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Frank Robertson leaned against the railing of the neat frame house and studied the door.The setting sun slanted across it, reminding him that he hadn't eaten yet and that he still had to find a place to sleep that night.
"Just one more," he promised himself. He was going to prove himself to the merchant whose wares he carried.When Frank had proposed going from town to town with a selection of items the man displayed in his general store, Mr. Samson had expressed nothing but skepticism. He'd finally agreed but only after requiring Frank to leave a security deposit,in addition to paying for each item he carried away from the dingy building.
Frank jingled the loose coins in his pocket and used his foot to shove the worn suitcase away from the doorway, scowling at the memory.His first reaction had been to deliver a pithy discourse on the man's antecedents and then slam out of the store. But he had hesitated. He was hungry, he was miles away from the next town and none of the other shopkeepers had listened to even the beginning of Frank's practiced spiel.
Taking a deep breath, he'd acquiesced to the old man's terms. Now he stood in front of the last house in the small village he'd trudged through during the long day. His sales had been successful, even better than he'd anticipated, but he was tired and ready for his dinner.The women he met were eager to invite him into their houses and browse through the things he pulled out of his case but they weren't prone to buying on impulse.
Of course, maybe they just wanted to visit with a handsome young man, he thought with a grin and a jaunty toss of his head.
While he knew that his technique was good, he wasn'tfoolish enough to think he'd sell a thing if he didn't present a polished appearance that appealed to the women who answered the door. After years on the road, he'd learned to cultivate his dashing good looks.The other salesmen he met teased him about the amount of time his grooming took but he didn't care. His sales record spoke for itself.
He smoothed down the gray suit that comprised his wardrobe and brushed his hands over his dark hair. Satisfied, he rapped on the door with his knuckles and let his lips curl upward in a slight smile as he waited.
When the door opened, his prepared greeting spilled out of his mind and landed in a heap at the feet of the young woman standing there.The late-afternoon sun glinted on hair as shiny as the sun itself. He stared at the sparkling curls escaping from the loose bun and dancing across her soft cheeks.
She tilted her head to one side and watched him, drying her hands on the apron tied around her narrow waist. Her arms were tanned and a dimple showed in each elbow."May I help you?"
Frank cleared his throat."III "
A dimple appeared in the smooth skin of one cheek,matching those on her rounded arms."If you're here to see the reverend, he isn't in right now."
Frank swallowed and forced himself to glance away from the bright sheen of her blue eyes. He lowered his gaze to her soft red lips, then wrenched it back to the relative safety of her eyes."I'm looking for the lady of the house," he managed in a more normal voice."Is she in?"
The lovely creature in front of him held the door open and took a step backward, her actions inviting him into the dark hallway beyond."I'll see.You can wait in here."
She ushered him into a dimly lit room. Some sort of workroom, he guessed from the sparse furniture. He wasn't offended. Salesmen weren't high on the social scale and while he knew that his scruples were as high or higher than any of the store owners he met, he accepted society's judgment for now. He wouldn't be a salesman forever.
As he waited for the lady of the house to join him, he wondered if he should start thinking about more serious work now, maybe a job that didn't require so much traveling. For the past five years, he'd lived on the road, leaving home when he was sixteen.Twice a year,he wired his mother and gave her his current address,waiting until she responded before moving on.Each time, she implored him to come home, at least for a visit, and each time he sent back a glib answer and most of his earnings.
The creak of the door interrupted his thoughts and he jumped to his feet, hat clutched in his hand. An older woman advanced into the room and Frank knew he was looking at the young woman's mother.The same blue eyes, creased now by age, glanced at him before again studying the floorboards. The golden hair was peppered with gray and the smile was tightlipped but he had no doubt. He'd just been bowled over by the minister's daughter.
He bit his lower lip at the irony.The other salesmen might find the virtuous daughter of a minister intriguing game but he'd always been more cautious, flirting only with women who couldn't go running home to papa. He didn't want to end up shackled to some woman just because he'd let his eyes and hands roam.
The reverend's wife offered him a chair and he sat down across from her. Her expression softened a bit when she smiled at him, and emboldened by that approval, he launched into his sales pitch, bringing out each item with a practiced hand. She nodded, listening carefully, before finally settling on several bolts of sturdy cloth.
He gathered up the rest of his merchandise and slid it back into his case.She pulled a small purse out of her pocket and slowly counted out the coins before handing the stack to him.
He nudged the coins with his thumb as he checked the amount."You've paid me too much."He held out several of them.
She shook her head, hiding her hands in her skirt as if he'd thrust the money at her. "No, keep it." She lifted her head and gave him a candid look."Perhaps you could use the extra to call your mother. I'm sure she must worry about you."
"She does. But I'm a grown man now." He bent down and picked up the half-empty case.
"You're never too grown-up for a mother's love," the woman said softly.
He was suddenly aware of the homey aromas around him.The fresh scent of lemon mingled with that of a stew, reminding him of long-ago days when he'd rush in the front door, calling for his mother. She would come out of the kitchen and throw her arms around him in a hug, asking about his day at school .
He brushed the memories aside. He was twenty-one, a man in every sense of the word. His hat still in his hand, he paused at the open doorway and bent at the waist, sweeping the woman a low bow."Thank you so much for your purchase," he said,"and for your advice," he couldn't resist adding.
She blinked at the implied criticism and he instantly felt sorry.
She'd only meant to be kind,he told himself,and quickly straightened,a contrite smile on his lips."Perhaps I will call Mom.I might even visit."
He was rewarded by a smile that took years from her worn face.Whistling, he tossed on his hat and headed down the steps, sparing only a brief thought for the lovely daughter who'd first opened the door.
Dusk had fallen while he was inside and he leaned his head back to take full advantage of the remaining sun.When he turned onto the road, he almost bumped into the slight figure that suddenly appeared in front of him.
"Quick, over here." She grabbed his hand and pulled him down the lane, into a clump of bushes. He stumbled over a fallen branch, landing ungracefully at her feet.
She giggled and sat down on the log. "Oh, I've never had a man literally fall at my feet before."
He didn't speak, his eyes wide as he gazed at her, trying to capture her image in his mind. In later years, he decided, he'd remember her like this. I'll tell my children and my grandchildren about the most beautiful woman I ever met. They won't believe me because they won't be able to see her like this, with the dusky light revealing her golden beauty.They wouldn't understand how her smile could be serene while her eyes twinkled. Light and darkness, innocence and mystery.
She dragged him away from his thoughts with an embarrassed laugh."I don't think you should look at me like that. I'm not sure it's proper."
He jumped up, his eyes wild. She was an innocent, a babe. He knew better than to be in a secluded setting with a young girl. He didn't even know her name.
She reached out and touched his fingers lightly. Her smile was gone and in her seriousness, she looked more beautiful than ever. "Please, sit back down. I shouldn't have said that. I'm sorry."
He wanted to take her in his arms until her eyes held their delicious sparkle again. He was surprised by the mixed feelings she aroused in him. He'd slept with his first woman only a week after leaving home,a neglected wife eager to fill her bed with any ablebodied man. He had listened to women moan about their men, holding those same women in the quiet of their houses, letting them ramble so he could reap the benefits of their sorrow.
But this was the first time he'd truly wanted to comfort, to protect a woman from whatever problems could cloud her life.
"They're probably worried about where you are," he finally said."You should go home."
The smile returned."So you can speak, after all. I thought you could since you're a salesman but I was beginning to wonder."
His own lips curved upward at her infectious tone."You should go home," he repeated as much for his own sake as for hers. But he sat down on the log next to her, careful to keep a safe distance between them. His fingers tingled with a desire to see if her skin felt as silky as it looked.
"No, it's all right."At his questioning glance, she grinned."My parents trust me and let me have my own way.The townspeople would tell you I'm a bit spoiled."
She leaned back. He was fascinated by her long, white neck exposed by the soft summer dress. Several loose curls danced around her face and her hands fluttered with each word.
"Have you ever heard of Abraham and Sarah?"
He frowned, trying to follow her lightning change of topic.
"I'm not from around here."
"They're in the Bible, silly," she said.
He dug in the dim recesses of his mind. Church on Sundays had been a regular part of his growing-up years, walking the few blocks with his mother and two sisters.Their dad always stayed home to read his paper in peace and quiet.
"An old couple who wanted a baby?" he ventured. She nodded. "My parents see themselves as Abraham and Sarah.They had decided it was God's will that they never have children.And then, just like Abraham and Sarah, they found out I was on the way."
"They must've been very excited."
"They were. Mother was sick a lot but they were so happy, she didn't care. She couldn't go anywhere with my father, even to church. She sewed clothes for me, lovely clothes for this precious baby she was expecting."
Frank watched the changing expressions on her face.She spoke about babies and birth as if they were the most natural things in the world. Maybe she's right, he thought, touched by her candor.
"And here you are," he breathed when she stopped, vowing to start praying again. If God could create a vision like the one sitting next to him
"I almost wasn't."
Frank caught her hand at that horrible possibility, staring at the sight of her delicate fingers against his much larger palm.She smiled at him and he was ensnared in the spell of her eyes. Sapphires, he told himself,even though he'd never seen the actual gems.Her eyes must look like sapphires. Bright blue rimmed with dark lashes.
She tugged her fingers out of his tight hold and folded her hands in her lap."My mother suffered complications just before I was born. She told the doctor and my father that if a choice had to be made between her and the baby, then the baby must live. Father argued with her but she wouldn't listen. Finally, he gave in, hoping a miracle would happen."
"And a miracle did." He felt his own faith rekindling at her simple story.
"That's what my parents believe. I still think it's because my father can speak to God so easily, or maybe God finds it easier to understand a minister's requests."
She laughed at his look of surprise, a throaty trill that spun cobwebs down his spine. "Oh, you mustn't mind what I say. Really,I do believe in God but living with people who praise God whenever you walk into a room can be tiring."
She wrapped her arms around her bent knees and rested her head on her arms, her face turned away from him.A delicate pink ear was visible among the disorder of her curls and he clutched his hands in his lap.When a light breeze brought the fresh scent of her soap to him, he closed his eyes. Help me, God, he prayed for the first time in years. She's too young, too innocent. She doesn't know what her mere presence does to a man.
He opened his eyes and saw her sitting up, watching him with a mixture of longing and worry.
"You won't go away, will you?"
I'm going right now. I'm catching the next train and riding as far away from you as I can.
But the words didn't form on his lips. Looking into her eyes, he knew he couldn't say them.
"Your parents won't let us meet," he said instead, both relief and regret in his tone.
She rose gracefully to her feet and smoothed down her skirt. "Don't worry about my parents. Come to church on Sunday and don't be late." She paused, studying his rumpled clothes."Do you have another suit?"
"Yes," he lied. Sunday. He had three days in which to buy another suit. If it cost every penny he'd just earned, he would arrive at the church in a new suit.
"Good." She started to walk away."Then come to the church by 8:00 a.m.The white church, not the brick one."
She was almost gone."Wait!" he shouted, running after her."I don't know your name."
"Marian," she called to him."Marian Cooper."
"Marian," he whispered, walking back to the log. He took off his jacket and rolled it into a pillow. His stomach growled but he pushed his hunger aside.A small price to pay to see her again. He curled up against the suddenly cool summer breeze and whispered her name over and over.
He spent the next three days knocking on doors in nearby towns.On Saturday he went back to the storekeeper whose wares he carried, received his pay, then asked about a suit.The old man was pleased with his profit and offered Frank a discount on a ready-made suit.He directed him to the tailor's house on the outskirts of town and by nightfall, Frank owned another outfit.
He slipped into an empty freight car and watched the stars through the open door.Sleep eluded him.One part of him hoped the feelings she'd aroused in him would be extinguished by the real presence of her, and another part wondered how he would live if she'd forgotten him or, worse, been toying with him.
What if she had only been using him to while away a few summer hours? What if she snubbed him when he arrived at the church, her adorable little nose in the air as she walked haughtily past him? He groaned and punched his bag into a pillow of sorts. He stretched out his long form and, resting his head on the crumpled bag, willed himself to sleep.
By the time the train pulled into the village of Winston, he was a bundle of nerves.Each time he'd drifted off,her face invaded his vision. He could see again the soft curve of her cheek, the gentle sweep of her lashes, the rosebud perfection of her lips. Clenching his teeth to stop another moan, he grabbed the small bag with a sweaty hand and swung himself down from the freight car.The train's whistle sounded in his ears as it chugged down the tracks, leaving him alone in the dark countryside.
He found an empty barn near the edge of town and crawled into a corner, his eyes heavy with exhaustion and his heart aching with worry. Stripping off his jacket and shoes, he lay down and closed his eyes, begging for at least a few hours' sleep to release him from his anxiety.
He was up with the dawn, only slightly rested from his hours in the barn. He gobbled down the sandwich he'd bought the day before and dressed carefully in the new suit.The tailor had assured him he looked extremely well-dressed; he hoped the little man was right. He dusted off his shoes with a handkerchief. Using a bit of broken glass he found in another corner of the barn for a reflection, he styled his hair carefully. Satisfied he looked his best, considering the facilities he had to use, he hid his bag under some dusty tools and headed down the road to town.
Winston,Missouri,woke up early on a Sunday.He could smell Sunday dinners already cooking. Children sat on porch swings, their hair brushed and pulled back from scrubbed faces.Their feet swung in shiny dress shoes.They waved at him and he waved back, his mood lightened by their friendliness.
As he neared the center of town, church bells rang out. People were filing into the brick church; remembering her directions, he joined the throng at the white frame church only a few steps from her home.
He chose a pew in the middle of the right side. He bent his head, unable to look around now that he was finally there. He chastised himself for being seven different kinds of fool for even being in the same village again.
Just as he'd decided to bolt out the door and run for the nearest train station, the organist started to play. Hymnbooks rustled, and his neighbor handed him her open book with a pleasant smile.He returned her smile,nodding in thanks,then froze as he saw Marian.
She was sitting across the aisle in the front pew with her mother.A dark-blue hat rested on top of her curls,enhancing their luminous glow. Her dress was in the same sedate blue and while the high collar hid her neck from sight, he could imagine its slender beauty under the protective material.
She stood with the rest of the congregation and shifted slightly. He got quietly to his feet,his eyes still on her face.A hint of a smile lifted the corner of her mouth and a moment later she was singing lustily.The blood rushed to his head and he could hardly breathe.