Professor Gabriel Emerson stood in the doorway of his study, hands in his pockets, gazing on his wife with no little heat. His tall, athletic form was striking, as were his rugged features and sapphire eyes.
He’d met her when she was seventeen (ten years his junior) and fallen in love with her. They’d been separated by time and circumstances, not least of which was his indulgent lifestyle.
Yet Heaven smiled on them. She became his graduate student in Toronto six years later and they’d rekindled their affection, marrying a year and a half after that. Almost six months into their marriage he loved her even more than before. He envied the very air she breathed.
He’d waited long enough for what he was about to do. It was possible she’d need to be seduced, but Gabriel prided himself in his expertise at seduction.
The strains of Bruce Cockburn’s song “Mango” floated in the air, casting his memory back to their trip to Belize before they were married. They’d made love outside in a variety of places, including the beach.
Julia sat at a desk, oblivious to the music and his scrutiny. She was typing on her laptop, surrounded by books, file folders, and two boxes of papers Gabriel had dutifully carried from the downstairs of what had been his parents’ house.
They’d been resident in Selinsgrove a week—a respite from their busy lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Gabriel was a professor at Boston University while Julia had just finished her first year of a PhD at Harvard, under the supervision of a brilliant scholar, formerly of Oxford. They’d fled Cambridge because their home in Harvard Square was in upheaval, as an addition to the house was under construction.
The Clark house in Selinsgrove had been renovated to accord with Gabriel’s exacting standards prior to their arrival. Much of the furniture left behind by Richard, Gabriel’s adoptive father, had been placed in storage.
Julia had chosen new furniture and curtains and persuaded Gabriel to help her paint the walls. Whereas his aesthetic ran to dark wood and rich, brown leather, Julia preferred the light colors of a seaside cottage, with whitewashed walls and furniture, accented with various shades of Santorini blue.
In the study, she’d hung reproductions of paintings that were displayed in their house in Harvard Square—Henry Holiday’s Dante Meets Beatrice at Ponte Santa Trinita, Botticelli’s Primavera, and Madonna and Child with Angels by Fra Filippo Lippi. Gabriel found himself staring at the latter painting intently.
It could be said that the paintings illustrated the stages of their relationship. The first figured their meeting and Gabriel’s increasing obsession. The second represented Cupid’s arrow, striking Julia when he no longer remembered her, and also their courtship and subsequent marriage. Finally, the painting of the Madonna represented what Gabriel hoped might be.
This was the third evening Julia had spent at her desk, writing her first public lecture, which she would deliver at Oxford next month. Four days ago, they’d made love on the bedroom floor, covered in paint, before the furniture had been delivered.
(Julia had decided that body painting with Gabriel was her new favorite sport.)
With memories of their physical connection in mind, and the music increasing its tempo, Gabriel’s patience had come to an end. They were newlyweds. He had no intention of allowing her to ignore him for another evening.
He prowled over to her, his footfalls silent. He moved her shoulder-length hair aside, exposing her neck. The slight stubble of his unshaved face rasped against her skin, intensifying his kisses.
“Come,” he whispered.
Goose pimples rose on her skin. His long, thin fingers traced the arch of her neck as he waited.
“My lecture isn’t finished.” She lifted her pretty face to look at him. “I don’t want to embarrass Professor Picton, especially when she invited me. I’m the youngest person on the program.”
“You won’t embarrass her. And you’ll have plenty of time to finish the lecture.”
“I need to get the house ready for your family. They’re arriving in two days.”
“They aren’t my family.” Gabriel gave her a blazing look. “They’re our family. And I’ll hire a maid. Come. Bring the blanket.”
Julia turned and saw a familiar-looking plaid blanket resting on the white overstuffed chair that sat under the window. She peered out into the woods that bordered the backyard. “It’s dark.”
“I’ll protect you.” He helped her to her feet, clasping his arms momentarily around her waist and bringing their chests together.
She felt his warmth through the thin material of her sundress, the temperature comforting and alluring.
“Why do you want to visit the orchard in the dark?” she teased, pulling his glasses from his face and placing them on the desk.
Gabriel fixed her with a look that would have melted snow. Then he brought his lips to her ear. “I want to see your naked skin glow in the moonlight while I’m inside you.”
He drew part of her earlobe into his mouth, nibbling it gently. He began to explore her neck, kissing and nipping as her heart rate increased.
“A declaration of desire,” he whispered.
Julia gave herself over to the sensations, finally becoming conscious of the music in the air. Gabriel’s scent, a mixture of peppermint and Aramis, filled her nostrils.
He released her, watching her the way a cat watches a mouse, as she picked up the blanket.
“I suppose Guido da Montefeltro can wait.” She glanced down at her notes.
“He’s been dead over seven hundred years. I’d say he’s practiced at waiting.”
Julia returned his smile, shifting the blanket so that she could take his proffered hand.
As they journeyed downstairs and across the yard, his expression grew playful.
“Have you ever made love in an orchard before?”
Her eyes widened and she shook her head.
“Then I’m glad I’m your first.”
She tightened her grip on his hand. “You’re my last, Gabriel. My only.”
He quickened his pace, switching on the flashlight as they entered the woods behind the house. He led the way, navigating over roots and uneven ground.
It was June in Pennsylvania and very warm. The woods were thick and the canopy of leaves blocked much of the light from the moon and the stars. The air was alive with the evening song of birds and the sound of katydids.
Soon they were entering the clearing. Wildflowers littered the expanse of green. At the far edge of the area stood several aged apple trees. Extending back into the remains of the old orchard, the new trees that Gabriel had planted were spreading their boughs toward the sky.
As they walked to the center of the clearing, his body relaxed. Something about this space, sacred or otherwise, always soothed him.
Julia watched as he spread the blanket carefully over the thick grass, then turned off the flashlight. Darkness wrapped around them like a velvet cloak.
Overhead, the full moon shone, its pale face occasionally muted by wisps of cloud. A clutch of stars twinkled above them.
Gabriel brushed his hands up and down her arms before tracing the modest neckline of her sundress.
“I like this,” he murmured.
He took his time admiring his wife’s beauty, visible even in the shadows: the arch of her cheekbones, the pout of her mouth, her large, expressive eyes. He lifted her chin and brought their lips together.
It was the kiss of an ardent lover, communicating with his mouth that he desired her. Gabriel pressed his tall body against her petite one, his fingers tangling in her soft brown hair.
“What if someone sees us?” she panted, before slipping her tongue into his mouth.
She explored him earnestly until he retreated.
“These woods are private. And as you mentioned, it’s dark.” His hands found her waist, spanning her lower back.
He traced the space where her dimples lay, as if they were landmarks that pleased him, before sliding up to her shoulders. Without ceremony, he slowly removed her dress, dropping it to the blanket. Then he unfastened her bra with a mere flick of his fingers.
She giggled at his practiced move, while holding the bra up to cover herself. It was made of black lace and was attractively transparent.
“You’re very good at that,” she observed.
“At what?” His large hands moved to cup her breasts over her bra.
“At removing bras in the dark.”
Gabriel’s silence echoed around them. He didn’t like being reminded of his past.
She reached up on tiptoes to press a kiss to his angular jaw.
“I’m not complaining. After all, I’m the beneficiary of your skill.”
At this, he traced her breasts through the lace.
“While I appreciate your lingerie, Julianne, I prefer you naked.”
“I’m not sure about this.” She peered over his shoulder, scanning the perimeter of the clearing. “I keep expecting someone to interrupt us.”
“Look at me.”
Her eyes met his.
“There’s no one here but us. And what I see is breathtaking.”
With another provocative move, his hands left her breasts to trace the hills and valleys of her spine before covering her hips. His thumbs hovered over her skin. “I’ll cover you.”