An accumulation of steady snow kept Lauren home bound in the following months. Creed arrived at the ranch on a regular basis to see Finn, but shunned her attempts to engage in conversation. The hope she harbored that when spring came, he'd change his mind about leaving faded with every passing day. She marked the days of the calendar with the somber realization soon he'd be gone…and prayed spring would be postponed forever.
Reading a book to Finn in the great room, Lauren heard Aunt Estelle greet a visitor. "Creed, we're always happy to see you but what are you doing out in this horrific weather?"
"If I let a little snow stop me, I'd be cooped up for months in this state."
"A little snow? Looks like a blizzard out there." Her aunt's melodic laugh drifted down the hallway. "Come in. Lauren and your son are in the great room."
Footsteps fell across the floor while Lauren attempted to calm her raging emotions. He shot her a slapdash nod when he entered, scooped Finn into his arms and hefted him onto his shoulders.
Estelle poked her head into the room. "Now that we have you, I can't allow you to leave tonight. I'm sure you heard Levi Mooney died in the last storm; went out to milk his cows and they found him days later frozen to death near the barn."
His smile turned Lauren's insides to squash pulp. "He should have tied a rope to the door of the house and fastened it around his waist. Could have found his way back then."
"Should have, could have, but didn't." Estelle's chin came out. "Polly taught you to mind your elders. I'm your elder and you're not leaving until the storm abates."
A smirk bowed his lips. "Yes, ma'am."
"I'll ask Nelly to prepare the guest room." Estelle turned on her heels, headed toward the kitchen and mumbled over her shoulder. "Supper in an hour—beef roast and potatoes."
Lauren watched the banter between her aunt and Creed with her pulse racing in sync with her heart. The last thing she expected today was Creed showing up in a blizzard and…her aunt insisting he spend the night. Finn giggled and clapped his hands, drawing her attention. She'd never been more aware of how much son looked like father. She thought of Brand and wondered if he knew the truth when he asked for her hand. He'd asked her once about Finn's father, but when she sloughed off his question, he never asked again.
Creed's voice broke into her musings. "You were reading Finn a book when I walked in. How about I take over?"
She found her feet and handed him Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. He doesn't care much about the words but likes the pictures." She longed to stay, watch from the sidelines while Creed and Finn interacted. She'd lock the image in her brain for an eternity. Heading for the archway in the room, she muttered, "I'll see if Estelle needs help in the kitchen."
Creed's brisk words stopped her. "I didn't plan to stay. If you're upset about me spending the night, I'll leave."
"Don't be silly." She pivoted around with a sigh. "Will it always be like this, this cold rigidity?"
"I didn't plan that either. I never expected or wanted anything to come between us."
"For Finn's sake, can we put our differences aside for one night, pretend..."
The air separating them sizzled with desire. At one time they were one, all fire and flame. Now they were like fire and water. No, it wasn't true. The potent magnetism still existed. Now they were the moth and the flame, she the hapless insect, Creed the potent flare she couldn't resist.
His eyes met hers. "We can pretend anything you want for one night." He emphasized his next words. "One night, Lauren."
She took several steps back. If she didn't flee now, she couldn't be held accountable for her volatile emotions. "I'll see you at dinner."
She turned and walked from the room.
* * *
Lauren pulled a cotton shift over her head and climbed beneath the covers. The evening meal passed without incident or strained conversation. Perhaps she and Creed had accepted the futility of a future together. She had to hand it to him—at least he took a stand to change the miserable situation, while she hadn't even agreed to bury her husband.
She tossed and turned; her mind racing with memories and what-ifs. When at last she found blissful sleep, she dreamed. Brand stood before her on their wedding day. She relived Finn's birth and the attack on Full Circle by the Indians. A montage of visions flashed in her dreams—her kidnapping, journeying with French traders down a river, and Creed walking into camp to save her.
A noise awakened her sometime in the night. She jackknifed up, her heart thrumming, her body in a cold sweat. She glanced out the window. A full moon chased gray clouds and snowflakes tumbled from the sky. Inside, the silence deafened her, yet she sensed a presence.
Someone had entered her room.
A shadow slipped from the corner and made its way to the bed. She knew only one person who moved with the stealth of a panther, appeared without warning like a silent phantom.
His name fell from her lips with a whimper, "Creed."
His chiseled features stood out like a beacon against the luminous background of white. She scooted back and felt the headboard meet her shoulders. Wrapping her arms around her knees, she shivered.
His voice sent both fear and thrills down her spine. "Don't say a word."
She couldn't speak if she wanted to, and couldn't force her eyes to turn from his beauty. Her chest rose and fell with rapid breaths and blood pounded in her ears.
After yanking something from the waistband of his trousers, he grabbed her wrist.
Her words eked out, "What-what are you doing?"
"You're mad. If I scream, Estelle will be here in a heartbeat."
"You won't scream."
"No. You want me as much as I want you, but you're a hypocrite, Lauren." He tied one wrist to the bed post. "I'll make it easy for you; take all the responsibility so you can live with your oath to a dead man."
"Untie me this instant."
"Not on your sweet ass," he said fastening her other wrist to a railing on the headboard. "This is best. Now you can convince yourself I forced you."
Straightening, he unbuttoned his shirt and opened the belt of his trousers and stepped out of them. And he watched her. She gasped when he joined her in bed and straightened her bended knees.
"You can fight me if you want but it won't make any difference in the end."
The pulse at the base of her throat throbbed in triple-time, and low in her belly, an ache took flight. One button at a time, he opened her night shift, pushed it over her head and flung it across the room. "Now there's nothing between us." He cupped her skull with his big hands and applied pressure. "Except here. I should crush your skull; remove all thoughts of Brand from your mind."
Torn between panic and exhilaration, she whispered, "Creed, don't, please."
His mouth came down on hers. He kissed her with passion, with longing. She opened her mouth when he ran his tongue over her bottom lip, allowing him full access. This was Creed, taking what he wanted when he wanted with apology to none. She loved that about him. Heat flared between them, hot and intense.
At last he released her head and broke from the kiss. "What are we going to do about this lawless love, Lauren?"
She closed her eyes against his words, every one true.
He slid a hand to breast, kneading and caressing. "You like it when I touch you, don't you?"
"Liar." To prove his point, he rubbed her peaked nipple between his thumb and finger. She strained beneath him. "Tell me you want me stop when I touch you here." His hand found the cleft between her thighs. A finger pushed against her nub. He rubbed the hard bud, circling it with deliberate strokes. She moaned and opened her legs, caving in to his exquisite touch. Her hips canted upward when he slipped a finger inside her.
An involuntary moan fell from her lips. The man was wicked and utterly magnificent.
"Kiss me again, Creed, please kiss me."
His mouth crushed hers and she responded with the same verve. Her body betrayed her, as he knew it would. She no longer cared. He'd be gone soon and she'd be left with nothing but memories. His finger worked its magic, pitching her into a maddened frenzy. Nothing mattered now except the joining of their bodies, their souls.
She cried out when he removed his finger. "No, don't stop."
He spread her legs, positioned himself between them, and entered her swift and deep. She canted into him, swept away on a crushing wave. Her body answered his savagery, thrust for thrust, man against woman. He pummeled her, pushing her head into the headboard, and she exalted in his rough possession.
Sobs slipped from her lips and shudders wracked her body. He withdrew and thrust again and again, every stroke a blissful slide of ecstasy. Soon she'd come unhinged from the ecstasy. He knew her well, sensed her impending release. Driving into her hard, he smothered her cry with his hand when she peaked and groaned when his hot semen exploded inside her.
Still hard inside her, he reached up and untied the restraints. Pulling her into his arms, he held her close. She lingered in the twilight—between the veils of reality and slumber.
"Creed," she mumbled, drugged with pleasure and fatigue.
"Don't talk. I want to remember this night without harsh words between us." He kissed her forehead. "Go to sleep little hypocrite, go to sleep."