It was the sleep of the dead.
So deep was Alejandra's exhaustion she didn't move a muscle when Reece cleaned and dressed her wound. Earlier he had removed her jacket, leaving her clad in chemise and skirt. He brushed sand, then washed away smears of blood from the sheets. Thank God the powder ball had barely grazed her skin.
Casa Montgomery lacking so much as one gardenia bush, he tucked a red hibiscus behind her ear. Red really was her best color. The scarlet of blood hadn't become her, though. Poor darling. He could have sliced 'Rasmo, whoever he was, to ribbons for hurting Alejandra.
Again Reece touched her. It was both heaven and hell, his ministering. The feel of her sleek ivory skin was even softer than he could have imagined. And her hair. Oh, God! That waist-length ebony mass held the scent of gardenias and was spread across his pillow, just as he had fantasized about so many times. Perhaps a thousand of them.
In his visions she had come to him, her lips parted, her hair flowing freely. Candlelight caught the blue in her black hair, the green in those bewitching hazel eyes. Her voice, heavy with need and anticipation, murmured the words he yearned to hear, “Love me, Reece. Love me . . . long and hard.”
He could handle the long and hard. Right now his doeskin breeches were about to pop, his erection being so damned engorged. But Alejandra, poor thing, wasn't up to such. Hers wasn't a serious wound, of course. The injury would throbâprobably not as hard as he was throbbingâbut she would be in pain, once she awakened from her exhausted sleep.
Which didn't do much to mollify his . . . problem.
Whoa boy. Down
. He had to think of something else. Something totally unrelated. What were the words to the “Star-Spangled Banner?” Oh, say can you see . . . by the dawn's earlyâChrist, look at those lashes! Reece cleared his throat. How many bushels of corn could you raise on three acres of land? He had no idea. How many beavers did it take to build a dam? One gardenia ought to do it. Gardenia!
Reece lunged off the bed and away from her flowery scent . . . away from the ties of her chemise that beckoned his untying fingers. Yet still possessed with the yearning to strip away her remaining clothes and run his hands along the womanly lines of her body, he reasoned with himself: this was no time for lovemaking.
He needed to figure a way to atone for his mistake of earlier this evening.
But mostly he wanted to hold her to him. Desire fought with conscience. His heart beating a tattoo against the wall of his chest, Reece decided it wouldn't hurt to hold her . . . for just a moment or two. He eased onto the bed again, stretching his tall frame along her uninjured side. A hand that shook slightly moved to her throat to allow his forefinger to smooth her jawline. She looked so vulnerable, so defenseless.
What drove such a woman to the Federalist cause? Well, that faction had the right idea, since they were more for the people than for themselves. Considering what he had heard about Alejandra's devotion to her workers, Reece admired her courage.
But didn't she realize the dangers? He yearned to protect her from harm.
Her breathing shallowed. She turned her head from side to side and moistened her lips. “Where . . . am I?”
Reece rubbed his thumb behind her ear. “With me, my sweet.”
Her eyes flew open. Fully cognizant, she bit out, “Get away. I don't want you touching me.”
He smiled. She wasn't vulnerable or defenseless now. This was the old Alejandra. And he enjoyed the challenge of her. “I love it when you're waspish.” He levered up on an elbow and grinned at his fiery Mexicana. “Besides, I thought we settled it the last time you were here. My touch isn't repellent.”
“That was before I knew what a snake-in-the-grass you are.”
“We're feeling better, aren't we?”
“Yes, we are. Where is my brother-in-law?”
“He, the big, ugly hulk with a penchant for pistols?”
Her face clouded with anger. “If you're referring to the man who came here to pay you back for your Judas kiss, no. He is not my
I referred to Dr. Joaquin Navarro.”
She moved a shoulder and lifted her nose; those movements drew Reece's scrutiny. Her feminine ways, the creamy curve of that shoulder . . . and a thousand other things fascinated him. Again his passion was building.
He edged closer. “Speaking of kiss, may I have one?” She tried to wiggle away, but his hand grasped her opposite hip and denied her retreat. “Just one kiss,
With her good arm she elbowed Reece's stomach. “Leave me alone. I'm injured.”
“All you've got is a scrape, and I've seen to that. My man Pepe keeps a supply of herbal remedies. Since he's away for the evening, I prevailed upon his stores.” Reece paused. He took the opportunity to run the edge of his thumb up her rib cage, then took delight in her ticklish squirm. “I can cure what ails you,
She tried to move out of his touch. “Get away from me, you rutting boar.”
“A minute ago I was a snake, now I'm swine,” he goaded, rubbing against her. Hard and thick, long and longing-filled, his doeskin-covered shaft teased her thigh. “Can't you make up your mind about me?”
“Quite definitely. And I want you to get that . . . that
away from my hip.”
“You don't have a shred of decency.”
“Don't I?” He released his hold to disprove her claim. She edged toward the farthest side of the bed. Go after her, he didn't. He got back to the question that he had tried to disregard but had been bothering him for the last hour. “So, what's the deal with the
“He is the one who was to be at my dinner. The one you were supposed to aide with information about Santa Anna.”
“But the table was set for four. Who was the other?”
“That is none of your concern.”
Undaunted, Reece implored, “Tell me about your 'Rasmo friend. What kept him from your dinner?”
“Myâ” Alejandra's face tightened, and not from pain, Reece assessed. “He was detained,” she said, “that is all.”
“What's the rest of his moniker?”
“You ask too many questions.”
“Sweetheart, I know you're a little peeved at me for bringing Antonioâ”
“Peeved?” She reared up on the bed. “Peeved is a word one uses in relation to a lazy servant or a recalcitrant child. I am furious with you.”
“Then why did you put yourself between me and the pistol?”
She turned away from him. Putting weight on her injured upper arm, she tossed over to her back.
“Shame, shame,” he teased. “Such talk from a lady.”
Her eyes igniting like kindling in a dry day, she hissed, “How dare you chide me? You, the treacherous wretch who broke a promise.”
How simple it would be to tell her the truth. About everything. But he wouldn't. As an operative for Texas, as a brother seeking his only sibling, Reece was bound to silence.
If she must think him a man without honor, so be it.
“Let's analyze this supposed broken promise,” he said. “As I recall, you said if I brought Antonio to Campos de Palmas, you wouldn't give me so much as a measly coin. Since I had no intention of taking your money, I didn't break a promise.”
“What do you mean, you weren't taking the money?” Her words were as wary as her expression. “What exactly were your intentions?”
“I had to prove my loyalty to Antonio. I showed him my head cannot be turned by a woman.”
The look she imparted was both disbelieving and . . . and what? Disappointed? Whatever the case, she recovered and asked, “Why are you loyal to him?”
“Why are you a Federalist?” Reece volleyed. “Because we both must act on our beliefs.”
“Guilty as charged, my sweet.” The heat within him simmering, he fingered a lock of her hair. “Now that we've gotten that out of the way, give me an answer. Why did you step in front of a muzzle trained on me?”
Defiantly, she responded, “ 'Rasmo was usurping my pleasure.
want to take your life.”
“Just because I was ill-mannered enough to go against your orders?”
of course not! Mexico doesn't need your kind hiding in its grasses. So I will rid this earth of your venom because you are beneath contempt.”
“You ought to hear yourself. You'd be amazed how silly you sound.” He received a kick to the shin for that comment. “My goodness,” he went on, enjoying the argument immensely, “you are peeved.”
She ground her teeth before continuing her harangue. “Your background has nothing to recommend it. Andâ”
“Been checking on me, eh?” His mustache lifted in a grin.
“âyou align yourself with the maniac who has brought shame on my people. You were not even honorable enough to say, âAlejandra, I cannot agree to your offer, for I am honorbound to my gran
.' ” One hand made a fist. “Your disgusting display at my home has but a part in my determination to still the flow of your blood.”
“Since you feel that way, pretty peach, why did you try so hard to get my neck in Antonio's noose? You should have saved your strength for a personal assault.”
“Oooh! I have nothing more to discuss with you. Where is my brother-in-law? He will help me leave this place.”
“Looks like he got detained, same as your pal 'Rasmo the Irascible did for dinner.” Reece turned to his side, pushing away the mosquito netting to grasp an object from the bedside table. He turned back to Alejandra. “Before you leave . . . seems you have some unfinished business.” He laid her razor-sharp knife across her midriff. “Have you mettle behind your convictions? Will you twist this in my gut?”
Her fingers shook as she covered the weapon with the hand of her good arm.
“Do it, Alejandra. Do it, if you must.” He slid a leg to straddle her thighs. Above her, he taunted, “Here I am. Kill me now. Or give up your quest.”
Expelling a cry, she yanked the knife off her midriff. She raised her arm. Her eyes welded to his. For a moment he thought she would make good her intention, and he figured to disarm her if she did. Tears formed as she tossed the knife to the floor.
“May the devil take you, Reece Montgomery!” she cried above the clatter.
“He probably will.”
Reece leaned forward to capture her sealed lips. She railed against him, and he reveled in the scent of flowers and woman. His tongue insinuated, probed, then prevailed in tasting the confection within. Brushing her cheek with a soft whisk of his mustache, he moved his hand in an arousing assault on her throat and earlobe. Reece heard her moan of pleasure and capitulation when her hand glided up his side to rest on his shoulder.
“Alejandra,” he said, groaning, all teasing gone, “I've wanted you for so long.”
“Yet you claim no woman can sway you.”
“It was but a claim.”
Her voice soft, she asked, “Then why did you do me false?”
A gust of wind beat at the French doors, one of them slapping closed. Alejandra started. “Joaquin, Erasmoâ”
“It's neither friend nor kin,” Reece said and explained the noise.
“It could have been them.” She presented a shoulder. “They should be here any minute. What time is it, anyway?” Without missing a beat, she went on. “It must be very late. What could have happened to 'Rasmo?”
“This is the first time for me.”
“This is the first time a woman has considered other men while she fills my bed.”
Alejandra imparted a haughty look. “How do you know what women consider? Perhaps they don't want to hurt your feelings by telling you the truth. Maybe they think about menus or guest lists . . . or maybe even how long you will keep them occupied before they can get to their duties.”
“Is that what you're thinking about, Alejandra?” he inquired formally. “Duties.”
“Actually a guest list is on my mind. The one for my dinner. The one where you played me for a fool.”
“I thought Antonio sent you to test my fealty.”
She studied him for a moment. “Are you being truthful?”
“Never more so in my life.”
“Selfish brigand! Thinking of yourself alone, when the fate of Mexico could have rested in your hands.”
Be damned if he knew the right words to use with her. So far all his explanations had ricocheted. “Don't expect too much out of a man whose background has nothing to recommend it,” he said, parroting her earlier words. “The fate of Mexico isn't my concern, Alejandra. Keeping in Antonio's good graces is.” Reece moved his lips to the hollow of her neck. “But let's forget him and all the rest. For now anyway.”
“In the name of all things right,” she pleaded, “stop your assault. You have no right to touch me.”
“You say I have no right to touch you,” he whispered, “but your body speaks the language of permission.”
“You are wrong.”
“Am I? You're quivering, my darling.” His arm snaked around her waist. “Your breath is coming hard . . . as I'd like to do.”
“Reece, please. This is wrong. To become lovers would beâ”
“âwrong. It would be wrong! We are enemies.”
Enemies. In a way they were. And she was retreating from him. He had never taken an unyielding woman; he wouldn't start now. He moved away from her. But, oh, how he yearned to stay atop the curvaceous body enticing him to thoughts of forced lovemaking.