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Sharon Smith dropped into the Murdock pew, still haunted by an aching void of loss. The couple two rows in front of her occupied the place where'd she'd sat with her own husband the few brief years of their marriage. Since the accident, it hurt too much to sit in their spot.
Eyes closed, she let the comfort of the choir's opening hymn flow over her, and played back memories of the loving moments she'd shared with Tom. She recalled his gentle touch on her face, and lifted trembling fingers to stroke her own cheek. Once more, she felt the warmth of his arms around her.
She heard his shouts of laughter as he chased her across the fresh-cut lawn in the bright sunlight of summer. He'd catch her, cushioning her as they tumbled in the cool grass. Then, still locked together in a fever of passion, they'd stagger into the house, barely making it to the bed for lovemaking she still missed.
Sharon folded her arms tight against her sensitized breasts, unsettled by thoughts so inappropriate for worship.
"Tom," she murmured, tasting the sweetness of his name. In her mind, she reached once more to lay her fingers on his lips and ran into a faded image. God, his face had turned hazy, clouded. With a quick gulp, she swallowed her panic.
Relax, she told herself. Wait, it'll come.
Automatically, she rubbed a thumb over the ring Tom had slipped on her finger a lifetime ago in this quiet sanctuary. The comfort she sought eluded her. It had been four empty years without his touch. Four years without any man's touch.
"My soul was lost," the congregation sang, and Sharon whispered, "Lost." Beating back the threat of tears, she openedher eyes and clung to the words, "but you found me."
"This seat taken?" Without waiting for a reply, the stranger moved to take possession of the space beside her.
Jolted back to the present, Sharon looked up to give the newcomer a welcoming smile, but it froze on her lips. Something about him spelled danger. His black hair and icy blue eyes heightened the impression.
For a moment she felt like a mouse held captive by a hawk's compelling gaze. Should she freeze or run away?
Don't be silly, she told herself. We're in church. What can he do? Ravage you in front of God and the congregation? Feeling foolish and uneasy, she slid over.
He nodded to her and settled on the padded crimson seat as if it belonged to him. He exuded an air of success, enhanced by his well-tailored dark suit, gray cashmere scarf, and the black topcoat folded over one arm. Even his cologne smelled upscale, reminding her of pine trees in the snow with an under note of sandalwood.
Around them swelled the joyful opening hymn. Silently she offered to share her hymnal. Their fingers touched, and uneasy at the contact, she moved her hand to the edge of the cover. Still, she was acutely aware of him, his long, masculine fingers, his strong hands with a sprinkle of hair on the backs, his tall, fit body.
Uncomfortable with her thoughts, she forced herself to focus on the familiar chorus.
Beside her, the stranger stirred. Without looking at the page, his full, rich baritone rose, blending with her contralto.
Who was this man who exuded such power? She'd never seen him before. His expensive clothes and heavy gold signet ring showed he came from a world far different from hers. Different from Walkersville, for that matter.
Sharon mentally shrugged, turning her attention to the order of worship. When Pastor Warren dedicated the service to the memory of Cyrus Murdock, she had to bite her lip and try to think charitable thoughts about the departed tycoon. Beside her, the stranger muttered an oath. Why?
Through the songs, prayers, and Pastor's sermon, she felt the brooding presence of the dark-haired man next to her. It troubled her, made her wary.
They stood for the final prayer. At Pastor Warren's benediction, "Go in Peace," the mystery man beside her muttered, "Peace–what a joke."
An indefinable sadness for him filled her. She turned to speak to him, but he'd slipped out of the pew at the far end, shrugging into his topcoat as he went up the side aisle. Sharon walked up the center carpet to the vestibule. She saw him avoid the line of people waiting to talk to the Pastor and duck through a side door. Curious and drawn by an unaccountable interest, she stood at a window, watching him stride through new snow to his car.
Copyright © 2003 by Barbara Clark