Chapter Four

Lauren returned to her room and wondered if a strong northerly had blown through. The strewn clutter paled next to the mess she had made of matters outside. She closed the door, emptied the pitcher of water into the bowl and undressed. Her dusty riding clothes landed in a heap on the floor before she washed the grime from her sweat-soaked body. Whether from the hot weather or her encounter with Creed, her flushed skin tingled from the cool water.

She selected a long dress from the armoire—forest green, trimmed with cream lace and cut low at the neck. Next, she pulled the white cotton undergarments, camisole and pantalets, from the bureau. Glancing at the corset in the top drawer, a frown found her. Her waist was small enough without the stuffy garment and it reminded her of everything stifling in the Carolinas. She'd never taken to the constricting attire and saw no reason why she should consider donning it in this harsh land.

Her wealth of dark hair shone by the time she returned the brush to the bureau. Now for the final touch, a green satin ribbon tied at the nape of her neck, a perfect match to her dress. After pinching her cheeks, she applied a small amount of rouge, and as an afterthought, brushed a pinch over her lips. When done, she faced the full-length mirror, pleased with her reflection.

As she descended the stairs, events of the day flooded her mind, the race, the heated exchange with Creed near the corral, and his hateful words—words that echoed in her ears and stung her pride. She wasn't a child to be scolded and sent off to a corner and tonight she'd prove it. Drawing upon a reserve of charms she had learned at a young age, she would use them all on every man present, every man but him. She'd ignore Creed as if he were a fly on the wall, wouldn't even look his way.

She stopped on the main level and drew a deep breath. Her mind reeled from the visions flooding her, his scent, the flint-steel eyes... and her humiliating inability to speak as he loomed over her. How could she forget the rapid pounding of her heart or the waves of desire washing over her? A pang of guilt surfaced. She had cheated, claimed she beat him fair and square, and they both knew she hadn't. Lauren collected her conflicting thoughts, walked through the front door and into the yard.

A full moon clung to the land in an arresting display of brilliance. Additional guests had arrived for the dance, neighbors from nearby farms and close friends from New Ulm. Lauren walked into the barn with her head held high. The fiddlers and banjo strummers had already taken to the platform while guests waited for them to strike up a lively tune.

Against the walls, benches held slumbering children while most of the young men huddled together at the far end and the young women gathered in a small circle on the opposite side. Lauren wound her way through the masses in search of Belle and Emily. When she spied them, Belle motioned her forward and reacquainted her with Frank Knapp and Simon Atkinson.

Belle smiled. "I've been on pins and needles waiting your arrival."

Lauren scanned the room. "I don't appear to be late."

"No, you're not, but I can't wait to see the look on his face when he sees you again."

Lauren glanced over her shoulder. "Who?"

"Creed," Emily replied. "We've never seen him so angry."

Lauren ruffled and straightened her back. "It never occurred to him he might be bested by a woman in a horse race."

"It wouldn't surprise me if he failed to show tonight." Em giggled. "The last time I saw him, Anna held his full attention under a cottonwood."

Em smiled. She reveled in talking about her brother's romantic escapades. "Anna-Schmanna," Lauren clenched her teeth. "I, for one, shall not miss his presence. I hope to have a wonderful time and my odds are enhanced if he's absent."

Belle and Em exchanged glances and then said in unison, "Uh-huh."

"Oh, you two are impossible! I think I'll go find Brand. At least he won't berate me for besting him today."

Lauren didn't have to search for Brand. By the time she turned around, she saw him walking across the dance floor toward her. He rewarded her smile with a warm embrace when he joined them. Lauren studied the man while he conversed with Frank and Simon. Witty and lighthearted, his clear, crisp laughter drifted around through the crowd. The Gatlins had been made from the same threads, attractive and genuine. Except for the eldest, Creed. Brand and his brother were opposites in behavior and temperament, one kind and gentle, the other aloof and rudimentary. She imagined therein lay the reason women flocked to Creed like ticks on a dog. She didn't want to join them, vowed to ignore the arrogant bastard tonight.

Strains of a two-step rang in the air and soon the dance floor grew crowded. On the sidelines, the old and feeble clapped their weathered hands and tapped their feet to the merry renditions, no doubt recalling fond memories from their youth.

Lauren enjoyed herself…until Creed and Anna walked through the door. Anna's red, puffy eyes bore evidence of fresh tears and Creed looked tense. He delivered the woebegone girl to a chair and left again; the mug of brew clasped in his hand. A short time later, he returned, his face flushed, his clothing rumpled. Not to mention his eyes drooping like a coonhound's.

The musicians struck up a waltz. She began the dance with Brand, but Jonathan soon cut in. Occasionally she'd glance at Creed and catch him studying her. She had no desire to speak to him. Judging by the scowl on his face, he felt the same. Edwin claimed her from Jonathan's arms when the dance ended. She felt like a puppet moving through the steps.

They swept by Creed several times and with each passing, his brooding face grew darker. The man sure held a grudge. Guilt cut through her again. He could have broken his neck when she slammed Adobe into his mount, which meant she wouldn't be looking at him now, stealing glances at every opportunity. The thought unsettled her. Creed had seen her at her worst, swearing like a drunken sailor and now cheating at a horse race. What the man must think of her.

The evening ended on a perfect note. Lauren saved the last waltz for Brand. He struck a regal pose on the dance floor and led her about with little effort. She sensed his attraction to her. She'd seen that same look of desire from the young men in Beaufort. She couldn't allow herself to think about that now. Her head spun from the recent turn of events and she had promised Aunt Estelle she would do her best to make them proud. She'd fallen way short of her promise today.

Over Brand's shoulder, Lauren watched Anna approach Creed. Standing on the sidelines engaged in small talk with a neighbor, he nodded and followed Anna onto the dance floor. The sick feeling in her stomach hit her like a wave crashing into shore. She steered Brand away in an attempt to control her tumultuous emotions, but then Anna and Creed appeared next to them.

Silver eyes met hers. "Still trying to best everyone, Miss McCain?"

The words flew from her mouth without thought. "The waltz should prove as easy as the race."

A lazy smile curled his lips and he bent at the waist in an exaggerated bow. "Touché, and might I add, you are truly a vision whether astride a horse or on the dance floor."

She longed to slap his duplicitous face, run her nails down that scornful, contemptuous...gorgeous face.

Brand tossed his head back and laughed. "Creed slept through deportment in school."

She looked at the loathsome man. "Also riding lessons, dance lessons, and Lord knows what else."

"But not swearing lessons, Miss McCain." He slurred the words with a chuckle. "If you need any assistance in that regard, please call on me."

She wrenched Brand from the dance floor with the feeble excuse of needing fresh air.

Under the stars outside, Brand said, "Don't take everything Creed says to heart. He's really not a soulless cad."

"Oh no?" She looked up at the moon.

"No, he's struggling right now, doing his best to let Anna down and she's clinging to him tighter than a honeysuckle vine. You whipping him in that race today didn't help."

Her anger receded and the exchange with Creed now seemed comical, if not senseless. "You're right. I'm prone to seriousness at times." She looked up at him. "Thank you for the dance and for setting me straight."

By the time the last guest left, dawn appeared on the horizon. Exhausted, Lauren stumbled up the steps and tossed herself onto the mattress. Visions of a dark-haired man with steel-grey eyes wormed their way into her thoughts. She tugged the pillow over her head, rolled onto her side and cursed her black luck.

* * *

Lauren stood on the porch, closed her eyes against the bright light and inhaled the fresh air. It had rained last night, and two days prior, rendering the land a verdant cradle of lush green foliage. With grand thoughts of spending the day beneath the warm rays, she headed for the barn.

Hank looked up from his task. "You're up early." He tossed a load of hay into a nearby stall.

"Going riding before Jonathan arrives." Scrunching her face, she snapped her fingers.

"Forget something?"

"Adobe's apple and the lunch Aunt Estelle packed."

He put the fork down. "Run back and get it. I'll saddle Adobe."

Minutes later, heading down the long drive, she urged Adobe into an open meadow. The wildflowers bloomed—prairie larkspur, silky aster, and columbine—an arresting display against the tall pines and ancient hardwoods bordering the field.

Like the horse's gait, her thoughts were languid. She hadn't seen Creed since the barbeque a week ago, and much to her consternation she'd played the scenes of that day over and again in her mind like an act from Moliere's infamous L'Ecole des femmes. The French playwright often championed young lovers and at the same time ridiculed the conventions of marriage.

Brand had called on her the other day accompanied by Belle and Emily, the latter happy to report Creed had broken it off with Anna. Em's tidbit of gossip had delighted Lauren. The foursome had spent the day riding and picnicking, and then Aunt Estelle insisted they stay for the evening meal. The more she saw of Brand, the more her ambiguous feelings toward him reigned. The man oozed virility and beauty, yet the wild, crazy rush she felt whenever his brother's name came up paled in comparison.

At the end of the field, Adobe meandered around a copse of oak and elm, meeting up with a narrow path on the other side. Soon she would come to a clearing and a natural spring of water, a runoff from one of the nearby lakes. Wide and long, the shallow pond had always been the ideal place to swim on hot summer days.

Bluebirds sang from the nearby trees, their sweet songs lifting her spirits. "Bluebirds are a symbol of happiness," Aunt Estelle had said. "If you spot one, you'll find joy throughout the day." She could use a little joy today to dispel her sullen thoughts.

She dismounted and tethered Adobe to a low branch before retrieving the bundle tied to the saddle strings, a red and white checkered napkin containing an apple and two biscuits smothered in blueberry preserves. She opened it, pulled out the apple, and took a bite, saving the remainder for Adobe before the journey home.

The water beckoned her. She scanned the surrounding woods and heard nothing but the scurry of small animals foraging for food. After removing her boots, she rolled her trousers up to her knees and walked to the water's edge, dipping one toe in to test the temperature. Warm as bath water. Feeling daring, she shucked the pants and shirt, tossed them on the bank at her feet and entered wearing only her pantalets and camisole.

The inviting waist-high water swirled around her. She submerged herself, flipped onto her back, and floated with her long hair trailing behind her. Studying the clouds scudding across the sky, she lost herself in frivolous musings. She relived the race, and even today, a twinge of guilt wrenched her heart. Her desperate need to win seemed trivial now. She vowed the next time she saw Creed she'd admit she’d cheated. Wouldn't he puff up like a rooster, run through the countryside telling everyone he met, "Lauren McCain cheated; she didn't beat me fair and square." When his face appeared before her, she dove beneath the water and prayed it would vanish when she reemerged.

Her spirits renewed, she left the spring, picked up her clothing and walked toward Adobe. His ears pricked forward, he blew air through his nostrils and pawed at the ground. The fine hairs at the nape of her neck rose. She had a sickening sense someone watched her.

The tall swamp reeds rustled and Creed walked from a dense thicket of wild sumac. She stared into the slate-grey eyes with her heart thundering in her chest. All gorgeous planes and ridges—like a finely crafted, sculptured bust—he advanced. She gasped and covered herself with the shirt when a knowing smile transformed his features. How long had he been watching her?

Her back went rigid. "Spying on me again, Creed. Have you nothing better to do on a Sunday afternoon?"

His cool gaze swept over her. "Wasn't spying. This is the shortest route to Full Circle."

Her voice broke. "Hah!"

"I had no idea I would find a mermaid swimming in my spring."

"Your spring?" Her chin came up. "This pond is on Full Circle property. I would have passed it by had I known you frequent it."

His jaw twitched and then he walked forward, the pale smoke eyes throwing her world into disorder. A hard façade emanated from him and set her blood boiling. Right now, he played the part of the wily fox and she the hapless hen. Run, her mind screamed. She almost made it to Adobe before he caught her. He grabbed her by the wrist and spun her around, his face inches from hers.

His warm breath fanned the wet tendrils along her forehead. "Wait."

"Let me go, you're hurting my arm!"

"Not on your sweet ass."

His nearness converged like a maelstrom. Without thought, her hand came up and connected with his cheek. She gasped and stared at the bright red handprint. What had she done? Her fingers itched with a need to touch him, wipe away her angry outburst.

His eyes burned cold and hard. He yanked her against him. Tugging her head back with a grip to her wet hair, his mouth came down on hers. She couldn't breathe, couldn't think, yet her lips parted to allow access to his probing tongue. She whimpered and a strange fluttering swept through her belly. Sane reason deserted her.

She couldn't remember how it happened. They were on the ground, her beneath him, his weight pressing down on her in the tall marsh grass. When he found her lips again, liquid fire pulsed through her veins and spread outward to every limb. He smelled of milled lumber, horseflesh and leather; tasted of tobacco and pine needles.

She strained beneath him when his hands rolled the drawers from her hips. He ripped her camisole in two and exposed her breasts. She pushed against his muscled chest, part of her hoping he would stop, another part praying he wouldn't.

"Too late now little hell-cat."

His words sent a shiver through her. His hand came up and cupped her breast. He kneaded and caressed until she thought she'd go mad. Her nipples hardened to tight, small nubs when he took one between his thumb and finger and rubbed. She whimpered, aware she craved his touch, yearned for something beyond her reach.

Through a haze of steamed heat, she watched him remove his clothing. She moaned when his warm skin made contact with hers. His lips met hers again. Gentle. Soft. He teased her mouth open with his tongue and wound his hands into the hair at the sides of her head. Trapping her. Claiming her.

Her breath hitched and a drowning sensation washed over her. Just a kiss, and yet it sent her senses reeling. All doubt fled from her mind. He wanted her and she wanted him.

His tongue slipped inside her mouth and she welcomed it. She groaned against his hot lips and closed her eyes. A muscle clenched deep in her belly and her sex throbbed with need. She wanted him to conquer her, possess her.

He spoke between ragged breaths. "Are you a virgin?"

The heat rose in her cheeks, competing with the other parts of her body. Enthralled, she nodded.

He nudged her thighs apart with his knees and loomed over her, all dark and mysterious. "I'm sorry, this will hurt."

Sorry? What did he mean?

She felt pressure near the entrance of her sex. A sensation of tightness filled her and then more pressure as he pushed into her. A dull ache throbbed in her belly when he came to a barrier. She pushed against his chest again and tried to free herself, but his heavy weight bore down on her.

He pinned her wrists over her head, his voice commanding. "It will hurt for a moment, little one. Don't fight it."

He's mad, utterly insane, she thought moments later. His entry hurt more than a little. When a short scream tore from her throat, he stopped moving and drew a deep breath. Like a tide rolling out to the sea, the pain abated, replaced by subtle waves of pleasure. He released her wrists and moved inside her, a gentle, methodical rhythm that pitched her into a tempo of wild abandon. Her flesh tingled and her head spun. She lost control of her thoughts and her body. Whatever he was about, she wanted more. She moaned deep in her throat, every muscle in her spine stretched taut. He rocked into her, set upon her ruthlessly. God help her, she met him thrust for thrust.

The euphoria came in waves, like a meteor flashing through the sky. She tumbled through a great abyss and clung to Creed's shoulders, whimpering like a wounded animal. Twining her hands in his long hair, she devoured his mouth in a burning kiss. She couldn't speak, couldn't fathom the fire tearing through her. She soared and dipped, and rose again in a frenzied finale of all-consuming release.

Above her, his breaths came in sharp, quick pants before he groaned and collapsed on top of her. Every ounce of his weight pressed down on her, but too stunned to speak, she clamped her mouth shut. Long minutes later, he rolled from her, pulled her into his arms, and stroked her damp hair.

"Christ," he said, and buried his face in her hair. "Are you all right?"

She hesitated. "Quite."

"I didn't mean for that to happen."

Numb with disbelief, she still reeled from the exquisite pleasure he brought her.

She heard the air escape from his lips as if his shoulders held the weight of the world. "I wanted to see you before I left."

"I don't understand." Like her limbs, her voice shook. "What do you mean before you leave? Where are you going?"

"Finn volunteered."

She rose up on an elbow and stared at him. "In the Union army?"

He nodded.

Dread rumbled in her stomach. "What does that have to do with you?"

"I can't let him go alone."

"You enlisted?"

Another nod.

"You can't be serious. You'll be fighting on southern soil against my kin!"

"I have no choice, Lauren."

She pushed away from his embrace and bounded to her feet. "Go on, then. I hope you get your fool head shot off!" She looked down at him, her voice a whisper. "Is Brand going too?"

His expression darkened; his words clipped. "No, he's staying behind to work the ranch. Convenient for you, isn't it?"

She wanted to slap him, kick him, and yet felt an overpowering urge to fall into his arms again and beg him to stay. Her foolish pride pushed the words from her tongue. "You could have told me before you robbed me of my virginity."

"Don't play the little martyr with me. You knew what happened was inevitable. I saw it in your eyes the moment we met."

"Oh!" She stormed off and pulled her blouse over her head, covering the tattered remnants of her camisole. She drew her pants over her legs and bent over to pull her boots on. "You're an arrogant bastard and I loathe you!"

The pewter eyes softened. "No, you don't, Lauren McCain. One day, you'll admit it."

"Isn't that just like a man to ravage a woman and claim she wanted it? You, Creed Gatlin, will never hold my heart. I'll consider this a one-time dalliance. Rest assured, what happened will cause me no pain or guilt."

He pulled his trousers over his hips and rose from the ground. Closing the distance between them, he grabbed her arm. "It isn't a dalliance and you know it. I admit, at first I found you intriguing, a distraction, but now..."

She waited and searched his face, realizing it took supreme effort for her to drag her eyes away. "But now?"

He sighed and pushed a lock of hair from his forehead. "I'm in way over my head."

Lauren summed up the situation with one word. Bleak. She'd given herself to a man who'd be leaving soon. Tears pooled in her eyes, but damn if she'd cry.

"I won't ask you to wait for me." He kicked the dirt. "I don't know what will happen in this crazy war."

Shaken all the way down to her toes, she looked away from him. Anger assailed her on the heels of devastation. She walked to Adobe and mounted. "When do you leave?"

He looked toward the water. "Three days."

"I'll say goodbye now, then."

He grabbed the reins of her mount. "No you won't. You'll meet me here tomorrow afternoon."

"Are you mad?"

"No. Ah, hell, I suppose I am."

"Let go of my horse."

"Not until you promise you'll come."

She looked at the sky, blew air through her trembling lips. "I can't."

Riding from the clearing, emotion choked her. Images of Creed stormed through her mind, his long dark hair and his hard body rising and falling above her. Silver eyes, filled with lust and fire, haunted her. She realized how much he stirred her heart and mind. Casual interlude? It ran much deeper; wasn't just a primal meeting of bodies but a joining of souls.

She had wanted him, wanted him again right now. Knowing his caress now, the taste of his lips, and the exquisite feel of him inside her, she'd never want another. His manly scent still clung to her skin and her flesh still burned. Tears fell from her eyes. She lost more than her virginity in the clearing—she lost her soul.

* * *

Jonathan's horse whinnied from a nearby tree when Lauren rode into Full Circle. Damn her rotten luck. Her wet hair clung to the sides of her head and her clothing was beyond wrinkled. She'd have to destroy her undergarments, would not be able to explain the torn camisole and pantalets to Aunt Estelle. She rode Adobe into the barn and handed the reins off to Hank.

He looked at her wet hair. "You must have decided to take a swim."

"I did," she replied with a glance toward the house. "I had hoped Jonathan would leave once he found out I wasn't here."

"Not a chance. Your aunt has been entertaining him on the porch."

She forged her best smile and walked to the house.

"Dear, what happened? Did Adobe throw you?" Estelle came to her feet and ushered her into the house while a wide-eyed Jonathan took in the scene.

"No, Aunt, Estelle, I took a swim and fell asleep in the grass." Lauren called out over her shoulder. "I'll be down straight away, Jonathan."

"You are a mess, dear." Estelle shoed her up the stairs and called out for Nelly. "Please bring the tub and hot water to Lauren's room."

Lauren entered her room with her aunt nipping at her heels. "I'm fine, just a little tired after my ride."

Hands on her hips, Estelle's brown eyes raked her over. "I was born at night, Lauren McCain, but not last night. How did those leaves get in your hair? And you're clothing is, well, it's in a deplorable state. Take those britches off, the blouse too and hand them to me. Nelly will put them to soak." Her aunt held out her hand, waiting for her to undress right there.

"No! I mean, I'll wait until Nelly brings the tub and then I'll undress."

Estelle cocked her head and narrowed her eyes. "Something is amiss here, and I've a sneaking suspicion you're not going to tell me what it is."

"Nothing happened." Lauren placed her fingers to her temple.

"Why are you frowning?"

"I've come down with a headache, and now I'm expected to entertain Jonathan. Isn't that enough to make me frown?"

"He's waited for two hours. I can't tell him to leave now. In fact, I asked him to stay for supper."

Lauren groaned.

Her aunt stepped aside to allow Nelly entry. "Be kind to him, dear, he's so enamored with you."

"Yes, Aunt Estelle."

Clasping the copper tub with both hands, the black girl set it down by the hearth and glanced up at Lauren with pursed lips.

Damn the all-seeing-all-knowing Nelly.

Moments later Biddle entered with steaming buckets of water and filled the tub.

Estelle chased the servants out and turned to her. "Hurry now, I'll keep Jonathan amused until you come down."

Her aunt closed the door and Lauren crossed the room to lock it. She slipped out of the pants and the blouse and next the undergarments. She gasped. Bright red blood stained the pantalets. Hers? She dangled the camisole in the air between two fingers. Ruined. Shredded. Destroyed. She walked to the hearth, tossed them into the empty belly, and struck a match. Smoke billowed into the room, panicking her. She rushed to the window, opened it, and cocked an ear toward the voices below—Estelle's and Jonathan's. In seconds, the garments evaporated and the gray haze cleared from the room.

Lauren breathed a sigh of relief and lowered her bruised body into the steaming water. Every muscle screamed out in protest, her legs, arms, and back, not to mention the tender flesh between her thighs. Recalling her encounter with Creed, a shiver ran down her spine. She picked up the bar of soap and worked it into lather. How she'd love to wash away the memories like she could the grime.

The thought of Creed leaving crushed her. Maybe she could change his mind. If he wanted her in his life, he'd stay. Dismal thoughts crept forth. Creed wasn't the type to commit. Even now, after he had taken her virginity, he would not ask for her hand in marriage. A groan of despair found her, replaced moments later by visions of him taking her to heights she never dreamed possible. The man embodied wicked. Wild and beyond thrilling, he would also... soon be gone from her life.

She rinsed off and donned clean clothing. Jonathan waited for her, and she'd have to suffer through a night of entertaining him, in addition to wary looks from Nelly and Aunt Estelle. All wasn't lost. Tomorrow, she'd meet Creed again, and for a brief time her world would be right. She walked down the steps to join her aunt, her uncle and Jonathan on the porch for the evening meal.

* * *

The stars favored Lauren the following afternoon. Aunt Estelle and Uncle Mason left for a visit with Ethan and Ansonia Garrett after the noon meal and wouldn't return until dusk. Lauren had pled a lingering headache and rubbed her forehead for effect when her aunt asked her to accompany them.

About to ride from the barn on Adobe, she heard Nelly's voice in the still afternoon air. "Where is ya goin', Miss?"

"Good God, Nelly, you frightened me to death!"

Nelly rocked back on her heels with an impudent smile on her lips. "I thought ya done had a headache?"

Anger came without warning. "I don't have to answer to you, but if you must know, I'm going for a ride."


"Now move aside and I'll thank you not to prattle on to Estelle about my comings and goings."

"Ya gonna be sorry takin' up after that Creed Gatlin. He wild as the wind, won't take to a woman who wants to tie 'em down." Nelly's dark brown eyes softened. "Ah jess doan want to see ya with your heart broke."

For a moment, Lauren felt like crying. She wanted to jump from the horse, run into Nelly's arms, and cry her eyes out. Confession cleansed the soul, and the fact she'd given herself to a man who planned on leaving made her feel lower than a beetle. The thought of not seeing him again, not telling him goodbye tore at her heart. Her eyes darted about the barn.

Nelly stepped aside. "Go on then, but doan say I didn't warn ya."

"What about Aunt Estelle?"

Nelly ran a finger over her lips. "I doan know nothin'."

Lauren dug her heels into Adobe and sped down the long dirt drive. The sun hung low on the western horizon as she rode through the field, down the narrow path, and then came to a halt near the pond. The faint aroma of tobacco drifted around her. You're near, I sense you. Her defenses evaporated when a strong arm pulled her from the saddle and drew her against a hard chest. His mouth devoured hers. Exquisite torture. His lips moved like a whisper across hers. She threw her arms around his neck, tangled her fingers in his long hair and hung suspended in a delirious state of heat and desire. Like the day before an aching warmth spread through her body, scattered to every limb and down her spine. His kiss deepened and she felt a burning need to have him inside her again.

Creed gave a muffled groan, backed her against a tree and tugged on her shirt. "Please don't tear my blouse again."

He didn't, but rather unbuttoned taking his time and pushed it from her shoulders, his hot eyes burning into hers. She felt the hard bark against her skin when he slid the pants from her hips. She moved against him, the wildness in her blood flowing like liquid fire. He hadn't spoken a word, and consumed with lust, she couldn't seem to find her tongue again.

He laid siege to her body, his hands caressing every inch of her skin as though he couldn't get enough. Aware of sliding down the length of the rough trunk, he urged her to the ground and slid between her legs. Breathing heavy, he stopped for a moment and stripped off his shirt and next his trousers. The prickle of thick, black hair on her breasts aroused her, causing whatever sanity remained to flee like the wind.

Creed didn't mince words, knew this unspoken passion between them would flare once they locked eyes. She had known it, but unlike him, couldn't bring herself to admit it. Now she lay beneath him, writhing like a whore at the touch of his hands on her breasts. And a private place no decent person spoke about in public.

A cry of pleasure fell from her lips when he entered her. She stared at the sculpted bones of his face, the dark shadow of stubble on his jaw and his erotic mouth. A patient and meticulous God had created the man.

His silver eyes burned hot with hunger, and for a breathless moment, their eyes locked and held. He had pierced her soul then and her, his. Not one sweet word fell from his lips, not one tender act did he surrender as he thrust deep inside. She didn't care. Their need so base and all-encompassing, tender words would have seemed false. She suffocated under the weight of his powerful body, drowned in the taste of his mouth and the musky scent of his skin. She wanted more and more.

She met every thrust with one of her own. Brilliant strains of color flashed behind her eyelids. Her body floated to another realm, another time. Skin-on-skin, their bodies were locked together in a blissful cadence of abandoned joining.

In the peak of their bliss, he called out her name, the first word he'd spoken since she rode into the clearing. He collapsed on top of her, but she pushed him off and rolled to the side, stunned by the primeval force of their mating. She heard his breath, harsh and ragged beside her but couldn't speak.

His arm came out and he pulled her against his chest. "I think I just died."

She tried to steady her breathing. "Do you always take your women with such brute force?"

"I should ask the same of you." He said it boastfully, knowing she took what he gave and returned the passion.

"I'm not a stalwart woman of the plains, you know. I come from a refined, gentle society."

He pushed her back from his arms and looked into her eyes. "I didn't hear cries for mercy, but rather moans of—"

"Oh, shush, you fool." She blanched at his smile. "I'll wager you know nothing about making love to a woman with tenderness and patience."

She knew the moment the words fell from her lips she had said the wrong thing. He ran his thumb across her lower lip. "I know how; do you want me to prove it?"

He kissed her with so much tenderness, her heart splintered. Her limbs felt like soggy bread, her brain like corn mush by the time he finished with the seductive, tortuous assault of her senses. She wrapped her arms around his neck and ran the tip of her tongue along his lower lip. His body trembled and a moan came from the back of his throat.

He pressed his hand against her back and pulled her deeper into the kiss, pulling back long seconds later. "I thought you wanted me to show patience and tenderness."

"I do," she said with a playful punch. "I'm setting the tempo."

His smile touched her heart. "All right. I'll let you lead to a certain point, but remember, you challenged me."

She slid one hand into his hair and locked her other hand into his. Her lips claimed his again, soft and yielding. She probed with her tongue until he opened his mouth and he rewarded her with a low growl.

"Okay, that's enough, my little tormentor." He gripped her shoulders, pushed her onto the grass and loomed above her. "Close your eyes, Lauren, and don't open them. Just feel my touch."

"No." She gave a half-laugh.

"You don't trust me? You dared me to love you with patience. I'm about to do that if you'll allow me to."

"I'd have to be a fool to trust the wild, dangerous Creed Gatlin."

"Know this, Lauren, I'd rather cut off my right hand than harm you."

"You wouldn't be able to use that pistol you always holster then."

"I meant what I said. Now are you going to lie back and let me bring you pleasure or are you going to talk it to death?"

"All right, but I warn you, I'm ticklish."

"You are? God, I wished I'd known that." He ran his finger across her hips. "Are you ticklish here?"

She sucked in a breath.

"Close your eyes, Lauren."

Her body trembled when he brought his hand lower, but she closed her eyes, and wondered how she'd be able to stand this delicious torment.

"I want to see every inch of your sweet body in the daylight, commit it to memory."

Her eyes flew open. "Don't talk like I'll never see you again."

"Close your damn eyes and lay still."

"Yes, master."

"You're so damn beautiful."

Her heart constricted and tears filled her eyes behind her closed lids. Please don't let me cry now, God, please. She didn't move, didn't speak, but sucked in her breath, the anticipation killing her. A tremble coursed through her when he nudged her knees apart.

"Trust me," he whispered. "I can take you higher than before, to a place where no one can venture but us."

"Yes." Her skin burned beneath his touch. "Take me there with you, Creed."

He nibbled his way up her thigh, licking and sucking her skin. She clutched at the grass beneath her hands and arched her back. He flicked his tongue over her nub and she shuddered. Heat radiated from her core and an unnamed muscle low in her groin clenched tight. Good, God, what had she agreed to? She'd soon be begging for him to take her.

He drove a finger inside her. Her hips jerked and pushed against his hand. "Creed, I..."

"Not yet, baby. Patient and tender, remember?"

He seduced her with those knowledgeable fingers, drove her to a maddening frenzy. Just when she thought she could take no more, he removed them and trailed his tongue along her hard nub again. The musky scent of her arousal drifted around them. She groaned and rocked her hips against his mouth.

Creed tongued her sex, teasing the tip over the button-hard nub until she grew mindless with need. Her hands clutched his hair and she pushed his head against her most intimate part. He closed his lips around her sex, flicking it with his tongue, circling the hard nub until she begged him to take her.

"Not, yet," he said tormenting her more.

Her hips jerked and a low moan slid from her lips. She rocked upward again and her world spiraled out of control. Her body craved his. She writhed and felt her muscles tighten as he worked his tongue in and out of her sex.

"Please, I can't wait any longer."

Her warm breath whispered over her skin. "Not yet."

She stood on the edge of a great precipice, about to tumble into the great abyss. She dug her heels into the ground and arched her back like a cat in heat. She undulated. She whimpered. She begged.

At last, he removed his tongue and she felt the pressure of his hard member at her entrance. Too far gone to speak, she grabbed his hips and pulled him close. He entered her and waves of pleasure rolled through her.

"Open your eyes now, Lauren."

Dazed, she obeyed. He leaned down and claimed her lips, rocking into her with infinite patience and tenderness. Every muscle and tendon in her body ached with the need for completion. She'd never felt anything so incredible. Creed hovered above her, below her and around her. She lost herself to the overwhelming euphoria. Her insides clenched around him. She whimpered into his open mouth and surrendered.

Need and hunger meshed as he thrust into her. Real became false, wrong became right. He took her to that place he spoke of and she wanted to stay there forever with him. She raked her nails down his back and cried out his name, her release so potent she thought she might faint. Her hips rose up a final time and she took him deep inside her. He claimed her lips and she returned his kiss with a passion that sent her world spinning. A low cry tore from her lips.

His voice came from some far-off place. "Let it happen, go with it. Come with me, baby."

Her release washed through her like a storm of pleasure. Moments later, she heard a distant groan, Creed's body jerked and she felt his hot seed spurt inside her.

The sun hung suspended and the clouds stopped moving. She clung to his shoulders and cried.

"Don't cry, please don't cry," he whispered.

She wiped the tears away with the back of her hand. "Pretend you didn't see that."

"I don't want to leave you," he said against her ear.

"What are we going to do?"

"Hold on to this little piece of heaven."

She looked at him with tears in her eyes, stunned to hear him say the exact words that Uncle Mason and Aunt Estelle had said when she first arrived.

"If something happened to Finn and I wasn't there, I couldn't live with it."

With his mouth inches from hers, she drew out the words. "You don't owe me an explanation, not even after..."

"The timing is so wrong, Lauren, and there's nothing I can do about it."

"Stop." She put a hand to his chest. "Don't make it any harder." She looked toward Adobe when he gave a low neigh. "I must go. Aunt Estelle and Uncle Mason will be returning soon from the Garretts’, and my aunt is already suspicious."

They dressed while seated on the ground. Creed walked her to the horses, helped her mount and started to speak again. "Lauren..."

She didn't want to look at him for fear the tears would start again. "Don't say anything. I don't want to remember your last words, but want to carry in my heart what passed between us today." She took the reins into her hands and put her knees to Adobe's side. "Godspeed," she said, and rode from the clearing without looking back.

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