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Chapter Four
The Panting Heart

"Withhold not... Thy tender mercies from me, O LORD: let Thy lovingkindness and Thy truth continually preserve me [Matt]."
~ Psalm 40:11 ~

Matt knew exactly what to think. He had been an idiot for accepting Mrs. Carter's invitation. He had let obligation get in the way of better judgement.

He stooped to lift a potted plant, moved it to where Sylvia had directed, went back for another. The process was repetitive, leaving the mind free to think.

Tomorrow, he would take his family to his boss's house for dinner.

Oh, he was a prize idiot, all right.

The only thing stopping him from calling the whole thing off was guilt. He owed her something. His entire family owed her something. This job had meant they could survive a little longer, until he could find permanent work. The least they could do was show up and eat the lady's food.


He looked over his shoulder, saw Sylvia behind him. She offered a diet can of soft-drink. "Thought you could use this."

"Thanks." Matt accepted it, popped the top.

Sylvia nodded distractedly. "What were you talking about to Beth just now-- when you went into her office?"

The foaming soda caught in Matt's throat, and he coughed it down.

"Something happened, and I want to know." Sylvia pinned him with a forceful look that made him stubborn instantly. It didn't matter that the question might be harmless, he didn't appreciate being forced.

He gulped down the rest of the drink, crushed the can in his fist, tossed it into an open trash bin. "Nothing much," he said, and resumed the pot moving.

She thrust her hands on her hips, gave him a cautionary stare.

Which he refused to acknowledge.

Another pot down, five more to go. And maybe by then, Sylvia would leave.

When she did, Matt silently thanked Heaven. These women were killing him.

Beth glanced up from the laptop on the desk, long enough to see the pout on Sylvia's face. "Why aren't you working?"

"I saw him first, Beth."

"Saw who?"

"Don't play innocent. I'm talking about Matt. He was in here a few minutes ago, and when he left, you had a hopeful smile. I saw."

"I don't have time for your games, Silvi. I really don't."

"Did he ask you out?"

With a sigh, Beth pushed back from the desk, eyed her jealous friend. "I only invited him and his family to dinner. Nothing else. Now if you're finished, I'd appreciate it if you got back to work."

The background sounds of a customer had Beth on her feet. She looked into the store, smiled when she saw Amy with three women at the checkout. Finally. Some business.

"You've already got Skip. I've got no one. It's not fair!"

Beth turned, drew a long patient breath. "I told you already, it's only a family dinner. He's not mine. I don't think he's anyone's. Now would you please work?"

"Are you sure?" Sylvia looked at her undecidedly.

"Yes, I'm sure I want you back to work."

Sylvia rolled her eyes. "Are you sure he doesn't belong to anyone?"

"His clothes are always rumpled," Beth said, returning to her desk chair. "Does it look to you a woman is taking care of him?"

"Are you sure it's only dinner?" Sylvia asked.

"His whole family's going to be there," Beth said, turning back to her laptop. "Any more questions? Or can we work now?"

"I guess." The pout outlining Sylvia's lips had faded into her usual, movie-star smile. "Have you and Skip got together yet?"

Beth narrowed her eyes. "Have you been eavesdropping at my office door?"

"Only a little," Sylvia laughed. "Come on, Beth, what are you waiting for? You aren't getting any younger, you know."

Mercifully, the phone rang and Beth had a good excuse to interrupt the conversation.

Sylvia leaned forward, whispered in Beth's ear. "You'd better take what little you're offered. Call Skip." With a gloating smile, Sylvia left Beth with a smarting heart. Her friend sure knew how to hurt, when she wanted.

Matt parked his truck outside the house, pulled the keys from the ignition. He needed to decompress, let himself relax and unwind before going inside.

After his minor confrontation with Sylvia, she'd come back, smiling as though she hadn't a care in the world. Women. Maybe she'd been in her period or something, but whatever the case, all seemed to be back to normal-- at least, as normal as it ever got at the nursery.

He opened the truck door, closed it, made sure it was locked before walking away.

The nasty stare of the neighbor across the street couldn't be missed. The prison tat on the guy's biceps threatened all onlookers that its owner was not to be pushed around. Matt's own tattoo had been acquired at a shop, when he and his then-buddy had been drunk, but didn't have the same impact of his neighbor's.

The man folded his arms across his chest, glared at Matt. The stance was that of someone demanding attention.

Matt nodded to him, stepped across the street to talk. "Howdy. Can I do something for you?"

"Tell your brother to stay away from my daughter."

"Your daughter?"

"If I catch him hanging around Susan again" -- he paused, leaned forward -- "he'll be sitting a toilet like a woman. Catch my drift?"

Though Matt felt like backing away, he held his ground. Neither wanted to appear weak, but he had a hunch his neighbor didn't want a fight, only the threat of one.

Matt nodded slowly. "I'll tell him."

"You'd better do more than tell," the man said, hardening his stance. "Susan's already got a baby to take care of, and she's just seventeen. Just a baby herself."

A knot tightened in Matt's stomach.

"Your brother isn't the father," the man said, reading the worry in Matt's face. "But I'm going to make sure he doesn't get my Susan into trouble. She's got enough."

"Matty's home!" Ryan shouted from the open doorway across the street, prompting both men to look at the Taylor house.

"Stay where you're at, Ryan," Matt called to him. "I'll be there shortly."

The angry father wasn't in the mood for more talk, and to be honest, neither was Matt. The men parted with a curt nod, and Matt strode back to the house, only to have Ryan rush out and greet him eagerly.

"Matty, Matty, guess what?" The boy lifted his arms, and Matt picked him up. "Mrs. Lott made a cake!"

"Did she?" Matt hefted the boy onto his hip, looked across the street and saw the man had gone.

"She said we couldn't eat it, until you got here!"

"Oh, so that's why you're so happy to see me!" Matt tickled Ryan until the boy was laughing so hard he couldn't speak.

The door opened, and Cassie stood inside, smiling when she saw Ryan with Matt.

"How was your day, Matty?"

"Okay, I guess. Where's Ethan?"

Cassie shrugged. "Studying, I guess."

"Where, Cass?"

"In his room. Why? What's wrong?" Her voice turned to worry so quickly, Matt was afraid she'd start having another panic attack.

"I just want to talk to him, that's all," Matt said, putting the squirming boy down.

"Cake, Matty! Cake!"

Matt gently tugged at Ryan's shirt. "Calm down, buddy; if there's cake, we're saving it for dessert."

Sweet brown eyes turned stormy as Ryan looked up at Matt. "We have to wait?"

"Please, Ryan." Matt ruffled his brother's black hair. "Be patient a little longer."

"But, I want to eat it now."

"Remember what I said about patience?"

Thought briefly creased Ryan's forehead. "No."

By now Cassie had retreated from the door, and was seated on the sofa with her arms wrapped about her knees. Walking Ryan inside, Matt closed the door, then went to check Cassie. She'd been getting more and more emotional, and the tears and panic seemed to come easier than usual.

He sank onto the cushion beside her. He knew how she felt. After the day he'd just had, Matt felt like curling into a ball, too.

He put a hand on Cassie's shoulder. She was trembling, and when she looked up at him, her eyes brimmed with unshed tears.

"Do you want to see the counselor again?" he asked, letting her settle into his shoulder for some big brother comfort.

"No," came her muffled response.

"Did school go all right, Cass?


"Any bullies I should know about?"


Matt rubbed Cassie's arm, letting her know he was there and she wasn't alone.

The excitement of cake momentarily forgotten, Ryan soberly stood by the sofa. "Is Cass all right?"

"She's just a little over-wrought," Matt said gently. "She'll be fine in a minute."

A lanky teenager sauntered into the living room, sat down and put his feet on the coffee table. "Hey, Matty, when'd you get home?"

Matt looked Ethan over, his heart heavy when he considered what the neighbor had said. "I was told to give you a message."

"Oh?" Ethan wore that insolent look teenagers are so good at, one that always made Matt sick with worry when he thought of Ethan's future. His brother was too much like himself at that age.

"Susan's father wants you to stay away from her."

"Oh, is that all." Ethan shrugged carelessly. "The way you were frowning, I thought it was something important."

Matt checked Cassie, smiled when she looked calmer. "Do me a favor, would you, Cass? Take Ryan into the kitchen and get dinner started."

"Sure, Matty." Cassie got up, and with Ryan bouncing excitedly behind her, the two went into the kitchen.

Now that the younger ones were out of earshot, Matt turned his attention back to Ethan. "Have you been sleeping with Susan?" he asked seriously.

"Not yet," Ethan grinned. He sobered a little when Matt didn't smile. "No, we haven't done it. There's nothing to get excited about, Matty. All we did was make out."

"Don't follow in my footsteps, Ethan."

The teenager shrugged. "What set off Cass?" he asked, in an obvious attempt to change the subject.

"Nothing much. She just got a little afraid." Matt stood up, looked at Ethan. "Stay away from Susan."

"You can't tell me what to do. I'm almost eighteen."

"Which means for the next several months you'll still be seventeen, so you'll do as I say."

"Until then." Ethan shifted back onto his tailbone, leveled his rebellion at Matt. The two brothers had been tugging at each other ever since Matt had pulled them up from Texas and brought them to New Mexico for a brand new start.

Ethan hadn't wanted to leave.

"Do I have your word concerning Susan?"

With a reluctant groan, Ethan finally nodded. "Yeah, I guess."

"Okay, then." Matt took a step toward the kitchen, stopped. He wanted to say more to Ethan, but knew it would only get shoved back in his face, so kept silent. "Dinner will be ready soon, so you'd better get your homework done."

"Already did," Ethan called out, as Matt entered the kitchen.

The tall stool Matt kept in the kitchen had been pulled from its place, and now sat before the counter with Ryan perched on its seat. Ryan watched Cassie start dinner, anxious for it to be ready, so they could get to the tall chocolate cake by Ryan's elbow.

Not wanting dessert to wind up on the floor, Matt scooted it back a few inches, then relieved Cassie at the stove.

She moved to the table, picked up her textbook to study.

Though Ethan had already finished his homework, he went to the table, flopped into a chair. Matt knew Ethan would never admit it out loud, but the teenager liked the company of his family. Especially when they could sit about the kitchen, the noise of siblings filling the empty spaces of quiet and too much solitude.

Ryan peered at the temptation on the counter, moving so close he nearly dipped his nose into brown frosting.

"It's chocolate, Matty."

"Really?" Matt smiled laughingly at the boy. They rarely had homemade treats such as this. While Matt knew how to handle himself in the kitchen, his skills mainly covered basic survival.

"I have some news," Matt said, noticing how the kitchen quickly fell into a hush. "Good news," he added, seeing Cassie grow fearful. "Mrs. Carter invited us to dinner, tomorrow."

"She did?" Cassie set down her book, looked at Matt. "Why, Matty?"

He shrugged. "I think she's lonely, and our family was handy."

"Lonely?" Cassie tilted her head in thought. "But I thought she was supposed to be rich."

"She is-- or at least, I guess she is." Matt stirred the simmering sauce, turned down the flame. "I guess some things money can't buy."

"Maybe not, but it can sure buy a lot," Ethan said, folding his arms dreamily. "A sports car, designer shades--"

"More cake," Ryan added excitedly.

"You'd better watch that sweet tooth of yours," Matt said, giving a playful warning to Ryan. "You're going to rot out your baby teeth."

"Did you say tomorrow night?" Ethan suddenly snapped from his daydream.


Ethan shook his head. "I can't come. I've got a heavy date, Saturday night."

A dull groan filled Matt's chest. "I told you Susan was off limits."

"It's not with Susan. Honest, Matty, I can't come."

"This is my boss we're talking about. We have to come-- she's expecting all of us to be there."

"She really expects us to give up a Saturday night?"

"You're getting too old to whine," Matt said, checking the pan before the sauce burned. "Whatever date you've got, you'll just have to cancel. Which reminds me, who's it with?"

"Just a girl from school."

"When can we eat the cake, Matty?"

"When it's time, Ryan. Who is she, Ethan?"

"Casey Thompson. Her father is the manager at the grocery store on West Avenue. If you force me to cancel, Matty, I swear I'll get even with you. It's taken me weeks to get her to say yes."

This prompted a sober look from Matt.

"For her to agree to go out with me," Ethan said with a teenager roll of his eyes. "Lighten up, would you? I can't cancel. Your Mrs. Carter will just have to get over the disappointment and suffer without me."

"She's not my Mrs. Carter, and you are coming." Matt dropped the stirring spoon into a holding saucer, the resulting clatter making Cassie jump. He could feel the tension build between him and Ethan again, and the two brothers stared at each other in silence.

"I'll cancel." Ethan scowled as he said it, but he backed off.

"Thanks, Ethan. I appreciate it."

"Yeah, yeah." Ethan stood, left the kitchen with a defeated slump in his shoulders.

Cassie looked at Matt plaintively. "Do I have to come, too?"

Shaking his head, Matt chuckled wearily. "What is it with this family? This is free food, guys. Free homemade food, not the processed stuff we eat, but real, probably expensive, food."

"Like what normal people eat?" Cassie asked.

"What are you talking about? We're normal." Matt looked at his sister in baffled astonishment, then winked at her.

She lit up with a laughing smile. It was good to see her happy again.

Dessert couldn't come soon enough for Ryan, but when it did, he gobbled down all the chocolate cake Matt would allow. When it was over, Ryan had brown frosting on his cheeks-- a happy little piglet who's gotten its fill.

No one felt like singing that night, but when Matt retrieved his guitar from the bedroom, everyone remained to listen. In those few moments with the children together, their stomachs full and their faces content, Matt didn't feel like the failure he knew he was. It didn't matter that he did the best he could. No matter how hard he tried, it never felt like enough. If he were a good man, a better man, he felt certain Ethan would've become a Christian long ago. Cassie wouldn't struggle with panic nearly as much, and Ryan... Ryan would be a little more patient. For a four-year-old though, Ryan wasn't doing half bad.

Saturday morning, Matt let the kids sleep in, as was their right on a non-school day. He envied them their rest, their lack of responsibility. He was their brother, not their parent, and when he had to get up early and go to work, a part of him was tempted to resent his situation.

With it came the old hunger, screaming at his resistance to be fed. Stop trying and give in. Give in, admit you can't handle it. With the release of all those burdens, you could score again. Just one more hit. You know how peaceful it'll make you feel. Beyond peaceful. Euphoric. When was the last time you felt that?

Matt clenched his jaw. "God, hold me back. Please, hold me back." He released a pent up breath, turned into the parking lot of the nursery. He needed activity, something to keep his mind from drugs, and the chemical rush that would free him.

As usual, Matt was the first employee to arrive, not that it surprised Beth anymore. But this morning, he seemed impatient to be given direction, and dove straight into his work like a maniac. She stayed out of his way, let him work off whatever bothered him.

By lunch break, she noticed he had calmed and was looking more like his normal self. She had to bite her lip to keep from smiling when he turned down Sylvia's invitation to join Sylvia and Amy for lunch at the restaurant. His refusal was adamant, and not even Amy's polite begging could make him change his answer.

Beth had to admit to some curiosity when he left to sit in his pickup and eat lunch. It was none of her business, but she wondered what kind of lunch he had packed, if it satisfied his hunger after all that activity. He'd already put in a hard, if frantic, day's work, and it was only noon. She wished he'd bring his lunch inside the store, eat where she could happen by and perhaps strike up a conversation. But he didn't, and it wasn't until an hour before the nursery closed that Beth had a good opportunity to draw Matt aside.

"Here's the directions to my house," she said, handing him a folded slip of paper. "I hope you can read my handwriting. People tell me I write in hieroglyphics, not English."

Matt quickly glanced at the map, then stuffed it in his pocket. "What time you want us?"

"Six thirty." Beth didn't attempt more humor. She could tell Matt was tired, and probably didn't want to come, though he was polite enough to try and hide it from her.

Beth closed the nursery at five, but didn't stay behind to plan a weekend with Sylvia, as they frequently did on Saturday nights. Instead of hanging out at a bar, Beth would be cooking dinner for five. The thought made her smile all the way home.

She'd planned the menu and bought groceries yesterday, anticipating the fact she wouldn't have much time to prepare the meal. After Bailey saw she was busy, he went back to his sofa and left the kitchen to the mad woman dashing about in an apron.

Chili cooked in a large pot over the stovetop, corn bread baked in the oven, their aroma filling the kitchen with the promise of a Mexican dinner.

It felt good to be doing something for someone else, to cook for someone besides herself.

Contrary to Mrs. Carter's claims at hieroglyphic handwriting, Matt easily followed her directions. He had finally gotten everyone bathed and dressed in their Sunday best, and successfully potty checked Ryan before buckling him into the car seat. Matt glanced in the rearview mirror, checked Cassie and Ryan in the backseat of the pickup's extended cab. Cass wore her best jeans and the pink top she'd been given the last time their mom had visited.

She looked like the little girl Matt knew she still was.

"I'm okay, Matty," Cassie said, smiling when she noticed him in the mirror.

He nodded, not trying to make her feel more self conscience than she already did. She had fussed over what to wear, right up until Matt had declared it was time to leave.

The land became more agricultural West of Las Cruces, crops and orchards spanning between the occasional house. He checked the map, turned onto a dirt road that led away from the main highway.

The fidgeting teenager beside Matt grew more restless. "I can't believe I cancelled with the captain of the cheerleading squad. For this." Matt could hear the scowl in his voice. "For a dinner at an old lady's house."

"Hey, it's free food, so stop squawking." Matt would be glad when this was over. He felt uncomfortable coming to Mrs. Carter's house in the first place, even more because she was his boss.

If Matt had any lingering doubts as to her being rich, they were forgotten when he saw where she lived. At the end of the dirt road, not far from the highway, a Spanish style hacienda came into view. It sprawled to the left and to the right, one story high, and flanked by large bay windows. A light shone above each window, and in the dim of shade trees and a setting sun, it looked like a warm adobe invitation to come inside.

"Wow." Ethan didn't unfasten his seat belt, just stared at the house. "So much for the lonely widow theory. She must be worth a bundle."

Matt shot his brother a look. "Don't you dare say anything like that when we get inside."

The sound of a vehicle pulling up outside the house prompted Beth to check the dining table and make sure everything was ready. They were right on time. As if Matt Taylor would be late.

She tugged at the strings on her apron, caught her reflection in the mirror by the entryway. She hoped she didn't look old in her white slacks and red top. Her outfit had been picked to make her look at least five years younger than she was, but to her dismay, she thought the woman staring back looked every bit her age.

The doorbell rang, reminding Beth it was too late for yet another wardrobe change.

Summoning her hostess manners, she opened the door, invited the Taylors inside. There were four of them-- three boys and a girl-- and they all looked out of their element. Even so, she thought Matt was... what had Sylvia called him? stunning. He was that, and more. His long sleeved button-down shirt, crisp black jeans, Stetson and polished boots gave a formal but casual appearance. Aftershave clung to the air about him, carried in the light breeze to Beth, made her senses quicken.

The girl, Cassie, hung close to Matt's side, her long blonde hair drawn into a ponytail. There was a woman blossoming under that pink top, one that seemed unaware of the fact she was on the verge of becoming a young adult.

Wide blue eyes, a wistfully shy smile. Cassie exuded someone unsure of herself, unsure of the world around her.

"You must be Cassie," Beth said, smiling as kindly as she could. Beth wanted to give her a welcoming hug, but Cassie looked so timid, Beth refrained herself and shook Cassie's hand instead.

Matt nodded to the teenage boy. "That's Ethan, and Ryan, you've already met."

With a grunted hello, Ethan shoved his hands into his pockets. He bore a resemblance to Matt, but no more than was usual for brothers. More than the others, Ethan didn't look as though he wanted to be there.

Beth smiled. "It's nice to meet you all. Won't you come into the living room? Dinner will be ready in just a few minutes."

They hadn't even entered the living room, when Ryan began tugging at Matt's pant leg. He pointed a small finger at the sofa, spoke in an excited hush. "A doggie, Matty! She has a doggie!"

On the sofa, the excitement of strangers had Bailey's tail working in overtime.

"Is it all right if he pets your dog?" Matt looked to Beth for permission. "Ryan loves dogs."

"Sure, only..." Beth tried to push down her concern. "Please be careful, Ryan. Bailey is a very old dog. So don't tug his fur. All right?"

Ryan nodded, grinned excitedly as the dog climbed off the sofa, came over to sniff him. Ryan pet Bailey like a pro, and before long, had Bailey eating out of the palm of his hand. Literally. When Beth brought out a large platter of tortilla chips and salsa, Ryan fed most of his to Bailey, but at Beth's insistence, without the salsa.

The Taylors had taken the sofa vacated by Bailey, leaving the second sofa entirely to Beth. Dinner would be ready when she took the cheese enchiladas out of the microwave, where they had been keeping warm. A little longer. Just a few more minutes. She had a hunch as soon as the Taylors were done eating, they would leave. And she wasn't ready for that.

"How old are you Cassie?" Beth was drawn to the feminine young woman, her soft blue eyes and sweet demeanor. The way Cassie looked at Matt, Beth could tell the girl thought the world of her oldest brother.

Perching the cowboy hat on his knee, Matt nudged her in the side. "Go on, Cass, she's talking to you."

"Twelve and a half."

The words came out so softly, Beth nearly didn't hear her.

Ethan folded his arms, as though daring Beth to ask him the same question. She wisely chose not to.

"Do you like school, Cassie?"

The girl shrugged. "I guess."

Laughter bubbled up from the floor as Bailey licked Ryan's face repeatedly. The louder Ryan laughed, the more frantically he was licked. It was a moment Beth delighted to watch.

"Do you have kids, Mrs. Carter?"

Beth looked up, saw Matt smile politely. "I did-- once," she said, steadying her breath before explaining. "My son died in an airplane accident with my husband."

The stunned look on Matt's face was what she had expected. Whenever people learned of her loss, they frequently didn't know what to say.

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Carter. I didn't know."

She dismissed his apology. "I don't talk about it much-- at all, really." She wondered why. "It was a long time ago," she added. "A very long time."

"How long?" he asked.

"Why--" Beth stopped. They had died almost four years ago, to the day. The anniversary that marked the accident was next week. "Four years. It's been four years."

"That's not very long," Matt said. "You must miss them a lot."

"Yes, I do." She looked at Matt, wondered if he could understand. It had only been four years, and yet to her, they had been an eternity.

She needed dinner to be ready. Those dark eyes, handsome face were seeing too much. She stood, excused herself.

Dinner was eaten in silence, punctuated by polite talk. Ryan hurried through his food, then after asking to be excused, ran off to play with Bailey.

"He must keep you on your toes," Beth said, in deference to Matt. "What was he like as a two-year-old?"

"Shorter." Matt smiled good-naturedly. "Always has been a bundle of energy." He shrugged. "You know how they are at that age." When she bit her lip, he stiffened. "Sorry. I only assumed... You look at Ryan as though you're remembering."

"My little boy, Caleb, died when he was two. He'd be six years old by now."

Matt was silent. He considered her, the linen tablecloth, his bowl of chili.

And said nothing.

What was there to say? Sorry? Beth restrained a bitter laugh.

"How'd they die?" Ethan asked. "Ouch! Matty, all I did was ask. Stop kicking me!"

"It's all right, Matt, I don't mind answering. It was a private airplane. My husband loved to fly, got his pilot's license as soon as he could afford the time. He took Caleb out for a short trip and their plane had mechanical failure. No one survived the crash." Beth marveled at her own stoicism. She knew she would pay for it later, when they left. For now, she was glad she had spoken without the embarrassment of tears.

Once again, Matt was silent. What did those dark eyes see when they looked at her? she wondered. Matt studied her with careful reserve, as though he had difficulty forgetting she was his boss.

She wished he would. Just once.

When he didn't say more, she knew he didn't want to forget. For whatever reason, she wasn't enough to make him think past his job.

She tried to look at it from his viewpoint. It was probably the job itself, that held him back. She hoped it held him back -- that there was something to hold him back from -- that he wanted to do something else than be so painfully polite.

Beth tried to tell herself it didn't matter, but knew it wasn't true. Deep down, where secrets are held and hopes are grown, she knew it mattered very much. She liked Matt, liked him even more after seeing him with his family.

And the quiet feeling told her that liking would only grow stronger the better she knew him.

"Lord, all my [Beth's] desire is before Thee; and my groaning is not hid from Thee. My heart panteth..."
~ Psalm 38:9, 10 ~

end of chapter
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