Chapter Six

Sophia awoke in the morning and wondered if she had hallucinated last night. She sat up in bed with a groan. Gavin and the sheets were gone, but the quilt remained to cover her aching, bruised body. With the remembrance of their night passion still fresh in her mind, waves of thrills trembled through her. No, she hadn't dreamed it. She stretched like a contented cat and relived his urgent kisses and his hot hands gliding over her naked flesh.

The sound of Gavin's voice drifted through open window. "Slēan! Slēan!"

"Sweet Virgin Mary!" Sophia scrambled from bed and lifted the sash. Relief flooded her and then anger. "Gavin Langdale, you frightened me to death!"

He gave her a lopsided smile. "Good morning to you too."

She chose to ignore his greeting. "Why on God's earth are you telling Ricochet to attack?"

Gavin picked up the straw-packed scarecrow and plopped it into the saddle again. "Watch, Sophia, Ricochet will take him down in five seconds from a distance of ten feet."

The wolfhound waited for his master's command. "Slēan! Slēan!"

With lightning speed, Ricochet flew through the air and toppled the scarecrow from the mount. After another stern command, the dog ceased ripping the throat from the imagined enemy. Gavin clapped his hands and danced a little jig. "He remembers, he hasn't forgotten."

Sophia rolled her eyes. "Of course, he remembers. Killing is inbred in him."

"In days of old," Gavin said, "wolfhounds were trained to knock knights off their steeds and rip their throats out."

Looking around the yard for eavesdroppers, Sophia hissed the words through clenched teeth, "I imagine after last night you fancy yourself Sir Lancelot?"

He offered a dramatic bow. "Ravishing the delicious Guinevere, yes."

"Oh, you're impossible," she said and slammed the window shut.

Sophia's heart raced while she dressed. Gavin stood in the yard all right, but not the Gavin she thought she knew all these years. Not after last night. The transformation astonished her. His every touch had uncoiled her tight muscles, pitched her into a bottomless pit of desire. With a groan, she realized her feelings for the man were spiraling out of control. If only she could wave a magic wand and make the Sun disappear. She wanted him again and the night was ages away.

Recalling his words, her nipples hardened and she grew hot all over. 'You will crave me like I crave you.' What a dunce she'd been all these years. Descending the stairs, apprehension gripped her. What if he didn't feel the same this morning; had changed his mind?

Sophia entered the kitchen and settled into a chair across from Gavin. Still half-dazed by what he'd done to her, she couldn't stop thinking about it. Or stop looking at him. She'd been a wild thing. Strung tighter than a string from Brister's fiddle, she had twisted and moaned her pleasure beneath him. Her body had ached with primitive need and hungered for release. Damn the man. He was looking at her with those damnable, wicked blue eyes.

So unprepared for the conflicting emotions and the way her body had responded to him, she wanted to cry. The truth slapped her in the face. Good Lord, she loved Gavin Langdale. She nearly gasped out loud, and he continued to study her with a knowing look. He couldn't possibly know she'd loved him for years. Not when she hadn't known herself. Could he?

"Sleep well?" Whatever he might be thinking, he suppressed his emotions.

"Yes, you?"

He took a sip of coffee and looked at her over the rim. "Like a baby."

"Why do people always say like a baby?" She looked toward the window, away from his penetrating gaze. "I have it on good authority that newborns sleep very little and are often restless."

"Do you now?"

"Yes, and what's more, you didn't sleep like a baby."

"Oh-oh, did I have another nightmare?"

She nodded and lowered her eyes. "But you didn't put a knife to my throat this time." She couldn't look at him, couldn't think. His calm composure unnerved her.

"I don't bury it under my pillow after what happened last time." She heard him set the cup down and felt his warm gaze lick over her. "What happened to your face?"

Her hand flew up to cover the chafed skin near her jaw. "Your beard chafed my skin."

He rubbed his chin between his thumb and index finger "My beard?"

"It's nothing, should be gone in a day or two."

Without taking his eyes from her he said, "The sheets are on the line."

She dropped her voice to a whisper, annoyed by the boastful tone in his voice. "You washed them?"

He nodded.

She felt the blood drain from her face. "What did you tell Brister and Ol' Nap? What if they know, what if they look at me now―?"

"And know I love you?"

Her pulse leaped with joy. "You do?"

"Forever and always."

She flew into his lap and rested her head against his shoulder. "I thought maybe you changed your mind, regretted what happened."

He pulled her chin up. "Sophia, you don't understand. This isn't a passing occurrence, a frivolous surge of lust. I've loved you for so long I can't remember not loving you. After last night, I could no more live without you than I could my heart."

A tear slid from her eye and she dashed it away. "Oh, why do I always cry now? I haven't cried in years, not even when the Yankees came, not when Brister told me everyone had died."

"Don't be ashamed of what passed between us. It can never be explained and has never happened to me before."

Her head drew back. "How many other lovers have you had?"

He chuckled. "That came out wrong. There is and never has been anyone but you for me."

His dark eyes searched hers. She sensed he wanted a similar response from her, and she couldn't bring herself to admit she'd loved him all along. She wrapped her arms about his neck, kissed him and changed the subject. "What do you have planned for today? Nothing strenuous I hope."

His smile stopped her breath. "No, my little pirate, I'll be more than ready to pleasure you when you come to my bed tonight."

"Your confidence astounds me. What makes you think I want to come to your bed again?"

"Shall I prove it to you right now?"

"No," she said, realizing she'd lost the battle the moment she sat down in his lap.

He kissed her neck. "To answer your question, would you care to accompany me into Fredericksburg this morning?"

She leaned into him. "I'd like that very much."

"Good, I'll ready the horses."

* * *

Gavin saddled the russet mare and the old gelding, the only horses that remained from Sophia's father's prized stock. Sophia walked from the manor, suitable riding clothes covering her exquisite body—soft leather pants, a cotton shirt and high-top boots. A green ribbon tied her long hair back at the nape of her neck. The image reminded him of one he'd carried with him for years. Sitting atop a spirited bay, she'd arrived at Fairlawn to show off her new birthday present, a wolfhound pup. Gavin had been so mesmerized by her enormous emerald eyes and sleek, black hair he forgot to look at the dog.

The bitter tone of her voice drew him back to the present. "The Yankees took every horse except these two. Gambler was too old and Mischief ready to foal when they left."

"The colt." Gavin glanced at the long-legged yearling behind the fence. "He'll be a fine stallion in another year."

"Baby Moon's father was Moondancer."

"Baby Moon?" He rolled his eyes and gave a final tug to Gambler's cinch. "What kind of a name is that for a stud?"

"Well he was just a baby when I named him," Sophia said indignantly.

Gavin held his hand out, hoisted her onto Mischief's back and instantly his cock expanded. Christ, he wanted her again, here, now. "Baby Moon wasn't happy about staying behind so I locked him in the paddock."

Ricochet fell in behind them, heedless of Gavin's stern command to stay home. He glanced skyward. At high noon, the pitiless sun drenched the countryside, and wind-driven clouds rolled across a vivid blue sky. Sophia hummed along to the meadowlarks and thrushes singing out from the nearby pines. But not Gavin. Trapped in a web of deceit, he felt gut-punched. Every time he worked up the nerve to tell her or show her the letter, she had only to look at him and every good intention vanished. How would he broach the subject now? What words would he use? 'Sophia, now that I've taken your virginity, I must tell you Jesse is dead. You can see the practicality of it. He's gone, and you're ruined, so you'll have to marry me.' Or, 'Sophia, I meant to tell you when I came back, but you shot me, and once I recovered, I could think of nothing but fucking you. Jesse's death seemed so insignificant at the time.'

He meant to tell her this morning, but couldn't find his tongue after she flew into his lap. Last night, she'd kissed him with a hunger that belied any feelings she held for Jesse. He'd been shocked when she came to his room, stunned by her eager response to his touch. He'd never be able to rid her from his soul now that he'd tasted her, spilled his seed in her. When she found out about Jesse, he'd be forced to.

He drank in her loveliness. "You're quite distracted this morning."

"And you're still preening."

"Why wouldn't I be?" he replied, basking in his newfound bliss. "So what are you daydreaming about?"

"Hmm." She tipped her face to the sun. "Now that you've kissed me, I can't help but wonder if Jesse's kisses truly made me tingle or could it have been something more?"

The image in Gavin's mind nearly choked him. He brought Gambler to a halt and grabbed the reins of her mount. "Maybe I should yank you from the saddle, toss you to the ground and fuck you again for comparison."

She winced. "I was teasing."

He fought to stifle his rage. "Don't ever talk to me about kissing Jesse or any other man." He leaned into her until his chest brushed her shoulder. "Not unless you want your worst nightmare to come true."

"Gavin, I . . .."

Stunned by his lack of control and his difficulty to draw breath, his voice cracked. "I've spent a million nights dreaming about you, died a thousand times when you looked at Jesse the way I wanted you to look at me." He turned away from her. "Don't ever say anything like that again."

"Forgive me," she said with feeling. "It was a stupid thing to say, but you appeared to be reveling in my, my―"

"Christ, just say it. Is it so hard to admit?"

"All right." She drew a deep breath. "My naked lust for you."

"Lust?" He tossed his head back and roared. "You're so naïve, Sophia. I hate to break it to you but what you feel for me is not mere lust. You forget I've known you since you were ten."

"What of it?"

"Has it ever occurred to you, you loved me even then?"

"Don't be ridiculous." She rolled her eyes. "Children don't know the meaning of love at that age."

"What about that day I left for the war? You think I didn't see tears in your eyes, see you withdraw your arm when I touched you?"

"Well, I-I felt sad about you leaving." She blinked. "You can't call that love."

"You loved me." His smugness rankled her. "And you love me now, but you're too proud to own up to it."

She focused on the distant horizon. "I don't want to talk about it anymore."

"Fine. When you decide to act like a woman instead of spoiled brat, let me know. I'll be waiting with bated breath."

"You know what, Gavin Langdale?" Green eyes darkened. "Even as a child you were cocky, aloof and-and arrogant."

"And you loved that about me, didn't you, my little Sophronia Whitfield?" She dug her heels into Mischief, and he gave a stern warning to Ricochet, "Go home!"

The dejected hound turned south and skulked off.

Time passed in quiet solitude until they pulled into Fredericksburg. The houses along the river were riddled with shell and ball. The stores had been broken into; the windows shattered. Several had been replaced with wood or heavy sheaths of paper but everything worth a nickel had been destroyed.

Sophia gave a grief-stricken sigh. "It saddens me to come here."

Gavin lifted her from Mischief, tied the horses to the railing and they headed toward the mercantile. "Maybe it wasn't such a good idea bringing you here, but I thought you needed a change of scenery."

She nodded to a passerby heading down the wooden sidewalk. "I did, and I plan to purchase some new ribbons for my hair while we're here."

He looped his arm in hers and walked her up the stairs to the entrance. "Let me buy them for you."

"You have lots of money, don't you, Gavin?"

"Lots and lots. Will that induce you to say you love me?"

"No," she replied with a delightful chuckle. "But I will let you buy my ribbons."

An hour later, their shopping complete, they left the mercantile and Gavin untied the horses from the railing. Sophia gasped and ducked behind his shoulder.

"What is it?"

She pointed across the street. Billy and his sidekicks leaned against the gray walls of the saloon, their expressions hostile. With his friends in close pursuit, Billy ambled down the steps and crossed the street.

Gavin clucked his tongue against his cheek as they stood before them. "What happened to your neck, Billy? You get tangled up with a thorny bush?"

"Go ahead, Langdale, laugh all you want right now, but Pa's not going to take this lying down. He's got something up his sleeve, and I think you're going to enjoy the fireworks."

Gavin's body tensed. "Tell your pa I'll be waiting for him." The man who sent him flying through the air last night grinned like a hyena. "You should slap some cold meat over that black eye. It's going to turn green, then yellow and swell up until you can't see straight." Gavin launched a stream of spit and smiled when it landed on the man's boot.

As the air cracked with undercurrents, Gavin waited for the man to make a move. A guttural growl echoed around them. He looked over his shoulder and spied Ricochet crouched on the steps of the mercantile, his body rigid, his lethal fangs flashing beneath the midday sun.

The calm voice had returned, the one Sophia recognized as feigned patience. "Get on your horse, Sophia."

She mounted and called out to the dog. "Come, boy."

Billy glanced at the hound. "Someone ought to put that miserable wretch out of his misery."

"Isn't that strange?" Gavin laughed. "The dog said the same about you this morning." He climbed into the saddle, took the reins in hand and motioned for Sophia to head out. Not until he called to Ricochet did the dog snake down the steps with one eye still on the strangers.

A mile out of town, Sophia turned to Gavin. "What did Billy mean by his pa has something up his sleeve?"

"Nothing. Big talk from a little man."

She gave a start and looked behind her. "I'm frightened."

"Ricochet will let us know if they're trailing us."

She worried her bottom lip. "They're up to something."

"Then I'll just have to be more vigilant, won't I?"

Lost in thoughts about Jesse, Billy and every other confounded problem, Gavin had little to say on the journey home. He could no longer justify keeping the truth from Sophia. Last night changed everything. The more time that passed, the more she'd hate him when she learned the truth.

Tonight, win or lose, he would tell Sophia Jesse was dead.

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