Chapter Two

Demons from the wretched fortress of hell had returned. Spotsylvania. Chaos reigned. The air cracked with cannon volley and the whiz of musket fire howled like banshees along their corridors of death.

The desperate voice of a Union officer echoed overhead. "Get your sorry asses out from behind those fieldworks and make something happen."

Gavin stumbled from the pit with a thousand recruits, blinded by thick, dense smoke. Horses screamed and dying men littered the ground. Sabers flashed beneath a pitiless sun, metal against metal. Resigned to death under the crimson ribbons of scarlet, he forged onward. He'd never seen such carnage. The sounds of skulls splitting, and humans searching the ground for lost limbs while crying out for their mothers echoed in his ears. Above the scene of terror, hung a black shroud of smoke and higher still, a lurid, angry sun.

Gavin raised his rifle, fired, and cut the Reb down. He ran to the man, intent on taking the boots from his lifeless body. Dropping to his knees beside him, the enemy's hand touched his arm. Startled, Gavin withdrew it. Pink foam oozed from the Reb's mouth when he spoke, his voice eerily familiar. Clutching his hands to his head, Gavin's world spun. Please God, not, him, don't let it be him.

A doctor hovered over Gavin, blocking his view of the white canvas ceiling. "You're safe now, son. A Reb's bullet grazed your temple, missed spilling your brains by an inch."

How he wished the shot had killed him. "Too bad, that."

"I'm going to discharge you in a few days. Go home, son, forget this God-awful war."

Forget this God-awful war . . . forget . . . forget.

Gavin emerged slowly from the nightmare, the buzz in his head louder than a hundred angry hornets. He had to find his trousers, his worn-out Union army britches. And what in hell had happened to his haversack? He placed the letter inside right after Jesse's blood-soaked hand delivered it to him. Oh, God, what would he tell Sophia? How could he tell her Jesse died mere miles from his childhood home? He tried to picture it in his mind. Her green eyes would darken with pain and the full, cherry lips would tremble with grief. Bewilderment would transform her lovely features, replaced moments later with hatred. He couldn't blame her.

Nothing could be done for it now. He had to tell her, and then he'd put a gun to his head; finish the job the Rebs had started. He'd walked over fifty miles to bring her the devastating news, one agonizing step at a time. He must give her the letter from Jesse.

Voices came to Gavin's lethargic brain through a waterfall. Disabling chills, hunted down by a fiery heat drenched his body in sweat, yet somewhere in the dark recesses of his mind he saw Sophia rise from the porch, aim a rifle at his chest, and fire.

She shot him?

How could she possibly know he'd killed Jesse?

The fragrance of her skin wafted around him and gentle hands sponged his forehead, neck and chest. "Live, Gavin, live." Her sweet breath whispered over him like a summer breeze. How hard it was to open his eyes. If he could only see her, know she was real, he'd fight.

Gavin struggled to lift his head while moonbeams danced across the floorboards. A white-hot pain tore through his chest and shot into his brain. Dead weight across his leg added to his discomfort. He moved his head and looked for the culprit. "Ricochet," he mumbled, rewarded by a vigorous shake from the hound's tail.

On a rocking chair next to the bed sat a woman. Her chin rested on her chest and her long black lashes brushed against her flawless skin. Ah, Sophia. His lungs struggled for air, whether from pain or the sight of her, he wasn't certain.

He'd been dreaming about the surgeon standing over him. Bitterness stuck in his throat thicker than congealed cornmeal. What did generals or surgeons care about loss of life? Every man who had died, Reb or bluecoat, left loved ones behind, family and sweethearts. Like Jesse. Christ, why couldn't he have been the one who died? It should be Jesse lying in her bed, benefactor of that exquisite touch, recipient of her bewitching smile, content knowing one day he'd rise from his invalid state to spend an eternity of bliss with her.

As if his thoughts could summon Sophia, she opened her eyes. And what beautiful eyes they were. Slanted upward at the corners, expressive, and way too large for her face, they shone brighter than precious gems. Neatly arched brows topped her small nose, full cherry lips, and cut-glass cheekbones. Dark hair, sleek and shiny, spilled down her back like a thick veil of satin.

Jarred into action, she scurried from the chair and hovered over him. "Gavin, it's me, Sophia."

The angel of my dreams.

"How bad is the pain? Oh, Gavin, I have a terrible confession to make."

So do I.

"Please, speak to me." She gave a tremulous smile. "You're at Arbor Rose. You came down the hill and I forgot you were one of them. I would never have fired had I known."

He wanted to speak, but mesmerized by her beauty and presence, the words stuck in his throat.


"Yes, Sophia, I remember," he finally managed. "I should have called out when you rose from the porch."

"Tell me you forgive me." She lowered herself to the bed, all hair, lips, and eyes, no longer a girl, but an exquisite, sensual woman. Lifting the dressing to take a peek, her nose wrinkled and then she looked into his eyes.

"What's the verdict?"

"Angry, but no odious stench." The smile revealed her relief. "I think it's a good sign."

"The bullet?"

She plucked a cartridge from the nightstand and held it in the air. "Daddy Brister found it on the ground beneath you."

One would normally be grateful a slug passed clean through, but when one covets death, the fate of a spent cartridge holds little significance.

She placed a hand to his cheek. "Am I forgiven?"

His breath came fast. She didn't know, had no inkling what her touch did to him, had done to him since he was thirteen and she ten. He'd sell his soul to Satan, risk his life in a thousand battles for her touch, her smile, or one look. Struck mute, he could only nod.

"Ol' Nap says you won't be up and about for a week, so please don't try to wheedle an early reprieve from me. I'll fight tooth and nail to keep you on your back in that bed."

I'd surrender my soul to keep you on your back, that supple, slender body writhing beneath me.

"Gavin, are you listening to me?"

Another nod.

"Are you hungry? I made soup."

"I could eat, yes, and I need to use the―"

"Privy?" She rose to fetch the chamber pot and placed it on the bed, in the exact spot her delectable body sat moments ago. "This is the only privy you're going to see for days."

"What do you plan to do, Sophia, mollycoddle me for a month?"

A heart-stopping smile parted her lips and revealed a set of straight, white teeth. "I'll do whatever I must until I'm sure you're fit to walk without falling down."

"Is that a promise, do whatever it takes?"

She scurried toward the door. "There's the old Gavin I remember."


She pivoted around to face him.

"Where is everyone, your mother. . ."

Pain, intense and sudden, crossed her features. "That's right, you wouldn't—couldn't know. They're dead. Rolf too. The slaves revolted at Whitfield Manor a year ago. There was a fire." Tears filled her eyes. "Ol' Nap said we lost everything."

She didn't look away but he knew she struggled to hold back tears. "Hell, I'm sorry, Sophia, so sorry."

Quicker than the pain came, it left. "I'll be back soon with the soup."

He lifted the sheet. "Where are my clothes, boots and trousers?"

She pinched her nose. "Burned."

"But I have no others."

"Hmm," she countered, looking triumphant. "I'll have to scrounge something up, but not until you're fit to get out of bed." She looked over her shoulder on her way out and flashed him another brilliant smile.

Pondering Sophia's many tantalizing attributes, assets that hadn't waned with the passage of time or ravages of war, he wondered if she'd seen him buck naked in her bed. On more than one occasion, Sophia's curiosity had surrendered to practicality and forbearance. He doubted the ravages of war had altered that. A frown creased his brow. He'd have to tell her about Jesse when she returned with the soup. To dance around it, forestall what he knew he must do, regardless of her hateful recriminations, would only make it worse. For his sake and for hers, he had to tell her, the sooner the better.

A familiar voice from the doorway rang out. "Massah Gavin, I sure is happy to see you, and lookin' fitter than a fiddle."

"Ol' Nap," he said, weak-voiced. "I hoped you'd still be here."

"Yes, sir, I's still here." He hung his head. "But the other lazy darkies done took off when things turned for the Rebs. They killed Massah Rueben and Mistress Ellen, burnt the manor down while they slept. Massah Rolf, he try to save them, run back into the house, but he never come out again." Ol' Nap clucked his cheek.

"Yes, Sophia told me."

"Is you stayin' Massah Gavin? Miss Sophia gots her hands full with Mule Cooper."

"Cooper, what business does he have with Sophia?"

"He wants her to marry that black-hearted son of his, Billy, so they own Arbor Rose."

"Billy?" Images of a gangly youth with poor eyesight tugged at Gavin's memory. The boy's father, Mule, was everything the son wasn't—strong, mean, and always itching for a fight. Gavin could never fathom why Sophia's father, Reuben, hired Mule Cooper to oversee the slaves. Brutal, and heavy-handed with the whip, many were laid up for days by the time Cooper finished with them.

"Marry Billy? She's promised to Jesse."

"Yassuh, but she ain't heard from Massah Jesse in a month of―"

Sophia glided into the room with a tray. "Are you airing Arbor Rose's dirty laundry in front of Gavin? He has his own problems to deal with."

If you only knew.

Sophia motioned for Ol' Nap to lift Gavin into a sitting position and placed the tray in his lap. "Here you go, prince of my childhood."

"I best be going now, Massah Gavin. I stop in later an' check on ya."

Gavin bid Ol' Nap goodbye and watched Sophia pull the chair up to the bed. She dipped the spoon into the bowl of broth and brought it to his lips. She closed her eyes. "I saw Jesse after the battle of Spotsylvania."

He choked on the soup.

She rose and whacked him on the back, sending a shooting pain into his brain again. "Is the soup too hot?" Her arms fell to her sides. "Oh, what I dunce I am. Now I've gone and hurt you again."

"No, it's all right." He grimaced. "It isn't too hot, but I'm not hungry now. What have you got for pain?"

She lifted the tray from his lap and reached for a brown bottle on the bureau. "Laudanum."

Their fingers touched and a hot tingling spread through his hand. He placed the medicine to his lips, gulped and studied her over the bottle. His throat constricted when her eyes turned dark. So, she'd felt the jolt too.

"You shouldn't gulp it, Gavin."

"Why in hell not?" he bit out sarcastically. "And where's my haversack, Sophia?"

She pointed to the floor near the rocker. "There."

Apparently, she hadn't rifled through it and found Jesse's letter. "I need a drink. Rum, brandy, whatever you have."

She stretched her arm toward the dresser again and picked up another bottle. "Father's liquor cabinet is empty but Ol' Nap managed to scrounge up several bottles of molasses rum hidden by the slaves."

He cupped his hand and moved his fingers toward his palm. "Give it up, Sophia. There's no telling what curse words might find your innocent ears if I don't deliver myself into a stupor to ease the pain."

Passing it to him, a scowl creased her brow. "It's not a good idea after taking the bitters." With a cocky air she continued, "And for your information, epithets from Blackbeard's crew couldn't bring a blush to my cheeks now."

He took a long drink and studied her over the upturned bottle. He tried to imagine what she'd seen and heard in the last three years and it devastated him to think about it. Somehow, he had to bring the conversation around to what happened to Jesse. "You said you saw Jesse after the Battle of Spotsylvania―"

"I didn't actually see him in the flesh, but my dream seemed so real." She lifted her chin so that her face caught a shaft of reflected light and made her jade-spoked eyes glow. A humming sigh left her lips. "I had the dream again last night. Jesse came back like he promised." Her mouth took on a frown. "Ghostly pale and oh so gaunt." She paused for a moment and whispered, "He stayed the night."

Christ, is she going to dole out the intimate details?

"In the morning, Jesse and I stood near the front gate and the strangest thing happened."

"Do tell."

"A star fell from the sky." The green eyes widened. "Remember when we laid in the fields and watched the stars tumble from the sky?"

He nodded. "You pretended we lived in the Land of Falling Stars."

A wistful look captured her gorgeous face. "The Land of Falling Stars, yes."

A fresh shot of torment tore through him. "Tell me the rest of the dream."

"Jesse stared at me for the longest time." She looked toward the window with a shiver. "Then he kissed me and vanished like the fog."

She straightened her body and turned to him. A deadly stillness came to the room and he wondered if she drew breath or like him, held it.

"I'm sorry," she said long moments later. "Here I am carrying on, and you're no doubt bored to death with my schoolgirl dreams."

He didn't want to tell her, not while she sat so close to him, yet the perfect opportunity had arisen. If he told her Jesse wasn't coming back because he'd shot him, she'd never speak to him or look at him again. He needed to savor this moment. Stronger than it had ever been, her distinct scent filled his nostrils, a mixture of wisteria blossoms and pure female.

Speaking again, she asked, "Gavin, what do you think the dream meant?"

"I don't know, Sophia, but you said Jesse kissed you."

With her eyes half-closed, she nodded. "Well yes, he did, in my dream."

"What about in real life? Did Jesse ever kiss you?"

A blush crept up her neck. "Once or twice."

"What did you think of the kiss?"

"Well." She lowered her head and the nearby lantern illuminated her long, silky veil of hair, hair most women would kill for. "I've little to compare it with, but it made me tingle inside."

"Is that all?"

Her head came up. "Should I have felt more?"

"It's different for everyone, depends on the attraction between the man and the woman." He took another swig of the rum and wished he could down the whole damn thing, forget about Sophia Whitfield, and wipe Jesse from his mind.

"Gavin, in my dream, Jesse and I," she paused. "You know. And I'm wondering…." The flush expanded, leaving two red spots on her pale cheeks. "I guess I'll have to wait until we're married to find out."

"What if he never comes back?"

Her eyes misted over. "I don't allow myself to think about that." She shuddered. "There's no one left Mother, Father, Rolf, all gone now, and Arbor Rose is in shambles."

"What about Jesse's parents, how are they?"

Sympathy flickered through her eyes. "Laurel and Gaines called last week, stopped in to see how we were faring." Another pause. "Laurel's entirely gray now, not a streak of brown in her hair, and Gaines has aged ten years."

Gavin noticed how slender her hands were when she clenched them, almost translucent with tiny blue veins. I'm sick. Sick, sick, sick, and she's the disease I can't rid my body of.

"They haven't heard from Jesse in months. Laurel says that's the most difficult of all, not knowing where he is, whether he's been wounded or worse." Her face took on a contemplative gaze. "Penelope is still naïve. She arrived with her parents in an old soirée gown, the one she wore for her first coming out. Why," Sophia's eyes widened, "one would think she lives in a bubble. She refuses to accept that everything has changed since Burnside's men stormed Fredericksburg." Adept at changing the subject, she did. "When you're well enough to get out of bed, I've something to show you." Her eyes took on a militant gleam. "Dirty Yankees came after they left Fredericksburg, stole Papa's and Mama's possessions." Slapping a hand over her mouth, she said, "I'm sorry, I keep forgetting you're―"

"A Yankee."

Flashbacks of Penny, a lithesome blonde with heavy, ripe breasts broke his concentration. He was in the barn, waiting on Jesse and Sophia when Jesse's older sister walked in with a come-hither look in her blue eyes. The next thing he knew, her arms were around him, her ripe body hot and willing. In a moment of youthful passion, he succumbed to her fervent kisses and long-restrained desire for him. His hand slipped down the front of her dress to tweak her pert nipples. About to shove her dress up and seek her moist sex, he heard a gasp.

And not from Penny.

With Penny's lips still locked on his, he looked up to find Sophia in the hayloft above them. She seemed perfectly content to watch the scene unfold with her eyebrows in her hairline. "Sophia!" he'd said between feverish moans from Penny. "Get the hell outta here!" Realizing they had an audience, the eager young woman in his arms withdrew her hands from his body and her lips from his mouth, much to his dismay. Penny let loose a string of oaths and suggested Sophia sign on as a spy for the Confederacy. Jesse's sister stormed from the barn amid Sophia's outburst of laughter. By the time Gavin scrambled up the ladder to wring her neck, Sophia had jumped to the floor and fled out the door. They'd never spoken of it, but whenever Penny came around, a strange expression crossed Sophia's features.

Sophia's voice brought him back to the present. "Gavin, do you remember the time―"

"You weren't minding your own business and decided mine fascinated you more?"

A smile found her. "I wanted to clear my throat or something, but I knew by the look on her face we were on the verge of something momentous, and I wanted to watch―"

"People rutting, right, Sophia?"

"Did you ever, well, you know, with Penny?"

"That is none of your business."

"She asks about you every time they come for a visit and a far-off look comes over her pie-shaped face." Leaning forward, her eyes narrowed. "Oh, how I'd love to tell her it's time to stop mooning over you and find herself a husband before she's a withered up old spinster."

Her expression forewarned of more commentary, and he rather enjoyed watching the little green monster rise in her.

"After I saw you in the barn with her, I thought surely you'd lose your head and marry her one day."

God, Sophia was beautiful, despite the war, sans the plain, calico dress, minus all the fancy baubles she used to love. "Were you now?"

"Uh-huh." She lowered her voice. "I was terrified you'd compromise her in a moment of passion and she would go to her father, and tell him." She shook her head and closed her eyes.

"We would have become one big, happy family, you and Jesse and me and Penny."

"Don't tease me, Gavin." Her voice turned childlike. "I know you never cared for her. Did you?" Dark brows shot up. "You didn't, did you?"

His heart skipped a beat. She didn't recognize her jealousy. "No, Penny never had my undying affection."

Her chest rose on a deep breath. "Good. When she hears you're back, she'll come calling, turn those lovesick eyes on you like she did when we were children."

"Won't work."

Adept at changing the subject whenever she desired, she did. "It doesn't matter, Gavin. You're back now and the war will soon be over. Jesse will come home and it will be the three of us again."

"Let me tell you something, Sophia, only the dead have seen the end of the war."

She flinched and looked at him wide-eyed. "You've read Plato?"

"Enough to know he knew the subject well."

"I don't want to talk about death and dying." Releasing her hands from their tight grasp, she flashed him a dazzling smile. "Please stay. I don't know what your plans are, but I need you, Gavin."

I need you, Gavin. God, how many times had he longed to hear those words from her lips?

"The gates are broken, fences need mending, the fields have gone to seed, and you won't believe what they did inside of the manor. Stay, please, I'm so scared."

"You, scared?" A pain-filled laugh echoed in the room. "The woman who loaded a rifle and put a hole in my chest?"

"You're teasing me again."

Inwardly, he shriveled. He came back to tell her about Jesse and leave, knowing she wouldn't be able to stand the sight of him once he spilled his guts, and now he couldn't stop looking at her.

"Please tell me you won't leave." She placed her hand in his. "At least until Jesse comes home."

Incapable of refusing her, he nodded.

When she leaned forward and delivered a kiss to his cheek, he yearned to crush her to his chest, wound or no wound.

"I'll check on you again soon." She gained her feet with a satisfied smile. "If you need anything, ring this bell and I'll return posthaste."

Sophia bounded from the room, leaving Gavin alone with his tormented thoughts, a half-empty bottle of rum, and Ricochet. Heavily drugged by the rum and the opiates, the nightmarish images marched forth.

He stormed the battlefield, like he had every night since Jesse died. Setting his sights on a gray shirt, he raised the rifle and fired. When the bullet hit its mark, he ran to the fallen soldier. He dropped to a knee to remove the man's boots, keenly aware of the whir of bullets around his head. The soldier touched him with a bloody hand, his blue eyes pleading for help. Gavin couldn't bring himself to steal from a dead man, Reb or not. Closing his eyes against the guilt, he took the man's hand, praying he'd passed on to a better place.

He heard his name, so soft and clear, his blood ran cold. "Gavin."

The ground rose up to meet him. It couldn't be, not Jesse, not his Jesse, not Sophia's Jesse. He glanced at the bloodless face and prayed it was a mistake. Jesse lay on the ground bleeding to death and it was useless to deny the horrific truth.

The blue eyes softened and a smile tugged his crusty lips. "I'm shot, Gavin, done for."

Gavin pulled him to his chest, heedless of the sickening sound of bayonets crossing under a thick, black haze. Horses screamed. Men moaned and writhed on the ground, fighting for breath in the last throes of death. "Jesse! No! Oh, God, I didn't know, I didn't know! Please, don't die," he whispered against his ear. "I'm going to get you out of here, hold on."

Jesse screamed when he tried to lift him from the ground. "No, Gavin, don't move me, please." The color faded from his eyes and a horrible chortling noise rose in his chest. Blood ran from the corners of his lips. "My haversack, Gavin, in there, a letter for Sophia."

"Don't try to talk, Jesse."

"Take it to her. Promise me. Tell her. . .tell her I'll wait for her in the Land of Falling Stars."

"Don't leave, Jesse!" Mournful wails spewed from his lips. "Please, stay with me."

His friend's last breath escaped in a quiet rush. Gavin gazed down at him and slipped the letter into his haversack. He closed Jesse's eyes to the sharp sting of a bullet carving out a ridge along his temporal bone. The clouds spun overhead. He clung to the haversack, praying the black veil closing in on him would remove him from the earth forever.

He hadn't died, and how many times had he cursed God for that? Three things kept him alive—give the letter to Sophia, own up to what he did, and gaze upon her face one last time.

Gavin tugged the pillow over his head and hoped sleep would find him soon, prayed Jesse would haunt Sophia's dreams again tonight.

Gavin didn't blame him.

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