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Chapter Twenty-six
The Meaning of Home

"Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions: according to Thy mercy remember Thou me for Thy goodness' sake, O LORD."
~ Psalm 25:7 ~

Before his eyes thought to open, his heart remembered Beth.

Warmth stirred on his chest. He opened his eyes, found a rumpled pillow in his face and a tangle of curls curtained over his nose and mouth. A faint scent of jasmine still clung to the air. A wiggle of his fingers found they were dug into those tumbled curls. His arm moved slightly, his skin kissing against the nightgown of the woman snugged with him. The soft murmur of her breath warmed his shoulder, and he realized he'd fallen asleep while holding her.

She gave a sleepy moan, moved her lips against his shoulder in a hazy nuzzle.

It was enough to make him shift so they could kiss.

The next time he woke, Beth was beside him under the covers and it was time to get up and feed Dylan again. Since it was Matt's turn, Matt tried not to wake her as he got up to take care of the baby. As he stole through the house on his way to the kitchen, he realized it was still nighttime, and Daniel was still asleep on the living room sofa. So they hadn't left yet, Matt thought as he warmed the bottle.

The loud ding of the microwave made Matt wince. He hoped no one woke. Just because he had to get up, didn't mean everyone else had to as well. He tugged out the glass baby bottle, pulled on the nipple, then shook it to mix the heat evenly. Once when Ryan had still been in diapers, Matt had made the mistake of nuking a plastic baby bottle; thankfully, the bottle had melted enough before it reached Ryan for Matt to know never to do that again. A quick temperature test and Matt was sneaking back through the living room and around the couch where Dan lay sprawled on the cushions.

Poor guy. This time tomorrow, and Dan would be sleeping in his own home, in his own bed.

See you another time, Dan. And thanks.

By now Dylan's fussing had woke Beth. She sat in bed, rocking the baby, her eyes half open and fighting fatigue.

"I'll take the trouble maker." Matt lifted the baby from Beth's arms and let her go back to sleep. He fed the baby, changed his diaper, then gently put him in the bassinet.

Matt climbed into bed and pulled Beth to him; even though it took awhile for her to wake up, they finally resumed their kissing. For the first time in his life, he wasn't ashamed of intimacy or the fact he sought it out. But it was more than the physical that Matt sought from Beth. She loved him. Each touch carried a token of her love, and for that alone, Matt would have been willing to give up sleep altogether, just for the pleasure of basking in the sweetness of that fact.

It wasn't until Beth slipped away to use the bathroom sometime later, that he finally bothered to check the time. It was day now-- that he already knew by the light peeking in around the window and patio door curtains.

The clock read a little after nine. Nine was good. They could afford to stay in bed all morning. Beth's family would be gone by now, along with Daniel and the twins. Mom had fed the children, saw them off to school, so Matt was covered there. He remembered Mom's order to not leave the bedroom unless it was to get a bottle for Dylan, and he fully intended to obey. Then he thought about the other little one-- Ryan-- and felt a pang of worry.

"Hey, Beth?" Matt pushed himself up, kicked off the blanket around his feet. "I'm going to check Ryan."

"Okay," came from the bathroom.

As he stalked around the bed in his boxers, he noticed a slip of paper beneath the door. He snatched it up and read Mom's neat handwriting:

The kids have eaten and brushed their teeth. We're leaving the Sesame Street DVDs behind for Ryan-- I set an alarm clock in the living room, and when it goes off at ten, he's been told it's all right to knock on your door and get you up. I gave him some animal crackers and a box of juice to tide him until lunch. Love, Mom.

Despite the note, Matt cracked open the bedroom door. He moved around the corner, saw Ryan, bottom down on the carpet, munching animal crackers in front of the TV. A woman was counting on the screen, and when she asked "Can you count to ten, too?" Ryan nodded and crammed another cracker into his mouth.

Seeing his baby brother was happy, Matt returned to the bedroom and eyed the bed. This was supposed to be a honeymoon. The kids were at school or otherwise occupied, so...

When Beth emerged from the bathroom in her robe, and found him back in bed, she folded her arms and gave him a look. "What about Ryan?"

"Public television and animal cookies. He's good." Matt fluffed their pillows and grinned. "My doctor's appointment isn't until one, and a few hours after that, the others will be home from school. I say let's make the most of it."

At the mention of time, she sobered. "What time is it?"

"As of right now?" Matt leaned forward to read the digital clock on the dresser. "Exactly nine fifteen."

"Oh no." Beth covered her mouth. "I forgot all about the nursery. I never told the girls I was taking the day off."

"When you never showed up to let them in," Matt grinned, "I think they got the message."

"Even so, I should call." Beth went to her clothes at the foot of the bed, started searching pockets and came up empty. "My cell phone-- I can't find it."

"Here, use mine." He tossed his phone to Beth and grinned when she did a two-handed catch. So dainty, he mused, as he watched Beth dial Sylvia, then apologize for not calling sooner. Beth caught like a girl, like someone who was seconds away from covering her head and shouting "eeek!" instead of catching the ball. He toyed with the thought of tossing something else to see what she would do, then decided against it.

Four minutes. She was taking four minutes to do something that would've only taken him one. "Hey Syl? Store's staying closed for the day. Pass the message, bye." He never called her Syl, but that wasn't the point. The vital point here was four-- make that five-- minutes of their cozy time was being eaten up by apologizing to Sylvia. It wasn't even worth two.

"Beth?" He sighed when she turned her back to him, kept chatting into the phone as though she wasn't going to see Sylvia the very next day. The very next day, for crying out loud. He got up to use the toilet, groaned when he came back and found she was still on the phone. A quick check on the bassinet found Dylan asleep.

He went over to Beth, slipped the phone out of her hand before she knew what happened. "Sorry, Beth has to go now," he told Sylvia. He hung up, tossed the phone aside and grinned when Beth folded her arms.

"And just what gives you the right to do that?" she asked.

It wasn't worthy of an answer.

Hauling Beth over his shoulder, Matt carried her to the bed, dropped her onto the mattress while she burst into laughing pleas for him to "please be serious."

"I am serious." He locked the door, crawled onto the bed and pulled her to him.

"You do realize," she giggled, as he tugged the blankets around them, "we can't stay in here all day."

"Maybe not," Matt said, ready to pull her into a breathless kiss, "but I'm sure going to try."

It was a nice try. Ten minutes later, Dylan was testing Matt's patience with all the full-blasted urgency a wailing newborn could summon. Despite the frantic abandoned cries, the kid had been fed and changed throughout the night. It wasn't like he'd been neglected.

Beth smiled. "I believe that's our wake-up call." She lifted her head to kiss Matt's stubbly chin, and he didn't fight when she got out of bed.

Outnumbered by a slim woman and a five pound, ten ounce baby. What was a guy supposed to do?

"I'll heat up a bottle," Matt sighed, pulling on some jeans. "Is he loaded?"

Beth gave the tiny bottom a gentle pat. "Very."

He reached for the diaper bag beside the bassinet. "I'll flip you for it."

She looked puzzled as he dug out a quarter from his pants pocket.

"Heads, I change the diaper and you heat the bottle-- tails, you land diaper duty and I fix his breakfast." He flipped the coin, caught it midair, slapped it against the back of his hand. "Call it, Beth."

She blinked. "Heads."

He lifted his hand and did a mental fist-pump when it revealed tails. "I guess you're getting the diaper," he shrugged, pocketing the coin. "You can't say I didn't give you a chance."

"Oh, go warm up the bottle." She laughed as he scooted out of her way, carrying a newborn with a diaper so full, he was sincerely grateful he wouldn't have to deal with it himself.

There were bennies to having a wife, someone who could change your brother's diaper when there was no one else to help. And there usually wasn't. Matt had done most of the diaper duty for Ryan, and he realized an unexpected moment of freedom as he watched Beth.

It dawned on him in a very real way.

Matt wasn't alone in this, he didn't have to do everything by himself. Sure, Cass was often willing but usually wasn't much help, and Ethan? forget it. That left the lion's share of the work to Matt. He was the eldest, the responsible one, the one who had to take care of everyone else. If he didn't do it, it didn't get done. Until now.

"Are you getting his breakfast, or not?" Beth laughed. "What are you looking at?"

He shook his head and left the bedroom. He wasn't alone anymore. He had help, a responsible adult to help make sure he didn't mess up too badly with the kids. It was a comforting thought.

When Ryan saw his big brother, joy beamed on Ryan's face. The boy abandoned the TV and Matt scooped him up for a hug. As Ryan pushed an animal cracker between Matt's lips, Matt thanked God. Besides the animal crackers, being the big brother had its upsides.

It was a cozy morning, one of those mornings that Beth was sure she'd never forget. Dylan hungrily sucked at the bottle as though he hadn't been fed in days and not hours, his tiny hand fisted around one of Ryan's fingers.

"Was I small like Dylan?" Ryan asked, looking from the nursing baby to Beth.

"I don't know." Beth adjusted the bottle to make sure Dylan wasn't sucking air. "Most babies are pretty small when they're born, but they grow fast."

"Am I growing fast?"

"I'm sure you are," she smiled. "More's the pity."

The boy watched Beth as she burped Dylan halfway through the bottle.

"Beth?" Ryan gave a thoughtful sigh. "Are you going to be Dylan's mommy?"

Surprise had her pausing. "I'm not Dylan's real mommy, but I'm going to do my best to take care of him, to love him like he was my own little boy. I'm going to be his second mommy."

"Will you be my second mommy, too?"

The unabashed hope in Ryan's voice made her eyes tear up. "I'd love to, Ryan."

"You mean it?" In a burst of joy, Ryan flung his small arms around Beth's neck. If she hadn't been feeding Dylan, she would have returned the eager hug. She planted a kiss on Ryan's forehead and he closed his eyes for a long moment. "I wish my first mommy was you."

The simplicity of the childish words had her eyes tearing up even faster. She didn't know what to say to the four-year-old, other than "I love you."

Ryan looked at her earnestly and smiled. It was enough of a promise to be there when he needed her, to make him happy. He settled beside her and picked up Dylan's hand as they continued the feeding.

On more than one occasion, Beth had felt strong anger against the mother of these children. All of them, all the way up to Matt, had been left with the scar of her neglect and appalling lack of love. Dylan wouldn't survive without love, Ryan craved a mother's love even though he enjoyed all the tender affection Matt could offer; and despite being painfully shy, Cassie had been quick to latch onto Beth's close friendship. Even Ethan seemed ambivalent at times, though Beth saw the insecurity that often prompted those bluffs. And Matt--- Matt was insecure in his own way.

As she finished feeding Dylan, Beth thought over Matt's yearning for her to love him. Love was a stabilizing part of life, something that promised when things got rough, you wouldn't be left standing alone.

Things were going to be different, Beth would make sure of that. She found resolve in Ryan's contentment to sit beside her, in the way Dylan helplessly looked at her as she rocked him in her arms.

She felt a tug on the sleeve of her robe.

"Can I hold him?" Ryan had held the baby before, though not often, and she could plainly see his eagerness to do it again.

"Make a lap," she told the boy, "and always support his head." She lowered the newborn onto Ryan's lap, moved his arm to make sure Dylan's head had support and then wished she had a camera to capture the moment. Eve was a fool-- worse than that, she didn't deserve to see the brotherly awe that shone in Ryan's eyes for the tiniest member of their family.

The thin sleeper Dylan wore needed to be replaced. It looked like Eve had gotten it secondhand, and besides a meager diaper bag, a plastic carrier, and some hand-me downs from Caleb, Dylan had very little of his own. She turned to look at Ryan's worn shirt and pants and sighed in dismay. This family needed clothes.

When Ryan was ready to give Dylan up, she took the baby back to the bedroom for a diaper change, then put Dylan into the bassinet. By the time Beth emerged from the bedroom, Ryan had gone back to the TV and was munching a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

So Matt was making lunch. Smiling, she went to the kitchen, and paused when she came to the doorway. Now, there wasn't a sight she saw everyday.

At the counter, with his back to her, stood Matt, wearing a faded pair of jeans and no shirt. His feet were bare, and his brown hair as mussed as when he'd crawled out of bed to get Dylan's bottle. Sunlight filtered in from the window, casting him in a cuddly glow. Their honeymoon was really getting to her. She couldn't even look at him without melting into a sigh.

"Hey, Ryan? You want another sandwich?" Matt called to the living room.

"No," came the shouted reply.

Those strong arms replaced the jelly jar back in the fridge. He turned and found her watching.

"You hungry?" he asked.

She cocked her head and wondered what she'd ever done to deserve Matt.

As he put away the peanut butter, she smiled.

"Do you always fix PB&J for lunch?"

"Not always, but it was handy. Want some?" He held up a plate with four stacked sandwiches. "I made enough for two."

"More like three," she mused. Leaving the plate on the counter, he came to her and pulled her against him. When they kissed, he tasted of peanut butter. She hugged her face to his shoulder and closed her eyes.

"Beth, I really need to eat."

She kissed him, moved back, and accepted a sandwich from his plate. They prayed over the food, and she leaned against the counter with her PB&J. Before she could finish her sandwich, Matt had polished off two and was wrapping the third to keep in the fridge for later.

After Matt found something he approved of for Ryan on the TV, and the alarm Mom had set was turned off, Matt and Beth returned to the bedroom and locked the door.

Within the hour, they were both asleep.

Something tugged at the back of his mind, a stray thought that suddenly fell into place. Matt's eyes popped open, and he shoved himself upright to blink at the clock. Oh great-- his doctor's appointment. He'd forgotten all about it.

He grabbed his pants, yesterday's shirt and socks, which didn't smell too bad, and snagged his boots on the way to the bathroom. It took five minutes to dress, another five to locate Beth's car keys without waking her, and another five to find something for Ryan to watch on the television. Too much TV, Matt decided as he hurried out the door. The kid's brains were probably turning to mush.

A glance at his watch made him cringe. Man, he was cutting it close.

The trip into Las Cruces didn't take as long as he'd feared, and by the time he was jogging into the clinic he still had a few minutes to spare.

The clinic was shabby but subsidized for low-incomes, so it fit into Matt's tight budget. Or lack of budget-- he wasn't sure yet where he fit in, economically speaking. Beth had money, and even though he didn't, they were married and that probably meant something to his financial status... which up until he'd married Beth, had been fairly shaky.

He checked in with the nurse at the front desk, then collapsed into a hard chair while a TV mounted on the wall flickered overhead. He didn't want Beth's money, he really didn't. He wanted Beth, sure, but her stuff was her stuff and it didn't feel right to ride through life on her coattails. She'd probably have something to say about that, but he'd sort it out later. Right now, he was just relieved he wasn't late for the appointment.

Someone called his name, and soon he was being weighed and led into a dingy but clean room by a middle-aged nurse who could have been old enough to be his mom. His doctor was a guy, thank God, but beggars couldn't be choosers, so when she pulled out a clipboard and asked for a rundown of his sexual history, he did it with reluctance. He was here to make sure he didn't have anything that he could pass to Beth, no STDs that might hurt her because of him. He rubbed the back of his neck, wishing a guy was here to write it down and not this motherly woman who tried hard not to show her horror. By the time he reached his last encounter with Helen, he was feeling fresh guilt.

The nurse nodded, didn't make any judgements but asked questions where needed, then took his blood pressure and pulse. When her fingers pressed to his wrist, her eyes went large.

"I ran through the parking lot," he explained.

She smiled. "It shows." She took off the stethoscope, wrote something on the clipboard then informed him the doctor would be with him in a few minutes.

Matt shifted in the hard chair, the second since he'd arrived. Maybe soft chairs cost more-- he didn't know, and right now, he didn't care. Having gone over his past to the nurse, he worried that maybe he shouldn't have slept with Beth until he'd gotten himself checked out first. Still, it wasn't as if he'd thought through the past few days in cold blood; that first date had been unplanned, and so had the official honeymoon.

He still wished he'd been thinking more clearly. He knew condoms could greatly lessen the risk of transmitting a disease-- he'd heard all the public safety messages-- but knew this wasn't one hundred percent safe for Beth. Not as safe as he wanted it for her.

The doctor came in and a physical examination began in earnest; thankfully, the nurse was nowhere in sight. When the exam was over, the doctor asked more questions. Matt recognized the calm soberness in the man's face when he told Matt of the different tests he wanted to run. Even though Matt felt fine, he could still have asymptomatic infections; he could be infected, but not show any symptoms and so pass it on to someone else without even realizing it.

Matt groaned. He knew this, and was only grateful he'd at least had the presence of mind to use protection. One thing was certain, most people hadn't lived the way he had. "A high risk lifestyle," people called it. He called it being an addict.

Beth had no idea of what she'd married-- not really. Sure, he'd tried to tell her, and she'd known of his addictions. But there was more, and it was that more that had him sick to his stomach as another nurse took what was needed to send off to the lab for tests. The last time he'd had a physical, only one or two tests had been done, not the broad range of things this doctor wanted.

Of course, this doctor was the only one Matt had ever told his full history to, so that probably explained the number of tests.

In a few days, Matt was to call the clinic to know if any of the results had come in, and whether or not any of them were positive. Matt had never been more hopeful about being negative about something in all his twenty-four years.

Negative was suddenly good. It was one of those paradox things.

Vague heaviness settled over him as he left the clinic. Beth should know. Shouldn't she? They should probably hold off on more intimacy until the results came in. Right? The more he tried to untangle his thoughts, the more frustrated he became. What a mess.

The drive home passed without him really paying attention-- not a good thing when traffic was heavier coming than going. He pulled in front of the house and sat in the car with the engine idling, not really wanting to turn it off and go inside, but not wanting to just sit there, either.

He switched off the ignition and stared at the keys. He had a decision to make.

The front door opened and Beth stepped out in a skirt and top instead of the nightgown and bathrobe she'd been wearing most of the day. She waved to him, cuddled the baby in her arms as he got out of the car.

"Well?" she asked. "How'd it go?"

What should he tell her? I could have gotten you infected with any number of sexually transmitted diseases, and oh yeah, remember that secret you gave me permission to keep? You might live to regret it.

When he didn't answer, but rounded the hood of the car with what he thought was an ordinary expression, she went back into the house. He followed, but she moved straight into their bedroom and put Dylan into his carrier.

Matt leaned against the bedroom doorjamb, still weighing the keys in his hand.

"Did the doctor find anything wrong with you?" she asked over her shoulder.

"No, I'm good-- at least, as far as we know at the moment. Beth, we have to talk."

She turned back to the carrier, tucked a small blanket around Dylan then checked the contents of the diaper bag.


"Do you know where the baby wipes are?" she asked.

"They're supposed to be on the dresser. Beth, we have to talk."

"No matter. We'll get more on the way home."

"We're going somewhere?" he asked.

"Ryan?" Beth called loudly. "Are you ready? Did you turn off the TV?"

"It's off!" the boy shouted, running past Matt with a huge grin. "We're going shopping, Matty!"

"We are? You mean, right now?"

"Dylan needs clothes," Beth continued in her distracted voice, "and while we're at it, I thought we might as well do some shopping for Ryan. You're sure the doctor didn't find anything wrong with you?"

"Nothing for the moment."

She looked at him, and he sensed she knew he was trying to tell her something painfully sensitive. So they were here again, him trying to say something she didn't want to hear. He shook his head and stared at the keys. Life kept going around in circles.

He gave her a sidelong glance as she shouldered her purse and diaper bag, then lifted the carrier with both arms.

"Let me take the baby," he said, moving to relieve her of the carrier.

"No need, I have it." She moved past him with a nervous brusqueness that he felt more than saw. "We've been waiting for you to get back from the doctor, so if you're ready, we need to leave. I'd like to be here when the children come home from school."

Matt strode ahead, and reached the front door before she did. He opened it, held it for her. "You never let me tell you what the doctor said."

She didn't answer. "Ryan, did you use the potty?"

The boy held up both hands. "I even washed," he said proudly.

Matt winced. The remark had "bad parent" written all over it. "Wash every time," he told the youngster as they left the house. Matt locked up, then went to the car to open the rear door so Beth could strap in Dylan's carrier. Ryan's booster seat was in the pickup with Ethan, so Beth buckled in Ryan as best she could.

"We need a safety seat in both vehicles," Beth said, "so we won't be caught off guard in the future."

Good idea, Matt thought, except Beth refused to look at him while she secured the kids. She talked around him, but not to him. It was driving him nuts.

He moved to the driver's side, opened the door and stepped in while Beth made last one check of harnesses and buckles before closing the rear door.

He hoped she would challenge him for the keys, so at least she'd have to address him straight on. But she slid into the passenger seat beside him and buckled up without a single word about who's car this was.

"Beth, we need to talk."

"No, we don't." She looked straight ahead. "This has to do with your secret, doesn't it? If you're all right, then I don't want to know anything else."


"I don't want to know, Matt. I mean it."

He blew out a breath. "My doctor is testing me for HIV."

The words stilled her. She looked at him-- really looked at him-- and he saw the alarm in her eyes.

"I don't have any symptoms, but the doctor said it was good to check since there's a high likelihood I've been exposed to it in the past. He's testing me for things like gonorrhea and herpes, but HIV was what got my attention."

"How long until you know?" she asked.

He studied her a moment. "A few days, a week at the most. Beth, I have to tell you--"

"No. Don't." She looked out her window, directly away from him and shook her head. "If you don't feel up to driving, tell me so we can switch sides."

"I'm sorry, Beth." Matt squeezed his eyes shut. "We should have waited until I had a green light from my doctor."

"Don't tell me your secret, Matt."

He blew out a sigh. "We should have waited."

"Is this your secret?" she asked, turning to pin those green eyes on him. "That you were exposed to HIV?"

"No, it isn't. If you don't want to hear about my past, then at least hear me out about the tests."

The assurance calmed her but only by a little. "What do these tests mean?"

"At the moment-- nothing. Just because they were taken, doesn't mean I have HIV, or anything else. But we need to know the results before we can pick up where we left off." He glanced at the little boy playing with Dylan in the backseat. "After last night and today, it's probably too little, too late. I wish I'd been thinking more clearly before we... before we crossed that bridge, then set it on fire."

The wording made her smile. "God meant for us to cross that bridge. In retrospect, we might have gone about that crossing a little differently, but we did the best we could under the circumstances."

"I should have been more careful," he insisted.

"Matt. Really. I know we were more focused on other things like love, or the lack of it, but I take responsibility for what we did. I knew about your..." she glanced at the backseat, "about certain past issues and made my decision despite them. You even warned me the night before that you should probably first see a doctor. If you want to argue that you should've been more careful-- fine. The same goes for me."

He sucked in a deep breath, knowing he was more responsible than her because he knew more about his past. He exhaled, and slowly nodded. "We wait until the results come back."

"That's probably best," she agreed. "I have to admit, when you came home looking so grave, I feared you were going to tell me a lot more than I needed to hear. You had that look in your eye."

For a moment, he toyed with the thought of doing just that-- of telling her everything. Then he thought of the possible consequences and decided that if she really didn't want to know, then it would be stupid to force that knowledge. It would probably hurt their relationship, and she didn't want that to happen. Neither did he.

He turned the key in the ignition. "I love you."

Her eyes flicked to the side window where she palmed off a stray tear. "I love you too," she said gently. "Oh, I love you too."

Before Matt pulled onto the highway, they prayed that his tests would come back negative. Silently, he added to the prayer that Beth would always love him.

Please, God, don't let what I've done in the past mess up our future.

Dylan needed this shopping trip, but it was useful for others besides Dylan and hopefully Ryan. Whatever guilt Matt felt over their relationship, Beth tried to coax him into forgetting by dragging him through aisle after aisle of baby stuff. Matt had been careful-- was still being careful as of that very morning, and it pained Beth to see him accepting so much responsibility for something she felt had been half her decision.

There was obviously more to Matt's past besides what he'd already told her; Helen must have really gotten around for him to need so many tests. Curiosity had her wondering what his secret really was, before cold hard reality skidded her to a stop. The only thing that truly mattered was that Matt was a different man than he used to be, and that God would preserve their relationship. She had to focus on that.

The thought made her grab Matt's arm as they moved down the next aisle with their grocery cart and children. She was in this marriage for the long haul.

A happy little sigh rumbled through Matt, and when he looked at her, a smile reached his eyes.

She gave him a quick hug, then went to go look at the baby crib on display. Ryan closely followed her, while Dylan's carrier had been placed into the cart's basket so they wouldn't have to carry a baby all through the store.

"Don't we already have a crib?" Matt asked as Ryan pulled a tag from off a highchair.

Beth put the tag back, took Ryan's hand and smiled at her young husband. Matt grinned, and pushed the cart after her.

Distracted was good, and that was how she intended to keep Matt's mind off other things.

When they came to the clothes department, Ryan stuck close to her with the plush dinosaur he'd picked out for the baby. He kept checking to make sure she was still there, as if to say, "You're my mommy now, and mommies never stick around." It broke her heart to see him so fearful, and she took every chance she could to show she wasn't leaving.

She was shopping for newborn clothes. Her, Beth Carter-- no, make that Beth Taylor-- was hunting the racks like a new mom picking out tiny outfits. What a dreamlike blessing.

Three newborn rompers went into the cart, and Matt began to move things around so Dylan couldn't grab them from his carrier. Two tiny pairs of pull-on pants, three long-sleeved shirts, several socks, itty-bitty shoes that had Ryan giggling over how small they were, and a stack of multi-colored onesies, all found their way into the cart.

"This kid will be well dressed," Matt commented as Beth placed another romper into the pile. He picked up the outfit, played with its tiny sleeves then dropped a grin on Dylan. "You're childhood is certainly going to be different than mine."

She tugged Matt into the next department that had older children's clothing, and Ryan watched wide-eyed as she held up pants to see what he thought.

"Do you like this one, Ryan?" She smiled, and waited for some other reaction besides bewilderment.

"Hey, buddy," Matt crouched to the boy's level, "it's okay to like something if you want it. How about those pants?"

Ryan nodded timidly, as though the concept of buying so easily was foreign to him. He hugged the stuffed dinosaur until Beth suggested that Matt take him to a dressing room to see if the new pants would fit.

Hearing this, Ryan lifted the dinosaur to Beth. "Mommy hold this?" he asked.

Beth looked to Matt, feared he might think she was overstepping herself, and was relieved to see Matt's surprised smile. He hadn't minded. She took the plush toy and gave it a small hug.

"I'll keep him company until you come back."

Ryan grinned.

"Come on, buddy." Matt took the boy's hand. "Let's go see if these pants fit you."

While Matt and Ryan were gone, Beth wandered around more clothes racks while she pushed the cart. Dylan was sleeping like an angel, cuddled in the carrier and oblivious to the new clothes piled around him. It seemed a surreal moment, one almost too good to be true. She was buying infant things, and clothes for a sweet little boy. She was holding a dinosaur.

Life didn't get much better than this.

Several minutes later, Matt emerged with Ryan. "They fit him fine," Matt said, dropping the pants into the cart.

"Good, then we need four more in the same size."

"Four?" Matt stared at her as though she'd just said something incredibly strange and slightly idiotic. It was that incredulous surprise that made her smile.

"Yes, and some shirts. Don't look at me that way, Matt Taylor. One of these days, you're next."

Even his scowl was handsome. "Spending your money on the kids is one thing, spending it on me, is another."

This wasn't the place or time to hold the drag-out debate that lurked behind his scowl, so she simply pointed to the pants, then held up four fingers.

The scowl slipped into a smile as Matt lifted Ryan to the rack to pick out more clothes. Let Matt protest all he wanted, Beth was going to take care of him whether he wanted her to or not.

At least this was keeping him busy. Anything was better than that defeated look she'd seen when he came home from the doctor.

With Ryan's new room in mind, Beth dragged her family to the bedding department. Ryan helped choose a matching comforter, sheets and pillowcases that had the ever-popular dinosaurs scattered all over them. There was even a rug and curtains that matched his dinosaur, and Ryan looked stunned with joy. Even though Dylan would be sharing the nursery, Beth decided that Ryan would notice all these things while Dylan would not. So Ryan got to choose what the nursery would look like.

After picking out a new pair of shoes for Ryan, then moving to another aisle for a safety seat for Beth's car, they headed the loaded grocery cart to the checkout.

As Matt lifted out the carrier with Dylan in it, a woman in line ahead of them, smiled.

"He looks like you," she commented to Matt when Dylan began to stir. Her eyes turned toward Ryan and the boy ducked behind Matt's pant leg to avoid scrutiny. "You have a beautiful family."

"Thanks." Matt reached behind him and took Ryan's hand. "They're not exactly mine-- they're my brothers."

"Really?" The woman looked intrigued. "I don't suppose she's your sister?" She pointed to Beth, and laughed when Matt flushed bright pink.

The comment seemed forward and a bit rude to Beth's ears, but Matt bore it like a gentleman. He held on to a squirming Ryan and a fussing Dylan, while Beth took over pushing the cart. Thankfully, the woman said nothing more but checked out with only a curious glance at their family.

Beth read the time on her watch. The kids would be home soon, and she needed to start thinking about dinner.

After their purchases had been zipped across the scanner and her credit card had paid for them, Beth stuffed the receipt into her purse in the hopes Matt hadn't seen the total. From the grim look on his face just now, she guessed he had.

"Get used to it," she told him as they left the store with a cart full of bags. "Sometime this week, I'm hoping you'll accept one of my credit cards and take Ethan shopping. You both need clothes. I'll take care of Cassie, myself."

The stubborn set of Matt's jaw didn't annoy Beth as much as she thought it would. She was getting used to her cowboy and his overly independent ways, and knew he needed time to adjust.

Things had changed. He wasn't alone anymore, and the sooner he realized it, the better.

He didn't know how Beth had managed to pull it off, but by the time they arrived home, Matt realized he hadn't been thinking about test results while they'd been shopping.

Ethan and Cassie came home soon after they did, and after seeing what the little ones were getting, Cassie offered to help Beth unpack the clothes and start sorting them into like colors in the laundry room.

Claiming homework could wait, Ethan started hauling his things to the room the twins had been using. It was the room Beth had told him would be his, and Ethan was obviously eager to have his own space. For once, Matt didn't feel like badgering Ethan about his homework. Matt was too tired to argue, but not too tired to begin separating Ethan's things from his own, and the toys and boxes that would go to the nursery Ryan and Dylan would share.

The new nursery had been Luke's old hobby room, and it still had books lining shelves and things that had apparently never been touched after he died. It was a detail Beth had yet to tell him how she wanted handled, and Matt wasn't ready to ask.

In the meantime, Ethan had his room. The first thing he did was to shut the door.

Matt wasn't so sure he liked that. Closed doors shouted "stay out of my room," but they could just as easily mean "stay out of my life." Well, tough. Matt wasn't going anywhere, and as long as Ethan lived with him under the same roof, Matt would make a point to be a part of his brother's life.

For the moment, the door could stay shut.

The hobby room was far from ready to accept the little ones, and that meant Matt might as well stay with Dylan and Ryan in the old nursery. Cassie was to have Caleb's nursery, though she didn't look impatient to move into her new room; she was doing pretty well in the first master bedroom, though Matt suspected it was because she enjoyed chatting with Beth every time Beth went in there to get something.

First Ryan had called Beth "Mommy," and now Beth was a big sister/mommy to Cassie. It seemed like a reasonable fit. He knew Ryan wanted a mom in the worst possible way, and now Cassie had someone in the family she could talk to about girl stuff. He had to hand it to Beth-- she was trying her hardest to become a part of their family, and succeeding.

Man, was he ever tired.

Life blurred around the edges until Matt collapsed on a living room sofa and shut his eyes. He was already dreading a week of waiting to hear the test results and passing his nights without Beth. His empty arms started to ache. If he was in his old home, his Bible would be under the couch and he could pull it out to do his quiet time now instead of later.

Not a bad idea, he thought, and got up to go get his Bible.

As the day wore on, the house began to smell of cooking food, and Matt's stomach growled to know what Beth was fixing. Sounds came from the laundry room just off the kitchen as Cassie kept the washing machine and dryer going, while the girls talked about Cassie's day at school and what she would like to get when they went shopping. Music came from Ethan's room, not loud enough to make Matt go in there and turn it down, but loud enough to make Matt notice. Country. At least the kid had good taste.

On the floor by the couch, Ryan played with the dinosaur Beth had told him was now his. It looked like Ryan had found a new best friend in the stuffed T-Rex, and Matt guessed the two would be inseparable by the end of the day.

Matt read the Bible, went over passages that helped to calm his faith, and prayed about all the changes taking place in his life. Even with the test results and the guardianship hearing looming before him, he felt incredibly blessed. So many things could have gone terribly wrong, and they hadn't.

It was a testament to God's faithfulness. Not to say things still couldn't turn out for the worse, but if they did, Matt felt a gentle assurance that God would be there. Why? Because the Bible told him so, and if that wasn't juvenile enough to make someone burst out laughing, Matt just knew. Call it simple confidence, or the faith of a quietly desperate man, but Matt knew God would be there.

The call to dinner came and set off a minor stampede. Ethan emerged from his room, Ryan ran off to go wash his hands, and Matt put away his Bible to follow Ryan's example. Beth had set the table while Cassie was folding clothes in the laundry room.

And that smell coming from the oven? Homemade pizza.

Oh, yeah. Matt was a blessed guy.

During the week of waiting for the test results, Matt and Beth kept busy between the garden nursery and working at home.

The books in the hobby room were boxed and placed into storage. New carpet was put down, the walls painted a pale yellow, and the mahogany crib and a big boy's bed were arranged for Dylan and Ryan. Ryan's large toy box was pushed against one wall, inviting little boys into future play on the soft new carpet. A bright rug with a dinosaur sat in the center of the nursery, and in Ryan's excitement, he nearly hugged it before Matt picked him up.

When asked, Ethan shrugged that his room was fine the way it was, but Beth knew better than to believe him. She bought a lamp to sit beside his bed so he could read without straining his eyes, and got Matt and Ethan to move in a solid oak roll-top desk where Ethan could study and do his homework. The desk had been Luke's. After it had been moved into Ethan's room, the stunned teenager stood there a long time, looking at the impressive piece of furniture and running his hand over the gleaming wood. Matt knew how his brother felt. The Taylors were living in a dream.

Later that day, Matt caught Ethan going to Beth and giving the surprised woman a hug.

"What's this for?" Beth asked.

Ethan gave a one shouldered shrug. "Thanks for the desk."

"You like it?"

The teenager nodded, shrugged again and went back to his room. The shrug indicated it was no big deal, but the hug had said a whole lot more. From Ethan, such a display of affection was rare.

Way to go, Beth, Matt thought with a grin.

Every able-bodied person in the family old enough to intelligently hold a paint brush spent a good few hours in Cassie's room, painting the walls purple. Technically, it was lilac, but to Matt, purple was purple. She and Beth bought frilly things to make the room pretty-- a lacy bedspread and curtains, coordinating throw pillows with lots of ruffles, and a brand new canopy bed-- also with ruffles. An ornate vanity with an off-white finish was placed against one wall, its oval mirror and padded bench giving the room even more, over-the-top, girly appeal. The vanity had been the result of a recent trip to the furniture store with Cassie. Of course, Matt had been along for the ride, for someone had to carry the thing out to the truck.

Despite the purple horror that had become Cassie's room, the preteen declared it was the most beautiful sight she'd ever seen. Good to hear, for Matt wasn't getting more purple paint on his clothes anytime soon.

On the second day, Matt called the clinic and found out he didn't have herpes. On the third day, he learned he wasn't infected with HIV.

This news was celebrated in the privacy of the second master bedroom, since HIV had been Matt and Beth's biggest concern. He was still being careful, but it wasn't as though they could undo the days and nights that had led up to, and included, their honeymoon.

He knew better than to think he'd simply lucked out. God was preserving him. He knew it deep down where love and faith kept his heart beating, where dreams came to life each time he kissed those tender lips and told Beth he loved her.

Oh, how he loved her. This was home now, the only home he ever wanted. Home meant his brothers and sister, home meant loving Beth and her loving him. Home meant love.

By the end of the week, the remainder of the tests had come back negative. Matt and Ethan had been too busy painting walls and hauling furniture to make their own shopping trip, and even Beth hadn't found time to take Cassie to the clothing outlets. They'd do their shopping later, though Matt still wasn't sure about letting Beth buy his clothes.

The moving apparently wasn't over. Not yet.

The children had their rooms taken care of, all except for Matt's. That was the way Beth had worded it, and it had instantly put Matt on the defensive.

He was a children? What a thing to say to a guy.

Before plunging into an argument about the difference between tots and fully grown men, Matt listened to Beth's suggestion. She didn't seem to think there was a real problem to her offer, but he begged to differ.

"That was Luke's room."

"Yes, but now it can be yours. Yours and mine."

"Beth, just listen to yourself a moment." Matt ran his hands through his hair. The woman simply didn't get it. "You slept with Luke in that room."

"I hate to break it to you, but Luke and I also slept in the second master bedroom."

Matt blew out a breath. "You're missing the point. That first bedroom is ground zero. His picture's in there, the bed linen looks like the guy had a hand in choosing it, and then there's the bathroom."

She folded her arms, arched a brow that he found annoyingly irresistible. "What about the bathroom?"

Matt nodded. "It's blue."


"It's blue because Luke wanted it that way."

"How would you know?"

"I'm guessing, okay?" Matt threw up his hands. "The point is, every time I go in there, I feel like he's watching me. I don't want to live with that feeling, and don't even ask me to sleep in his bedroom. I just can't do it, Beth."

"So," she sighed but Matt could see the smile hiding behind her patience, "you want me to clean out my closet, gather all of my things, and move them to the second master bedroom, simply because you have a feeling?"

"I suppose. When you put it that way--" Matt huffed out a sigh. "Yes. Because I have a feeling."

"You're being silly."

He narrowed his eyes. "If I die and you marry a widower, and he takes you to the exact same bed he shared with his dead wife"-- Matt paused for emphasis-- "and you can sleep there and still say the situation doesn't bother you in the slightest-- then I'll take it all back."

It didn't help that Beth started laughing.

"I'm sorry," she smiled, trying to stifle what was probably more laughter. "I'll do it. For your sake, I'll do it."

"Thanks." He shook his head, but accepted the hug she offered. Oh, she felt good. He could hold her forever and it would never be long enough, for he'd always want more. "I suppose it's good you brought this up, just in case the court sends someone to do a checkup on us before the hearing. Our lawyer said they probably wouldn't, but I want us to be settled in case they do."

"I understand, Matt. Really, I do."

Her face looked innocent, but he still saw traces of humor in her eyes.

"Put Luke's picture wherever you want." Matt patted her shoulder good-naturedly. "But not in the bedroom."

"That time Luke stopped us-- it really jarred you, didn't it?"

"Yeah, a bit." Matt let her go and went back to the dinner he was fixing to quietly celebrate a clean bill of health. The children didn't know about the tests, including Ryan who'd long since forgotten anything he'd overheard in the car, and Matt and Beth preferred to keep it that way.

Beth poked a finger in Matt's side. "You're still sensitive about Luke."

Matt shrugged. "I'm living in a house that was once another man's, and with a woman that used to be his. Sometimes it doesn't feel like it's really mine."

With a sigh, she leaned her head against the back of Matt's neck as he peeled potatoes. "It's your turn to hold me, remember?"

"I can't. I'm fixing dinner."

"Then hold me after you're done. I can wait." She cuddled against his back and he couldn't help the fact his breathing came a little faster. "It took everyone a week of hard work, but I think the Taylors are officially moved in. Welcome home, Matt."

He had to hug her. He just had to. He put down the potatoes, dried his hands, then turned to embrace his wife. She warmed him until his heart thumped strong and happiness swam around, over, and through them. Being this happy could become a habit.

The kitchen phone rang.

He blindly reached for the receiver, tugged it off its hook while Beth did her best to keep him distracted.

"Hello?" He cleared his throat, grinned as Beth nibbled his free ear. "Matt Taylor speaking."

The urgent voice on the line put a stop to his joy. He knew this was too good to last. So much for happiness becoming a legal habit.

"Matt?" Beth straightened. "What is it?"

"Hold on a moment," he said into the phone. Turning to Beth, he tried to stay calm. "It looks like we've got a problem."

"The LORD will perfect that which concerneth me: Thy mercy, O LORD, endureth for ever: forsake not the works of Thine own hands."
~ Psalm 138:8 ~

end of chapter
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