Unable to dispel the haunting visions of Sophia, Gavin tossed and turned. He was cursed, condemned. Rising from bed for the hundredth time, he looked out the window. His side ached, his head throbbed, and his brain had journeyed south hours ago. Jesse's face floated before him. Blood seeped out the corner of his pale, blue lips. "Take care of her, Gavin. Promise me." Gavin slammed his eyes shut and willed the image to leave. Trapped between heaven and hell, between Sophia and anguish, he stood on the precipice of a giant spider web. He should have died on the battlefield like Billy said.
He turned to the sound of the door opening. Sophia stood under the archway; her slender body drenched in a pale shaft of moonlight. She wrung her hands, her small toes pointed inward.
Stammering, she said, "I-I came to check on your wound." She glanced at Ricochet, mumbling under her breath. "Defector."
Gavin clenched his fists. He saw her standing in front of him the day he left for the war. Tears were in her eyes when she said goodbye to him. Now she stood before him again, and he wanted to put his fist through the wall.
Arrested by her beauty, long moments passed until he found his tongue. "You didn't come to see about my wound." Another timeless moment crept by. "You should know, unless you leave, things will never be the same between us. There's no going back."
She took a step toward him.
"If you're looking for prettified words, you won't hear them from me. I'm not Jesse."
"You never were."
His resolve to stay clear of her evaporated. He strode toward her, grabbed her by the wrist, and pulled her hard against him. Her eyes flew open and a startled gasp left her lips.
"You should be afraid, Sophia, you don't know what you've started."
"Gavin," she whimpered and rested her head against his chest. "I can't fight it anymore." She lifted her head and searched his eyes. "I don't know what's happening, I don't care." A tear slid down her cheek. "I want you; I need you."
That ruined him. He swept her into his arms, carried her to the bed and knelt over her with his knees straddling her hips. He gave a command to Ricochet and the dog slithered from the bed. His mouth came down on hers, rough and demanding. He moved on to her neck and shoulders, smothering her with desperate, urgent kisses amidst her sobs.
He stopped and looked at her. "Last chance, Sophia."
She shook her head and closed her eyes. Thank God. He didn't know what he'd do if she changed her mind now. The buttons of her nightshirt flew through the air when he ripped it down the middle.
Her eyes flew open and she placed a hand against his chest. "Gavin?"
He drew a deep breath. He had to get a hold of his emotions. He couldn't take her brutally despite his ravenous hunger for her. Not the first time. Whatever had pitched him into the ashen waters of despair—the war, Jesse, his love for her—it wasn't her fault.
"I'm not the same man who left to fight in this godforsaken war." His voice broke under the strain. "Things happened. I saw and did things you could never understand."
She slid her hand from his chest and touched his cheek. "It's all right, Gavin. I know―"
"You don't know, Sophia, and if you did, you'd hate me."
God, he had to tell her before he was carried beyond himself, but her dark green eyes looked at him the way he'd wanted her to look at him all his life.
"I don't care what happened in the war and I could never hate you." With her eyes locked on his, she whispered, "Please, Gavin, I want you, only you."
* * *
Gavin held her down with his weight. His teeth nibbled on her ear and his words sent the blood pounding through her veins. "I have waited for you all my life. Trust me now, Sophia, completely."
She swallowed hard, her dizzy brain processing his words. What does he mean, trust me now? He licked her bottom lip, coaxed her mouth open, and swept his tongue through every crevice imaginable. A fiery heat erupted in the pit of her belly and she whimpered in surprise. She wanted him, wanted him to touch every part of her body, needed him to make her forget about the war, banish Jesse from her mind. In a fevered stupor, she removed her hand from his shoulder, twined it into his long hair, and pulled him deeper into the kiss. Thoughts of Jesse flew from her head. Only Gavin existed, his mouth taking hers in savage hunger. She wanted more. And more.
With a newfound boldness, she moved his hand to her breast. His skillful fingers kneaded the fullness and pitched her body into pleasurable sensations. Lowering his head, he swept his tongue over her nipple and instinctively, she responded with a muffled groan.
"Trust me," he whispered, and took her nipple into his mouth and suckled her.
"Oh," she gasped stunned by the euphoric bliss spreading throughout every limb.
His fingers scorched her skin, traveled from her breast to her abdomen and then her inner thighs. She tensed and drew her legs together.
"No. Look at me."
Heady with desire, she searched his face.
"No more second thoughts. I will know your body and you will know mine. You will crave me like I crave you."
His voice lulled her into submission. Against her will, she opened her legs. When his finger entered her, her hips arched into his hand despite the rough invasion. Unbearably aroused, a series of moans spilled from her lips. He probed deeper until she grew mindless beneath him and aware of muscles contracting in places she didn't know existed. And, she became acutely aware of hot, moist warmth flooding his finger.
She sucked in an urgent breath unable to hold back the expectation of what he would do to her next. "Gavin, oh, Gavin." Heaven had found her. And bliss. She cried out in protest when he removed his finger.
"Trust me." He lowered his head to the juncture of her thighs.
She couldn't hold back the half-sob of trepidation. "You can't mean to—"
"Oh, but I do," he growled and took her sex with his mouth.
Her spine stiffened and her hips rose up to meet the tortuous assault. A delirious sensation rippled over her. She shuddered from the sheer power of it. He knew how to pleasure her, every stroke of his tongue wringing a series of pants from her lips. Her nipples hardened and ached. Inside, her abdomen convulsed. Good God, the man was utterly wicked. Something elusive lay beyond her reach, a blinding, pulsating need she didn't know how to capture.
"Easy, baby." His hoarse voice slithered around her, under her, over her. He rolled the trousers from his hips and straddled her. "You are exquisite."
Sophia shifted beneath him, desiring that obscure release her body hungered for.
He took her hand and placed it on his hard erection. "Touch me, Sophia."
Choking on the words, she groaned. "Oh, no! Wait! I don't think-it won't fit."
"You're ready for me, and I'll be gentle."
The last traces of resistance vanished and she surrendered wholly. The dark, mysterious knight of her youth drove inside her. A strangled cry broke from her lips when his large shaft encountered a barrier. Her body stiffened and she pushed against his chest.
He grabbed her wrists and placed them over her head. "Don't fight it," he said with a tenderness she'd never heard from him, not even when he'd pulled her from the river. "It's always been you, only you."
Mesmerized, she stared into the depths of his eyes. He pressed onward and she cried out from the sharp pain shooting upward through her belly.
"Oh, Christ, you're so small, so tight," he panted, the muscles of his chest stretched taut beneath her hands. "God, I love you."
She studied him through a dazed fog. How had she felt such pleasure with his finger inside her, and now she felt nothing but pain. His eyes locked with hers, and yet, he didn't move a muscle. Pain gave way to a dull ache, and soon the discomfort faded entirely. In its place, a primitive, aching need swelled and throbbed. Somehow, her insides had stretched to accommodate his hardness. How, remained a mystery. Heady aromas mingled—the scent of man, and what she imagined to be their arousal. Heat spread through every pore and the evasive yearning she hungered for returned.
"You can move now, Gavin. I'm perfectly fine."
A faint smile found him. "You sure?"
She reveled in the power of his muscular body, his damp skin against hers, even the smell of blood from the wound on his torso. His mouth tasted of rum and mint and his hair smelled heady, like the earth. He was so handsome above her she could barely breathe.
He gripped her hips firmly and he held her immobile, then withdrew and thrust deeply. Tremors shook her. He plundered her, and in response, she rose up to meet him. Desperate need stirred her blood until she strained and undulated beneath him. He slammed into her forcefully, moving her body upward on the bed.
Caught up in a delirious maelstrom of heat, Sophia floundered in a world created only for her and Gavin. Visions and dreams converged, and lucidity became an elusive entity. Her body felt warm and then cold. Her lungs begged for precious air. Good, God, she was drowning again. Through a mist, Gavin swam toward her and screamed out her name. The ashen waters swirled above her head, sucked her under, and then total peace claimed her. A strong arm plucked her from her watery grave and delivered her into the light.
With her hands clenched into fists, her back rigid, Gavin's name broke from her lips. Tears blinded her and she soared through the sky, onward, onward to the Land of Falling Stars. With a final shudder, Gavin groaned, and she felt the full brunt of his weight collapse against her. With their sweat-soaked bodies joined, Gavin panted above her and Sophia languished in a state of euphoria. Long moments later, he rolled from her, breathing deeply.
Beside him, her mind had wandered into a stunned state, one of amazement and complete bliss. When she recovered her senses, she turned to him and ran her hand over his firm, flat abdomen. "How long before we can do it again?"
He rose up on an elbow, gazed down at her and laughed. "You're serious?"
"I'm delighted to hear you're so taken with me."
"Not with you," she said teasingly, "but with the wicked things you did to me."
He pulled her into his arms and nibbled at her ear. "It's only the beginning."
"You didn't answer the question."
Drawing back, he looked into her eyes and chuckled again.
Her bottom lip came out. "What's so amusing?"
"That serious look on your face."
"Gavin, don't tease me. How long before you can do that again?"
He kissed her eyelids. "Tomorrow."
"Oh, you really are enjoying this, aren't you?"
"One hundred percent." She looked away with a frown and he pulled her chin back. "After waiting all these years for you, I gave everything I had and, guess I lost too much blood from the knife wound."
Through a ribbon of moonbeams, she glanced to the bed sheets tangled up around them and saw the blood. "Oh, Lord, Gavin, we opened your wound."
He looked at the linen strip around his chest. "It's not my blood."
"What?" She looked at the sheets again. "Well, if not yours, whose?"
He kissed her on the forehead. "You are such an innocent."
A gasp left her lips. "Do you mean it's mine?" He nodded and waited for her reaction. "Sweet Mother of Jesus! Do I have blood on me too, on my legs, on my―?"
He laughed again. "Yep."
"Oh, you're horrible, Gavin. If I knew you were going to draw blood, I would have stopped you."
"Doubtful. The only thing coming from your sweet lips was, 'please Gavin.'"
She slapped him on the shoulder. "You needn't preen so."
"Why not? I've waited decades to gloat."
"I shall preen too then."
"Be my guest."
A smile curved her lips. "Do you remember what you said just before…well, never mind, but do you?"
"Entranced by your seductive charms, no doubt I said many foolish things."
"You said. . .." She captured his eyes. "You said, 'I love you.'"
She wanted to gaze into the depths forever, penetrate his soul until he'd never look at another woman without seeing her. "Did you mean it?" She held her breath, stricken by another onslaught of desire.
He grew very still, his answer measured. "Every. Single. Solitary word."
With a smile, she delivered a kiss to his lips and then snuggled into his arms. "Good. I'm exhausted and want to sleep now."
He wound his fingers around a strand of her hair. "Sleep my little pirate, you earned it."
Moments later, her words smothered by a yawn, she asked, "Gavin, what if Billy and his friends come to Arbor Rose?"
"I'll have to kill them."
She bolted upright. "You're teasing me, right?"
"Yes." He pushed her down to his chest again. "Go to sleep now."
* * *
Gavin couldn't believe the hand fate had dealt him. Never in his wildest dreams did he imagine Sophia would come to him, lie in his arms and allow him to taste the sweet nectar of his one and only desire. In his lusty, youthful days, he'd watch her and Jesse while they strolled the dusty roads of the countryside and swam in the cool, clear depths of the Mill Pond. So often he’d imagined she smiled for him, turned to him with those gypsy eyes, but it had always been for Jesse. As they grew to adulthood, he'd lie awake at night and imagine Sophia beneath him, whispering his name, but he knew it was a wild fantasy of his feeble brain.
Sophia would marry Jesse Gaines Grantham and he would stand idly by while she gazed into his friend's eyes and said 'I do'. He would harbor his erotic fantasies of what might have been if just once he'd gathered the courage to tell her how he felt.
He looked at Sophia sleeping peacefully in the crook of his arm. Her lush pink lips were slack and her long lashes rested against her flawless, translucent skin. Sheer perfection.
Tomorrow, he'd tell her about Jesse.