Authors: Iris Johansen
She couldn’t take her eyes off him. She didn’t even tell herself how foolish she was being to let him see her happiness. Subterfuge was unable
to survive the deluge of relief pouring through her.
He was alive.
Ricardo stood for a moment, smiling at her. Then he murmured something to Salazar, turned, and strode out of the infirmary.
ARA SLEPT FOR
a solid ten hours after her nursing shift.
Ricardo was sitting cross-legged on the ground beside her pallet when she opened her eyes.
Happiness shimmered through her as she smiled drowsily up at him. “You look considerably cleaner than you did the last time I saw you,” she whispered. “Your face was all sooty.”
“I took a bath.” He lifted a mocking brow. “A regular occurrence actually.”
“That’s what I need.” She yawned and sat up. “I was too tired to do anything but fall into bed when I left the infirmary.”
“I could see you were exhausted when I dropped in last night.” He reached out and brushed back a strand of hair from her forehead. “And I think I saw something else as well.”
“Did you?” She instinctively scooted back away from him. “I don’t know what you—”
“Don’t put up the barriers again.” He smiled at her, a smile so loving, she felt her wariness melt away. “It’s too late.”
“I … was glad you were alive.”
“So was I. In that moment I was more glad to be alive than I’ve ever been before.”
She shook her head. “Don’t do this. You’re pushing me. It’s all too quick. I don’t know what I’m feeling. I have to think.”
“I have to push you. I’m trying to consolidate my position before you change your mind.”
She looked away from him. “Why did you attack the Abbey? You said there weren’t many prisoners left there.”
“Enough. The next major offensive may push
us over the top and the first thing Jurado would do is murder the prisoners. I wanted Jurado and that hellhole destroyed.” He ran his hand down her neck and a hot shiver followed his touch. “And I wanted to erase him from your life and memory as if he had never been born.”
“Killing someone can’t do that.”
“I know. But you’ll never have to worry about him touching you again. I couldn’t erase the memory of him from your past, but you’ll never have to face him in your future.” He didn’t give her a chance to answer as he took her hand and pulled her to her feet. “Take your bath and then get something to eat. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” She couldn’t keep the disappointment from her voice. “Where are you going?”
“Nowhere. You said I was moving too fast. I’m just giving you space. I can afford to let you have a little respite from my presence now.” He met her gaze. “Of course, if you decide you don’t want the space, you know where I am.”
She didn’t know where he was, she realized. She had never been to his quarters. “I don’t really
know anything about you or what you do here when you’re not with me.” She frowned. “And you didn’t even tell me you were going to raid the Abbey.”
“I wasn’t sure you’d be interested.” He turned her around and gave her bottom an affectionate pat that propelled her toward the door. “I’m happy as hell to find out you are.”
She realized then, to her disgust, that she was afraid to look at him. It was crazy to feel so painfully shy with a man with whom she had experienced the ultimate intimacy. “I’m interested.” She cast him an anxious glance over her shoulder as a thought occurred to her. “You’re telling me the truth? You’re just giving me time? You’re not going on another raid tonight?”
His expression softened. “I’m not going anywhere. I promise I’ll be back here tomorrow.”
Relief poured through her. “That’s good.” She smiled with an effort. “I’d just as soon you forget about battles and raids for the time being. I’m not much good at this nursing business and I don’t like the prospect of spending another hellish night at the infirmary.”
His voice was very gentle. “Juan says you did very well.”
“He was desperate. The good doctor would have drafted an orangutan to help out if the ape was capable of holding a pressure bandage.”
He laughed. “Perhaps. But you still filled his needs.” He paused and his laughter faded. “As you filled mine. In spite of your protests, you persist in giving to us. I only wish we could stop taking and give in return. I
to give to you, Lara.”
His stare was warmly intent and Lara felt that warmth enfolding her in a velvet cocoon. Her gaze clung to his face in helpless fascination. “I … have to take my bath.”
She whirled and walked quickly away from him, her pace quickening to almost a run even before she went through the entranceway.
The spring-fed pool was frigid, as usual, but Lara’s mind was in such a turmoil, she scarcely registered the temperature of the water.
She couldn’t love him.
But she had felt a devastating sense of loss when she had thought he might be dead and when she
She closed her eyes, savoring the remembered moment of joy.
So she felt something for him. It didn’t have to be love. They had grown very close through their experience at the Abbey. It was sex and companionship, not love. Naturally, she felt sympathy for a man who was living on the edge of danger. Naturally, she wanted to help him in any way she could.
Dear heaven, even to herself she sounded hypocritical and self-righteous, she thought self-deprecatingly. Why not admit he was a sexy, gorgeous man and she had a king-size yen? Since Ricardo obviously felt the same desire, wasn’t it sensible to appease both their needs? There would be no harm in giving him what he wanted from her in these last days together.
She strode out of the water, grabbed a towel from the stony bank, and began to dry herself. She would go find Manuel and have him take her to Ricardo’s quarters before she lost her nerve,
she decided. She would explain everything very clearly to Ricardo so that there would be no misunderstanding and see what he had to say. She was being logical and there was no reason he shouldn’t agree. Reaching for her shirt, she paused as a fleeting memory of that radiant joy she had felt when she had seen him in the infirmary came back to her. Relief. The emotion underlying joy had been relief and nothing else.
Lord, she hoped she wasn’t lying to herself.
The massive uniformed guard who stood before Ricardo’s quarters straightened as Lara and Manuel approached. Lara stopped in the corridor, hesitating.
“Don’t worry,” Manuel whispered as he pushed her forward. “He won’t give you any trouble. All the soldiers know who you are.”
“Do they?” If they did, then they had a distinct advantage, Lara thought nervously. At the moment she wasn’t sure she knew who she was or what she was doing here. The “reasonable” decision
she had made not thirty minutes before seemed brash and slightly mad now.
Manuel nodded gravely. “We all know you belong to Ricardo. The guard will let you pass.”
“I don’t belong—” She broke off and moved toward the entrance. “Are you coming?”
He didn’t answer and when she glanced back over her shoulder, she found the child had vanished down the corridor from which they had come.
The big guard smiled benignly and let her pass through the arched doorway without a challenge.
Ricardo’s quarters were starkly ascetic as she could tell from only the most fleeting glance as she entered.
Ricardo was half sitting, half lying, on the pallet across the room, leaning back against the stone wall behind him, a gray woolen blanket draped carelessly across his hips.
He was naked.
She stopped, staring breathlessly at him. His body looked hard, lean, and tough, but there was nothing hard about his expression. Her heart was
drumming so loud, she was sure he could hear it across the distance separating them. She swallowed to ease the dryness of her throat. “Hello.”
He smiled, a warm, brilliant smile, and held out his hand. “Hello,
It was going to be fine. He was no stranger. This was the Ricardo she had known in the cell, the Ricardo who had soothed and comforted her and built a beautiful world to shut out all the pain and sordidness. She moved toward him. “You seem to have been expecting me.”
“Not expecting … only hoping you’d come.” His dark eyes twinkled up at her as she knelt before him. “I wouldn’t dare take you for granted. That last morning in the cell proved you’re too dangerous a woman to assume anything about.” He reached out and gently touched her lower lip with two fingers. “But I thought I’d be ready, just in case.”
Her lip throbbed beneath the pads of his fingers. She drew a shaky breath. “This is crazy. I don’t even know why I’m here.”
“I do.” He began to unbutton her green army shirt. “Let me show you.”
She cast a glance at the open doorway. “What if—”
“No one will come in. I told Pedro to allow no one but you past the door tonight.” He parted the edges of her shirt and lay his hands there for a long moment, looking at her breasts. “Perfect.” His hands grasped her shoulders and he slowly drew her toward him. “You’re tense. Relax. This is right, Lara. You’ll see how right it is.” His fingers dug into her knotted shoulder muscles as his warm tongue caressed one pointed nipple. “Lord, how I’ve wanted this.”
She gasped as his lips closed hungrily on the pink tip and he began a gentle suction. The sensation was indescribably erotic, his hands soothing and massaging away the tension while his mouth took and teased. The muscles of her stomach clenched and she instinctively arched toward him, offering more.
She cried out as he bit down with just enough force to send arousal tingling through every muscle and pore of her body.
“God, how I love to hear you when you—”
His fingers were feverishly working at her belt, loosening her trousers. “Hurry, it’s been too long.”
She had meant to talk to him first, she remembered hazily. “I wanted to tell you … Ricardo, it’s not—” She broke off as his hand slid into her trousers, down her stomach to cup her womanhood. His long, hard fingers were smoothing, exploring, rubbing, while his mouth enveloped her right breast. Later. She would talk to him later. Right now she had to have him within her.
“Take off your clothes, love.” He lifted his head, his eyes glazed, feverish. “I need to see you. I need to—”
She was already shedding garments with lightning speed, as frantic as he was to join with him.
“I’m trying.” She laughed shakily as she felt him begin a rhythmic stroking. “You’re not—” Her spine arched upward as his fingers plunged deep. She closed her eyes and the last word came throatily. “Waiting.”
wait. You’re too tight….” His chest was lifting and falling with the force of his
breathing as he tossed the blanket aside and pulled her astraddle him. “To hell with the rest.”
He sheathed her on his manhood with one deep thrust.
Her head fell back, her hair streaming down her back, as she felt him big, hard, alive within her. She wanted to scream, to pant, to move.
But his hands on her hips held her still, sealing himself deeply within her. She was conscious of the coarser male hair brushing the softness of her inner thighs, the swelling of her breasts, the low, keening cry welling from her throat as wave after wave of heat flowed over her. She felt possessed, helpless, bound to him.
Her eyes opened and she gazed dazedly down at his face. “Ricardo.”
An expression of exquisite pleasure contorted his features. “It’s so good it hurts, doesn’t it?” he whispered. “We were meant to be together like this. Can’t you feel it?”
Then he started to move, thrusting upward, shifting her for his pleasure and her own. The pace was furious, the depth intense, the emotional response pure madness.
Lara could feel the tears running down her cheeks as the tension mounted to fever pitch and beyond.
Ricardo cupped her breasts in his hands as his hips bucked forcefully upward, stallion-wild, furnace-hot—his expression absorbed, intent, as he gave her more than she dreamed she could take.
“Now, Lara.” He closed his eyes, the thrusts growing harder, wilder with every breath. “Now!”
She cried out, every muscle convulsing as the fiery climax broke over her.
The release was so intense, she was only vaguely aware of Ricardo’s low groan as he clutched her to him with breath-stealing force. She lay against him, dazed, dizzy, every muscle limp.
“Mine …” Ricardo’s voice in her ear was so soft, it was almost inaudible. He gently stroked her hair back from her face as he murmured, “You belong to me now,
Panic soared through her. She had to say something. She couldn’t let him think—She tried to steady her breathing as she sat up again. “No, it’s
not like that.” Her voice was trembling as she forced herself to look down at him. “I don’t love you, Ricardo.”
He became still. “You do love me.”
She shook her head. “I care about you. Perhaps I’m a little infatuated with you, but I don’t love you.”
The joy vanished from his expression and it became shuttered again. He lifted her off his lap and set her on the pallet beside him. When he spoke, his tone was as guarded as the expression on his face. “Then may I ask why you decided to favor me with the gift of your body? You’re not a woman who commits herself in this fashion merely for sex.”
She found she was suddenly shivering and drew the wool blanket up to her shoulders. “You were alone. You said you wanted something of your own.”
“Not a one-night stand.” He smiled mirthlessly. “That’s not what I was talking about.”
“I wanted to make you happy.” She nervously ran her fingers through her hair. “Oh, I don’t
know. I just didn’t want you to be alone right now when you—” She stopped in mid sentence.
“When I might be killed?” He sat up and leaned against the stone wall, gazing at her without expression. “So you felt sorry for me and thought you’d throw me a bone.”
“No, it wasn’t like that.”
“How was it? Tell me.”
“I felt …” She stopped, moistening her lips with her tongue. “Why are you cross-examining me like this? Why can’t you accept what we’ve had without analyzing it to death.”