Matt was surprised that he spotted Sarah before her parents did. She was wearing his favorite blue dress, so he had no trouble picking her out of the crowd. She stood off to one side near the wall, away from the rest of the friends and family members waiting outside customs. Their eyes met, and they grinned at one another.
Matt tried to remain patient as Lee and Amanda said their hellos. Finally he was able to wrap his arms around Sarah and touch his lips lightly to hers. He did not care who was watching, although he noticed when they broke the kiss that Lee and Amanda had discreetly turned away and stood blocking the view from the rest of the crowd.
"I missed you so much…"
"I missed you. I imagine you're dead on your feet…"
"I slept on the plane. I'm okay for now. I think your parents are pretty exhausted, though." He bent to whisper in her ear. "You wore my favorite dress."
Sarah smiled up at him, glad that he had noticed. She stepped forward and touched both of her parents' arms. "We should go to the car. I found a good spot."
As they walked, Sarah spoke. "I made dinner for everyone, if you want it later. I thought maybe you all would like to sleep for now…"
"That sounds perfect, Sweetheart. I'm more tired than hungry at the moment, but that might change in a few hours." Amanda took Sarah's hand, and they walked that way to the car.
After dropping off Lee and Amanda, Sarah took Matt to his apartment and helped pull his wheeled suitcase inside, while he carried the Agency equipment.
She moved toward the door after taking the suitcase to his bedroom. "I'll come back and get you at dinnertime? Or do you want to drive yourself?"
Matt quickly put a hand on her arm and looked into her eyes. "Please stay. I've missed you so much." Wanting to be sure she didn't misinterpret his meaning, he rushed to explain himself. "I can't sleep just yet, and I'd like to sit with you. We could talk and catch up. I hope you won't mind if I take a shower first, though. It's been a couple of days…"
"If you promise to let me help you with your laundry. You'll be too tired to want to do it later."
Matt chuckled. "I guess you're entitled to a little mothering. It's a good idea, anyway. Let's get it started before I take my shower."
Sarah was reading a magazine when Matt came back into the living room after his shower. He wore a t-shirt and jeans, and his feet were bare. He carried a bag with him.
Smiling, she placed the magazine back on the coffee table. "Feel better?"
"Yes. I got a haircut in Frankfurt, and my neck was itching."
He sat beside her on the couch, and she reached up to smooth his damp hair. "It looks nice."
He closed his eyes at her touch. Just as she had that one night a few weeks earlier, she surprised him with a kiss on the lips. He caressed her hair, and then stopped, remembering the bag. "I brought you a few things."
"Oh, you didn't need to do that."
"I wanted to. Remember how I told you we visited the Green Bazaar? Two of the gifts are from there. The other is from the cathedral." He opened the bag and handed her the items, one at time. He saved the vest for last.
"Oh, it's beautiful. I've only seen photos of these." Sarah got up to try on the midnight blue velvet garment. The embroidered beads glinted and sparkled under the glow from the recessed lights above them. "This is one of the shorter ones, for young, unmarried women."
"Your dad picked out a longer one for your mom." Matt watched as Sarah went to the bathroom to look at herself in the mirror. Soon she came back to the couch. She carefully removed the vest and placed it back in the bag with her other gifts. "Thank you, Matt. It was so thoughtful of you to get these gifts for me. They'll have special meaning, not just because I know where they came from and how they were made, but because you picked them out for me."
Sarah went to sit on the couch again, but Matt pulled her onto his lap. "You make that vest look beautiful."
"Oh, you like to flatter a girl." She laughed softly.
He watched her lips for a minute and drew her against him. They embraced and shared several kisses. Matt stroked Sarah's hair as he held her close. "I was hoping we might sit like this." He sighed heavily.
Sarah tucked her head under Matt's chin and leaned up against his chest for several minutes. She could feel him relaxing, and pulled away again to see his face. His eyes were closed.
She spoke softly. "Why don't you take a nap?"
He spoke with his eyes closed. "You didn't come here to watch me sleep."
Sarah smiled. I can't think of anything I'd rather do at the moment. "I wouldn't mind a bit."
Matt sighed again, and Sarah slid off of his lap and moved to the chair. He lay down on the couch, putting a throw pillow under his head. Soon he was fast asleep.
Two hours later Matt awoke with a start. He had been dreaming about the operation at the Cosmodrome, and at first he did not recognize his surroundings.
Having finished the laundry, Sarah was once again curled up in the chair, watching him, her expression unreadable. He sat up groggily and looked over at her. He didn't say anything, surprised by her aloofness.
Sarah finally broke the silence. "Who is Yana?"
Matt looked at Sarah sharply, alarmed at her tone. I was talking in my sleep. What did I say to hurt her?
"She was one of the people we worked with in Kazakhstan."
"It didn't sound like you just worked together."
Matt watched her face. He thought her lower lip quivered briefly. "What did I say in my sleep?"
Sarah got up. "It doesn't matter." Her voice was flat. She gestured to his bedroom. "I hung up your dress shirts and folded your jeans and t-shirts. I left the rest for you. I think we should get back to my parents' house for dinner, if you still want to come."
"Thank you for finishing my laundry. I'm sorry you were stuck with that job." Matt rose to his feet and stood in front of Sarah, blocking her path. "Sarah, what did I say? I've hurt you."
Not looking him in the face, she moved to go around him. He grabbed her gently by the arms to stop her. "Please, talk to me." He was pleading now.
Sarah thought to resist him, but his tone stopped her. Staring at him a moment, she relented. "You kind of mumbled some things about Yana. Then you were saying Alexei would be jealous—it was kind of garbled—and that you didn't care if he saw you and her…" She faltered, "I'm not sure what you and she would be doing, but it was the way you said it."
Matt tipped her chin up so he could see in her eyes. They were glistening with unshed tears. "Sarah, nothing happened between us. I would never hurt you like that. Yana approached me, and my job was to try to get information from her. I held her hand, but nothing more."
Sarah's expression wavered a little, but her posture remained stiff. "Who's Alexei?"
"He is her fiancé. At one point, I had to pretend to make him jealous so we could cause a distraction."
Sarah watched Matt's face. She wanted to believe him. "It was hard thinking you had spoken to her the way you do to me when we're… well, like this afternoon on the couch."
Matt knew that Lee had warned him about saying too much, but he knew Sarah needed honest answers. "Yana was using me, and I was using her. It was a game of getting information. She had no intention of betraying her fiancé, and I had no intention of betraying you. In fact, she managed to get me quite sick by putting something in my food."
"You were sick? Are you okay? When did this happen?" Sarah was grasping Matt's arms now. He moved closer so he could embrace her. He noticed that she did not move away.
"I'm fine. It was the first week. There was an excellent doctor. I even called you the next morning."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I thought you would worry. By the time I knew what was going on, the crisis was over, anyway." Matt looked Sarah in the eyes. "Please forgive me for upsetting you. The last thing I ever wanted was for you to be hurt in any way. I was not happy about the whole arrangement—in fact, your father and I had an argument about it."
"Sarah, I think he didn't expect anything to happen. We were desperate to make contact with these people. I had hoped your mother would talk to Yana." He frowned. "But I got stuck with the job."
"I'm not sure I understand everything that happened, and I don't expect you to explain it all, but I believe you."
"I'm so sorry…" Matt pulled Sarah against him and kissed her hair. She relaxed in his arms and he sighed with relief.
"I forgive you. …Although I'm not ready to forgive my father. He's such a diehard spy. I've heard a lot of stories. He needs to remember things are different now."
"He's still very much up on his game, Sarah. He and your mom make a great team. I may have questioned his methods that one time, but he knows what he's doing. We did have that one fight, but we're getting along pretty well now. He shared some stories with me and he even watched a movie with me the night we left."
"Really? Daddy? He really must like you, Matt. He never… Well, let's just say he doesn't open up to people easily." Daddy never talked with Jeff that way.
Matt chuckled. "Am I that hard to like?"
"Oh, you know what I mean." She leaned back so she could see his face. "I think anyone would be crazy not to like you, Matt."
"I hope you still like me…" Matt was only half-kidding.
Sarah watched his face. "I very much like you, Matt." She reached up to put her arms around his neck, and he leaned down to kiss her.
She jumped when her phone rang on the table behind her. Matt pulled away to let her answer it.
"Yes, Mom. We'll be over in a little bit. …That's right. Thanks for putting it in the oven for me. See you soon. …Love you, too."
"I guess that means we should go." Matt went to his bedroom to grab his keys and a pair of shoes. He placed his hand on her back to guide her to the door, but Sarah took his hand to stop him. He was concerned by the troubled look on her face. Oh, please let her forget about Yana…
"Please wait, Matt. Something happened while you were gone—I need to tell you about it before you hear at the Agency. I don't want to talk to my parents about it until tomorrow, when they are more rested."
Matt's eyebrows furrowed. "Rene said that the men who followed us had left D.C. He said they managed to evade a slew of agents and get on a private jet. That's why he wasn't with you at the airport…"
"He didn't tell you how they arrested one of the men?"
Matt was suddenly tense. "It looks like I've been kept in the dark, too. Please tell me you weren't involved."
Sarah took Matt's hands and led him to the couch. "They followed me to the Metro stop one night, but I got away."
Oh, God. They followed you? Matt started to say something, but stopped himself. He could see that Sarah needed to get everything off her chest.
"We didn't see them after that. By Sunday, Rene was tired, and I was sick of having people watching my every move—they even went to the grocery store for me, and it wasn't just for food—that was embarrassing."
Matt looked confused for a moment, but at Sarah's look he clued in. "Oh yeah. I understand."
"At least it was Agent Tanaka—she was nice about it. Well, the next morning, I snuck away and went to church. Cheryl came up to me during the service and pointed out that two men from the cartel had followed me into the sanctuary."
"Whoa, stop there. You got away from the agents—well, I'm not surprised, actually—and two of the cartel followed you? Sarah, do you realize how dangerous that was?" Matt turned away to collect himself.
Sarah looked down and spoke so softly that Matt could barely hear her. She continued to grip his hands. "There were five men. Two cars and a van."
Oh God. Matt forced himself to remain silent, but it was difficult. He held her hands tightly.
"They chased us northwest through Chantilly until I forced them off the road. By then, the Agency had caught up with us and went after the men."
"You forced them off the road?"
Looking up, she spoke louder this time. "The driver is the one they have in custody. Francine and Phillip made a big deal about it. Phillip wants to show you and my parents the footage from the helicopter. Jamie is kind of mad at him about how he's gotten so excited over this. Jamie came out to get us, since my car was a mess. I am praying Daddy doesn't go in the garage…"
"Your car? Did they hit you? Were you hurt?" Matt was trying to keep his voice even, but it was a losing battle.
"They side-swiped me before I forced them off the road. Matt, I'm sorry that I ran off like that. I know you did your best to get me protection. Francine did her best to help Rene. I blew it."
"Oh Sarah. It wasn't your fault. I'm so sorry I wasn't there for you. You could have been killed. Thank God you're all right."
Sarah could hear the catch in his voice. She looked in his eyes. They were moist with unshed tears. "You couldn't help it, Matt. I'm here. I'm okay. You're here. You're okay." She put her arms around him again and rested her head against his chest. As he held her tightly to him, she could feel him shaking slightly. Finally, she ventured, "You just said it wasn't my fault, but it isn't yours either. Please don't take this on yourself, Matt."
Matt sniffed before responding. "It's my fault they knew about you. I wasn't careful enough. I saw them following us when we went to see the horses that day."
She ran her hand over his back, trying to sooth him. "I've grown up with this, Matt. I knew when you first asked me to lunch almost three months ago that something like this might happen at some point, but I thought you were worth it."
"I don't know what I ever did to deserve you." Matt kissed her hair.
"I feel the same way about you."
Matt pulled back to look Sarah in the face. "I love you so much. I'm so glad you're safe."
At the words, Sarah's face crumpled. The tension she'd felt after the car chase was finally released. Tears ran down her cheeks. Overwhelmed by the intensity of her feelings, she could hardly respond. Oh, he really does love me, too. The words came out in a whisper. "I love you, too. So much…"
Matt caressed her face and wiped the tears away. "I don't know what I'd do if something happened to you."
Matt interrupted her with a kiss and held her tightly to him. They stood like that for several minutes, grateful for the comfort of one another's arms.
Sarah finally pulled out of the embrace, dabbed at her eyes with a tissue, and squared her shoulders. "Well, I think I've cried enough for one day. We really should get over to my parents' house. We need to eat before you all crash again."
Matt smiled at her resolve and followed her out of the apartment, his hand on the small of her back.
Matt and Sarah walked out the back door of the house on Maplewood. The air had only a slight chill, although the feel of autumn was in the air. Moonlight filtered through the trees, but the backyard was dark beyond the patio. Once away from the house, he reached for her hand and guided her to the shadows of the gazebo. They stood together there, holding hands. In the faint light, Matt could see Sarah's luminescent eyes watching his face. He thought of their reunion at the apartment. Things would be a bit different in their relationship now that they had admitted they loved one another. It was wonderful to hold her—fall asleep with her in his arms—but he was not sure that they were ready for more. Reaching up to lightly caress her face, he bent his head and brought his lips to hers in a lingering kiss before pulling her to him in an embrace. Sarah sighed softly. He loved that sound, saved for their most affectionate moments. He brushed his lips through her hair and lightly stroked her back before kissing her again, more intensely this time. After a several more kisses, he finally pulled away. "I should go before your parents think I have gone upstairs with you."
"They would understand."
"I don't want them to think that about us. At least not yet."
"Matt, I should tell you…"
"Shh." Matt kissed her forehead. "It doesn't matter to me if you've been with someone else."
Sarah pulled away and took a few steps to put some distance between them so she could gather the courage to continue. She could not tell Matt that Jeff had always felt slighted that she would not go to bed with him—although Jeff had little experience in that department himself.
"But, you don't understand. I never was with Jeff—or anyone else—in that way." She looked down, embarrassed.
Matt felt a thrill course through his veins. He marveled for a moment at that news, and then closed the distance between them again. He tipped her chin up with his finger so he could look in her eyes. "Oh Sarah. That's nothing to be embarrassed about. In fact, that news makes me incredibly happy. Neither have I. I guess we can both wait until the right time if we've made it this far." Matt wondered how hard that might be. A few moments ago he had been tempted once again by just her kisses. Her soft lips on his... He thought of that time on the couch in the den when he had briefly considered making love to her.
Sarah could see Matt smile softly at her. "You really have never been with a girl? You're so…" Sarah suddenly felt shy. You're the most amazing looking man I've ever known. "You're so handsome. I guess I figured you'd probably dated a lot and things happened. You're twenty-five."
"I've never dated anyone seriously. When I was young, all of us in the youth group from church just did things together. I was pretty skinny for most of college, until I started working out. After that, I was too driven to think about women—well, much."
"You know, I didn't expect to ever meet anyone else who'd waited, too. This is pretty wonderful." Sarah searched Matt's face. In the dark, she could not read his expression, but she remembered how she had felt that time in her parents' den. The way he had caressed her. He was always so gentle when he touched her. She spoke shyly. "I hope you aren't disappointed about this… I love you so much, Matt. I just have always thought…"
"You'd wait until marriage?"
Sarah's voice was so quiet Matt could barely hear her. "Yes."
"I love you, Sarah. You are so beautiful—I love holding you and kissing you—and touching you. But I care for you for much more than physical reasons. I can wait...we should wait." He chuckled a little. "Although it won't be easy." He kissed her on the forehead and pulled away, taking her hand so he could lead her to the apartment stairs. "I will say good night here. I'll see you at seven-thirty for our run—although I may not be able to keep up with you on that trail this time. I wasn't able to work out much on the trip."
Sarah's eyes twinkled at him in the moonlight. "Maybe I can cut my pace just a little for you." She looked down at their joined hands, then back up at his face. "I'll make us some breakfast afterwards."
He pulled her hand to his lips. "I'd like that."
"Good night, Matt. Thank you for understanding—and for talking with me about it."
"Like I've said before, you're worth it. And don't ever be afraid to talk with me. I care for you very much, Sarah Stetson."
Flustered and shy once again, Sarah smiled and started up the stairs. Then she turned around and came back to the bottom step, where Matt leaned on the railing. She reached over and kissed him on the cheek.
"I care for you very much, too, Matt Granger."
Grinning, he watched her go up the stairs and into her apartment.