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Authors: Iris Johansen

Tender Savage (13 page)

BOOK: Tender Savage
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“Because I want a hell of a lot more than you’re offering me.” His tone was taut with leashed violence. “I don’t want your damn pity. I want you to love me.”

She gazed at him helplessly, her eyes glistening with tears.

His face softened and he smiled lopsidedly. “I said I needed to give to you, but evidently you’re not ready to take what I have to give.” He grimaced. “Well, I’d be a fool not to take what you’re offering me at the moment. I gather you’re
willing to occupy my bed from now until the time I send you back to Barbados?”

She nodded silently.

“Then I accept the gift.” His lips twisted. “Who am I to reject charity when it comes in such an appetizing package.”

She had hurt him, she realized with aching regret. She had never meant to hurt Ricardo. His life had been tragic enough without her adding to his pain. She suddenly wanted to go back into his arms and hold him and tell him—

Tell him what? She had already yielded too much of herself and was surrendering more every moment she spent with him.

“Don’t look so frightened.” Ricardo’s gaze narrowed on her face. “You’ve made me a promise. You can’t back out now.”

She smiled with an effort. “I’m not backing out. Why should I be frightened?”

His expression intent, he studied her. “Perhaps because you’ve suddenly realized you’re getting in too deep?”

She looked away from him, her clasp tightening on the blanket. “I don’t love you, Ricardo.”

“Don’t you? I think you do and just won’t admit it. Loving me would disrupt the neat, cozy life you’ve planned for yourself, and it frightens you. You think that I’ll—”

“I don’t love you, Ricardo.” She interrupted, desperation threading her voice. “Why won’t you believe me?”

“I can’t believe you. It would hurt too much,” he said simply.

Lara could feel the moisture stinging her eyes. “Dammit, you’re not being fair. I never asked for any of this.”

“I know.” He reached out and pulled her into his arms, pushing her cheek into the hollow of his shoulder. “Poor baby.” He rocked her back and forth, his arms tightening into a strong haven around her. “That’s what you get when you wander away from your safe backyard into the cold world.”

The world didn’t feel cold with his arms around her and his heart thundering beneath her ear. Neither coldness nor loneliness existed here in Ricardo’s embrace. She should back away from
him, she thought dreamily. She felt more joined to him now than she had when she had held him within her body.

His lips feathered her temple. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep you warm. I’ll never let you be hurt again.”

“You can’t keep a promise like that. Everyone’s responsible for his own well-being,” she whispered. “I carry my own burdens.”

“Not when there’s love. Then responsibility is a privilege, not a burden.”

Love, again. Uneasiness stirred within her. “I don’t want to talk about—”

“Shh, it’s all right.” He was rocking her again. “We won’t talk about it. You’ll just know it’s there waiting for you when you’re ready. Okay?”

It wasn’t okay, she thought. He hadn’t accepted that she wouldn’t love him. He might never accept it. What if she hurt him more than she had already?

“You’re worrying again.” He lifted her chin on the crook of his finger to look down into her eyes. “It’s okay, I tell you. I’m tough. I can take anything that happens to me.”

He was tough, but he was also gentle and exquisitely sensitive to her every thought and emotion. Her throat tightened achingly as she looked up at him. “Sure?”

“Sure.” His warm lips tenderly moved back and forth on her own. “But the question is, can you take anything that happens to you?”

She stiffened warily. “What do you mean?”

“Nothing threatening. I just intend to take full advantage of you tonight.” His hand left her chin and moved down and twitched away the blanket she had tucked around her breasts. “I didn’t want to continue your sexual education with that bastard Jurado listening in and licking his chops.” His head lowered and his lips brushed her upper breasts. “There are all sorts of interesting positions that require a little verbal instruction along the way.”

Relief rushed through her as she realized he had been speaking of physical not emotional endurance. Lust was fleeting; lust was safe. She smiled and said lightly, “I’ve always been a good student.”

“Wonderful.” He jerked the blanket aside as he
lowered her to the pallet and then turned her over on her stomach, his hard palms gently squeezing and caressing her bottom. “And it’s not that I don’t trust your word.” His lips caressed the flesh between her shoulder blades as he moved over her, lazily rubbing against her, letting her feel the textures of him, the soft springy hair thatching his chest, the hard cording of muscular thighs, the harder, hotter, length of his arousal. “But suppose we run a few in-depth tests?”

“You’ve been outside.” Lara opened sleepy eyes as Ricardo slipped beneath the blanket onto her pallet and drew her into his arms. He was a dark shape above her, his sable hair gilded by the firelight. He was still dressed, she noticed as she cuddled closer. “I thought you were in the war room with Paco.”

“How do you know I went outside?” Ricardo bent down and kissed her temple before raising himself to look down at her, bracing himself with his elbows on either side of her body.

“You smell of wind and leaves.” Lara breathed in the scent of him. “Wonderful. Much nicer than the dank mustiness of the caverns.”

He went still. “Being here in the caverns bothers you?”

“Sometimes. I love the sun.” She suddenly stiffened. “Why did you go outside? Another raid?”

“No raid. I went to the village of San Esteban. It’s about five miles from here.” His dark eyes suddenly glinted with mischief. “To see a woman.”

“Is that supposed to make me jealous?” A smile tugged at Lara’s lips. “You’ve been keeping me too busy in that line of endeavor to convince me you have to go scavenging the villages for more. Even you don’t have that much sexual stamina.”

“You obviously haven’t been keeping up with my press clippings. I’m reputed to be a superman.”

“And are you?”

“No. Just a man.” He burrowed his lips in the
hollow of her throat. “Except with you. You make me feel like a giant.”

Her chest tightened with emotion and she swallowed before she could speak. “Do I?” Her hand reached up to stroke his hair. “That’s nice.”

He lifted his head. “Aren’t you going to ask who I went to see?”

“Why, when you’re obviously going to tell me anyway?”

“Rosa Sardona.” He threw the blanket aside and sat up. “The wife of the mayor of San Esteban. A lovely lady with exquisite taste.”

“I’m happy for her.”

Ricardo sighed. “You’re an unnatural woman. If not jealousy, haven’t you, at least, a spark of curiosity?”

Lara sat up and draped the blanket around her bare shoulders. She had never seen Ricardo like this. He appeared years younger, full of mischief and boyish eagerness. She smiled indulgently. “Very well, I’m curious. Why did you go to see the lovely Señora Sardona with the exquisite taste?”

“Because I wanted to give you this.” He
reached behind him and picked up a paper sack beside the pallet. “It wasn’t safe for me to go to a shop, but the Sardonas are my people and I didn’t think you’d mind—” He thrust the sack at her. “Open it.”

She gazed at him in bewilderment and then slowly opened the sack and peered into the bag.

Yellow velvet. Bright as sunlight, soft as night.

She reached into the bag and pulled out an enchanting lemon-yellow robe. She stared in wonder at the garment.

“Stand up.”

She got to her feet, and the blanket dropped to a gray pool on the stones. “Lovely,” he murmured as he brushed a kiss on the upper slope of her left breast. “Softer than the velvet.”

“Why did you go to all this trouble?”

He took the robe and held it while she slipped her arms into the extravagantly wide sleeves. “Because I knew how your hair would shine against the yellow. Sunlight on sunlight.” He tied the cord around her waist, lifted her long fair hair free of the collar and tidied it. “There. Now you look like a princess.”

“Why, Ricardo?” she asked again.

His smiled faded. “Because I wanted to give you something. God knows, you deserve it. I keep you in a dark cave, away from the sunlight. The food is terrible; there’s nothing bright or interesting in your life. I know a secondhand robe isn’t much, but I hoped—”

“It’s perfectly lovely.” She blinked to keep back the tears. “And no one in his right mind can say you’re not interesting.” She touched the soft velvet of the bodice of the robe. “I love it.”

“Truly?” His manner was strangely awkward. “It’s the first present I’ve given anyone for over ten years. My mother liked presents and I thought you might too.”

“I do.” She whirled in a circle and the full skirt of the velvet robe swirled about her. “I feel very grand. At home I sleep in one of Brett’s old T-shirts. I’m afraid I’m not the elegant type that your Señora Sardona must be.”

“You’re just right.” He caught her in his arms and gave her a quick kiss before releasing her. “I brought you something else.” He reached down
into the paper bag and pulled out a bottle of red wine and two glasses. “For our celebration.”


“Our one-week anniversary.” He handed her a glass, poured wine into it and then his own. “May there be a thousand and one more.” He smiled. “I sound like a wishful Scheherazade, don’t I?”

She unconsciously tensed. “That’s a long time. I believe the
Arabian Nights
tales called for a thousand and one nights, not weeks.”

“So I’m greedy.” He set the bottle of wine on the floor. “Now, sit down and drink your wine.” He pulled her down, cradling her in his arms before the low crackling fire. “And if you’re very good, I’ll play Scheherazade and tell you a story.”

She relaxed back against him. “What kind of story?”

“Whatever you like. You’ve given me my week; I’d be miserly not to give you whatever you choose.” He thought for a moment. “Perhaps not a story. What about a poem?”

“One of yours?”

He shook his head. “Mine all seem to be too
dark these days. I’ve always liked Robert Louis Stevenson. His verse has a certain rough vigor and truth.” He quoted softly,

“Trusty, dusky, vivid, true,
With eyes of gold and bramble-dew,
Steel true and blade straight
The great Artificer made my mate.

Honor, anger, valor, fire,
A love that life could never tire,
Death quench, or evil stir,
The mighty Master gave to her.”

She was silent for a long moment before she finally said quietly, “I’ve never heard that before. It’s beautiful.”

“It’s more. It’s you.” Before she could speak, he smiled with an effort and said, “You’re not drinking your wine. Rosa told me it was a very good year.” His lips twisted. “Not that I’d know. I haven’t tasted good wine in so long, I can’t appreciate the difference. I remember at the rancho my mother used to serve—” He stopped and then
lifted his glass to his lips. “Let’s drink to better wines and better times next year.”

“Maybe next year will be different. You said one more campaign might be all it takes to win your war.” She sipped the wine. It was as good as Ricardo said, full-bodied, with a delicate bite. “Perhaps this time next year the war will be over and you can go home to your rancho.”

He shook his head. “I don’t know if I can.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve been a soldier all my adult life. It’s all I know. How do I just put down my weapons and start life over?”

“You speak as if you like being a soldier.”

“I hate it.” He looked down into the ruby depths of his glass. “But it’s what I am and I don’t know what else I am these days.”

“Did you like living on the rancho?”

“Yes, I would never have been the rancher my father was, but I liked the work and the outdoors.” He paused. “And the peace. I liked the stillness and the peace.”

“Then why couldn’t you go back?”

“I’ve seen too much. When I was a boy, I used
to make up poems about sunsets and seas and mountains. Now I can only see the people.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I see pollution in the seas, mountains carved and gouged by miners, sunsets clouded by smog. I can only see the problems, not the beauty. I can’t live just for myself any longer.” He kissed her ear. “Lord, I wish I could go back to that other time.”

“Well, they won’t let you. Dr. Salazar says they’ll want you to be president.”


“There’s no perhaps about it.” She took another sip of wine. “You know how your people feel about you. You’re a legend.”

“I’m tired of being a legend.” Ricardo’s hand tightened on his glass. “Maybe I’ll run away to your small town and forget Saint Pierre exists.”

“You can’t do that.” She was careful not to look at him. “Paco once told me you
Saint Pierre.”

“Great.” His laugh held a hint of desperation. “Now I’m not only a legend, I’m the whole bloody country.”

She tilted her head to look up at him. His
mood was strange tonight, alternating between boyish exuberance and despair. He had always been totally mature, possessing an unshakable strength and resolve. Now he was showing her a more human, vulnerable Ricardo Lázaro, and she experienced a sudden rush of tenderness. She mustn’t feel like this. Every day they were growing closer, every night more passionate. Where could it end? She deliberately kept her tone light. “Paco said it; I didn’t. Personally, I think it sounds a tad uncomfortable being a hero. I wouldn’t have it on a bet.”

“I know.” His lips twisted bitterly. “You only want your little town and your dog and your lake.”

“Yes, it’s what I want.” But if she wanted all that so much, why did the familiar vision seem far away and unsubstantial now? The only reality existed in these caverns with Paco, Manuel, Dr. Salazar, and Ricardo … always, Ricardo.

“Have you finished your wine?”


He took her glass and put it with his own on
one of the flat stones encircling the fire. “Time for bed.”

“The celebration is over?”

BOOK: Tender Savage
10.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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