Matthew's Choice

By: Patricia Bradley

CHAPTER ONE

  “NOAH, COME DANCE with me.”

  His mom’s voice floated like a feather from the tiny living room to the equally tiny kitchen, where Noah searched the bare pantry for something to eat.

  “Not now, Mom.” Bleach from the big pan on the stove made his eyes water. He had to remember to take his socks and stuff out before he went to bed.

  “Noah! Get in here this instant!”

  His stomach twisted. He closed the pantry door and trudged into the living room, where his mom waltzed around the room to music playing on a CD player, her skinny arms crooked as if she were being held. She had that “look” he’d come to dread. She barely missed the small cedar tree with its paper ornaments and cardboard star on top. Dry needles lay scattered on the tile floor. He’d have to drag it to the street tomorrow. New Year’s Day. His shoulders dropped. Then school would start back again next week.

  His mom stopped when she spied him. “There’s my boy. C’mere. You’ll be a teenager before I know it, and you need to know how to dance. Those girls are gonna be knockin’ our door down.”

  “Aw, Mom, do I have to? I won’t even be ten until next month.”

  “No-ah...”

  He sighed and let her lead him around the room as she sang to the music.

  “Did you know I could’ve been a famous singer?”

  “Yeah, you told me.” Over and over she’d told him that a big producer in Nashville had wanted to sign her, but she’d gotten sick. And he knew what kind of sick. She twirled and then guided him around the room again. At least they didn’t have to worry about bumping into any furniture. Unless a worn-out couch and wooden crates counted.

  “You’re gonna be a lady-killer, you know.” She chucked him under the chin.

  Finally the waltz ended, and she released him.

  “I’m gonna fix you some supper now,” she said.

  He frowned. “I don’t think we have anything. Maybe I could go next door to Mrs. Adams. She said anytime we didn’t have anything to eat she’d—”

  His mother shook him. “Don’t you dare go beggin’ for food. We don’t ask anyone for anything. And you’d better not forget that.”

  Noah broke free and stumbled back.

  She caught him and dropped to her knees. “Oh, Noah! I’m so sorry.”

  He wrapped his arms around her, her bony shoulders sharp against his hands. “It’s okay, Mom. I think I saw a package of ramen noodles. I’ll go fix ’em. Why don’t you rest on the couch?” Her eyes searched his, and he nodded, willing her to do it. “Okay? I’ll bring you a bowl.”

  She smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “You’re a good boy. You deserve so much better than me.”

  “I love you, Mom.”

  “I don’t know why.”

  He stood still as she steadied herself and stood, and then he helped her to the couch. “I’ll be right back.”

  Her eyes drooped and she murmured something he couldn’t understand. He waited a few minutes longer, until he was certain she was asleep. In the kitchen, he turned off the stove. When he returned he’d get his clothes out of the pan and hang them up to dry. Noah shrugged on his thin jacket and eased out the back door. He knew a place to get food without asking for it.

  Noah slipped through the dark streets, shivering in the chilly air. At least it wasn’t freezing. It’d been unusually warm for December in Mississippi. Everyone in Cedar Grove said so. It hadn’t seemed like Christmas at all.

  He passed the jewelry store where he and his mom had stood Christmas Day, picking out gifts they would give each other if they had the money. She’d picked out a watch for him—he didn’t even know jewelry stores had watches for kids. He’d picked out a pearl necklace, and she’d almost cried. It’d made her sad to leave the ones her mom had given her at Joe’s Pawn Shop last month. But the rent had to be paid, she’d said. He didn’t want to think about this month.

  Loud music boomed to the sound of an electric guitar at the bar on the corner, and he crossed to the other side, keeping in the shadows. Two blocks later, the First State Bank sign blinked the time and temperature. Mike’s Café was across the street, dark and shuttered. He groaned. A Closed sign hung on the door.

  It’s New Year’s Eve, dummy. The owner had probably left a long time ago, and any food he threw away would be gone already. Noah wasn’t the only one who knew about the food the man threw away. Perfectly good food. He didn’t understand why the guy didn’t just use it the next day. He went behind the building just as the back door scraped open and a man exited with two black bags in his hands.

  Noah’s knees almost buckled with relief. He wasn’t too late. The man tossed the bigger bag in the Dumpster then looked straight toward where Noah stood in the shadows. Noah tried to make himself smaller, and it must’ve worked. The man turned back to the bag and set it on a box before returning inside the building.

  Noah waited for fifteen minutes, counting the time on the bank sign, shivering in the chilly air. Darting from the shadows, he ran to the box, grabbed the bag and took off. Two blocks later, he leaned against a brick building, panting for breath. As soon as he could breathe again, he untied the bag.

  Wow! He’d expected bread or maybe cookies, but not a bag with sliced meat. He pulled out a slice. Just one, and he’d take the rest of it to his mom.

  Ham. He loved ham and couldn’t resist another slice. Noah broke off a chunk of bread and crammed it in his mouth, and then he closed the bag. Wait until Mom saw this.

  When he reached his house, Noah entered by the back door and ran to the living room. “Mom! Look what I found.”

  She didn’t respond, and Noah shook her. Why was she so pale? “Wake up, Mom.”

  A throat cleared behind him. “So this is where you live.”

  Noah whirled around, and his mouth dropped.

  A guy in a cop’s uniform stood in the doorway.

  “My mom. You gotta help her.”

  * * *

  MATTHEW JEFFERIES BUZZED away the five-o’clock shadow then splashed Dior aftershave on his face. Where was Clint with his tuxedo? Matt had exactly one hour to get dressed and pick up his soon-to-be fiancée, and his friend hadn’t made it to Matt’s apartment with his tux. If he were late, Jessica would be furious.

  His feet tangled with the black towel he’d dropped on the floor, tossing him off balance until he snagged the sink rim and righted himself. Matt snatched the towel and slipped it back over the chrome bar. Jessica had picked the towel and the other black accessories for his bathroom to go with the black-and-white tile. She’d die if she discovered he’d actually used the towel. They’re only for looks, Matthew. When it came to decorating, or hosting parties for that matter, Jessica had no equal. Not that she wouldn’t be perfect without those talents. They’d make a great couple, and thirty was the perfect age to get married.

  At his dresser, he rummaged through an ebony case for the platinum-and-black onyx cuff links she’d given him for Christmas. His gaze caught a small velvet ring box, and he flipped it open, revealing a two-carat diamond engagement ring. The seven square-cut diamonds along the shank were duplicated in the wedding band.

  His mother’s voice, weak from the cancer’s toll on her body, echoed through the recesses of his mind. These rings were your Grandmother Rae’s, and they’re all I have to leave you. Choose well. Find someone worthy to wear them. Mom would have liked Jessica.

  Tonight he would ask her father for Jessica’s hand in marriage, and tomorrow morning, after he wowed her with his famous eggs Benedict, he’d ask her to marry him. Matt held the solitaire up to the light, and it shimmered like white fire. Jessica would be impressed.

  Matt dialed Clint’s number once again. “Come on, answer.” Voice mail picked up, and he pressed End then tapped his fingers against his leg. When Clint got here, he was going to kill him. He never should’ve trusted his friend to get his tux here on time and wouldn’t have if J. Phillip Bradford hadn’t requested an audience an hour before the cleaners closed.

  “Probably forgot to charge his phone,” he muttered and took his dress shoes from the closet. Five minutes later, after he’d put the finishing touches to a shoeshine that a soldier would be proud of, his phone rang and he grabbed it. It better be Clint telling him he was parking.

  He dropped his head, wanting to bang it on the wall. J. Phillip Bradford again. Matt shook off his frustration and answered. “Yes, sir, Mr. Bradford, what can I do for you?”

  Bradford wasted no time on pleasantries. “I need you to drop by tomorrow at nine to go over page five of your proposal.”

  “Sir? Tomorrow’s New Year’s Day. I—”

  “All the more reason to work—start the New Year off right. You do know Valentine’s is only six weeks away, and while I like your proposal over the other five, if you expect to win the contract Wednesday, I need clarification on page five.”

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