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Chapter Twenty-nine
This Crazy Kind of Love

"The LORD redeemeth the soul of His servants: and none of them that trust in Him shall be desolate."
~ Psalm 34:22 ~

Read it," Ethan prompted. "What's it say?"

These were his mom's last words, and though they were addressed to Beth, Ethan had a right to know. Steadying herself, Beth read Eve's letter out loud. It didn't start with "hello," but plunged right in without missing a beat.

Whatever you think of me, I promise it isn't half as bad as what I think about you. You've turned my kids against me, or else Matty would've given me my fair share. Well fine. I don't want your money. You and Matty, and the rest of them can rot in hell for all I care. From day one, they've been nothing but trouble. They don't deserve me. I gave them life, and what do I get in return? Not even a thank you!

Pausing, Beth glanced over to Ethan. His face was pained, but he nodded at her to keep going. Beth lowered her voice to a whisper, and prayed the children in the living room couldn't overhear.

I bet you're pleased Matty turned me down. All I asked for was 500. Was that too much to ask for someone who went through what I did to bring them into the world? If that's the way they feel, then fine. Who needs them? Or you, for that matter? I don't care how much money you have, you can't buy me off like you have Matty and the kids. The money comes from you, doesn't it? so we can't make Beth angry, can we? Well I don't care!

The words packed a punch, and Beth had to stop a moment to catch her breath.

"Don't let her get to you," Ethan said, dropping down from the counter. "Do you want me to finish it?"

"No, I'll do it." Beth continued:

Matty's been going to great lengths to keep his secret from you, and kept me away from you every chance he got. Bet he doesn't want to spoil his investment, and all that time it took him to convince you to marry him. Bet you think you're pretty smug, don't you? All clean and proper in that fancy house of yours.

"Okay," Ethan reached for the letter, "you'd better let me finish that."

"Your mom addressed this to me," Beth said, giving Ethan a look that had him dropping his hand. "I want to know what was so important for her to think she needed to write this."

"She's getting even," Ethan warned. "She's doing this to hurt you and Matty."

"That may be, but I have to know." Beth struggled to hold the letter without trembling. "She addressed it to me. I can't be a coward about this-- if she had something important to say to me before she took her life, then I should at least listen. I owe her that much."

Shaking his head, Ethan moved back, folded his arms and kept silent as Beth resumed the letter.

If Matty won't tell you, then I will. He's using you, just like he used Helen. And he'll throw you away, just like he did her. He had to have money to buy drugs, and where do you think he got it? He didn't get it from any of his family-- no, he got it by selling Helen. He turned that poor sweet girl into a prostitute so he could have money to feed his habit. Don't believe me, ask Ethan. Ethan will tell you, even if Matty never will. Helen is a prostitute because of Matty, and he left her-- just walked away and left her on the streets. You didn't know that, did you? I'll bet you didn't.

Ethan blew out a sigh. "Thanks, Mom. Thanks a lot. We really appreciate you interrupting your suicide to tell us that."

"There's more." Beth sucked in a deep breath as she turned to the second page. Thankfully, it was only half full.

Even when Helen got sick, Matty didn't help her, didn't even lift a finger to get her off the streets. Her parents begged him to do something, but he did nothing. All he had to do was talk to her-- that's all he had to do-- and he did nothing.

Beth slammed to a full stop when Cassie came into the kitchen with her lunch plate and empty glass.

"Can I play with Dylan?" the girl asked, placing her dishes into the sink. "If he's awake, can I hold him awhile?"

Nodding "yes," Beth folded the letter back into the envelope. She didn't know how much more of Eve's venom she could take, and heartily wished she didn't feel the need to get back to it as soon as Cassie left the kitchen.

"Has Matty called yet?" Cassie asked as Ethan hopped back onto the counter.

"Not yet. Ethan, get down."

"Do you think Wade is fighting with Matty?"

"I don't know. I hope not. Ethan, get down."

As Ethan dropped down, Ryan came in with his dishes.

"Do you think Wade will sign the medical release?"

"I don't know, Cassie. I'm praying he will." Beth took Ryan's things, turned to put them into the sink. "I'll let you know as soon as I hear anything from Matt."

The girl noticed the envelope in Beth's hand, but must have thought they were bills for she and Ryan left without asking what it was.

Ethan pinned Beth with a look. "Are you going to finish it?"

Beth pulled out the letter, opened it, and found where she had left off.

What makes you think you're so special that Matty won't dump you the way he did Helen? The next time you let him touch you, just remember it won't last. As soon as Matty gets what he wants, you're going to wish you never met him. He'll throw you away, and then you'll be sorry. You'll ALL be sorry.

The letter was signed "Eve," and nothing more.

Beth turned over both pages to see if she had missed anything. That was it. The one chance Eve had of setting the record straight about her life, let alone making any sort of an apology to her children, and instead she'd wasted it in a long diatribe.

What a thing to write just before killing yourself.

"You're taking the news better than I figured you would." Ethan tugged open the fridge, pulled out a carton of orange juice, opened it, then hefted it to his mouth.

"Oh, no, you don't. Use a glass." Beth gestured to the cupboard. "Matt already warned me he had an ugly secret in his past, so I was prepared. This was bad, but I wasn't too shocked."

"Mom didn't pull any punches, I'll say that for her." Ethan poured juice into his glass. "When Helen got sick, her parents came to our house back in Texas. They wanted Matty to talk her into leaving the streets, and coming home so they could take care of her. Matty wouldn't do it."

"Did he say why?"

Ethan shrugged. "He didn't want to be sucked back into the drugs. Before she got sick, though, he did try to talk to her. Matty went out there and witnessed to her, told her about Jesus and all that. Instead of her turning to religion, she got him into bed and he started using again. It only lasted a day or so, but after that, Matty started making noises about leaving Texas. We couldn't get out of there until later, until after Helen became sick, but it wasn't too soon for Matty."

"Do you know what illness Helen had?"

For a long moment, Ethan stared at Beth, as though wondering how much Beth really wanted to know.

"Helen was born with some sort of heart defect, and that and all the drugs got her really sick. When she flat out refused to get off the streets, her dad was angry, big time. He was all over Matty to do something, but Matty said if she hadn't been willing to listen to him the last time, then she wouldn't now." Ethan drank some juice, wiped his mouth and looked thoughtful. "He was afraid she'd suck him back in, like she did the last time. I don't think he trusted himself to talk to Helen again."

"Do you know what happened to her?"

Ethan gave a one-shouldered shrug. "Last I heard, she was still hooking for drugs. Mom blamed Matty for Helen's mess, and I hafta admit, I liked to egg him about it whenever he got too bossy. Are you going to tell him about the letter?"

"Of course. I have to, I can't hide this." Beth folded the letter, placed it back into the envelope. "These are your mother's last words. Like you, Matt has a right to know."

"What about Cass and Ryan?"

Beth tucked the envelope into the pocket of her robe. "I'll have to talk that over with Matt, but I don't see any good coming from telling Cassie. Maybe later, when she's older, but not now. Her grief is too fresh."

Ethan nodded. "I guess that sounds right." He dropped the plastic cup into the sink, then turned to leave. "If Wade doesn't sign the medical release for Dylan, I hope Matty clobbers him."

The thought of Matt and Wade fighting didn't set well in Beth's mind. She could easily imagine it, and knew it probably wouldn't go well at the guardianship hearing to have to admit that Matt clobbered Wade into signing a medical release.

Please, God, help it to go well.

No sooner had she prayed the thought in silence, than Ryan shouted,

"Matty's back! Matty's back!"

The baby started to cry, and Beth hustled into the living room to make sure Ryan quieted down before Dylan worked himself into a fit. As she rounded into the next room, the shouting subsided.

She found Matt taking the baby from Cassie, his cowboy hat still on and Ryan clamoring to be picked up.

"One at a time," Matt said, shouldering Dylan and giving him a comforting pat on the bottom. "Cass, go get Beth." Matt looked up as Beth crossed the room to him.

"How did it go?" she asked, not waiting for Matt to offer up the information on his own. "Did Wade sign the medical release?"

"Matty, I want up!" Ryan cried as Dylan kept fussing. "I want up!"

"Here, you'd better take the baby." Matt handed Dylan over to Beth. "So far, I've had quite a day, and it doesn't look like it's getting any quieter." He lifted Ryan, and came over to the couch where Beth took a seat.

Nearby, Ethan stood with his arms folded, his feet apart, bracing himself for the news.

Nervous and apprehensive, Cassie sat down to listen.

"First off," Matt said, taking the seat next to Beth, "Wade did sign the medical release. As soon as we can get an appointment for Dylan, we can take the little guy to a doctor."

"Praise the Lord for that!" Beth settled back on the couch. That had been her biggest immediate concern.

"Secondly," Matt let Ryan climb onto his lap, "I had a long talk with Wade. It got loud at times, and God knows I could have used more patience, but Wade finally signed the guardianship papers for Dylan."

Beth gasped in shock. "No, he didn't."

"Yes, he did." Matt gave an affirming nod. "Ms. Simmons and I got him down to the notary public, and after reminding Wade that Mom wasn't there to stop him, he signed everything Ms. Simmons put in front of him."

With her free hand, Beth grabbed Matt's arm. "Does this mean Dylan is ours?"

"That's what I asked Ms. Simmons when we came out of the notary public's office," Matt said, shifting Ryan on his lap.

"And what'd she say?" Cassie cried, while Ethan came closer to follow every word.

"The judge at the guardianship hearing will make the final decision," Matt said as Dylan continued to cry, "but she said having Wade's written permission will very likely go a long way. She thinks we'll easily get Dylan."

"Yes!" Ethan did a fist pump and grinned. "For once, Wade did something right."

"Don't give him too much credit." Matt wore a grimace that reminded Beth he'd said his morning hadn't gotten any quieter. "When we got to the motel, Wade started talking about getting paid for Dylan. That got into a shouting match, and Ms. Simmons had to pull us apart. She did, too. For a skinny lady who sits behind a desk all day, she did a decent job of playing peacemaker."

"Matt, you didn't really get into a fistfight with Wade, did you?"

"Almost," Matt admitted. "It wasn't until after Wade had signed the papers, that Ms. Simmons said it was appropriate for me to propose helping out with Mom's funeral. I couldn't do anything that might be construed as paying off Wade, so we had to be careful about that."

"I'm glad Ms. Simmons was thinking."

"Oh, she was." Matt smiled. "She's sharp as a tack. I found out the hospital will probably pay for Mom's care, but the funeral expenses will be on Wade. He doesn't have that kind of cash, and told me so outright. Ms. Simmons suggested we don't have any kind of a service, and just go straight to burying Mom. Wade was all for it, but I thought I'd run that by everyone here before making that decision."

"Does that mean we can't see Mom?" Cassie asked.

"That's right," Matt nodded. "Why? Do you want an open casket showing, or what is it Ms. Simmons called it-- a visitation? Is that what you want?"

Biting her lip, Cassie nodded. "It's probably more expensive, though."

Beth spoke up. "Don't give that a moment's thought, Cassie. This is your mom, and if you want to see her, then that's what we'll do."

Though Beth half expected Ethan to protest that he wouldn't come-- visitation or not-- the teenager stood there and nodded his agreement with Cassie.

That woman had hurt these children on so many levels, Beth couldn't possibly measure it, but they were still Eve's flesh and blood. It silently amazed Beth at how strong that bond could be. Eve didn't deserve a ceremony, but these children did.

"I think you have your answer," Beth said, looking to Matt while she tried to quiet Dylan. "For their sakes, I think we should, and they never had a chance to say good-bye."

"Okay," Matt nodded, "I'll tell Wade."

"Did you have a chance to call any of your fathers yet?" Beth didn't know how to put it, for there were at least three fathers between the five children, not counting Wade.

"Not yet-- later." Matt placed Ryan on the cushion beside him. "I want to set up an appointment for Dylan, first."

"Before you get into all that," Ethan said, "I think you need to talk to Beth somewhere private."

The wording had Beth wincing, and she feared it would spark curiosity, or at least dread among the others that something bad had happened.

"Beth can probably help you work out funeral stuff, can't you, Beth?" Ethan was trying to deflect Cassie's curiosity, and it worked. The girl settled down, and Beth nodded "yes."

It was the truth after all-- she could help Matt with the funeral. She'd buried a husband and son, and knew what needed to be done.

While the ploy worked on Cassie, Matt was another matter. He looked intently at Beth, and she could feel his alarm. He hid it from the kids, but Beth could see it in those alert, dark eyes.

He knew something was wrong.

"Cassie, why don't you get dressed," Beth directed, "and Ethan, maybe you could help Ryan into his clothes?"

"Sure, come on, squirt." Ethan picked up his little brother and left without a word of fight, or any reminder of how he didn't like to be told what to do.

Reluctantly, Cassie left to change, leaving Beth with Dylan and Matt.

"Okay," Matt breathed, "let's have it. What did Ethan want to keep from the others?"

"Beth?" Cassie called from her bedroom. "Are we going anywhere today? Can I wear a nightgown and robe, like you, if we're only staying home?"

"Hold on." Beth gave Dylan back to Matt. "I'll be just a moment."

Now that Beth had Matt's full attention, she could see it frustrated him to be told to wait.

It took only a moment to tell Cassie to change. It didn't matter if they went somewhere or not, it was time to get dressed.

By the time Beth returned to the couch, Matt was standing and looking ready to come after her.

"Let's step onto the patio," Beth suggested, and led the way through the glass doors, out onto the paved red brick beneath an open New Mexico sky. Despite telling Cassie to change, Beth had yet to dress, and dearly hoped if they had any unexpected visitors, they wouldn't come now.

"What is it?" Matt asked. "Something's wrong, isn't it?"

"You might say that," Beth admitted, "but it could be worse. Calm down, okay? I wish Ethan hadn't said it the way he had. It sounds worse than it actually is."

"Beth. What is it?"

She took in a deep breath. "I know about Helen."

"You what?"

"I know about Helen. Eve wrote me a letter, and sent it just before her suicide. It was addressed to me," Beth took the letter out from her robe pocket, "so Ethan and I read it. Cassie doesn't know it came, but..." Beth sighed, handed the letter to Matt. "Read it, and I think you'll understand why we didn't want Cassie to know about it right now. It'd be too much for her to take--" Beth stopped as Matt snatched the letter, handed Dylan back to her, then stepped back to open the envelope.

"Mom wrote to you?"

Beth nodded. "I must warn you, she says some pretty harsh things about you and the kids. Brace yourself-- it's not going to be pleasant."

Matt flicked her a glance, opened the letter and began reading.

Thankfully, Dylan was beginning to quiet, and when she started rocking him in her arms, he fell asleep. Oh, wonderful silence. When Dylan got going, sometimes she felt silence would never come. Thank the Lord for tired babies, otherwise their parents would never sleep.

"Huh." Matt harrumphed as he read. "Gave us life. What a joke. That's about the only thing she did give us-- that and a string of abusive boyfriends to terrorize Ethan and Cassie. But yeah, Mom gave us life."

Cocking his hips like a gunslinger about to do battle, Matt stood there in those worn jeans and T-shirt, his face hidden beneath the brim of his Stetson as he read. Another sigh of disgust burst from his lips.

"Oh yeah, I was bought off, all right." He flashed a look at Beth. "I only married you so you could buy me things-- or at least, so says Mom." He pushed out a sigh, then tensed as he came to the next part of the letter.

The part where Eve talked about Matt's secret.

Matt went stone silent. He kept reading, and Beth replayed the words in her mind...

He turned that poor sweet girl into a prostitute so he could have money to feed his habit.

It made Beth shudder, and she cuddled Dylan close to rid herself of the ugly picture it painted of Matt's past.

With a gurgle, Dylan blinked up at her, his tongue sticking through his lips like he sometimes did when sleeping. Beth touched a finger to his small button-nose, and his hands fisted with a happy little smile. His mouth opened in a yawn, and he closed his eyes to resume his sleep.

She looked back at Matt and saw the letter shaking in his hands.

"Matt, calm down."

"I am calm."

"No, you're not. Your hands are trembling."

"I can't believe she said this."

"Maybe so, but she did." Beth stepped forward, took the letter from Matt before he wadded it and hurled into the trash, or worse, lit it on fire and stirred the ashes. "I think you'll agree Cassie will want to see this one day, if only to see for herself what her Mom's last words were."

"I can't believe Mom did that to me." Matt went to the wrought iron table on the patio, sank into a chair and shook his head. "She had to inject that venom somewhere, and she chose the most sensitive part of my life to do that. She chose you."

"It's all right, Matt. It doesn't matter."

"But, it does." He looked at her as she came to sit in the remaining chair at the small table. "Do you believe what Mom said about me?"

The way Matt asked that, Beth instinctively paused before answering. "I believe before you became a Christian, you were not someone I'd probably like to have known. You've warned me several times that your past was ugly. In your own way, you've been preparing me for this moment for a long time."

"So you believed what Mom said about me?"

"What wasn't to believe?" Beth asked helplessly. "Ethan explained why you couldn't help Helen. You tried, and had limits to what you could do to save her."

Matt grimaced. "Yeah, I had limits."

"And as for your mom's prediction that you'll throw me away, and that we'll all be sorry..." Beth sighed. "She killed herself, so I suppose she was right in a way. We are sorry she felt she had to take her life, let alone write that awful letter."

"So Ethan talked to you about Helen?" Matt slanted her a look that hinted of things she couldn't quite name. Suspicion? Curiosity? No, it was there in his eyes-- it was fear.

"Yes, he talked about her."

"Because you had questions."

"Yes. I had questions."

The look in Matt's eyes didn't go away. It made Beth uneasy.

"Why? Was I not supposed to ask questions about Helen?"

He folded his arms and turned to stare at the toes of his old boots. "Forget it. Just forget I said anything."

"You didn't say much to begin with, Matt." She wanted to give him a smile, but his eyes were fastened on those boots and not on her. "Do you want to talk about this?" she asked.

"No. No, I don't."

"Are you mad at me?"

"No, not really."

"Then I have to get moving." Beth got to her feet. "Maybe you could take Dylan awhile? I have to start calling around for a good pediatrician, and then I need to change so I'm not the only one still in pajamas."

He reached for the baby, and Dylan whimpered in his sleep as she transferred him to Matt.

"Don't forget, you wanted to notify your dads about Eve."

Matt shook his head and sighed. "The way you say that-- 'your dads'-- it sounds like I don't know who my father is."

"Matt, I didn't--"

"I know, I know." Matt rubbed a free hand over his eyes. "Sorry. This hasn't been my day. You're right-- I'll start making those calls." He winced. "I just remembered my cell is getting low on minutes. Maybe I could use the kitchen phone?"

"Sure, I can use my cell phone to call the pediatrician. If I can't get an appointment for today, I'll get one for as soon as the doctor is free. Even if that means closing the nursery for another day."

Matt nodded absently, the baby snuggled against his chest.

"Okay then." Beth turned to leave. "I'll go see about that doctor."

Matt looked up at her, his gaze trimmed by the brim of his Stetson. His mouth opened, then closed, and he looked away. He rubbed his temple, looked back at her with an open mouth. He was about to speak-- she was certain of it, and yet he closed his mouth with a groan and said nothing.

"Did you want to say something to me?" she asked, hoping to speed things up.

"No." He shook his head. "I don't."

The adamant tone sounded positive. Since she didn't have time to play Twenty Questions, she went inside, closed the glass doors behind her and made a beeline for their bedroom. She had to find a good pediatrician, and if at all possible, get Dylan in to see the doctor today.

She glanced at the time. There was little chance of that happening so late in the day, but she decided to try anyway, and dug out her address book with the number of her doctor. A quick call garnered a recommendation for a good pediatrician, and within the hour she was talking to a nurse about the earliest opening they could come in.

"Is the baby showing any signs of distress?" the nurse asked.

"No, not really. He's proving to be a fussy baby, but he smiled at me today, and if you hold him long enough, he calms down."

"And you don't know if the birth mother had prenatal care?"

"No, I'm afraid I don't. She passed away very recently, and we only just found out that she'd been using meth while she was pregnant."

The nurse asked some questions about the hospital where Dylan had been born, and after being put on hold for about twenty minutes, the nurse came back.

"Doctor Miller has an opening at three-fifty this afternoon. Can you come in then?"

"Yes, we'll be there. Thank you."

When Beth hung up, she hurried into a white top and a pale green skirt. She scooped her hair into a ponytail, swept blush over her cheeks then slicked on her favorite shade of lipstick. They had roughly forty minutes to get down to the doctor's office, and she prayed they would make it in time.

Talking to Cassie's father was about as enjoyable as a root canal without anesthesia. If Matt had a choice, he would've sprang for the dental surgery rather than explain to a drunken jerk that his former girlfriend-- the mother of his only daughter-- had just passed away from an overdose of meth. The man didn't care, and when that message had been delivered in no uncertain terms, Matt hung up and berated himself for even trying. Ryan's dad couldn't be located, and his own father wasn't being allowed phone calls inside prison. There had been no good behavior, so there would be no phone calls. Matt left a message with a sympathetic prison guard and left it at that.

So much for family.

Disgusted, Matt went to the pickup truck out front to collect the precious medical release. He'd forgotten it in his excitement to tell Beth and the others that Wade had signed the papers. Not just the release, but also the guardianship! That round was all but won, and things were starting to look downright hopeful.

That is, right up until Beth had shown him that letter.

Man, he could've done without that.

He snagged the medical release from the glove compartment, locked the truck and stared at the hard-won document. When the judge made it official, they wouldn't need this, and according to Ms. Simmons, the guardianship was almost a sure thing. He'd already proven he could be responsible for the others, and with their mom's suicide and the birth father's consent, the judge would grant this guardianship almost without thinking. That was a very broad interpretation of what Ms. Simmons had said, but it amounted to the same thing.

And instead of celebrating that almost-victory, here he was, standing in the hot sun wondering how much he had to tell Beth.

It was in the past. Surely, it didn't count-- it couldn't possibly. She didn't have to know, did she? Who said Beth had to know about what he was, or what he'd done?

If he told Beth, would she still love him?

Please, God, she had to. She just had to, or Matt didn't know what he'd do. He'd be lost without her.

No, he couldn't say anything. He'd keep his mouth shut.

He wouldn't risk losing Beth.

It took Beth longer than she thought to get ready. By the time she had changed Dylan's diaper and dressed him in a cute onesie, she was surprised to find herself running late. Where had the time gone?

Hurrying out of the bedroom with Dylan in his carrier, the diaper bag and a purse slung over her shoulder, she found the children scattered around the living room TV. Matt, however, wasn't to be found.

"Where are you going?" Ethan asked, muting the set to the protest of Ryan.

"Dylan has a doctor's appointment." Beth placed the carrier and the bag on the couch so she could search her purse for car keys. "Where's Matt? Do you know?"

"I think he's washing the truck," Ethan shrugged. "Can I come?"

"Can I come, too?" Cassie asked. "I got dressed."

"I'm coming too!" Ryan chimed in quickly.

"Washing the truck?" Beth sighed. She knew what that meant. Her cowboy did indeed have a lot on his mind. "Well, if you're all coming, everyone use the bathroom and put on your shoes. Ethan, would you help Ryan tie his sneakers? Cassie, babysit Dylan a few moments while I talk to Matt."

Car keys in hand, Beth went outside only to find Matt wet and soapy and spraying the truck down with a garden hose.

"Oh, Matt."

He turned off the hose and stared at her, water dripping down his arms. "What?" he asked.

"We have a doctor's appointment in less than half an hour," Beth said in dismay. "Look at you-- you're a mess."

"Thanks a lot."

"Hurry up, get in the house and change. We're going to be late, and I don't want to go down there without you."

Tossing aside the hose, Matt strode toward her so forcefully Beth started backing away.

"Now, Matt"-- Beth held up a hand but he kept coming-- "we're going to be late. Please behave yourself. Matt?"

His arms came around her, and before she could ask him not to mess up her hair, his lips were on hers and demanding attention. His hat toppled off, and the car keys slipped from her hand. The world faded as her senses surrendered to Matt, and pure bliss fogged her mind. As his lips moved to her neck, she struggled to push him away but failed miserably.

"Matt, we have to go."

He raised his head and looked into her eyes. The intensity she saw there, left her breathless.

"Always love me, Beth. Please, love me."

Her hand touched his cheek, and he closed his eyes in something very close to anguish.

"Matt, are you in pain? Is something wrong?"

He embraced her hard, whispered, "Love me, Beth. Please."

"Darling, I do-- I will, but not here, not now. We have to go."

He eased up on the hug, claimed her mouth with such desperation she reeled with stunned pleasure.

She pulled away. "Matt, please, we need to stop."

He gulped in air, let her go ever so gently. "Love me?" he asked again.

"I do, Matt." Her fingers teased his hair, caressed his cheek and came to rest on his lips. "With all my heart."

He came at her again, and it was all Beth could do to ease Matt away without hurting his feelings. His emotions were riding close to the surface, and it wasn't any wonder. He'd been blindsided by his mom's suicide, relieved at Wade's signature on the medical release, not to mention the guardianship papers, then to endure that letter from his mom... It had turned Matt inside out and Beth did all she could to calm him.

"Go get changed," she coaxed, "you can't show up at the doctor's office sopping wet."

"You're wet, too," he said and buried his face against her neck.

"Matt, please don't--" she forced herself to breathe slowly. "We have an appointment, cowboy."

His head raised, and she saw a big grin spread across his mouth. "I love it when you call me that."

"Call you what?" she smiled. "You mean, 'cowboy'? Oh, Matt. You're so sweet."

"Will you always love me, Beth?"

"Of course," she whispered. "Always."

He looked at her steadily, and she braced herself to be told something. He was about to tell her something important-- she could feel it with every fiber of her being. It was there in his desperation.


She waited, and he squeezed his eyes shut.

"I'll go get changed," he breathed, and eased her from his arms. "What time was that appointment?" He picked up his Stetson and eyed her possessively.


He glanced at his watch. "We're going to be late."

"You don't say."

"I do say." He grinned, tugged her back into his arms and kissed her so soundly her ears began to ring. Without warning he let go, then strode back to the house with a confidence that made Beth smile.

He was feeling good.

Now that she thought about it, so was she. She'd lost all track of time, her clothes were wet from Matt's tight embrace, and her lipstick was probably a mess. She went to the truck, looked in the reflection of the side mirror and winced.

Using her fingers, she cleaned the smears around her mouth.

The front door opened, and Cassie stepped out with her purse. The girl smiled knowingly as she came over to the truck.

"Matty's wearing your lipstick, and had to go wipe his mouth."

"Did he?" Beth smiled when Cassie giggled.

"I think it's awfully nice to be so in love." Cassie sighed dreamily. "I can't wait until I have a husband to smudge my lipstick."

"Just as long as he's your husband," Beth said, and went to go find the car keys she'd dropped when Matt surprised her. "There's more to marriage than kissing and sex, though. It's not just about love, it's also about mutual respect, responsibility, sacrifice, and doing what's best for others. Here they are." Beth stooped to pick up her keys. "It's about raising godly children, sorting laundry, washing dishes and scrubbing toilets. Love is not the destination, but the starting place for everything else."

The front door opened and Ethan came out with Dylan in the carrier. "Ryan's waiting outside the bathroom for Matty, and says he won't come if Matty won't."

"Well, Matty's coming," Beth answered. "Since everyone's coming along for the ride, we'll need to take the pickup."

"I've got the keys," Ethan grinned, unlocking the cab. "I'm going to drive, if I have to fight Matty for the right."

Ethan slid Dylan's carrier onto the backseat, and Beth came forward to strap it in.

"Does Matt know the time?" Beth asked. "We're going to be late."

"I'll go make sure he knows." Cassie went into the house, then reappeared a moment later with Matt and Ryan. "He knows!" Cassie shouted.

"Who has my keys?" Matt asked.

Ethan climbed behind the wheel and called out, "Don't you mean, my keys?"

"Get out," Matt ordered. "I'm driving."

"Not today."

"Hey, buddy, that's my truck."

"It's mine now-- you said it was."

"Get out."

"Make me."

"I will if I have to."

"Boys, please." Beth gave them what she hoped was a cease-and-desist look before going inside the house for her purse and Dylan's diaper bag. They didn't need a fight over who drove.

She locked up the house, then rushed out to the truck.

"Let's get this show on the road!" Ethan called as Beth climbed inside.

She slammed the passenger door shut, put on her seatbelt then realized that even though she was sitting beside Matt, Matt wasn't the one behind the wheel.

Ethan leaned forward and gave a maniacal grin. "I won."

"You only think you won." Matt thumped the teenager on the back of the head. "I'm letting you drive. So drive."

Ethan started the engine, flashed Matt another broad grin. "Watch and learn."

"Just go." Matt folded his arms and Beth could see it took a great deal of self-control to not wrestle the wheel away from his younger brother.

It was a simple drive into Las Cruces, but when they hit their first stop-light, everyone had something to say. From the passenger side, Beth directed Ethan onto the correct street, and told him which turns to take. It seemed comical, her giving directions, and Matt telling Ethan what he was doing wrong.

"Let up on the gas. You're going too fast."

"No, I'm not."

"Yes, you are. If a cop sees you, he'll pull your speeding tail over. Now slow down."

"Make a right turn up ahead."

"Obey the speed limit."

"I am."

"No, you're not."

"Stay on this street for two more blocks."

"I'm following the spirit of the speed limit."

"You're going faster than everyone else, so slow down before we get a ticket."

"Here, turn here."

"I don't see any cops."

"That's because they're hiding behind some billboard, waiting for a yahoo like you to make their day. Slow down. I mean it, or I'm taking the truck back."

The threat had an immediate affect, for the truck slowed to the speed limit.

By the time they pulled into the parking lot of the sprawling Douglas Medical Group building, they had four minutes to spare. Beth unstrapped the carrier, while Matt lifted Ryan out.

They hurried into the building, with Beth leading the way.

She came to the check-in desk, and hoped she didn't sound too out of breath when she spoke to the receptionist. There was paperwork to fill out, and Beth was glad Matt had the medical release handy. The kids found seats while Matt and Beth stood by a desk and did the best they could at detailing what they knew of Dylan's brief medical history. They handed in the forms, and were directed to the second floor of the building.

The family took to the stairs, for it was only one flight, and the elevator was usually reserved for those in wheelchairs or elderly who couldn't make such an effort. Ryan had trouble keeping up, so Matt picked him up and carried him to the second floor.

Seats lined the walls of the crowded waiting area, and it took some doing to find enough places to sit down for all of their family.

The others in the waiting room smiled at the little ones, especially Dylan. Shy from so much attention, Ryan climbed onto Matt's lap and freed a chair for someone else. Since they'd come so late in the day, the offices on this floor teemed to capacity. The noise kept Dylan awake, but Beth was able to keep him diverted with a peek-a-boo game that also entertained Ryan.

"Dylan." A nurse with a clipboard looked about the waiting area, and Matt and Beth got up with the carrier and diaper bag.

"You guys had better wait here," Matt said, placing Ryan on Ethan's lap. "Ethan is in charge. Be good, and we'll have ice cream later."

The promise of sweets didn't go unnoticed by Ryan. The boy nodded, his eyes wide with anticipation but still shy enough to stay on Ethan's lap.

For the second day in a row, Beth found herself surrounded by all things medical. This time, however, they weren't in a hospital waiting to hear about Eve. Dylan was finally going to see a doctor-- a pediatrician, to be more specific, and she prayed it would go smoothly. No surprises, as Luke would say. She didn't want any surprises with Dylan.

Beth and Matt followed the nurse to a small examining room, then let Dylan be weighed and measured for their records. The boy protested at first, but when Dylan was returned to Beth he settled down quickly.

"He's a cute one," the nurse smiled, scribbling notes onto her clipboard. "I'm going to need his complete family history, and the pregnancy history of the birth mother."

Beth sighed. She had known this was coming. "I'm afraid the information about the pregnancy is limited. The baby's father told us a few things, but the birth mother passed away last night. From what I understand, prenatal care was a very low priority for her."

"If you could have the birth father fill out this medical record release form," the nurse said, handing them some paper stapled together, "then we can access the birth mother's hospital records. It'll give us some background information about Dylan. We'll also need you to sign one for Dylan's records. Good, I see you have a medical release."

"At least we came partially prepared," Matt sighed. "Does this mean Dylan has to come back later before he can see a doctor?"

"No, the doctor will see him today." The nurse smiled, then started in on a long list of family history questions that kept Matt busy.

By the time Matt made it to the end of the nurse's questions, he wondered how accurate he'd been. How many people could claim for certain that any of their blood relations had never experienced chronic diarrhea? It sounded worse than bad, but had that ever happened to Wade or Mom? Search Matt. He could only say, "I don't think so," and it was on to the next question until the nurse had a full list of answers on her clipboard.

When the nurse left, Matt breathed a sigh of relief. He sat in the padded-- yes, padded-- chair and waited for the doctor to come. It seemed he was spending a great deal of time lately, waiting for doctors.

"Wade will sign that medical record release, won't he?" Beth asked as she held Dylan. "Do you think you can get him to sign it?"

"He'll sign. I can't believe I'm getting him to sign another release, though. I feel like we've already been over that ground."

Beth smiled and cuddled Dylan.

The room was quiet, and Matt's thoughts drifted back to the letter. He didn't have to tell Beth, did he? She loved him, and he wanted to keep it that way. What good would it do to tell her? She knew enough, didn't she? She thought she knew, so why couldn't he keep his mouth shut and let her believe what Mom and Ethan had told her?

Of course, Beth thought he had sold Helen into prostitution. Beth believed it, Ethan believed it, and Mom had believed it. Cassie probably thought that, as well.

That Beth could think him capable of doing such a thing, hurt. But why shouldn't she? He hadn't said anything to make her think otherwise, and he knew why he hadn't.

Because then he'd have to tell Beth everything, and that was what he couldn't bring himself to do.

He wouldn't tell her. He just wouldn't. No one but Helen ever had to know, and Helen had promised to never tell. He was safe. All he had to do was keep his mouth shut and let them think what they wanted. It wasn't like he was lying. Mom and Ethan had come to their own conclusions, and though Ethan liked to use it to taunt him every now and then, they had kept silent about it until now.

Until now. Mom had gone all this time without telling anyone, and now she finally had.

The doctor came in and started talking to Beth, but Matt had trouble following what was being said. He just couldn't get over the fact that his mom had done such a sneaky thing. It was a sucker-punch to the gut, that's what it was, a strike he hadn't seen coming or had time to prepare for.

Beth loved him. She'd promised to ALWAYS love him, so shouldn't he keep his big trap shut? Speaking now would only mess things up.

"Mr. Taylor?"

Matt blinked, and realized the doctor was talking to him.

"Sorry." Matt felt like he'd just been caught napping in class. "Could you repeat the question?"

The man in the white lab coat smiled, and nodded to the hand he held out. "I was introducing myself."

"Oh, right." Matt shook the man's hand.

"I'm Dr. Miller and I'm going to be your brother's pediatrician."

Matt nodded. "Thanks for seeing us on such short notice."

"You look like a man with a lot on your mind," the doctor nodded, "so let's see what we can do to alleviate some of your worries."

The doctor had no idea just how much Matt had on his mind. Matt would give anything to not have to answer the question that kept slamming into his conscience. Should he tell her? Did he have to tell her? Was there anything in the Bible that said he absolutely had to tell Beth? Something like, "Thou shalt tell your wife everything?"

Matt didn't think there was. He'd remember something like that, wouldn't he?

While Beth held Dylan, Dr. Miller placed a stethoscope on Dylan's chest, and the baby grabbed it and gave it a small tug. The doctor smiled, and kept moving the scope around on Dylan's chest. Then he moved the stethoscope to Dylan's back and repeated the process.

"Everything sounds as it should." Dr. Miller took off the stethoscope. "Let's just take a peek in his ears, shall we?" He held up an instrument and placed it in Dylan's ear. "Have you noticed any unusual crying? Anything out of the ordinary?"

"No, not really." Beth adjusted Dylan so the doctor could look in the other ear. "He's a fussy baby, but some babies cry more than others."

"When he fusses"-- the doctor sat up, put away the instrument-- "is it in the middle of the night, in the day? Is it time specific?"

Beth looked to Matt. "I'd say it's pretty much all the time, wouldn't you?"

"It's not time specific," Matt agreed.

"Does he cry when you touch him?" Dr. Miller asked.

"No, not really." Beth patted Dylan's tummy as she held him on her lap. "We pick him up, and he sometimes stops crying."

"Sometimes, but not all the time?"

Matt nodded. "Sometimes he starts crying and he won't stop. We'll pick him up, sing to him, rock him-- do everything but stand on our head for him, and he just keeps going."

Dr. Miller adjusted himself on the tall stool he'd pulled out from under the desk. "I need to see the hospital records for the birth mother, and Dylan's birth records, but until then, we'll have to go on what information we have. We know the birth mother used methamphetamine while she was pregnant-- at least twice during the last trimester. She also smoked pot and tobacco, and possibly consumed alcohol." The doctor looked at them and smiled. "I'll tell you, just from the few things I've been able to observe about Dylan, he looks good."

Beth breathed a sigh of relief, but Matt saw the hesitation in the doctor's face.

"Methamphetamine use during pregnancy can bring about complications." Dr. Miller folded his arms. "There may be premature delivery, low birth weight, the possibility of birth defects. There's also the withdrawal the baby may go through after leaving his mother's womb. Some babies need to be medicated. It's a painful process for a baby to have to go through, and can be marked by tremors and the inability to tolerate human touch."

"Oh my." Beth hugged Dylan close.

"When the baby cries," the doctor continued, "it may be more shrill, more irritable than what you'd usually associate with an infant. This may be especially so during stressful situations. The drug affected baby may have a harder time regulating himself with a lot of noise going on around him."

"That sounds more like Dylan," Beth nodded.

Dr. Miller looked thoughtful. "I'd like to schedule a CT scan. These babies can suffer skeletal abnormalities, heart defects, holes in the abdomen... if you can believe that. These children can go through literal hell, and I have to say, just looking at Dylan, I'm encouraged by what I see."

"It's a big relief to hear you say that." Matt looked over at Dylan and smiled.

"I must be up front, though," Dr. Miller looked at them both, "that doesn't mean he's completely unaffected. The effects of methamphetamine on brain development have potential repercussions that can touch Dylan for many years to come. It's not uncommon for me to see drug addicted babies later go on to have hyperactive issues, attention deficit disorders, children who lack the ability to control their rage. Then there's the potential learning disabilities, growth and developmental delays Dylan may have to contend with as he grows up. You won't know there's a problem, until there's a problem, so keep that in mind for the future. I'll give you some information before you leave-- I'd like you to look it over, and come back to me with your questions."

The doctor scribbled more on the clipboard. "I'm eager to look at the birth mother's hospital records. I'd like to have the CT done, and some other tests that I think will be helpful to rule out other complications."

"Dylan smiled at me, yesterday." Beth offered it up like a delicate dandelion in a strong wind. "That's a good sign, isn't it?"

"If it was a true social smile, then yes, that's very good."

"His eyes smiled," Beth nodded, her voice overcome with all that was being said.

Matt hugged an arm around Beth and watched as the doctor kept adding things to the clipboard.

"This CT scan"-- Matt cleared his throat and hoped he sounded confident-- "when will you schedule it?"

"I'd like to do it today," Dr. Miller said, pausing his writing long enough to look at Matt. "It's been at least four hours since his last feeding, so we can get it done this afternoon. I'd like to make sure there's nothing obvious we're missing."

"Good." Matt nodded. "That's good."

"Like I said," Dr. Miller smiled, "I'm encouraged by what I see."

"Okay." Matt rubbed Beth's shoulder and kept reminding himself that they were in God's hands. They couldn't know what the future held for Dylan, but God did. They had to trust Him.

They left the examining room, and went back to others in the waiting area.

"What's the verdict?" Ethan asked, as Ryan came to Matt's side and hugged his leg.

"Come here, buddy." Handing the diaper bag to Cassie, Matt lifted Ryan in his arms and gave him a hug. "They want to give Dylan a CT scan, but so far, it looks like he might've have dodged the bullet. He might have some problems in the future, but according to the doc, it could've been much worse."

Beth gave a sad smile, and Matt knew how she felt. Really, with such a careless pregnancy, Dylan was doing good to get by as unscathed as he appeared to be.

"Can we get ice cream now?" Cassie wondered.

"After the CT scan," Matt said as Beth pulled out her wallet and they headed toward the payment line. "Since Dylan isn't on any insurance plan, this is going to be out of pocket, isn't it?"

"I'm afraid so," Beth said as the line advanced a few feet. "After the guardianship hearing, I'd like to get coverage for you and the kids."

"I'm not a kid," Matt said under his breath. "Ryan, stop squirming. Do you want me to put you down?" When Ryan nodded, Matt let the boy down but grabbed his hand before he wandered away. "Did you get the information Dr. Miller wanted us to have before we left?"

"In my purse," Beth nodded, checking the carrier in her right hand. Matt checked as well, and saw Dylan sleeping with his tongue out. "Cutie-pie," Beth murmured, adjusting Dylan's baby blanket.

Smiling, Cassie hugged Beth's arm. "I was so scared they'd find something wrong with Dylan."

"God is blessing your brother." Beth kept looking at Dylan, and Matt watched Beth.

The old worry again wrestled with him in silence.

The woman at the desk called them, and Beth stepped forward to pay for Dylan's visit. At least Beth could hand over her credit card with a smile, Matt thought gratefully. This was for Dylan, and even he would've been willing to pile on some credit card debt just to make sure Dylan was okay.

The money taken care of, they went downstairs, crossed the parking area to the large building on the opposite side of the lot and went inside. Here, they did lab work and X-rays, and here they had to wait in another room for their turn at the CT machine, or whatever they called it. Matt had no idea what to expect, but from Beth's calm face, he assumed it wasn't a big deal.

Which freed him to worry about his problem.

If he kept quiet, Beth would never know, but if he told her, she'd never look at him the same way again. He knew she wouldn't. How could she, knowing that? It did no good to fool himself into thinking it wasn't a big deal. Her knowing this would be a very big deal, and he was well aware of the risk he would take if he decided to tell her.

Why did he have to say anything? The question kept pounding away at his brain. Maybe some things were better off left unsaid, but Matt had difficulty believing this was one of those times. She had a right to know. She was his wife, and had a right to know what he used to be.

He couldn't tell her now-- not in this waiting room with half a dozen strangers sitting nearby. He'd wait until later.

Oh, God, help me. She's going to hate me after this.

A nurse called Dylan's name, and Matt and Beth got up to take Dylan into another small room.

"We'll need to sedate the baby," the nurse explained, "so he won't move during the scan."

"The scan won't hurt Dylan, will it?" Matt asked.

"The risk to your baby is low," the nurse nodded, "but we have to look at the risk to benefit ratio if something is wrong and it continues undiscovered. With your baby's medical history, this really is needful."

Matt didn't bother to explain that Dylan wasn't his. In a way, Dylan was.

God, please don't let them find anything wrong. If there is, show it to them, but please cause there not to be anything wrong.

Until the sedative started to work, Beth held Dylan, swaying gently, caressing his small head against her shoulder, and rubbing a hand over his back. He seemed to soak in the attention, and in a matter of minutes was fast asleep.

The nurse led them to a room with a large, donut-looking machine with a table that slid out. Beth was told to place Dylan on the table, then they had to step back while the nurse made sure Dylan was securely in position. The table slid into the donut, and then whirring noises sounded as the machine did its thing.

According to the technologist, Dr. Miller had ordered more than one scan to examine all the major organs and spinal cord for possible damage.

Just hearing that made Matt shudder.

Several minutes later, the whirring stopped, and Beth was free to pick up Dylan. After monitoring him to see that he came out of the sedative, they were told it was all right to leave. The little guy was groggy, his eyes half open and more limp than usual, but he could go home and someone would call early the next day to make sure he fully recovered from the sedative.

Before they left, the nurse assured them that within twenty-four hours, they should hear from the doctor's office with the results.

As Matt led his family back to the parking lot, he kept praying Dylan would be all right. He had to be, he just had to be.

"Ice cream!" Ryan shouted, as Ethan helped him into the cab.

"Oh, yeah." Matt shook his head, gave a tired smile to Beth. "I'd forgotten all about that."

"Well, they sure haven't," Beth said as she placed Dylan's carrier on the backseat. "Look at that. Ryan shouted, and Dylan didn't even bat an eyelash."

"I hope this means no crying this evening." Matt rubbed the back of his neck as Ethan climbed behind the wheel. He wouldn't fight it. If Ethan wanted to drive, then Matt would let him. He was in no mood for a back and forth about who's truck this was.

Man, was he tired. Maybe, even too tired to have that talk with Beth tonight. Yeah, maybe. The thought gave him hope. If he was that tired, he might even enjoy the ice cream.

He slid in beside Ethan, and after Beth had fussed enough over the conked out baby, got in next to him. After fastening her seatbelt, she squeezed his hand and Matt's heart responded with a summersault. Dumb, he knew, but that woman did things to him he still didn't completely understand. Like how she managed to crank up his heart when only a moment ago, he'd been dragging it on the pavement.

As the truck left the parking lot, Matt wondered if he and Beth would have their bed to themselves that night. And with that wondering, his excuse went out the window.

If he was so very tired, he wouldn't make love to Beth, meaning that if he did, he wasn't so tired he couldn't talk to her. She wouldn't want to make love after hearing what he had to say, but he would tell her anyway. He'd get it over with, and sleep on the couch until she could stomach to be with him again.

Matt's heart plopped at Beth's feet, beating madly but beating just for her. Agony. This kind of love was pure agony.

She squeezed his hand, and her smile revved up his heart like a four-stoke outboard motor taking to the water.

"God is blessing us, Matt."

"I know," he nodded, and looked at their clasped hands. She fit so nicely into his hand, almost like she was made for him, and he was made for her.

"Hey, where are we going?" Ethan asked as they came to a stoplight. "Do we have enough ice cream at home?"

"What do you mean 'enough'?" Beth leaned forward, looked past Matt and pinned Ethan with a frown.

"Well, to do ice cream right," Ethan shrugged, "you gotta have the right ingredients."

Beth looked to Matt and Matt chose to keep his mouth shut.

Beth eyed Ethan suspiciously. "What ingredients?"

"You know," Ethan gave another shrug, "the usual stuff-- ice cream, peanut butter, graham crackers, chocolate syrup, chocolate candies, whip cream--"

"Oh, no." Beth leaned back and shut her eyes. "Another of your famous concoctions, another monster dessert."

"Yes, yes, yes!" Ryan chanted behind them.

"Well, I figured since our mom died"-- Ethan grinned-- "you'd want us poor children to have a special treat."

"Yes, poor children, indeed." Beth's smile sealed her fate.

Like a missile honing in on its target, Ethan pulled into the nearest grocery store, and the second he parked, Ryan started fighting to get out of his booster.

"You think he's excited now," Matt said, getting out of the truck with Beth, "just wait until he's loaded to the gills with sugar."

"I can hardly wait." Beth lifted Dylan out rather than unfasten his carrier, and Matt smiled when they saw Dylan wake up just long enough to make sure it was them.

"Ryan, get back here." Matt motioned to the boy, then took his hand as soon as he could. "Thanks for this, Beth. I know this isn't exactly normal, but they will enjoy it."

"I know, that's why we're doing it," she said, and followed them into the store.

Cassie located the chocolate candies, Ryan picked out the soft ice cream, and Ethan piled everything else into their cart and announced they had all they would need for dinner.

"If I may ask," Beth looked at their mound of goodies, "what are we going to have for the main meal?"

"You're looking at it," Ethan said simply.

"What about the other food groups?" Beth asked. "Vegetables, for instance."

Ethan reached over, snagged a bag of potato chips and dropped it in the cart.

Beth blinked at him.

"What?" Ethan asked. "Chips count."

Rocking with Dylan, Beth made no further protest. She was fighting a losing war, and for this night only, it seemed she decided to let them have their way.

As they checked out, the woman at the cash register commented that it looked like they were going to have a party.

Before Matt or Beth could answer, Ethan spoke up.

"We are. Our brother's going to be all right, so we're celebrating."

The woman couldn't possibly understand, but Beth and Matt sure did. From Beth's smile just now, Matt could tell she was pleased by Ethan's answer.

Loaded down with grocery bags, Ethan led the way back to their truck. Sometimes, Matt had to admit, Ethan could be very thoughtful.

When the family reached home, Beth decided to hold Dylan rather than place him in the bassinet. The children were in charge of making dinner-- such as it was-- so the cook had the night off.

It felt strangely wonderful to sit on the kitchen stool with Dylan limp on her shoulder, watching Ethan, Cassie, and Ryan build their dinner in five dishes. Matt hung back, his face thoughtful and oddly pensive for someone supposed to be celebrating. Of course, she knew why that sad expression reached Matt's eyes whenever he looked at her.

He was thinking about Dylan, and the results of the CT scans.

They had to have faith, she needed to remind him of that later.

"Do you want more, Beth?" Ethan looked at her from across the center island, then nodded to the dish that evidently was supposed to be hers. That dish was heaped with ice cream, and slathered with chocolate syrup, crushed graham cracker and chocolate candies.

"That's enough for me," she smiled, and secretly planned to throw out what she couldn't, or wouldn't eat. This was for the children, and never was that so plain as when they sat down at the dining table with their creations. The younger children were beaming.

Matt bowed his head, and everyone at the table except Ethan did the same.

"Thank You, Heavenly Father, for giving us hope that Dylan will be all right. Bless the doctor and the nurses, and give Dylan a long and healthy life with his family. Thank you for the signed release and the guardianship papers. We're in your hands, Lord. In Jesus' name, amen."

Ryan grinned, and started in on his dinner.

Bite by bite, the ice cream disappeared amid the laughter and smiles of a happy table. After the strain of yesterday night, and the uncertainty of the visit to the doctor, Ethan, Cassie, and Ryan looked like they were taking a collective sigh of relief, a respite from the grief of having lost their mother. For tonight, they gave themselves permission to laugh even though the next day might be filled with the sadness of remembering that their mom would never come back. They needed this, and so did Matt.

Of all the children, however, it was Matt who kept quiet and didn't join in the party. He sat there, spooning in dessert in an almost automatic rhythm, his head bowed, his face a study of deep thought.

Whatever he was thinking, it didn't put a smile on his face or add laughter to the table.

He was so utterly quiet, Beth feared his thoughts.

Dylan. It was probably Dylan and those scan results. Or maybe he was remembering his mom, or that hateful letter.

Now wasn't the time to talk to Matt.

Stomachs full, and the ice cream eaten, Ethan and Matt cleared the table while Beth held Dylan as she oversaw Ryan's progress as Ryan brushed his teeth. The only thing worse than watching that four-year-old eat so much sugar, was the rather horrifying thought of him going to bed without a good brushing.

Not unexpectedly, Ryan had the sugar fueled energy of a hummingbird after a long visit at a feeder. He ran everywhere, alert and boisterous, and was irresistibly unable to hold still. The noise kept Dylan awake, but the after effects of the sedative were strong enough to keep him from crying. In absolute calm, Dylan took everything in such great stride Beth tried to enjoy the tranquility while it lasted.

With help from Matt, Ryan managed to hold still long enough to get into his PJs. Ethan retired to his room and shut his door, and Cassie went to go read a magazine on her bed and enjoy a night of no homework.

While Beth put a clean diaper on Dylan at the changing table in the little boys' room, Ryan bounced around with his stuffed dinosaur, chasing imaginary bad guys and sending them to jail.

"Almost bedtime," she warned.

"Do I have to?" Ryan asked with a huge yawn.

Beth smiled. Her hummingbird was getting tired.

"Is he going to sleep in the crib?" Ryan asked as Beth lifted Dylan from the changing table. "If I have to sleep, then he does too."

"That's right, but tonight Dylan will be in the bassinet in the other room." Beth left out the part about wanting to make sure Dylan continued to come out of the sedative and coaxed Ryan to climb into his bed.

They said a good night prayer, Ryan got a kiss, then Beth turned out the overhead light while Ryan cuddled under the covers with his dinosaur. She didn't expect him to go to sleep right away, but knew with a little quiet, he would eventually.

After Matt had helped to dress Ryan for bed, Matt had disappeared. Taking a snuggly Dylan with her, she went in search of her husband.

She knew something was bothering Matt.

There wasn't any sign of him in the kitchen, or either of the master bedrooms, so she put on her coat, wrapped Dylan in a warm blanket, then went out onto the patio. Matt had already washed her car and his truck, and unless he planned on working off his mood with another round of cleaning, she reasoned he was probably enjoying the air.

Light from the glass double doors washed onto the patio, giving a good view of the immediate area but forcing Beth to adjust her eyes to look into the shadows beyond.

She found him, sitting on the ground just beyond the patio, a beverage can dangling from his hand.


He looked over his shoulder, then held up the can. "Do you know what I miss? Beer. It could always loosen me up, and here I am, swigging down cola because I promised God not to touch alcohol."

"That's a good promise, Matt."

"I know." Resignation sounded in his voice. "I gave up a lot of things when I came to the Lord. I stopped smoking. Did I ever tell you that?" He squinted a look at her and she shook her head "no." "Well, I did. I gave up sex, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, a foul mouth and... what else? Man, there's more but I can't think of it right now. I gave up lying." He nodded, looked at the ground and then back out over the night. "I gave up on lies. 'The fearful, and unbelieving... murderers, and whoremongers... and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone.' That's from Revelations. One look at that verse and I knew where I was headed-- not that I needed a Bible to tell me that."

Beth stepped closer but stopped short of reaching his side. "Are you all right?" she asked.

"No, as a matter of fact, I'm not." He looked up at her, and gave a very discouraged smile. "I've been better. And you?"

"Matt, you're scaring me."

He took another swig of cola, then drained the can. "I hate to tell you this, Beth, but I'm about to scare you even worse."

Feeling unsteady, Beth moved to a chair at the wrought iron table, sat down and cradled Dylan in her lap.

"Yeah, sit down. By all means, sit down."

There was fear in his voice, a fear she couldn't understand. This wasn't about Dylan. She didn't know what to think, but this wasn't about Dylan.

He looked at her over his shoulder. "I love you, Beth. If I didn't, I wouldn't be out here trying to work up the courage to talk to you."

"Talk to me about what?"

"About Mom's letter-- what she said about me."

"What's left to say? Ethan already explained the circumstances around Helen."

"I'm sure he did." Matt pitched the can as hard as he could toward the pecan tree. She heard it strike the trunk. "You never really pressed me about my past. You knew I had one, and yet you trusted me anyway."

"I love you, Matt. Now that I know your secret, we can put it behind us and move on."

The night went silent. She saw his head bow, heard him groan softly.

"You don't know my secret."

"Yes, I do. I read Eve's letter."

"Mom didn't know, either." Matt pushed himself around to face Beth. "What I'm about to tell you, hardly anyone knows. Not even Ethan. He thinks he does, just like Mom thought she knew, but they were wrong."

"What are you talking about? I know about Helen."

"This isn't about Helen. It's about me." Matt ran both hands through his hair. "I'm talking about how I got the money to feed our drug habit-- Helen and me-- how we paid for our meth."

"But I already know," Beth insisted. "You turned Helen into a prostitute. Eve said you sold Helen to feed your habit."

Matt inhaled loudly. "I didn't sell Helen. I sold myself."


"You heard me-- I sold myself. I was the prostitute, not Helen."

"But I don't understand. Ethan said Helen is still out on the streets, hooking for drug money."

"She probably is."

Beth stared at Matt and Matt looked away.

"I met Helen in high school. We were fourteen at the time, and I was already addicted to meth. I was what you'd call popular in school, at least with the girls. I slept around, bragged about it, and one day Helen came up to me and said she'd like to be next." Matt shook his head. "I never should of taken her up on it. She was young for fourteen, and had never been with a guy before. You might say she was infatuated with me.

"I'm not proud of it, but we started seeing each other on a regular basis. Then I--" Matt slammed his fist into the ground. "I told her it'd be better with meth. I was already into drugs, but she was scared. She'd never done anything like that before, and I said... I said if she loved me, she'd do it."

"Oh, Matt."

Matt pushed himself off the ground. "She started using because of me. I talked her into it and she did it for me. Her addiction came fast, faster than mine. With two habits to support, any part time job I could hold down suddenly wasn't enough. I got desperate and went to a friend. This kid-- Seth-- he was my age, and he was homeless and a druggie. He got propositioned often enough to stay in drugs most of the time, and I knew it. He was like, 'Hey, it doesn't have to mean anything, right? It's just sex. Turn off your mind and just do it. Man, just do it.' How many times did I tell myself that?"

Pacing the outer edges of the patio, Matt kept talking.

"When Helen and I ran out of drugs, I'd go hang out with Seth and someone would usually come along. People paid well for teenage boys, and the money was good. I'd get paid and go with the 'client,' as Seth would call them, do the deed, then go straight to my drug dealer. I'd take the drugs to Helen and we'd do our thing. She never asked where I got the money, but one day-- right out of the blue-- she promised to never tell anyone what I did. She knew I'd been with someone else."

"And you never got caught?" Beth asked.

"Nope, I never did." Matt inhaled as though he were bracing himself for what he was saying. "I thought I was charmed, you know? I couldn't get caught. Seth was picked up by the cops once, but I never was. I was always, always in the right place at the right time. I had a charmed life-- that is, until one day I picked up a religious tract someone had dropped on the sidewalk. I was going to throw it away, but I started reading and I started thinking and I couldn't stop thinking. I was going to hell in a handcart, and I knew it. Everyone around me was headed in the same direction, and I figured I'd gone too far, done too much to be save-able. It had to be too late for me."

With a groan, Matt fell into the second chair at the wrought iron table. "I dropped out of school, and hung out with Seth more often to put food on the table so Ethan and Cass could eat on a regular basis. I knew Social Services were going to take the kids from Mom. It was only a matter of time. Dad had been raised in one foster home after another, and he'd been abused, so I didn't want that for Ethan and Cass. I figured God must've had a good reason to get my attention, or why else would He have bothered leaving that tract for me to find? I was a high school dropout, a drug addict, and a prostitute, but I still had a purpose to fulfill. If God would save me, and forgive my sins, then I'd take care of the others. It wasn't so much a deal with God, as it was an understanding. My life for theirs." Matt looked at Beth. "It made sense at the time."

"How did you get off the drugs?" Beth asked.

Matt shook his head. "You don't want to know. It wasn't pretty, and I'd just as soon not tell you what I went through. When I got my act together, though, it was a new lease on life for Ethan and Cass. Suddenly, someone was looking out for them. I got a job at a gas station, and I worked to become a legal guardian. That's when I understood why God had never allowed me to get caught. If I had a criminal record, I probably wouldn't have gotten the kids. Who'd give someone like me the legal responsibility for anything, let alone two kids? God knew what He was doing."

"Ryan hadn't been born yet?"

"No, Ryan didn't come along until after I got custody of Ethan and Cass. When Ryan was two years old, I went out and tried to witness to Helen. I even offered to marry her. She got me into bed, though, and I started using meth again. It really frightened Ethan and Cass. When I came to my senses, I knew we had to leave Texas. I had to get away, or else it'd pull me under and then I'd be no use to the others. That's when we came to Las Cruces. Two years after we got here, that's when I met you."

It took Beth a moment to find her voice. "That's quite a story."

"Yeah, but it happens to be true."

"I believe you." Beth looked down at the baby snuggled in the blanket on her lap. "Why didn't you tell me all this sooner?"

"Don't ask me that, Beth. Please don't."

"But why, Matt? Did you think I couldn't handle the truth?"

Groaning, Matt pushed to his feet, paced a short distance, then turned to look at her. "I didn't know what you could handle, and I didn't want to find out. We weren't supposed to fall in love-- that was never the deal. But once I did, it seemed like I ought to tell you. You were taking a chance sleeping with me, even with protection, and I tried to be responsible. I got checked out by a doctor, but I should've done it sooner."

"Now I understand." Beth nodded. "That's why you were so anxious about being healthy."

"I don't know why I don't have AIDS," Matt said, shaking his head. "By all rights, I should. I've done things, taken risks no sane person ever would. I can only say God has been preserving me."

"I would have to agree." Beth bit her lip, and stopped short from speaking her next thought.

"Ask me anything, Beth."

"I was wondering who would pay for a teenage boy?"

"All kinds of people would pay, and do." Matt came back to the table. "People too shy about finding someone in their own area, someone closer to home. They go out, and they find us."

"When you say people, do you mean men?"

Matt studied her for a long time. "Yeah, I've been with men."

The thought forced Beth's eyes to look away.

"I didn't want you to know all this stuff for a reason," Matt said, the strain in his voice showing. "I knew it'd change the way you saw me, even change what you felt for me. But this secret-- it's too big, too important for me to keep from you. I love you, and felt you had a right to know."

"Thank you." Beth nodded, trying to keep her voice from breaking. "I knew you had a rough past, but I didn't know how rough." She lifted Dylan, moved to her feet and tried hard to smile. "I'm getting cold out here, so I should probably take Dylan inside."

"Is he doing all right?" Matt asked, getting up.

"He's sleeping like an angel." Beth lowered part of the blanket so Matt could see for himself.

"Beth, I know it's asking a lot, but Ethan and Cass don't know about me."

"I won't tell them."

"I'm not asking you to lie, just not to tell them if you can help it."

"I understand." Beth bundled Dylan. "They don't need to know."


She nodded, and turned to go inside. "Are you coming in?" When he didn't answer, she looked at him. His hands were stuffed into his coat, and his hair was being tussled by the stiff breeze that cut through the patio. "Matt?"

"I heard you." He gave a shrug. "I'll stay out here awhile."

"Don't stay too long." She again tried to smile, then went inside as her heart pounded with what he'd just told her.

It was a lot to take in.

She recalled something he'd told her before, and she shuddered at the memory. He'd been a sex addict, as well. Given what she now knew of him, it was a sobering thought. Matt had overcome a lot to get to where he was right now.

Until tonight, she hadn't realized just how far he'd come.

Admiration aside, she had trouble getting rid of the pictures her imagination had painted of the man he used to be. Who would have ever thought that she would marry such a man, love such a man as that? He wasn't the same person he used to be, and she struggled to hold on to that thought.

A check of the boys' room found Ryan sound asleep. She left the door open a crack, then went to the master bedroom she shared with Matt.

It was almost a pity the sedative had to wear off, for Dylan was like a docile rag-doll in her arms. In fact, he'd been so docile, she kept checking to make sure he was still breathing. Getting back to normal was better than this drug induced peace, and she prayed the sedative would be fully worn off by morning. She placed him in the bassinet, checked his diaper and wondered if he was hungry. If he was, he was too sleepy to let her know.

What a night this was turning out to be. So much kept running through Beth's brain that she wanted to hold out her hands and stop the thoughts from coming. What would her dad say if he knew about Matt? She wouldn't tell anyone, not even Dad, but a part of her had a feeling her father would still approve of the man Matt had become.

Dad was like that, and the knowledge of that gave her some confidence. She wasn't a hothouse plant who couldn't stand the full sun of the field flowers. She was a dandelion, and would weather this with as much love and grace as she could summon.

She went into the bathroom, washed her face and changed into a nightgown. She could still hear the tone of Matt's voice as he told her about his past. It had taken courage for him to speak, and it had taken some bravery to keep her composure in front of him. Tears kept slipping down her cheeks, but she didn't sob. Maybe it was from the nervous stress of listening to him speak so candidly about very difficult and painful subjects. He hadn't been talking about someone else. That had been him, her sweet darling husband.

"Oh, Matt." She steadied herself by the bed, dried her face and wondered how much longer he intended to haunt the patio.

She checked the front door, made sure the house was locked up for the night, then went to one of the three glass double doors that led outside. She could see him pacing in the distance, restlessly going back and forth over the same ground.

More tears wet her cheeks, and she brushed them away before he saw them.

His head snapped up when she stepped onto the patio.

"Aren't you cold?" she asked, rubbing her arms against the freezing night air. She'd forgotten to put on a robe, and was already making a retreat back to the house. "Come in before you catch a cold."

He stood there, not moving, just staring at her.

"Matt, please come."

"Beth--" his voice choked, and she realized he was crying.

The cold was suddenly forgotten. She came to him, not heeding the chilly ground or the stones that hurt her bare feet. Her arms went around him, and he latched onto her with all the strength he had. It nearly knocked her over, but he caught her and wept into her hair.

"Matt, please don't do this to yourself." She stroked his cheek, that handsome brow and tried not to cry. "It's all right," she whispered, "it's all right."

His frame shuddered with each sob, and it coursed through her like lightning on a quiet night.

"Nothing has changed, Matt. Nothing. I'm still your wife, and you're still my sweet darling."

He squeezed her tighter, then sucked in a huge gulp of air as though he were drowning in a sea of grief.

"I love you, Matt. Nothing has changed that." She pulled away just a fraction, enough to look into those eyes shimmering with tears. "You're a good man, and I love you. Not what you used to be, but the man you are now. I love you. Do you hear me?"

He nodded, gasped another sob and buried his face in her hair.

"It's okay," she whispered, "I'm here."

"I love you, Beth." The words were choked, but so heartfelt she ached with an exquisite longing that made her want to smile and cry at the same time.

She kissed his ear. "I love you more."

"Not possible," he sniffed, and held on to her all the harder.

"Matt." Her fingers grazed his cheek, and he raised his eyes to hers. They traveled to her mouth, and before she could brace herself, his mouth claimed hers. His hand moved to her back, and all she could think about was getting him inside, to the privacy of their room. He became more insistent, and she pulled away.

He reached for her, and she let him grab her hand. She tugged him toward the house, and when he realized she wasn't turning him away, followed with a quick step.

She pulled him inside, locked the doors while he hugged her from behind.

It took self-control for Beth to walk him to their room before returning his passion. As the bedroom door closed, she knew her love hadn't changed. She loved Matt as strongly as before, if not deeper now that she knew all his heart.

This wonderful, crazy kind of love was almost more than she could bear and still maintain consciousness. Matt had entrusted her with his secret, and Beth loved him all the more for that trust.

"Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits."
~ Song of Solomon 4:16 ~

"Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to Thy [God's] word. With my whole heart have I sought Thee: O let me not wander from Thy commandments."
~ Psalm 119:9, 10 ~

end of chapter
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