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Authors: Tami Hoag

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BOOK: Sarah's Sin
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Isaac turned and looked at Matt, the old man's face set like a mask of granite. “None that concerns you,” he said stiffly in English and he walked away with his head up and his eyes on the hardware store.

Sarah watched him go, a sour mixture of love and hate rolling inside her.

“Friend of yours?” Matt asked sofdy.

“No,” she said, tears burning the backs of her eyes. “He's my father.”

As Sarah shopped for her groceries Matt sat in the buggy tied to the hitching rail at the end of the parking lot. Despite the fact that he felt a thousand percent better than he had the day before, he was still a ways from being back to fall strength, and the mornings activities had taken a toll on him. He leaned back against the seat as he watched toddlers play in the park across thfe street, his thoughts going over his visit with Jesse's resident physician.

The man was an insult to doctors in general and probably a menace to his patients. Phillip Coswell was fiftyish, best described as squat with oily, thinning dark hair, and a fine example of a chainsmoker. He'd asked Matt no less than five times what medication he was on, indicating that he either wasn't paying attention or he had a serious problem with concentration. His main topic of conversation had been the scandalous cost of malpractice insurance and how to milk the most out of the Medicare system. During his time in the waiting room, Matt had heard him insult one female patient and deride another for wasting his time. The
poor woman had burst into tears. Matt still couldn't get over the fact that the waiting room had been full. People actually depended on that man for their medical care. It was a terrifying thought.

Sarah came out of the store then and Matt's attention shifted abruptly. She looked pale and tense. He wondered what she and her father had been arguing about, but he didn't feel right asking and she hadn't offered to tell him. He reached out to help her into the buggy and they drove up to the door to have the groceries loaded in. Then they were on their way out of Jesse, past the tourists congregating in front of the Viking Cafe, past the towering corrugated metal structures that comprised the Jesse Grain Elevator, and out once more into the country

Sarah made no pretense at small task. She kept her attention riveted to her driving and to her effort to keep from bursting into tears. For once she was glad for the concealing aspect of her bonnet. It effectively hid her face from Matt's scrutiny. She knew he was dying to ask her what the problem was, but she had no desire to tell him. She wasn't even sure she could have told him if she wanted to. Her feelings were all tangled up so that she didn't know if she would ever be able to sort them out. It had to do with love and need and duty and obligation and wanting and being afraid.

Complicating it all was Matt himself with his gentle hands and his come-hither grin. She didn't want to talk to him of all people about the issue of her Amishness, not when he made her want so much, not when she so desperately wanted him not to think of her as Amish, even though she knew that was wrong and stupid. Oh, heaven, what a mess!

Suddenly two big, masculine hands settled over hers on the reins and Otis was being guided off the road, onto the path to a field of soybeans. They were about halfway to Thorne-wood, precisely in the middle of nowhere, with no one else in sight. The buggy rolled to a stop. Otis hung his head and cocked one hind leg. For a moment the only sounds were the wind in the dried grass and the distant screech of a hunting hawk.

Matt plucked at the strings that tied Sarah's bonnet in place and carefully-lifted the hat away, setting it on the seat on the other side of her. “Come here, now,” he murmured gathering her against him. “Cry it out, whatever it is.”

That was all the encouragement Sarah needed. The last of her strength snapped like a twig and she clung to Matt Thorne and cried her heart out. She cried for what she was and what she could never be. She cried because she wanted her father to love her and she
hated herself for it. She cried because her heart was set on Matt Thorne and she had to know she was nothing more than an amusement for him. She cried in sobs that wrenched her soul and twisted her heart.

Matt held her tight against him, ignoring the pain in his ribs. It was nothing compared to what the sound of Sarah crying did to his heart. He found himself wanting to track down her father and punch him in the nose. What could he, what could anyone want to say to sweet, innocent Sarah that would make her cry? Whatever it was, he wanted to somehow take it away. He wanted to soothe her hurt. He wanted to protect her.

He ran a hand over her hair and murmured words of comfort, letting his lips brush the top of her head. Pins fell loose and her hair tumbled freely down her back in glorious waves. Matt tangled his hands in it, lifting it, smoothing it, all the while whispering to her as her sobs faded to soft weeping, then sniffles and ragged breathing. Without letting go of her, he reached in his hip pocket for a handkerchief, he tipped her head back and dabbed at her tears and red nose.

“Better?” he asked.

Sarah nodded, feeling embarrassed and foolish and so very grateful to him. She dodged his steady gaze, staring instead at the big damp
patches where her tears had stained his shirt. “Thank you,' she murmured, her voice sounding rusty and low. Tm very sorry—”

“No.” Matt pressed an index finger to her lips to silence her apology and tilted her head back again so she had no choice but to look at him. Her long lashes were damp and spiky. Her eyes seemed magnified by the sheen of moisture in them, and so blue they made the autumn sky pale in comparison. “Don't be sorry. You needed to cry. I'm a big advocate of people crying when they need to. I'm thinking about writing a paper on it for the
New England Journal of Medicine.”

“Really?” she said, trying to give him a dry smile that trembled a little too much to work.

“Really. You know what else?”

She shook her head.

“I&m going to kiss you.”

Having made the announcement, he went ahead and fulfilled the promise, pressing his palms to her cheeks and bending his head down to hers. Their lips met slowly, softly, with the gentlest pressure. Matt sipped at her as if she were a rare fine wine, tasting and savoring. Her mouth was pliant beneath his, warm and salty with the taste of her tears. He deepened the kiss a degree, changing the angle slightly, pulling her a little closer. She slid her arms up around his neck and her breasts flat
tened against the solid wall of his chest, sending desire shooting through his veins like adrenaline. Heat seared him just beneath the surface of his skin and he deepened the kiss a litde more.

Sarah gasped at the first intrusion of his tongue, unconsciously taking him deeper into her mouth, then moaned softly in her throat at the thrill of the intimacy. Her fingers clutched his shoulders, slipping against the smooth black leather of his jacket. She wriggled closer to him, loving the feel of his body against hers, loving the scent of him and the taste of him. She let him explore her mouth, hesitantly meeting his tongue with her own.

Everything else receded but this. Her inner turmoil, her family, the temporary aspect of Matt's presence. The world itself spun away, leaving just the two of them and this moment and this kiss.

And then it was over.

Matt drew back slowly, staring at her with a slightly puzzled expression, as if he'd gotten something he hadn't expected and wasn't sure why. His hands sifted through her long hair, drawing it over her shoulders. The ends fell in thick curls to brush at her thighs.

“Sweet heaven, you're pretty,” he murmured.

Sweet heaven. That was where he had
taken her—to the edge of heaven on earth. And as Sarah took up the reins and guided the horse back onto the road, she wondered if she would ever know what it was to go beyond that edge.

Sarah found a million things to do the instant they reached Thome-wood. She had to see to the unhitching and care of her horse, unloading and putting away the groceries, double-checking the guest rooms and reservations, preparing the snack of cheeses and grapes and French bread that would be offered to the guests upon their arrival.

Matt suspected she was avoiding him again, having been shaken a little by the kiss they had shared, but he didn't press the issue. Hell, he had been shaken by it as well. Shaken right down to his lifelong bachelor toes. He hadn't come here looking to get knocked for a romantic loop by an innocent young maid like Sarah. He wouldn't have even believed it was possible. He was a mature, experienced man, a man who knew the score, a man who had his life neatly categorized. Now he felt as if the stuffing had been pulled out of all his spiffy little pigeonholes. The sturdy ladder of his priorities had collapsed, and the only sure thing rising out of the dust was his desire for Sarah Troyer.

Pleading a genuine case of fatigue, he left Sarah to her fussing and went upstairs to crash. He was asleep the instant he hit the bed, not even noticing when Blossom nosed her way into the room and made off with one of his shoes.

He dreamed about the ER at County General, seeing again the face of the young man whose knife wound he had patched up not two months before. A Vice Lord. Matt knew by the black-and-gold colors and the tattoo of a five-pointed star on the young man's left bicep. He had learned to read gang signs and fashions like a cavalryman must have learned the traits of the various warring tribes of Plains Indians in the last century. The young Vice Lord had been brought in holding his ribs and spitting up blood. Two gurneys down, a junkie was rambling incoherently, her mind invaded by demons conjured by crack. Across the room a member of a rival gang pulled a gun and started shouting obscenities. A Disciple by his blue-and-black uniform and the fact that everything about his attire emphasized the right—-his beret was tilted to the right, his belt buckle hung loose to the right, his right side pants pocket was turned inside out. There was an eruption of violence, an explosion; images tumbled and swirled, all colored in blood and accompanied by shouts and screams.

And then he was sitting in a buggy, holding
Sarah and listening to the wind, the silence so abrupt, so absolute it hurt his ears.

Matt blinked himself awake and lay staring up at the ceiling. It didn't take Sigmund Freud to figure that one out, he thought. Sarah was a metaphor representing innocence and purity, a tangible symbol he could hold and protect and control in a way he couldn't begin to do with the raw ideals. They were like smoke, slipping through his frantic grasp, swept away by the fetid winds of urban decay. But Sarah was real, living, shining, sweet.

Well, that was all a nice, neat analytical explanation, wasn't it? Why then did clinical understanding do nothing to dilute his deep need to see her and touch her and hold her? Wanting a woman was nothing new to him, but this was something different, something that went beyond symbolism. He wanted Sarah Troyer with something inside him he had never before encountered. Trying to figure it all out left him dizzier than his concussion had.

From somewhere below came the muffled sound of voices. The guests had arrived, en masse by the sound of it. Matt eased himself out of bed and padded barefoot in his underwear to the bathroom where he splashed cold water on his face and ran a comb through his hair. He pulled on a pair of jeans and a soft loose sweater in shades of black and sapphire, wondering wryly if anyone would mistake him
for a member of the Disciples. After giving up the search for his errant Loafer, he settled for beat-up sneakers and headed for the foyer and the source of the cacophony.

The group looked like the assembled cast of a farce, Matt thought as he descended the stairs slowly, having left his cane behind. There was Sarah in her plain uniform and bright wide eyes, eager to serve and to please; a chubby couple in their fifties, outfitted in color-coordinated tourist garb, complete with cameras hanging from their necks like giant pendants; and a woman who looked to be some kind of aging beauty queen with unnatural-looking russet hair piled on her head like cotton candy, enormous sunglasses perched on her nose, enormous breasts, and a pile of dead foxes draped around the shoulders of her trim ivory wool suit.

Blossom sat on Sarahs feet with her ears perked and her head tilted, staring with quizzical amazement at the limp hides hanging over the woman's mountainous chest. The basset hound's rubbery lips quivered and she issued a whispered woof, as if she were trying to unobtrusively gain the attention of the pelts.

“Oh, isn't this just the cutest little ol& place!” the beauty queen drawled, beaming a smile all around the front hall, though how she could see anything through her dark glasses was beyond Matt. She twirled around and gave Sarah
a pat on the cheek. “And aren't you just the cutest thing! A real Amish person. Isn't that clever! Wait'll Tim sees you! He's out in the car right now, tryin' to get the price on pork bellies, but he'll be in directly. Just wait'll he sees how cute you are!”

Sarah gave the woman her Mona Lisa look and said nothing.

Matt felt a fist of tension tighten in his chest.

“Marvin, get a picture,” the plump wife ordered, elbowing her husband's belly.

Marvin chewed on the stub of an unlit cigar, grumbling as he lifted his camera and fiddled with the knobs. “Cripes, Peg, all I've been doing all day is taking pictures of Amish.” He pronounced Amish with a long
A.
His voice was as gritty as gravel, and he spoke in staccato bursts of words, as if his weight and his smoking had constricted his lungs. “They all look alike. We're going to get home and have two hundred and eighty pictures of the same person.”

Peg squeezed her bulldog face into a horrific pinched look, glaring into the end of her husband's zoom lens. “Just do it, Marvin. Just humor me. We're on vacation. We're having fun.”

Whether you like it or not, Matt added mentally. He watched in amazement as Marvin backed down the hall so he could focus his oversize lens. Mrs. Marvin sidled up next to
Sarah as she might have to a cigar store wooden Indian and creased a smile into her pudgy face. The beauty queen moved into the picture as well, sweeping her fur from her shoulders with the drama of a runway model.

Blossom snarled, grabbed a mouthful of fluffy fox tails, and bolted for the kitchen. The beauty queen squealed and ran after her. Marvin, looking at the whole thing through the distorted view of a two-hundred-twenty-millimeter telephoto lens, didn't have a chance. The dog hit him in the ankles, knocking him off balance, and the beauty queen gave him a shoulder in the midsection as she ran bent over trying to grab the flying ends of her fur. Marvin flew backward into the kitchen door, which obligingly swung back on its hinges.

They ended up in a heap on the polished linoleum, Marvin with the fox stole draped across his face and Miss Alabama 1967 sprawled unceremoniously over his belly. Blossom took one look at the scene and made a hasty escape through the doggy hatch in the back door.

“Oh, Mrs. Parker, Mr. Morton, I'm so sorry!” Sarah held out a hand to help Mrs. Parker up. The woman teetered upright on her spike heels, her tight ivory wool skirt hiked up above her knees, her nest of russet hair tilting drunk-enly, her sunglasses askew. She clutched her
patchwork of fox hides to her chest like a security blanket.

“I&d best go up to my room and repair myself,” she said dazedly. “Tim just hates to see me disheveled.”

As she staggered out into the hall, Marvin Morton struggled to sit up, cradling his precious camera in his big sausage fingers. “I oughta sue,” he said around the crumpled remains of his cigar stub. “I think I've got a whiplash.”

“Lucky I'm here then, isn't it?” Matt said coming to stand behind Sarah.

“Why?” he asked, struggling to rise. “Are you a lawyer?”

“No, I'm a doctor. I can examine you and give you a diagnosis and treatment. You're not afraid of big needles, are you? The best thing for whiplash is major doses of cortisone,” he said with a perfectly straight face. “Of course, that's excruciating painful in itself.”

Marvin paled. His wife grunted at him. “Stop your complaining, Marvin. It wasn't the little Amish girl's fault. You had to stand there right in the way of Miss Silicone USA and play with your phallic symbol—”

“Why don't you both help yourself to wine and a snack in the parlor,” Sarah suggested with a brittle smile, trying desperately to resurrect her hostess image.

The Mortons went off in the direction of the
front parlor, grumbling at each other. Sarah heaved a sigh, wiping the back of her hand across her brow. She slumped against the kitchen counter and looked up at Matt with a woebegone look to rival the basset hound's.

“Well,” he said with a grin. “That was exciting.”

“It was terrible.”

“Yeah,” Matt agreed. “But it was funny.”

Sarah's lips twitched and she gave in to the laughter. It had been a disaster. The first time Ingrid had left her in charge of the inn and within five minutes of the guests' arrival they were getting knocked senseless and threatening to sue. Still she couldn't help but see the funny side of it, and it felt good to laugh with Matt. It probably felt too good, but she didn't want to think about that now; she just wanted to share this moment with him. She watched the humor wipe away the lines of weariness in his handsome face and light up his dark eyes, and her heart gave a great big thump in her chest.

Matt watched her laugh, her clean, pretty face taking on a rosy glow, and his heart gave an answering thump. He reached out for her hand, just needing to touch her, and when her fingers curled around his, warmth spread through him like sunshine.

“Want to go share some wine and cheese with Marv and Peg?” he asked softly.

“Not really, but I suppose we'd better.”

They walked out of the kitchen together like pals, Matt with an arm draped across Sarahs slim, square shoulders, smiles lingering on their mouths.

“Can I ask you a question?” Sarah said.

“Anything.”

“What's a phallic symbol?”

“Ah … um …” He cleared his throat and dodged her questioning gaze. “I'll tell you later.”

“Maybe you can show me?” she asked innocently.

Matt groaned, rolling his eyes heavenward. “I sincerely hope so.”

Things just got curiouser and curiouser as the evening went on. It was the practice at Thornewood for guests and hosts to gather in the parlor to chat after dinner. Breakfast was the only meal served at the inn, so guests trekked into Jesse for their evening meal. Upon returning they were offered coffee or cocoa or brandy and fresh baked cookies as well as conversation.

This was something Ingrid and John pulled off with great success, both of them having excellent educations and a wide range of travel experiences. Sarah, however, had been outside the county only once, to visit relatives in Ohio, and her formal education had ended, as it did
for all Amish children, at fourteen. Confronted with the role of hostess, she seemed to forget that she was quite well-read and had some understanding of current affairs gained through the pages of Ingrids
Newsweek.

Of course, it didn't help matters that the current guests were … well, strange.

Sarah sat in her chair unable to think of anything much to say while the Mortons and Lisbeth Parker stared at her as if she were an oddity in a museum.

Matt cleared his throat in an attempt to break the silence. “Mrs. Parker, it's too bad your husband wasn't feeling up to joining us.”

She gave Matt a vacant look, then flinched as if she'd been pinched, and batted her long false lashes at him. “Oh, well, travel doesn't agree with Tim,” she said, pouring a little brandy into her coffee. “He has a delicate constitution.”

“I&d be happy to take a look at him—”

“No! No,” she repeated, calming herself. She resurrected her beauty queen smile and bestowed it upon everyone in the room. “It's nothing serious, I assure you. He simply needs his rest.”

Matt's brows rose and fell as he looked across the room at Sarah. She gave a small shrug. As yet no one had seen the mysterious Tim Parker.

“I can imagine he needs lots of rest,” Marvin
Morton growled, his eyes fixed on Mrs. Parkers fantastic bosom. His wife gave him a sharp jab in the ribs.

Mrs. Parker changed the subject abruptly, going into a long, bizarre account of her recent trip to her optometrist, who had prescribed a single contact lens that she could wear in either eye. No one seemed to know any appropriate comment to make about that—except Mr. Morton, who told her the guy was probably a shyster, as were most doctors. Matt ground his teeth for a minute, then launched onto a detailed explanation of the pro bono work he did at a free clinic in North Minneapolis. The point was lost on Marvin, who turned the discussion into a racist commentary on the abuses of the welfare system.

Sarah watched it all unfolding with a sense of dread and helplessness. She tried to imagine how Ingrid would have handled the situation, but could only think that Ingrid and John would never have gotten into this kind of conversational snake pit in the first place. Heavens, her whole adventure of running the inn was turning into a nightmare. She should have known better than to believe she could handle this. She was after all, despite her longings to the contrary, just a simple Amish woman. Dreaming about being a part of that other world and pulling it off were two very different things.

BOOK: Sarah's Sin
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