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Authors: Iris Johansen

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BOOK: Tender Savage
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“You never speak of your parents,” she said. “Did you have a close relationship?”

“Not with my mother.” He shrugged. “She liked being the lady of the rancho, but motherhood was a bit of a strain. I can’t really blame her. I was as wild a hellion as you could imagine when I was growing up. But my father and I were close. He was a good, simple man with strong convictions. He saw no reason to hide them when the junta came into power. He should have known—” He broke off and lifted his cup of coffee to his lips. “I admired him.”

“He died in the revolution?”

“Before the revolution. When I was at the university. The junta ordered my mother and him taken to the Abbey and the rancho confiscated.” He looked down into the coffee in his cup. “They were shot before my eyes.”

Shock jolted through Lara. “Dear God,” she whispered.

“I’d been agitating against the junta at the university and they wanted to show me what could happen if I continued. So they took me to the Abbey and—”

“Don’t talk about it,” she said quickly. “You don’t have to tell me.”

He shook his head. “I want you to know. It’s part of what I am.” His grip tightened on the cup in his hand. “The junta handled the matter very stupidly. I was only nineteen and all they would have had to tell me was that they wouldn’t kill them if I’d stop agitating. I loved my father.”

Lara swallowed to ease the tightness in her throat. “They didn’t give you that choice?”

He shook his head. “They wanted to set an example. They wouldn’t listen to me. They shot them and let me go back to the university with orders to disband our group or the same thing would happen to me and all my friends.” He smiled sadly. “As I said, they handled the matter very stupidly. They should have killed me too.”

“No!” Lara’s rejection came with instinctive force. How many times during his lifetime had Ricardo been on the verge of death? While she
had been plodding steadily forward in her comfortable, mundane world, he had been going through hellish mental and physical anguish.

“I was like a madman. Full of rage … and guilt.”

“Guilt?”

“They told me that I had killed them. That my rabble-rousing speeches had sent them to their deaths. For a while I believed them.” He put his cup down on the rocky ground. “But then I realized that they would have been killed anyway. My father was a powerful man and he hated the junta as much as I did.”

“So you started the revolution.”

“No one starts a revolution; it’s a chain reaction that explodes and keeps on exploding until the end is reached.”

“With you providing the nitroglycerine.”

“Do you think I like it?” he asked with sudden fierceness. “Do you think I wouldn’t rather have spent my youth doing something besides fighting this damn war? I’m almost thirty and I’ve known nothing but killing and maiming.” He drew a
deep breath. “Some things are worth fighting for, but, Lord, I’m tired of it all.”

“But you still go on with it.”

“As you’d go on if something threatened your brother.”

“He’s my family, all I’ve got.”

“And Saint Pierre is my family, and the people fighting for it are all I’ve got.” He met her gaze. “You love your brother very much?”

She nodded. “We’re twins and sometimes I feel as if we’re one person. Oh, we have character differences, but we usually are alike on most major issues.”

He smiled. “Except me.”

“Except you.”

A silence fell between them before Ricardo changed the subject. “Juan Salazar told me today you’ve been working in the infirmary.”

“Not to help your revolution,” she said quickly. “I just can’t stand doing nothing.”

“I’m not foolish enough to think I have a convert,” he said softly. “I only want you to take it easy. Have you been sleeping well?”

“Yes.” She made a face. “As well as possible
with all these stalactites hovering over me. I feel as if I’m a victim in the
Pit and the Pendulum.”

“I’ve felt like that myself at times.” He rose to his feet. “But you haven’t had dreams about what happened to you in prison? No sudden depressions or periods when you get the shakes?”

She shook her head. “Dr. Salazar asked me that too. I think I’m a little insulted that you both think I’m such a wimp.”

He suddenly grinned. “I wouldn’t presume. We just know that sometimes you don’t get rid of the psychological baggage with the situation.”

“You seem to have survived considerably worse than I went through with no aftereffects.”

“I put on a good front.” His grin vanished. “If you start having problems, tell me.”

“I’ll handle it.”

He swore under his breath. “Why the hell should you? What happened to you is my responsibility.”

“The devil it is. I came down here to your little tropical paradise of my own free will. If you want to play Atlas and carry the entire island of Saint
Pierre on your shoulders, go ahead. But leave me out of it. I’ll take care of myself, thank you.”

His frown vanished and a reluctant smile curved his lips. “Okay. I won’t carry you on my shoulders. That isn’t the portion of my anatomy I want close to you anyway.” His smile became blatantly sensual as his voice lowered to a seductive murmur. “Do you know how I’d like to carry you? I’d like to be deep inside you, with those lovely legs wound around my hips.”

Heat tingled through her as she looked up at him. During the past hour she had been filled with a multitude of strong emotions toward him varying from poignant sympathy to indignation. She had thought she had her physical responses to him firmly under control, but now she realized it had been Ricardo who had damped down that powerful chemical attraction between them.

“Yes.” He met her gaze. “It’s still there and it won’t go away. I think about it every night before I go to sleep. Do you?”

She moistened her lips with her tongue. “No, I don’t let myself.”

“It hurts me, too, but I let you in anyway,” he
said softly. “I could no more close you out than I could my own thoughts.”

“Ricardo, it’s no use.”

“Do you remember what you said about your brother and the way you sometimes thought of the two of you as one person? Well, we’re like that, Lara. Sometimes I feel so close to you that I can read your thoughts.”

She laughed shakily. “I’ve noticed. But then everyone knows you’re some kind of mind reader and magician. It has nothing to do with us. I certainly can’t tell what you’re thinking.”

“You could if you wanted to,” he continued urgently. “Look at me, Lara. What am I thinking now?”

Pain. Desire. Tenderness. Love.

No, not love. He couldn’t love her, just as she couldn’t love him. She hurriedly looked away from him. “I don’t know and I don’t want to know. I won’t let you hypnotize me into believing what you want me to believe. You’re too darn good at this razzle-dazzle.”

“It’s not razzle-dazzle.” He paused before adding simply, “It’s love, Lara.”

“No! I won’t have it. I won’t love you.”

“Perhaps not.” He reached down and ran his index finger along the line of her cheekbone. “But you can’t stop me from loving you,
querida.”

“Can’t you see how unreasonable you’re being? We’re nothing alike. We don’t even want the same way of life.”

“But we want each other; we love each other.”

“No.”

His hand fell away from her face and he turned away. “Good night, Lara.”

“Why won’t you listen to me?”

He didn’t answer as he strode from the chamber. Lara could still feel the warmth of his finger on the flesh of her cheek, and loneliness swept through her. It was the same loneliness she had felt last night and the night before when he had left her. Dear heaven, she was becoming so conditioned to his presence, she realized with a sharp jab of fear. She was dissatisfied when he wasn’t with her. All through the day when she had been working with Dr. Salazar, she’d been aware of a new sense of excitement filling her at the thought of Ricardo coming to her for these hours in the
evening. She had scarcely allowed herself to acknowledge her feelings, but now she could no longer deny them. She had looked on these hours with Ricardo as the highlight of the day and she had felt a deep contentment just being with the dratted man.

Let it be lust, she prayed.

But Ricardo had not made any attempt to arouse her until that last moment before he had left. She felt sympathy for him because of the loneliness and sorrow he had known, she rationalized. Of course she respected the strong man who had emerged from the struggle. And of course she admired his intelligence, his wit, his devotion to his country. But none of those qualities filled her with such glowing warmth when she was with him.

He was becoming much too important to her.

When he came to her tomorrow evening she must be constantly on her guard against him.

Ricardo didn’t come to her the next evening.

Manuel served her meal with somber efficiency
and largely in silence. He didn’t mention either Ricardo or his absence.

Lara had no intention of mentioning Ricardo either. She should be happy he hadn’t come tonight, she told herself. She had been bracing herself for their encounter all evening and now she evidently had no cause to worry. Yet she did worry.

She was halfway through the meal when she finally broke down and asked Manuel, “Where is he?”

The child avoided her gaze. “Have some of the melon. It’s very good tonight.”

“Where’s Ricardo, Manuel?”

He stood up. “I’ll get your coffee.”

“I don’t want any coffee. I want to know where Ricardo is this evening.”

Manuel hesitated, his expression troubled. “He told me not to tell you.”

“Why not?”

He shrugged and left the chamber.

Another woman.

She stiffened as the sudden thought sent a
shock wave through her. Jurado had said Ricardo was a very earthy man. Now that he was back with his people it was perfectly natural that he should indulge his sexual appetites. She had seen several voluptuous women with the soldiers in the caverns and knew he needed only to crook his finger and they would come running. There was no reason why she should feel this sense of pain and betrayal. Ricardo Lázaro didn’t belong to her and she had no right to feel this raging primitive jealousy.

And it
was
jealousy. And it was primitive … raging. The thought of Ricardo locked between the thighs of one of those dusky women made her head swim with anger. She wanted to murder the bit—

“Señorita, come quick!” Manuel was standing in the doorway. “Dr. Salazar needs you.”

Lara jumped to her feet. “What’s wrong?”

“The wounded are coming in.”

Lara moved hurriedly toward him. “Wounded?”

“From the raid.” Manuel darted down the corridor in the direction of the infirmary, shouting
over his shoulder, “Many deaths, many wounded. Hurry.”

“What raid? Manuel, tell—”

He was gone and Lara started down the corridor after him at a dead run, her heart pounding so hard, she thought it would leap from her breast.

Wounded. Dead. Ricardo!

The huge infirmary chamber echoed with the groans of men in pain and Salazar’s sharp, decisive orders as she ran into the room. At least thirty of the pallets were filled with casualties and Salazar’s two nurses were working with frantic haste, moving from patient to patient, adjusting an IV bottle here, applying a pressure bandage there.

“Lara. Good.” Salazar gave her a glance over his shoulder as he inserted a hypodermic needle into the arm of the man on the pallet before him. “Go wash up and then give Luz and María a hand. Heaven knows, they’ll need a dozen more before this night’s over.”

“What happened?” Lara asked.

“A raid on the Abbey. You’ll be glad to know the good Captain Jurado is no longer with us.” He began cutting away the soldier’s blood-soaked shirt. “According to Paco, they left the Abbey a mass of burning rubble.”

“Paco? What about Ricardo?”

“Ricardo led the attack.”

“Is he okay?”

“Probably.”

“What do you mean ‘probably’?” Panic raced through Lara, robbing her of breath and reason. “Is he safe?”

“I haven’t seen him. Paco lost sight of him after the first assault. He’s gone back to look for him.”

“How could they lose sight of him?” Lara grasped Salazar’s arm. “He’s their leader, dammit. How could—”

“Don’t you think I, too, want to know Ricardo is safe? But there are men dying and I can’t stop and go searching for him. I have to rely on Paco.” He added impatiently, not looking at her, “Now, go help Luz and María.”

Lara turned and moved dazedly toward the
two nurses. Ricardo had led the attack. In her mind’s eye she could see that deadly machine gun on the roof of the Abbey spitting down death and bullets. Over thirty men were lying here wounded, perhaps dying here in this chamber. If Ricardo had led the attack, wouldn’t he have been one of the first to go down?

“I’ll be lucky if I manage to live through the next few months.”

Her terror grew as she remembered Ricardo’s words.

“I want something of my own …”

She wanted to weep; she wanted to run through the caverns looking for Ricardo. She couldn’t do either. Like the doctor, she had to rely on Paco. In the meantime, men were wounded and dying and she was needed.

She paused beside María and asked quietly, “What can I do to help?”

Lara worked steadily for over eight hours without knowing whether Ricardo was dead or alive.
Just as she was leaving the infirmary in the early-morning hours, she looked up from sponging down a young soldier to see Ricardo standing in the doorway talking to Salazar.

Waves of joy crashed over her, and she was suddenly dizzy and disoriented.

He was alive!

Ricardo’s dark hair was tousled and his face soot-stained and he appeared weary to the point of exhaustion, but, by all that was holy, he was alive!

He must have felt her staring at him. He looked away from the doctor and met her gaze. He stopped speaking and just stared at her.

She should turn her head. He was seeing too much. She felt transparent, more vulnerable than she’d ever been before.

Then he smiled at her, a brilliant, loving smile that took her breath away. She found her lips curving in a joyous answering smile.

BOOK: Tender Savage
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