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Chapter Thirty
Touched by Love (Part One)

"And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins."
~ 1 Peter 4:8 ~

"... [Matt's] sins, which are many, are forgiven; for [he] loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little."
~ Luke 7:47 ~

One by one, his senses came to him as he woke. The faint smell of jasmine, the slight movement of her nightgown as she stirred, the sight of those wild red curls, the touch of her hand as she snuggled deeper against his side.

He lightly traced a finger over those soft pink lips and they curved into a faint smile. She was awake, and he pushed himself up to claim that mouth, the sweetness that was all for him.

"Beth." He breathed her name, and emerald green blinked up at him. "Thank you."

"For what?"

"For still loving me." He kissed her, sighed inwardly as they nestled side by side. "This is so much better with love. This is what I wanted, Beth. That first time in the desert, when we watched the sunset, then made love-- this is what I wanted. I wasn't selling myself for money, and I didn't want it because of convenience, or lust, or because we decided to have a good time. You had to be different, because you were different."

"Matt, what are you trying to say?"

Those green eyes held impact, a wonderful kind of wallop to his heart. "You aren't like the others-- you aren't like the clients I had. You're different. I love you, and that's what makes the difference."

She looked at him, and Matt wondered what she saw. Light filtered through the curtains, glinted in that velvet green gaze.

"You've said before that it was going to be different with me, but until now, I hadn't fully understood what you meant."

"I love you, Beth."

"I know." Her hand stroked his. "Don't be sorry about the time we spent in the desert watching the sunset. Please, don't be sorry. I loved you, Matt, I loved you even then."

"You did?" Surprise coursed through him. "That's not what you told me."

"I know, and I told myself I didn't. I was confused, and I couldn't admit what I felt for you without betraying Luke. But I want you to know that I loved you." Her fingers touched his lips, wistfully gentle, and oh-so soft it nearly killed him.

Oh, man. What a way to die.

Grinning madly, he rolled into her arms and decided to take up permanent residence. Her heart would be his address, so forward his mail to Beth, for wherever she was, that was where he would be.

"I loved you, too," he admitted.

She gave a soft, deep sigh. "I think I already knew that. It's what made that night so bittersweet." Her eyes closed as he pulled her closer, and when he kissed her, she returned his love.

She loved him. It still seemed too good to be true, but it was there in her voice, that long, sweet caress as they kissed. God had mercy on him, and had given him Beth. There was no other rational reason why she was here in his arms, giving her heart to him so freely, so wonderfully in love it drove him crazy.

A lone cry came from the bassinet, and Matt groaned.

He wasn't ready to get up yet. He wasn't done with Beth, he wanted to soak in all this agonizingly sweet contentment for at least another hour. Maybe two.

"I hope that cry means the sedative has worn off." Beth tried to sit up, but Matt wouldn't let her. "I have to check Dylan."

"Hey, Dylan?" Matt called over his shoulder. "How are you, buddy? See?" Matt grinned at Beth. "He's doing great. Just one cry to let us know he's awake, nothing more."

She nudged Matt's chest. "I have to get up."

"Why? Why do you have to? The kids can fend for themselves in the kitchen."

"Matt, please be serious. We have things to do today, things that have to get done before the funeral."

"Now you're being practical." Matt groaned. "That's not fair, not when I'm in the mood to cuddle."

She smiled, nudged him a little harder and he took it as a challenge and held her even tighter.

"Unless you disagree, I'm keeping Ethan and Cassie home from school today."

"But they had yesterday off."

"We have things to do, Matt."

"There you go, you're being reasonable again."

"I can't help it. One of us has to think."

"I am thinking."

"Not about practical things," she smiled. "Matt, please stop. I need-"

The cell phone on the nightstand rang. She reached for it but Matt wrestled her back into his arms.

"The phone."

"Let it ring."

He kissed her, but she worked her arm free, managed to wriggle to the edge of the bed, then blindly reached for the cell phone. How she managed to maneuver, he didn't know, only that she was determined to answer that dumb call.

She answered it, gave Matt a quick shove that said, "No more," then got out of bed in her wrinkled nightgown.

"Yes, thank you. We just got up, and I'm checking him now." Beth went over to the bassinet and Matt realized who was calling. Someone-- probably a nurse-- was supposed to phone early the next day to see if Dylan had fully recovered from the sedative.

Matt felt a twinge of guilt for trying to keep Beth all to himself.

"Please, hold on a second." Beth set down the phone, lifted Dylan out of the bassinet, and Matt got out of bed to help. "Hi, sweetie-pie. How's my little fella?"

Matt came in time to see a pair of wide awake brown eyes blinking up at Beth. For a moment, Dylan looked like he wouldn't cry, but then hunger and the urgency of a wet diaper must have gotten the better of him, for he began to fuss as usual.

Cradling Dylan, Beth picked up the phone. "He's wide awake and back to normal. Thanks so much for checking."

Knowing their morning was over, Matt pulled on yesterday's jeans. He didn't begrudge Dylan a clean diaper or a warm bottle, so even before Beth hung up, he took Dylan from her, changed the diaper, then took the baby into the kitchen to start warming up some formula.

His eyes blurred at the light coming through the kitchen window.

Man, was he tired. He should've gotten more sleep. Not that he had really wanted much sleep last night.

The microwave dinged, an innocent noise that prompted Dylan to start crying again. It didn't seem fair. Matt hadn't even noticed the little guy had stopped.

He took the bottle out of the microwave, opened a drawer and pulled out a baby bottle nipple. And blinked. He was holding Dylan, and didn't think he could one-hand the nipple onto the bottle. He needed to wake up. His brain felt like it was still fast asleep, abandoning him to make clumsy mistakes.

Wake up, Taylor.

Just then, Ethan shuffled into the kitchen.

"Hey." Groggy-eyed, Ethan went to the fridge, pulled out the orange juice and took a long swig from the container.

"Aren't you forgetting something?" Matt asked.

Ethan scowled. "Like what?"

"Like pants. We're not wearing boxers around the house, remember?"

"Oh, yeah. Whatever." Ethan put the container back in, then let the fridge slap shut. "I'm feeling sick. If it's all the same to you, I'm staying home from school."

"Here, hold Dylan while I get his bottle ready. You want to stay home, that's fine with me. Beth wants you and Cass around so we can get some things done for the funeral. She didn't say what."

"The funeral's that close?"

"Depending on when the coroner releases Mom's body," Matt said with a yawn, "it'll probably be in a few days. Speaking of which, I have to call Wade."

"Is that bottle ready?"

"Almost." Matt tested a few drops on his wrist. "I have to get Wade to sign another release-- this time for Mom's medical records."

"When do you think the funeral will be?"

"I told you-- probably in a few days." Matt lifted the baby from Ethan, then tried to get Dylan to take the nipple. "Come on, buddy, stop crying long enough to have breakfast."

"I suppose I have to go, huh?"

"Go where?"

"To the funeral."

Tired, Matt struggled not to lose patience. "Come on, Dilly. Take the nipple."

"Do you think Beth would mind if I didn't go?" Ethan folded his arms, slouched against the center island. "I know she's paying for the funeral so we can see Mom, so I guess I have to go."

"Yesterday, you were all for it," Matt commented as Dylan finally latched on. "Don't tell me you're turning chicken."

"I'm not chicken."

"Then stop sounding like one, and go." Matt eyed his teenage brother. "She's our mom."

"She was our mom, and even that's debatable. We never had a real mother." Ethan shrugged. "What if I don't feel like seeing her?"

"Then stay home." Matt shifted Dylan in his arm. "I won't force you, if that's what you're asking, and neither will Beth."

"I just wish it was over." Ethan pushed off the counter and went to the cupboard. "I'm not looking forward to this."

"Neither am I." Matt watched him dump corn flakes into a bowl. "You been doing okay?"

"Yeah. I guess." The scowl didn't deter Matt.

"Sleeping all right?"

"What's it to you?"

"I only wondered."

"I'm fine."

"Okay. If you say so." Matt moved into the living room to find Cassie coming from her room. "No school today," he told her.

"I don't feel so good, Matty."

Matt frowned, pulled the bottle away from Dylan so he could touch a hand to Cassie's forehead.

"You don't feel hot, so I doubt you have a fever."

"Could I skip breakfast? I want to go back to bed."

"I guess. But don't skip lunch, too."

She nodded, rubbed her eyes and went back to her room.

The feeding had been interrupted long enough for Dylan to protest. As Matt coaxed the nipple into Dylan's mouth, the tiny fists gradually stopped waving and he began to calm down. At least for now.

How Matt wanted to go back to bed. Beth or not, he wanted to crawl under the blankets and hibernate for at least a week.

Yawning, Matt retrieved his Bible, went into the living room and found a comfortable place to read while Dylan fed. The day had yet to really begin, and already Matt felt washed out. Things tumbled inside him, like clothes going round and round in a dryer. Yesterday had been harder than most, but it had ended well. Beth still loved him, and as unbelievable as that was, the absence of having to worry about that left more room for the grief.

Mom. She wasn't ever going to walk back into their lives, and no matter how hard they might have wanted it, she would never come to Jesus, clean up her act, and come live with them and be a part of their family. Ryan would never have another hug from his real mommy, and Dylan would never know her. That hope was gone.

As Matt paged through the Bible, Beth appeared from their room, dressed and ready for the day.

"Ethan," Matt called, "go put on your pants."

"Yeah, yeah." Ethan sauntered from the kitchen with his bowl of cereal. "I'm going, I'm going. Morning, Beth."

"Good morning," she smiled as the teenager stalked off to his room. Beth came to Matt's couch, bent over him, and peered down at Dylan. "I called into work. We're keeping the store closed until Tuesday or Wednesday of next week."

Matt stared at her. "Why?"

"Because this family is in mourning. We'll go back to work as soon as we can, but for the time being, we're taking a few days off to care for our family."

"That sounded rehearsed." Letting the Bible rest on his knee, Matt rubbed his eyes. "You tell that to Sylvia and Amy?"

"I did, and they both sent their condolences." Beth straightened. "Where is everyone?"

"Ryan is still asleep," Matt struggled to find where he'd left off reading the day before, "and Cass wasn't feeling well and went back to bed."

"Anything serious?"

"I don't think so. I think the funeral's getting to them."

Bending, Beth planted a kiss on Matt's cheek. "Mind if I join you after I wake Ryan, then get us some breakfast?"

"Best offer I've had all day," Matt said, loving the way his tiredness tiptoed back when Beth was around. He felt stronger next to her, like he could do anything as long as she stayed by his side.

She planted a kiss on his lips. "I love you."

Like an idiot, Matt couldn't help grinning.

He watched her move into the boys' room to go wake Ryan, then returned his attention to the text before him from First John: "Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God..." Matt smiled, kept reading until Beth moved past him on her way to the kitchen.

"Ryan's awake," she announced.

A second after Beth disappeared, Ryan emerged with his hair sticking out every which way, still dressed in his favorite pajamas, his eyes at half mast. He located Matt, then dragged his feet to the couch. With a sleepy yawn, Ryan climbed onto the cushion, sat down to watch as Matt read and Dylan fed from his bottle.

Seeing he had an audience, Matt read out loud and enjoyed the company of his little brothers. Ryan snuggled against his arm, played with one of Dylan's fists while Matt read how they should love one another, for God is love.

The bottle emptied, Matt burped Dylan, then got up to go change the now wet diaper. Without a word, Ryan climbed down to follow him into the boys' room.

"Want to help?" Matt asked, and Ryan gave a slightly interested nod. "Sit down on the floor-- we'll change him there." Grabbing the diaper bag, and a clean towel, Matt knelt on the carpet and gave Ryan the towel to spread out. "This will be tricky, know why?"

His eyes a bit more awake, Ryan shook his head.

"Because boy babies can make an even bigger mess if we aren't careful." Matt placed Dylan on the towel, opened the diaper bag to get everything ready. He didn't remember ever showing Ryan what was involved in changing a diaper, and enjoyed Ryan's presence. "We get our baby wipes ready... like this... then our clean diaper. Now for the tricky part." Matt unfastened Dylan's diaper, then glanced at Ryan. "When this little guy feels a draft down there, know what's going to happen?"


"He's going to pee, so we don't remove the diaper until he's done." Matt opened it halfway, saw Dylan was doing his thing and let Ryan see.

"Did I do that, too?"

"You sure did." Matt felt more of his grief tiptoe back. "The first several times I changed you, pee usually went everywhere."

"It did?"

"Yup. It got on the bed, the carpet-- anything within reach, including my mouth if I wasn't careful."

Now Ryan looked wide awake. "I peed in your mouth? Really?"

"Just once, but it was enough for me to keep my trap shut until I caught on. Now, this is no big deal. That's right, isn't it, Dilly?"

The baby peered up at them, his eyes large and wondering as Matt cleaned, powdered, then put him in a new diaper.

"Did I ever say I was sorry for peeing in your mouth?" Ryan wanted to know.

"Nope." Matt glanced at him. "I wasn't mad. You were just a baby, and babies don't know any better."

"I know better now."

"Yes, you do, and if you ever do that to me again, I'll make sure to get an apology." Matt reached over and threatened to tickle Ryan with a dirty hand.

Ryan laughed, scooted away until the threat was over then came back to watch. His presence and curiosity made a good companion for Matt.

They took Dylan back into the living room just as Beth was placing a serving tray on the coffee table. Orange juice, with slices of banana over yogurt.

They sat down to a light breakfast that felt special even though it really wasn't. Maybe it was because they were with the little ones, eating their meal while Dylan napped in Matt's lap. It felt cozy, somehow comforting, and once again, Matt thanked God for his family. How many times in the past had God used Ethan, Cassie, and Ryan to keep him going? The knowledge that others depended on him, gave him a reason to keep going, a reason outside of himself.

My life for theirs.

That's the understanding Matt had with the Lord, but now, looking back, Matt knew the children hadn't been the only ones who had been rescued. He had been saved, as well.

After breakfast, he and Beth spent some time in the Word, then Beth went to go wash dishes while Matt retrieved her cell phone to call Wade.

Thank God, Beth hadn't asked why he wasn't using his own cell phone. Really, he should have snagged the kitchen phone, rather than risk reminding her again that he was running out of minutes. He'd accidentally mentioned it the other day, and thankfully, she hadn't brought it up since.

The truth was, he was saving money, and had been for a while. The exact start date he couldn't remember, or when he first consciously made the decision to hold on to a small amount of his paycheck before giving the remainder to Beth, to put toward the family's expenses. She hadn't asked why he didn't give her his entire salary, and had seemed happy that he would at least have some of his own money to spend. After all, he never asked her for any.

Since he didn't want Beth to know the real reason for his need for cash, he let her assume what she wanted.

It didn't count as a lie. At least, Matt didn't think it did.

He called Ms. Simmons, then Wade, and arranged for them to meet in Wade's motel room. They had Mom's medical record release form to fill out, and Ms. Simmons would help them get it notarized-- or however that was supposed to work. Then Matt had to talk to Wade about Mom's funeral.

Other than Beth's love, the little kids who had cheered him, and the Scripture he'd read, Matt knew the morning wasn't going to be easy.

Sometimes, her cowboy could be so aggravating.

Even though Beth had thought she should go with him to see Wade, Matt had told her to stay with the kids. He would take care of things. Matt was being so brave, Beth wanted to take him by the shoulders and tell him it was okay to need her help. She had buried a husband, a son, she knew what needed to be done.

But that stubborn cowboy had left without her, and Beth struggled not to feel left out. She knew Matt was only protecting her from having to be around Wade. What bothered her more, was the thought that Matt was doing this to save her the sadness of having to arrange yet another funeral.

It irked her that his sense of chivalry was denying her the privilege of helping him.

No doubt about it, her knight in shining armor wore a cowboy hat-- a fact that made her smile even though she wished he wasn't quite so chivalrous.

Would Ms. Simmons advise Matt about the funeral? Beth doubted it. So why couldn't Beth be there?

Oh, Matt.

Instead of steeping any longer in her thoughts, Beth started planning out what the family would need to attend the funeral. In other words, clothes. Cassie and Ethan still hadn't done any major shopping to replace their thin wardrobe, and Matt-- well, that was another matter. Getting Matt to spend her money to buy new clothes, was like trying to talk a mule out of its stubbornness. It wasn't going to happen.

Her cell phone rang. Hoping it was Matt, Beth answered before the second ring.

Instead of her husband, she found someone from the Coroner's Office.

They were releasing Eve's body.

"Do you have a cause of death?" Beth asked.

"I'm sorry," the woman apologized, "but the final report on the toxicology tests won't be ready for several weeks. We'll issue a pending death certificate so your family can proceed with the burial. If you've chosen a funeral home, please ask the funeral director to contact us so arrangements can be made for transportation."

How Beth wanted to take charge. Instead, she bit her tongue, took down the information for Matt, then called him to pass along the message.

"We need to pick out a funeral home as soon as possible. The Coroner's Office won't want to keep your mom for longer than necessary."

"Okay, I'll get started."

"Why can't I help?"

"I can handle it."

"I know you can, but--"

"I really have to hang up, Beth."

She sighed, knowing he was trying to save minutes on his cell phone. He'd dropped a comment about it the other day, and she hadn't forgotten.

"Okay. I just wanted to pass the message."

"Thanks. Bye." After several seconds, a dial tone sounded in her ear.

"Bye." Beth hung up, put down the phone and went back to her list.

This family needed to go shopping. Since Matt would be busy working out the funeral arrangements with Wade, she decided to do what she could on her own.

It took the better part of half an hour to round everyone up, make sure the little ones were changed or had recently used the bathroom, dress Dylan and Ryan, then load everyone into the truck. Matt had been in a hurry that morning, and since her car had blocked his truck in front of the house, he'd taken her car.

Not surprisingly, Ethan insisted on driving, and Beth didn't argue for the keys. It didn't seem worth it, and only reminded her that they needed to buy another vehicle for the family. She'd been toying with the possibility of a minivan, but that decision would have to wait for Matt.

The idea of shopping for clothes didn't seem to impress Ethan. He simply drove and kept his mouth shut, and Beth thought she saw some of the same quiet sadness she had seen in Matt earlier that morning. Ethan and Cassie had complained of not feeling well. Though they didn't have a temperature, or look very sick, they did strike Beth as being rather depressed.

Understandable. Their mom had just died, and now they were shopping for her funeral.

"Man, I wish I'd stayed home." Ethan checked his speedometer, then slowed. "I don't see why have to waste my time. I already have clothes, and it's just Mom."

"If you didn't want to come," Cassie argued from the backseat, "then why'd you make Beth let you drive?"

"It's my truck." Ethan slumped behind the wheel. "We'll hit Las Cruces soon, so where are we headed?"

"Just stay on this road," Beth said, turning to look into the back. "Is Dylan asleep?"

Cassie nodded.

"I was thinking"-- Beth looked back to Ethan-- "as long as we're in the city and everyone is off from school today, maybe we could get you and Cassie some clothes besides what you'll need for the funeral. Dylan and Ryan have their wardrobes, but we haven't done a thing about you and Cassie yet."

Ethan frowned. "Do I have to?"

From the backseat, Cassie groaned. "Oh, come on. You need clothes-- you know you do."

"Shut up, Cass."

Beth gave him a look. "Please don't talk that way to your sister."

"You aren't my mom."

"I know I'm not, but that's beside the point. I said 'please.'"

A reluctant grin tugged at Ethan's mouth. "Whatever. Do you want me to turn left, or go straight ahead?"

"Straight ahead, please." Beth checked the display on her cell phone, and hoped Matt would call to let her know how things were going. Funerals weren't simple to plan, but then, Matt would be in touch with a director once he chose a funeral home, so Matt would have help.

"Turn in here, please," Beth said, gathering her purse and Dylan's diaper bag.

"Whoa." Ethan blew out a breath as he took in the large store. "This place is expensive, isn't it? All I need are some pants, not a tuxedo."

"Cassie, the next store will be for you," Beth promised. "Can I count on you to keep an eye on Ryan?"

When Cassie didn't reply, Beth turned to see her staring at the store.


The girl looked at Beth, and gave a quick nod. "Okay."

"You're next, all right?"

Beth was rewarded with an eager smile. Cassie was getting into the spirit of things, though Ethan seemed to be experiencing price-tag shock, and they hadn't even gone inside.

"I don't want anything fancy." Ethan snapped off the seatbelt. "Couldn't we go someplace else?"

"Let's see what they have," Beth coaxed, putting on the baby sling, then getting out of the truck to get Dylan and Ryan. Bringing the little ones might have been a mistake, but Beth wanted them with her. "Ryan, hold Cassie's hand and don't go wandering off."

As Beth lifted Dylan out of the carrier, the boy began to cry.

Ethan rounded the truck, folded his arms and stared nervously at the store. "All I need are some sneakers and jeans."

"I was thinking you might get a suit." Beth placed Dylan in the baby sling, then retrieved her purse and diaper bag from the front seat. "They sell jeans and shoes, too, so let's see if we can't get everything you need here."

"A suit?" Panic sounded in Ethan's voice, though he did an admirable job of still looking tough. "I can't wear a suit to school-- I'd get thrown out for impersonating the principal."

"You'd only wear it on special occasions, like graduations and--"

"And funerals?" Ethan cut in.

"I won't force you to get a suit, but let's go in and look around. You might change your mind."

"Yeah, right." With a large groan, Ethan shook his head but followed as Beth led the group through the parking lot.

"What if Dylan won't stop crying?" Cassie asked.

Beth handed her the diaper bag. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. Ryan, hold Cassie's hand."

As they pushed inside, strains of relaxed music pumped from hidden speakers and greeted their ears. Racks and displays of men's clothing scattered about the store in organized chaos.

A salesperson walked over. "May I help?"

Ethan shrank back.

"We're thinking about a suit," Beth explained, "something nice for a graduation." She looked to Ethan, smiled and wished he didn't look so much like bolting out of the store. "He needs at least two long sleeve shirts, a good dress belt, and shoes. We'd also like to look at some casual clothing-- everything but T-shirts. Those, we can get anywhere."

The salesperson gave a hopeful smile, and Beth knew the man was seeing dollar signs. Very well. She didn't mind the commission he'd get for helping them, especially if he could get Ethan to look at something besides the discount sneakers he was sure to get at the grocery mart. In the not-too distant future, Ethan would graduate from high school and attend college. Jeans and T-shirts would be the bane of his college existence-- Beth wasn't kidding herself-- but a good suit would be useful for those special occasions when he had to impress someone. Maybe even for a job interview.

She stepped back and let the salesperson guide Ethan through the racks of clothes. From the way Ethan loosened up when she hung back, it occurred to Beth that she might be embarrassing him. She had an infant strapped to her chest, and two children following her about like ducklings. In other words, she looked like a mom.

The thought made her happy.

Though Ethan still didn't look very pleased about being stuffed into a suit, he let the salesperson show him the different styles and even consented to trying one on in the changing room.

To Beth's relief, Dylan began to calm. A man walked past them, said something to his companion, and the cries started up again.

"Beth," Cassie came close, her hand still holding Ryan's, "people are staring."

"Of course they are." Beth tried to smile. "They've never seen such a cute baby before."


"I know," Beth nodded, "he's getting too loud. When Ethan comes out of the dressing room, I'll tell him we'll wait in the truck."

A moment later, Ethan emerged and everyone but Dylan went silent. Was that her Ethan-- the awkward teenager who only a short time before, had to be dragged into the store?

He stood in a classy, dark gray suit, and a white, long sleeved shirt, looking a bit confused but very handsome. His loosely cropped brown hair, that firm but hesitant smile that tried not to betray too much, all reminded Beth of Matt. She'd never seen Matt in a suit and tie before-- he probably didn't even own one, but that smile reminded her very much of Matt.

The salesperson moved to put a light gray tie on Ethan, and Ethan held still.

"This will need some alterations..." the man stepped back, looked at Ethan with an experienced eye, "but I think the color suits you-- if you'll pardon the pun."

Ethan turned, looked to Beth and she saw the confidence in his eyes. The insecure bravado had given way to steady assurance, and she marveled at the way clothes could transform a person's self-image.

"Dark gray on a young man gives the impression of experience and wisdom. It's a classic look." The salesperson gave an approving nod, and Ethan's smile turned a bit cocky.

It wasn't hard to think of Matt in his early high school years, strutting around and being the favorite of all the girls. Remembering that, Beth could almost wish Ethan didn't look so very handsome.

"Well?" Ethan turned again to Beth. "What do you think?"

"I think we're going to have to keep a close eye on you when you go to college." Beth couldn't bring herself to smile. "The suit looks sharp on you."

"Matt's not going to mind, is he?"

"Why should he mind?"

Ethan gave a shrug, and in that one gesture, she saw the insecure teenager slip back into the young man.

"He'll want you to be prepared for your future."

"I know, but..." Ethan hesitated. "He doesn't have one, and I do. It doesn't seem right."

"Never mind that, Matt will understand. We expect you to finish your education, and put that suit to good use."

Absently, Ethan nodded, and Beth sensed some indecision about his own future.

She turned to the salesperson. "You mentioned alterations?"

"Yes, the pants need hemming." The man nodded in agreement with himself. "There might be some other minor adjustments, but nothing drastic. We can probably have it ready by tomorrow morning."

"Good. He'll need it soon." Beth went to Ethan while Dylan kept fussing. "We'll wait in the truck while you continue your shopping. Make sure you at least have a suit to wear to the funeral and your graduation, and some casual school clothes. When it's time to check out, come and get me and I'll pay for whatever you want. And Ethan?"


"Make sure you get some dress shoes. Sneakers won't work with this suit."

"Oh, right." Ethan nodded, nervously glanced at the full length mirror and took a deep breath.

"The hard part's done," she smiled, "but if you need my help, I'll be outside."

"Okay." Ethan nodded again, his courage gathering. "Thanks."

As Beth left Ethan to the mercy of the overly helpful salesperson, her thoughts weren't on the price tag. Ethan had promise in his future-- promise that wouldn't be there if his big brother hadn't looked out for him.

Ethan's future was possible, because of Matt.

Each one of these kids owed a great deal to their big brother, and Beth hoped they would never forget that.

She checked her cell phone again, hoping to find a voicemail or a missed call-- something that said Matt had tried to reach her. Nothing. He was probably saving his minutes. Why couldn't he ask for a little money for more cell minutes? It wouldn't cost much, but instead of asking, here she was, trying to keep in touch with a man who wouldn't call.

Even after they got back into the truck, Dylan wouldn't stop crying. She tried taking off the sling and cuddling him, getting out of the truck to walk him back and forth in the parking lot, but nothing helped.

Please, God, help me calm him down.

Then she remembered something the doctor had said-- that Dylan might have trouble regulating himself in stressful situations. She did a quick self-assessment and realized she was anything but calm.

Maybe to calm Dylan down, she first had to calm herself.

She climbed back into the truck, then rolled up the windows to keep out the traffic noise.

How do you calm down, when your mind kept racing and planning?

Closing her eyes, Beth prayed, and when her prayer only served to stir her emotions, she thought of Matt, and the quiet moments they'd shared last night when not making love. The gentle caress, the warmth of his arm as it snugged her close, the happy little sigh when he touched her hand.

She had been touched by love, and the memory of it made her smile.

Breathe deep, let it calmly wash around my heart.

The tension eased from her shoulders, her pulse slowed.

She looked down at Dylan, cuddled on her lap and all cute in his new clothes. His cries came less frequent, and she saw his eyes grow heavy. They half closed, opened briefly as a vehicle moved past them, then shut all the way. He had fallen asleep.

"Beth, Ryan has to use the bathroom."

The noise made Dylan's eyes pop open, and Beth felt discouragement tugging at her peace and calm.

"Do you think you can watch Dylan for me?" Beth asked.

"Sure." Cassie leaned over the front seat and looked into Beth's lap. "Isn't he the cutest little thing?"

"He is," Beth had to admit, "especially when he's not crying. Here, can you lift him into the back, or should I get out?"

"I have him," Cassie said, lifting her baby brother over the front seat. "Come to Cass, come to Cass," the girl crooned softly.

When Beth turned, she saw Dylan comfortably snuggled in Cassie's arms, and wearing a sweet baby smile.

The little stinker.

Beth laughed softly, relieved Dylan was taking things so well. She picked up her purse, got out, then went to open the cab door and help Ryan out.

"Do you have your cell phone?" Beth asked. "Good. You know my number. I should only be a few minutes, but if you need me, call. Keep the doors locked and the windows rolled up. It's not hot, so you should be just fine. Come on, Ryan, let's go see if we can't find a restroom in that big store."

They crossed the parking lot, Ryan almost dancing from foot to foot as they went. As they moved inside, Beth's cell phone rang. She paused just inside the entrance, tugged her phone out and breathed a sigh of relief when she saw Matt's number.

"Hello, Matt?" She moved Ryan out of a couple's way. "Where are you?"

"I'm at the Nyquist Funeral Home, and I wanted to make sure of a few things before making some decisions."

"Okay, hold on. Ryan has to use the potty." Beth waved to a salesperson. "Do you have a restroom?"

"Over there," the woman pointed, and Beth hurried Ryan through the displays and clothes racks.

"Beth, this can't wait much longer."

"Just one minute," she pleaded with Matt while guiding Ryan into the ladies' room. She found an empty stall, then remembered to ask Matt something she'd been praying about all morning. "Did you get Wade to sign the medical record release for your mom?"

"I can do it myself," Ryan insisted, and pulled down his pants to use the toilet.

"Yeah, Wade signed it."

"Okay, what did you want to know?" Beth asked.

"The visitation-- we only want a private family viewing, right?"

"Yes, for the kids."

"What about a funeral service?" Matt asked. "I thought about asking Pastor Mark, but mom was never religious, and she'd never want God dragged into the picture. Is it all right if we just had the viewing, then go on to the cemetery for the burial?"

"Yes, that would work."

"Could you ask Ethan and Cass, and make sure?"

"I'm in the ladies' room. I'll call you as soon as I talk to them."

"Okay," Matt said, and hung up.

Beth hurried Ryan to the sink, then lifted him so he could reach the faucet. Taking him by the hand, they left the restroom and went to find Ethan.

The salesperson who had been helping Ethan recognized her, and waved her over to where Ethan sat trying on some shoes.

She came close, gave the dress shoes a nod of approval. "Could I have a moment in private with Ethan?"

The salesperson left, and Ethan looked at her in alarm.

"Nothing's wrong," Beth said quickly. "Things are being arranged for your mom's funeral, and Matt wanted your input." She explained what Matt had said, and Ethan took off the shoes.

"As long as Cass gets to see Mom, I don't care if we skip the service."

"Then I'll tell Matt." Beth watched as Ryan knelt to play with a shoe tree. "Don't you want to see your mom again?"

"Yeah, I do." Ethan stared at the carpet. "I guess that makes me as stupid as Cass."

"That's not true of either of you."

Ethan sighed heavily. "If Mom had to die, I wish it'd been some other way. Like a car accident, or something normal. But this..." Ethan started to tug on his old sneakers. "Tell Matty it's fine with me."

"I will." Beth placed a hand on Ethan's shoulder, wanted to say something comforting but couldn't find the words. "I have to talk to Cassie, then call Matt back. Are you almost done?"

"Yeah, I'm done." Ethan took the shoe tree from Ryan, put it back where it belonged and got to his feet. "I got some things... some jeans, some long sleeved shirts, and that suit you saw. They said they'd make changes and have it ready for pickup tomorrow morning. Is that okay?"

"It's okay." She smiled, remembered Matt was waiting and promised to be back as soon as she could.

Leading Ryan out of the store, Beth went into the parking lot and found Cassie happily babysitting Dylan. The question was repeated to Cassie, and when Beth had her answer, Beth called Matt and relayed the decision.

"Okay, thanks," Matt said, and quickly hung up. No doubt, to save minutes.

It annoyed Beth that for the sake of a few dollars, she couldn't speak to Matt for any longer than was absolutely necessary. Surely, he could afford to buy more cell minutes. Most of his paycheck went into the family's finances, but he still had enough of his own cash to buy more air time for his cell phone. Or did he? Had he run out of money? Matt didn't seem like the extravagant type, but then, maybe something had come up that she didn't know about.

Not wanting to leave Ryan with Cassie, as well as Dylan, Beth took Ryan into the store to pay for Ethan's clothes.

The teenager seemed embarrassed by the total as they checked out, though he hadn't bought anything Beth would call extravagant. The only thing that even came close, was a leather wallet. She'd seen the neon colored velcro wallet in his back pocket, and approved of the choice. Ethan was growing up.

Loaded down with shopping bags, Beth, Ethan, and Ryan left the store and made their way to the truck.

When Ethan opened the cab door, Cassie's eyes popped wide with surprise.

"Wow. You must've bought out the store."

"I did not." Ethan scowled, started piling the bags onto the floor.

"He did just fine," Beth said over his shoulder. "How's Dylan doing? Does he need a change?"

"No, but he's starting to make noises like he wants something. I think he's hungry."

"He's not the only one," Ethan said, lifting Ryan into the cab. "Are we going home for lunch, or are we eating in Las Cruces?"

"We still need to shop for Cassie"-- here, Cassie cheered--"so we'll eat out."

"Can we have hamburgers?" Ryan asked hopefully.

Ethan shrugged, looked to Beth. "I don't care. Just as long as I don't have to try on anymore clothes."

The closest burger joint was located, and after everyone piled out of the truck, they went into the busy restaurant and ordered lunch.

As Ryan sat munching french fries, and Beth held Dylan while Dylan sucked his bottle, Beth's cell phone rang.

Without checking the screen, Beth took the bottle from Dylan, then answered the call in the hopes that it was Matt. It wasn't.

"This is Dr. Miller, calling for Mr. or Mrs. Matt Taylor? I have the test results for Dylan."

"I'm Mrs. Taylor." Beth pressed the phone to her ear so she wouldn't miss a word. Dr. Miller hadn't assigned the call to one of his nurses, but was making it, himself. Beth prayed he didn't have bad news.

"As you remember, we made more than one CT scan to have a better idea of Dylan's condition. I'm pleased to report no abnormalities were found in any of the CT scans." Dr. Miller spoke with an obvious smile in his voice. "It's very good news, and I personally wanted to be the one to tell you."

"Thank you so much." Beth added to herself, "And thank You, Jesus."

"We're still waiting on results from the other tests we took, but these scans are very encouraging for Dylan's prognosis."

Beth sucked in a breath. "This doesn't mean Dylan won't have any difficulties in the future, does it? It just means he's not as sick as he could've been... under the circumstances."

"I'm afraid that's true," Dr. Miller said. "Unless he develops a problem, we simply won't know how much he was affected by the birth mother's drug use. We'll just take things one step at a time, and celebrate good news where we can get it."

"Yes, all right. Thank you again."

"It was my pleasure."

Beth hung up, slipped the cell phone back into her purse and turned to look at the others.

"That was Dylan's pediatrician. The CT scans came back without showing any problems."

"Mommy, God answered my prayer!" Ryan beamed from his restaurant booster seat. "Dylan will be okay!"

"For now," Beth smiled, trying to carefully measure her answer. "It looks hopeful for Dylan."

Cassie leaned over and touched noses with the baby in Beth's arm. "Congratulations, little guy."

"That's really great news." Ethan breathed deeply, and Beth could see the relief in his face.

Keeping her voice low, Beth asked the children to close their eyes while she thanked God for the good news. Even though Ethan looked like he wanted out of the prayer, he shut his eyes and Beth prayed.

"Thank You, Heavenly Father, for this answer of peace for Dylan. Give him a bright and healthy future, in Jesus's name, amen."

"Amen," Ryan added.

Beth gave Ryan a hug, then coaxed him to finish his lunch so they could leave.

While the children cleaned up their wrappers and cups, Beth called Matt.

And found he'd turned off his cell phone.

Really, this was getting to be too much.

After a stop in the ladies' room to change Dylan's diaper, they went back to their truck.

Even though Ethan looked tired, Cassie was eager for her turn. In a rare show of brotherly support, Ethan made little protest as they headed for the clothing outlets at the mall.

"Maybe the boys and I could wait in the truck?" Ethan asked hopefully as they pulled into the large parking lot. "Or maybe I could take the boys, and we'll meet someplace inside so we won't have to walk the length of the mall with you and Cass."

"Chicken." Cassie grinned, and Ethan waved away the insult.

"I didn't drag you into that men's store."

"Ethan's right," Beth agreed. "It's not fair to drag him all over the mall. I'll make you a deal: You take Ryan and Cassie's cell phone so you can call me, and I'll take Dylan."

"What? You don't trust me with two litte kids?"

"Let's just say they can overwhelm someone quickly, especially if Dylan starts to fuss."

"'Nuff said. Gimme your phone, Cass. When you girls are done, call me, and Ryan and I will meet you in the food court."

Eager to get started, Cassie handed him her pink cell phone and Ethan scowled as he shoved it into his pocket.

"Girls," he mumbled.

Slipping the baby sling back on, Beth prayed Dylan was tired enough to not mind the crowds in the mall. She gave the diaper bag to Cassie, kissed Ryan on the cheek and made the boy promise that he'd hold onto Ethan's hand and not wander off.

"Hey, I know what I'm doing." Ethan took Ryan's small hand. "I've babysat the squirt plenty of times."

They went into the sprawling mall, then parted ways in front of a sports store. From the safety of the baby sling, Dylan seemed to be taking all the noise in stride. Thank God for that.

"Oh, how pretty." Cassie went into a clothing outlet and headed straight for a rack of denim.

Beth caught up, glanced down at the baby at her chest and found him wide awake but not crying. She gave his tiny fist a wave, and he yawned. By all rights, he should be screaming at the top of his lungs, and Beth guessed it was because she was trying to keep the stress from her voice. Maybe she had it all wrong, but whatever she was doing, it seemed to be working at the moment.

They picked out a few pairs of jeans for Cassie to try on, then Beth waited while Cassie went into the changing room. She tried Matt's number again, but it was still off, and pushed the phone back into her purse.

The first pair of jeans were too tight, but the second pair were a near perfect fit.

Cassie couldn't stop smiling.

"It's like I'm shopping with the mom I always wanted," the girl confessed. "It's nice to be with someone who cares about you, isn't it?"

"It sure is." Beth hugged Cassie, and Dylan protested at being squeezed.

They bought three pairs of jeans, then checked out with a trendy shopping bag. Beth shouldered the diaper bag, and let Cassie carry the status symbol that announced they were paying customers.

They came to another outlet and went inside. Here, Cassie chose a canvas jacket, and two multicolored tops. A shopping bag in each hand, Cassie seemed to be having the time of her life. And it wasn't simply because of the clothes. They were doing something special together as family, almost like a mother and daughter, or at the very least like close sisters. Beth couldn't remember having such a good time trying on jewelry, or watching Cassie turn in front of a full length mirror to see a sweet maxi dress with an innocent top, twirl about her like a princess.

Needless to say, they bought the dress.

Next came sandals to go with the new outfit, along with two pairs of sneakers she could wear with anything but the princess dress.

At another outlet, they found a cute print skirt and a matching top, then had to find the perfect shoes to go with them. They were having so much fun, Beth almost didn't hear the phone go off in her purse.

She took it out, answered it while still admiring the pumps Cassie was trying on.


"Hey, do we want carnations on the casket?"

No, "Hi, Beth, it's me, Matt," just a headlong jump into funeral matters.

"Unless you have your heart set on them, I'd prefer to skip the carnations. They're so overused at funerals, every time I smell one, I think of death."

"Okay, thanks."

"Before you hang up, Dr. Miller called about the results for Dylan's CT scans."


"Everything looked good. They didn't find a thing wrong, so this is very much an answer to prayer."

"That's wonderful news-- thank You, God." Matt sounded tired, but very relieved. "Listen, Beth, I have to run. Thanks for letting me know."

The phone hung up, leaving Beth to struggle to get her mind back into the moment with Cassie.

They looked at more shoes, then wandered through the mall with their shopping bags. Their excitement began to lag, and Cassie's enthusiasm started to quiet down. If Beth's feet could speak, they would have cried for mercy and directed her to the nearest chair. The sling felt like a heavy sack of potatoes, albeit a very cute sack. On a whim, they went into a store and picked out a necklace with some bracelets, then decided to call it a day.

"I had such a good time," Cassie sighed after Beth called Ethan to let them know they were headed for the food court. "I kind of felt like Cinderella, and now it's time to turn back into just plain me."

"There's not a thing wrong with being yourself," Beth smiled. "And you're not at all plain. The girl I'm looking at is a blonde haired, blue eyed sweetie with a very big heart. You'll do fine, just don't let beauty go to your head. Vanity is unbecoming in a woman, so always keep your wits and don't let a flattering compliment turn your head. Know who you are, and what you're about. That's called poise."

"You have lots of poise, Beth. You're the most poised woman I know."

"I don't happen to agree," Beth smiled, "but it's nice of you to think so."

They came to the food court and found Ryan finishing an ice cream cone that not only smeared his nose, mouth, and chin, but also his shirt.

Ah, yes. Back to reality.

Beth located the baby wipes in the diaper bag, cleaned Ryan's face and hands, and quickly gave up on his shirt. At least vanilla probably wouldn't stain.

When Beth handed Ethan some of the shopping bags to carry out to the truck, Ethan rolled his eyes.

"What'd you do, Cass? Buy the place out?"

"Don't tease your sister," Beth said, as they negotiated the crowd and found the entrance. "We're all tired, so let's not make each other miserable."

A cold, early evening wind whipped past them as they stepped outside, making Beth wish she had brought coats for Ryan and Dylan. They hurried to the truck, loaded in the shopping bags, then strapped in the little ones.

While her feet were so sore, Beth didn't want to contemplate how much they'd spent that day. And that was only today's shopping. Since Matt hadn't taken her credit card, he'd probably put the funeral expenses on his own credit-- if he had that much available. For the umpteenth time, she wondered how Matt was doing.

She tried his number one more time before Ethan started the truck, and found the cell phone was still off.

Well. At least the children had clothes. The only one left was Matt.

To Beth's discouragement, when they reached home, the house was empty. A note sat on the coffee table saying Matt had come back for some papers he needed at the funeral home, but that he and Wade weren't done, and to not wait dinner for him.

"I wish Matty would come home," Cassie sighed, kicking off her shoes onto the living room carpet. "Do you think he's all right?"

"If he wasn't, he'd call," Beth said in as confident a tone as she could manage. She prayed it was true. Did he know what to do about the number of pallbearers they might need, or whether or not there would be any music? What about getting Eve published in the obituary section of the newspaper, or what clothes they would need selected for the funeral home to present Eve during the visitation? From the little Beth had seen, Eve didn't own much at all. The funeral home would likely have to dress her in clothes other than her own, but did Matt know that? Something nice, but that the children would still be able to recognize their mom in?

Looking worn out despite the sugar high Ethan had kept Ryan on to distract him in the mall, Ryan climbed onto a couch and curled into a sleepy ball. Beth hoped the boy didn't have a tummy ache. She got him up, led him to the boys' bedroom to brush his teeth and put him to bed.

She plugged in the dinosaur nightlight, then went back to the living room to get the carrier from Cassie.

"He's really tired," Cassie remarked as Beth lifted out the sleeping baby. "Oh, he's so cute."

"He is," Beth smiled, taking the cute baby to the kitchen for a feeding. Tired or not, she knew Dylan would wake up and fuss for his bottle soon. He was no longer on a sedative that knocked him out, so she couldn't rely on him staying asleep.

Turning on the faucet, she warmed his bottle beneath the hot water instead of putting it in the microwave like Matt often did. He'd gotten into that habit with Ryan, and it persisted with Dylan.

The bottle ready, she coaxed Dylan to wake up. He took to the feeding so easily, she knew if she'd waited a little longer, she would have had a crying baby on her hands.

"Sweet little one," she whispered, watching Dylan hungrily nurse from the bottle. "I think you're ready for the crib in the boys' room. What do you think? Will you cry because you're not in the bassinet?" She sat on the kitchen stool, listened to the small swallows of formula until the bottle felt light and his bottom felt warm.

Time to change the diaper.

On the living room floor, Cassie sat with scissors, snipping off the store tags on her new clothes.

"Make sure you carefully sort those by color before you put them into the wash," Beth warned as she skirted around the pile to get to the second master bedroom. "And read the care labels."

"I will," Cassie said with another snip of her scissors.

Ethan moaned on the couch but made no effort to get his bags and follow Cassie's example. He looked too tired to do anything useful.

His tummy full and content, Dylan made little objection as Beth changed his diaper by the soft glow of the nightlight. The cold baby wipes made his eyes open, but she soothed him back to sleep, and after he was breathing soundly, she powdered his bottom, then gently put him into a clean diaper. He barely woke when she tenderly lowered him into the crib.

The big boy's bed rustled with the sound of moving blankets. A small foot stuck out, and Beth moved over to tuck Ryan back in. Both of her boys were fast asleep.

She adjusted the baby monitor, then forced herself to leave them to their slumber. They were so quiet and innocent, she wanted to stand there all night and watch them sleep. That is, if her feet weren't pleading for mercy.

It was a big moment for her to leave Dylan there, and know she would sleep somewhere else. The second master bedroom was close by, but it was still another room.

If things worked out well, they would put the bassinet away. A bittersweet thought.

The children had waited for her to start dinner long enough, so Beth took the baby monitor into the kitchen.

"This is so pretty." Cassie brought her maxi dress into the kitchen, held it to her body and twirled. "Do you think I could wear this to the funeral? Do you think Mom would like it?"

The question made Beth's eyes tear up. She nodded, smiled, and didn't trust herself to speak. Eve was missing out on so much love.

Life kept surprising Beth. It wore her out to think of it, and she found herself longing for Matt's strength. She hoped he would come home soon, or she would look up the funeral home's name in the phone book, and call there, herself. It was after hours, though, and they probably didn't pick up after they closed, even if someone was still there with a customer who was struggling to get everything done. Guessing she would probably just get a message service, Beth gave up on the idea.

She dumped ground meat, some seasoning into a skillet and turned on the stove.

In the living room, Ethan played the evening news and Beth listened to the TV anchor move from one sad story to the next. Why couldn't they report on happy things? But, she supposed, if it were happy, then it wouldn't really be news.

"You'd better get your laundry started, Cassie. Dinner is almost ready."

Cassie stopped her daydreaming long enough to see Beth arrange several bowls onto a serving tray.

"Soft-shell tacos!"

"I'm glad you approve," Beth smiled. "It's late and I didn't want to spend a lot of time fixing dinner. I'll set the table, and you and Ethan wash up."

Conversation was light at the table, and more than once, when someone thought they heard a car, the TV was muted from across the room and everyone waited to see if Matt would come through the front door.

"I wish he'd call." Cassie worried her tossed salad with a fork, picked a slice of cucumber and stabbed it through.

"So do I, but he has a lot to do. I'm sure he'll call when he's able." Beth sighed, stood up to start clearing the table. "Are you going to finish the last of that salad?"

"No, I'm full." Cassie pushed the plate toward Beth. "I'm going to change loads in the washer. Ethan, do you want me to do yours, too?"

The teenager gave a slumped shrug. "I guess. Thanks."

"That's nice of you, Cassie." Beth gave her a smile, then took the stacked plates into the kitchen.

When Beth came back for the glasses, Cassie left to work on the laundry, and Ethan was nowhere to be found. His bedroom door stood shut, and light spilled out at the bottom; he was in there, probably brooding over the funeral.

After loading the dishwasher, Beth went to check on the little ones. Ryan and Dylan were still fast asleep, and it did her heart good to see them both in their room, the crib and the big boy's bed both occupied with sweetness. She was a mommy again, no doubt about it.

Keeping the baby monitor close, Beth moved into the second master bedroom to shower and change for the night. The time read seven-thirty, but it felt much later. The emotions of the day had worn her down, and now all she wanted was a steaming hot shower and the relaxing scent of her jasmine body lotion.

How her feet ached. Cassie had really given her a workout in the mall.

Beth changed into her bathrobe, dropped her clothes into the hamper, then washed her face as noise came from the bedroom. She moved into the bathroom doorway and found Matt on the edge of the bed, pulling off a boot.

"Well, you're back." Beth came in, knelt to pull off the remaining cowboy boot. "How did it go?"

"Don't ask." Matt tossed his Stetson onto the nearby chair. "Eric-- the funeral director at Nyquist Funeral Home-- had his hands full with Wade. Actually, so did I, though Eric got the worst of it." Matt pulled off his shirt, hurled it into the corner of the room in disgust. "Most of the staff went home after five, but Eric stayed behind to get all the arrangements ironed out." Matt looked to the bedroom doorway where Cassie stood listening. "Where were you guys? I came home after lunch to get some papers, and no one was here."

"We went shopping," Cassie smiled. "Oh, Matty, you should see the dress I got--"

"Later, okay? I'm bushed."

Beth took off Matt's socks, stood to go pick up the discarded shirt.

"At first Wade didn't want a memorial service, then he changed his mind and argued with me why it was a good idea. Then he wanted flowers-- lots of them. Eric suggested red carnations, and from there it went downhill. I didn't want flowers, was dead set against flowers because you were going to have to pay for them. You said you didn't even like carnations, but whatever. There's going to be red and white carnations on the casket at the visitation tomorrow evening."

"Tomorrow evening?" Beth held his shirt and socks. "When's the burial?"

"Sunday. I wanted the whole thing on Sunday, but Wade..." Matt gave a grim chuckle. "Wade thought it was hurrying things too much, not showing enough respect for the 'dearly departed.'" Matt's laugh sounded dark and weary. "I came close to calling the whole thing off, but I knew Cassie and Ethan wanted to see Mom one last time, so I made a deal with Wade. He dropped the memorial service, and I conceded on the flowers. Everyone was happy until Wade announced he didn't have anything to wear to the funeral."

Absently, Beth folded the clothing, placed it neatly on the chair.

"After we left the funeral home, I took Wade to a thrift store and bought him a really cheap suit for the cash I had on me. He can wear it to the guardianship hearing, I don't care. I just wanted to go home. Oh, Mom's medical record release is on the nightstand, signed, notarized, and soon to be delivered to Dr. Miller."

"How did you pay for the funeral?" Beth asked.

"I didn't-- at least, not all of it. I maxed out my credit card, and Eric let me promise to bring my wife in tomorrow to take care of the rest."

"Matt, that wasn't a good idea. Maxing your card will probably make your credit rating drop."

"It's not like I had a lot of credit to begin with," Matt said, starting to unfasten his jeans. "Cass, shut the door, would you? I want a shower, then I'm hitting the sack."

"Have you eaten dinner?" Beth asked as Cassie left, and quietly shut the door.

Matt shook his head, pulled off his pants and stood in his boxers. "I'm too tired to eat. I noticed Dylan isn't in the bassinet."

"I thought it was time he started getting used to his new room." Beth picked up the jeans. "He was so tired after today, it seemed like a good time to begin."

"Did you set up the baby monitor?"

She nodded to the unit on the nightstand.

"Good." Matt went into the bathroom and a moment later she heard the shower running.

She searched the pockets of his jeans, found his cell phone and put it next to hers on the nightstand.

"How many minutes do you have left on your cell phone?" she asked.

"What? I can't hear you."

She moved into the bathroom, stood outside the foggy shower glass door and opened it an inch.

"Your cell phone. How many minutes do you have left?"

"I don't know."

"Matt, you had your phone off for at least half the day."

"I was busy."

"But you're running out of cell minutes, aren't you?"

"I guess."

She shook her head. "Is it just me, or are you being evasive?"

"Hey, I'm answering your questions." She heard Matt shut off the water. "Gimme a towel, would you?"

"What's the matter?" she smiled. "Shy?"

"Just give me the towel."

She handed him a large bath towel and wondered what was going on. Something about this talk was making him self-conscious, quietly flustered, and more than a little hurried in his routine.

When he came out with the towel wrapped around his waist, she couldn't help smiling.

"Your shower was awfully fast."

"That's because I don't take as long as you."

"Ha. Back to the cell phone. Why didn't you have it on so I could call?"

"Because I knew I was running out of minutes."

"So you finally admit it?"

"What do you mean, 'finally'? I didn't lie."

He started to pass her. She stopped him by placing a hand on his chest. And struggled to ignore his grin.

"You're trying hard not to lie, and I want to know why."

"Want to know what? Why I don't want to lie?"

"No--" she stifled a laugh. "You know what I meant. Why haven't you bought more cell time? You have the money, so why haven't you bought more time?"

Those fiercely dark eyes narrowed, and she sensed she'd just hit on the one question he'd been trying hard to avoid.

"Matt? What's going on? Are you saving your money?"

"Aw, Beth." He groaned, moved past her into the bedroom. "Why did you have to ask that?"

"Are you?"

He opened a dresser drawer, pulled out some shorts.

"Why couldn't you have asked if I'd blown my money on something stupid?" He shot a look at her over his shoulder, and she tried to ignore the cute way his hair was all wet and messed. "Has it ever occurred to you that money might slip through my fingers, that maybe I'm not that good at keeping track of my finances?"

"No, actually, it hasn't. You're a responsible person, and I know you. You haven't relapsed and are now buying drugs. The sober Matt I know and love doesn't spend money lightly. Since I haven't seen you with anything new, it means you're saving."

A reluctant grin tugged at his mouth. "She really does trust me."

"Why are you saving your money?"

He came to her, tugged her into his arms.

"Tonight's date night, you know."

"Matt, you're changing the subject." She tried to move back, struggled not to smile as he again pulled her close.

"You're so beautiful when you're annoyed."

"Matt, please."

His head dipped and he kissed her so soundly, her world blurred with pleasure. Lightheaded, she refused to give up and fought to pull away.

"Matt, why?"

"Because I want to," he grinned, not letting her go in the slightest.

"That's not what I meant."

"Beth, please don't ask more."

"Are you in some kind of trouble? Does the truck need something expensive?"

"No, it's nothing like that. Please, Beth, trust me on this."

She breathed heavily, the plea making her think twice about pushing him any further. She tucked her face against his bare shoulder. "I trust you. I trust you with my heart, so I can trust you on this. If you're not in trouble, then it's not a big deal-- not really. It's just I'm--"

"Curious?" he finished.

She nodded, loving the way his damp skin felt against her face. She kissed his shoulder, then looked up into those eyes-- those dark, intense eyes. Her heart shuddered and danced in response.

The arms around her tightened.

"I thought you were tired."

He made no answer, but lowered his head and grazed his lips against her neck.

"You should go to bed and get some rest."

He caressed her cheek with his own. "Only if you'll come with me."

"I still have to shower."

He kissed her lips, her neck and refused to stop. "You know what tonight is, don't you? It's Friday, so this is date night."

"You're too tired, Matt."

"Not for you. Never for you."

How love could be so exquisitely painful in its yearning, and yet at the same time overflow with joy, was a wonderful mystery to Beth. It left her breathless.

"Love me." His words whispered against her skin. "Please, love me."

"Always, Matt. Always." Helpless to do anything but yield, her lips found his.

This love held a desperate quality, something not solely bound in physical passion, but something much deeper. It went to the very core of who Matt was, what he had survived and overcome, the victory God had given him. He loved because he was a forgiven man. God had forgiven him and that forgiveness instilled a deep gratitude in Matt that couldn't help but spill onto Beth.

Matt had been forgiven much, so he loved much.

Thank You, God, for saving this man.

Beth fought to make sure the bedroom door was locked, then laughed as Matt lifted her in a huge embrace and carried her to the bathroom for her shower.

"We love [God], because He first loved us."
~ 1 John 4:19 ~

"For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith."
~ 1 John 5:4 ~

end of chapter
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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!