it wasn't your time yet. That would mean you'd have to keep going without me."

She turned her gaze to the office floor. "It takes a lot of courage to do that."

"Sure it does," Matt bumped his shoulder against hers, "but you have that and some to spare."

"I don't deserve so much credit," Beth shook her head as Matt squeezed her hand. "Do you think Luke has forgiven me?"

"He was a good man, wasn't he? There's your answer."

"He was so hurt when he left the house." Beth bit her lip. "I never should have said what I did. I can't remember what started our argument, but I'll never forget the deeply hurt look in his eyes. Maybe I hurt him so badly, it distracted him from what he was doing and that's why the plane crashed."

"Beth, don't do this to yourself."

"I should have been there, Matt. I should have died with my family."

"But you didn't."

"But I should have. I shouldn't be here."

"Are you trying to say God made a mistake when He didn't include you?"


"Then you're supposed to be here. Beth, I've been learning something today, listening to your parents talk about Luke, and watching you grieve for him. We're alive at this moment, for this moment. Make it count. Reach the next moment, and do the same thing until you're all out of moments and God takes you. Do it for God, do it for Caleb. Do it for Luke."

Her slender hand interlocked with Matt's, and she squeezed tightly.

"Would you promise me something?" she asked.

"Name it."

"Never ask me if I love you more than Luke."

"I won't."

She bit her lip again, a cute habit Matt was really beginning to love. "Don't you need time to think it over?" she asked.

"You love me, right?"

She nodded "yes."

"Then I'll never ask which one of us you love more. I may share your heart with Luke, but it's my turn to hold you. Luke didn't make that decision, and neither did you or I. Those kinds of decisions are made by God, and until we see God face to face, we can't ask Him all the specifics of why He made things work out the way He did. He had His reasons. He wasn't sloppy, fell asleep at the wheel, and oops... there goes Luke. Nope. I don't buy it for a moment. God loved Luke and Caleb so much, He wanted them in Heaven because it was their time. God loves you, too, but it's not your time yet." Matt inhaled, gave Beth another shoulder bump. "God doesn't play dice with the universe."

Beth raised her eyebrows.

"What?" Matt asked.

"Albert Einstein said that."

"Did he?" Matt shrugged. "Knew I heard it someplace."

A smile crept to her lips.

"I'm a high school dropout, Beth. I never claimed I was smart."

Smiling, Beth bumped his shoulder. "Don't sell yourself short. You do pretty well."

He brushed the lock of hair that kept falling into her eyes. She touched his hand as it caressed her cheek, leaned forward and kissed his mouth.

"I love you, Matt."

The precious words settled on Matt's heart, sank through the outer husk scarred by the troubles of life, and soaked into the muscles that made it pump, day in and day out. That was something worth getting up every morning to hear, something worth holding onto when life got rough. And it would get rough, for if it didn't, it meant you were in Heaven with Luke, soaring with the angels.

For this earthbound turkey, Matt figured life had its golden moments. He could only trust in God's wisdom, and keep putting one foot in front of the other. He saw the rosy glow of courage flush into Beth's cheeks, and he took heart.

He loved, and was loved.

The truth of that was more than Matt could possibly take in. He thanked God, and helped Beth close the nursery so they could go home.

"Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints [Luke]."
~ Psalm 116:15 ~

"The LORD is my [Luke, Matt, and Beth's] shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake... Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever."
~ Psalm 23:1-3, 6 ~

end of chapter
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