Tormented moans woke Sophia. She bolted from bed, cleared the cobwebs from her brain and rushed down the hallway. Clinging to Gavin's sweat-soaked body, the sheets glistened against the flickering candlelight. He reminded her of a possessed spirit about to tumble into his grave. She plopped onto the bed and clasped him about the shoulders with a hard shake.
Cold steel met her throat, freezing the blood in her veins. "Gavin, wake up! You're having a nightmare."
Through the open window, the drone of crickets echoed in the eerie stillness and the moon slipped out from behind a cloud. A primeval stare clouded his eyes. Terrified, she willed her body to still, every ligament and muscle drawn taut.
An expression of dread crossed his features before he jerked the knife from her throat and tossed it across the room. Dropping his head to the pillow, he closed his eyes. "Christ!" He opened them and brought a hand to her cheek. "Sophia, oh, God, forgive me."
She cupped his face between her hands. "It's all right, Gavin, I'm not hurt. You were having a bad dream."
"More laudanum and rum," he wheezed.
She rose and delivered a spoonful of bitters to his lips. "What was it about, Gavin—your dream?"
"If I told you; you'd run fast and far."
"No, I won't, promise." She handed him the bottle of rum, acutely aware of the potent magnetism enveloping them. "I'd never run from you."
He sloshed down the liquor. "You should run, Sophia. God help me, you should run.”
* * *
She hadn't run last night. With Gavin's noontime meal in the linen napkin she carried—cold chunks of rabbit, crusty sourdough bread, and wild raspberries—her emotions were in a state of flux as she left the manor.
Arbor Rose languished in a verdant tropical splendor. The rhododendrons flanking the front porch swayed beneath a balmy breeze and roses clung to her mother's trellises. Beyond the empty cotton and tobacco fields, unspoiled forests grew. Well, not wholly unspoiled. Too many army mounts had widened the narrow footpaths when the blue coats fled Fredericksburg and moved on to capture Richmond. All but one, that is.
She spied Gavin in the distance ripping apart a dilapidated gate that had once corralled her father's champion bays. Gavin's recuperation had resulted in a battle of wills between them for ten days. Preferring rum and laudanum to the concoctions she forced down his throat―vile herbs he claimed weren't fit for a goat's consumption―Sophia ultimately prevailed. He'd never been able to deny her a thing, and she took full advantage of his weakness by using every ploy known to her, including pouting, pleading and perseverance.
Saddened and bewildered by the changes in him, Sophia spent hours trying to sort it out. This included her torrent feelings for the man. A hard-edged restlessness and a cauldron of violence steeped beneath his cool exterior. She'd studied him gazing out her window with the knowledge that whatever haunted him lay miles beyond the borders of Arbor Rose. Pain dwelt in his eyes, so deep, not even she could penetrate it.
With every step she took, Sophia drank in every inch of that hard body. His shirt, a discard from Rolf's generous collection, lay draped over a fence post, revealing every ridged muscle of his chest. Her brother's castoff tan trousers clung to his powerful legs and narrow waist. His long hair, tied with a leather strap at the nape of his neck, afforded her a full view of the intense blue eyes and magnificent mouth. A day's stubble etched his jaw line above the tanned skin, which, in the harsh light of day, still lacked a healthy, vibrant hue.
The pulse at the hollow of her throat took on a strange cadence when his smoky gaze licked over her. She drew a deep breath, but it stuck in her dry throat. No matter how many times she told herself it wasn't possible, she couldn't rein in her wild attraction to the man. She spent the better part of her day convincing her dazed brain Jesse would return and the crazy feelings she held for Gavin would evaporate like a mist rolling out to sea. She loved Jesse, not Gavin.
* * *
Gavin stopped fighting the rickety gate and allowed his gaze to wander to Sophia strolling across the field. A long skein of her hair, coiled over one shoulder, swayed against her breasts in perfect tempo with the roll of her seductive hips.
Two weeks had passed since he'd dragged his sorry ass from the invalid bed, and he still hadn't told her about Jesse. He meant to once lucidity returned, but his intentions vanished the moment she turned those dark green eyes on him and pleaded with him to stay. Countless times the words hung on the tip of his tongue, but he had only to look at her, the dark-lashed eyes, the full, pink lips, the freckles across the bridge of her nose, and all logic left him. He shouldn't have come back, should have gone to his people in Massachusetts and be damned with honorable intentions.
Drawing his scrutiny to an end, and mindful of the tightening in his loins, he acknowledged it didn't stem from abstinence but rather this ravenous hunger he held for her. He'd bedded a bevy of camp followers in the last three years, women from all walks of life, but for every one he'd slaked his lust on, Sophia's lips met his, Sophia's creamy white thighs wrapped him in a cocoon of bliss.
Better men than he had been knocked low by her beauty. Hell, every man who looked at her left a piece of his soul behind. Beyond her loveliness resided an indomitable spirit, yet Sophia had always been a bundle of contradictions—fire and ice, a scorching temptress one minute, an icy bitch the next. And everything about her drew him like a hapless fly on the fringe of a giant spider web.
Years and distance, not even the war had cooled his infuriating desire for her. The woman slithered around him like a sleek, dark cat, her young, supple body sheathing him in a fiery web of unleashed passion. Oh yes, deep passion smoldered in the woman, an untapped reserve of simmering lust. Jesse, with his staunch moral upbringing and dandified ways had never dared compromise precious Sophia. Jesse had never tossed her in the hay or ravished her in the tall swamp grass of the Mill Pond to satiate his hunger. Jesse had his chance, and all those years Gavin stood by idly and watched from the sidelines. He wanted her and now she wanted him. He felt it with every beat of his tormented heart.
She stood in front of him with a checkered napkin in her small hands. He fought an elemental need to crush her against him, devour her mouth, if only to prove the paltry tingling she'd felt when Jesse kissed her paled next to how she would feel when he'd finished with her.
"You've commandeered my dog, you know." Glancing between him and Ricochet, she shook her head.
"Dogs know when they're loved." Ricochet wagged his tail as if to reward his words.
She took her eyes from the dog and studied his face. "You're still a little green around the gills."
He shrugged, took the napkin from her hands and peeked through the loose knot. "Am I going to discover a vat of goldenseal and saw palmetto hiding in here?"
"No," she replied with a light laugh. "Rabbit, bread and berries."
He plucked his shirt from the fence post, slipped his long arms into the sleeves and, leaving it open in front, pointed to a gnarled oak a short distance away. "Join me?"
She nodded and fell into step beside him. Sheltered beneath the tree's dense branches, a fair breeze fanned their cheeks. Gavin opened the napkin and offered her the first bite of rabbit.
She shook her head, and shook it again when he offered her a chunk of bread. "I've already eaten, but if you insist, I'll have a handful of raspberries."
"You always did love them."
"Still do." Nostalgia laced her tone. "Burnside's men trampled the bushes on their way through and few survived."
"Oh well, surrendering one's love of berries pales next to surrendering those you love."
The perfect opportunity for Gavin to tell her hung in the silence between them, but before he could speak, she turned to him, her green eyes choking off his airway. Christ, the enormity of it all. "Look, Arbor Rose is in worse shape than I thought. You said you received a letter from your aunt in Illinois."
Her face took on a serious countenance. "My mother's sister, Aunt Phoebe, what of it?"
"Would it be so bad if the bank took Arbor Rose and you took the train to Illinois?"
He knew she'd never consider it, but who did she think she was, remaining here with nothing but two old Negroes and a mangy dog to protect her? He couldn't stay, couldn't stand to be around her day after day, watching her from afar, stifling the overpowering urges to hold her, taste her, feel her thrashing beneath him. She infuriated him.
He gritted his teeth.
She looked away. "I don't want to talk about it. The blue bellies are gone now and that's all that matters."
"It's not over, and if you still think the carriage turns into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight and there's a Cinderella out there, you're more gullible than I thought." Her eyes turned dark. He had to prepare her, tell her what loomed on the horizon. "What's more, when the war is over, your hated Yankees will take over the South and nothing will remain of the life you once knew."
"If you're trying to frighten me, Gavin, it won't work. I'm not going to Illinois or anywhere else."
"You stupid little fool, I'm telling you―" Ricochet bolted from his side and darted into the woods with a snarl. "Must have seen a critter." He cupped a hand over his brow. "Damn, that dog can run."
"They're known for speed." Sophia plucked a blade of grass from the ground. "And keen eyesight."
"Which brings me back to subject at hand. You need to open your eyes and walk away from Arbor Rose and all its problems."
"I've lost everything, my family, everything we owned, even," she stammered, "my-my dignity and no one's going to drive me from my childhood home."
He had his fill of trying to reason with her, wanted to shake her until that long mane of hair tumbled all about her. "Damn it, Sophia, the South is in ruins! Your parents and brother are dead, and you're not the only one who lost everything. There are things more precious than baubles, fancy manors, and land!"
She bristled. "Is that so, Gavin Langdale, what could be more precious than land?"
He grabbed her by the shoulders and yanked her to his chest. Around him, the ground swayed. She stared into his eyes, her gaze so hot and intense he lost pace with his breathing. His lips inches from her erotic mouth, he whispered, "Like your life."
His name fell from her lips and she clung to him helplessly. That undid him. His mouth closed over hers, harsh and demanding and her lips parted. His tongue swept through the sweet depths, eliciting a whimper from the back of her throat. His heart raced and his cock sprang to life. Sophia was in his arms. Venus personified. The scent of wisteria, potent and intoxicating, filled his nostrils. He slid one hand up and cradled her head, forcing her deeper into the kiss. A moan left her lips and shattered whatever reserve he struggled to control. Trembling in his arms, she grasped the sides of his open shirt.
Gavin placed his hands on her shoulders and moved her down onto the soft grass. It was time she learned he wasn't Jesse, and the fairytale world she now lived in had changed drastically.
Christ, she was all tantalizing warmth. No, hot fire. He wanted his lips against her breasts, her belly, on her sex, but if he attempted to undress her and take her like a mad dog under an oak tree, he'd hate himself forever. He intended to give her a taste of what she hungered for, force her into coming to him of her own volition and admit to this stampeding passion between them.
He reached down, grabbed a handful of the fabric of her dress and shoved it up over her knees. Familiar with the pantalets women were fond of wearing, he untied them and rolled them down with one hand, cupping her breast through the fabric with his other. Beneath his hand, her nipple hardened and her breast grew heavy. She drew a sharp breath when his hand spread her legs apart and touched the soft mound of curls at the juncture of her sex. Instinctively, she drew her knees together.
"No," he said firmly against her mouth.
To his surprise and his delight, she opened her legs on a pained groan. Ah, his opening. He wasted little time in caressing the outer folds of her sex and the hard, little nub responding to his gentle touch. He slipped a finger inside, exploring and seeking with small, deliberate strokes. She arched her back into his hand and slipped her tongue into his mouth, matching every stroke of his finger inside her. She strained beneath him, opening her legs wider on a contented sigh.
Gavin looked into her dazed eyes and realized she was carried beyond herself with pleasure, desire and amazement. He exulted in the way she looked at him. Sophia's body heat slithered around him, under him. The smell of her sex wafted through his nostrils. The black memory of Jesse's bloodless face faded. There was only Sophia, clinging to him, panting into his mouth.
Other than in his dreams, he'd never thought to partake of her exquisite body, feel the sweet inner core of her being. He increased the tempo of his finger. Her gasps became ragged, her sighs, broken. Hot moisture flooded his finger as she convulsed around it. She bore down on his hand and pulled him closer by wrapping her arms around him. He thrust harder and she no longer held back. Deep moans spewed from her throat and she rolled her head from side to side. Beneath his palm, her heart pounded like a drum and she undulated against his hand. Closer, tighter she squeezed his finger and whimpered his name. At last her body stiffened and she grasped at great clumps of grass and pulled them from the earth. Liquid drenched his fingers as she shuddered around him and cried out his name.
Mesmerized by her beauty, her flushed skin, the swollen cherry lips, and dark emerald green of her eyes, he watched warily as she came back to earth. Long moments later, he withdrew his finger, tied her pantalets and pulled the dress back over her slender body.
"Oh, my God." She looked at him and said it again. Then she bounded to her feet on wobbly legs, much to his satisfaction.
He rose too.
With mouth agape, she stared at him. "Gavin, we must not do that again. We're friends, nothing more, and Jesse . . .."
When her voice trailed off, images of his best friend surfaced. His dead best friend. "God, you're beautiful," he said and meant every word.
Her eyes softened and she said his name again.
"No, don't say anything. I must tell you something." His mind reeled from her nearness and he found it difficult to speak. "It's about Jesse." He drew a deep breath. "Jesse is―"
A high-pitched yowl spewed from Ricochet's throat. Their heads turned in unison toward the sound. "Damn, he must have caught his foot in one of my traps."
She turned those almond-shaped eyes on him. "Traps? What traps?"
The dog bounded from the line of trees with his tail between his legs. As the dog closed the distance between them, a foul stench reached their nostrils. With a pained yelp, the hound took Gavin by surprise, came in low and knocked him off his feet.
Sophia shrieked and pinched her nostrils. "Sweet Mother of Jesus, he's been skunked!"
Gavin curled up into a fetal position as the dog smothered him. "Call him off, Sophia!"
"No, I don't believe I will. He hasn't as much as wagged his tail at me since you came back." She picked up the linen napkin and scurried away. "Don't come into the house until you've gotten rid of the stench," she called out over her shoulder. "Man or beast!"
* * *
Sophia rushed across the field toward the manor, checking her gait when Ol' Nap poked his head through a raspberry bush.
"Miss Sophia!" he shouted. "While you was gone Miss Penny and her pa done come. Say they come back to see Massah Gavin soon."
Her heart sank. "Have they heard from Jesse?"
"No, Missy, they ain't."
Sophia scrambled up the stairs, headed for her bedchamber, and upon reaching it, closed the door. Gavin Langdale had kissed her. Gavin Langdale had done much more than that to her. She brought her fingers to her lips, stunned they still burned with heat, to say nothing of the fire still raging between her legs. Jesse had never kissed her like that, but it had been so long, perhaps she didn't remember. No, it wasn't true, she remembered with perfect clarity. Jesse's kiss made her tingle, but Gavin's onslaught called forth the thunder and sent lightning coursing through her veins. Oh, Lord, I can't afford to go down this road, must not think about his hard body or the wicked things his finger did. It must not happen again. It can't.
She couldn't spend the day hiding in her bedchamber. She had to keep busy. Perhaps if she occupied her hands, she could control the decadent thoughts tumbling through her brain. With that in mind, she sat on the front porch and shucked peas.
Hours later, Gavin and Ricochet wandered over the hill. His wet, muslin shirt hung open again and clung to his muscular chest, the same chest that had thundered madly beneath her palm. Moisture pooled between her thighs and her nipples grew harder than buttons.
Gavin arched a dark brow. Advancing up the steps like a wild jungle creature, he stood in front of her. "May we come in now? I assure you; you'll not detect a hint of skunk on man or beast."
She lifted her head and looked into his eyes with the acute awareness she burned all over, a malady she'd acquired the moment he'd returned. "Supper will be ready in two hours."
He walked past her but turned under the archway of the front door. "I need to apologize about this afternoon―"
"Yes," she said a little too abruptly. "It can't happen again." She picked at an imaginary piece of lint on her sleeve. "I also apologize, but if we are to remain living in the same house, a certain level of propriety must be maintained."
He moved toward her and bent down until his warm breath whispered against her ear. "I'll try to remember I'm just a friend and will never take liberties with you again." A gentle finger to her chin forced her to look at him. "Unless you want me to. Do you, Sophia?"
His mocking tone unsettled her. "Certainly not!"
"You sure? You seemed to enjoy―"
She snorted. "Of course, I'm sure, but how gallant of you to call attention to the fact that I-I enjoyed it."
Poking his finger into her chest he said, "Get this straight, Miss Whitfield, I'm no longer the prince of your childhood, and I'm most definitely not gallant."
A triangle of light fell across his face. He was magnificent. He stood so close she felt the heat from his body, the dampness of his shirt, smelled his heady, manly scent.
"So, unless you want to find yourself on your back beneath me again, stay the hell away from me."
With that, Gavin walked into the house and left her alone with her warring emotions.