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Authors: Iris Johansen

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BOOK: Tender Savage
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——————

The caverns were huge and comprised of a multitude of natural chambers like the one in which Lara had regained consciousness. In spite of its spaciousness, Ricardo’s forces seemed to occupy every foot of it. While Manuel was showing her through the cave, they encountered any number of officers, but they all reacted with impeccable courtesy when Manuel introduced her to them. The entire area had an air of bustle, a vibrant aliveness that was in sharp contrast to the hollow dimness of the caverns.

“How do you manage not to get lost?” Lara asked Manuel after following him through seemingly endless winding corridors. “I think you’d better give me some bread crumbs to drop whenever you can’t come with me.”

Manuel glanced at her with a puzzled frown. “Bread crumbs?”

“You know, the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale.”

His expression was still uncomprehending.

Lara felt a pang of sympathy as she realized he was unfamiliar with the story. Poor baby, there had probably been little opportunity in his life for
fairy tales. “Never mind, I’ll tell you later. Are we finished with the grand tour?”

“Almost.” Manuel’s pace quickened as he headed for an opening at the end of the corridor. “You must meet Dr. Salazar. The chamber up ahead is the doctor’s infirmary.”

“An infirmary?”

“That’s what he calls it. It has many pallets and even a table for operations.”

She shivered. “It sounds like something from the Dark Ages.”

“It’s all we have.” Manuel looked at her over his shoulder. “And the doctor is much respected. He was present at Ricardo’s birth.”

“A kind of court physician for the great liberator?” Lara asked dryly.

Manuel’s expression became troubled as he paused in the arched opening of the infirmary. “I don’t understand you. You saved Ricardo and yet you speak as if you don’t like him.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Lara said gently. “What I feel for your Ricardo is a little complicated. He made me very angry.”

“How can that be? Everyone loves Ricardo Lázaro.”

“So I’ve been told, but sometimes I don’t agree with the consensus of—”

“Ah, Señorita Clavel, you look much better than when I last saw you.” The tall, spare man approaching them was dressed in the same green fatigues as the other soldiers she had seen, but his graying hair and the crow’s-feet fanning his bright eyes proclaimed him to be nearing sixty. “I’m Dr. Juan Salazar. I tended your back when Ricardo brought you here two days ago.”

“You must have done an excellent job.” Lara found herself returning the man’s warm smile. “The wounds are only a little sore now.”

“I always do an excellent job.” Salazar’s dark eyes twinkled. “It’s Mother Nature and my patients who fail me, not I them.”

Lara chuckled as she looked around the large chamber. Thirty or forty pallets lay at regular intervals on the stone floor, but only four of them were occupied. The area appeared bright and pristine in spite of its primitive accoutrements. “Manuel said this was your infirmary.”

He shrugged. “I do the best I can. It’s not much. I can only patch them up and send them to Barbados for more extensive treatment.”

“You don’t seem very busy right now.”

“Thank God.” He smiled sardonically. “We’re between campaigns, but we’ll have more than enough to keep our hands full when Ricardo launches a raid.”

She kept her gaze carefully averted. “Is that going to be soon?”

“Probably. Ricardo never waits long to start events moving.”

She felt a frisson of fear, which she quickly suppressed. She forced a smile. “Well, then it’s a good thing this particular patient is fully recovered.”

The doctor nodded. “But you shouldn’t try to do too much right away. The psychological shock of such an experience can fell you even as the physical wounds heal.”

“I’ll be fine. Is there anything I can do to help you? I can’t just sit around and twiddle my thumbs.”

Salazar permitted himself a small smile. “Ricardo
said you’d react like that when you started to heal.”

“Oh, did he?” She frowned. “He obviously thinks he knows me very well.”

“Which annoys you.” Salazar studied her defiant expression thoughtfully. “It shouldn’t, you know. Ricardo’s the best judge of character I’ve ever seen. In his position he’s had to be, and he’s perfected the art until he’s close to being a mind reader.”

“I’ve noticed.”

“She doesn’t like him,” Manuel said flatly.

Salazar laughed. “Then she’ll be very good for the rascal. He needs a challenge.” His gaze met Lara’s. “Ricardo said you’d be staying for a while.”

“It appears I have little choice.”

Salazar ignored the curtness of her reply. “And I can always use help.”

She frowned with sudden uncertainty. “You’ll have to teach me. I’m afraid I don’t have any nursing experience.”

“You’ll get plenty of it around here,” he said grimly. “I have two regular nurses, but they’re
usually worked off their feet. If you can do what you’re told, you’ll help fill the gap.”

“I can try,” Lara said. “When do I start?”

“Not until you’re fully well. Ricardo would give me fits if I used you now.”

“You didn’t appear intimidated by him before.”

“Not by Ricardo, the man; but Ricardo, the general, is another kettle of fish entirely.”

“I’ll be back tomorrow morning,” she said firmly.

“I told you, Ricardo would—” He broke off and chuckled as he saw her determined expression. “Very well. Why not? But you’ll have to be the one to do battle with him. I’m too old.”

“With great pleasure,” she said with precision. “A battle sounds very inviting at the moment. Good-bye, Dr. Salazar.” She turned to leave. “Come on, Manuel; I need you to lead me back to home base.”

Manuel nodded. “And I must prepare your chamber.”

“Prepare?”

“Ricardo said you must be made very comfortable.”

She glanced back at the spartan furnishings of the infirmary. “Comfort doesn’t seem a very plentiful commodity in these caverns.”

“I can do it.” Manuel started down the twisting path at a trot. “Trust me.”

FIVE

M
ANUEL SET TO
work with enthusiasm and ingenuity.

Before the day was over, Lara found her small, bare cubicle transformed. In the first two hours he managed to conjure two air mattresses, clean blankets, and even the luxury of clean cotton sheets. A short time later three additional lanterns, two water canteens, and eight well-thumbed paperback novels appeared. During the next four hours luxuries and necessities dribbled into the
chamber at a steady flow, sometimes brought by Manuel, sometimes by one of the soldiers, who smiled shyly, set their treasures down, and vanished as quickly as they had appeared.

Lara finally called a halt to it. “Enough,” she said firmly as Manuel set down a handgun and a walkie-talkie on the pile of blankets in the corner. “Where are you getting all this, Manuel?”

“Some from supplies, some from the soldiers.” Manuel grinned cheerfully. “Don’t worry; I didn’t steal any of it. Everyone wants to make sure you have all you need. All I had to do was ask.”

“What on earth am I going to do with a gun and a walkie-talkie?”

“Everyone has a gun.” Manuel’s brow furrowed in thought before he suddenly smiled triumphantly. “And with the walkie-talkie you could talk to Ricardo when he’s in the war room.”

Lara shook her head. “I don’t need all of this.”

Manuel’s face fell with disappointment. “I didn’t do well?”

“You did too well,” Lara said gently. “And I thank you very much, but it has to stop.”

“But I didn’t get you a pack of playing cards yet.”

“I’m sure the soldiers need their cards more than I do.”

Manuel stubbornly shook his head. “Ricardo said you must have—”

“No more.” Lara hurriedly changed the subject as she saw him start to protest. “But I’m very hungry. When do we have dinner?”

Manuel was immediately distracted. “The soldiers eat in the mess, but you’ll be served here with Ricardo.”

“I can eat with the soldiers. I’m sure you don’t have the—”

“The lady is hungry, Manuel.” Ricardo stood in the arched opening. “Run along and fetch us something to eat.”

Manuel nodded eagerly. “Right away.” He darted toward the doorway. “You must talk to her, Ricardo. She won’t take the playing cards.”

Ricardo’s gaze never left Lara’s face. “I’ll talk to her.”

Manuel disappeared from view.

Lara pulled her glance away from Ricardo. “He’s very determined.”

“But evidently a better scavenger than I thought. You have the caverns’ equivalent to the lap of luxury here.”

“He must be very persuasive.” She moved across the chamber and dropped down on the folded blankets with which Manuel had formed a seat. “And I’m surprised he speaks such good English.”

“The good doctor. He conducts classes in English when his work permits. After the revolution we’ll have close ties with the United States, and the more citizens who speak English, the better for them.”

“I like your Dr. Salazar.”

“You like him; you like Paco; you like Manuel.” He enumerated lightly. “I seem to be the only one in your bad graces.”

“And you’re going to remain there.” She met his gaze directly. “I don’t like blackmail.”

“Neither do I.” He sat down across from her. “It’s necessary, Lara.”

“In your opinion.”

“In my opinion,” he agreed. “That’s all I’ve been able to rely on for years. I can’t afford to change my modus operandi now.”

He was sitting quietly, his hands linked over his knees, the way she had seen him sit for hours in the cell—the same stillness, the same air of repressed force and authority, the same graceful sensuality. He was doing absolutely nothing to engender a sexual response in her and yet the response was suddenly there, alive and tingling between them. Her heart pounded crazily; the cotton of her shirt was abrasive against her hardening nipples as her breasts lifted and fell with her quickened breathing. She looked away from him again, trying to keep her expression unrevealing. “I told you I didn’t want you here.”

“I have to have my chance.”

“To get me in the sack again?” she asked flippantly.

He didn’t answer for so long that she lifted her gaze back to his face. His expression was controlled and yet she knew instinctively that she had hurt him. It shouldn’t matter to her, she thought.

Yet it did matter. His pain made her ache in some mysterious way she didn’t understand.

“Yes, I want to make love to you again.” His voice was thick. “I want it so much that I’m hurting right now. I keep thinking of how tight and hot you felt when I was moving in and out of you. And the sounds you made when I put my—”

“I don’t want to hear it.” The color blazed in her cheeks. “It’s over.”

He shook his head. “It’s not over. If it were over, I wouldn’t be sitting here wanting you, and you wouldn’t be sitting there wanting me.”

She wouldn’t lie. “You were my first lover. Naturally, I’m still curious about—” She broke off. “But it’s not going to happen.”

“I think it will. I hope it will.” He smiled crookedly. “But even if it doesn’t, I’ll not lose this time, Lara. Do you know why?”

She didn’t answer.

“Because it’s not only the sex. Don’t you know that I enjoyed sitting in that cell watching your face when we were playing games almost as much as I did when I made love to you?”

She gazed at him in disbelief.

He chuckled. “It’s true. You notice I said ‘almost.’ The pleasure wasn’t as intense or explosive, but it … warmed me.”

She understood what he meant. She had to fight that warmth, more dangerous than lust, that flooded through her at his words.

“So I’ll win just by being with you.” His smile faded. “I think that if you’ll let yourself, you’ll win too. We leapt over a hell of a lot of hurdles in that cell.”

“I won’t let myself,” she said. “I can’t let myself feel anything for you, Ricardo.”

He stiffened. “Because of your dreams of that little house and big dogs and everything neat and tidy? Well, my life isn’t neat and tidy, and I doubt if it will ever be.”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you. We’re
different.”

He silently shook his head.

“We are,” she insisted.

“Only because you choose to be. You can always choose a new path.”

“What about you? You could choose a new path.”

He smiled. “Touché. You’re right. I’m not being fair. I could choose to give up the revolution and follow you to your small town. Do you think I should?”

She stared at him, disconcerted by the question.

“No.”

“Why not?”

She had answered instinctively and now she had to think about it. “Because you
are
the revolution. Because your beliefs make you what you are, make you do what you do.”

“Your beliefs made you come to the Abbey to rescue me.”

“But only to save Brett and take him away from you.”

“Are you sure?” He looked thoughtfully down at his linked fingers. “Wouldn’t there have been other, less dangerous ways to accomplish the same end?”

“I didn’t see any other way.”

“Think about it.” He raised his gaze to her face. “I don’t think you’re the woman you believe you are.”

“You said that before.” She shook her head. “And you’re wrong.”

“Perhaps,” he said. “But think about it anyway.”

He had given her too much to think about already. Her body was responding as mindlessly to him as it had when she had first met him, and she couldn’t afford to yield him any more victories. “If you come here again, I won’t speak to you.” Desperation threaded her voice. “You might as well give up now.”

“I’ll still come.” He met her gaze and she saw both implacable will and an odd hint of sadness in his expression. “And I won’t give up, Lara.”

He stayed for the simple dinner Manuel brought them and then departed.

He came again the next evening and the following night also.

Lara tried to maintain a frigid silence, but he ignored her coldness. He didn’t speak of the war or his life of the last nine years, but of that time before the revolution. He painted vivid pictures
of his days on the rancho where he had grown up and then spoke of his time at the university. The tales intrigued her in spite of herself and she found herself drawn to question him.

BOOK: Tender Savage
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