Determined to concentrate on the tasks awaiting her, Sophia walked to the meat house. Daddy Brister had slaughtered the last hog and asked her to help put up hams. Imagining Gavin's naked flesh beneath her fingers, she lathered the slabs of pork with sugar, salt and honey, aware of the moist warmth gathering between her legs. Frustrated with aching need, she left Brister, headed for the garden and plucked radishes until her fingers blistered. She stopped briefly and looked at the clouds, visualizing Gavin's mouth sucking every digit to soothe her pain.
She was sick. Sick with conflict, sick with irrepressible desire and longing.
Gavin had been avoiding her. He headed for the barn immediately after breakfast to repair broken boards and spent his afternoons hunting in the woods. Occasionally, he took the wagon for a long ride and returned hours later, reeking rum.
During the evening meal, she was determined to bring the standoff to an end. She watched him shovel a spoonful of peas into his mouth. "You wouldn't recognize Fredericksburg now."
His distant voice roamed toward her. "Yes, I would."
"Oh. Well, what about the war, what's happening?"
"The South is finished." A humorless laugh left his lips. "Actually, they were finished before the first shot was fired, but if you must know, Grant's army marched toward the North Anna River and Totopotomoy Creek after Spotsylvania."
"No, that's not all. It should please you to hear his regiments suffered heavy casualties."
"It should please you to know it no longer pleases me to hear about Yankees suffering. I know you find that hard to believe."
He shrugged, and withdrew again to the solace of his mercurial thoughts. The fact she no longer felt hatred when talking about Yankees amazed and confounded her. But that wasn't what plagued her these days. She'd come to the conclusion that Gavin regretted what happened between them two weeks ago and now felt obligated to take care of her until Jesse returned. Sweet Mother of Jesus! How long had it been since she thought about Jesse? Despair claimed her. Jesse might never return and Gavin wished he could leave.
He lifted his gaze from the plate.
"You're free to leave. I won't hold you to a promise you made under the influence of inebriants."
He studied her over his coffee cup for an interminable amount of time before he spoke. "Not on your sweet ass, Sophia. I made a promise to stay and help you with Arbor Rose and a gentleman always keeps his promises."
She wanted to tell him he'd never been a gentleman, but she wouldn't rise to the bait. "I want you to know I've been through the worst of times, without you, without Jesse, and if I must do it again, I can and I will." Nausea swirled in her belly as the words left her mouth.
He rose from the table and mumbled about a task awaiting him in the barn. "Leave it alone, Sophia."
Nap and Brister cleared the dishes from the table and ambled onto the porch to watch the sun drop from the horizon. A deep, guttural growl came from Ricochet's throat, drawing Sophia from her dismal gloom. Curiosity propelled her toward the window. She pulled back the curtain and anger surged up her throat. "Mule Cooper!"
With the Springfield tucked under her arm, she rushed from the kitchen. Brister and Nap were on their feet when she strode onto the porch with rifle raised. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Gavin leave the barn and walk toward the house.
"If it ain't the cunning little Miss Sophronia Whitfield" Mule shifted in the saddle. "I bet you're right proud of yourself 'bout now."
In her childhood, the beady eyes and white-lipped expression had terrified her, but time had tempered his formidable presence, rendering him a paunchy, flaccid-faced snivel of a man.
Sophia aimed the rifle at his chest. "The only thing I'd be proud of is delivering a bullet to your cold heart."
Gavin's voice came to her. "Put the damn rifle down, Sophia."
"Why should I?" she asked, her sight locked on Cooper.
"Are you going to shoot everyone who comes calling?"
Visions of Gavin dropping to the ground flooded her. "I'll put it down after he tells me what he's doing on my land."
"Don't play coy with me." Cooper sent a stream of spit through the air. "Billy's waited long enough for your answer."
"He had my answer months ago and it's the same today, I'll never marry him."
"You always did think you were too good for my Billy, and look at you now. No better than the whores in Fredericksburg."
The hidden rage behind Gavin's voice sent a shiver down her spine. "Now is that any way to talk to a lady, Cooper?"
"This ain't none of your business, Langdale."
"I'm making it my business." Gavin grabbed the reins of Cooper's russet mare and said between clenched teeth, "I believe Miss Whitfield asked you to leave."
"I'll leave, but this ain't the end of it." A snarl curled his lips. "Billy's been waiting on her for a coon's age and you coming back don't change that."
When Sophia's eyes met Gavin's, he looked away. She cocked the rifle. "Leave, Cooper, my finger is itching."
The moment Cooper disappeared from view Sophia lowered the rifle and fled into the house.
* * *
From a rocker on the front porch, Gavin collected his thoughts. As a child, his mother, bless her departed soul, had often reminded him to guard his nurturing heart. Perhaps, she was the only one who knew that the hard personage he displayed belied the selflessness of his character. Three years older than Jesse and Sophia, he'd fallen quite naturally into the concierge arrangement, and had suffered greatly because of it. Both looked up to him, knew that whatever happened as they went about their merry lives, Gavin would be there to watch their backs.
His parents had instilled in him a strong sense of integrity and virtue, and now that they'd left the earth—no, particularly that they'd left the earth—he felt a strong obligation to live up to those teachings. It wasn't only his overpowering love for Sophia that drew him back to Arbor Rose, but this character flaw he possessed to save those he loved.
And guilt over Jesse's death.
Day or night, respite from the nagging remorse evaded him. Fitful dreams pulled him from his sleep at night, and he struggled to look at Sophia during the day. Too much time had passed since his return and he still hadn't told her about Jesse. He couldn't tolerate her hateful recriminations and agonizing wails, couldn't watch her go through more suffering. He thought about leaving Jesse's letter on her bureau, boarding the train in Fredericksburg and heading east, but only a lily-livered coward would do such a thing, and he'd had enough of cravenly deeds.
He wanted Sophia, hungered for her, and with every passing day he wanted her more. Hell, the longer he stayed away from her, the worse his affliction became. Hopeless, that's what he was. She haunted his dreams, stole every waking moment like an addiction he couldn't get enough of, and a sickness he might die from. He cursed the day she became his world—the day he pulled her pirate-clad body from the river. He'd never prayed until that day, but he did, with every measured stroke to save her.
Now, she was in over her head again and refused to accept it. He had the financial means to help her and he would, but if she knew about Spotsylvania, she'd spit in his face.
Gavin found her at the table, her hands curled around a hot cup of coffee. "Goddamn it, Sophia, did you tell Billy you'd marry him?"
"No, never. I'd never marry Billy Cooper."
"Not even to save Arbor Rose?"
"I swear I never agreed to it, but Billy won't take no for an answer." Tears fell from her eyes and she wiped them away with the back of her hand. "Pretend you didn't see that and quit looking at me."
"There's no shame in crying, Sophia." He rose, walked around the table, and knelt beside her. "You've been strong for such a long time."
She fell into his chest with a sob. "I'm not strong. Some days," she hiccoughed through the words, "I struggle to get through the day, but I can't surrender Arbor Rose. I know you think I'm foolish and stubborn, but…."
He stroked the hair at the side of her head. "Shush now, stop crying, I can't stand to see your tears."
Long moments later, her crying jag abated, she pulled back and looked into his eyes. "Are you sorry about what happened under that oak tree?" When he didn't answer, she pressed onward. "You've been avoiding me, and I don't want that. I want you to stay, Gavin. I need―"
He closed his eyes against her words. "Don't say it, Sophia. I can't be held accountable for what will happen if I stay."
"I know you don't want to be my champion, save me as you did when we were children. She touched his face with her pale fingers. "Tell me you still care about me; tell me you're not mad."
More than anything, he wanted to show her how much he cared, but not when she was tangled up with long-suppressed emotion. It would be easy to take advantage of her now, but that would add to his guilt and he couldn't shoulder it. "I care for you, Sophia, more than you know, and I'm not mad at you."
Through tears, she gave him a smile. "Are you sorry about what happened?"
Christ, he wanted to show her how sorry he was. He wanted to toss her onto the table, shove her dress up and fuck her into oblivion. "No, "I'm not, but if you keep going down that road, you'll soon regret it."
Her breathtaking smile shin-capped him, more so when she kissed his cheek. "Good."
Coming through the door, Brister shot her an indignant glare. "Lawdy, Miss Sophia, is I gonna have to hide that gun?"
Gavin looked at Brister. "I've already lectured her on the proper way to greet visitors."
"I don't trust that man." Nap closed one eye. "I knows he had somethin' to do with your folks dying."
"What?" Gavin's head snapped toward the black man. "Mule was there, at Whitfield Manor?"
Sophia nodded. "He left with Mother and Father when they fled, took that bottom-feeder son of his along too."
Gavin turned to Brister. "I thought you said it was a slave uprising."
"Yes, sir, but not Whitfield slaves. It were a bunch of runaways not from these parts."
Sophia narrowed her eyes. "I wouldn't put a thing past that blackguard."
"Or Billy," Gavin added. "And conveniently, they've had their eyes on Arbor Rose."
Sophia hissed the words. "Now that you've returned and spoiled his plans, he's more emboldened than ever."
Gavin's stomach twisted. It couldn't be coincidental that Sophia's parents and brother died in the fire and Cooper and his son emerged unscathed. With Reuben out of the picture and a war underfoot, Cooper had the perfect opportunity to get his greedy hands on Arbor Rose.
Gavin stroked the side of her head, his voice filled with caring and confidence. "You needn't worry about Mule or Billy in the future."
Her lovely face morphed into a mask of hope. "You will stay?"
Gavin rose and looked down on her. "Yes," he said, his body language resigned to his fate. "I will stay."
* * *
In the following weeks, a sense of normalcy returned. Gavin held his affection and his hostility in check. June surrendered to the humid, scorching days of July and the rhododendrons and roses flourished. He and Sophia walked to the Mill Pond every day, as they had when they were children. They passed the hours swimming or lazing the lethargic hours away walking along the banks. The remembrance of her writhing body beneath his hand haunted him, and too many times he envisioned his mouth closing over hers, his cock buried deep inside her. He wouldn't touch her now, knowing he'd never be content until she came to him willingly. Too many times he caught her studying him, her seductive gaze boring into his soul, but guilt over Jesse prevented him from acting on his omnipotent hunger for the blasted woman.
Brister looked up from his plate at the dinner table. "Miss Sophia and you is invited to the hoedown. Don't matter there be no white folk there."
Sophia attempted to stifle her enthusiasm. "Where will it be this year?"
"At the Crenshaw's fine manor," Nap interjected.
"Saturday night," Brister added. "Rain or shine."
"Oh, please, Gavin, will you take me?"
"It's that important?"
"Of course." So much emotion passed through her eyes, he couldn't determine which one overpowered the other—joy, hope, excitement? "I've gone every year since I was old enough to dance the Samba-de-Roda." A pout found her lips. "Besides, we've done nothing for weeks, and I miss the barbeques most of all."
"Fine, Sophia, I'll see that you get there."
"You're not going to stay, join in on the fun?"
Sarcasm dripped from his voice. "I've no wish to dance the Samba-de-Roda."
"Suit yourself, but if you leave, you'll miss out on Brister's dandelion wine."
"I didn't say I would leave; I just won't be dancing around the fire."
Gavin turned his attention to the thick slice of ham on his plate, recalling the first time he saw Sophia dance with the slaves. He couldn't recall what version of their ancient strains, dips and twists they gyrated to, but he'd been spellbound. Sophia wore a red bandana, fastened gypsy style around her long, dark hair. Her green eyes shone with a brilliant heat, and her pale, slender arms flailed wild and free over her head as she plunged and writhed to the beat of the drums. It made him hard just thinking about it. Christ, if he watched her dance now, he didn't know how he would cope. He looked at her across the table and melted. Hell, he'd never been able to say no to her, but this time he should have.
* * *
Silver moonlight slanted across the hard-packed earth surrounding Crenshaw's slave quarters. Close enough to watch the gaiety, yet concealed by gray shadows, Gavin rested a shoulder against a black locust and inhaled the familiar scent of the sweet blossoms. The Crenshaws fled before the battle of Fredericksburg and left their field hands and house servants to fend for themselves. With too much time on their hands and no direction from their prior masters, they seemed content to squander their days in idle sloth, their nights reveling in their newfound freedom.
His eyes drifted toward a group of women circling the fire. Sophia, caught up in the titillating movements of the Samba-de-Roda, moved with languid grace, her slender body exploding outward from the hips, swaying seductively to the propulsive rhythm of the tom-tom. She'd learned the ancient dance as a child, knew every sensual step better than the back of her hand, but never had she danced with such fervor. It infuriated him. Her long, black hair tumbled about her in wild disarray and her alabaster skin glowed beneath a fine sheen of perspiration. For a brief moment, their eyes met across the campfire and he felt his jaw twitch. God, the woman had bewitched him, irrevocably, undeniably bewitched him.
About to storm forward and yank her from the crowd of black, sleek bodies, three men walked into the clearing. Settling down on their haunches in front of the fire, one lifted a bottle to his lips, took a healthy swig and passed it on. Gavin didn't recognize two of the men, but the third he'd known since childhood─Billy Cooper, a notorious debaucher. Even as a youth, he'd never cared for the boy, had heard the rumors of his forced peccadilloes with young black women. The slaves claimed he raped the offspring of Reuben's field hands before they reached twelve years of age.
The music came to a halt and heads turned toward the trio like sprigs of violets reaching for the sun. Gavin watched Nap and Brister rise from the porch steps and cross the clearing.
"You best be on your way, Massah Cooper," Ol' Nap said, his tone edged with a veiled threat. "This ain't no white folks' country barbecue."
Billy unfurled his scrawny frame from the ground and approached the still dancers. Grabbing Sophia by the arm, he gave a derisive snort. "This looks like white meat to me, and what delectable fare it is."
Sophia spat the words. "Take your hands off me."
"My, my, Miss Sophronia Whitfield, ever the little spitfire." Billy yanked her forward until his mouth was inches from hers. "The elite of southern hospitality have fled, and your precious Jesse is nowhere to be found. Who will save you from the big bad wolf now?"
Brister raised the branch at his side. "We don't want no trouble. You best take your hands from Miss Sophia and mosey on outta here."
He spun Sophia around, forcing her to lean against his chest. "Who's gonna make me?"
A gasp came from Sophia's lips when Gavin walked from the shadows. "I am." If voices could be lethal, his had turned into a weapon. "You heard the man, let her go."
Bolstered by the presence of his mangy sidekicks, Billy's eyes danced with amusement. Gavin assessed the trio. To Billy's left stood a thick brute of a man, to his right a tall, muscular chap. Of the three, Billy posed the lesser threat, yet held the advantage—Sophia and a silver stiletto jutting from his knee-length boot.
"Gavin Langdale." Billy hissed his name. "I heard you were back. Pity, I prayed you'd die like a wretched dog on the battlefield."
"Sorry to disappoint you, but I'm here, in the flesh, and not about to ask again. Let her go."
He licked Sophia's ear. "Come and get her, Langdale."
From the corner of his eye, he saw the color drain from Sophia's face, her expression a mixture of hope and despair. With Gavin closing the distance between them, Billy shoved Sophia to the ground. Clamoring to her knees, a groan escaped her lips, and all hell broke loose. It came as no surprise to Gavin that Billy faded into the darkness and left his comrades to take him on. The tall one struck first, coming in low on the charge, seeking to take Gavin down at the knees. Gavin locked his hands together into a fist and delivered a sharp, painful blow to the man's head. Crashing to the ground, a deep-bellied groan left the man's lips. Gavin had little time to worry about the first attacker once the tall, muscular deserter tackled him from behind and pitched him through the air. The ground slammed into his chest and knocked the air from his lungs. His attacker stood over him, gloating in his victory.
He shouldn't have done that.
Gavin delivered a vicious kick to the man's shins and rolled to the side as the man tumbled to the ground beside him. Within seconds, they were on their feet, circling each other like rabid dogs. The man charged again with a powerful momentum, oblivious to Gavin's hard fists slamming into his face. Gasping for breath, the deserter staggered back. Pain jarred through Gavin's hand with a final blow to the man's right cheek. The attacker's body jerked into a half-spin and he crumbled to the ground.
Gavin clutched his side in an attempt to clear the white lights from behind his lids.
A strangled scream from Sophia roared above the hushed murmurs. "Gavin!"
With a furious roar, Billy charged from the shadows, the silver stiletto flashing beneath a ribbon of moonlight. Gavin met his opponent head-on. Their bodies tumbled to the ground, cart-wheeled head-over-heels, each one fighting to gain the upper hand. The tip of Billy's knife sliced through the skin below Gavin's ribcage. Warm, sticky blood trickled down his belly. An evil glare flashed behind Billy's spectacled eyes amid whispered scorns from the onlookers. Straddling Gavin, Billy raised the stiletto, intent on burying it in his chest. With every ounce of his strength, Gavin clasped Billy's wrist, flipped him onto his back, and held the cold blade to his neck.
His voice low and menacing, he whispered, "You touch her again I'll come for you in the dark of night." He leaned in, his lips touching Billy's ear. "Think of the sound a pig makes when someone guts him from ear to ear." Billy flinched when Gavin applied pressure with the knife. "Tell me you understand, say it."
Billy licked his lips, his voice shaky. "I understand."
With a flick of his wrist, Gavin sent the knife into the air and removed his knee from the man's groin. Moments later, Billy crawled through the dirt and rose on the periphery of camp to hightail it into the surrounding woods.
Daddy Brister's strong arm helped Gavin to his feet. Breathless, and bending at the knees, he watched Billy's cohorts drag their bruised bodies from the clearing, and then he scanned the crowd for Sophia.
Brister pointed to the barn. "She fled . . . there."
* * *
Sophia pressed her back against the rough-hewn planks of the stable wall and inched her way down to a bed of hay at her feet. With her heart thudding against her ribs, she closed her eyes and willed the brutal images to leave her mind. Gavin could be dead, his life's blood seeping into the ground. How ironic that would be. Three years he'd been gone, fought in a hundred battles only to be killed after he'd come back. Come back to her. Oh, God, she couldn't think about it, couldn't stand to watch him die. She ran hard and fast the second Billy sliced through the soft, golden skin she longed to run her hands over. Sweet Mother of Jesus, what if he was dead and she would never…?
"I found you."
She lifted her head and looked into Gavin's eyes. A horse neighed several stalls over and the moon spun out from a patch of clouds shrouding his tall, lean frame. His bare chest oozed blood and trickled into his waistband.
Relief flooded her and then panic. "You're bleeding again."
"Am I?" He glanced down at the wound and back to her face. "It looks worse than it is."
She hesitated when he held his hand out to help her up. She couldn't be held accountable for what might happen should her skin come into contact with his. Beneath his bold perusal, she lifted her trembling hand.
"You're frightened," he said with a hurt look. "Of me, Sophia?"
She shook her head and hoped he didn't see through her lie. After witnessing his rage moments ago, she didn't know what to expect from him.
"I would-would never," he stammered, "harm you." He moved in, forcing her back against the wooden planks. His warm breath fanned her cheeks. "I don't want you to fear me, ever." His chest rose and fell erratically, and his mouth hovered over hers, mingling their breaths. "Kiss me, Sophia."
She looked into his eyes, transfixed by the depth of passion residing there. He placed his hands on the wall and bracketed her head. Their lips met. In the aftermath of the violence, she expected a harsh, demanding kiss, but it was anything but. Gentle and languorous, it shook her to the very core. His tongue caressed her lower lip seeking entry. She responded without thought, parting her lips with a small moan. The erotic dance against the tip of her tongue sent a stream of wild sensations coursing through her. Her hands sought the warm flesh of his chest, every inch hard, ridged muscle. He flinched when her fingers made contact with the fresh wound. Astounded by the emptiness she felt when he broke from the kiss, she gathered her battered senses and looked into his eyes.
His hoarse voice washed over her. "Is that how it felt when Jesse kissed you?"
Trapped between the wall and his body, she looked away from those wicked eyes. Deliriously weak, shocking images of him crushing her beneath him stormed through her mind. Dear God, what's the matter with me? Promised to Jesse, bound to him heart and soul, she couldn't allow herself to think about Gavin's powerful limbs tangled in her bed sheets, his head thrashing in delirium, or his hot, feverish eyes. Ever since he had returned, her mind swam with carnal thoughts of this man now pinning her to the wall.
A hand came down and lifted her chin, forcing her to look at him. "Hmm, Sophia, is it?"
"I'm so befuddled." Tears pooled in her eyes. "What about Jesse? I promised I'd wait no matter what happened, but…." To speak her heart would be the epitome of betrayal to the person they had both loved since the day they sailed the Rappahannock dressed as pirates.
He kissed her forehead. "And if he returned tomorrow, you'd fall into his arms; pretend you feel nothing for me, deny this passion between us?"
She averted her face. "Gavin, don't."
He tightened his grip on her chin, his tone harsh. "Would you, Sophia?"
"Yes," she whispered. "I'd go to him, banish this from my mind."
"It would be that easy?"
"Not easy, Gavin, but―"
"You need to leave Arbor Rose!" His raised voice startled her. "There's nothing left for you here! Your parents are dead and Jesse isn't―"
Without conscious thought, she slapped him. "Don't you say it! I can't leave Arbor Rose. Jesse will return and―"
"He's not coming back and you have to face it." He brought a hand to her cheek. "The entire country is about to explode, and if you had any God-given sense, you'd go to your mother's people in Illinois."
She narrowed her eyes, her tone icy. "Let me go and don't come near me again. Jesse's coming back and when he does, I'm going to keep my promise and marry him. Her voice softened. "We must forget this, whatever it is."
She shivered at the volatile emotion in his eyes. The same feral snarl that came over him when he crushed Billy and his companions spewed from his lips. He grabbed her wrists, pinned them over her head, and took her mouth brutally. His tongue plundered her lips and forced them apart. She writhed to free herself from his lean, hard body, but he held her fast, imprisoning her in a web of decadent desire. Erotic pleasure surged through her veins. Her fingers moved to his long, black hair and she seemed incapable of stopping the soft moans from the back of her throat.
Clinging to him like a child, she whimpered. "Gavin, please."
His wicked mouth whispered into hers. "You want me, admit it."
He clutched a length of her skirt and shoved it over her hips, allowing his fingers to slide up the hot flesh of her thighs. A sound erupted from her throat again, no longer a moan of pleasure but a sob. He stopped abruptly, stepped back and dropped his hands to his sides. Their eyes clashed and locked. His shone with lust and anger. She wanted to draw back, knew she should flee, but something powerful held her immobilized. Warning bells rang in her head yet she longed to return to his kiss, feel every inch of his body against hers.
He drew a deep breath and said, "Leave, Sophia, now!"
On shaky limbs, she inched her way along the wall, turned to look at him one last time and scurried through the door.
Long minutes later, he found Sophia with the slaves. His voice weary, he gave her the side-eye. "Get in the wagon, Sophia."
Afraid of the volatile emotions contorting his face, she hedged. "I'm not ready to leave."
"Climb onto that goddamn seat or I'll pick you up and toss your ass in back. Now, Sophia!"
She looked to Daddy Brister and Ol' Nap. Brister shuffled his feet in the dirt and Ol' Nap stargazed. Knowing Gavin would follow through on his threat she opted for dignity and clambered onto the seat. The long ride home loomed eerily quiet. Now and then, she snuck a peek at Gavin out of the corner of her eye but he kept his sight locked on the road ahead.
The moment he brought the wagon to a halt, Sophia scrambled from the transport and bounded up the front steps. Once in her bedchamber, she locked the door. With her heart in her throat, she walked to the bureau, pulled a nightshift from the drawer and slipped it over her head. She climbed into bed with the knowledge sleep would elude her tonight. Her eyes still open an hour later, she gasped.
Who would tend to Gavin's new wound?