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Chapter Five
A Mother's Love

"Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted... Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy."
~ Matthew 5:4, 7 ~

It explained a lot, really. Her loneliness, the longing in her eyes. She had lost so much, it was understandable. He felt sorry for her, but that pity only went so far. Now that he understood her better, it made him all the more uncomfortable.

He hadn't expected to see her in anything but baggy clothing and a nursery shirt, and rebuked himself for being shocked when she appeared at the door in something else. Surely, Mrs. Carter wouldn't wear work clothes at home. But that outfit wasn't what Matt had expected, or wanted. It made her look different. It made her look more desirable.

As Matt finished his bowl of chili, he struggled not to think about it. He hadn't been intimate in such a long time, he felt the danger of awareness cautioning him to step carefully. He hadn't wanted to notice, but he had, and now that he had, he must back off.

Dessert brought Ryan back to the table, laughing and bursting with talk of what a great dog Bailey was. Matt was glad Ryan was having such a good time, though he couldn't help wishing Mrs. Carter owned a goldfish. Bailey would only make Ryan's pleading for a puppy grow stronger, and it pulled at Matt's already low spirits. Why couldn't she have a stupid cat? And why did she have to dress so nicely?

Matt felt under siege, and by the time dinner was over, he was more than ready to go home.

"Maybe," Mrs. Carter said as they filed to the front door, "you could all come for dinner next week."

"No thanks." Matt winced a little at the abruptness of his refusal, but the last thing he wanted was a repeat of tonight. He planted his hat on his head with a firm tug, gave her a nod good-bye. "Thanks for the meal. I hope we didn't put you to too much trouble."

"You didn't." Mrs. Carter's lips were pulled into a thin, pained smile. The pain he saw in her eyes seemed more understandable, less of a puzzle. Her loneliness was palpable, and he could nearly feel it beat in his chest, pump through his heart. He knew what it felt like to be alone, to feel as though no one on earth cared for your soul. Though their pain was not identical, he identified it and understood it.

Yet he could not help her. In fact, he felt helpless to do anything but run.

Matt ushered his family outside, waited patiently for Ryan to part with Bailey. He lifted Ryan into his car seat, buckled him in. He rounded the truck, paused when he noticed Mrs. Carter still standing by her front door.

She stepped toward him, her smile sad and subdued.

"Cass, Ethan-- get in the truck. We'll leave in a minute." Matt moved toward Mrs. Carter, stuffed his hands helplessly into his pockets and wondered what to say.

Her arms folded against the chill of the evening air. "I appreciate you bringing your family out here, Matt. It was kind of you to share them with me, even for this one time."

With a sigh, Matt looked off into the distance. "You're welcome," he said finally.

"Matt, I'm not--" she stopped. "I won't ask you and your family to dinner again, and I'll leave you alone from here on out if that's what you want."

His chest rumbled with inward laughter. "The day you women leave me alone, I'll eat my hat."

Mrs. Carter's soft smile quickened his breath. She looked at him, and his insides twisted a bit, as though her very gaze could rearrange him from the inside out. "I like you, Matt. I like you well enough to stop bothering you, for I can see plainly that's what I've been doing."

He shrugged casually. "No harm done. We had to eat."

"Well, thank you for coming out this evening." When she rubbed her arms, he felt the urge to find a jacket and put it around her shoulders. He had no jacket, and when he remembered he hadn't, his feet refused to move. He knew he should go back to the truck, get in, and not look back. But he couldn't.

Instead, he stood there like an idiot, and gave her the opportunity to talk some more.

"Would it be possible..." Mrs. Carter bit her lip in a very Cassie-like manner, endearing his employer to him, almost without his realizing what had happened. "Would it be possible for us to be friends? If it makes you uncomfortable, I'll let it drop and never bring it up again. It's just that--"

"It's so hard being alone?" he finished.

She nodded in agreement. "Somehow, I think you know what I'm feeling."

"In a way, I do." He shifted in his boots, wished he had already left and were miles away by now. "I guess we could be friends. I'm not sure it's a good idea, though. I'm warning you up front, I'm not looking or wanting anything but mild friendship."

"Thank you, Matt. I understand. Will you shake hands on it?"

She extended a pale hand, and after a few moments thought, he took it in his own. He felt the warmth of her hand, the delicate fingers lightly roughened by the occasional contact with soil, her faint pulse as it quickened with his.

He quickly let go.

"Good night, Mrs. Carter." He turned to leave, heard her call after him in a gentle voice he hadn't known she possessed.

"Good night, Matt. See you on Sunday."

With a lump in his throat, he remembered they attended the same church. "Yeah, see you on Sunday." He climbed into the truck, only to find Ethan staring at him with raised brows.

"Well? What's your problem?" Matt asked.

"I'm not the one with a problem," Ethan said with a laugh. "I think your boss likes you, Matty."

"Shut up."

"You told us she was an old lady," Ethan continued, as Matt backed away from Mrs. Carter's home. "That was no old woman."

"I never said she was old." Matt frowned at his brother. He didn't think he had ever called her old. She wasn't all that old, just older than him. What was she-- twenty-eight? thirty? He caught himself, shoved his interest aside as rapidly as he could.

"What did she talk to you about?" Ethan asked.

"She wants us to be friends." Matt cast a glance at Ethan. He saw Ethan's disbelief. "Why? You don't think she's telling the truth?"

"Maybe she believes she is," Ethan shrugged, "but that's sure not the way she was looking at you, Matty."

"Yeah, that's what I thought, too." He sighed, snorted disgust at the sound of Ethan's laughter. "Would you cut it out? I don't see what's so funny!"

"When she proposes marriage, can I be the best man?" Ethan doubled over in laughter, until Matt gave him a swift kick in the leg. The teenager turned to look out his darkened window. From Ethan's reflection, Matt could see him still smiling.

Sunday morning, Beth went to church for the first time in a long while. She tried to tell herself it was for godly reasons, that it wasn't just to see Matt and his family again. As she had predicted, she had cried herself to sleep last night, only to awaken with red eyes and a puffy face. The thought of meeting the Taylors gave her a reason to get out of bed, dress, and come to church. She felt depressed it took a reason like that to make her come. She sat in the pews with people she barely knew, half listening to the pastor, half searching the congregation for Matt.

The sermon over, she accepted a hearty thanks from Pastor Mark for giving Matt his job. Guilt kept her from accepting the gratitude without protest.

"You're being too modest," Pastor Mark said, touching her arm warmly. "That job is just what the Taylors need right now. I'm just grateful Matt is finally accepting help from someone. Heaven knows, I've tried to do more. But you know how he is."

Unsure what he meant, Beth nodded absently.

He sighed heavily. "Matt is so independent, so self-sufficient, he's a hard guy to help. Ever since he and his family moved to Las Cruces two years ago, he hasn't asked for help but once or twice. He uses the food pantry here at church-- a lot of the needy families around here do."

"Do you know what happened to their mother?" Beth asked.

"Such a sad situation. There's nothing good I can say about her, only that she has enough sense to allow Matt guardianship of the children. It's to his credit those kids are still together. He's made a lot of sacrifices, taking care of those kids-- pushed himself to the point of breaking, if you ask me. I wish he'd let someone think of his own needs once in a while, and not just the children's." Pastor Mark shrugged. "But you know Matt."

No, she didn't know Matt, but what she heard seemed consistent with what she had seen.

Someone called the pastor over to their group, and he excused himself before Beth had a chance to ask more.

It wasn't until Beth had left the crowded building, that she saw the Taylors. Ethan hadn't come, but Matt, Cassie, and Ryan had. She watched as they got inside that old pickup truck of Matt's, lifted a hand in friendly greeting as their vehicle pulled past her in the parking lot.

Matt nodded to her, and then they were gone.

In a move unlike Sylvia, she came to work early. Monday mornings, she usually slept in to nurse a hangover, but today, she looked sober and steady as she stood in Beth's office for a report on the dinner with Matt.

"There's nothing more to tell, Silvi. They came, they ate, they left. End of story."

"Are they coming to your house for dinner, again?"

"I have no idea," Beth said, beginning to rebel at the way Sylvia prompted-- no, demanded-- information, as though it were a right, and not a favor from a friend. Beth was only thankful Matt didn't work Mondays, where he could walk in and overhear their discussion.

"I think I'll ask him out," Sylvia said, leaning against the desk, her painted mouth parted in a glossy pout. "Wear something special for the occasion. You know, something unforgettable."

Beth kept her thoughts on the matter to herself. Had she been trying to help Sylvia-- which she certainly was not-- she would've told her friend that Matt didn't like revealing clothing. Her red top had hardly been revealing, and yet, Beth had the distinct impression it had almost scared away the very man she had been trying to attract.

"Matt strikes me as a man who likes bold women." Sylvia preened her hair in the reflection of the photo frame on the desk. "I know his type."

Beth wasn't so sure. She had a different impression, but that, too, she kept quiet.

The phone rang, and Beth waved Sylvia out of the room before picking up. Whoever it was, whatever the reason, it came as a welcome change from Sylvia's plotting. Beth picked up the receiver, was unexpectedly greeted by the sobs of a girl.

"Who is this, please?" Beth asked.

"M-Mrs. Carter?"

"Cassie? Cassie Taylor? Is that you?"

"Yes," the voice trembled. "Could you come, Mrs. Carter? I... I need your help."

"Are you hurt?" Beth snatched the car keys from the desk drawer. "Are you bleeding? Do you need first aid?"

"Please, come." The line dropped into a dial-tone.

It didn't take five minutes for Beth to hand over the nursery to Sylvia, jump into her car, and head for the Taylors' house. She had bandages in her purse, a tiny bottle of hand sanitizer that could clean wounds until proper medical attention, and aspirin to help with the pain. She was a mother, and though her own child had passed away, her instincts were very much alive and pulsing with maternal alarm.

Beth parked the car outside the mobile home, raced to the door, jammed her thumb into the doorbell.

"Where is Matt?" she breathed. "How could he leave Cassie by herself at a time like this! What if I hadn't been here?"

The door opened, and Beth caught her breath as she came face to face with the very person she had all but accused of neglect a second before.

"Mrs. Carter! What are you doing here?" Matt didn't move aside to let her in, but stood there in stunned surprise.

"I'm here because your sister called me," Beth said. "Is she hurt badly? She was crying, but hung up before I could get much else from her."

"Cassie?" Matt frowned. "She's in school, Mrs. Carter."

"No, she's not," Ryan said, tugging at Matt's pant leg for attention. "She's in her bedroom, Matty."

Matt shook his head, lifted the boy into his arms. "You'll have to excuse Ryan. He sometimes doesn't understand the difference between pretend and real."

"But she is in the bedroom. The school bus left without her."

"Cassie called me at the nursery, Matt. Could I come inside? She's still here, and asked for my help."

"Come in," Matt said, his voice troubled. He kept Ryan in his arms, led the way down a short hall on the right side of the living room, straight to a closed door. "This is Cassie's room," he said, and knocked. "Cass? Cass, sis, are you in there?" When there was no answer, he tried the handle. "It's locked." He set Ryan down. "Cass?" He knocked harder, more urgently. "Are you hurt, Cassie?"

"No," a wavering reply finally came. "Is she there, Matty? Did she come?"

"Yes, Cassie, I'm here." Beth stepped forward, listened intently for the soft voice. "Why don't you open the door, and let us help you?"

"Yeah, Cass, open the door!" Ryan shouted. Matt gave the boy a quieting look, and Ryan obeyed.

The door cracked open, and Beth could see Cassie's tear streaked face. Matt put a hand on the door, forcing it open, but Cassie put her shoulder into it and stopped it from opening any further.

"Cass, let us in," Matt said, giving her the same look he had with Ryan. Beth could see the surprise on Matt's face when it didn't work.

"Just her," Cassie said, her voice pleadingly persuasive. "Please, Matt. Just her."

"Tell me you're not hurt."

"I'm not."

"All right, Cass." He stepped back, let Beth into the bedroom without him. When Ryan tried to follow, Matt grabbed the boy's shirt. "Oh, no you don't, buddy. If I can't go, neither can you."

Beth shut the door behind her, saw Cassie standing in a pink bathrobe, her eyes brimming with fresh tears. There were no missing limbs, no cuts or bruises, nothing but those distressed tears to indicate anything was wrong.

Beth took a slow, calming breath. "I came as soon as I could, Cassie. How did you know my nursery's phone number?" She looked around for a phone, saw a cheap cell phone on the mattress behind Cassie. "Did you call information?"

Cassie nodded "yes," then reached into her robe to produce a wad of toilet paper stained red.

"Oh, I see." Beth was careful not to smile, though she felt instantly better knowing what the problem was.

"I've got my period," Cassie said, her voice small and embarrassed. "I couldn't go to Mrs. Lott, because she's too old." Cassie dried more tears against the shoulder of her terry robe.

"Who's Mrs. Lott, dear?"

"Our next door neighbor. She babysits Ryan."

"Okay. I'm here, and you're going to be fine. You know that, don't you? Periods are perfectly normal. I know it looks bad, but I promise you won't bleed to death."

Cassie smiled weakly, nodded that she understood.

"Do you have your own bathroom?" Beth moved past Cassie, saw that she did. "Let's get you cleaned up. I have an emergency Maxi in my purse."

Minutes later, Beth went to find Matt. She didn't have far to look, and all but bumped into him outside Cassie's bedroom door.

"What's wrong with her?" Matt asked, agitation and worry evident in his voice, his stance. He folded his arms, waited for an explanation. At his side, Ryan followed Matt's example.

"Cassie has become a woman," Beth said in a hushed voice.

"She's what?"

"She has her period."

"Oh." Matt relaxed enough to chuckle. "For a minute there, you had me scared. Ryan, why don't you go play with your toys?"

Ryan frowned, but did as he was told.

"Is Cass holding up all right?" Matt asked. Beth could see he tried hard not to laugh.

"She just needed some help," Beth said. "Some womanly help."

"I guess she's going to need a run by the store. Thanks for coming. I can handle it from here."

"Actually, I was hoping I could take Cassie shopping." Beth held her breath, waited for Matt to object.

He did, without missing a beat.

"I appreciate your help-- I really do. But I can take care of my own sister. If she needs something more, I'll get it for her, myself."

"She needs a bra."

"A what?"

"You know, a woman's undergarment?"

Matt looked at her blandly. "I'll take her to the store, right after I call the school to let them know she's not coming. Thank you for helping my sister, Mrs. Carter." He stared at her, willing her to leave by sheer force of willpower.

It almost worked.

"Please, Matt, it would embarrass Cassie to have to sort things out in the store with her brother, especially when she's new to all of it. This is something better left to a woman."

"But--" Matt sighed, stared at the closed bedroom door. "All right. Take her. Give me the receipt when you return, and I'll pay you back. Are you sure she's old enough, though? And, isn't this early for her to get a period? She just a little kid!"

"She's a young woman, and I went through the same thing when I was about her age."

"Mrs. Carter." He stopped her, hesitated before letting her back into the bedroom. "Cassie is kind of fragile. She's been through a lot, and sometimes everything gets to her and she slips into a panic attack. It's why I make sure she carries a cell phone everywhere she goes. To give her some confidence, give her some security that if things get too much, she can call me for help."

"I'll be gentle with her," Beth nodded in understanding. "Was she ever abused or neglected? She's so timid, I couldn't help but wonder."

Matt stiffened. He looked at Beth as though carefully weighing the consequences of telling her the full truth.

"I can be trusted not to spread gossip, Matt."

He rubbed the back of his neck, stared at the toes of his socks until he decided to answer. "Cass had a rough childhood. Her father beat her once when she was five, when he was drunk and she couldn't get out of his way fast enough. When I found out, I managed to throw the bum out of the house, even though Mom put up a fight to keep him. Cass wasn't hurt seriously, but it left a scar in here growing up," Matt said, touching his heart. "She became more afraid, more fearful of being abandoned. Our parents routinely forgot about us, and it wasn't unusual for the younger ones to search the cupboards for something to eat because Mom spent all the money on booze."

"I'm sorry," Beth said.

"Yeah." Matt looked at her with a half smile. "Everyone always says the same thing-- sorry. Sounds kind of lame, doesn't it? Your husband and boy get killed, and all I can say is 'sorry.' Mom is drunk, the electricity is out because no one paid the bills, and Cassie is crying. How many times did I tell her the same thing? Sorry. Sorry I wasn't there to make sure you had something to eat, that I left you and Ethan to fend for yourselves again." Self-reproach clouded Matt's handsome face. "I should've been there for them. At least I had my act together when Ryan was born. He had it better than the other two."

"Those kids are blessed to have you, Matt."

"No, they're not. They just got stuck with me, that's all." He shook himself, and Beth sensed he regretted saying as much as he had.

She refrained from asking questions, though she thought it unfair he should be so hard on himself; Matt couldn't have been more than a kid, himself, at the time. She watched that youthful face regain composure, heard the strength come back to his voice, and knew the time for heartfelt talk had passed.

"When will you have Cass back?" he asked.

"After lunch. I thought I'd take her to the mall. We'll eat in the food court."

He nodded agreement, then stopped her a second time. "I'll be expecting those receipts."

To Matt's credit, he didn't tease or make fun of Cassie when she emerged from the bedroom. From what Beth had seen of Matt's consideration for his sister, Beth hadn't thought he'd give Cassie a hard time. Beth was glad to see she had been right.

He only gave Cassie a hug, reminded her she could come to him with anything at all, and then told her to enjoy herself with Mrs. Carter. Ryan clamored to come with them, but Matt held the boy back, promised to take some time from the newspaper and play with him.

Beth went to her car, unlocked the passenger door for Cassie. "Do you mind if we make a quick stop by the nursery, first?" Beth asked.

Cassie nodded timidly, her long blonde hair trailing over one shoulder. She was very pretty, Beth thought, as they pulled away from the Taylors' house.

"When I was about nine years old," Beth said, deciding talk was better than quiet, "I begged my mom to dye my hair blonde. I couldn't stand being a redhead." She glanced at Cassie, saw the smile.

"I don't see why, Mrs. Carter. Your hair is lovely."

"You think so?" Beth laughed softly. "My hair is a mass of red tangles, if I don't wear them in a braid or a bun. I once hacked them off, wore it short. Then my hair went out in all directions, and I vowed never to repeat that mistake again."

"Oh, no, I think your hair would look good if you wore it loose." Cassie looked at Beth, and Beth could feel the scrutiny. "Maybe you could get it cut, so it wouldn't be quite so long. Maybe just below your shoulders. I wish my hair did something. All it does is lay flat."

"You have the hair I always wanted," Beth said, laughing at the irony. "Here we are. I'll be just a minute. Roll down the window if you get hot." Beth got out, walked into the nursery where Sylvia was chatting with an actual customer.

"Is the emergency over?" Sylvia asked, pausing a moment to speak to Beth. "Is your friend all right?"

"Yes, everything's fine." Beth waited for the customer to finish, then spoke to Sylvia. "I need you to run things around here for a few hours."

Sylvia raised her brows. "Okay. What's up?"

"If the Garcia delivery comes while I'm gone, make sure they unload the plants in back, out of the way."

"Yes, yes," Sylvia dismissed Beth's concern. "I know what to do. You've left me in charge before. So who's this friend? Anyone I know?"

Beth ignored the question by moving quickly to the entrance. "I'll be back in a few hours. Don't leave the nursery unattended when you break for lunch."

Sylvia rolled her eyes, but followed Beth out a short distance into the parking lot. Beth saw the question in Sylvia's eyes, as Sylvia saw the girl in the car. Sylvia couldn't know it was Matt's sister, for they didn't bear a great resemblance to each other, but Beth was determined not to let Sylvia know, and hurried into the car before her friend could ask again.

"Did you get hot?" Beth asked, not waiting for Cassie's reply before rolling down a window in the stuffy car.

"Are you sure you have the time for this?" Cassie asked, as Beth headed the car in the direction of the mall. "We don't have to go now-- not if you're busy."

"Getting cold feet?" Beth darted a smile at Cassie. "I wouldn't be doing this, if I didn't want to, Cassie."

Monday morning shoppers were few, leaving the mall relatively quiet. Beth led the way to a garment store, explained to Cassie the cryptic bra sizes and what they meant. After purchasing what Cassie needed, the girls left the store and meandered at a leisurely pace down one wing of the mall. Cassie relaxed noticeably, looking very much relieved, as though she finally had something that had worried her for some time.

They passed a salon, and Beth paused. Her hair had grown to her waist, and though a long braid had become part of her routine, Beth was ready for change.

She turned to Cassie. "Would you mind if we stopped here?"

Cassie's blue eyes smiled excitedly. "Oh, I think you should!"

"I haven't had my hair cut in years," Beth said, as they went inside. "Not since before Caleb was born. Luke liked my hair long, so I just let it grow." A hair stylist approached them, and Beth told him what she wanted. "Nothing drastic. Just a foot off the bottom."

She sat while the man unfastened her braid.

"You have beautiful hair," he said, freeing it into a tangled curtain. "Nice, thick, curly auburn hair. You've been hiding it in that rope."

Cassie smiled, turned down another stylist who approached her.

"Would you like a haircut, too, Cassie?" Beth looked at her, saw the wistful eyes turn to worry. "This is on me."

The stylist grew excited at the possibilities, and an instant after Cassie had agreed, went to work on the blonde mane.

Cassie was the first to finish. She looked in the mirror, and Beth saw her gasp in delighted surprise. Her hair had been cut to just below her chin, the volume of hair styled into a cute layered bob that moved as she did. She had been given long bangs, a few inches short from the rest of the cut, to hang loose over her face in a sweet fall of hair.

"Oh, Beth, I love it!"

"So do I," Beth said, hoping she would look at least half as good when her haircut was over. She kept wincing as long tresses fell to the floor, as though each cut gave her pain. It did, in a way. She was cutting Luke's hair, changing it from the way he liked it. Beth had never been very conscious of her looks, only the lack of them. If Luke was happy, so was she.

"I'm sorry. Did I pull your hair?" asked the stylist, as Beth dried a tear from her cheek.

Beth shook her head "no," and felt Cassie take her free hand in a quiet show of support.

"I'm just being ridiculous," Beth said, but held onto Cassie's hand.

After what seemed to be an eternity, but what turned out to be only an hour, Beth's hair had been shampooed, cut and styled. When she looked into the mirror, she winced. Her long, long hair was gone, replaced by a mane that came just below her shoulders. It volumed with natural curls, still as red as ever, and just as attention-getting.

"Well, I suppose it looks all right. I had to get it cut sometime." She turned to Cassie. "What do you think?"

"I think," Cassie said, coming to her side to look in the mirror with her, "that if I had such magnificent hair, I would never wear another braid in my entire life."

"Magnificent?" Beth wasn't so sure about that, but at least she looked as though she had rejoined the modern age.

The bill paid for and the stylists tipped, the girls left with their new looks.

"Are you allowed to wear any makeup?" Beth asked. "As long as we're here, we might as well get you something appropriate for a young woman."

Cassie made no protest, but followed Beth into a store. They bought shimmery lip-gloss, soft pink nail polish, to complete Cassie's new look.

They made their way to the food court, ordered lunch, and chose a quiet table. Cassie sipped from a straw as they watched people walk by.

"I've never really enjoyed shopping before, but I have to admit I had a good time this morning." Beth popped another french fry into her mouth, glanced at her watch. "It's getting late, and I have to get back to the nursery. Come on, you can finish that soda in the car. We'll stop by the grocery store for Maxis before I drop you off at home."

They walked outside, the sun causing Beth to pull her sunglasses out and put them on. Cassie beamed at her, as radiant as the sunshine Beth hid from.

"I had such a good time," Cassie said, two shopping bags dangling from one hand, her soda cup in the other. "I always wondered what it would be like to have a real mom, and today..." Cassie shrugged, "I don't know. I could kind of imagine my mom and I doing something like this, you know? Like she cared or even loved me just a little." Cassie sighed, took another sip. "I shouldn't think about stuff like that too much. Matty says it's no use wishing for things you can't have, because it'll just make the hurt worse."

Beth's speech caught in her throat. Her eyes grew hot, and she was suddenly grateful for the sunglasses.

Matt looked up from his newspaper, stared out the living room window for the umpteenth time. They hadn't gotten back yet, and it was nearly two. He and Ryan had eaten lunch, he'd played with the little guy, and then he'd went back to his job hunting. So far, he'd come up empty, but at least this time, there wasn't the same desperation. He didn't absolutely have to find work today. His job at the nursery was tiding them over decently enough to keep hunger and the bill collectors at bay.

A car door slamming got him to his feet. Mrs. Carter's sedan was out front, and he could see Cassie getting out. He tried to push away the guilt. All this anxiety, and he wasn't as concerned about Cassie, as he was over the amount she and Mrs. Carter had spent. Matt didn't begrudge Cassie the money, but they didn't exactly have a lot. He jokingly thought to himself that if the bill was high, hunger and those bill collectors would be a little closer than they were before.

As Cassie came up the dirt walk to the house, Mrs. Carter drove away without coming inside. Just as well. Cassie could give him the receipts, and he could pay Mrs. Carter tomorrow, when he came into work.

The door opened, and Cassie stepped inside. The very first thing he noticed was the hair. She had cut it.

"What do you think?" Cassie asked, biting her lip as she waited for his reaction.

"It..." Matt sighed. "It makes you look older. Is that makeup you're wearing?"

"It's just lip-gloss and nail polish, Matty. Do you like it?"

He rubbed the back of his neck. "Yeah, I guess. Did you get your bra?"

Cassie nodded, though she looked too embarrassed to talk about it. "Mrs. Carter helped a lot, Matty. She's awfully nice."

He nodded, held out his hand. "Where are the receipts she gave you?"

"Oh, she kept them." Cassie handed Ryan her soda cup, let her little brother suck the ice cubes. "She said it was her treat."

Matt watched Cassie take two designer name shopping bags, and the grocery bag with the sanitary napkins-- or whatever women called them-- into her bedroom. He said nothing to Cassie, for he didn't want her to feel guilty for spending the money, but tomorrow, he was going to pay Mrs. Carter back. He owed her, and whatever the cost, Matt always paid his debts.

"Owe no [wo]man any thing, but... love..."
~ Romans 13:8 ~

end of chapter
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