A/N: Sorry for the long delay. Summary of what led to the hold-up: My kids' end-of-the-year stuff for school, a friend's emergency C-section and resulting new baby (Yay!), and preparing to move in the next two or so months. Yeah, you think it'd be easy, except I'm moving about 150 miles away from where I'm at now. Oh, and I'm having to slap a short story together for a writer's conference coming up. Plus other varying distractions. Yep, we single moms are busy people. ^_^ But here's a small update, and I'll get to work on another shortly.

Chapter Eight

By hunting down his own wallet and passing on the necktie entirely, Matt opted for independent preparation. He caught himself glancing toward Becca's room every thirty seconds or so, but he resisted. Even if she was awake, which he suspected she was after a while, he had no idea what to say to her. Well, what he could say without making things worse; he could think of plenty of things he wanted to tell her. Again, he refrained from following his first impulse. He needed to unscramble his own head before trying to figure out what was going on in hers.

It was just after seven. The sun peeked an edge over the top of the dumpster, and he wondered if he should wait a few hours before heading to the big house. Chronic impatience notwithstanding, Matt guessed staying in the apartment would cause Becca to keep herself barricaded indefinitely. He may as well head over to see Mrs. Harris, even if it meant using his spare key and waiting. To waste a little time, he chose to walk the three blocks rather than drive.

He paused at the door. Might as well let Bec off the hook. "I'm gone," he said, careful to direct his voice straight down the hallway.

After a moment's consideration, he decided not to elaborate on where or for how long. If Bec looked out back and spotted his car, she'd know where to find him. That is, if she actually wanted to find him, which he suspected was the last thing she planned to do. Then again, he told himself she could surprise him. She had gotten good at that.

Walking the same sidewalks they ran as kids reinforced that feeling. He recalled hating Memphis at first, along with his new school and his dad's matchbox apartment. And his dad. Oh, he'd hated his dad back then. His mom's death was hard enough, especially after his dad became a recluse. But then to suddenly take a new job in a city on the other side of the country? To sell their house, his mom's house? Of course he was too young to understand his father's dilemma. Matt only knew everything about their house reminded him of his mom, and he wanted to hold onto every fiber of her residual being.

Matt could already see his old apartment building up ahead, and he pushed away the pang of guilt in his gut. It never occurred to him to talk to his dad, even about trivial things. Then again, they had rarely spoken while Matt raised himself as a kid, so it seemed pointless to start now. He would never know where to begin a discussion that didn't center around sports. If it hadn't been for Bec and her parents, the only discussions he would be having with anyone these days, period, would've been through plate glass and a little gray telephone during visiting hours at the county jail.

Thanks to them, he straightened up, though their intervention came only after a lucky break, literally. He met her parents the first time under the strangest, not mention embarrassing, circumstances in history. It had been one o'clock in the morning, on a school night no less, and he must have climbed up the aged lattice next to Becca's bedroom window one too many times. It broke just as he'd tried to pull himself onto her window ledge.

He turned the corner and spotted his home-away-from-home. The paneling, white paint, and crisscross green strips running up to Bec's old room brought a grin to his face. He'd never worked so hard in his life as he did once his cast came off. Chief made him fix the damage which somehow turned into a full-scale renovation project. Still, it had given him plenty of excuse to hang out with Becca without sneaking around, even if the majority was done while sawing, sanding, or hammering. And it had been Mrs. Harris who made the most valuable suggestion about the new decoration to run up the wall to Becca's room. "Make sure it'll hold your weight this time," she'd said with a wink. "I don't want any more midnight runs to the hospital."

His smile broadened even more when he saw Mrs. Harris on the porch swing, one leg tucked under her while the other skimmed the floor. Proving some men had all the luck, and out of those who did, Chief had to be the luckiest son of a bitch on Earth. Chief met Mrs. Harris - then Rosemary Palmer - the same night she'd taken first runner-up in the 1974 Miss Tennessee pageant. How Chief managed to woo a beauty queen ten years his junior and marry her just three months later, only God knew. Even more baffling, their relationship rolled like a unicyclist across a tightrope. Their personalities balanced, not like two conglomerations of emotional junk they harmonized to avoid conflict. Chief and Mrs. Harris counteracted the smallest shift in each other's tone or gesture with its antithesis, like their psyches were visible, tangible things.

Then again, verbalization had never been Chief's strong suit, and Mrs. Harris possessed remarkable intuition and a talent for reading body language. Not just Chief's. She could do it with anyone. Matt had felt as though she'd planted those olive green eyes on his forehead and read his mind many times over the years, because she always iknew/i. She already knew stuff before he told her, and she usually had a better-than-average idea of the stuff he tried to keep to himself. When he asked how, which he had a few times, she answered the same way each time: "I'm not reading your mind, hun. Just your face."

He felt her doing it again now as he crossed the patch of grass in front of the house. She stopped swinging, her eyes and mouth both offering him the familiar Welcome Home smile.

"Hey, handsome." She waved him over and patted the spot next to her. "I was wondering when you'd be showing up."

Already he began to relax as he accepted her offer, plopping down with a groan. Why hadn't he thought of this sooner? "Hey, Mom. Sorry for showing up early like this."

She chortled, flipping a sandy blonde lock away from her cheek like a teenager. "Early, nothing." Her eyes twinkled. "After what Bobby told me, I'm impressed you lasted this long."

Matt frowned. Sometimes her intuition annoyed him. "You don't seem too surprised by all this."

"Honey, the only thing that surprises me is that it took you so long." She leaned back and began to rock the swing again until they both pushed in time. "So," she said after a pause, "do you wish that you'd kissed her first?"

He considered his answer for a few seconds. Then he wrestled with making such an admission to, of all people, Becca's mother. Still, Mrs. Harris could analyze emotional seismic activity better than anyone, and he needed to know whether he'd caused a unpleasant tremor or a catastrophic quake last night.

He took a deep breath and resigned himself to full disclosure. "I would've rather kissed her first instead of second, that's for damn sure."

Rarely had Matt seen Mrs. Harris look surprised, so it was a rare treat to watch the woman's eyebrows shoot up and her mouth fall open. Her foot skidded against the wood planks until they stopped swinging. In a motion identical to one Becca performed on their sofa regularly, Mrs. Harris turned sideways, both arms propping her up as she leaned forward.

She searched his face. "You didn't," she breathed.

Oh shit, this couldn't be good.

One hand drifted over her mouth, and she shook her head slowly. "Oh no, you did, didn't you? You never could do anything halfway."

His stomach dropped another notch. "Come on, Mom, it's not that big a deal, is it?" he asked, bewildered by his own anxiety. "We're both adults, we're a guy and a girl, and we share the same cramped apartment day in and day out. Hell, just about everyone we know thinks we're already sleeping together - sorry, Mom, but you know they do - so I don't think Bec'll cut and run just because I kissed her."

Mrs. Harris narrowed her eyes. "What kind of kiss was it?"

"Huh?" Matt felt his face try to match his hair. "What do you mean, what kind of kiss was it?"

The woman remained matter-of-fact as she studied him. "Was it the a-little-more-than friendly type of kiss, or was it an I-want-to-have-sex-with-you kiss?"

He jerked back, and the muscles in his face contracted like Venetian blinds. "Jesus, Mom, don't say stuff like that."

"Why not? You're the one who pointed out you're an adult now." She smirked. "Besides, who sat you down and gave you your first sex-talk, hm?"

He groaned. How could he forget? Only Mrs. Harris would turn squash into a lifelong phallic symbol in the name of sex education. To this day, he never saw one without imagining the thin end covered in a strawberry-scented tickler condom while Becca's mom said, "I know most people use bananas to do this, but I think these are a lot more realistic. Of course, Matt-honey, if you need a banana..." He'd been too embarrassed to respond, so Becca ragged him for weeks. The good side: if either of them needed a dose of humor, all they had to do was jog over to Piggly Wiggly and hit the vegetable aisle.

"So tell me the truth." Mrs. Harris leaned in, pulling him back to the present. "What kind of kiss was it?"

Even though he felt awkward as hell, Matt wanted to give Becca's mom, and himself, a straight answer. Mrs. Harris wasn't the type to freak out, even if he came out with something like, "You know, if she hadn't shoved me off last night, you better believe I'd be making love to her right now, for the second time, instead of talking to you. And that's only if I lost part of the night because I passed out after the first go-around." Thankfully, that wasn't what he'd say, because that wasn't the case.

A series of mental images depicting his supposed non-scenario jumped into his head, and his mouth suddenly felt like he'd just chewed on a stick of chalk. He tried to ignore the southern discomfort which went along with it. Where was this coming from? He'd been a horny teenager the last time he'd thought of Bec like that. Especially in the context of her doing any one of the numerous things he was trying to stop picturing at the moment.

He shifted in his seat and looked away from Mrs. Harris's sage gaze. To hell with picking apart his motivation preceding the kiss. Instead he mumbled, "I don't know, I was drunk." Yeah, he had been drunk. That explained it. Case closed.

Mrs. Harris continued to stare another moment. Then she sighed. "It's probably a good thing then. She'll understand if you weren't thinking straight."

"Well, even if I had been, it's not like she'd cut-and-run just because I kissed her."

The faintest hint of regret marred his pseudo-mom's features. "Honey, there was a time when she would have done just the opposite." She reached over and patted him on the leg. "But if she's interested in another man now, that's not the case anymore."

What the hell was that supposed to mean? Because there was no way Mrs. Harris could be saying what it sounded like she was saying. No way.

"But nevermind that," she said, her voice jumping half an octave as she brushed away the question on his lips with a wave of her hand. "Let's go inside." She stood and stretched. Once he followed suit, she hooked her arm in his and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "I'll reserve judgment until after you tell me everything that happened."