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Chapter Six
The Problem with Skip

"Better is the poor that walketh in his uprightness [Matt], than he that is perverse in his ways, though he be rich [Skip]."
~ Proverbs 28:6 ~

From what Matt had gathered by Cassie's description of her outing at the mall, Mrs. Carter hadn't used it as an excuse to ask Cassie a lot of questions about their family. For that, Matt was grateful. Mrs. Carter had asked to be friends, and she hadn't abused that friendship by using Cassie behind his back.

If only Mrs. Carter had given him those receipts. As he drove into work Tuesday morning, he tapped the steering wheel in an agitated rhythm that matched his mood. If only she'd handed Cassie the receipts, like they'd both agreed, he wouldn't even have to mention yesterday.

As it stood, Matt had no other choice.

To his disappointed surprise, he wasn't the first to arrive at the nursery. The moment he turned into the parking lot, saw the red sedan, he new Sylvia had arrived already.

"Great," Matt breathed as he parked the pickup. "What else can go wrong?" He swung open the truck door, got out, and stuffed his work gloves into his back pocket. Putting on his Stetson, he noticed Amy, pulling into the lot. Matt sighed, but smiled to his young coworker before going into the store.

On the one day he'd needed the girls to be their usually tardy selves, they were not only on time, but early.

Mrs. Carter was at the cash register, in what seemed to be a part of her everyday routine. She looked busy, so he stood in front of the counter, waiting to be acknowledged.

"Beth!" Sylvia's impatient voice easily carried through the store. "I can't find it!"

"It's in there!" Beth shouted, not looking up from the register. "For pity's sake, Silvi, do I have to come and get it myself?"

"I wouldn't have to search so hard," Sylvia said, still unseen in the office, "if you didn't hide it so well!"

Mrs. Carter breathed an impatient sigh. "It's in the filing cabinet, under 'G'! Stop wasting time, Silvi, and bring me the shipping invoice!" Hot green eyes flashed up at Matt, and he suddenly felt like a boy who'd just been caught doing something wrong. He hadn't-- or at least he didn't think he had-- but that look on her face made him feel like an utter child.

"Go help Sylvia," Mrs. Carter said, her voice hard and lacking the gentleness he'd heard only last Saturday. "For pity's sake, you'd think she was a man-- she's that blind. It's under 'G,' in the dark green filling cabinet."

"What is?" Matt asked.

"The Garcia invoice, of course. Go help Sylvia find it."

"Yes, ma'am." He left the counter, found Sylvia bent over the bottom drawer of the green cabinet.

"That stupid slip of paper," Sylvia said, in a barely audible mutter. "Where did Beth hide it?"

"Mrs. Carter said I should help," Matt said, announcing his presence.

Sylvia looked up, her mouth forming a smile the moment she saw him. "Surprised, aren't you?"

He shrugged, not sure what she'd meant.

"I beat you into work this morning," Sylvia said laughingly. "Of course, Beth called Amy and I to arrive early to hunt for that idiotic invoice, but I did beat you."

"I guess you did," Matt said, moving to the filing to cabinet before Mrs. Carter came and caught him not searching like everyone else. "What does the invoice look like?"

"It has a truck logo on the top, with Garcia-something-or-other printed on the side." Sylvia straightened, moved so Matt could slide open the top drawer. "If Beth had been here yesterday, and not playing hooky, she could've accepted delivery on the Garcia shipment, herself. But noooo, something goes wrong, and who do you think gets blamed? Me, that's who!" Sylvia shut the bottom drawer. She straightened, thrust her hands onto her hips and glared into the store to where Beth worked, preparing the cash register for the day.

Playing hooky? Matt thought. He couldn't be sure, but this problem might have been caused because Mrs. Carter was at the mall with Cassie, and not here at the nursery. He flipped through the tabs, looking for Garcia and the truck.

"So, I hear you went to Beth's house for dinner."

Matt turned, saw Sylvia perched on the edge of Mrs. Carter's desk.

"How'd it go?" Sylvia asked innocently.

Matt lifted one shoulder. "Fine, I guess."

"Did you stay for dessert? Or did you go straight home with your family?"

Matt slid the drawer shut with a loud bang. "I went home."

"You don't have to look at me like that, Matt. I'm on your side." Sylvia leaned forward, looked back at the register. "Neither of us likes Beth, so you don't have to defend her. She's always pushing herself onto people, making you feel sorry for her just because she's a widow. Don't get me wrong, I'm a compassionate person," Sylvia said, looking back at Matt, "but it's hard to feel sorry for someone, when they keep taking advantage of you." Sylvia's voice quickly hushed as Mrs. Carter entered the office.

"Well, Silvi, where is it?"

"How should I know?" Sylvia asked. The insolence in her eyes lessened, though, as Mrs. Carter stared at her. "Okay, okay, I'll keep looking."

"You do that," Mrs. Carter said, glancing at Matt. "Let Sylvia look through the cabinets. I want you to water the plants out back."

"Yes, ma'am." Tugging out the gloves, he left the office to the women.

The mild New Mexico sun came as a welcome change to Matt. He unwound the hose, turned on the faucet. There was hardly a cloud in the pristine blue sky, and he wished he could enjoy it more.

Movement by the potting table distracted Matt's attention. Mrs. Carter was there, doing something garden related with an open bottle that stank to high heaven. He squinted, read the label. Fish emulsion? What did fish have to do with plants? He stood there, absently letting water splash onto the ground instead of the plants. She turned to reach for something, and he quickly looked away. Maybe now was a good time to talk to her about those receipts. He twisted off the faucet, dropped the hose, and went to the potting table.

"Mrs. Carter?"

She looked at him, a tired smile on her lips. "Yes, Matt?"

"When you dropped Cassie off yesterday, you forgot to give me the receipts."

Mrs. Carter nodded absently. "I told her it was my treat."

"I know, but..." he hesitated. "I'd appreciate those receipts, Mrs. Carter. I said I would pay for the trip, and I will. When it's convenient for you, I want the receipts."

Her brilliant green eyes narrowed. "This is nonsense, Matt. I was glad to do it for Cassie."

"This isn't nonsense," Matt said, glancing about for the others before he continued. "I don't owe anyone I don't have to. I don't ask for favors, and I don't expect them. I appreciate what you did for Cassie, and so does she. It was very nice of you, but I will pay for what you spent."

Mrs. Carter sighed heavily. "This is a fine way to treat a friend, Matt. I suppose if you're so determined on paying, then I have to let you. The receipts are at home. I'll bring them into work tomorrow morning."

"Thank you." He stepped away, noticed she somehow looked different.

"What?" she asked.

"You don't look the same," he frowned.

"I had my hair cut," she said, turning so he could see the braid at her back was now shorter.

He nodded. "That explains it. I thought something looked odd." He tipped his hat to her, and went back to work.

Odd? She looked odd? For the next several minutes, not even the error in the Garcia delivery could distract Beth from her brief talk with Matt. She'd worn her newly chopped hair in a braid on purpose, for it was not only more convenient, but she had also promised Matt to simply be friends. That meant not doing anything overt to attract his attention, for he had made it clear that anything more wasn't wanted. He'd even gone as far as to say "mild friendship." So she was keeping it mild. She hadn't worn her hair any differently than usual, and he'd thought she looked odd.

Beth stabbed her trowel into the potting soil. His insistence on paying for the small outing with Cassie annoyed her. He was pushing away even her mild friendship, and she was fast coming to the conclusion that their "friendship" would have to be kept on a strictly boss and employee footing. Matt wasn't allowing for anything else.

But what of it? Beth jammed a helpless geranium into a plastic pot. If nothing more was going to develop with Matt, why did it matter if they couldn't be real friends? What she needed was someone to want her, someone to hold her in the middle of the night and whisper the things that Luke had.

Feeling pathetic, and not a little sorry for herself, Beth noticed Sylvia outside, watching her and Matt from a distance. Ignoring Sylvia and the task Sylvia wasn't doing, Beth thought about Skip, the middle aged man she'd been almost seeing. For all the flattering things he'd had said, Beth knew he didn't love her; but at least with him, she could be held.

With no other prospects of love, Beth sat on an upturned bucket to think. Her life had come to this. At what cost was she willing to sacrifice her conscience-- what she knew was right and wrong-- to enjoy the comforts of forbidden intimacy? Her conscience forbade an affair with Skip, but with no other arms offering her comfort, her convictions seemed rather inconvenient.

"Mrs. Carter?" Matt stood over her, a small pot of limp daisies in his hand. "These look like they're dead. Want me to throw them out?"

"No," she got to her feet, took the plant. "It only needs some extra care, that's all."

Beth placed the plant onto the table as Matt walked away. She wished she were as strong as he seemed to be.

"Ma'am?" Matt came to her again, a hesitant look on his face. "Are you mad at me?"

"No, Matt, I'm not."

He smiled, but said nothing more on the subject. "While I'm here, I didn't kill that plant," he said, pointing his chin at the daisies. "I found them that way. Honest."

She returned his smile, and let him go back to his work. If she had no prospects of love, and knew ahead of time that she never would... would she have an affair? Get what little she could out of life, even though she knew it would displease God? The question haunted her, for she had been asking it in increments, for a while. She had flirted with it, been indecisive, and now, Beth felt the question urgently burn in her soul. Early that morning, when he'd thought she'd be alone, Skip had called with an apology, and Sylvia and Amy had accidentally overheard Beth as she put him off once more.

Just then, Sylvia shouted Beth's name. Beth stepped around the corner of the building, saw her friend by the store entrance. "Skip just called!" Sylvia waved happily. "He said he'd be over in a few minutes!"

"He called again?" Beth asked in wonderment.

"He's coming to the nursery!" Sylvia grinned, then disappeared inside.

Beth groaned softly. Knowing Sylvia, she had called Skip, herself. Beth wouldn't put it past her. After their fight over the Garcia shipment, Beth figured Sylvia was getting even.

And perhaps, Beth thought, just perhaps, trying to rid herself of some competition. Sylvia knew Beth liked Matt. The problem was, both women did. Well, Sylvia didn't have anything to worry about. Beth was still hoping for mild friendship, and even that seemed unlikely right now.

Tugging off her work gloves, Beth rounded the building to wash up and meet Skip. She'd talk to him in private, in her office, away from the others.

Inside the store, Beth passed Sylvia, arranging product on some shelves. "Silvi?"

Folding her arms, Sylvia glared at her.

"I want to apologize, Silvi. I shouldn't have given you a hard time over the invoice. This is my business, and my responsibility. I should have double-checked the order immediately after I got back from the errand yesterday, instead of waiting until this morning. I shouldn't have assumed that you'd already done it."

"I never would have accepted the shipment in the first place," Sylvia said, "if you'd only told me that you changed your mind about the ornamental grasses."

"But the invoice didn't even match what they shipped," Beth said. She could feel impatience welling up once more, and decided to just forget it. Sylvia couldn't be relied upon. It was a fact of nature, and Beth had been a fool to forget it. "Never mind. I'll take care of the shipment, myself."

"Okay." Sylvia still looked miffed, but she did seem somewhat appeased. The quirk of her mouth went from protest, to one of sly pleasure. "You getting ready to meet Skip?"

Beth took a long look at her friend, saw the mischievous gleam in her eye. "You called him, didn't you?" An expression of feigned innocence was all Beth got, and Beth didn't feel like pressing for an insincere apology.

"Mrs. Carter?" Matt had come in sometime during the conversation, and was looking at Beth expectantly. She wondered how much he had heard.

"What is it?" Beth asked abruptly. She bit her tongue, hating the curtness she had heard in her own voice, but helpless to take it back. If only she could be more gentle, more soft. Women were supposed to be soft, weren't they? Her personal faults seem stacked against her, and Beth felt she was doomed to a lifetime of moments such as these-- moments where she saw that wincing hurt of look in the other person's eyes. Matt looked at her that way now.

"I apologize for the interruption," Matt said. "Amy came out to tell me you wanted tags on the plants you just potted, but she couldn't remember where you store the labeling pen."

"I'll be with you in a moment, Matt." Before she left to take him outside where the pots were waiting, Beth looked at Sylvia. "Don't call Skip behind my back. Ever again."

With a careless shrug, Sylvia resumed her sorting and organizing.

"It doesn't appear I'm going to have a good day," Beth said to Matt, as they moved toward the entrance. "I should warn you, Sylvia has mentioned that she's thinking of asking you out. I know you've put her off before, but if she continues to pursue you after you say no, report it to me and I'll take care of it. That goes for Amy, as well as myself. None of us would appreciate a man who didn't take no for an answer, and just because we're women, doesn't mean we should do the same thing to men. I'm sorry I didn't protect you any sooner." She groaned miserably. "It seems I can't live up to my responsibilities any better than Sylvia can refrain from being Sylvia."

Matt looked at her thoughtfully. "Are you feeling all right, Mrs. Carter?"

She glanced through the large store windows, felt a knot of dread as she noticed Skip's van enter the parking lot. "Matt, may I ask you a question?"

He shrugged. "Okay."

"Do you believe God has ever given you more than you could bear?"

A slight smile parted his mouth. "That's not exactly a question I'd expect from my employer."

"Please, Matt, please answer me as a friend."

"Are you sure you're not sick? You don't look well, Mrs. Carter." Her earnestness must have finally gotten to him, because Matt rubbed the back of his neck, looked at his boots and answered. "No ma'am, I don't believe God has. There's been plenty of times when it looked that way, but God has been faithful. Wish I could say the same for myself."

Wrestling back her fears, Beth was about to resist temptation, and she felt unequal to the challenge. Skip walked into the store, saw her and waved. She felt weak, and silently prayed for help. Please, God, she needed help! The loneliness of being without Luke, and their little boy-- Caleb-- came crashing down on her, and all she could do was plead with God for help. She felt someone touch her shoulder, looked up, noticed it was Matt.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" Matt asked quietly. "You look like you're in trouble, Mrs. Carter."

Skip came over to them, his grin lessening several degrees when he noticed Matt's hand on her shoulder. "I came as soon as I got your message, Beth." Skip glared at Matt, and folded his arms as though Matt were putting his hands on private property.

Apparently, Matt didn't intimidate easily, for he only dropped his hand when he looked good and ready, and not a moment sooner.

Beth trembled inwardly. She wished the problem would just go away, without her having to do or say anything. It would be so much easier if Skip simply stopped calling. She could pretend he had never happened.

Matt stiffened, and Beth saw his expression turn somber. She followed his eyes, saw he had noticed the the gold wedding band on Skip's left hand. The look of pained disappointment on Matt's face, made her heart weep.

"Beth?" Skip blinked at her, and she realized he was waiting for an answer.

Matt turned to leave, but Beth touched his arm, silently pleading for him to stay. To her deep gratitude, he remained.

"What's this all about?" Skip asked, irritation rising in his voice. "Who is this guy?"

"He's just a friend," Beth said truthfully. "There's been a mistake. I didn't send the message you received today."

"What do you mean?" he said with a disbelieving scowl. "Of course you sent it. I'm tired of your stalling, Beth. I want you to come with me, and we'll go someplace private to talk this out, once and for all. There's too many people here," he said, looking at Matt. "Come on, Beth, I haven't got all day." Skip waited, the picture of confidence.

"I'm sorry I let this go on as long as it has, Skip. We knew it would never work."

Stunned, he opened his mouth but nothing came out. A hand flew at her, struck her hard on the side of her face. Almost immediately, Matt lunged at Skip, and she thrust herself between the two men to stop anything more serious from happening. Her cheek stung, and she felt the added shame of knowing it had happened before.

"Please, let me handle this my way, Matt." She spoke as calmly as she could, though the sound of her heart pounded loudly in her ears.

"He hit you," Matt said in obvious disbelief. "I can't believe he hit you."

I can, Beth thought numbly. She turned to face Skip, careful to keep Matt behind her. "I'm sorry, Skip. It's over."

The pale, thin lips Beth had always thought looked unattractive on Skip, pulled into a taut line of scorn and disdain. "You're nothing but a tease, Beth."

"I'm sorry, Skip. I can't."

He turned to Matt, but directed his words at her. "I suppose you're getting a better offer from someone else?"

Temper blazed in Matt's brown eyes, and his fists tightened dangerously. Panic surged through her frame, and she prayed Skip would accept that things were over and back off. She had never tasted Skip's jealousy until now, and it tasted of the bile that churned in her stomach.

"You misunderstand, Skip. Matt is only a friend, an employee. He has nothing to do with my decision."

"I don't believe you, Beth. You're too scared of being by yourself, to think I'm going to fall for that lie!"

"Please, believe me, Skip. It's the truth."

Skip jabbed a finger into Matt's chest. "Who do you think you are? Taking advantage of a lonely widow-- your BOSS!-- just to get a job!"

"You'd better leave, mister," Matt said through clenched teeth. "If the lady is calling it quits, it's time for you to walk away." He took a threatening step toward Skip. "I don't want a fight, mister, and trust me, neither do you."

Beth believed Matt. He had youth and muscle in his favor, and she could easily picture him taking Skip apart. It felt good to know Matt stood beside her, and didn't leave.

"Beth," Skip pointed an accusatory finger at her, "I'm going to call you later. This isn't over, and if you know what's good for you, you'll get that through to your young stud. I've put up with your games long enough. You and I aren't done." Skip looked anxiously at Matt. The cold anger that hardened Matt's face, spoke louder than any shouting could have done. It was a potent warning, one that Skip couldn't ignore. He waved his index finger at Matt, and then left-- Beth imagined-- as fast as he could without breaking into a run.

With a loud groan, Matt swiveled, slapped his fist hard on the checkout counter. Amy, who stood at the register, jumped back, clearly frightened by the harsh look on Matt's face.

"I didn't want trouble, Mrs. Carter. I can't afford it. Not now."

"I'm sorry you got dragged into this, Matt."

"I've got a family depending on me," he said, looking at Beth over his shoulder. "I can't afford to get involved. I have enough strikes against me, without this. If I can't stay out of trouble, they'll take the kids away."

"I understand, Matt."

"Do you?" He turned, looked at her. "I'm all those kids have got left! I can't let them down, let them be pulled apart to live in foster homes because their big brother messed up. Don't ask it of me, Beth" -- he blew out a huff of frustration -- "Mrs. Carter."

"I'm not asking anything of you, Matt." Beth felt helpless, and for the first time, realized they held Sylvia and Amy's full attention. Both women watched-- Amy with her mouth open in astonishment, and Sylvia, with a look of envy. "Okay, the show is over," she told them, "time to get back to work."

Head bowed and a few shades calmer, Matt looked at Beth wearily. Her heart went out to him, though she told herself, in a very mild, friend-like way. She did have a friend in Matt. Today had proved it.

"I can't get involved," Matt said, his voice low and hushed. "If things were different..."

"But they aren't," Beth said, shaking her head. "Thank you for helping me, Matt. Don't give Skip a second thought. He won't give you any trouble."

Matt nodded absently, as though he didn't believe her. "I'd better get back to the watering," he said, slapping the counter dully. He hesitated before leaving, turned to look at her until Beth felt her heart beat double time. Dropping his gaze, he went outside.

Matt didn't even see the plants he watered. He couldn't remember anything of the errand that had sent him inside the store, and didn't really care that Mrs. Carter had seemed to forget, as well.

All he could think about was Beth.

"Watch it, Taylor," he muttered to himself. "She's Mrs. Carter. Call her that one more time, and I swear, I'll whip your behind if I have to get Ethan to do it for me."

After drowning everything with the hose, he went to the fence line and searched for weeds. He'd already gone over the area once before, and when he couldn't find more, sucked in a deep breath. He needed to calm down. He could still see Skip-what's-his-name, hitting Mrs. Carter and gaping at her like the opportunist he was. Okay, maybe the guy hadn't actually gaped, but from the way he treated her, Matt knew he did at other times. Mrs. Carter was a good looking woman, and a man would have to be blind not to notice it. After this morning, Matt understood more than ever how vulnerable she was, how desperately lonely she'd become after her husband's death. She had even put up with physical abuse to keep that worthless jerk.

It reminded Matt of his mom. Oh, did it ever remind him of his mom.

The soft approach of footsteps stopped his thinking. He braced himself for Mrs. Carter, and instead, found Amy.

She smiled timidly at him. "Rough day, huh?"

"I've had better," Matt said. He looked about for any weed at all, like a drowning man searching for a life raft.

"I really admire you for what you did back there," Amy said. "Ever since I found out from Sylvia that Mrs. Carter was mixed up with that man, I've thought Mrs. Carter could do better. Should do better," Amy quickly added.

"Then he really was married," Matt said, "and not just a widow who kept wearing his wedding ring." He smiled ruefully at Amy. "The thought crossed my mind. I'd have felt like an idiot, acting the way I did, if he hadn't been married. But when he hit her..." Matt sighed, willing himself to think of something else.

"No, he's married," Amy nodded. "Mrs. Carter still wears her ring, though."

Matt kicked at the dry ground. "I've noticed."

"You really like her, don't you?"

Matt opened his mouth to protest, saw the smile, and decided not to answer.

"I wish someone would look at me, the way you look at her," Amy sighed wistfully. "I don't suppose you have a brother my age?"

Matt considered it, remembering Amy was nineteen. "I have one that's two years younger than you," he said finally, "but I'm afraid he's bad news. He's my brother, and I love him dearly, but I wouldn't wish him with anyone's daughter, let alone a nice girl like you."

"Thanks for thinking I'm a nice girl," Amy said with a genuine smile. "I just came out here to say thank you for what you did for Mrs. Carter. I think you're a really sweet guy." She smiled at him, then went back into the store.

Matt frowned. What was he supposed to do with a compliment like that?

He needed someone to give him direction, to tell him what he was supposed to be doing. The thought of returning inside made him feel uneasy, though. It was probably too much to hope his coworkers could forget what they'd seen and heard that morning. He knew already they were assuming things that weren't true. Amy had given him enough proof of that, from their conversation. Sure, he liked Mrs. Carter, but not in the way Amy had thought.

Matt didn't have much longer to decide what to do, for Mrs. Carter appeared and went straight to the potting table. She opened a container, pulled something out.

"Matt," she called to him, "here's the pen you were asking for."

He nodded, went over and took the pen she offered.

Silently, she turned to her table, back to the smelly bottle of fish emulsion and the plants she'd been working on for most of that day.

He stood there, measuring her, the way she kept her eyes on her work, never once looking up to meet his gaze. She looked guilty, acted like it as well. The burning question that had been troubling him so much, that had given him so much pain, finally found its way to his tongue.

"Beth, has he ever beaten you?"

She looked up at him now, those green eyes misting with wetness. "Not exactly. He's never beaten me, just struck me when I had it coming. That's all."

"You're an intelligent woman, Beth. You shouldn't have to put up with it."

He saw the courage in her eyes gather a little strength. "Today, I didn't," she said.

He sighed longingly. He wished he could get that moment out of his head, the sick look on Beth's face when she felt her cheek, the fear in her expression.

Matt had to know. It was none of his business, but he needed to know. "Did you ever sleep with him, Beth?"

"No," she said quietly. She looked near tears, and he resisted the strong urge to wrap his arms around her.

"I shouldn't have asked," he said. "You don't have to say any more."

She smiled sadly, pulled off her work gloves, and wiped her eyes with her fingers. "I'm glad you did. Skip wanted me to have an affair, and I'm ashamed to say that I almost did, but when it came down to it, I just couldn't. I couldn't sleep with him outside of marriage, knowing he was married to another woman and had children."

Children. Matt knew he must've winced, for she looked more ashamed than before.

He lightly touched her shoulder. "Hey, you did the right thing, Beth. You told him off, and put a stop to it."

"But I should have done it much sooner," she said, her voice filling with something very near to despair. "It seems like I can't do anything right. Even now, I'm not as good a person as you think I am: I only found the strength to say what I did to Skip, because you were there."

His hand moved from her shoulder, and he stood there, looking at her. He didn't know what to say, what to do. He'd asked her straight out about her and Skip, and her answers rang with genuine honesty. It was the painful honesty that caught him by surprise, and made him quiet for several moments while he struggled to think.

"Me?" he asked finally. "Why did my being there have anything to do with you and what's-his-name?"

She smiled. "It's your testimony, Matt. I've seen who you are, and what you're trying to do with your life. It makes me want to do more with mine."

He relaxed a little, shrugged. "I guess that's a good thing. I was afraid it might be something else."

Her lips parted wistfully. "I promised to be just a friend, remember?"

He couldn't help smiling. "I remember." What kind of green is that? he wondered, looking into those beautiful eyes. They held the color of a thick forest, plants as deep and alive as the ones she tended in the nursery. When the sun cast its glow on her face, that green shone with vibrant life. How sad then, to see them look so forlorn in that pale, china-doll face of hers-- that face lightly sprinkled with freckles.

Matt shoved his hands into his pockets. Thinking like that would only bring trouble.

For some reason Beth smiled, more confidently than before, and he suddenly found it difficult to speak. His mouth had gone dry, and he wished he could walk away without seeming rude.

"I didn't know you could blush so brightly," she said, picking up her work gloves and putting them on. "I suppose you want to get away from me now, so I'll let you. After you're done placing those tags, I'd appreciate it if you swept the store and cleaned the front windows. They're dirty again."

"Yes, ma'am." He walked away from her, feeling more like a boy and less like a man. She had a way of putting him in his place, of reminding him who was boss. Did she know she did that to him? He wondered at his own frustration, for she was his boss. Then why did he feel like going to a rowdy bar, getting into a fistfight, just to rid himself of this pent up feeling? It wasn't a feeling Matt felt he had a right to, and he struggled to forget Beth, and reminded himself once more of Mrs. Carter.

He grabbed at the shop broom, muttering under his breath. "Great. I must've called her Beth, at least a dozen times today. Just great." He pushed the broom across the floor with quick, sharp movements. A customer approached him, and Matt had to control his self-reproach long enough to politely answer the grandmotherly woman about which aisle she could find the watering cans.

"Thank you, young man," the old woman said, her face wrinkling into a warm smile. When she left, he wondered if he should grow a mustache or beard. He'd look older with a beard. Then maybe, Beth wouldn't treat him like a boy.

Matt jammed the broom into the concrete floor. His thoughts troubled him, for he didn't want Beth to see him as he really was. If she ever did, he felt certain he would lose any friendship they had.

And that, Matt decided, was worth protecting.

"Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful."
~ Proverbs 27:6 ~

end of chapter
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