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Chapter Twenty-five
Walking Through Rainbows

"But let the righteous be glad; let them rejoice before God: yea, let them exceedingly rejoice."
~ Psalm 68:3 ~

On the ride home from the nursery, Matt and Beth sat in the backseat and held hands like infatuated teenagers.

It felt wonderful.

If Matt wasn't so afraid of shocking Aiden and Mom, he'd have unbuckled Beth's seatbelt and pulled her onto his lap for some serious necking. He knew that was out of the question, but at least they could kiss.

Matt glanced at the rearview mirror, caught Aiden checking him before his eyes flicked back to the road. Aiden slowed, switched lanes, and Matt could feel those eyes checking once more.

Let him watch, Matt decided, and leaned over and claimed Beth's mouth.

"You really shouldn't be driving," Mom said conversationally from the front seat.

"My knee's doing fine," came the short reply. Matt could feel the stare from the rear mirror, but Beth was cuddling and her hand was caressing his until he had to pull away and catch his breath.

A playful smile parted Beth's lips and Matt knew he wanted more.

"When do you plan on taking Daniel home?"

"Huh?" Aiden sounded distracted, and when Mom repeated the question she looked behind the seat to see what her husband kept checking.

"Are you two comfortable back there?"

Beth smiled. "Yes, Mom."

"Of course they're comfortable." Aiden switched lanes again. "They've been smiling and kissing ever since we left the nursery."

"Oh, hush." Mom looked back at the road but Matt could hear the smile in her voice.

"Matt." Beth whispered, gave a small tug at his arm and Matt had to kiss her.

The car changed lanes again, making Matt wonder if Aiden intended on passing every car from here to Beth's house.

"You shouldn't be driving to Santa Fe."

The talk up front was a vague blur in Matt's mind. He gave up the slender hand, put an arm around its owner and cuddled for everything he was worth.

"My knee's just fine, Shannon. If it wasn't, you'd be the one behind the wheel right now."

Silence. Then, "I think I should drive Daniel into Santa Fe, and not you."

"Bah. I've gotten enough rest to last a lifetime. I'll admit I'm still a bit sore, but I need to stop by the hangar, get some things done on the project before we come back to Las Cruces."

"You and your projects. If it's not one plane, then it's another."

"Those airplanes," Aiden said with a touch of wry humor, "are our bread and butter. That F6F Hellcat won't wait around forever. I had Wendell working on it before we left, and I need to check on his progress. This one's going to be a real eye-popper, Shannon."

"That may be, but Daniel did us a favor by staying behind to help with the move. I know he's eager to get home."

"Then you stay, and I'll drive."

"Aiden, I'm serious. Stop chuckling-- you're never easy to talk to when you're trying to tease me."

"I don't have to try hard," Aiden said with a huge smile in his voice. "Bah. They're at it again."

Swallowing hard, Matt pulled away from Beth and caught the hard edge of steel in the rearview mirror. It was hard to ignore.

"Leave them alone." Mom spoke in a hush loud enough to hear from the backseat. "Daniel and the kids need to go home, and so do we."

"We what?"

"You said it yourself, Aiden."

"What did I say? When?"

"Just now-- you said you needed to get back to your planes. I think we've imposed on Beth and Matt long enough. It's time we went home."

"Now just hold on." Aiden slowed, and the car stayed in the same lane. "We're not done visiting yet."

"I think we are." Mom's voice hushed again, and this time, Matt couldn't overhear.

Whatever shampoo Beth used, it smelled like a fresh breeze from off the desert. He nuzzled against her temple, her cheek, her mouth.


The one word startled Matt from his kiss.

"There's no need," Aiden said finally. "We're not getting in anyone's way if we stay longer." Then a little louder, "Isn't that right, Matt?"

With a low moan, Matt tried to think as Beth's hand caressed his chest.

"Hey, in the backseat."

"Sir?" Matt winced at the squeak in his voice, but Beth was making it impossible to pay attention.

"Never mind." In spite of himself, Aiden gave a resigned chuckle. "Guess I can't really blame you. If my in-laws had been around for my honeymoon, I know I'd be anxious to be rid of them as soon as possible."

"I'm not anxious." Matt cleared his throat, fought the catch in his breath as Beth cozied against him. "I'll admit we'd rather be alone, but that doesn't mean we want to get rid of you... necessarily."

A loud laugh burst from behind the wheel. "An honest man. Very well. We accept your invitation and will stay the month through."

"Daddy, you really shouldn't tease. Matt turned sheet-white."

"He did not." Another flick at the mirror. "Not sheet white, just a little white around the edges."

"Oh, you and your jokes." Shannon looked behind the seat. "Pay no attention to him. Tomorrow morning, we'll head up to Daniel and Fiona's, stay the night, then go back to Phoenix."

"Got it all planned out, have you?" Aiden was still laughing at his own humor. "I still don't know if I'm ready to leave yet." The hint of play in his tone made Matt uneasy. "Tell you what, Matt. I'll make you a deal. Cassie's been telling me what a fine musician you are."

Matt groaned. Not that. Please, God, anything but that.

"You get out that guitar Cassie says you hide from everyone but family, and play us something. Do that, and tomorrow morning, I'll take Mom, Daniel and the twins home. What do you say?"

"You don't have to play." Mom turned to look into the backseat. "We're leaving tomorrow morning, music or not."

"Don't tell him that." Aiden moved into the other lane. "Before we leave, I want to hear the music Cassie keeps telling me about. No one, and I do mean no one, in our family is the least bit musical. I once played the triangle in an elementary school play, but that hardly counts."

"I have to admit, she has told us a lot about your music, Matt." Mom gave him a smile, and to Matt's horror, he saw the same hope mirrored in Beth's face.

How had this happened? He'd been minding his own business, and suddenly everyone was expecting him to play.

"Have you heard him, Beth?"

"No, not yet." Beth batted her eyes. "Please, Matt? For me?"

"I'd rather not."

"You're not being very romantic."

"There's nothing romantic about the way I play, Beth. Without the radio on, it's just me and a secondhand guitar my dad bought when he was sober. It's the only thing he ever gave me that I bothered to keep." Matt heaved a sigh of relief when Beth's home came into view. He could make an excuse to use the bathroom, then not come out till the Campbells left the next day.

If only things were that easy.

He could tell Beth really wanted to hear him, and now that Aiden saw his embarrassment, Aiden suddenly found he truly wanted to hear Matt and his guitar.

Great. The thing probably needed to be tuned. And besides, Matt hadn't given up the possibility of hiding out in the bathroom.

The moment they walked into the house, Beth, of all people-- wasn't a wife supposed to be more loyal?-- told Daniel that Matt was going to perform for them after the older children returned from school.

What? When had that happened? Matt didn't remember saying anything in the car about when this awful event was supposed to take place. If it actually did, which he still wasn't sure it would.

As Daniel lifted a wide-awake Dylan into Matt's arms, Daniel gave a curious grin.

"Cassie said you were pretty good."

"Cassie has a big mouth." Even as he spoke, Matt couldn't help smiling at the infant peering up at him. Those wide dark eyes looked about, rested on Matt, then closed as if content to find he was with his big brother.

Whenever Matt held Dylan, that bond kept getting stronger.

"You know," Dan slid his hands into the pockets of his navy blue slacks, "Cassie said your guitar meant a lot to her when she was little. Her eyes teared up when she told me that, and I couldn't help wishing my siblings thought of me as their hero. I'm close to them, but nothing like what you share with your sister and brothers." Genuine admiration touched Dan's eyes, and Matt felt the lump growing in his throat. "Cassie also said whenever she or the others were sad, you'd sometimes play and everyone would sing."

Beth beamed like a noonday sun. "Isn't he the sweetest thing?"

"Aw, c'mon, Beth. Knock it off."

"Matt, you truly are. I just can't help it."

"Well try. Please." Matt gave her Dylan, pushed off to the nursery to go find the dumb guitar. With any providence, he'd find someone had smashed it during the move or misplaced it or-- oh good. Safe and sound where he'd hidden it behind the bed.

Okay. Matt had to face facts. He'd actually hidden the guitar so no one would think to ask him to play. While it was just him and the others, it was fine, but ever since Beth had entered the picture, his dread of making himself look like a guitar playing idiot had increased tenfold.


He looked to the doorway and saw Beth without the baby.

"Dad asked to hold Dylan. I tried to make lunch, but Mom shooed me out of my kitchen."

Matt grunted, placed the worn instrument back in the case and snapped it shut.

"Did I hurt your feelings, Matt?" She paused a moment, then stepped behind him and wrapped her arms around his chest. Her head leaned against the back of his neck.

"I only did it to keep the others from getting scared."


"I only picked up the guitar because I didn't know what else to do." Matt exhaled, felt her move against him and relished the closeness that meant he was no longer alone. "It was several years ago-- Cass couldn't have been more than five at the time. She'd just been beaten by her dad and I'd thrown him out of the house. Mom was so mad at me, she could've spit nails." Matt exhaled as the memories tore through him like jagged glass. "After the beating, Cass was so scared she wouldn't smile no matter what we did to cheer her up. I didn't know what else to do. I picked up the guitar, turned on the radio and just started playing with whatever came on."

"Mmmm." A soft kiss touched his neck. "I'd say my previous statement was just proven right. You're nothing but a big, sweet, lovable teddybear."

"No, I'm not, Beth."

She said nothing for several long moments. "Okay. I'm beginning to recognize that tone. Your past isn't important. I love the man you are right now, not what you used to be. I don't need to know anything beyond that."

He stood there, silent, with Beth hugging him from behind and the guitar case before him on the bed. She couldn't know how much those words meant to him, and yet she didn't know his ugly secret. Would she still say the same thing if she knew?

The question twisted inside Matt until Beth's hug grew tighter.

"Matt, please don't do this to yourself."

"Do what?"

"You're beating yourself up. I know you are." She rubbed her cheek against his neck and he sighed inwardly. "I know you better than you think, and to prove it, I'm going to ask a question. If you know what's good for you, you'll give me an honest answer."

She gave him a playful squeeze, and despite the dread of waiting for her question, he couldn't help smiling.

"Do you believe I love you, Matt?"


"Is that a 'Yeah, okay, I've got no other choice,' or 'Yes, I believe you honestly love me'?"

When he hesitated the merest fraction of a second, she squeezed him tighter.

"Okay, okay. I believe you honestly love me."

Beth planted another kiss on his neck. "That sounded forced."

"You're the one squeezing me, honey."

She nuzzled. "I'm not squeezing that hard."

Grinning, he pried her arms off, tugged her around so he could see her face.

She was smiling. The mere sight of her jolted fresh wonder into his already dazed senses.

"Wow," he breathed. "You just blow me away. I don't know what to do, Beth. I'm so in love, I'm afraid I'm going to do something stupid to mess it up. It's like being in a dream, a wonderful dream that I never want to wake up from. Do I need to tell you what I used to be? I'm scared if I do, you won't love me anymore, but if I don't, what then?"

"Matt, look at me."

He smiled. "I am."

"Whatever it is, you don't have to tell me. I give you permission to keep this secret. If it's this bad, I don't need to know."

Uncertainly, he eyed her just as she was, with that stray lank of hair falling in her face and that braid swept behind her neck. "You sound scared, Beth."

"I am." She hugged him fiercely. "I don't want to mess this up anymore than you do. Please, Matt, leave it unsaid."

"God, please help me." He traced a thumb over that china doll complexion. "If you didn't love me anymore, I don't know what I'd do."

She kissed the palm of his hand. "Don't talk like that, do you hear me? I love you, and I always will."

"Beth? Matt?" Aiden came to the open door and looked inside. "Lunch is ready. Mom said to come now, while it's still hot."

"We'll be there in a moment, Dad."

Matt couldn't move. He looked into Beth's green eyes and wanted to tell her. At the same time, he was tired and knew if he ever did, it wouldn't be now. It wouldn't be today.

"Okay, Matt?" She looked at him and he nodded. "Then let's go eat."

It wasn't until after he'd eaten Mom's tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, that the subject of music came up again. Aiden had been the one to do it.

"If you want me out of here," Aiden grinned, "then pony up a family performance. I can wait until after the kids are back from school."

Even though Mom insisted that Dad was only joking, Matt didn't feel the humor. As far as he could tell, Aiden was dead serious. Either that, or Aiden had a deadpan delivery when it came to jokes.

Not wanting to be thrown into the deep end of the pool and promptly drown, Matt locked himself in the nursery with the guitar to prepare. He tuned and prayed, and enjoyed Dylan's company in the baby carrier on the bed. He plucked a string, and Dylan's eyes popped wide with wonder. Matt mouthed an O, and Dylan sat mesmerized until his lids drooped and he nodded off. "Rock-A-Bye Baby" coaxed Dylan back to life, but then he drifted off again as if recognizing a lullaby when he heard one.

"Matty?" sounded from outside the nursery door, and Matt got up to let in Ryan. The other baby brother scampered onto the bed to play with Dylan while Matt continued to tune and pluck. There wasn't much to do to get ready, only that Matt felt he needed to.

Another "Matt?" came from the bedroom door, but this time he remained where he was.

"I'm busy, Beth."

"I know, but can't I watch?"

"There's nothing to see."


"Beth, please go back and visit with your parents while they're here. I'll play after dinner, and then you can watch me all you want."


He blew out a patient sigh. "What?"

"I love you."

Shaking his head, he smiled. "I love you, too." The shadow beneath the door moved away, and Matt prayed silently.

God, please don't let me look ridiculous in front of Beth.

When a loud knock sounded at the bedroom door, followed by a "Hey, Matty! Lemme in!" Matt didn't need to ask who it was.

Grinning like he'd just won a million dollars, Ethan dropped his school books on the floor by the toy box, then dropped himself onto the bed he shared with Ryan.

Closing the door, Matt eyed his brother. "How'd you like my truck?"

A grin quirked Ethan's mouth. "You mean my truck, don't you?"

"Hey, bro, until I get another one, that truck is still mine."

"Don't you mean, until Beth gets you another?"

The jab hurt, but Matt refused to show it. The brothers faced each other down before Ethan finally backed off.

"Can I have the truck tomorrow night?"

"Why?" Matt placed the guitar into its beat-up hard case. He looked back at Ethan. "If you want it, I need to know why."

Ethan shrugged. "I might have a date tomorrow. Haven't made up my mind yet."

"Oh, no, you don't-- not on a school night. And since when do I trust you with a set of wheels after dark? No telling what trouble you could get into, especially with a girl in the backseat." Matt gestured to Ethan. "Until tomorrow morning, hand over the keys."

Defiance glinted in Ethan's eyes. "Make me."

"Don't push me, Ethan. I'm still your legal guardian, and if that's not enough, I'm bigger than you. Don't make me prove it. The keys. Now."

Ethan tossed the keys and Matt caught them one-handed.

"Matty, just because you're getting it whenever you want, doesn't give you any right to stop me from getting the same."

Shaking his head, Matt stowed the guitar behind the bed. "Get married, Ethan, and I'll let you have the truck after dark. Until then, stay out of trouble."

"Then do me a favor"-- Ethan's voice sounded with angry frustration-- "make out with Beth somewhere else than the room I have to sleep in. How's a guy supposed to stay out of trouble with you two smooching all night?"

"I didn't think we were making any noise."

"Well, you were." Ethan sat up. "I got feelings too, you know. I'm no virgin, and I know what I'm missing."

For a moment, Matt was thoughtfully silent. He knew Ethan, so this wasn't big news to him. Unlike their past, they were living by the rules Matt had laid down when he took responsibility for the family and became legal guardian to the younger ones. This meant no more running around, no more drugs, no more alcohol. There were times when Ethan had come extremely close to shattering Matt's rules into a thousand tiny pieces, but for the most part, Matt knew his brother was trying. Neither of them wanted to turn into a trash heap like their Dad.

"I didn't realize I was making it hard on you. I'm sorry." Matt sighed deeply. "Beth and I won't sleep in here anymore."

The apology shouldn't have surprised Ethan, but it did. Matt could see the defiance slip from his face.

Disgusted, Ethan swiped at the worn hole in the knee of his jeans. "I guess I shouldn't have made that jab about Beth buying you a truck. I guess that was a low blow."

Now it was Matt's turn to be surprised. Ethan rarely apologized for anything.

Matt pocketed the keys. "I don't know about you, but let's call it even and change the subject."

"Suits me." Ethan flopped onto his back, rubbed his nose like a second grader then propped himself up on an elbow. "Hey, why'd you have the guitar out?"

Not ready to give an answer to that just yet, Matt let the question hang while he lifted out Dylan. Ryan had fallen asleep somewhere along the way, and Matt tucked a light blanket over him before stepping past Ethan's bed with the baby.

"It looks like I'm going to play after dinner," Matt finally said.

"You are, huh? What's the big deal? You look like you're about to face the electric chair, or something."

"I do not."

"Yeah, you do." Grinning like a maniac, Ethan dropped back and stared at the ceiling. "You're a lot shyer than people think, Matty."

Ignoring the comment, Matt pushed out of the room with Dylan, but before he left the nursery, he paused at the door. Like it or not, Ethan was growing up fast and it filled Matt with a strange mix of pride and horror. Pride that Ethan was becoming a man, and horror at what Ethan would do with all that male freedom once he turned eighteen.

After saying a prayer for his brother, Matt left the nursery and promised himself to be more careful with Beth when Ethan was close by. Ethan lived here, too.

Water splashed over the lettuce as Beth washed the produce she needed for the salad. For once, Mom had let her prepare dinner and Beth decided it felt good to be back in her own kitchen again. Since her family was leaving in the morning, Beth wanted to fix them a nice meal. Something to say "thank you." They'd only come because they cared about her, and then they helped with the move. The only thing missing from the last few days, was Brian and his family.

She had yet to hear from her brother, and the longer it took him to call, the more convinced she was that he was truly angry. Her marriage had taken everyone by surprise, but even then, Beth and her only brother were not on the best of speaking terms.

Thinking it over, she dried her hands on the apron and went to the phone by the refrigerator. As she punched in Brian's number, Matt strode into the kitchen with a crying infant. He moved to the fridge, pulled out a baby bottle, then stuck it in the microwave while he rocked Dylan.

"Does he need a change?" she asked.

"No, I think he's just hungry."

When Matt cradled the infant in his strong arms, Beth's heart went pitter-patter. They were so cute together, she wanted to drop everything and go find her camera. Her emotions still hadn't recovered from the morning, from those sweet homegrown dandelions, and the I-love-you's they had exchanged. She had pressed some of those dandelions in wax paper, slipped them between the pages of her Bible to cherish them forever. Just the thought of them made her eyes go misty.

"Hey, are you crying?" Matt looked concerned. "Your mom kept asking if you're pregnant, and I told her why it wasn't possible. Keep that up, and she won't believe me."

"You told my mom?" Beth tamped down her embarrassment. In so many ways, they were on their honeymoon, only with lots of family to watch and get in the way. It sometimes made for awkward moments, though Beth was so very grateful her parents had come when they did.

"Beth, I just had a talk with Ethan--"

"Please hold that thought." Beth held up a hand as a recording sounded in the receiver.

"You have reached the office of Dr. Brian Campbell. To make an appointment, press one now. To talk to a nurse, press two..." The recording went through the options, and Beth wound up pressing one. Another woman answered, and this time, Beth was switched to Brian's actual office. It rang five times before he picked up.

"Dr. Campbell."

"Brian? It's Beth."

For one paralyzing moment, there was stone silence.

"Brian, I want to apologize for not calling you sooner. I should have."

"I'm busy now. Can I call you later?"

"Sure, Brian. I'll let you get back to your work. Please give my best to Cathy and the kids."

"Beth, hold on." A sigh blew past the receiver. "Mom's been after me to call you, and I've been meaning to. I really have. It's just that... I guess I'm still adjusting to your news. Did you really get married?"

Biting her lip, Beth looked over to Matt as he fed Dylan. Matt raised his eyes, and met her gaze in a private exchange of smiles all their own.

"I did. Brian, he's such a sweetheart, I know you'd like him. He's caring, loves his family, loves God, and he's simply wonderful."

In the presence of all her praise, Matt winced.

"You can stop," Brian sighed, "I think I get the idea. Dad said you didn't love this Mr. Wonderful, and that's been bothering me. Does he at least love you?"

"He does. And Brian? I love him. It actually happened. I'm sorry you couldn't have been here the past few days."

Matt mouthed the words, "I'm not," and Beth playfully batted Matt's arm. She knew she was sounding like a teenager, but she couldn't help it. She was in love.

"Please, Brian, I want things to be better between us. I really do."

"Are you sure you're feeling well?" Brian shifted in his office chair, for Beth heard the slight squeak in the background. "Either you really are in love, or you're running a temperature and in the throes of delirium. Or," he added with a conceding laugh, "somebody kidnapped my sister and replaced her with a convincing but altered double."

The laugh was a good sign.

"Maybe sometime, you can come down here with Cathy and the kids and see for yourself. Or we could come up there, only there's a lot of us now and we'd overrun your house."

"A lot of you now," Brian repeated with a faint smile in his voice. "You have a family again. That's good, Beth. I never thought it was very healthy for you to stay in that huge house by yourself. As for coming to visit, despite what Fiona says, just because I have my own private practice, doesn't mean I can take off whenever I want. Someone just came in-- I have to go. We'll talk later, Beth."

"Okay, bye." She heard the phone hang up, and smiled at the hopeful feeling in her heart.

"Beth," Matt leaned against the island counter while Dylan sucked at the bottle, "about Ethan."

"What about him?" Beth returned to her salad, and when Matt remained silent, she looked over her shoulder. "What is it?"

Matt looked pained. "It's about last night-- about anytime we get romantic and don't take into account that there's a teenage boy with raging hormones in the same room."

"Oh." The salad came to a stop. "We only kissed."

"I know, but we need to be more careful in the future. I promised Ethan we wouldn't sleep in the same room as him, anymore. It only seemed fair."

"I understand." Thoughtfully, Beth resumed the salad. Their honeymoon didn't have the best timing in the world, but that didn't mean either one of them had to be sorry it happened. She glanced at Matt, saw the faint upward tilt at the corners of his mouth as he watched her.

Oh, how she loved that man.

"Do your parents really leave tomorrow?"

She nodded. "Provided, of course, you give us a performance after dinner."

Putting down the bottle, Matt moved Dylan to his shoulder. "Please don't talk about it. I get sick just remembering." He slanted her a handsome look. "The thing is, if your parents are leaving with Daniel, we'll be able to move everyone into their rooms and you and I can have all the privacy we want. But that won't be until after tonight."

"Oh, what a sweetie-pie." Mom came into the kitchen and went straight to the cowboy holding the baby. Beth's heart was turning to mush, and tears stung her eyes. She knew all this emotion was because she was in love, but wished her mom was right. She wanted to be pregnant again, and that wouldn't happen until after Matt had a checkup with his doctor.

A loud burp sounded as Dylan got himself comfortable after feeding time. Soon he needed a diaper change, and Mom volunteered to take the "little angel."

The moment Mom left the kitchen to change Dylan, Matt jumped back to their conversation. "I know we only have one more night to get through, but couldn't we sleep in the hobby room?"

Beth nodded. "I suppose it's all right. Have you made an appointment to see a doctor yet?"

"I go in tomorrow." Matt came to the sink and started washing the tomatoes. "I've been praying about Ethan, and was hoping maybe you'd like to do that, too. I mean, now that you're family and all."

"Ethan? Oh-- I'm sorry, I was thinking about something else. Yes, I'll pray for him." She sliced through the carrots, and thought what a blessed person she was to have a husband who did kitchen work without being asked. "Matt, I was thinking. After the doctor's visit..."

"What about it?"

"Have you ever thought about having kids?"

"Not really. I've been too busy changing diapers and raising my brothers and sister to think about it. I admit it's crossed my mind, but not often." He paused, and looked at her. "Why do you ask?"

She couldn't help smiling. "After your doctor's visit, I'd like us to try for a baby."

"You're kidding, right?" He dropped the tomatoes in the sink and stared at her. "Beth, we have kids. Four of them."

"I know, but don't you want a baby?"

"We got one of those, too-- Dylan, remember?"

Skirting around the two people deep in discussion, Daniel made his way to the fridge to pull out a soft drink. He popped it open, took a swig, stood there and listened for ten seconds, then quietly left.

"Matt, I've always wanted a large family. Luke and I planned for one, that's why we have such a large house."

"Great, but I'm not Luke."

"I know you're not."

"Beth, we can't afford another kid."

"Why not? We have money, a stable family, room for another child."

Those dark eyes flashed at her, and she stilled.

"Let me rephrase that, Beth: I can't afford a baby. I barely have a job as it is, I just got married, I'm busy taking care of an infant and you want to get pregnant. Is there anything wrong with this picture?"

She took in the working jaw muscles, the gray T-shirt, worn jeans, the sock-covered feet and couldn't help thinking that this man was hers.

"Beth? Are you okay?"

"Yes, I--" she sighed, tried to ignore her dad's curiosity as he came in to pour a cup of coffee. Dad lingered in the silence, then when it got too much, he went back to the living room. "Matt, I know your job at the nursery was supposed to be seasonal, but a lot has changed since then."

"I see." Matt folded his arms. "Now that I've married the boss, I get a promotion I don't deserve."

"You do deserve it."

"No, I don't. Beth, just stop it, would you? Just calm down a moment. Wow, tell a woman you love her, and she starts planning a family."

"Matt, that isn't very fair."

"Maybe it isn't," he admitted, "but I don't want a promotion just because I'm the boss's husband."

"I really want to have a baby, Matt. I turn thirty in June, and I'm not getting any younger. And besides that, if we don't have a valid reason for continuing to use protection, I believe it's best to let God decide whether or not we get pregnant."

"I have a valid reason." Matt scowled at Sarah as the four-year-old scampered across the floor to get a toy she left by the dishwasher. She beamed at Matt, and his face softened. "Go play with your brother," he told her, and gave her a smile as she obeyed. "Beth, I can't afford anymore kids. I can't afford to be a father right now. You want to have a baby, but that means I'd be responsible as the father. I'm not ready for that."

"Oh, Matt." Beth's heart was full to overflowing, and it was all she could do to not lean forward and give him a great big hug. "You're already a father to those children. They aren't yours, but they look up to you and give you the respect of a father. If that doesn't qualify you to be a daddy, then I don't know what does."

He didn't look convinced. "If you saw some of the matches I've had with Ethan, you wouldn't say that. But your flattering words aside, I don't have the money to pay for a baby."

"But that's what you have me for," she smiled. "I do."

The scowl on his face dampened some of her joy.

"I'm not letting my wife pay for my responsibilities. If you think that, then you've got another thing coming." He shut off the water, which had been running all this time, mopped up the counter, then tossed aside the towel. "I need to get a job-- a full-time job. Until I do, I can't give you what you want. And even then, only God can give us a baby." Matt blew out a monumental sigh. "A baby. Whoa. I never saw this discussion coming."

The few feet that separated them at the counter suddenly felt like several miles. It gave Beth a chill, and she rubbed her arms to get warm.

He saw that, reached out and tugged her to him. She cuddled against his jeans and T-shirt, and those arms protectively wrapped around her.

"Are you cold?" he asked, his voice hushing to a whisper.

"Matt, you know that whatever I have is yours, don't you?" She looked up into that youthfully rugged face and saw the emotion stir in his eyes. "The nursery, the house, the investments-- everything. I don't want any of it without you."

"Investments?" His brow arched in surprise.

"Matt, please don't quit the nursery."

"If you want a baby," he sighed, "I have to do something to contribute to the family finances. You said it yourself when you hired me-- you never took on anyone who didn't have at least some experience with plants. By all rights, I shouldn't be there."

"Well, now you have some experience." She hugged him tightly. "You belong there, and I'm going to do everything in my power to keep you there."

"Beth, I'm still not sure about all this. I should go out and get a real job. And before we start picking out baby names, we need to talk about our future. Man, am I in over my head. Love sure changes a lot, doesn't it?"

"I suppose it does," she kissed his shoulder, "but then, I think we've been sneaking up to this moment for a long time."

He nuzzled her hair. "I hate to break it to you, but we haven't known each other that long."

She smiled. "We're married, have a large ready-made family, a struggling business, and a house that needs repairs before the rainy season starts. The only thing we don't have is a mortgage-- that, and a dog."

"Oh, no." At the mere mention of a word that meant more responsibility and mess, he tensed. "No dogs."

"Please, Matt? I'm ready to adopt another, and Ryan would love it so much."

He groaned. "Babies, dogs, and love. I never knew how much they had to do with one another, until now."

She backed away just a fraction, so she could see his face. "It's best if we work to have agreement, right?"

"If you say so."

"No, Matt, that's not good enough. We're in this together, aren't we?"

"Yeah, I guess. Okay, okay, we're in this together. Stop tickling me." He squirmed away from her, but she followed.

"I know I married an independent cowboy--"

He grinned. "Beth, stop it."

"But you're just going to have to work with me on this. Neither one of us wants to be in this marriage by ourselves."

"Okay, but stop trying to tickle."

She kept advancing. "And if I'm willing to do some changing to make this marriage work, shouldn't you be, too?"

"I suppose, but if you don't cut it out, I'm going to defend myself."

Beth gave a playful shiver. "Now you're scaring me."

The deliberate gleam in his eye had Beth doing just that. Before she could retreat, he pushed her against the counter and claimed her so entirely, she hoped no one walked into the kitchen to see them.

His breath warmed her ear, and she could feel his pulse race with hers. "We haven't settled on anything, Beth. You want agreement, that's fine with me. No dogs, babies, or promotions without it. Fair enough?"

She gulped back a tremoring laugh. "It's fair."

His gaze skimmed over her, so intensely passionate, she almost felt its caress. "Beth, you're wiping through me like a hurricane. Don't run so fast. Give me a chance to catch up, okay?"

"Uh-huh. Okay." She vibrated like a finely tuned instrument when his lips touched hers. He held her, and her entire being overwhelmed to the point of passing out. He must have felt it, for he steadied her before backing off.

"Wow." He let go, moved a few steps back and blew out a breath. "I remember a time when I had to be high to get a buzz like that. Whatever just happened, at least it's legal." He moved to the sink, started the water, picked up the broccoli, and rinsed it under the faucet.

To her quiet joy, his hands trembled.

Dinner ended much too soon for Matt. To his dismay, Cassie was a sweetheart and cleared away the dishes without being asked so they could get straight to the music.

The ponytailed little traitor.

She ran to get Matt's guitar case, hauled it to him with full arms and a sunny smile.

"Play my favorite, Matty. Play 'Juanita.'"

"I want the Donald song!" Ryan jumped about until Matty told him to settle down.

Taking the case, Matt looked to Ethan. "Well? You got any requests?"

Ethan gave a brotherly smirk. "Just don't play off key."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence." Matt rested the guitar on his right leg and checked the tuning. "The thing about this family is-- no one babies you. If you stink, we come right out and say it. Right?"

"Right on bro." Ethan slumped back in the chair.

"Which means," Matt smiled, "even when we do something halfway good, it's impossible to get a big head in this family. Someone will always cut you down to size."

Ethan just grinned.

All smiles, everyone sat around the table, Matt being the only one to scoot his chair back to hold the guitar. Even though they usually had the radio going, Matt decided to just go for it and start playing what he felt at the moment.

The opening riff to "Tears for My Girl" began, the notes slow and wistful at first, the harmony pleading with unspoken words to the girl of his dreams. It hung in the air for a heartbeat, and Matt sucked in a breath. The notes came without thinking, for he knew them by heart and thinking would only get in the way. The first wave came gently then rolled into a quick tempo as his fingers danced across the neck of the guitar.

The notes wept for the girl who didn't love him, each tear playing in rapid succession before falling back into the easy melody that had his foot tapping in time. He ignored the feel of everyone watching, kept the movements smooth and deliberate, then loosened it to make it more fun.

He flicked a glance to Ethan, saw his brother head-bopping to the song. He dropped back to the instrument, eased into the next riff, then sought out Beth from across the table. Her expression stumped him, and he forced away the fear that he was making an idiot of himself.

Please don't laugh, Beth. Please don't.

The anguish of the thought carried him through the next wave, crashed into the next, then rolled back into the toe tapper, hopeful wistfulness that the girl might soon love him. The notes fell into place, the harmony of it tugging at his heart so that he lightened it again, felt for the fun and followed after it until he realized he was grinning.

The easy melody of it had Cassie clapping in time, Ethan slapping the table, and Ryan playing air guitar with wildly sliding riffs. David joined Ryan, then fell into giggles as Matt quickened the beat so they were out of time. Laughing when they gave up, Matt eased back into the rhythm and let it play out to the last measure.

In his rendition, the girl fell in love with him, and Matt decided to end it on that note. Happy and light.

When the last chord died out, Cassie led the applause from the table. Everyone there, from Aiden and Daniel, down to Sarah and David, were clapping. The actuality of it floored Matt. He had been hoping for at least no one to heckle him into stopping, but this was actually positive.

"Cassie wasn't exaggerating," Aiden admitted with a shake of the head. "That was very nicely played."

The compliment slipped past Matt, for he was tracking Beth out of the corner of his eye. She looked pleased, to be sure, but something about her seemed quiet, almost sad. Matt tried to shrug it off. At least she hadn't laughed. He'd taken a risk, opened himself up just a crack, and played from his heart. Thank God, she didn't look ashamed of him.

Even though Matt was braced for some ribbing from his teenage brother, Ethan never delivered. The grin of satisfaction that Aiden had admired Matt for something-- even something as small as playing the guitar-- visibly gratified Ethan. While Ethan could joke around that Matt was only an imitation of a singing cowboy, let someone else say it, and Ethan took offense. That was his brother, and more often than not, they stuck together.

Mom got up from the table, patted Matt's shoulder with a nod of approval, then pulled Ethan away while Ryan clamored for "the Donald song."

Forgetting that he didn't intend to sing, Matt started in on the ridiculously easy, "Old Mac Donald had a Farm." On each refrain, Ryan and the twins made barnyard noises that had them in intervals singing, then falling over themselves with laughter.

Quietly, Cassie stole away and Matt could only think it was to go do her homework. After all, this was a school night, and it was getting late.

A sad smile hinted on her lips, but Beth remained at the table, hands clasped around her mug like she was grasping for comfort.

Matt wished he knew what she was thinking.

By the time old Mac Donald had a pig, cow, duck, three elephants, and a monkey on his farm, Daniel was telling the twins it was time to get ready for bed.

"Getting close to that time, myself," Aiden said with a yawn. He watched as Matt replaced the guitar in the battered old case. "Have you ever thought of trying to do something with your music?"

"Nope." Matt snapped the case closed. "I've seen Dwayne chasing after musical fame, and it's not for me. More often than not, it's all a bunch of shadows and dreams and it takes more time away from family than I'm ready to sacrifice. I've got a brother about to become a man, a sister about to become an adolescent, a baby brother who still has the occasional accident in his pants-- sorry Ryan-- and another who's just started diapers." Matt glanced at Beth. "Not to mention what else might come along the way."

"You know," Aiden scratched his cheek thoughtfully, "I couldn't help overhearing what you and Beth said in the kitchen, today."

"No big surprise there." Matt gave a resigned shrug. He readied himself for the truckload of advice Aiden was about to give.

Shaking his head, Aiden smiled. "You and Beth keep trying to find that agreement. Love each other, keep following after God, and I expect He'll make it all work out in the end."

Matt blinked. That was it?

"When Beth told us about you," Aiden said unapologetically, "I expected something much different than what you turned out to be. Aside from that Skip character, it's nice to know my daughter's judgment in men hasn't completely changed. I like to think I raised my children right, to appreciate a good person when they find one. I think I can safely say, Beth found one in you."

"Aiden, I don't--"

"Before you say you don't deserve the compliment," Aiden finished, "I'll remind you that respect can not be demanded. It must be earned, and you, sir, have earned mine." He extended a hand to Matt.

Matt stared at Aiden, reached out and shook the offered hand.

"Welcome to the family," Aiden said matter-of-factly. He pushed away from the table, picked up his cane and looked about the room. "Where did your mom go? We need to get an early start in the morning..." his voice trailed off when Ethan emerged from the second master bedroom.

"They're almost ready for you guys," Ethan said, nodding back toward the bedroom. "Hey, Ry, come on. Time for bed."

Matt frowned. "What were you doing in Aiden and Mom's room?"

The question sailed over Ethan like an outfielder who'd just missed a fly ball and failed to get an easy out. There was a man on first now.

"Ethan, what were you doing in there?" A line drive to the outfield...

"Grandma wanted my help moving some stuff." And the ball is fumbled.

"Ethan, what stuff?"

"I dunno." Ethan lifted Ryan into his arms. "I guess just clothes and things. Grandma said she wanted everything out of there right now."

Bases loaded, and Matt steps to the plate...

"Is she moving out of the bedroom? Why?"

Carrying a sleepy Ryan, the outfielder started for the nursery. "Grandma said she wanted you and Beth to have their room. Even made me carry their stuff through the patio to the other master bedroom so I wouldn't interrupt your music."

The crack of the bat, and Matt knocks one out of the stadium for an easy grand slam.

A room all to themselves? Tonight?

Matt looked to Beth, and she smiled. "I guess Mom figured out a way to finally make it happen. Though I have a sneaking hunch Ethan wasn't supposed to tell us."

With a heavy sigh, Aiden stared at the two couches in the living room. "I'm all for family togetherness, but if Shannon thinks I'm sleeping on that hard couch, opposite Daniel, she'd better think again. I'd better go find out what's she's up to." He limped to the second master bedroom, leaving Beth and Matt at the table while an unoffended Daniel started to make his bed on the couch.

Thinking over their conversation in the kitchen that afternoon, Matt set the guitar case beside his chair. "How badly does the roof need repairing?"

"Aside from some stains on the ceiling, I don't really know." Beth took a sip from her mug, and frowned. "My tea's cold."

"Cold dish water." Matt shuddered. "Cold or hot, I don't know how you can stand to drink that stuff."

They sat in silence for a very long moment, while everyone around them got ready for bed.

The door to the second master bedroom opened, and Mom came out. Dad limped behind with folded pajamas under one arm.

"Looks like I'm sleeping in the nursery." Aiden looked at the couch where Daniel was making a bed from pillows and blankets. "I suppose anything's better than the couch. Sorry Daniel."

"That's all right," Dan smiled. "My back is in better shape than yours."

At the same time Aiden opened his mouth to probably defend his back, Mom shushed him. "I don't want the newlyweds feeling badly for taking our room. Beth, Matt-- you two get anything you need for the night. Cassie has invited me to share the first master bedroom with her, and Dad is going to take Matt's bed in the nursery." Mom turned, waited for Aiden to agree.

"I'm going, I'm going." Aiden shook his head as he made his way past the table, on his way to the nursery. Before he went inside, he tossed Matt a wink.

Addressing Beth, Mom continued. "I'll make breakfast and see the children off to school before we leave. Ethan helped me move Caleb's bassinet from storage and put it in the room with you and Matt. Since you'll have Dylan, we'll be able to leave in the morning without needing either of you to see us off."

"Mom, it's very sweet of you to do all this, but Matt and I will be there when you leave."

"Nonsense. You're finally getting your honeymoon, and I don't want to see you or Matt come out of that room unless it's to get a bottle for Dylan. If you'll take my advice, you'll keep the nursery closed for the day." Mom came over to Beth and Beth stood to give her a great big hug. "Thank you for calling Brian."

"Thank you for coming, Mom. I love you."

"I love you too, Sweetheart. Matt, take good care of my daughter. Aiden? Come out here and say good-bye to Beth and Matt."

"I thought you wanted me in the nursery," came the stout reply.

Mom sighed as Dad emerged from the nursery in his pajamas.

"Make up your mind, woman. I can't be in two places at once." Despite the retort, Aiden had a smile on his face, albeit a tired one. He gave Beth a hug, then came over to shake Matt's hand for the second time that evening. "Sometime soon, I want you all to come out to Arizona. I'd like to take you up in some vintage aircraft, see a bird's eye view of where we live. I think Ethan would enjoy it."

"Thanks, Aiden. We'll take you up on that."

"Peanut, you take care of this man. And Matt, after you and Beth have worked out the particulars, see to it she gets pregnant. We love grandbabies, don't we, Shannon?"

"That we do. Cassie's in the bedroom, making sure Dylan is tucked into the bassinet. I think she's busy playing mommy." Mom smiled. "She's a sweet girl."

After Mom kissed Aiden good night, she went into the room she would share with Cassie, and Aiden disappeared into the nursery.

Putting down some bedding, Daniel came to shake hands with Matt. "Congratulations. You survived, so now you're family."

"Thanks... I think."

Daniel turned to his sister-in-law. "This family might be slightly dysfunctional, but it's a good one."

Beth gave Daniel a hug, then watched as he went to the twin's room to make sure his kids were ready for bed.

It felt strange, Matt thought, to suddenly be alone with Beth when they'd tried so hard to find every opportunity of being together. Now, it came without even trying. Since Matt slept in his boxers, he didn't need anything from the nursery, and went straight into the second large bedroom reserved for a real honeymoon.

Cassie looked up from the bassinet, her fingers running over the lacy ruffles surrounding the tiny crib. "Isn't it just precious? Do you think after I marry and have a baby, I could use it?"

"Unless Beth tells you different, I don't see why not." Matt set his guitar beside the wide bed. No cramped single mattress here, but a decently sized piece of real estate. A real bed for a real married couple.

"Oh, before I forget"-- Cassie hurried to the nightstand, centered a creamy white taper sitting in a fancy brass candleholder, then pulled a matchbook from the drawer. "Grandma said to light this so it'll be more romantic with the lights out."

"Okay. I guess." Matt watched hesitantly as Cassie lit the wick, then blew out the match. "Drop that spent match into the sink before you leave. If a fire starts in the wastebasket, this place will go up in smoke, leaky roof and all."

Just then, Beth walked into the room carrying a nightgown.

"Thank you for this sweet surprise, Cassie." Beth came to her and gave the girl a hug. "I'll always remember today, and that it ended in such a nice way."

"Do you really like it?" Cassie showed her the candle, the bassinet, then noticed Matt and bowed her head.

"Good night, Matty."

"Thanks, Cass."

Cassie gave them a shy smile. She left, closed the door, then promptly opened it. "Make sure you lock this so Ryan won't come in. 'Night." The door closed, and Matt went to lock it. Just in case.

"Wasn't it sweet of Mom and Cassie?" Beth moved to the bassinet and peered inside. "Oh, just look at this little one. He's fast asleep."

While Beth cooed over the baby, Matt locked the glass double doors that led onto the patio, then made sure the curtains on the doors were truly shut. He pulled off his shirt, his socks, and noticed Beth was watching.

"I'll go use the bathroom and change." She gave a slight, nervous smile, then took her nightgown into the adjoining master bath.

Silly of her to be nervous, Matt thought, but then, he knew how she felt. This wasn't the bed of his truck, or the office at work, or a quiet afternoon in the nursery with the door locked. Honeymoons were supposed to be like this, or something close to it. Even this wasn't exactly routine, for how many had a honeymoon with an infant brother in the room? Matt checked the bassinet, and frowned when he saw Dylan looking like a girl surrounded by all those white ruffles. No wonder Cassie was fussing over him. Women. Just give this guy a few years, and you couldn't pay him to sleep in a bed that looked so... so girly.

Matt turned, noticed the large bed he'd just finished admiring had a ruffly thing at the bottom, and yellow and pink flowers scattered over the covers.

Okay, so he was wrong. But girly or not, he was going to make use of that bed if it was the last thing he did. He dumped his shirt and socks on a fancily upholstered chair in the corner of the room.

To his chagrin, it matched the bed.

Thankfully, there were no large photo frames to sabotage them, no Luke to unexpectedly pop up and say "Hi." Matt grinned, tugged back the blankets on the bed while he heard water running in the bathroom.

"I hope you're not taking a shower in there."

"I'm not."

By the time Beth came out, he was waiting in bed and wondering what was taking her so long.

It was worth the wait. She wore her soft white nightgown, and it gave a hue to her skin that only deepened when he snapped off the lights and the flickering candlelight made her glow like an angel.

He sucked in a deep breath and knew he'd never forget this day for as long as he lived.

Pushing aside his first instinct to grab, he waited for her to settle into bed before sliding an arm around her. He pulled her close, fought it, but couldn't help himself and kissed her soundly. Before he lost the chance to ask, he inched back, tried to get a little room between them so he could think clearly.

"Beth? Please don't-- not yet. I have to know something."

"What?" she asked, cuddling closer again.

Clear thinking was nearly impossible. "When I was playing guitar, I saw the look on your face." He let the words hang there, hoping she'd fill in the gaps he couldn't.

She laid a hand on his chest. "I didn't know you could play like that. It was simply beautiful."

"I wasn't fishing for a compliment, Beth." He hesitated, for there had been more on her face besides admiration, more she felt and had been thinking while his music played. He kept silent, hoping to coax her into speaking her thoughts.

"The song you chose tonight was an old classic from the nineties." Her head tilted up to look at him, and he saw candlelight flicker across her soft white face, those crazy freckles he'd come to thoroughly love. "It was popular when I was a teenager. Did you know that?"

"That was before my time," he smiled, then wriggled when she tried to get revenge by tickling him. "When I was ten years old, (now don't tickle, it's the truth), I kept hearing it on the radio. After some practice, it became mine."

He let that truth settle between them a moment. She was older than him by about five years, but it didn't matter. She couldn't have been more perfect had God asked him to fill out a questionnaire before creating her.

"Why did you choose that song, Matt?"

"If you know the words, then I think you know why."

A sigh moved through Beth. "A woman who can't love the man who's been desperately loving her from afar. After what happened in my office this morning, it made me want to cry. How long have you been in love with me?"

"I don't know." He scratched his chest, and thought it over. "I told you before I couldn't say exactly when, but it's been coming on gradually for a while now."

"But when did it start?"

He moved his hand, rubbed a circle into the small of her back. "I guess it all started when I came in that first day, looking for work."

"That soon?"

"Yeah. Does that surprise you?"

"It does."

He smiled broadly. "It shouldn't. When you give a guy a chance to really get to know you, he's a goner before he knows it, himself. I think I must've stepped off that jagged cliff when I met you, only to realize later on that I had, as those rocks at the bottom came zooming into view."

"What happened when you hit the rocks?" she asked, her fingers lightly teasing the hair on his chest.

"I survived the landing. Then climbed up to do it again."

"Oh, Matt."

He peered down at her and saw that sad look in her eyes. "Beth, don't feel bad it took you longer to fall than it did me. You love me, and that's all the miracle I could've hoped for."

She remained silent a moment. "I feel blessed, Matt, like I'm walking through rainbows, everything soft and unbearably happy. Then I remember that I wasn't the first to say 'I love you,' and plummet like a dead bird at your feet. You wanted to hear that so much in the desert, when we watched the sunset and kissed. Whenever we made love, I had the chance to come to my senses and tell you, but I didn't."

"I don't know about you," Matt smiled, "but whenever I'm with you, my senses are the first thing to drown. Besides, you came around soon enough. I'm not complaining." Love stirred inside him, and he could no longer hold it back and just talk. There were still so many things to discuss-- another baby, his job at the nursery, a dog to replace Bailey, the leaking roof for pity's sake-- and all he wanted to do was hold her.

Everything could come later. Everything else could wait. Right now, all he wanted was Beth.

"Do you love me?" he whispered, and thrilled when she said, "Yes." It seemed too incredible, too dreamlike to be real. And yet here she was, living and verifiable, saying "Yes," whispering "I love you," cuddling so close he could feel each and every beat of her heart.

"Oh, Matt." She breathed the words, and they caressed him like feathers against his skin. The sound of his name carried so much love, so much tenderness, that even before they blew out the candle and fell asleep in each other's arms, he knew they were getting a dog.

"Thou hast ravished my heart... thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes, with one chain of thy neck... Turn away thine eyes from me, for they have overcome me..."
~ Song of Solomon 4:9, 6:5 ~

end of chapter
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