Daddy Brister surprised them with braised pork ribs, sweet peas and a homemade blueberry pie upon their return from town. The intensity of Gavin's gaze throughout the meal robbed Sophia of sane thought. Aroused beyond imagination, she wanted his fingers touching her everywhere, needed the hunger he'd awakened in her sated.
Nap and Brister announced their intention to visit Crenshaw's manor again to hear a fiddler from nearby Hartwood. With any luck, the darkies would dance until sunup. She and Gavin would be alone for the entire evening and the thought reduced her to dizziness. Gavin headed to the barn to secure the horses for the night and at Sophia's request, Brister and Nap hauled the copper tub to her parents' room. After toting several cauldrons of water from the well and heating it, the loyal servants bid her goodbye.
Tonight, she intended to summon every charm she could dredge up, whisper love words in Gavin's ear until he was mindless with need for her. It seemed fiercely important to admit she loved him, had loved him since the day he pulled her from the river. She didn't relish granting him the victory, could well imagine his smug hauteur, but she could no longer conceal the truth. She had loved Gavin Langdale for years.
She stripped down and lowered her body into the warm, scented water, savoring the last sliver of wisteria soap she pilfered from the bureau drawer. Her mother's favorite, Cumsy had spent hours pummeling the fragrant blossoms into fine powder before tossing them into a boiling pot of fat and lye. When the mixture stood firm, Cumsy cut them into four-by-four squares.
A disquieting sigh left Sophia's lips as she spoke to the ceiling, "The Yankees took everything, even the last batch of soap, and I haven't the foggiest how to make more."
* * *
Tamping down a strong urge to shuck his clothes, join Sophia in the tub and fuck her senseless, Gavin drank in her beauty for several long moments. He heard her comment about the Yankees and it only served to add to his mounting guilt. He was, after all, a Yank. "I sorely regret your suffering during the war, the loss of your brother and parents, and―"
Color washed over her damp cheeks and she giggled. "Spying on me, were you?"
"Guilty. Only a fool would turn away from such a captivating scene."
She grabbed a large cotton towel from the rim of the tub and wrapped it around her slender, delicate body as she rose. She'd secured her dark hair at the top of her head with a trio of pearl hair combs, unaware that several long strands had worked their way loose to frame her elfin face. Her damp skin glowed from a recent scrubbing, and her green eyes shone like precious stones against the soft candlelight. Damn, she was simply breathtaking. And he, painfully aroused.
"My cotton wrapper is behind you on the door." She put her hand out. "Would you mind?"
The faint scent of wisteria drifted across the room, intoxicating him further. "I would mind, actually."
Her brows met in the middle. "I-I don't understand―"
He went to her in a noiseless stride and scooped her into his arms. "You have no need of it."
Amid her gasps of surprise, he carried her down the hallway and kicked the door to her bedchamber open. Striding to the bed, he flopped onto it backwards, still clutching her in his arms.
Laughter spilled from her, and when she rose into a sitting position with her provocative bottom snuggled against his hips, the towel slipped away. Gavin had courted death many times, yet he'd never been this close to heaven. His cock expanded, surged upward and pushed against the cleft of her buttocks.
"I'm a novice." She pulled the combs from her hair until it spilled over her collarbones and down her back. "Tell me how to please you."
He pushed the long tresses over her shoulder, cupped her breast, and groaned when it grew taut and heavy in his hand. "Touch me, Sophia."
She scooted back until she sat on his thighs, brought her fingers to the waistband of his trousers and slipped her hand inside. Burnished in candlelight, he'd never seen her more beautiful. He sucked in a deep breath when she clasped his cock.
She stroked it up and down, and applied pressure at the tip. "Am I doing it right?"
Arrested by her loveliness, her innocent desire to please him, he could only stare, afraid if he moved an inch, he'd spill his seed.
"If you like it, why aren't you moving?"
"If I blink, it will be over before you know it."
Seemingly emboldened by this new power over him, she removed her hand and rolled his pants down his hips, lifting her bottom up with her knees. Gavin finally managed to push his trousers down to his ankles with his feet and then kicked them off. He slid his hand between their feverish bodies and found the soft curls of her sex. With a moan, she arched her back and gave him a full view of her perfect breasts and peaked nipples. He entered her with a finger and was rewarded by a plaintive cry. He could think of nothing more erotic than being fucked senseless by Sophia while he watched. His fantasy was answered seconds later. She pushed his hand away, rose up on her knees and looked at him questioningly.
Gripping her hips, he buried the head of his cock inside her. "Allow me."
"Oh-Oh." Her dark eyes widened. She bit her bottom lip and drew a deep breath. "I-I want to, but―"
"Do it, Sophia, fuck me."
She shifted and lowered herself until her sex sheathed him. He gripped the sheets and nearly came off the bed. And watched her still. Her eyes were closed and she panted through the initial discomfort. She moved with tentative grace at first, using her knees to lift and lower her bottom, every stroke wringing a groan from his lips. Finding a rhythm that brought him to the brink of madness, she twisted and writhed over him like a primordial jungle cat. Her hands moved from the bed to his chest and her lips found his. When she whispered his name into his mouth, he could take no more.
He rolled over, taking her with him and thrust into her hard and deep. Again and again he fucked her with an insatiable need to drive thoughts of Jesse from her mind, and from his. Anger and loathing surged through him. And overpowering love for Sophia. She tightened around his cock and shuddered beneath him. A thousand images flashed through his mind, all of her, from their childhood and how she looked moments ago grinding against him with her hair tumbling all about them. With a broken cry, she called out his name and he slammed into her, his semen coming so hard and fast, he thought he would black out. Never in his life had the act of sex taken him to such heights. Weak and drained, he fell on top of her with a curse.
Long moments later, he rolled from her, lay on his back and stared at the ceiling.
Bringing a hand to his cheek, Sophia turned to him. "Did I displease you in some way?"
"God, no" he replied without hesitation. "I'm the one who should apologize for the quickness."
"Are you mad? You've made me into a shameless wanton in a matter of two days. In another two, you'll no doubt have me begging."
He rose from the bed and slipped on his trousers. "Then I'd know for sure I died and went to heaven."
"Where are you going?"
He bent down and kissed her forehead. "To the kitchen for another slice of blueberry pie. Have to bolster my stamina if I intend to satisfy such a temptress."
"If the soreness between my legs is testament enough, your stamina is not lacking in the slightest," she retorted. "And I'm famished."
"Then I shall bring you sustenance, you earned it."
Gavin didn't want a piece of pie or anything to eat. In fact, nausea swirled in his gut as he made his way to the kitchen. Caught in a cesspool of lies and deceit, he could barely look at Sophia. The perverse irony of it. She was the only woman he'd ever wanted, and now that she was finally his, he'd lose her―the very moment he told her about Jesse.
* * *
Sophia heard Ricochet whimper. "Come here, poor, neglected baby." She clapped her hands and called out to him again. "Come, Ricochet." Rolling onto her stomach, she hung over the edge of bed and looked beneath it. "There you are, and what are you guarding?"
The hound wagged his tail, crawled out and scurried from the room. Sophia stared at Gavin's haversack. She'd forgotten about it in all the chaos and realized he must have stashed it there for safekeeping. A voice entered her head.
"Are there letters in there from other women?" the voice said. Gavin told her there had been others, a casual remark that diced up her heart with a dull-edged knife. It came as no surprise to her; women had always been drawn to Gavin. The image of him driving into their bodies disturbed her more than she cared to admit.
Curiosity propelled her to rise from the bed, don last night's nightgown and yank the haversack from its dark grave. Lord, what a fright! Mud-streaked and stained with blood, the exterior had seen better days. She sat on the floor with her legs tucked beneath her and stared at it. Guilt assailed her, but a strong propensity toward good old-fashioned nosiness assuaged it. She struggled with the button briefly, opened it, and took the contents out one at a time—a pocket watch, beeswax candles, mirror and a comb. The remainder of the items were quite insignificant—a tooth brush and powder, matches, a sack of coffee beans and chewing tobacco. She glanced at the door, deciding she best make haste before Gavin returned.
About to give up on her quest for love letters, she spied another side pocket. Fumbling inside, her fingers met a stack of papers. With a smile she pulled them out―letters, tied neatly with a piece of twine. The first was from John Langdale in Massachusetts, his father's people she assumed, and the second from the United States Government. Gavin's discharge papers.
Stamped with a bloody handprint, and addressed to her, the third letter stopped her heart. Dread gripped her and her hand trembled. Why did Gavin have a letter in his haversack addressed to her? Warning bells went off in her head. She knew if she opened the envelope, her life would be altered forever.
With her breath solidified in her throat, she whispered, "Jesse's writing."
Gavin had seen him and didn't tell her. And the blood. Whose? She panted through her rising hysteria as she opened the envelope and unfolded the letter. Her eyes scanned the page and her heart stopped beating.
December 11, 1862
My darling Sophia,
If you're reading this, I'm no longer amongst the living.
The Battle of Fredericksburg has begun. Strange, all I could think of a few short months ago was joining the ranks of my southern brethren to fight against northern oppression, and now, I think only of you. The howitzers roar around me and, I wonder if, at this very second, you are fleeing for your life, scared out of your wits, believing the whole world has gone mad. Be brave, my darling, and know that I hold you in my heart until we meet again.
I long to see your face. I tell God if he'll grant me that privilege, I'll surrender to Him peaceably. If ever a man loved a woman with all his soul, it is me. My solace comes by way of memories, flashbacks from our childhood fragmented snippets of days gone by when our cares were nothing more than what we might do to pass the lazy days of summer. Oh, what I wouldn't give to return to those carefree days of youth.
I know a secret, Sophia. Something I've carried with me for years. It's about Gavin. I was afraid to tell you, terrified you'd love him instead of me. He has loved you, Sophia, since we were children. I don't know if he'll make it through this horrific war, but when it's over you must find him. His love for you runs deeper than the Rappahannock we once sailed as pirates. I am gone, Sophia, and I close with one last wish. Find Gavin and be happy.
I will see you again my love in the Land of the Falling Stars.
Forever and Always, Jesse Gaines Grantham
Sophia dropped the letter into her lap. Shock froze the blood in her veins, sent her limbs into tremors. Jesse was dead. Oh, God, please don't let it be true. She hadn't said goodbye to him. When did it happen? Gavin knew and he'd kept it from her all these weeks.
Tears slid down her cheeks and soaked her nightshirt. Cold reality slapped her in the face. Gavin had kept if from her, had methodically spun a tangled web of lies and deceit. He took her virginity knowing the entire time she waited on a ghost. She wept aloud, unable to control the shockwaves coursing through her body. Long minutes later, her distress replaced by virulent anger, she gathered the contents on the floor and stuffed them into the haversack.
The door flew open and Gavin walked in carrying a tray. "Ricochet's need to go outside delayed me."
Seething with anger, her head came up.
His eyes searched hers before they moved on to the haversack and the letter in her hand. "Sophia, I can explain―"
She heaved herself from the floor and charged, her arms and legs lethal weapons, her teeth barred. Gavin assumed a defensive position and buffeted her assault the best he could but seized by rage, she managed to deliver a series of solid kicks to his shins.
"Damn it, Sophia, stop!"
She clamped her teeth down on his shoulder and drew blood. He picked her up, tossed her onto the bed, and pinned her wrists over her head until she cried out. She writhed and bucked beneath him and succeeded at working a leg loose. In the breath of a heartbeat, she kneed him in the groin, reveling in his pained groan. Taking full advantage of his incapacitated state, she clamped her teeth down on his cheek like a rabid dog. Blood, warm and sticky trickled into her mouth.
With a hard slap, Gavin sent her head reeling. "Listen to me, you little hell-cat."
Sophia rallied quickly, despite the sharp pain in her cheek. She twisted beneath him, his weight and her anger cutting off her airway. "There's only one thing I want to hear from your lying mouth—where is Jesse?"
He closed his eyes and sucked in a gulp of air.
"Where is he!" she screamed. "Where is he!"
His voice broke. "Dead."
An anguished whimper fell from her lips. "Oh, God, no, please, tell me it isn't true. He can't be dead."
"I'm going to let you up now." Gavin's calm tone belied the agony in his eyes. "If you don't go berserk, I will tell you everything."
He lifted his weight from her body and waited to see what she would do. Releasing her slowly, he rose and stood beside the bed.
Sophia scooted back against the headboard and choked down the bile in her throat. "When–when did he die?"
Anguished tears flowed. "The dream was no dream. Oh, God, he came to say goodbye."
"I reckon that's true."
She placed her fingers to her temple. "Why do you have his letter to me in your haversack?"
"He gave it to me."
"Oh, Sweet Mother of Jesus." She clutched her stomach. "When?"
"On the battlefield."
"You saw him at Spotsylvania?"
"How, what happened?"
"I shot him," he said, cold-voiced.
Her primitive cry drifted around them. With her hands over her ears, she rocked back and forth like a wounded beast.
Gavin dropped to his knees beside the bed to comfort her, but she pushed him away. Long moments passed. When she opened her eyes, she'd never seen such torture in a man's eyes.
"I didn't know it was Jesse. I just aimed and he fell. It wasn't until I knelt down beside him and he said my name that I . . .."
She buried her face in her hands. "No. No. No!"
"Whispering your name, he died in my arms."
Suffocation clogged her throat. "All these weeks you knew and you didn't tell me!" She slapped him across the face. "I hate you, Gavin Langdale, hate you!"
He didn't even flinch from the direct hit. "I wanted desperately to tell you, but―"
"But what, you wanted to make sure you fucked me first, forced me to stay with you?"
He reached out to her. "Do you think I would shackle myself to a woman who doesn't want me?"
"Do not touch me!" She closed her eyes. "Ever!"
An eternity passed before she could open them. The hysterics and tears had left her, replaced by an icy coldness in her voice. "I could have forgiven you for shooting Jesse, I know you loved him." Her words hung in the air between them. "But I will never forgive you for not telling me before-before. . .."
His face hardened. "I'm the one who has to live with knowing I shot my best friend. I tried to tell you a thousand times, but I-I couldn't."
She rose from the bed, walked to the door, and clung to the handle, not sure her limbs would hold her. "Leave my bedchamber, leave Arbor Rose. I don't ever want to see your face again."