Be among the first to know when I post new chapters, to new books!

Click Here
Keep up-to-date on all the announcements and website news!

Subscribe today!

My policy is to follow the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12); I hate spam too, and will never sell or give away your email address.
Chapter Twenty-seven
A Family Matter

"Cast not away... your confidence, which hath great recompence of reward. For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise."
~ Hebrews 10:35, 36 ~

She waited for Matt to speak, fearing what he might say yet dreading that she already knew.

Matt's face tightened. "It's Francine Simmons--our attorney for Dylan's guardianship. If Mom and Wade don't show up in time to be served, we might have to ask for a postponement of the hearing."

"But what if we can't find them?"

"Hold on." Matt returned to the phone. "What if we can't find them?" His face held a grim expression as he listened. "Yeah, I know about the postponement, but Mom and Wade said they'll let me take Dylan. So what's the problem?" Matt blew out a breath. "I know they haven't signed a consent form yet-- you told me that was why they had to be served a summons. But what happens if we can't find them so they can be served? Besides the continuance, or whatever you called it-- what then?"

Movement at the kitchen door showed Cassie, pensively listening to Matt's half of the conversation.

"If the hearing is postponed, and we still can't find them, what then?" Matt's voice lowered as though backing away from frustration. "What exactly does 'diligent inquiry and search efforts' mean? What do we have to do?"

Now Ethan stood in the doorway, his face every bit as sober as Cassie's.

"Hold on, you're going too fast." Matt did a quick search of the counter, and Beth realized he was looking for something to write on. "Wait-- I'm sure they're not at their last known address. They came to Las Cruces with Dylan, and from what I thought they told me, they still wanted to get to Nashville. No, they didn't tell me that themselves, it's just what I assumed."

Fighting back a strong urge to panic, Beth located a notepad, a dull pencil and slid them over the counter in front of Matt.

"Mom doesn't have a cell phone-- at least, if she does, she's never given me her number." Matt picked up the pencil. "She only had the number for our home phone-- our old one before we moved into Beth's place. But Mom knows where we work. She's been to the nursery, and if she showed up in my old neighborhood, Mrs. Lott would've given her whatever information she wanted."

Folding his arms, Ethan stepped into the kitchen, leaned a shoulder against the fridge and fiercely concentrated on Matt. The dinner Matt had been preparing sat untouched in the sink, right where Matt had left it before the phone rang. Ethan was supposed to be doing homework right now, but Beth knew there would be no studying tonight. Not with this going on.

"I don't know of any business addresses, past or present." Matt tapped the pencil against the counter. "Mom's never had a job. I don't think she's ever worked a day in her life."

Ethan harrumphed. "You can say that again."

Matt waved to Ethan to be silent.

"What did you say?" Matt poised the pencil over the pad. "Address listed at the motor vehicle," he scrawled the letters in broad untrained strokes, "for the defendant's driver's license." He straightened, ran a hand through his hair and sucked in a deep breath. "I hate to tell you this, Ms. Simmons, but Mom doesn't have a driver's license. She drives-- I know she does-- but she's never had an actual license. So we should check anyway?" Matt kept scrawling on the pad, and nodded. "Yeah, I understand. We have to show the court we did everything possible to contact them."

The baby started crying from the second master bedroom. Matt looked up, and Beth squeezed his arm. She would take care of Dylan. He nodded, and asked Francine to repeat what she'd just said while Beth left the kitchen.

Cassie hurried after Beth. "What's happening? Are we going to lose Dylan?"

The question pushed itself into Beth's mind, as unwelcome as a spike through the brain. She couldn't dwell on it, kept walking, and forced herself to stay calm. "We're not losing Dylan. God won't allow it."

"But what if He does?" While Cassie's voice edged toward hysteria, Dylan cried his heart out for someone to pick him up. "What if Mom takes Dylan back? What are we going to do?"

"Cassie, calm down." Beth moved the bassinet to find Dylan waving his tiny arms and wailing with all his might.

"Mom can't take him, can she? She doesn't have the right!"

"Cassie, I said to calm down." Beth picked up Dylan. The moment she settled him against her shoulder, he stopped crying. She felt his diaper, found it dry, and realized he'd just wanted to be held.

To Beth's alarm, Cassie started breathing in quick, panicked gulps, and Beth hurried to move the girl to the bed before Cassie passed out. She sat Cassie on the mattress, shifted the baby and noticed whenever Dylan thought Beth was about to put him down, he started fussing again.

"Try to stay calm." Beth took a seat on the edge of the bed beside Cassie. "It's going to be all right. Matt will do everything within his power to keep you kids together, and so will I. You have my word on it."

"Would God do that to us, Beth? Would He take Dylan away?"

Words of quick assurance rushed to Beth's mind, but she felt unable to speak. What if God truly was going to take Dylan from them? What if it was God's will?

Tugging a comforting arm around Cassie, Beth gave the girl a strong hug. "We pray, Cassie. We pray with all our might that God would have mercy and spare Dylan the way He's spared you and your brothers. God placed you in Matt's care because God knows what's best for you. He'll do the same for Dylan."

"Beth, I'm so scared."

"I know, Sweetheart. So am I." Beth cradled a frightened child in each arm, and whispered a prayer to Heaven for the Taylor children, the small ones in particular. Yes, Beth included Cassie in that number. The girl hugged Beth and soaked up the comfort that should have long ago been given by Eve.

As far as Beth was concerned, that woman had a lot to answer for.

Sober and serious, Ryan came into the room and tried to find a place to sit on Beth's lap. Dylan started to panic that he was about to be put down, and Cassie kept crying softly into Beth's shoulder.

"Ryan, why don't you climb up on this bed and give us a hug? We could sure use one right now."

The boy scrambled onto the mattress with all the eagerness of someone truly wanting to help.

"My little hero," Beth smiled as he started passing out hugs to each of them. When Cassie began to calm down, Beth said a quiet prayer that they could all hear, asking God to keep their family together.

The phone call made Matt angry and weak at the same time. He wondered if his mom knew or cared what she was putting her family through. He also wondered if she was doing it on purpose, a way to get even with him, or possibly to blackmail them for money. The possibilities sickened him, and he had to hand it to Ms. Simmons for remaining patient and long-suffering through all his questions. Ms. Simmons had wanted to make sure she caught him at home, and not at work, and hoped she wasn't interrupting his dinner.

Matt didn't tell her that she had.

Food didn't matter. All he could think about was Mom and Wade, and of course, Dylan. In all of this, Dylan would be the one to suffer if Matt didn't handle this matter carefully. In all his agitation, he even considered taking Dylan and the family, and disappearing to another country to ensure Mom didn't get Dylan back.

He had to keep perspective, he couldn't allow fear to push him into acting without thinking.

By the time Matt got off the phone, Ethan had hoisted himself onto the island counter and was impatient to know what he knew.

"Just a minute," Matt said, scribbling down one last note before he forgot it. "Where's Beth and the others? I don't want to have to explain all this twice."

"Beth, Cassie, Ryan!" Ethan shouted over his shoulder. "Matt wants to talk to us!"

Matt shot his brother a look. "Thanks for delivering the message."

"Hey, you said you wanted them here."

Matt bit back a retort. He was tired and hungry, and like Ethan, he was scared.

Collecting his notes, Matt pushed past his teenage brother. "Get off the counter."

Jumping down, Ethan dogged Matt's footsteps into the living room. "Is Mom doing this on purpose, Matty?"

"I don't know. I sure hope not." Matt looked about the living room, then saw Beth emerge from their bedroom with Dylan, Cassie, and Ryan. Their faces were sober, and Cassie looked like she'd been crying.

Matt tried not to notice.

"I just got off the phone with our attorney. If Mom and Wade don't show up soon, we'll have to go through a lot of formalities just to prove to the court that we did our best to notify them of the hearing." Matt went to a couch, dropped onto the cushions with a weariness that went bone-deep. He waited while Beth sat down beside him, baby Dylan cradled in her arms.

Ethan sat down on the coffee table, while Cassie and Ryan took a seat on either side of Beth and Matt.

"What if we can't find Mom?" Ethan asked.

"Well, if we can't find her in time to have the summons served, then things are going to get messy." Matt glanced at his notes. "Ms. Simmons said it's Mom and Wade's constitutional right to be notified of the date and location of the guardianship hearing, and that we have to show due diligence that we've done everything possible to locate them. It's quite a list, actually. The best I understand it, then we'll have to show a judge why Dylan should be with us, and not with his parents."

"That shouldn't be hard to do, Matt."

He half smiled at Beth. "We have enough to argue that Mom has a track-record when it comes to her children, but the case isn't open and shut. Not as much as I'd like. The judge would have to make a decision without any consent forms, and he might not do what we want him to. That's why Ms. Simmons wants to hire a private investigator to find Mom and Wade. She said if they really are willing to surrender custody, that under the circumstances, it's the best way to make sure we get Dylan. She said their consent, or lack of protest once they were served, would go a long way with the judge. That was her opinion."

"A private investigator?" Beth blew out a sigh. "How much time do we have before it's too late?"

"We have about seventeen days to locate Mom and Wade and have them served. She has someone who'll serve the papers, but she needs to first know where they're at."

"Seventeen days is a long time, Matty." Ethan leaned forward. "It's enough time to find them."

"I like your optimism, Ethan, but what if they don't want to be found?"

"Then we go through all that stuff about how hard we tried to contact them, and take our chances with a judge."

Beth nodded in agreement. "I don't think we have any choice."

"I agree." Matt absently rubbed the knee of his jeans. "I don't want to sit and wait for some private eye to find them-- I'd rather be out there looking myself, but there it is."

"From everything you've said," Beth touched the hand picking at the rip on his knee, "it's not an impossible situation. There's room for hope."

Her hand squeezed his, and he felt the comfort of having someone to lean on. How he wished he could let that comfort sink in and smother the fear that nudged him toward despair. If Mom wanted to fight him in court, she would use anything and everything she thought she knew about his past, against him.

He could only pray she wouldn't fight.

That night, the call was made to Ms. Simmons to go ahead and hire a private investigator. Of course, Beth would foot the additional cost, but Beth didn't mind. It was money well spent, if it kept Dylan with his brothers and sister.

After the call, Beth finished making Matt's victory dinner-- the dinner to celebrate his negative test results-- and tried her best to move everyone from the doom and gloom that seemed to pervade the house. Ethan wasn't hungry, Cassie kept picking at her food without enthusiasm, and poor Ryan was quiet because everyone else was quiet. Only Dylan made his presence heard by fussing when it was time to change his diaper.

As Beth cleared away the dishes, Ethan went to his room under the pretenses of doing homework, and Cassie retreated to the living room to do hers. Though Beth wondered if they'd be able to study at all, life had to keep going. They'd made the call to Ms. Simmons, and someone would go out to Eve and Wade's last known residential address in an attempt to serve the summons. No one expected them to be there, but that wasn't the point. They'd be able to check off one more attempt and it would help the judge determine how hard they'd actually tried.

Ms. Simmons had a lot of work ahead of her, searching court records in the counties where Eve and Wade had lived, contacting the post office to see if there were any forwarding addresses, and other such measures to prove they'd been thorough in trying to locate Dylan's parents.

It would be cheaper if they did these things themselves, but Beth didn't want Matt deeply brooding over this for the next so many days, and stopped him from calling Ms. Simmons back. If he were the one doing all the legwork, and not someone else, that is exactly what would happen. As it was, Beth hoped Matt wouldn't slip into a brood and push everyone away. He needed them right now, and they, him.

Even though no one felt like sleeping, Beth coaxed everyone into their usual bedtime routine.

For Cassie and Ryan, though, bedtime came with a request.

"Please, Beth?"

"Yeah, pleeeease, Mommy?"

Two hopeful faces looked at Beth as she put Dylan into his bassinet. The newborn slept so soundly, she could caress his soft baby cheeks and he wouldn't stir a muscle.

"Just this one night?" Cassie asked. "I won't ever ask again."

"Me neither," Ryan chimed in.

Out of the corner of her eye, Beth saw Matt going into the bathroom and wondered if he had heard any of this.

"Please, Beth, it's such a big house."

One look at Cassie and Beth was smiling. "I thought you liked your room."

"I do. It's just..." Cassie bit her bottom lip, gave a shrug and was silent.

Not waiting for permission, Ryan scrambled onto the mattress and proceeded to burrow into the still made blankets.

"Ryan, I didn't say 'yes.'" Beth went to the bed, dug a laughing little boy out from under the comforter. She lifted him and he hugged her around the neck. "What's this? You're not even in your jammies yet."

"Please, Beth."

Beth sighed, turned to Cassie and saw those sweet, pleading blue eyes. "You're going to have to ask your brother. You know that, don't you?"

Cassie gave a timid nod.

"If it's okay with Matt, then I guess it's all right with me."

"Thank you so much." Cassie breathed a huge sigh of relief.

"He has to agree, Cassie."

"I know."

With a sigh, Beth looked at the closed bathroom door. He wasn't going to like this, and she already knew it.

"Go help Ryan dress for bed, then put on your footed pajamas. I'll be the one to ask Matt, and don't look so hopeful. He's not going to say 'yes.'"

Despite the warning, Cassie led Ryan out of the master bedroom with a bright smile.

Oh dear.

Beth took a deep breath, then went into the bathroom to talk to Matt. He stood at the sink in his boxers, brushing his teeth while the faucet ran without being used.

"You're wasting water." Beth waited a moment, then moved around him to shut off the faucet.

"Hey, I wath uthing that." Toothpaste sputtered from his mouth as he spoke around the brush. "Turn it bahck on."

She folded her arms. "You want to waste water, you turn it on."

He gave a rueful half grin, the first sign all evening that he hadn't sunk completely beneath the waves Eve and Wade had created.

"Your sister has a request." Beth tilted her head to one side, gave a returning smile that she hoped would make what she wanted to come a little easier.

"Let me geth." Matt spit out the toothpaste, rinsed his mouth with water then grabbed a towel to dry his face. "She wants a raise on her allowance."

"She doesn't have an allowance."

"Then that would pose a problem."

He was cracking jokes. Good, Beth thought, I want him happy.

"Dylan has the same request, and before you turn them down," Beth moved away as Matt tried to put his arms around her, "I want you to consider that today hasn't been easy for any of the kids. Yourself included."

Matt frowned. "There you go, calling me a kid again."

"While you were on the phone," Beth moved again to avoid being drawn into a passionate embrace, "Cassie did a lot of crying and even slipped into a panic attack. She's terrified we won't be able to keep Dylan."

Matt pushed out a heavy sigh. "I figured she'd been crying, but I didn't know about the attack." He punched the air, leaned against the bathroom wall and looked at Beth. "So what's the request?"

Beth smiled.

"Spit it out, Beth. I know you're not doing all this so I'll say 'no,' so what am I agreeing to?"

"The children would like to sleep with us, tonight."

Matt shook his head. "No way."

"Please, Matt. It would mean so much to them."

"It would mean a lot to me, too. That's why I'm saying 'no.'"

"But they've had a difficult day."

"So have I. And don't even think of calling me a kid because I said that."

She saw him fight back a grin.

"Of course, you'd have to wear pajamas." Beth gave him a look. "You know, the ones I bought you a few days ago, the ones you said were for sissies and you never put on. Not even once."

"That's because I don't need them."

"You will, if we're going to let Cassie and Ryan into our bed."

"There you go," he smiled. "We're not."

Beth smiled in return. "We'll put Ryan between us, and Cassie on my other side."

"And where do we put Ethan?" Matt gave a tired laugh. "What's the use of having this great big house, if the kids sleep in our bed?"

"Think about it, Matt. They're pretty scared right now, and it would only be for this one night. Ryan might need to sleep with us again, but I'm going to coax Cassie into being a little braver in the future."

Matt rubbed his face with both hands. "She had a panic attack. Oh, man. I wish I'd been there to help."

"You were busy at the time, and she understood." Beth reached over and touched Matt's shoulder. "You're a good brother. Don't beat yourself up over things that aren't your fault."

His dark eyes met hers, and without saying a word, she went to him with a hug. He accepted it, almost too gratefully, as though she were doing him a favor and not giving something he deserved.

"You're doing the best you can." She whispered with as much tenderness as she could cram into her words. "We all know you're doing your best, and we love you for it."

"Beth, don't say that." She felt resistance to her hug and backed away a few inches to see his face. "If Mom wants to fight for Dylan, she could say some fairly rotten things about me, and not all of them would be lies."

"What do you want me to say, Matt?" Beth inhaled deeply, not wanting to add to his pain. "This is the circumstance that God has allowed. I have to believe He has a good reason for what's happening. You said it yourself-- God doesn't play dice with the universe."

"I didn't say it," Matt sighed. "Einstein did."

"Well, then. There you go." Beth rested her head on Matt's shoulder, and sighed when his arms came around her. "God has gone to a lot of trouble to get us where we are, and I don't think He's done. I really don't."

A sigh breathed against her ear. "Then you think there's still room for hope?"

"Absolutely. God hasn't walked away from us. You of all people should know that."

"Yeah, I know. But I still appreciate the reminder." The hug grew tighter. "Please, God, don't let Mom, Wade, or me, pull this family apart. Please save us from ourselves. We don't know what to do, but our eyes are on Thee." [2 Chronicles 20:12]

"Amen." Beth stood there, praying and hugging her husband until she heard Dylan start to fuss in the bedroom. "I'll get your PJ's, Matt." She gave him an affectionate kiss, then stepped away. "Put them on, then come to bed."

A resigned smile formed on his lips. "You're taking something for granted. I never said 'yes.'"

"I know you haven't," Beth went to the bathroom door, "but you're about to, even if you don't know it yet. I'll be back with the pajamas." She closed the door behind her, then opened it to give him a look. "They are not sissy."

When he grinned, she retreated before he could grab her into another embrace.

If a person could ever be called a natural remedy for the heart, Beth would be that person. All she had to do was stand next to him, and he felt better. She steadied him and reminded him of hope, when hope was in short supply. And tonight, he'd needed that shot in the arm to keep him going.

Matt buttoned his pajama top, looked in the mirror and grimaced at what he saw.

Love sure could turn a sane man into an idiot. These clothes were for guys who were too embarrassed to sleep in their shorts, and he knew it. He'd better watch out. First that frilly stuff around the bed, now the pajamas, then she'd be on him for not putting down the toilet seat.

He hoped Ethan didn't see him like this.

He went to shut off the bathroom light, then paused. Had he put the toilet seat down?

In a moment of male bravery, he hit the lights and pushed into the bedroom without checking. This was one man who would not be changed by a woman.

"Matt, would you get my herbal moisturizer from the bathroom?"

The question knocked Matt in the face. He turned to look at Beth as she folded the heavy top comforter on the bed.

"It's in the cabinet, bottom shelf." She didn't even look up, but started arranging the extra pillows the kids had brought. "Ryan, there won't be enough room for your dinosaur. Better put him on the floor so he can guard Dylan's bassinet."

The girl beside Beth gave him a double-take. "Matty, are you wearing pajamas?"

The question added insult to injury, and Matt tried to remind himself that Cassie needed to be treated gently. Hard to do, when he recognized the unspoken laughter in her eyes.

"While you're getting the moisturizer, would you bring the nightlight by the cabinet?" Beth shook out a light quilt over the bed, smoothed it then stooped to pick up the dinosaur Ryan had left by her feet.

Cassie grinned. "I like the pinstripes, Matty. They're very distinguished."

Unsure if that was good, he escaped scrutiny by getting Beth's moisturizer goop from the cabinet.

"Don't forget the nightlight," Beth called from the next room.

He located the bottle, grabbed the nightlight and hurried back to the bedroom before he had a chance to stop himself. He was tired, and gave the items to Beth before climbing into bed.

When Ryan eagerly joined him, Matt let himself forget the indignities of pajamas and running errands. It didn't matter-- not really. Not when there were more important things to do, like finding room for a stuffed dinosaur who really missed its owner.

"I guess this guy can guard the baby from here," Matt said, picking up the toy and placing it in Ryan's arms. "I'll move over to make sure there's enough room for everyone."

While Beth went into the bathroom to change, Cassie sat on the large bed and stared at the bassinet. Matt recognized the fear his sister felt, and decided to pull out his Bible and read them a bedtime story-- something happy that didn't involve babies being separated from the people that loved them.

Sitting against the headboard, Matt flipped through the Scriptures until he came to the Book of Ruth. As he began, he noticed Cassie settling back to listen.

It was a short book, only four chapters long, but the story of Naomi and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, held a sweetness that Matt hadn't caught the last time he read it. The way Ruth loved Naomi, and her declaration that "whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God," touched Matt in a way he hadn't expected. Ruth loved her mother-in-law, even though no tie but love still bound them together.

Love was a strong thing, one that should never be underestimated.

As Matt finished the story, he wondered if his mom had ever felt that tenderly bound to anyone in her entire life. Had there ever been a moment in time when Mom had loved them, or been willing to make whatever sacrifices were necessary for their sakes? Beth had married into their family simply to protect Dylan. Sure, it had also been for Ryan, Cassie, and Ethan, but Beth had been willing to tie herself, with love, to a family that hadn't been hers. Their problems were now her problems, and her heart beat with theirs.

Had Mom ever done that for her own flesh and blood?

Closing the Bible, Matt looked up to find Beth had been listening to the story.

"That was really sweet." She went to the bassinet and checked Dylan. "Ruth and Boaz has to be one of the greatest love stories in the Bible."

The contrast between what he saw in the story, and what Beth saw, made Matt smile. They both had seen love, but in different ways.

Matt scooted down and let Ryan snuggle with him and his dino. He wondered how different it felt to be a parent, and not just the big brother. Did it feel any similar to this? Beth wanted to have a baby, and now that he had a clean bill of health, he had to think about the possibility of parenthood.

After turning off the lights, Beth got in beside Ryan, then Cassie climbed in after her.

As the girls were getting settled, Ethan poked his head around the open bedroom door.

"Hey, what gives? Are you guys having a party and I wasn't invited?"

"Does this look like a party to you?" Matt adjusted so the stuffed dinosaur didn't push into his side. "The kids are frightened, so we're letting them sleep with us for one time only."

"What if I said I was frightened?"

In the dim glow of the nightlight, Matt looked at Ethan. "Are you?"


"Then why'd you ask?"

"I was just wondering what you'd say." Ethan shuffled into the bedroom in his jeans, folded his arms like he was unsure what to do with them, then meandered over to the lacy bed where Dylan slept.

"You have school tomorrow," Matt reminded.

"Yeah, I know." Ethan stood protectively over the bassinet, his guarded stance speaking volumes about what he felt for his baby brother. "Do you think they're in Las Cruces, Matty?"

"I don't know. Probably."

When Ethan glanced at Matt, his eyes narrowed. He came closer.

"Are those pajamas?"

Matt tensed. "What do they look like?"

"Wow, Matty."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing." Ethan backed off but Matt could see him grin. "I just never thought you'd cave in and wear them."

"I didn't cave in."

"Okay. If you say so." Ethan looked at the bassinet and yawned. "Well, I'm turning in. 'Night."

Matt watched him leave. "'Night, Ethan."

"Good night," Beth called after him.

"'Night," Cassie said sleepily. "Matty, do I have to go to school tomorrow?"

"Afraid so, Cass."

"Good night, Matt. I love you."

Matt looked over Ryan's head at the woman snuggled with Cassie.

"I love you right back."

Even in the semi-darkness, he saw Beth smile.

He rolled onto his side, sniffed the little boy scent of Ryan's baby shampoo and brushed the hair from Ryan's eyes. Ryan was sucking his thumb again, a sure sign that all the tension and uncertainty of the evening hadn't gone unnoticed.

Matt pulled out the thumb.

Closing his eyes, Matt sent up one of many prayers he had prayed that day. They needed help and protection, and all the mercies God could spare to keep Dylan.

By the time Matt opened his eyes, the thumb had found its way back to Ryan's mouth.

In the morning, Beth made the children lunches for school, then packed up Ryan and Dylan to take them into work with her and Matt. While they were toying with the idea of finding a good daycare, they had yet to commit to any decision. Beth felt no eagerness to turn the kids over to someone else, especially when the responsibilities of being a parent again gave her so much fresh enjoyment.

With Dylan strapped into a baby sling at her chest, Beth opened the store and let Matt and Ryan inside. Ryan would be with Matt for awhile, then they would swap-- baby for boy.

The older children had been to the nursery before, but not the little ones. Today, the nursery would be a nursery for more than just plants.

From the start, Beth knew their hands would be full.

"Ryan, don't touch that." Matt went to take the trowel from the boy and place it back on the rack. "Hey, buddy, let's get your toys out of Mommy's car. There's lots of dirt out back and you can dig all you want. What do you say?" Hoisting the boy into his arms, Matt shot Beth a knowing smile. "Don't worry, I won't let him out of my sight. You want me to work on those pots you talked about last week?"

Beth was about to say "yes," when Amy came through the entrance in her nursery shirt and jeans.

"Morning, Mrs. Carter." Amy made her way through the store, calling out her greeting even before she saw Beth. "Your car sure needs a bath. Someone wrote 'Wash Me' on the rear window. You really should consid--" Amy cut short her thought as she neared the office and saw the children.

"We brought them into work today," Beth explained.

"No kidding." Amy's eyes lit up with genuine pleasure. "This has to be Ryan, right? Oh, what a little pumpkin head! And this is Dylan? Oh, Mrs. Carter, why haven't you brought them into work sooner? If you ever need a babysitter, I'm your girl." Amy touched the infant cap on Dylan's head, and sighed dreamily.

"Keep that up," Beth said wryly, "and we might take you up on that offer. For now, I just need you to come into work on time."

"Oh, I will," Amy nodded.

"Good." Beth looked about the store, unsure how she could trust a promise that had been given so easily. "Before we open for business, the floral displays around the checkout need attention, then I need an inventory list for the perennials. Matt?" Beth moved to catch up as Matt took Ryan outside. "About those transplants-- I want them done before closing time."

"I'll get right on it," he nodded. A hurt look hinted in his face, and for a moment, Beth wondered if she'd been too abrupt.

As he turned away, Sylvia pushed through the entrance and nearly collided with Matt and Ryan.

"Watch where you're going." Sylvia brushed past them, not even taking notice of the cute little boy that had just ducked behind Matt's pant leg. Beth imagined that with those dark shades covering Sylvia's eyes, and the blood red lipstick stretched into a sour expression, Sylvia looked somewhat scary to a four-year-old.

Shaking her head, Beth went after Sylvia to give her another speech about coming in on time. It didn't take a private detective to know Silvi had hit the bars last night. A hangover never did anything for her complexion, or her mood.

Small businesses didn't run by themselves. It took relentless management, a work ethic that wouldn't stop, and a surplus of effort to get things done. Matt understood this, and tried very hard not to let his bruised feelings show in front of Beth.

It wasn't what she had said, but the way she had said it-- in that schoolteacher voice that always disheartened him. He had once imagined kissing her so soundly, so completely, she'd never be able to give him that tone again. Either he had been wrong to think it might work, or he hadn't kissed her soundly enough to be effective. Neither thought made him feel very great, but when it came down to it, he would willingly live with the teacher's voice, if he could live with the teacher.

After hauling Ryan's toys out of the backseat of Beth's car, Matt took his brother behind the store, and placed him near a large mound of loose soil that just begged for someone to play in.

"I know it doesn't look like much," Matt said, squatting to dump an armload of trucks and planes onto the dirt, "but you'll be safe here. I'm going to be a few feet over there-- see?" Matt pointed to the potting table. He'd have to move it around so his back wouldn't be to Ryan, but that wasn't a problem. "You need to use the bathroom, or you get tired, come over and I'll take care of it. Did I put enough sunscreen on you?" Matt tugged the bottle out from his back pocket but Ryan giggled and squirmed away. "Okay, no more for now. Where's your baseball cap? How could you lose it already?"

"What's that?" Ryan pointed to a large terra cotta planter off to one side.

"That's to grow things in. If you get tired or want to go inside the store, you let me know. All right?"

Ryan nodded as Matt located the missing baseball cap, dusted it off, then placed it on the boy's head where it belonged.

Going to move the potting table, Matt's thoughts drifted to Dylan, to the way Cassie had kissed Dylan's cheek before leaving for school. He remembered the protective way Ethan had insisted on holding Dylan before they left, and it put a golf ball-sized lump in Matt's throat.

Life had taught Matt that good never came without something bad following close behind. A lot of good had happened recently, so it gave him pause to consider what might come next. Even long ago, during those sky-reaching moments when drugs had pounded through his system, even they hadn't lasted, and were soon replaced by anxiety and self-loathing.

What was going to happen?

The threat of what his mom might do, of what she knew about his past, stirred old memories that Matt would've rather forgotten.

The dirty floor of a motel bathroom, the urgency to push himself up and vomit into the toilet, the feel of sweat soaked clothes plastered to his skin, the absolute certainty that he was losing his mind-- it all flashed before him without warning. Mom living on the stained motel couch for those first several days, watching from a distance, fulfilling her end of the bargain to keep an eye on him in case something went terribly wrong.

Meth addiction hadn't been an easy habit to kick. His come-to-Jesus moment had been followed by crashing insomnia and withdrawal induced depression. Stopping cold turkey had pushed him to that spot, and only God's mercies had helped him from shooting up the first chance he got. Looking back, he knew drug rehab would have been far less risky than locking himself in a room with his mom, and taking his chances that she'd call 911 if she thought he was dying.

More than once, he'd come close to begging her to make that call.

His strategy hadn't been all that smart, but at the time, it had been the only way out that he'd found. His fear of being officially put on record as a drug addict, had stopped him from seeking professional help. With a record, it might be impossible to get legal guardianship of the kids, for who in their right mind would turn over underaged children to an eighteen-year-old just off drugs?

Of course his mom would, for that was why she'd been willing to sit on the couch and watch him crash.

Then came the sleep. Weeks of it, getting up to relieve himself, to find something to eat that he could keep down, dragging himself to the motel manager at the end of each week to pay in advance for the next one.

That dingy room seemed worlds away, standing here at this potting table, transplanting tomato seedlings that would one day find themselves into someone's garden. It was worlds away, and yet all he had to do was close his eyes, and he was there, pleading with God to not let him die.

Now that life was wildly better, he feared another crash loomed in the distance. Those negative test results had given him a clean bill of health, and he was starting a new life with a wonderful woman who actually loved him. His hands were scraping the sky, and he feared it wouldn't last. The crash had to come soon, didn't it? Life was too perfect, and it was never that way before-- never so very perfect as right now.

He patted soil around the new transplant, checked Ryan again, then grabbed the watering can to soak the roots.

Mom knew too much. She had kept silent when he filed for guardianship that first time for Ethan and Cassie, then again when Ryan was born. But now, silence meant more than freeing herself from a burden. The last time Mom had come to Beth and threatened to take Dylan away unless Beth gave her money, the threat had been mostly empty; Mom was lazy, and unless the fruit was low enough for easy picking, Mom would curse fate, and move on.

But now, Matt had an uneasy feeling Mom had only given up one tact, to pursue another. Maybe she thought Dylan was low-hanging fruit, after all. The temptation to leverage her position would be strong, and Matt feared her silence was to make them more willing to pay.

Whatever his mom was up to, he prayed it wouldn't hurt Dylan, or the others.

After Sylvia had come into work nursing a hangover, Beth had reminded her that she was late. Again. The ensuing low-pitched argument that followed had given Beth an extra strength headache, despite their quiet attempts to not frighten Dylan.

When it was over, Beth had retreated to her office and left Sylvia to lick her self-inflicted wounds.

A part of Beth felt sorry for the woman she considered an old friend, for Sylvia was always chasing after a good time and rarely ever having one. Was Silvi having fun yet?

The office chair creaked as Beth adjusted the baby sling. Dylan had barely blinked through the entire confrontation, and even now, he seemed utterly content to let Beth hold him.

Dylan's eyes grew wide as she cooed,

"What a bug-a-boo! Who's cute? Who's cute? You are, you are!"

His tongue moved, and he pushed out a sound, then another, then without warning, he broke into a smile. A wide smile. Ear to ear.

Beth gasped. "Dylan, did you just give me your first smile?"

He waved his hands, kept making sounds and stared at her mouth as she talked.

"Dylan, did you smile?"

He turned his head and drool spilled down his chin. Beth wiped it away.

"Dylan? Come on Dilly, look over here." Beth touched a finger to his cheek, and he turned back to her, his head and body comfortably supported in the sling. "Smile, Dylan. Come on, smile for Mommy. Smile for Mommy."

He didn't, but Beth excitedly got up to go show Matt.

Outside, she found him at the potting table, tending to the transplants as he'd said he would.

"Matt, you're never going to guess what just happened."

He straightened, the dark eyes below the brim of his Stetson at once serious.

"No, it's good," Beth assured him. She turned so Dylan faced his big brother. "Guess who just smiled for the very first time?"

Matt's features visibly relaxed. He pushed back his hat and leaned forward to look at Dylan.

The baby blinked at him.

"I don't know, Beth. Are you sure it wasn't gas?"

Beth shook her head. "I know a smile when I see one, and this baby did."

Matt looked at her skeptically.

"Matt Taylor, don't look at me like that. I've been a mommy before, and I know..."

He held up a hand to stop her from repeating herself.

"I know you believe what you think you saw. Dylan makes a face when he's passing gas, and it kind of looks like a smile. But it isn't. Besides, Dylan hasn't been smiling for me."

"Well, he did for me. Didn't you Dilly? Come Dylan, smile for Mommy."

"Beth, he's too young." Matt swiped off his hat and gave her a handsome grin that hinted of tender pity. "Ryan didn't give a genuine smile until he was at least six weeks old."

"So? Dylan turned four weeks today, and I saw him smile. It just wasn't his mouth, but his eyes and cheeks. Come on, Dylan, smile for your brother. Smile for Matty."

Matt chuckled. "I guess he's done passing wind."

"It was not wind."

Throughout their playful debate, Dylan gurgled and cooed, his eyes wide as saucers whenever she spoke. Then she made a face to imitate Dylan's smile.

Matt's jaw dropped, and it wasn't until she looked down at the baby that she understood why.

"He smiled." Matt tossed the hat onto the potting table and bent to look at his brother. "He actually smiled. Beth, you made that face and he smiled."

She gave Matt a playful shove.

"Yeah, yeah, you told me so." Matt grinned, parental pride shining in his eyes. "It's a big day for Dylan. Wow, he actually smiled at you."

"He'll smile for you too, Matt. Just give him time."

Though Matt gave a one shouldered shrug, she knew he was a bit hurt that Dylan had lavished that first smile on her, instead of him. She could almost hear Matt thinking, "But I'm his brother, shouldn't I have gone first?"

"It's all right." Matt picked up his hat. "I can wait."

"Oh, Matt." Beth reached out to give him a hug.

Though he looked embarrassed, he didn't turn it down.

Between them, securely snugged in the sling, Dylan made little cries to announce his presence. They weren't looking at him anymore, and he wanted their attention.

"Okay, now that sound I know." Matt stepped back and chuckled lightly. "Diaper change. Definitely the diaper."

"I don't know." Beth looked down at the baby, who kept waving his hands and making short little crying noises that had yet to grow frantic. "I think he's hungry."

Matt glanced at Ryan, then turned back to her with a grin. "Dylan was born hungry, but that's a diaper cry." Just then, the phone in Matt's pocket sounded. "Unless you want me to change the little guy on the potting table, I'm afraid you've got diaper duty for now."

"It's not his diaper." Beth cocked her head to one side, and Matt smiled.

In that brief moment, a silent "I love you" had passed between them. She felt it, and so did he. She could see it in the way he looked at her.

He put the cell phone to his ear. "Hello?"

The gentleness slipped from his face, and Beth's heart started to pound. A phone call. Another phone call.

"Yes, I'm listening." Matt stepped away from Beth, the phone glued to his ear. "Wait a moment-- where?" he signaled for something to write on, and Beth quickly searched her pockets. "I'm bringing my attorney with me," Matt said in a flat voice. "Don't give me that. You know why."

Beth thrust a black marker into his hand. He pulled off the cap with his teeth, spit it out and began scribbling on an open bag of manure.

She moved to see what he wrote. An address. An address not far from here.

"Give me a half hour, and we'll meet you there." When Matt handed the marker back to Beth, his eyes refused to meet hers. "Okay." With that one flat word, and no good-bye, he closed the phone.

She touched his arm. "Was that her?"

"Yeah, it was Mom." Matt tore the address from the bag, then stuffed it into his pocket. He took out a card stamped with a blindfolded Lady Justice holding scales. "She got my cell number from Mrs. Lott."

"What did Eve have to say? Where is she? Did she tell you?"

"Beth, I can't-- just hold off a moment." The muscles in Matt's jaw were working overtime. He punched in a number, shoved the card into his pocket and stared at the ground. "Ms. Simmons, please. Tell her it's urgent."

Whatever Dylan had wanted, wasn't getting taken care of, for his cries became more frantic. Beth tried to adjust him, but Dylan waved his arms and refused to be comforted so easily.

Holding the phone closer to his ear, Matt took a few steps away.

"Ms. Simmons, Mom just called me."

Squirming, Dylan screamed at the top of his lungs and Beth was forced to take him into the store. She dearly wanted to stay and hear what was happening, but Dylan couldn't wait. She took him past the register and waved off a question from Amy.

"Please God, we're in Your hands." Without realizing it, Beth spoke the words out loud, and Sylvia heard them as Beth went into the office.

While Beth located the all-important diaper bag, Sylvia came to the door. Score one for Matt, Beth thought, spreading out a soft towel to change Dylan. Those cries had meant a dirty diaper, after all.

"What's wrong?" Sylvia asked.

Beth shook her head. "He's got a full diaper, that's all."

The comment didn't seem to convince Sylvia, for she came into the office and watched Dylan kick his legs as Beth lifted him out of the sling. His foot knocked the bottle of talc off the desk, and Sylvia stooped to pick it up.

"Thanks, Silvi."

Tucking her shades into her dark curls, Sylvia distracted Dylan so Beth could change the diaper.

His mind full of what needed to be done, Matt strode into the store. He must have looked like he was searching for Beth, for Amy pointed to the office even before he asked.

He found Dylan quietly allowing Sylvia to hold him, while Beth hurriedly cleaned up the mess of the diaper change.

"I need your car." Matt didn't bother with "please" or "thank you," and when Beth stared at him, he shook his head. "I have to go, and Ethan has my truck."

"Are you meeting Eve and Wade somewhere?"

He gave a quick nod.

"Then I'm coming with you."

"No, you're not." Matt forced himself from looking into those questioning green eyes. He feared she would see too much. "I need the keys."

"If you want the keys, then you'll take me with them." Beth shouldered the diaper bag as though she were preparing to leave.

He scanned the desk, lifted the keys from beside her stapler and turned to leave. "I'll call when I have news."

"Matt, please."

"I don't want to drag you into this. I have to be the one to deal with her."


"Because I know her and you don't."

With a sigh, Beth took off the diaper bag. "You'll try to call me?"

He nodded, then left the store without another word.

From across the street in Beth's car, Matt and Ms. Simmons watched the guy who'd been hired to serve the papers to Mom and Wade. When the man emerged from the motel room and gave a thumbs-up to the car, they opened their doors to get out.

A stiff desert wind gave Matt's gray Stetson a firm tug. He sucked in a deep breath as Mom came to the motel room door and stared at him. Her shabby pants and wrinkled shirt looked like they hadn't been washed in ages, and her hair was a mess.

"Time to go meet them." Ms. Simmons straightened her shoulders, and walked with briefcase in hand like a soldier going into battle with a trusted weapon.

However the meeting went, the papers had been served. At least that much had been done.

It meant they wouldn't have to get their hearing postponed because they couldn't locate Dylan's parents. It might still be continued, as Ms. Simmons put it, but at least it wouldn't be because of Mom and Wade.

Wade. The very sound of the man's name sickened Matt. He followed Ms. Simmons into the room, and waited a moment as his eyes adjusted to the dim indoor light.

The cleanliness of the room seemed to be insulted by the unbathed people who stayed there. On the bed, Wade lounged in a dingy white T-shirt and ripped jeans, his fingers stained orange by the Cheetos he kept pushing into his mouth.

Mom stood beside the bed, her arms folded and her back ramrod straight. The stance said everything Matt didn't want to hear.

She wasn't going to roll over and play dead. She was going to fight.

Without waiting for an invitation, Ms. Simmons located a chair and sat down.

"I'm not signing anything, and neither is Wade."

"Mrs. Taylor, I think you must agree that you and Mr. Martin aren't in any position to keep Amadeus."

It took a moment for Matt to break from his thoughts and remember Wade's last name, and Dylan's legal first name.

"What if I say we are?" Mom asked.

Ms. Simmons gave a wan smile. "I think Social Services would be in a better position to answer that, don't you?"

The not-so-subtle threat had mom quiet, but only for a moment.

"I want what's best for my baby."

"I'm glad to hear it." Ms. Simmons opened her briefcase. "As you've already been notified, a petition has been filed with the District Court for guardianship concerning Amadeus Taylor. If you don't intend to contest the petition, I'll ask you and Wade to sign a consent form before a notary public." Ms. Simmons took out some papers stapled together and gave them to Mom.

Warily, Mom looked them over. "This says we're agreeing to Matt and Beth as the guardians."

"That's right." Ms. Simmons kept her tone professional.

"If I agree that we're not the best parents for our kid, I'm not ready to agree to Matt and Beth. We've got some people who are interested in adopting our baby. We're thinking he might be better off with them."

Anger simmered in Matt's veins. It was all he could do to reign in his reaction so Mom wouldn't know her threat had hit its mark.

"I see." Ms. Simmons sat back in her chair and looked thoughtful.

Over on the bed, Wade stuffed Cheetos as fast as he could. The guy was a nervous wreck.

From the degree of Wade's fraying nerves, Matt had a hunch his mom was bluffing. Still, he couldn't be sure.

"Well, Mom," Matt forced a grin and noticed Wade grow pale, "I guess it looks like we came down here for nothing."

Mom's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean, 'for nothing'?"

Matt shrugged. "We were concerned Dylan wouldn't grow up in a stable environment. You're proving me wrong by doing the responsible thing."

Now Wade looked sick. He closed his eyes and stopped eating.

"You think you're really smart, don't you?" The bitterness in Mom's face gave Matt hope. "If I give up my baby, I want something in return."

"Such as?"

"For one thing, money. I know you and Beth are loaded. I know Beth's dead husband was rich. I want some of it."

Matt leaned forward in his boots. "Not one red cent."

"Then I'm going to call those people and say they can have Dylan. What do you think of that?"

Matt stepped aside so she could get at the phone. "Be my guest. You can't sign our consent form unless we haven't given you anything in return, so until Social Services removes Dylan from your care, who you decide to call is your problem, not mine."

"They won't give you the baby." Mom gave a smile that sent icy shivers down Matt's back. "Not after they hear what I have to tell them. In fact, they might even think twice about letting you keep the other children."

A moan came from the bed. Wade pulled himself up and went into the bathroom. The pressure had been too much for his bladder to take.

Fear snaked into Matt's heart. He knew a judge could terminate his guardianship of Ethan, Cassie, and Ryan, if he thought they were in an unsafe situation. Matt hadn't adopted them, he'd only became their legal guardian. There was a difference.

Mom looked triumphant. "I've got your attention now, don't I?"

There was contempt in the way Ms. Simmons looked at Mom, and Matt couldn't blame her.

He motioned to his mom. "Maybe you and I should step outside and have a talk."

"Okay, Matty." Mom put down the consent form. "If you want me to talk, that's just what I'll do."

The double edged meaning fed the fear in Matt's heart. He had to get control of it before Mom got the upper hand.

He followed Mom outside, closed the door and desperately prayed for help.

"I'm not surprised you didn't bring Beth." Mom tugged a pack of cigarettes from her pants pocket. "Protecting your investment, huh?"

He shot her a look, but she just smiled and lit a cigarette.

"You still haven't told her, have you." Mom hadn't asked a question, and Matt didn't even attempt to make a response.

They came to a large concrete barrier that separated the motel's parking lot from the business next door, and stopped to talk.

"Poor, poor Matty." Mom blew out a stream of smoke. "Stuck out here with his druggie mother. Bet you talk about me all the time in that fancy house, don't you?"

"What do you know of Beth's place?"

Mom shrugged. "Wade has friends in Las Cruces. Word gets around."

Matt didn't reply. Those friends were probably helping Wade pay for that motel room.

"The way I see it, Matty, you owe me. I'm not trying to ruin things for you, but I deserve a cut, you know?" Mom squinted into the sunlight. "I want five hundred a month, and I'll keep my mouth shut about your misspent youth-- the drunken binges, and the days you were strung out with Helen." She said it lightheartedly, like she was delivering the punchline to a joke, but he didn't smile. "You need to lighten up, Matty."

He said nothing, just stood there trying to make his mind work.

Mom blew out more tobacco. "After the things I could tell that judge in the court summons, do you really think he'd give you custody of Dylan? If you love your brother, you wouldn't take that chance."

"Oh, Mom, stop it."


"Stop playing games with me. I'm sick of them."

Mom blew smoke in his face. "Well excuse me for breathing. Why don't I crawl off someplace and kill myself? You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

"Mom, stop it." Yanking off his hat, Matt leaned against the wall. Talking to her was like pulling teeth-- very painful, but necessary.

"You still have that Stetson." Mom gave a triumphant smirk. "I wonder what Helen would say if she knew you're still wearing her present."

"Mom, I can't give you any money."

"Why not?"

"Because you'll only ask for more." Matt turned the hat in his hands, wishing she hadn't brought up Helen. Not now, not when he had to be strong. "If you think you need to tell the judge about me, then I can't stop you. I'll have to live with the consequences, and so will the others."

"Don't throw that at my feet, Matty. If they take the kids, it'll be your fault-- not mine." Mom put the cigarette to her lips and drew in a puff of tobacco. "What's five hundred to you? You'll hardly miss it."

"Mom, are you still using?"

Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. "What if I am?"

"It'll kill you, Mom. You gotta jump off."

"That's just what'll happen to me if I do jump." Mom nervously sucked in more tobacco. "Don't ask me to go down the same road you took, Matty. It isn't for me."

Turning, Matt watched the traffic moving past them on the street, then looked back at her. "You won't have to jump like I did. I'll help you, whether you talk to the judge about me or not. I'll pay for the best drug rehab out there-- all you have to do is say the word. But what I won't do-- what I'll NEVER do-- is use Dylan or any of the others as bartering chips."

Mom glared at him. In this light, he noticed she was starting to look her age. She'd always bragged that no one could tell she was an addict, but now, in the direct sunlight, he could tell the years of abuse were catching up.

"Whatever you do, Mom, you won't get to keep Dylan. Not that that's what you want--" Matt broke off and regained control of his voice. "Fight me in court, and neither of us will get him. Do that, and he'll go to some foster family to later be adopted. He'll never know where he came from, or the family he had. Is that what you really want?"

Angrily, Mom dropped the cigarette on the ground. "Five hundred, Matty. Five hundred and this all goes away."

"No, Mom, it won't. We both know it won't. I pay you, and it's like paying ransom-- except this ransom will help you slowly murder yourself. I won't be a party to it."

"Then you'll lose Dylan," she warned. "You might even lose Cassie and Ryan. Ethan won't matter, because he's too old."

"He's still a kid, Mom. Like I was."

Wind blew Mom's long black hair into her face. She brushed it back, fumbled for her pack of smokes to light up another.

"Ethan isn't anything like you." Mom pointed at him with a fresh cigarette. "He'd never jump off with nothing to catch him, just to take care of a bunch of kids that weren't his own. No, he might be young, but he's got nothing on you." A strange tone of grudging pride snuck into Mom's voice. "You were puking your guts out, claiming God was with you-- I thought for sure you'd permanently gone bananas."

A slow sigh moved through Matt.

"So you won't let me have my cut?" She squinted into the light. "You'd really do that to your poor old mom?"

"I can't, Mom. I won't."

Shaking her head, Mom sucked on her smoke. "What're you going to do when I go to that judge?"

Quietly, Matt forced back the panic. "It's in God's hands."

"So that's it?" She gave a disbelieving laugh. "Just like that? You think I'm bluffing? Just try me, Matty, and see how far you get."

The old sadness swept through Matt, and he rubbed his eyes to rid himself of the mental picture of his Mom walking away. Just like she always did.

"Can I ask you something?" Matt looked at her and noticed her surprise when he didn't shout or cave in to anger. "Did you ever love us?"

"What kind of question is that?"

Matt looked at the ground, then at her. "Did you?"

"Of course I did. How could you ask that? It's not only stupid, it's hurtful."

"I was just wondering." Matt put the hat back on. "I think we're done talking, don't you?"

She blinked at him in stunned surprise.

He took one more look at his mother, greedily sucking in tobacco to soothe away the ugly yearnings for meth and whatever else she was hooked on. Cigarettes had never done anything for Matt, and he figured she would need to get a fix soon, before withdrawal really started to kick in.

When Matt returned to the room, Ms. Simmons was reading something from her briefcase. And Wade? He was in the bathroom, hiding.

"We're ready to go." Matt held the motel door open, and she gathered up her briefcase without comment.

Ms. Simmons was more than ready to leave. She nearly ran out that door.

An hour before closing time, Matt pulled in front of the nursery and sat in the car for a full ten minutes. Beth knew, for she watched him from the store window. She wanted to rush out there and dump a hundred questions on him at once, but stopped herself. He looked so sad, so very tired, she didn't have the heart to ply him with questions. When he was ready to talk, he would come inside.

On the floor by the checkout, Ryan napped on a bed of tarpaulins and Beth's heavy work overcoat. After a day of playing and running about the store with all three women watching him, Ryan was tired, and so were the women.

Beth looked down at the wide awake baby in the sling against her chest. She tickled his nose and he smiled. His little hand grabbed her finger, refusing to let go when she gave a gentle tug.

She looked back to the parking lot and saw that the car was empty.

A few moments later, Matt's weary frame filled the entrance. He looked about, saw her, and came to where she stood with Dylan.

"How'd it go?" she asked.

Instead of answering, Matt scooped her into his arms for a great big hug. He minded the baby, and didn't press her too close, but Beth felt his need for comfort.

"I told her 'no,' Beth. I couldn't do it. I'm sorry, so sorry."

It took a moment for Beth to realize what Matt had meant: Eve wanted money, and Matt had turned her down. Neither surprised Beth.

"It's okay. You did the best you could. It's all right." Beth rubbed her cheek against his shoulder. "She's going to fight us, then?"

Silently, Matt nodded.

"Well." Beth pushed out a resigned sigh. "I guess the judge will have to decide what's in Dylan's best interest. Were the papers served?"

Again, Matt nodded.

"Good." Beth tried to calm herself while Sylvia and Amy watched from the checkout. A customer came through the entrance, but Matt didn't seem to notice. He looked exhausted, emotionally drained and in no mood for anything but Beth and the children.

She lifted out Dylan, gave him to Matt and smiled when he cradled him close.

"Go sit in the office, Matt. After this customer leaves, we're closing up early and going home."

"You can't keep closing the store, Beth. It's costing you business."

"Let me worry about that. Go. Go on, the office is all yours. Sit down and try to relax. You look like a taunt rubber-band about to snap."

Amazingly, there was still a bit of fight in his eyes. He plainly wanted to resist, but finally shook his head and went to the office with Dylan.

Beth stayed by the checkout to keep an eye on Ryan. The customer smiled at the sleeping little boy, and moved about the store in a quiet hush so Ryan wouldn't be disturbed. For the man's kindness, Beth gave him a complimentary shovel. He was a contractor, and a regular customer, so Beth knew better than to give him a fern with a bright bow.

When the man left, the girls started closing up the store.

"Ryan, come on, Sweetheart. It's time to get up." From a crouched position, Beth lifted the boy. As she straightened, she felt his dead weight in her back. She would pay for it with a smarting ache later, but for now, she carried Ryan to the office to collect her two guys.

The diaper bag, and any toys they could find, all were hauled out to the car. It took two trips, but in the end, Ryan was strapped into his booster, and Dylan into his carrier. Both were in the backseat, and both were drifting to sleep.

"Do you want me to drive?" Beth asked as Matt climbed behind the wheel.

He shook his head, waited as she got into the passenger seat and closed the door.

"What did Ms. Simmons say we should do?"

"Just wait and see what Mom does. Then act accordingly."

Beth bit her lip. Waiting would be hard.

"If we lose Dylan"-- Matt looked at her squarely-- "it's going to be my fault."

"No, it won't." Beth emerged from her thoughts to buckle her seatbelt. "That's tired and worn-out speaking, not the Matt Taylor I married."

"Will you blame me, Beth?"

"Stop talking like we've already lost him."

"Beth, will you?"

Knowing that if she answered too quick, he wouldn't take her seriously, she paused. "No, I won't blame you. You're only a man, not God. God can't expect you to do more than your best, and neither can I. Are you sure you don't want me to drive?"

"Why?" he asked. "Do I look that bad?"

She hesitated. "You really do."

"Then you drive." He passed her the keys, got out and moved to the passenger's seat. "We've got precious cargo on board, and I don't want to get into an accident because I was tired."

She gave him a smile and he looked grateful for the kindness.

"I love you, Matt."

"I know."

"Then stop treating me as though I'm only saying it out of pity." She started up the car, glanced at the man beside her and observed the tired grin on his face.

He closed his eyes and leaned against the headrest. "I love you, too."

When they arrived home, Cassie already had dinner started. She didn't know how to cook, but the frozen pizza was easy enough to stick in the oven without messing anything up. Beth gave Cassie a hug for trying to be helpful. It was very sweet of her to do without being asked.

Before dinner, Matt sat the two older children down to discuss what had happened with their mom. At first, they took the news with sober faces, though from there, each reacted differently. Ethan went to brood in his room, and Cassie fought back tears.

Mercifully, by then, the pizza was ready and Beth had a good excuse to change the subject.

The subject didn't stay changed for long.

"Maybe we should get another attorney," Ethan suggested over another helping of pepperoni and mozzarella. "Are two lawyers better than one?"

Matt choked on his dinner. He smiled, coughed, and took a sip of water. "I don't know. I could always ask Ms. Simmons."

"Do you think it would help if I tried talking to Mom, myself?"

"Thanks, Ethan, but I don't think it would."

"Matty?" Cassie gave her oldest brother a thoughtful look. "Would it hurt anything if we did give Mom money? I mean just the five hundred a month. I don't know... just so she could buy groceries and stuff?"

Putting down his pizza, Matt looked about the table. "Okay, let's talk about this. If we did give Mom money, what would she do with it?"

"I know what she'd do, and so does everybody else." Ethan shook his head. "She'd get higher than a kite and then come begging for more, and it wouldn't be for food."

Sadly, Cassie nodded.

"There's one other reason I turned Mom down." Matt leaned back in his chair. "Even if we did pay Mom for Dylan, this isn't an adoption. Legally, I'm not your parent-- Mom and your dads are. Mom could still go to a judge and tell him about me, and that judge could terminate my guardianship so you all are split up and put into foster homes. If we pay Mom for Dylan, there will never be an end to it; she'll see we're willing to be blackmailed, and then use Dylan and the rest of you to force this family to support her habit. I'll also add that while five hundred isn't much, it's enough to do Mom a lot of damage." Matt looked about the table. "I didn't have time to talk this over with you earlier, but it's important we have agreement. If any of you disagree, speak up now."

Swiping at the wet sheening her eyes, Cassie shook her head. "Don't give her the money."

Ethan nodded. "No money."

Matt looked to Beth.

"No money," Beth said quietly. It hadn't been easy for any of them to say that, and no one was rejoicing that Eve had lost that round.

"Matty?" Cassie worried at the pizza on her plate. "If Mom ever gets clean and stops trying to get us to pay for Dylan, could we give her money then?"

"If Mom gets clean," Matt sighed, "then she'll have earned it."

"It'll never happen." Ethan frowned, and even in that frown, Beth saw deep sadness. "Mom will never get clean."

Everyone at the table went silent.

"Does anyone want dessert?" Beth tried to get some smiles by turning to happier thoughts. "We have ice cream and--" She was cut short by the cowboy ringtone coming from Matt's pocket.

He pulled out his cell, and Beth tried hard not to dread him answering. The last two calls had turned the family upside down, not to mention poor Matt.

"Hello?" As Matt listened to the caller, he gripped the phone so hard his knuckles turned white. A few more moments, his face turned just as pale. "Which hospital?"

Cassie sat upright in her chair. She shot a look at Beth, then Ethan.

"How long ago?" Matt nodded, and kept listening. "We'll be down as soon as we can." When he hung up, the entire table was staring at him.

"Well?" Beth asked.

"That was Wade." Matt cleared his throat, and when he spoke his voice threatened to break. "An hour ago, Wade called 911 and an ambulance took Mom to the hospital. They said she had an abnormally high heart rate. I told him we'd be there as soon as we could."

"Abnormally high heart rate?" Beth tried to make sense of it. "Does your mom have high blood pressure?"

Shaking his head, Matt sank forward at the table in grief-induced weakness. He cleared his throat, and she saw the effort it took for him to push out the words.

"Wade said she OD'd on meth. He said she tried to kill herself, and that she might be getting her wish."

The world jarred to a standstill.

In that one moment frozen in time, Beth knew the children would never be the same again.

"Every wise woman buildeth her house: but the foolish plucketh it down with her hands."
~ Proverbs 14:1 ~

end of chapter
<< Love Stories Last PageLove Stories Next Page >>
Spread the Love
One of my longtime readers, Myra Valcourt, has created a Facebook group just for you! "The Works of Judith Bronte" offers a forum to discuss the stories and characters, and a way to get to know other readers. I hope to see you there!