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Chapter Eight
An Unspoken Attraction

"Though I walk in the midst of trouble, Thou [God] wilt revive me..."
~ Psalm 138:7 ~

On the drive home, Matt didn't say a single word. Beth watched him, his hands gripping the wheel, his stare on the road ahead, his mouth set in a firm and troubled line. She had scared him. It gave her no pleasure to know it, or to see the fear flickering in his eyes every time he glanced in her direction. It was almost as if he needed to know she was still there, still breathing, still existing.

Beth sighed heavily, the sound of it causing another of those quick glances from Matt. She wished he had believed her more. True, she had come dangerously close to taking those pills, but she hadn't gone through with it. Didn't that count for something? Was he going to treat her like a fragile plate forever? She despised her momentary weakness, even more since it had been in front of him.

She recognized the scenery outside the window, knew they were approaching her home. It would be good to say something to him now, to give some kind of reassurance that she felt better, that the danger had past.

But she couldn't.

The very thought of going back to the hollow adobe, empty without Luke or Caleb-- and now even Bailey-- made her heart sink. She wished she could let herself puddle into tears, beg Matt to take her home with him. She'd sleep on the couch, keep out of everyone's way; they wouldn't even know she was there, only please, take her with him.

The truck pulled to rolling stop, and Beth realized she was home. Matt climbed out, rounded the hood to open her passenger door. She couldn't help but smile. Always the gentleman.

The chances to beg were slipping away, and when Beth found herself on the front step of her house, she knew she had waited too long. Matt got back behind the wheel, and waited for her to go inside. She bit her lip, unlocked the door, and went in. She waited for the sound of Matt's pickup truck before looking out the window to watch him leave.

If only she had let herself be weak, she might be in that truck with him.

Then the absurdity of the thought snapped her senses back to reality. She had been desperate enough to entertain such wild hopes, when to act on them would have been unfair to Matt. He had already stretched his neck out to help her, and it hadn't been easy for him to do. She'd sensed it in his dark eyes, in that pained but gentle voice.

He had known great anguish in his life, of that she was sure. There were moments, sitting at the kitchen table, where she glimpsed images of a drowning man struggling to stay afloat. Then strength would cover his features, and all she could see was quiet determination. The rolling waves, and that quiet, steady determination not to let go.

If only she had that kind of strength.

The house felt ghostly, and it was all Beth could do to keep herself from crying. Bailey hadn't come to meet her, and she knew he never would. He was lying in a grave behind the house, beneath the pecan tree where Luke had planned to build a treehouse for their son.

Her mind strayed back to the medicine cabinet, to the bottle she had opened the night before. Then she remembered Matt had flushed away the pills, and she quietly thanked him.

God, please help me, she thought, going to the bedroom to shower and change into fresh clothes. She hated her morbid thoughts, and the way they made her long for death, instead of life.

Matt's thoughts troubled him as he drove, and he prayed Beth would remember her promise not to do anything drastic. He fought with himself to keep driving, to not turn back and see if he had made the right decision. He certainly couldn't take Beth home with him, for she wasn't even his responsibility. Maybe it was the big brother in him, the almost-a-parent, that made him want to shelter and protect Beth.

It was a stupid thought, Matt knew, for she was a full grown woman-- a mature woman-- who could take care of herself. She had been married to a man who could afford to give her a nice house, she had known what it was to be a mother, and even owned and operated her own business. Ha! Beth could take care of herself better than he ever could-- better than an ex-junkie who kept thinking about sex and escape. If she had only known half the thoughts that had occurred to him that day, she would have fired him on the spot.

It was enough to know that God kept watch over his thoughts, and God alone knew he would never act on them. Each time the old temptations came, he remembered another promise from the Bible and kept going. Don't think about it too much, just keep going. Keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Keep fighting.

He parked in front of his house, and smiled when he saw Cassie step outside and wave to him. School was out, the bus had come, and their family could enjoy the rest of the day together.

The worry on Cassie's face, though, spoiled the illusion Matt had of a peaceful evening. She came to him with folded arms and serious blue eyes.

"Ethan's locked himself in the bedroom, Matty."

"Maybe he just wants some privacy," Matt said, trying to coax his baby sister into a smile. Matt wasn't ready for trouble. Not yet. At least wait until tomorrow. Please.

"He's with Susan," Cassie said, worry spilling into her voice. "They're alone in his room... Matty, what are we going to do?"

"Take Ryan and go to Mrs. Lott's house," Matt said, absently patting Cassie's shoulder. "Hurry, Cass." He watched as Cassie went inside, then reappeared with a struggling Ryan; the boy had been playing with his toys, and didn't want to leave.

The younger ones out of the way, Matt clenched his fists as he passed through the kitchen, on his way to the boys' bedroom. Rage mingled with panic, and it didn't even cross his mind to knock on the door. With one deliberate kick, the door flew open. Thankfully, he hadn't been too late.

"Susan, get your shoes on." Matt flung her sandals onto the bed. He turned to the boy lying beside her. "Ethan, meet me in the living room."

"You've got no right--" anger choked the remaining words from Ethan's mouth. Bare-chested, he followed Matt into the living room. "Who do you think you are?" Ethan shouted, as Susan quietly appeared from the kitchen.

"Go home, Susan." Matt shot her a warning look, and the young woman bowed her head and hurried out the front door.

"You aren't my father!" Ethan cried, thrusting a fist into Matt's chest. It didn't hurt, but it had the intended effect: Matt felt provoked, and Ethan looked ready for a fight.

"Watch it, Ethan. You're seventeen, and I'm still your legal guardian."

Ethan scowled. "The day I turn eighteen, I'm leaving this place forever."

Those words stung Matt, but he struggled not to let it show; he struggled not to get into the fight he knew Ethan wanted; he struggled not to walk out that door and not look back. His family needed him, whether they always knew it or not.

"What you do when you're eighteen, is beside the point." Matt went to the front door and closed it, using the time to cool down. He needed to react clearly, and not out of fear. He turned to look back at Ethan, saw the initial rage had subsided into simmering anger.

"Don't look at me as though you're any better," Ethan said with a frown. "I didn't do anything in there that you haven't."

Matt braced himself, knowing what to expect next.

"You've got no right to tell me how to live my life, not after what you did to Helen."

There it was, the old wound in all its glory. Matt felt sick, but held his ground.

"That's in the past, Ethan."

"Maybe in yours, but not hers. Not hers, Matty."

"Don't speak to me like that." Matt felt the anger harden into resolve. "You don't know what you're talking about. Helen has nothing to do with this. This is about you and Susan. It's going to stop. Here and now. You aren't ever going to see her again, do you hear me?"

Ethan didn't move a muscle.

Matt glared, and Ethan flinched.

"Do you hear me?"

The disdain in Ethan's voice was thick. "Yeah, I hear you."

"You broke your word to me concerning Susan."

Ethan shrugged. "Who cares if I keep a stupid promise or not?"

"A man's word is everything, Ethan. If you don't honor your promises, why should anyone else?"

Ethan looked at him through frustrated anger, though the words appeared to have some effect. "It won't happen again." He turned to leave, slapping the wall as he went. A few moments later Matt heard the bedroom door slam shut.

Wearily, Matt sank onto the sofa. He had known Ethan wasn't exactly a virgin, but that knowledge had been left somewhere in the past. Somewhere in a life they'd left behind in Texas. No more running around, no more drugs, no more alcohol. Those were the rules, and they hadn't changed since Matt had first presented them to his siblings. Not this family. Not anymore. Their parents would live how they wanted, but Matt and the kids were going to do something different.

The rules hadn't meant much to Cassie, for she had been too timid to get into any real trouble, but it had meant a great deal to Matt and Ethan. Ethan was eagerly following in the footsteps of his older brother, and never was that more clear to Matt, than right now.

The mention of Helen brought back a flood of memories Matt quickly tried to forget. He couldn't think about her. Not now, not ever. How Ethan loved to dangle her situation over Matt's head. Even Matt didn't know how he had the right to tell Ethan what not to do, when he had done many of the same things himself, and so much worse.

Noise from the kitchen made Matt get up. He found Ethan at the refrigerator, rummaging for something to eat.

"When's dinner?" the teenager asked, not bothering to look over his shoulder at Matt.

"In a few minutes." Matt hesitated. He didn't know what to say to his brother. If he said too much, Ethan would start talking about Helen again, and then Matt would be fighting his own guilt as well as his brother. "You know I'm not proud of what I've done in the past," he said quietly.

"I know." Ethan shut the fridge door, turned and leaned back against the counter. Ethan was growing up too fast. Much too fast to make Matt feel comfortable.

"I'm not expecting anything from you that I don't expect of myself."

Ethan didn't look as though he quite believed it, but held his tongue.

"I know I was a terrible sinner," Matt said, "but I repented, and I'm trying to put it all behind me. I'm not living the way I used to, you should know that by now."

Ethan narrowed his eyes, then shrugged. "Whatever."

The day had been too long. Matt shut his mouth, and went to Mrs. Lott's house for Cassie and Ryan.

Dinner was eaten in quiet, and afterward, Matt didn't bother with his guitar. He went straight to bed, and let the others deal with the dishes.

At times like these, Matt felt like a helpless boy without a parent. Lying on his back, he draped an arm over his eyes, kicked the shoes off his feet and didn't bother to change out of his clothes. He didn't care. He had spent all day caring, and now that it was over, who cared for him? Certainly not Ethan.

"Matty?" Cassie's timid voice broke through his dark thoughts. He lifted his arm, saw his sister with a small box of candy. She offered it to him. "A girl in school brought this today. I thought I'd save it for Ryan, but I think you need it more."

"That's all right, Cass, you can keep it," he said with a smile. "Who's this girl? Is she a friend of yours?"

Cassie shook her head. "She threw it away, so I got it out of the trash."

"Cass!" Matt took several deep breaths to keep from yelling at his already timid sister. "We aren't poor-- okay, maybe we are-- but we're not that poor. Don't ever dig through the trash again, do you understand?"

Tears came to Cassie's eyes and she nodded.

"I didn't mean to scare you," he groaned with self reproach. "You're not going to cry, are you?"

Moisture kept pooling in her blue eyes, but she whimpered "no."

Matt dragged himself out of bed to give Cassie a hug. Sometimes, he thought, he could be such a jerk.

Instead of going back to bed, Matt stayed up and cleaned the kitchen. To his surprise and gratitude, Ethan and Cassie remained to help. Matt corrected himself, as he washed dishes and Cassie dried and Ethan put them away. God cared about him, and so did his family.

Thursday morning, Matt came to work earlier than usual. He breathed a little easier when he saw Beth at the cash register, unharmed and looking wonderfully normal. She had passed the night without any visible harm, and he felt better for having left her alone.

"Excuse me, Mrs. Carter?"

"What is it, Matt?" The strain in her voice couldn't be missed, though he wasn't quite sure why it was there. She kept working, her eyes on the register and not on him.

"Those receipts... for Cassie--"

"I brought them with me." She shoved the cash register shut. "I had a feeling you wouldn't let me forget."

"I always pay my debts, Mrs. Carter."

She stared at him in reproach. "By your accounts, do you figure we're even yet?"

Matt stiffened. He'd been crazy to come in so early. He should have waited for the safety of the girls before chancing a talk with Mrs. Carter. If Sylvia and Amy were here, these words would have gone unsaid.

"I'm trying not to keep score, Matt, but you're making it impossible for me to do otherwise."

He frowned, not knowing how to answer.

"I think my life is worth at least the price of Cassie's trip to the mall, don't you? Or do you place a greater value on my life? What will it take for us to even our accounts, Matt? Should I give you a bonus check for saving me? Would that make us even?"

"I knew I should have kept my mouth shut," Matt said under his breath. He tried to turn away, but her eyes held him firm. "This isn't a game, Beth."

"I'm glad you don't think so," she said coldly.

He shoved his hands into his pockets. "I need to pay my debt. I need those receipts."

With a frustrated groan, Beth stepped out from behind the counter. "Then you won't even allow me to say 'thank you'?"

Matt realized he was smiling. "I'll accept your thanks, but not your money."

A warm, if not reluctant, smile parted her lips. "You're so stubbornly independent, it's maddening." She sighed as she led the way to the office. She opened her purse, pulled out the receipts, then handed them over as though it greatly annoyed her that he was forcing her to do such a thing. "I've highlighted Cassie's expenses at the hair salon. I had my own hair done at the same time, so you don't owe me the full bill."

"Thanks," Matt said, barely looking over the totals before shoving them into his pocket. At this point, he didn't care about the amount. He just wanted to get out of her office.

"Perhaps you'll let me repay you another way," Beth said, stopping his retreat with more words and a heartrendingly tender look. "Please, Matt."

"I can't, Beth."

"I'm only asking to bring over a hot dinner," she said, as though it were as simple as that. "It's just food."

"I can't." He looked at her full in the face, and hoped it would somehow convey what he wanted to say without actually having to speak the words.

Beth cocked her head at him, almost playfully. "You can't eat my cooking?"

Matt sucked in a breath. "I meant, I can't get into a relationship with you."

"Why not?" she asked, her voice rising in frustration.

"I just can't."

"If you have a good reason for turning down a perfectly good meal, I'd like to hear it," Beth said, folding her arms as though she were offended.

"You weren't just talking about food," Matt said.

"Yes, I was. You were the one who somehow turned food into a relationship."

Matt shut his eyes for a moment to cool down. He was growing dangerously frustrated, and feared what he might say. This was, after all, his boss.

"Do you even have one?" she asked.

He opened his eyes. "Have what?"

"A good reason."

"Couldn't you just trust me on it?"

"It'd be easier if I had an actual answer."

"Please, Beth, just leave me alone." He tried to leave, but she caught his arm, and gently stopped his retreat.

"Matt, I'm not really asking anything from you, except to acknowledge that there's something between us. Please don't deny it. It happens every time we look at each other."

Stunned, Matt spoke without thinking. "You feel it, too?"

"Of course I do." She smiled. "I don't think you intended to say that out loud. You're blushing."

Matt pulled his arm free. "You're playing games with me again."

"I would never do that to you, Matt. You believe me, don't you?"

"I guess." He shrugged, secretly wondering how he could escape the office.

"Do you want me to drop the subject?" she asked quietly.

"Yes." It was an easy answer. He didn't need a second to think it over, it came that quickly.

"Then consider it dropped." The hurt look returned to her green eyes, and Matt kicked himself for putting it there. "Does this mean I can't drop off a hot dinner at your house this evening?"

Matt wavered. She wasn't asking for much, at least it didn't sound like she was. "I guess it's okay."

"Thank you, Matt. You like to repay your debts, and I like to repay mine."

Again he shrugged, dearly wishing he hadn't noticed the faint scent of jasmine as she moved. This lady didn't know what she was dealing with, for if she did, she wouldn't be trying to bring him dinner. Maybe he should tell her. But if he did, she would fire him, and then he'd lose what little he had. Without realizing it, he had grown to look forward to seeing her at work; the thought of losing that, pained him more than he cared to admit.

His heart weighed down with heaviness, Matt left the office only to find Sylvia working nearby. She stood at a rack of gardening books, struggling to look busy, but obviously trying to eavesdrop. He absently nodded "hi" to her, and she fell into step beside him.

"Did you find out why she didn't come to work, yesterday?"

Matt grunted. "You're supposed to be her friend-- you ask her." He didn't feel like playing games this morning, and walked off without saying a word more to Sylvia.

Beth hoped she hadn't overstepped herself, especially after the embarrassment of yesterday's ordeal with Bailey and the prescription bottle. She had told herself Matt wasn't interested, that he couldn't be after seeing her on the bathroom floor looking so defeated. She had repeated it over and over to herself all night, and in the morning, had almost believed it. Then he'd looked at her while she stood at the counter, and all traces of doubt were gone. He liked her-- again, how much, she couldn't know-- but the attraction was there. To deny it would be to deny the existence of hunger, sorrow, pleasure.

She wished she hadn't said so much, but something about Matt compelled her to speak. He sure wasn't doing any talking, so it was up to her.

For the remainder of the workday, Matt stayed away from Beth to such an extent it caught the attention of Amy.

"What's wrong with him?" Amy asked Beth as they saw Matt move past the window, helping a woman to load her truck with the two hefty rose bushes she had just purchased. "He's not acting normal, and he's avoiding you like you have something contagious."

Beth wished she could deny the truth of the observation, and when she didn't, Amy's eyes grew wide.

"Something's finally happened between you two!" Amy said, smiling excitedly. "Tell me-- what did he say?" The painful silence that followed brought a disappointed sigh to Amy's lips. "You two had a fight," she guessed.

"I suppose you could call it that," Beth said, not really wanting to term their disagreement as a fight; it somehow made things worse than they actually were. "Matt doesn't want a serious relationship, and I can't say I blame him. I have enough faults I'm sure I must scare him away."

Though Amy couldn't possibly understand what Beth had meant, Amy didn't press for an explanation. Instead, she looked at Beth with something akin to pity, and it made Beth feel even worse than before. Someone was feeling sorry for her, and the pity, though kindly meant, only served to make her feel more self-conscious and awkward.

"Well," Amy said with a disappointed little sigh, "I'm pulling for you two to get together. He really likes you, Mrs. Carter. When he gazes at you with those intensely dark eyes, even my heart skips a beat."

Beth let herself smile, grateful for the encouragement.

After work, Matt left the nursery without even casting Beth a parting glance. It didn't matter, Beth told herself as she drove to the store to buy what she needed to make the Taylors' dinner. She would see him again, even if it would only be to drop off the promised meal at his house.

Home didn't seem quite as frightening today, and she forgot to miss Bailey's welcome as she came through the door. She needed to hurry, to make this meal before Matt or Ethan, or maybe even Cassie, started eating out of sheer hunger. Then her meal would go untouched.

When it was ready, she bundled the prepared food into an insulated carrier to keep it hot, then hurried to her car. The sun was setting on the western horizon when she looked at the time on her car's dash. Seven thirty. She'd taken more time than she'd realized, and knew the kids wouldn't have waited this long to eat. They had probably snacked their hunger away by now, and no longer wanted her food. Still, she had promised the meal would be there, and headed into Las Cruces with a great deal of self-reproach.

The bad neighborhood should have made her careful as she pulled in front of the Taylors' mobile home, but in her haste, she didn't give it a second thought. The streets were darkly lit, the only light coming from tiny porches and curtained windows. She opened her door, and a dog somewhere in the distance started to bark nervously. This was the right house, wasn't it? She couldn't be certain in this dim light. After lifting out the food carrier, Beth locked her car and started toward the house.

Before she was halfway up the walk, the front door opened and a figure stood silhouetted against the light. It was Matt.

"I apologize for being so late," Beth said, checking the contents of the carrier before handing it over. "Let this cool off, then store it in the fridge. It won't be as good tomorrow, but it'll still be edible."

"That's all right," Matt said, awkwardly accepting the food. "We're hungry enough to eat it all now. There won't be any leftovers."

Beth blinked at him in surprise. "You waited?"

He shrugged lightly. "It wouldn't have been polite not to. You went to the trouble to cook it, so the least we could do is wait."

Someone passed through the open door, the petite figure coming to Matt's side. Beth smiled at Cassie. "I was just telling your brother how sorry I was that this is so late. I hope you enjoy the meal," Beth said, turning to leave.

"Aren't you staying?" Cassie asked in alarm.

"No, I'm just dropping off the food." Beth quickly glanced at Matt. He didn't look ready to offer an invitation.

"Matty," Cassie tugged at his shirt, "tell her to stay."

It was all Beth could do to not stop and listen as she went back to the car. Matt's low voice said something to Cassie, and Beth could imagine what he said. The girl promptly replied, forgetting or not even trying to speak in her brother's hushed tone.

"Hurry, Matty, she's leaving!"

"Mrs. Carter?" Matt cleared his throat, the reluctance evident but admirably restrained.

Her hand on the driver's side door, she looked over the rooftop at Matt. He was standing there, the carrier in his hands, the cool breeze playing with his untucked T-shirt. Beth couldn't remember the last time she had seen a more handsome picture than the one Matt made. Then she remembered Luke, and the moment turned bittersweet.

"Have you eaten yet?" Matt asked, wincing noticeably as he spoke. Dim hope sounded in his voice, a dim hope that she would turn him down, say that she had already eaten and go away.

But she hadn't, and even though the invitation had been strained, Beth would not turn it down. "No, I haven't eaten yet," she said with a polite smile.

He sighed reluctantly. "Then I suppose you're invited to eat dinner with us. But if you have other plans, it won't hurt our feelings if you can't stay."

"I don't have any plans," she said, taking her hand off the car door.

Matt smiled weakly. "Yeah, that's what I thought you'd say. Come in... I guess."

"I've already set your place at the table," Cassie said, joining Beth as Matt went inside. "Oh, Mrs. Carter, you're not wearing your hair down!"

"I didn't have time to fix it after work," Beth said, not knowing why she made any excuses to Cassie. After Matt's comment about her looking odd, the braid had been deliberate.

For some reason Beth couldn't fathom, Ethan glared at Matt as they gathered around the kitchen table. She couldn't interpret what was being exchanged between the two brothers, but sensed whatever it was, it put Matt on edge.

Cassie helped Beth set out the food, while Ryan eagerly watched from his chair.

"I hope you guys like chimichangas," Beth said, peeling back the aluminum foil on the casserole dish. The cheese had melted perfectly over the deep-fried tortillas, and inside those flour wraps were chicken and rice and even more cheese. The smell of it practically filled the kitchen.

A minor stampede to wash hands at the kitchen sink quickly ensued, with Matt pushing aside Ethan so Cassie could get to the soap.

"Ladies first," Matt said to an angry looking Ethan.

It was a mystery to Beth why the brothers should be at odds with each other, especially when they so obviously cared about each other.

"I learned something interesting from Cass today," Ethan said, sauntering over to the table and plopping down in a chair. He looked at Matt with a knowing grin. "Cass said Mrs. Lott told her that you and Mrs. Carter were at her house, yesterday."

Matt shot Ethan a withering look, but the teenager grinned even harder.

"Then you two went home for a cozy lunch together..." Ethan paused, staring at Matt, lingering the moment as if to imply something more had happened. "I thought one of our rules stated you couldn't bring home women, Matty."

Now Beth understood. Ethan was getting back at Matt-- probably something having to do with a girl-- and was using yesterday's incident against poor Matt.

"Ethan, we only had lunch and a talk," Beth said, trying to speak in Matt's defense.

"Thanks, Beth, but I'll handle this." Matt pulled Ethan up from his chair, then hauled the teenager into the living room.

"Dinner," Ryan said helplessly, staring wide-eyed at the food before him.

"Should we wait?" Beth asked, looking to Cassie for permission. It might not be polite to start without everyone at the table, but it was past eight o'clock, and Ryan's tummy was making loud noises. Cassie nodded that it was okay, and Beth started serving the two children.

Noise from the living room betrayed an all-out argument, and Beth picked up pieces here and there about someone named Susan. Then the name Helen was mentioned, and Matt hurried Ethan out the front door where they continued their fight on the weed strewn lawn.

Several minutes later, Matt and Ethan returned, looking strained and tired from whatever they had been arguing about. Beth offered them some chimichanga, only one of them pausing to pray before eating. Ethan looked angry, Matt looked tired, and both looked hungry.

"You owe Mrs. Carter an apology," Matt said to Ethan.

After a swift kick under the table, Ethan finally complied. "I apologize," he said glumly.

Beth smiled, and tried to finish her meal without making more trouble for Matt.

"I'm so sorry about Bailey, Mrs. Carter." Sweet Cassie was obviously attempting to change the subject, and Beth silently thanked her for it. "Mrs. Lott said your dog Bailey died recently."

"Good old Mrs. Lott," Matt said wearily. He bit into a tortilla, his mouth widening into a smile as guacamole and cheese squeezed past his lips. "This is good, Beth."

Beth smiled, hoping she didn't smile too broadly or too eagerly. He liked her cooking.

"Bailey died?" Ryan's troubled face peered at Matt, and Matt put down his fork.

"Bailey was an old doggie. Mrs. Carter told you that, remember?"

Ryan soberly nodded "yes."

"I think he probably died in his sleep," Matt said, looking to Beth for confirmation. She nodded in agreement, and Matt returned his attention to a now crying four-year old. "Come here, buddy," Matt said, pushing away from the table to let Ryan climb onto his lap. "Bailey is happy now, playing in Heaven with Mrs. Carter's husband and little boy."

"No more doggie," Ryan whispered through his tears.

Matt hugged Ryan, and Beth dried her eyes. She hadn't expected anyone here to grieve over Bailey, and it made her feel as though she belonged at the table. Of course, she knew she didn't, but to see Ryan mourn Bailey, it somehow made Beth feel comforted, as though she wasn't alone after all.

For the rest of the meal, Ryan sat on Matt's lap, sharing bites of tortilla, cheese and meat. Matt didn't allow Ryan to dwell on sorrow for long, but kept the boy occupied with food and a steady supply of hugs and laughter. Even Ethan seemed to forget his quarrel, and did his best to make Ryan smile.

By the end of dinner, everyone had full stomachs and a satisfied smile plastered on their face.

"I'll get your guitar, Matty," Cassie said, leaving the table before Matt could stop her.

"Not tonight, Cass," he called after her. But it was too late. Cassie had already returned with an old guitar, that, like its owner's boots, had seen better days.

Beth looked at Matt in surprise. "You play the guitar?"

"Not tonight, I don't," Matt said, setting aside the instrument.

"Please, Matty?" Cassie asked, looking very sweet and very pleading.

"Nope," Matt promptly dismissed the request. "I'm full. Maybe tomorrow."

Ethan smiled knowingly. "You just don't want to make a fool of yourself in front of her."

"Please, Ethan, be nice."

"All right, Cass, I'll leave him alone." Ethan slid back in his chair, glanced at his watch. "It's getting late, Matty, and it's school tomorrow."

"Time for bed," Matt said, standing up with a sleepy Ryan in his arms. "Do me a favor, would you Ethan? Put Ryan to bed. I'm going to walk Mrs. Carter out to her car."

Beth almost expected Ethan to turn down his brother, but the teenager lifted Ryan from Matt's arms, then took the boy into the next room.

"Thank you for dinner, Mrs. Carter," Cassie said softly.

"Please, call me Beth," Beth told the smiling young woman.

Matt groaned quietly, but not quietly enough. Beth smiled at him, ignored his groan, and started to help Cassie clear the table.

"We'll clean the dishes tomorrow, and I'll bring your stuff to work in the morning," Matt said, ushering Beth to the door. She was happy and in a good mood, so she allowed Matt to walk her to the car without trying to linger.

The air had turned cold, and Beth shivered in her nursery shirt as Matt took her keys and unlocked her car door.

"I appreciate what you tried to do," Matt said, handing her back the keys, "but after tonight, I consider us even."

"You do?" Beth looked at him, and she saw him blush in the faint moonlight. "I wonder what it would be like to belong in your arms, Matt."

She knew he stared at her, for glints of light shone in his eyes. She could see his expression, hear his breath, and sensed he had wondered the same thing.

"Stop wondering," he said finally.

"What happened to make you so gun-shy of me, Matt? What woman did this to you?"

"It's what I did to her," Matt said gruffly. He swallowed, looked away, and Beth sensed she had asked too much.

"Are we really even, Matt?"

He looked at her, the moonlight swimming in his eyes.

"Will we ever be even?" Beth asked. Gently, she touched his shirt. "I don't think I ever want us to be completely even. Whenever I think you're trying to settle our account, I'm going to find some way to get you back in my debt. I'm giving you fair warning, Matt."

He closed his eyes, drew a long deep breath.

"Good night, Matt." She dropped her hand, opened the car door, and climbed inside. He moved to close her door, stooped to look inside.

There was so much in his face, she knew he wanted to speak his heart. Instead, he smiled sadly. "Drive safe," he said, and backed away from the car.

"Don't forget," she smiled, "I want my casserole dish back."

He nodded, and stepped onto the lawn, out of the street.

Beth didn't want to drive away, but no other reasonable choice presented itself. She couldn't force Matt to speak when he wanted to be silent, and right now, he definitely wanted to be silent. He swiped at the moisture in his eyes as she pulled away, and Beth knew, in that single moment, she would not give up. Whatever he had hidden away in his life, it couldn't discourage her from moving forward.

Matt had told her to fight. So she would fight.

"The LORD... healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds. He telleth the number of the stars; He calleth them all by their names. Great is our Lord, and of great power: His understanding is infinite."
~ Psalm 147:2-5 ~

end of chapter
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