Authors: Tami Hoag
Matt pulled her gently against him as the song built to its soulful crescendo, and felt the most incredible sense of lightness and peace. It felt so good, it ached inside him. He brushed his lips against Sarah's temple, his breath stirring the baby-fine tendrils of hair that curled there like wisps of silk.
As the last strains of the melody drifted away Sarah stepped back and looked up at him, her eyes so dark a blue, they looked the color of pansies. She stared up at him for a long moment, saying nothing, her expression carefully blank.
“Sarah.” He didn't know what he meant to say. All that came out was her name as soft as a secret.
“I … I'd best say good night,” she whispered, backing slowly away from him.
He stayed where he was, watching her go, saying nothing. Then she was in the comforting dark of the hall. She curbed the uqje to run. By the time she got to the stairs, she stopped altogether, her hands clutching the polished oak newel post.
“Oh, dear heaven,” she whispered, her voice trembling with emotion. “Please don't let this happen. Please don't let me fall in love with him.”
But as she climbed the stairs to her room, she had the terrible feeling it was already too late for prayers.
GUILTY AS SIN
A THIN DARK LINE
ASHES TO ASHES
DUST TO DUST
and soon in hardcover
While the town of Jesse, Minnesota, is purely a figment of my own overactive imagination, there is indeed a fair-sized Amish population in Minnesota's southeastern corner based around the towns of Harmony and Canton. It is in this area that I grew up.
The influx of Amish did not come until the mid-seventies, but they are now a firmly established community and have played a vital role in the area's economic recovery from the agricultural depression of the early eighties by attracting tourists to this very lovely part of the state.
So if you ever have the yearning for rolling countryside and the sound of buggy wheels clattering along the shoulder of the road, for the slower pace of small-town life and a place where everybody knows everybody else by name, I've got just the place for you.
He looked dead.
Sarah Troyer sat beside the bed, her eyes wide and unblinking as she stared at the man whose care she had been charged with. He lay motionless, only his head visible above the black-and-purple quilt that covered the bed. He was perhaps thirty-two or thirty-three, but he seemed older in his unconscious state. Even in the amber glow of the bedside lamp, his skin was the color of parchment. His left eye was swollen along the brow and discolored like a peach gone bad. A neat line of stitches embroidered his chin at an angle. In spite of his injuries, his face was strong and handsome, with a high, broad forehead and bold black brows, a stubborn-looking chin and a wide, well-defined mouth that kept drawing her gaze like a magnet.
“Melanie, Melanie,” he mumbled, a hint of a smile turning up the corners of his mouth. “Kiss me where it hurts.”
A warm sensation wriggled through Sarah from the top of her head down, prickling her scalp beneath the fine white mesh fabric of her
and curling her toes in her sensible black shoes. It wasn't just fear and it wasn't just guilt, this feeling. It was excitement. For once in her quiet, sheltered life she was going to have an adventure.
Automatically her mind spun out the words like a gossamer thread to weave a story with….
Once upon a time
“Oh, man, I've died and gone to
Little House on the Prairie.”
At the sound of the masculine voice Sarah jerked awake, her body snapping to attention faster than her foggy mind. The jolt of all her muscles coming to life at once sent her shooting off the edge of her chair. She landed with a thud, her bottom connecting solidly with the hard braided oval rug beside the bed.
While the idea of helping a lovely lady up appealed to him enormously, Matt Thorne didn't move an inch. He couldn't; he ached in so many places, the electrical impulses his brain sent to his muscles kept shorting out en route. Bleary-eyed, he merely stared at the feminine face now peering up at him over the edge of the bed.
Her quick trip to the floor had left visible only the top of her head, two enormous dark blue eyes, and an impudent tip-tilted nose. Though her hair was mostly covered, he could see that it was thick and rich brown. She wore
it up but whisper-wisps escaped their bonds to curl around the edges of her face.
She had on an old-fashioned kind of nurse's uniform he'd never seen before—a blue dress with a black apron over it and a small white cap that seemed to have been fashioned out of stiff gauze. She looked like a student nurse from some religious college for virtuous young women. Beguiling innocence radiated from those fathomless blue eyes. There was an untouched quality about the ripe curve of her cheek. A virgin nurse. Not a bad fantasy, Matt decided, mustering a ghost of his notorious smile.
“Isn't this a little above and beyond the call of duty?” he asked, his voice still rough with sleep. “Or is vigil-keeping a speciality at Our Lady of Guileless Chastity School for Girls?”
The blue eyes blinked at him, then went on staring. A shy young thing. Somewhere beneath the layers of bruises and teeth-grinding pain, Matt s sixth sense stirred to life. It was his personal built-in woman-o-meter, a kind of finely tuned radar that alerted him to all the subtle nuances of the women around him. It was in part what had made him a legend in the corridors of County General. It homed in now on the delightful young lady peering over the edge of the bed at him like a cornered mouse waiting for the house tomcat to pounce.
“You can relax, Blue Eyes,' he murmured, shifting a little on the bed and wincing as an invisible knife of pain slipped between his cracked ribs. Tm in no condition to endanger your standing with the good sisters of your order”
Sarah felt a guilty flush creep into her cheeks. He thought she was a nun, but she doubted nuns let their hearts go racing at the sight of eyes as dark and sparkling as a starlit night. She doubted nuns let their stomachs flip-flop at the sound of a mans voice.
She had meant to sit in the chair only a moment or two, but she'd dozed off and her cursedly vivid imagination had taken the fragile thread of the story she'd begun and whipped it into a full-blown tapestry of a dream wherein she had nursed Matt Thorne back from death's door and he had then swept her away on a romantic whirlwind tour of the world.
And he thought she was a nun. So much for her fantasy. The practical half of her wondered why she persisted in indulging in romantic daydreams anyway. They were not at all the sort of thing she had been raised to think about or expect. An Amish woman's life was one of servitude to God and her family. Tours of the world were well beyond her experience or expectation, so what was the point in dreaming about them? Of course, the insatiable, incorrigible dreamer in her had hidden be
hind her cowardice and had no answer with which to soothe her conscience. With a fatalistic sigh she pushed herself to her feet and dusted off her skirts.
“I am not a nun, Matt Thome,” she said, irritated more by her own disappointment in herself than by his mistake.
Her voice was soft and husky, accented with the flavor of a German dialect that must be her first language. Matt liked the way it sounded—homespun and warm. He managed to spread another of those sweet melting smiles across his face. “There's a welcome piece of news.”
Sarahs heart skipped. His voice was little more than a whisper, but it was strong and as warm and textured as a woolen blanket. She imagined she could feel it drift from his mouth and wrap around her. Heat flared under her skin. She took a resolute step back from the edge of the bed and folded her hands primly in front of her.
“I am Amish,” she stated in the way a costumed guide at some living history theme park might.
“Amish,” Matt repeated absently, taking another look at her.
He couldn't shake the feeling that she looked untouched, unspoiled, from the top of her little white cap to the tips of her black shoes. She looked young—maybe eighteen or nineteen.
She wore no makeup, no jewelry, just the costume of her people and a look of wide-eyed innocence that was touching his heart in all its most tender places. Her dress was long-sleeved and hung nearly to her ankles. Any womanly curves it might have inadvertently revealed were covered by her apron. She looked like a vision out of the last century, and he wondered if he was indeed conscious or just having a very bizarre dream. What was an Amish woman doing beside his bed?
A little more of the drug-induced mist cleared from his mind, and for the first time since waking up he took a look at his surroundings. The room was vaguely familiar, furnished with antiques, the wallpaper a dark blue background with a riot of tiny flowers strewn over it. The place smelled pleasantly of lemon oil and potpourri. He dredged up a fragment of memory about leaving the hospital—not as he had left it nearly every day for the last six years, as head honcho of County General s emergency room, but on the other side of the wheelchair, as a patient. That seemed like weeks ago, even though he doubted it had been a day since he'd been released. Nothing like a few painkillers to warp a man's sense of time.
“Ingrid,” he mumbled. “Ingrid brought me here. Jessup, Justice, J-something.”
His smile was automatic, a conditioned response to the stimulus of a woman's voice. It wasn't full voltage, but even at half power it was usually effective in weakening feminine defenses. “I'm pleased to meet you, Jesse,” he said in a voice like silk.
Sarah felt her knees go soft, and a brief fluttering of panic beat in the base of her throat like a butterfly's wings. She had never had this kind of reaction to a man before, not even to her late husband. She had read about it, but had decided it was something only English women experienced. She had envied them the excitement, but now that she was feeling it firsthand, she didn't much care for the sensation.
Taking a deep breath, she steeled herself against Matt Thome's charm and scowled at him. “I'm not Jesse. The town is Jesse. My name is Sarah Troyer.”
“Sarah,” Matt said and sighed dramatically, letting his head roll across his pillow. “That's even better,” he said, glancing sideways at her. “Sarah is a lovely name.”
“So is Melanie,” she said pointedly, crossing her arms over her chest in an unmistakable gesture of feminine pique.
Matt's brows pulled together in confusion, and he hissed at the explosion that involuntary action set off on the left side of his head, the
side that had connected with the butt end of a sawed-off shotgun. “Melanie?”
“You called out to her in your sleep, and now you can't remember even who she is?” Sarah clucked her tongue in disapproval. “Ingrid warned me all about you, Matt Thorne, you and your charming ways.”
She said “charming” as if it were on par with “homicidal.” Matt frowned at the thought that his lovely nurse might be as virtuous as her appearance suggested. That kind of attitude could take a lot of the fun out of his recuperation. With his good eye fixed on Sarah, he gingerly eased himself into a sitting position, leaning back against the headboard. This had to be Ingrid s idea of a practical joke—saddling him with an Amish nurse.
Sarah Troyer. His brain grudgingly gave forth another tidbit of memory. Ingrid had hired an Amish girl to cook and clean at her newly opened inn in southeastern Minnesota. And she had apparently forearmed the girl with tales of his reputation. As if he would actually ravish the innocent maid! As if he was in any condition to. He groaned a little as pain throbbed through him like a pulse.
“Speaking of Ingrid, maybe you should go get her,” he said, thinking he had a bone or two to pick with his sister.
First of all, she had been entirely too highhanded in suggesting the hospital release him
into her custody, as if he were a criminal with a history of jumping bail. And then she had carted him down to this rustic little backwater town, when he had a perfectly good condo in Minneapolis and any number of delightful female friends to see to his recovery. There was Nurse Newman and Carrie from radiology and that cute little lab tech—what was her name? Oh, yes, Melanie,
Melanie. His sigh of remembered contentment almost drowned out Sarah's tiny reply.
“She isn't here.”
“I'm sorry, what did you say?”
Sarah screwed up her courage. It was one thing to have the adventure of caring for an unconscious person and fantasizing a bit in the private theater of her imagination. Confronting the living, breathing, speaking,
man was another thing altogether.
The quilt had fallen precariously low as he'd propped himself up, leaving his upper body bare and hinting at the fact that if he wore any drawers at all, they were mighty brief indeed. Sarah jerked her gaze up from the edge of the blanket in an effort to avoid further speculation and almost groaned aloud at the sight of a firmly muscled chest dusted with black curls. Curls that whirled into a line and disappeared beneath the pristine white bandage that had been strapped around and around his
ribs to hold the cracked bones in place. And below that bandage was … Oh, dear.
“Ingrid isn't here,' she squeaked, her gaze darting all around the room in a desperate effort to keep from staring at Matt Thome's naked chest. “She's gone to Stillwater to deal with an emergency at the inn there.”
“When will she be back?” he asked, scratching his chest.
Sarah gulped hard. “D-d-days,” she stammered, her head swimming at the implications of her folly. What had she been thinking about, agreeing to stay in the same house with this man? Had she really thought he would remain obligingly asleep for the duration so that she would have to cope with only a figment of her imagination? She had never thought the conscious man would be so … compelling, so … undressed.
“Days,” Matt repeated. “What about John?”
She gave him a blank look. “John?”
“John Wood. Ingrids husband. You know. Tall guy, smokes a pipe.”
“Yes, of course I know John,” she said in a rush, the apples of her cheeks turning a delicious ripe red. “He is gone to California to do research for one of his travel books.”
A smile tugged at Matt's mouth as he realized his little nursemaid was nervous. His radar told him there was a strong signal of attraction here—both ways. It was obvious the
prim Miss Troyer didn't know how to deal with it. Her big indigo-blue eyes darted from side to side, up and down, lighting everywhere but on him. Her shyness delighted him and excited him in a way that seemed subtly different from anything he'd known before.
“Having trouble with your contact lenses?” he asked, amusement thrumming through his voice.
“What?” Sarah made the huge mistake of looking at him. He captured her gaze with the magnetic force of his dark eyes and held it.
“You seem to be having some trouble with your eyes.”
“My sight is fine,” she murmured. As a girl she had always longed for a pair of spectacles because they were the only kind of adornment an Amish girl was allowed. Now she wished for them for a different reason. She could have pulled them off and cleaned them and fiddled with the earpieces, busying her hands and giving herself an excuse to not look at Matt Thome.