A whole life with Gabriel, the future awaiting them, destroyed by men’s greed. Her father’s ambitions, his lack of scruples.
Stella remembered herself, softly crying as she spoke those forced marriage vows, all of them lies, lies because she’d loved another man, wanted another man, who had drunk himself into a stupor the night before. For months, she’d begged, cajoled, and pleaded with Gabriel to let her do what she must do, let her save her father, and she knew how much, how very much it cost him to let her.
She remembered assuring him she would be all right, telling him she would get out of this as soon as her father was released, and yet she’d inwardly feared it might never happen.
She remembered struggling with that odious man on her wedding night, remembered the nausea at the feel of his big, fat hands on her body.
She remembered his face after she’d slapped him, bloated and red with rage, and his vicious words as he tied the rope around her.
She remembered her father. Stripped of all manhood right before her eyes, reduced to groveling, sniveling at the man’s feet, begging for his daughter’s life as her husband tightened the rope around her until no more of her whimpers could be set free.
She remembered choking, looking into her father’s wild, tortured gaze, and finding only a small trace of the man he’d been before; she remembered forgiving him, forgiving him for everything. And in that last breath of hers, she remembered Gabriel, remembered thinking, Wait for me. I will come back to you. Wherever you are, I will find you. Please wait for me. Don’t ever stop loving me…Please, wait…Wait for me…
“Y-you waited,” she sobbed, her body shaking uncontrollably. “I was so afraid you wouldn’t.”
He caught her when she swayed, wrapping his arms around her in a tight, protective embrace. He smoothed his hands through her hair, whispered endearments to her. She was so distraught she didn’t notice his shudders, or the deep, muffled sobs against her hair as he cried out his suffering too.
“It was him, Gabriel; it wasn’t me. I would never kill myself, not when I knew you were waiting for me!”
“He won’t hurt you now,” he said in a ragged whisper, tightening his hold on her. “I should’ve taken you aw
ay. I should’ve protected you better. Oh, God, forgive me.”
“No, no, no, don’t say that, you always protected me—always,” she said fiercely.
“I heard you. In my mind, I heard you calling me. I thought I’d go crazy,” he said savagely. “It took me hours to get back from the city, and when I did, I couldn’t find you.”
“So you killed him.”
Gabriel fell silent for a moment. “I set his house on fire, but I didn’t kill him, Stella. Your father did.”
“My father,” she whispered, remembering that face, so anguished at what his weakness, his vice had caused.
“He was committed to the asylum. Didn’t last a month before he passed away.”
Though it hurt so much, suddenly she had to know more. “And my mom?”
“She never spoke again. She locked herself in her room and just…waited to die.” Stella drew in a sharp breath. Gabriel fell silent, as if unsure whether to continue. “She died shortly after your father.”
Her chest felt heavy, her heart crushed with regrets. “Oh, God, my poor mother.”
“I’m sorry, baby. I could barely live with myself, thinking of everything I could’ve done to save you.”
“But you have saved me.” She cupped his face and looked deep into his eyes. “You have saved me, Gabriel.”
“I love you. I won’t ever let anyone hurt you, I swear,” he said in a low, hissing breath, and then he dipped his head and pressed his mouth to hers. She parted her lips for him eagerly, their tongues seeking, finding, blending.
Gabriel gently gathered her hair in one hand as he kissed her, pulling her head back so he could trail a path of kisses down her neck. His mouth hovered over the tiny pulse at the base of her throat before he flicked out his tongue to lick it, making her sigh as a slow, dizzy heat spread throughout her body.
This was not a mindless passion, but a slow, tender seduction, and her last coherent thought was that it was no wonder no man had ever lived up to him. He’d spoiled her for any other man a lifetime ago, and no one but him would do.
Stella shuddered under his touch, his breath warm along the curve of her jaw as he showered it with attention. His lips grazed her temple, nuzzling the shell of her ear as he felt her breasts over her cotton shirt, gently weighing, stroking, feeling. She hadn’t been wearing a bra lately, and she was deliriously grateful as he bent his head, wrapping his lips around the puckered nipple, wetting it with his tongue through the thin fabric of her shirt. When he sucked it into his mouth, fabric and all, she gasped, and he growled low and deep, like a satisfied male.
“Gabriel, I want to touch you, too,” she protested, pushing at his shoulders until he came up and locked his mouth to hers, silencing her with a kiss, his hands gliding around her waist only to snatch her buttocks and press her to him.
“You’re plumper now,” he whispered, greedily gathering the supple muscle of her buttocks in his palms.
“I hope that’s not a bad thing.” She was tugging his shirt from his waistband, slipping her hands under it when it freed and smoothing her fingers over his heated flesh.