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Chapter Nine
Bruised Hearts

"Be of good courage, and He [God] shall strengthen your heart, all ye that hope in the LORD."
~ Psalm 31:24 ~

Sleep had been impossible. Beth had seen to that. The soft hand on his chest, the searing longing in her eyes, the penetrating words that had cut through his soul like a hot knife through butter. Man. He sure wished he had turned down her offer to bring over that meal, those chimichangas. Forget how good they were-- never had a guy paid so dear a price for Mexican food.

Like a total raving idiot, he had cried as she pulled away. Just one or two tears-- nothing she could have possibly noticed-- but it had been more than enough to get in the way of his self-respect. And Matt had decided, as he palmed his face dry, he had some self-respect left; Beth hadn't left him much, but what few shreds remained, were his.

There ought to be a law against women speaking their mind so bluntly, Matt thought, as he stared up at the bedroom ceiling, waiting for sleep. Some women knew how to talk, to make men say things they wished they hadn't. Beth was one of those women. So he had looked at her. Big deal. All she had to do was mention the fact, and he was spouting, "You feel it, too?" Matt rubbed his face hard, wishing desperately he could take back the day, do it over differently. It didn't matter how different, just not the way it had turned out.

Pushing onto his side, he stared at the bed beside his, envying Ethan and Ryan. They didn't have to go in to work in the morning, and face his boss.

His boss.

Wow, had she smelled good. Even at dinner, he could still detect the faint scent of jasmine she had worn that morning. That had been jasmine, hadn't it? Mrs. Lott had jasmine growing in her garden, though right now they didn't have any flowers. Matt wished he could compare the scents: on the plants, he hadn't thought about it much, but on Beth, it could stop him in his tracks.

Enough, Matt thought, flopping onto his other side to stare at the wall. He had to stop thinking about Beth. Even more importantly, he had to put a stop to her and her "fair warning."

How had he let it get that far, anyway?

Since sleep had abandoned him, Matt spent his wakeful night tossing in the sheets, thinking and punishing himself every time he thought of Beth in any other way than his boss.

Beth readied herself a full hour earlier than her usual morning routine, then drove to the nursery in Las Cruces. Seven-thirty could not come soon enough for her. At seven-thirty, the employees were supposed to arrive to help prepare the store for the eight o'clock opening. Beth expected Amy and Sylvia to be late, but not Matt. At seven-thirty on the dot, his pickup truck would pull into the parking lot. Any minute now, she expected to hear his footsteps, see his face.

But no one arrived at seven-thirty. Not even Matt. He wasn't late-- not technically-- but this was the first time she could recall when he wasn't as punctual as an atomic clock. Maybe that was carrying things a bit too far, but after last night, after that talk they'd had outside Matt's house, his absence this morning felt intentional. The thought stung her, but not enough to forget the promise she'd made to herself.

Five minutes before opening, Beth heard the tramp of Matt's boots as he entered the building. She stood up from her office chair, looked into the store to see he had brought her food carrier.

"In here, Matt," she called to him.

He moved past the checkout, made his way to the other side of the room without smiling.

The Stetson was pulled low over his face, and his eyes had trouble meeting hers when he came to the open office door. She noted he was very careful not to come inside.

Matt handed her the carrier, took a step back, looked over his shoulder at the empty aisles. He stood there, staring at nothing, while she opened the carrier and found her casserole dish.

"You didn't have to wash it, Matt. I would have done the dishes myself, if you had let me."

Matt tugged the work gloves out from his back pocket. "Want me to water the plants now?" he asked.

Beth closed the carrier. "I hope I didn't cause you too much trouble last night. It sounded as though you and Ethan were having quite a disagreement."

The cowboy hat hid Matt's features as he stooped to knock dust from his boots. "I almost forgot-- the garden hose needs to be replaced," he said, straightening, looking into the store as he spoke. "I can keep patching it if you want, but since you have so many hoses in stock, it doesn't make sense not to replace it. Either way, it's your call."

Beth set the carrier on the floor beside her desk. "I hope you enjoyed the meal. I have a tendency to cook Mexican food, because Luke said it reminded him of home. His father was born and raised in Southern California, and his mom came from Mexico."

"If you want me to water the plants, I should really get started, Mrs. Carter."

Beth reminded herself to keep breathing. "If you don't like Mexican food, I could try something else. Italian maybe? You guys like pizza, don't you?"

A groan strangled in Matt's throat. He swiped off the hat, vigorously rubbed his forehead with a gloved hand, then yanked the hat back on. His chest heaved in a long, slow sigh, and when it was over, she sensed he had calmed down. "If I don't get to the watering the first part of the day, some of the plants might wilt."

"I think I'll try pizza," Beth nodded, bending over her desk to make a note. "Although," she added, turning to smile at Matt, "you seemed to really enjoy the chimichangas. I won't cross Mexican food off the list just yet."

Matt squeezed his eyes shut.

"You'd better water those plants," Beth said, picking up her floppy sunhat. "I'm told they wilt without water."

He opened his eyes, glanced at her with a hint of a smile tugging at his mouth. It was so slight, so barely there, Beth wondered if she was falling prey to wishful thinking.

"Oh, and you'd better pull a new hose from inventory," she said, lightly brushing past him into the store. "Business might be bad, but if we look like we can't even afford a new garden hose, it'll won't help the nursery's image."

Matt moved away from her, half stumbling over the cast iron garden sculpture outside the office door in his escape. Beth turned to look at him, smiled when she saw the red blush of embarrassment creep up his neck.

"Do you need me to tell you where we keep the hoses?" she asked innocently. "They're on aisle--"

"I know where they're at," Matt said, regaining his balance as well as his composure. He flicked an annoyed glance at the sweet bunny statue that had gotten under his foot. "Stupid rabbit," he mumbled, then stalked off toward the garden hoses.

Beth pulled on her work gloves while she waited for Matt by the entrance. From the mild breeze, it promised to be another beautiful New Mexico day.

Matt stopped in his tracks when he saw Mrs. Carter, standing by the entrance with her gloves and that silly sunhat. Great. She was waiting for him. He shifted the garden hose to the other hand, lowered his chin, and plowed through the door as fast as he could without being obvious. He sure wished she'd go away.

Beth followed without a word of reproach. If he was hurting her feelings, she hid it well.

He tossed the new hose on the ground, then crouched to unscrew the old one from the faucet by the store wall. Beth pulled a box cutter from the pocket of her overalls, opened the blade, knelt to cut through the plastic ties binding the new hose. She unwound an end, then handed it to him so he could twist it into the faucet.

"May I ask you a personal question?" she asked as she stood up.

He squinted against the sunlight to look at her. "If I say 'no,' is it going to stop you from asking, anyway?"

"It would," she said with a smile. "Say the word, and I'll mind my own business."

Matt sighed inwardly. Why did she have to be so nice right now? Why couldn't she be gruff, make it easier for him to turn her down?

"What's the question?" he asked.

"Who's Helen?"

Matt didn't dare look at Beth. He kept his face down, his eyes on the new hose as he wound it into a neat circle.

"Where did you hear that name?" he asked quietly.

"When you and Ethan were fighting, I heard Ethan mention someone named Helen. Is she an old girlfriend of yours?"

Matt twisted on the spray nozzle. "I'm saying the word."

"Excuse me?" Beth asked.

Matt stood to his full height, faced Beth down without flinching a muscle. "I'm asking you to mind your own business."

"All right, Matt, if that's what you want."

He looked at Beth and she looked back.

The crazy thought came to him to ask if that scent she wore was jasmine. He fought it off, turned to get to work and water those plants.

To his relief, Beth went away. He didn't check to see where. It didn't matter. She no longer stood three feet away, slowly fogging his mind with perfume and the suggestions that came to him from just looking at her.

Matt realized he had to be more careful about that, more on guard. In his condition, it wasn't safe. He felt like an alcoholic craving booze. The thoughts, the suggestions made him feel sleazy, like he'd just crawled out from a sewer. Did he have any self-respect left? Maybe he didn't, maybe he'd spent it all on Helen.

The mere mention of Helen's name made him feel discouraged.

God, please give me grace, Matt prayed within himself. Don't let me give up. Not now.

Her eyes felt wet, and Beth hurried to dry them before Matt noticed. She took out the compact from her office desk, dabbed her eyes and cheeks with powder. Her disappointed reflection stared back from the small mirror. She hated those horrid freckles, her face. Her life. With a sigh of disgust, she snapped the compact shut. Dangerous thinking, she realized, and hurried back outside with her sunhat.

Thankfully, Matt hadn't fled the nursery after that miserable attempt to get to know him better. She found him behind the store, crouched over the potted geraniums, busily pinching out green shoots of grass.

She took a deep breath, moved to a nearby potting table to keep her hands busy. "I should have Amy doing that," Beth said, as Matt acknowledged Beth's return with a quick glance. "She spilled a bag of grass seed all over the place, and some of it scattered into the pots. It's made a terrible mess of things."

Out of the corner of her eye, Beth watched Matt. He said nothing.

"It's sometimes hard to know how to handle messes, isn't it?" Beth asked, her heart hopelessly lodged in her throat. "You do one thing, then suddenly, things don't turn out as you'd hoped they would."

The Stetson turned away from her, and Beth braced herself with a silent prayer.

"As I said, I should really be getting Amy to pull out all that grass."

Again no answer, not even the smallest of glances in her direction. This couldn't be a good sign. Beth didn't know how she could take Matt's silence to mean anything but, "go away." Plunging her trowel into the potting soil, Beth turned, leaned against the table to look at Matt. She might be taking a terrible risk by speaking now, but she didn't see any other way.


He looked up, the hat shading his eyes from the sun, as well as her. "What do you want?" he asked, his voice dull, discouraged.

"Do I have your permission to speak to you as a friend, and not your employer?"

He shrugged halfheartedly. "I suppose. It's kind of tough to forget you're my boss, though."

"For just a few minutes, let's pretend you don't work for me, and we're not at the nursery."

In obvious skepticism, Matt looked about the nursery, then at her.

Beth folded her arms. "Humor me."

He shrugged, went back to his weeding without further comment on her sanity.

"I think," Beth said, trying to speak her mind, but not her heart, "if our friendship is going to last for very long, we need better communication."

Matt gave her a sidelong glance.

"No," Beth persisted courageously, "I mean it. We seem to get our signals crossed so much of the time, I think it would help if we talked about our expectations from this relationship."

Matt immediately straightened. "What relationship?"

"Friendship is a type of relationship," she insisted, hoping she hadn't said too much.

"Maybe it is," Matt said, folding his arms across his chest, "but you seem to take your friendships more seriously than I take mine. When I'm friends with someone, I'm simply that -- just friends. I don't bat my eyes at them, drown them in jasmine until they can't think straight."

They faced each other, arms crossed, very serious and both a little tense.

"I don't bat my eyes," Beth said a little defensively. "And I'm not trying to drown anyone in jasmine, let alone you."

Matt raised his brows. "So it is jasmine?"

"I think if we expect too much from our friendship," Beth pressed on, this time careful to avoid the "r" word, "then someone will very likely be disappointed-- probably, me."

"Is it?" he asked.

"Is it what?"

"Is it jasmine?" For some ridiculous reason, Matt seemed to need to know.

"Yes, I suppose it is. As I was saying, we're going to be disappointed if we expect too much--"

"Hold on there, you were the one who was going to be disappointed, remember? I don't expect anything but a whole lot of trouble. That's what I've been expecting, and so far I haven't been disappointed."

Beth looked at him, noticed the fear in his voice, in his eyes. She was beginning to feel some of that fear, herself. "Have I been very much trouble, Matt?"

He lifted a shoulder, suddenly hesitant. "Yeah, I suppose."

"Is it because of the the night I lost Bailey?" She didn't want to know, and yet she had to ask. "Am I giving you so much trouble because you're afraid of what I might do to myself?"

The strained tension between them pulled even tighter, and Matt looked as though the words were being dragged out of him, almost against his will. "That was trouble, sure, but that's not exactly what I'm talking about."

Evidently, something else was bothering him even more. What that could be, Beth had no way of knowing unless she asked.

"Have I asked anything from you besides friendship, Matt?"

"Not in so many words," he said, shifting in his scuffed boots. "It's what you've left unsaid, that bothers me."

"What are you afraid of, Matt?"

A look of manly defiance immediately crossed his face. "Who said I was afraid?"

"You did -- just now. What have I left unsaid?"

His eyes squeezed shut, and she saw him take several deep breaths. "You want something more than friendship," he said finally, opening his eyes, looking at her with an almost sad expression on his handsome face.

"And this frightens you?" Beth asked.

"It frightens me," Matt said, his voice hushed as though she were the only one he wanted to hear his words, "because that 'something more' you want is not something I can give you."

Beth didn't know what to say. She stared at him for several moments, blanked, then found her voice. "What are you trying to tell me, Matt?"

He looked more frustrated than ever. "I'm trying to tell you -- what I've been trying to tell you all along -- is that I'm not a good person. You don't know what I've done, what I'm capable of doing again. I suppose, if I'm honest, I'm afraid I can't even give you friendship."

At that very moment, Amy entered through the loading docks, a clipboard in the crook of her arm. "Sorry, I'm late Mrs.--" Amy looked at them both, promptly turned about and left them alone.

Matt looked ready to retreat as well, but Beth wouldn't let him go so easily.

"How could you have anything to fear from friendship?" Beth asked in a troubled voice.

Matt cast a weary glance in the direction of the nursery, then looked back at Beth. "I'm afraid we can't stay just friends, and I'm afraid what I'll do if that happens."

"What?" Beth felt as frustrated as she thought Matt looked. "I don't understand, Matt. What are you afraid you'll do?"

"Please, Beth, don't make me say it."

"I won't make you say anything, but I need to know what you're so afraid of."

He yanked off his cowboy hat, and Beth could see his eyes had grown intense from their discussion. "Me, Beth. It's me, I'm afraid of."

"I don't understand, Matt."

Matt turned his eyes to the loading dock, frowned. "Sylvia's here," he muttered darkly.

Not wanting to let the moment pass without understanding Matt's fear, Beth stepped between him and the loading dock to block his view of Sylvia. "Please, Matt. What are you afraid of?"

The hat rotated in his hands, and he couldn't look Beth in the eye until after he'd cleared his throat. When he finally did, she could see wetness gathering in his eyes. "I, uh-- man, this is hard." He planted the hat back on his head, took a deep breath. "I'm afraid of being around you too much, because something could easily happen that I'll regret for the rest of my life."

"What do you mean? What's the thing you'll regret? Falling in love?"

Matt pressed his lips together, but just before he did, she saw them tremble ever so slightly. "I'm an addict, Beth."

She stood there, wondering if she had heard him correctly. "You're a drug addict?"

"Yes, I am -- or at least, I used to be. But that's not exactly what I'm talking about, either." He glanced around her shoulder, grimaced. "Sylvia is trying to eavesdrop, again."

Beth turned, saw that Matt was right. Sylvia stood by the water faucet, her back propped against the building, her gaze directed at them.

"Go help Amy at the cash register," Beth called to Sylvia, not caring if the directions made any sense. All she wanted was for Sylvia to go, so Matt could finish what he had been trying to say.

With a mischievous look that said she thought they were doing something naughty, Sylvia pushed away from the wall, replaced her sunglasses, then sauntered into the store.

Beth turned back to Matt. "I think you were trying to tell me something. I'd like to hear it now, please."

His lips pressed together until they were white. "I was a meth addict, but that's not all. Me and... someone else-- she and I would get high, then have sex until we passed out. Meth is like that-- once you start something, you can't stop. I gave that life up, but the problem is, it was easier to kick the drugs than everything else that went with them."

"I think I understand," Beth said quietly.

His smile trembled, and the lips tightened once more. "No, I don't think you do. Until you've lived it, you can't really know what it's like. You think you're alive and pulsing with life, but it isn't life at all, it's death. You're a living corpse, waiting for someone to bury you. Thing is, Beth, when I'm around you, sometimes I want things that I know I shouldn't. You keep pressing me, and I'm afraid if you do, I'll have a weak moment and turn my back on everything I know is right. I can't -- I won't -- do that to God, to my family, or to myself. Not again."

"I'm not pressing you for sex, Matt," Beth said, dearly hoping Sylvia and Amy weren't nearby to overhear the conversation. "I need a friend, and to be honest, I'd like a man back in my life. But," Beth realized she was making a very important decision as she spoke, "I don't want a relationship that isn't right. This has to be God's way, or no way at all."

Matt swallowed hard.

"If I do something to make you uneasy, let me know. I'll go away if I have to, but I promise I won't knowingly push you into temptation. You'll be on your guard, and so will I. But I can't know to do anything differently, unless you're honest with me about your feelings."

The wetness collected even faster in his eyes, until he was forced to palm away a stray tear. "You still want to be friends?" he asked, his voice catching on a stifled sob. "After what I just told you?"

"I still want to be friends," Beth said, hoping her smile gave him some comfort. "I like you, Matt."

Matt's smile looked shaky. "I guess I must like you, too. I haven't told anyone this stuff since Pastor Mark."

That came as a surprise to Beth. "Pastor Mark knows? I've never heard him mention drugs... or the other thing."

Matt looked at her, a trace of grimness in his eyes. "You can't even say it, can you? You have no idea what you're trying to get yourself into, Beth." Matt inhaled, let out a breath as though he had been holding it for a very long time. "I asked Pastor Mark not to repeat it to anyone. I've got enough strikes against me, without people knowing everything I've ever done. I didn't tell him all of it, though. Even you don't know-- not by a long-shot."

Despite the warning, a calm sort of resolve settled into Beth. There very well might be more to Matt's past than what he had just told her, and chances were it wasn't pretty. But he couldn't frightened her that easily. Not this time.

Her smile felt calm, unshakeable. "You can count on my discretion, Matt. I may have my faults, but gossiping isn't one of them. What you've said this morning, won't go any farther than me. I promise."

The cowboy hat hid his features as he stared at his boots. "All right," was all he said -- for all Beth knew, all he could say. He remained stone silent, until she broke the awkward stillness.

"I suppose we'd better get back to work," Beth said, glancing quickly at her watch. "Go ahead and finish pulling the seedlings from those pots. When you're done, sweep the store, then straighten the displays."

He tipped his hat, said "Yes, ma'am," and returned to the geraniums -- all without looking at her.

Beth refused to be disheartened. They had made progress, even if Matt refused to ever admit it.

What had just happened? Matt thought about it carefully, half frantic, half numb as he tried to untangle the discussion he had just had with Beth. He finished a pot, moved to the next, momentarily swiped at the worried perspiration beading on his forehead. She'd done it again. He had said so much more than he had ever intended. Especially to her. Maybe he could blame it on the jasmine. An unconscious grin spread across his face. He'd guessed right about that.

The happy feelings disappeared the moment he remembered he had told her about being an addict. Why, oh, why, had he told her that? She didn't have to know. Being friends didn't mean he had to spill his guts to her.

Matt forced himself to stop, take a moment to clench his trembling hands, keep them steady. She knew about the meth now, about his addictions and the struggles he still had. But at least he'd had enough sense to keep the rest from her.

At least he hadn't told her everything.

He had to calm down. He just had to. He still had his job, didn't he? She knew about the drugs, his other shameful addiction, and she hadn't fired him. In fact, she still wanted to be friends.

That brought Matt to another troubling thought. She wanted another man in her life. Maybe he shouldn't have held back, maybe he should've told her more, enough to scare her off and leave him alone forever.

Matt wondered how quickly he could find another job. He pulled off his hat, dried his face against his shoulder, put the hat back on and went back to pinching out the tiny blades of grass.

He didn't want to leave, but after their conversation, didn't this mean he had to?

God's way, or no way at all. Beth had said that. Remembering it made Matt feel better. He felt even better when he remembered she had promised not to push him into temptation. Whatever else she had said, whatever else he had said, that had been the most important part of their talk. Without that assurance, Matt felt sure he would have quit his job as soon he found work elsewhere. He knew his own weakness, but what he hadn't known for sure, was Beth's determination to do things God's way.

Matt couldn't help grinning. Beth was fighting, just as he'd prayed she would. Well, he hadn't expected her to fight for him, but she was determined to do the right thing and that was most definitely an answer to prayer.

With this in mind, Matt decided it would be all right for him to keep his job at the nursery. He prayed it was the right decision.

Even from her office desk, Beth could feel the curiosity of the store upon her. The customers didn't know something was going on, (Beth made sure she thanked God for the customers), but Sylvia and Amy sure did. Both women had seen the earnestness of Beth's conversation with Matt, and both women looked eager to know what had been said. Neither one asked, and Beth decided not to bring it up if they didn't.

As soon as Sylvia had a free moment, she did just that.

Slumped against the doorjamb, Sylvia stared at Beth until Beth put down the phone to ask what she wanted.

"What's with you and Matt?" Sylvia asked, her manner careless, seemingly unaffected by anyone else's troubles but her own. "You and Matt were really going at it this morning."

"We were just having a talk, that's all," Beth said, straightening the papers on her desk.

Mischief played on Sylvia's mouth. The glossy red sheen of her lips made her look as though she had been drinking blood. "It looked to me, whatever you and Matt were talking about seemed awfully important. Serious even."

Beth caught that word-- serious -- just as she knew Sylvia had intended her to. "Yes, Silvi, things are getting a little more serious between Matt and myself. Does that answer your question?"

Beth and Sylvia exchanged an icy cold stare.

"Does this mean you two are involved?" Sylvia asked finally.

A loaded question if there ever was one, Beth thought with a twinge of panic. It took her a moment to decide how she wanted to answer. "He's off limits, if that's what you mean."

"I think I'll wait for him to tell me that," Sylvia said with a very unladylike snort. "Nothing personal, but I don't believe Matt's all that interested in you. You're not his type. What are you -- five, six, years older than him?" Sylvia screwed her nose as though she smelled something past its expiration date. "Too old."

Sylvia must've seen that she'd hit her mark, for a smug smile parted the glossy red sheen as she sashayed back to her work.

It stung, Beth realized. No use pretending it hadn't. Shaking off the pain, Beth went to the filing cabinet to retrieve some information before she called one of her suppliers. She didn't want to think about what Sylvia had said, and instead chose to bury herself in the business of running the nursery.

Great. Just what he needed. Sylvia again. Matt pushed his broom across the floor, stopping abruptly as Sylvia deliberately stepped into his path.

"What does it take to get your attention?" she asked with a soft feminine pout. Anymore lipstick, and it'd be dripping from her lips.

"Mrs. Carter told me to sweep up," Matt said with a shrug.

The pout deepened. "That's not what I meant, and you know it. I feel sorry for you, Matt," Sylvia said, moving toward him with an anything but a harmless smile. "I'd hate to have to endure my boss's advances, simply because I want to keep my job. It must be very hard for you."

Matt felt his grip tighten on the broom handle, but he said nothing.

"Beth must be so desperate, to have to force someone like you to be interested in her." Sylvia raised a manicured hand, admired her brightly lacquered nails. They had to be artificial. No human would grow them that long, not even a woman. "When you get bored of her, Matt, you should look me up." Sylvia leaned toward him provocatively. "If I'm still available."

Not caring if he missed that opportunity, Matt nudged the broom at her open toed sandals, and she jumped out of his way. He continued on with his work, not bothering to comment on Sylvia's hateful remarks. That a woman like Beth must be desperate to even bother looking in his direction, was a given. But Sylvia had gone too far when she'd accused Beth of forcing him into a relationship he didn't want. The problem was, he did, and Beth knew it. That was why they'd had that discussion this morning, and why he knew that when lunchtime came, he'd eat inside the store instead of out in his truck.

"Watch your step, Taylor," Matt told himself as he put the broom away to go straighten the displays. "I'm only staying so I can keep my job and be a friend to Beth. Don't you dare forget who you are. Her heart is bruised enough, without you adding to her pain."

Matt laughed darkly. He sure was stupid, all right. As if he needed to worry about her feeling too much. After everything Beth had learned about him that morning, she would never be able to feel anything but pity where he was concerned.

Certainly never love.

"[How] shall a young man [Matt] cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to Thy [God's] word. With my whole heart have I sought Thee: O let me not wander from Thy commandments. Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against Thee."
~ Psalm 119:9-11 ~

"Take us the foxes [Sylvia], the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes."
~ Song of Solomon 2:15 ~

end of chapter
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