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An Unexpected Sin
A Sins Of Salem Novel
By Sarah Ballance, Edited by Erin Molta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Sarah Ballance
All rights reserved.
Anne Scudder returned an errant strand of hair to her coif and peered through a stand of wildflowers. The heavily scented blooms tickled her nose with their late summer whimsy. "I do not see him," she whispered.
Prudence Abernathy parted the blooms, widening the view. "There. Passing along the boards," she said with hushed interest.
There, indeed. The midday sun feasted on the young man in question, now easily visible through the stems. His loose linen shirt clung to his back, outlining the rigid form of his muscles as he worked. Well-formed thighs challenged his breeches and left no doubt as to his physical prowess. Anne could not make out the color of his hair, for it was shadowed by the brim of his hat and likely darkened with sweat. As he worked, lifting and tossing lumber, she caught only a glimpse of his eyes.
And they seemed to fix on her.
"Oh!" Anne sat back, pulling Prudence alongside her and causing them both to tumble onto their backsides. The floral spray swayed back to its place, though assuredly not before he made observation.
Anne righted herself, and sure enough, another peek revealed his eyes square upon her. The affixation lasted but a moment before a shouted order turned his attention to his work.
"Who do you suppose he is?" Anne asked. Salem was a small village with few strangers, and though its most recent months had been spent in accusations of witchcraft, that dark veil seemed far from this day. Neighbor after neighbor had gathered to help in a house-raising for a young couple, newly married with a babe on the way. With every resident in assistance — and a few, such as Anne, visiting from neighboring towns — work would progress at such a rate the young couple would move in that very eve.
"Perhaps he visits from elsewhere in the province," said Prudence, echoing Anne's thoughts.
"He seems familiar. Do you suppose I might recognize him from town?" Though Anne had grown up in Salem Village, she had moved to adjacent Salem Town where her parents now operated an inn. Anne often traveled the road dividing the sparsely populated farming village from the bustling town, her loyalty split between her childhood home and the new life her parents had created after her brother's devastating accident.
Prudence slanted her eyes toward Anne. "You should approach. Ask him."
Anne shook her head. "I shall not be so forward!"
"There is nothing forward about asking that poor sweaty man if he would like a drink."
"He is sweaty because he works," Anne protested. "He does not need his labor interrupted by conversation."
"You object too readily," Prudence said, her eyes following his every move. "Besides, I see no other woman tending his needs."
"He should think me silly." But Anne's objections had indeed waned. She had not entertained such an immediate attraction to anyone since she was a young girl harboring affection for her older brother's closest friend. Now, the way her stomach fluttered seemed all too familiar.
"What is silly," Prudence said, "is not bringing a thirsty man a drink. Now go, lest I go in your place."
Anne blew an exasperated breath, but her protest ended there. Prudence had found a suitable prompt, for Anne had little doubt her friend would seek the man's affections herself if given the opportunity. She held the kind of confidence for which Anne could only wish. Indeed, the very idea of approaching him dizzied her, but she did not want to miss her chance, so she stood, weak-kneed, and waded through the stand of flowers. When she pushed past the last stem, she smoothed her skirts and wondered how one went about acting casually when all out of sorts. As it were, her attempts to relax only seemed to stiffen her spine, making each step more awkward than the last. The heat of embarrassment must be due to Prudence's attention, but when Anne took a cup from a refreshment station and turned toward the young man, she found his gaze raking goose bumps from her flesh.
Her step faltered. His attention was a profound caress. He stood a head above her, and with little distance between them she could make out tawny hints of color in his sweat-darkened hair. A light sheen glimmered over every exposed inch of tanned skin. Honey-brown eyes fixed on her, seeming to see too much. Anne subconsciously moistened her lips as she watched a drop of sweat travel from his neck to his chest. When the droplet disappeared into his shirt's fabric, she tore her gaze away. The heat rising to her cheeks rivaled that of the sun, but she forced herself to meet his eyes.
Warm and buttery brown, they settled on her without the slightest trace of the tremble which thoroughly shook her insides. When he smiled — a half crooked grin that sought balance in the slight tip of his head — she thrust forward the cup and fought the urge to flee. The drink sloshed on his hand.
A raised eyebrow accompanied his widened smile as he accepted her gift. "Thank you."
Such simple words, but the huskiness of his voice enthralled her.
He is only thirsty, she warned herself. But no amount of common sense could take from her the thrill of his appraisal. The slow walk of his gaze lit fire to her skin, leaving her exceedingly grateful for the skirts that hid her shaking legs, though the same could not be said for her heaving chest.
"Would you like a drink?" Did her voice waver? She studied him, but the search of his features revealed nothing.
He watched her even as he took a long swallow. When he lowered the cup, he wiped his brow with his forearm and then adjusted the hat he had knocked askew. Though the brim shadowed his face, the uneven heat that trailed over her skin suggested his burning appraisal. "I suspect I will be thirsty again later," he said. "Will I see you here?"
Several seconds passed before the weight of his words fully settled. "I — I will be here."
"In that case," he said, touching the brim of his hat, "I have yet another reason to enjoy my work."
The words hinted at dismissal, but he made no move toward the lumber piled at his feet. Rather, he stood in apparent oblivion to the activity rushing past them on both sides.
Anne found herself guilty of the same. The sun's intensity had grown curiously and the sky had deepened in its shade of blue, but just as surely as her senses heightened, the furious clamor of the house-building faded to a dull background murmur. A thousand questions tumbled through her mind, but none found their way to her lips.
"I will look for you," he said.
The words, an aching promise she felt as thoroughly as she did the earth beneath her feet, sent her insides into a happy skid. A niggle of familiarity insisted she knew this man from somewhere, piquing her curiosity and adding to her jumbled thoughts.
The attraction had to be mutual. He'd find her. Of that, she had no doubt.
"Until then." Anne backed two steps then turned and ran the rest, not caring how foolish she must look, for if she did not escape his lingering assessment she would surely combust.
* * *
Josiah Cromwell wiped his brow, nearly sighing with the relief of the cooler evening air against his skin. Never had a day of work passed as slowly as this one, so heavily fraught with anticipation of seeing Anne. He had adored her for nearly as many years as he could remember. When they were children, her brother had been his closest friend, and though those days had long past, the time had not erased his want of her — nor had it eased his worry. Had she forgiven him for the accident? Did she know of his guilt?
The questions, like his desire for her, had only grown with time.
Despite the many years past, Josiah had known Anne the moment she graced his line of vision. From that first moment he sought her, finding her in the crowd of neighbors before losing her again, his every thought consumed with how he might approach her. She granted him favor by coming to him, but she made no acknowledgment that she knew who he was, leaving him the difficult task of admitting his identity. Though their shared tragedy was many years behind them, he anticipated the reminder of his presence would be a painful one.
The last thing he wanted was to hurt her, but the risk was worth the chance to know her again ... whenever that opportunity might come.
By late evening, much of the work had dissolved into fellowship. The men talked and sipped their cups, the heavy tasks behind them. The women hurried about, adding meager comforts to the home and providing a meal to mark the end of a long, successful day. Though he received a number of offers, Josiah had no interest in the food.
He wanted Anne.
Finally he found her skirting the edge of the crowd. She kept company with the same vaguely familiar blond woman who had earlier hidden with her in the weeds. Though he was from Salem and the village remained much the same, he recognized few of its residents — in particular the younger ones, in whom the years had provoked the most change. But it was just as well, for he ardently hoped none of his former neighbors recognized him. With that prayer in mind, he waved to Anne and her friend, sending the blonde to a hasty exit — something he might have found amusing if not for the fast, disorienting cadence of his heart.
So many years were left to this moment.
Anne came to him, her eyes slightly downcast as she watched him through her lashes. "Good morrow," she said.
Her words were impossibly light and so terribly shy that they lifted a weight from his chest. She did not speak in the tone of a woman who held anger or distrust. Perhaps he had a chance, after all.
He cleared his throat. "Anne — "
She did not look through her lashes any longer. Now, she stared straight at him through brilliantly green eyes, wide with wonder. "You know my name?"
He tried to swallow, but his throat refused to cooperate. Her shock did not bode well for his hopes for forgiveness, or at least that her kindness indicated she had forgiven him. She had not yet realized who he was.
"I do," he said. "We were ... my name is Josiah Cromwell." The words hung thick in the air. A small piece of his pride would be crushed if she did not remember him, but to know him might crush her. He wanted nothing more than to protect her from the pain of the past, but eventually she would know. She had to know.
And perhaps she already did.
The fury of emotions storming Anne's face sent Josiah's stomach spinning. Anne must now remember him, for no empty recollection would account for such a reaction. But was that blame tumbling alongside the surprise, or was she just startled by his reappearance?
Try as he might, he could not ascertain whether she believed it was he who brought harm to her brother.
The silence wavered, as unsteady as the earth beneath his feet.
"Josiah," she finally said. His name was little more than a gentle breath. The fading sun lit fire to her features, turning a few escaped strands of hair to burnished gold that lent a sparkle to her eyes. A true forest green. He had not forgotten their hue, for the unusual intensity did not make for the kind of memory a man could easily evade. He had been but a lad at their last meeting, but man enough to hunger for her sensual curves and supple movements. Even then he had treasured every moment her deep emerald eyes had fixed upon him.
The confession hung on his lips, but he held back. He had not been in Salem a day and was far from caught up on the six years of talk he had missed. She might well belong to another, and no matter Josiah's chances with her, he would make no attempt to sway the affections of a woman already betrothed.
The silence stretched to awkward lengths. He cleared his throat. "It was kind of you to bring the drink. I am most grateful."
"Josiah." The fiery blush in her cheeks threatened to defeat the sun. "I cannot believe I did not know you!"
She was his best friend's little sister. Time had taken so much ... it was no wonder she knew him not, for Josiah was best forgotten. He forced a light tone. "Do you prefer to minister to strangers?"
"I —" She touched her mouth with her hand, the shock melting when he could no longer hide his grin.
"It has been a long while," he said. "And we were ... it has been a while." He fumbled his words, hesitant to remind her of their shared moments, for at no time had they not endured her brother's company. As much as Josiah would have loved back then to share a private moment with Anne, the impropriety of such a meeting would have surely led to severe punishment. So, he had coped in the only way possible — by teasing her mercilessly, then soothing her annoyance with kisses for which he risked life and limb. For if Anne did not seek to end him for his liberties, verily her brother would. All the while, Josiah had dreamed of the chance to truly indulge in her sweetness ... and something more. As a child, he could not put a name on what it was he wanted, but now he knew it to be passion. For her to long for him, no matter the cost. But fate had offered one cruel twist after another ... Had he missed his chance?
"Indeed, it has been a long while," she said. "Many years have passed."
He swallowed the nerves clogging his throat. He needed to ask her a question, but her answer might well put an end to desires that had spanned better than a decade. But better to know now. "Forgive me for being so forward," he said, "but have you taken a husband?"
Aside a slight tilt of her head, his question did not seem to take her off guard. "I have not."
Relief edged through him, though he had yet to secure her availability. Her parents were charged with the task of finding her a husband, and she was close to the age of matrimony. It was quite possible a match had already been made. He pressed on. "Has a marriage been arranged?"
To that, she laughed. The sound of her laughter burned its impression on his heart, for when he had left town, he believed he would never again hear her joy. Now he wanted to gather those pieces, to keep them in a place of hope.
"My father has not spoken of a match," she said, still smiling.
Her father. Another burnt ember of Josiah's past. He glanced over her shoulder where men moved simple furnishings into the home, many of which had been pieced together that very day. Bittersweet longing settled over him. His home — his family — had been taken from him. Would, too, his chance to start over?
Anne's response did not indicate whether she held an interest in anyone — just that her father had yet to arrange her marriage. Josiah did not ask her to elaborate. He would take these moments of conviviality — however few — and feast on their familiar warmth.
Still, though she did not seem angry, awkward expectation lay between them. "I have thought of you often," he said.
Her eyes glittered fiercely, hinting at unshed tears, but they did not rival the brilliance of her smile. Though it wobbled a bit, it was true.
He wanted to reach for her. To finally feel the warmth of her body against his, but he would have to live with the ghost of their past indiscretions. The years had not faded the forbidden sensations.
But for her, they surely had not faded the pain.
Her brother was dead, and the fault was Josiah's.
The past came flooding back to Anne as she stood with Josiah. And at such a pace, the present seemed pushed away by the turgid waters. Gone was the grown, utterly masculine Josiah. In his place was a gangly boy — tall, even at sixteen years of age — who had taunted and thrilled her young heart. He had provoked her endlessly, but in soft and gentle ways. Ways that had warmed her, made her feel things she could never fully admit. And now those old memories swirled relentlessly, the innocent longing of her girlhood now a trembling, untried need.
Josiah's hair, once a bright blond, was darker now, but his eyes were the same. She wondered how she had not known him at once, for she had spent many hours dreaming of having those eyes rest upon her with the very interest they now expressed. Could he really, after so many years, hold affection for her, or was it guilt that compelled his attention?
"I am surprised to see you again," she murmured. "After ..."
"Samuel's accident." The words hung heavily, thick and forlorn.
Anne's older brother, dead.
"I miss him every day." Just a girl of fourteen at the time, and the incident not spoken of since, Anne had never been privy to the details. All she knew was that one horrible day her brother was lost forever, and it was not until much later that it really hit her that Josiah was gone, as well. When she had finally surfaced above her grief, she had spent much time wondering what had become of him. But her questions were for naught, for she had not seen him in all the years since.
Excerpted from An Unexpected Sin by Sarah Ballance, Edited by Erin Molta. Copyright © 2014 Sarah Ballance. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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