She had no choice… The words haunted him like a nightmare. And though she folded into his arms only a moment after she uttered those words, he could not shake the shiver of doubt. She married him because she had no choice! He had been so driven to marry her, so intent on making her his, whichever way possible, he had not considered that she might have felt differently. He tried to shut it out, those thoughts. Tried to focus on the here and now. On the fact that she had willingly entered the circle of his arms and placed her head on his chest, but the ache remained.
And it remained later when her warm body draped across his in the aftermath of their lovemaking. With her soft sigh rippling across his chest and her scented hair strewn about his neck, the words returned to mind and it tainted the moment.
Leila lifted her head, and stared into Marco’s face. The dimmed lights cast his face in partial darkness. But she knew he watched her. The steady rise and fall of his chest was reassuring and she shifted closer. He lifted himself off the sheets just a fraction and in a deft manoeuvre swooped her onto her back. Her hair splattered onto the pillow and the swift movement took her breath away. She laughed as he nuzzled her neck, and then buried his head in the crook of it. He stilled for a moment. Then the sweet torture began again. He lavished her with kisses along the slim column of throat. His hand pressed up along her hip until it reached the bare skin below her breast then brushed lightly across it. His lips continued its journey toward where his hand settled then cupped and fondled. She moaned. And finally when she felt his hot mouth close on her taut nipple, she felt a hot bubble of need burst within her.
Her fingers gripped tufts of his hair and soon she was riding a wave of pleasure with no end in sight. With his sure hands and hungry lips travelling the every inch of her body, all she could do was let herself go with each new height he took her to. Their merger brought only more pleasure, and this time it ripped through both of them.
It was he who lay his head on her chest this time. Her rapid heartbeat had yet to settle. He had been lost in her for the duration of their lovemaking, but the doubt returned and his heart lurched. She stretched a little like a satisfied cat. And he shifted, bringing her over to his side of the bed. Promptly, her breathing eased and he was sure she’d fallen asleep.
The long night was a combination of bliss and torture. He’d wondered if they’d ease into each other again after he’d left her to continue to Almanacarra on her own while he went off to right the damage the newspaper article had caused. It was a feat he’d rather never have to endure again. One that saw him fly to Lagos and meet with Remy Rouse and the chief of the village where the oil rig was proposed to be built. All the while he thought about her, her wounded look as he had departed… and her look of misgiving that he would blame her – it had haunted his thoughts throughout those blasted negotiations. To say the least it had not gone as planned, and his hopes to thwart any corrupt motives Rouse had intended, had fallen through. Whether he had sufficiently warned the chief and some of the villagers of the tiny community of Komakati of what would come if they were not cautious in their dealings with Rouse, would remain to be seen.
He exhaled as his fingers stroked through the mass of her silky hair, a little damp after their vigorous activities. He smiled at the memory of her play at dominating their lovemaking, shoving him onto the bed after the elaborate yet torturous dinner they’d barely been able to sit through. The moment they were in his room, she’d taken the lead, and he had loved every moment of each shy attempt. If only she knew he held his heart in her hands, if only…
Loathe to leave the warmth of her body, he needed to clear his thoughts, and carefully detached himself. Quietly pulling on some pants, he moved stealthily over to the balcony. The diaphanous curtains billowed with the strong breeze. Deeply inhaling the fresh gust of air, he felt some of the tension slide away, and then return when he stared off into the distance in the direction of the old homestead. There was nothing but shadow and darkness along the rise of land where the old building stood, abandoned now. Somehow he could never demolish it, never let it go, even though the thought had crossed his mind many times. It would be easier to get rid of it, to wipe it off the face of his land and hopefully his memory. But every time he’d made up his mind to do just that, he would be reminded of the good times. There had been good times too, fewer in the end, but within those walls contained the memories of his mother’s smile and his father’s laughter. Until that fateful day when it was snatched away. The day his mother left.
He heard the cry of a night bird and it brought him back. It always left a bitter taste in his mouth, thinking about that day. And that bitterness, if he was honest with himself, made him the man he had become. Successful maybe, but suspicious too.
The soft rustle of sheets and quiet foot falls brought Leila out onto the balcony. Wrapped in sheets, she was as delectable as ever. Pushing his immediate arousal aside, he waited for her to join him. Unsure of why he didn’t immediately pull her into his arms, he kept his gaze fixed in the distance.
Leila sensed his reserve but too proud to turn back into the room and sulk, she stood quietly while a gentle breeze lifted her hair about her face. Holding tightly onto the sheet, and feeling ridiculous for not having the sense to pull on her gown rather, she brushed away the stray strands. It was then that he looked at her. “You must be cold.” His tone was flat and she wondered what had brought upon such a change. Just a little while ago he was deep within her calling her name and now he stood aloof in the darkness, his lean hard torso bare and inviting. She longed to run her fingers through the tufts of curls that covered the smooth taut skin that stretched across his broad chest.
She averted her gaze and pulled the sheet closer. Swallowing hard, she said, “I’m fine.” She felt anything but fine. This game they seemed to be playing seemed a tad too tiresome, she thought.
“You must be proud, of all this, I mean.” Her free hand swept across the shadowed land.
She heard him inhale deeply. “I suppose I am. I have seen much here, love, heartache too.”
Leila remembered the unoccupied building Luca had shown her during their drive through the land. He’d told her it had belonged to Marco’s father.
“The old house on the valley slope is a picture; Luca took me to it earlier.”
He turned to her, his eyes glittered. Leila could not help but stare at the white of his knuckles as he gripped the railings of the wrought iron balcony. And then she lifted her eyes to meet brooding ones. Marco’s look hardened. Suddenly shifting his gaze back toward the dark, he was silent. Leila was quiet too. She tried hard not to show him how hurt she was by this sudden detachment. It seemed like the longest stretch of time passed before his strained voice broke the stillness.
“The homestead and the small patch of land around it was bought with every cent my father could scrape together. Then, the valley bowl had belonged to Signor Felice Chimenti. He and my father had not seen eye to eye. My father was a stubborn man, he would not accept Chimenti’s proposal to work together. He was a proud man, my father and the vineyard was his dream. Only his, it seemed. He worked his fingers to the bone. There was no money, sometimes the rains did not come and the land was too dry and most times, I think my father was just not cut out to be a farmer and… well… this land can be cruel sometimes.” Marco remembered the fights. Every time his mother suggested they give it up, go back to the city, his father would refuse and tell her she was being a coward. He closed his eyes to the memory. “When my mother left, it was perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back. He began drinking.” Marco tried to keep his voice even. But the image of his father lying in a heap in the middle of the kitchen was still clear and the pain still raw. “I found him one evening, about six months after she left, dead. He’d drunk himself to death.” Leila reached out for him. But he moved away. The last thing Marco wanted was her pity. He did not know what he wanted from her then. He knew he wanted her close, and yet… He wanted her to know. He wanted to lose himself in the soft cocoon of her arms. And he wanted to push her away too. As far as possible. So she could never ever hurt him. Yet, he knew he could never be without her. The stark reality hit him hard in the solar plexus. He almost buckled over from the impact.
“Oh Marco!” She reached for him again and he let her touch him this time. “You were so brave.” It wasn’t exactly what he expected to hear from her. “To accomplish all this … to do that while your heart bore such pain…”
It was more than just a touch he wanted now and pulled to him, hard. She was warm and soft and perfect. And he could forget for a moment everything but Leila Brown.