Authors: Iris Johansen
He stood up and drew her to her feet. “Oh, no.” He started to untie the belt of her robe. “The celebration is just beginning,
. I can’t get my breath.” Lara laughed helplessly, trying to match his long stride as Ricardo pulled her through the twisting corridors of the labyrinth-like caverns. “Where are we going?”
“You’ll see.” Ricardo smiled as he glanced back at her. “A surprise.”
“Another one? You do believe in celebrations, don’t you?”
“Last night was the celebration that we made it through the week.”
“And what is today?”
“The first day of the new week. I thought we should start it right.” He rounded a corner. “Outside.”
Lara stopped in the path, staring at the clear morning light streaming through the opening at the end of the corridor and illuminating the eternal dimness of the caverns. Exhilaration soared through her. She hadn’t realized how much she had missed the sunlight until this moment. “We’re going outside?”
Ricardo’s gaze fastened on her face as if he were drinking in her reaction. “You said you missed it.”
“I do. But is it safe?”
“For a little while.” He pulled her toward the front entrance. “Not for very long. There have been reports of snipers drifting down from the hills since the raid on the Abbey.”
She stood in the doorway behind the screen of foliage hiding the entrance of the cave and lifted
her face to the sunlight. She sighed blissfully. “Wonderful.”
“You look as if you’re absorbing it into your pores,” Ricardo laughed. “I think you like this better than your velvet robe.”
She breathed deeply, taking in the scent of dew-wet leaves, earth, and the orchids growing on the trees in the rain forest a few yards distant. “It’s certainly more heady than the wine we drank last night.” She glanced anxiously at him. “Are you sure it’s safe for you?”
He nodded as he took her hand. “Paco sent three sentries to the lake. If they see any sign of snipers, they’ll alert us.”
He grinned. “I can’t provide you with your small town or your cottage, but I can give you the lake.” He led her away from the entrance of the caverns into the rain forest. “It’s only five minutes from here.”
The blue of the lake dazzled Lara’s eyes. Rimmed by the rain forest, surrounded by the green hills, it shone jewel-like in the strong sunlight.
“The waters are warmer than the pool in the caverns. Would you like to swim?” Ricardo asked.
Ricardo smiled indulgently at her eager expression. “You can. I’ll sit here on the bank and watch you.”
“You don’t want to swim? How can you resist it?” She was quickly shedding her boots and socks even as she spoke. “Real sunlight and that beautiful water.”
He dropped down on the mossy bank. “Leave your shirt on. We don’t want to give the sentries a free show.”
Lara glanced around her as she stepped out of her trousers. “I don’t see them.”
“You’re not supposed to see them. Take my word for it; they’re there.”
She ran toward the lake, shirttails flapping about her thighs. She dived into the lake, cleaving the water arrow-straight, and then set out with a strong breaststroke across the lake.
The water was comfortably cool, deliciously silky against her flesh.
“Not too far,” Ricardo called.
She reluctantly turned and began swimming back toward him. “I could go on forever,” she shouted exultantly. “Oh, Ricardo, thank you.”
A shadow crossed his face. “You’re easily pleased.”
“What do you mean? My own private lake, sunshine, orchids growing on the trees.” She felt for the bottom with a tentative foot, located it, and stood upright. She shook her wet hair back from her face.
“I can see that you do.” Ricardo smiled at her, his eyes narrowed against the glare of the sunlight on the water.
He was so beautiful.
Lara stood in the shoulder-high water and just looked at him. His arms were linked about his knees in the position she knew so well. He was the intense, controlled man she had known in the cell; the boyish, vulnerable lover of last night; the poet-warrior. Suddenly, as she looked at him, everything he was merged for her, sweeping away
doubts and choices, overwhelming everything but the one truth she had been fighting for so long.
Dear God, she loved him.
“Lara?” Ricardo’s gaze was intent on her face, the muscles of his body stiffening as he saw her expression.
What a time for such a monumental truth to strike home—up to her neck in cold water and Ricardo yards away on the bank. She started toward him, trying to move swiftly through the heavy water that was keeping her from him.
By the time she reached the bank, he was standing at the edge holding out his hand. He pulled her up to stand beside him.
The wet shirt clung to her body, but she scarcely felt the chill as both of Ricardo’s hands cupped her cheeks. He looked down into her eyes. “Yes?” he whispered.
She couldn’t speak; she couldn’t do anything but look at him and wonder how she had come to this point of no return.
Joy illuminated his features as his head bent slowly toward her.
, it’s what you—”
A sharp crack!
Blood stained the upper left side of his shirt and—“Down!” Ricardo shoved her into the shrubbery a few yards away, pushed her to the ground, and dived on top of her.
It had been a shot!
Ricardo had been shot! He was bleeding.
Panic caused Lara’s breath to stop as she finally realized what had happened. A sniper had fired from one of the trees in the rain forest. “Let me up. You’re hurt.”
“Stay still.” He held her immobile, his body heavy on hers, pinning her to the ground. “He’s still out there.”
She couldn’t tell where the shots were coming from or at whom they were aimed. Ricardo was covering her with his body. For all she knew, those bullets could be tearing into his flesh. “No!” She fought him wildly, managing to slip from beneath his bulk and onto her knees. One glance told her he probably hadn’t been hit more than the one time, but she had no idea how bad
the wound was. “We’ve got to get you back to the cave.”
“Wait!” His hand fell on her shoulder, keeping her on her knees. “We don’t even know if there was more than one sniper.”
“I don’t care.” The tears were running down her cheeks. “You’re probably bleeding to death, dammit.”
“I don’t think it hit an artery, and the bullet passed through.” Ricardo paled with sudden shock and he went rigid. “It passed right through my shoulder,” he repeated dully.
She scarcely heard him as she quickly unbuttoned his shirt. “We shouldn’t have come out of the caverns. I shouldn’t have let you—”
“Ricardo!” Paco stood beside them, his face almost as pale as Ricardo’s. “Dammit, I told you it was a risk.” He knelt beside them on the ground. “Bad?”
“Nothing.” Ricardo pushed Lara’s hands aside and rose to his knees. “Did they get them?”
Paco nodded. “Sniper, working alone. Let’s get you back to the caverns so Juan can clean up that wound.” He helped Ricardo to his feet, sliding a
protective arm about his waist.
, you’re stupid. The most-wanted man on Saint Pierre and you have to go swimming.” He shook his head. “In broad daylight.”
He hadn’t gone swimming, Lara thought. He had sat on the bank and watched her, guarded her, because he had known how great the danger was.
“Shut up, Paco,” Ricardo said wearily. “You don’t have to tell me how stupid I am. It has just been brought home to me in the most effective way possible.” He didn’t look at Lara as he let Paco half carry him down the path through the rain forest. “Get dressed, Lara. I’ll send one of the men to bring you back to the caverns. Stay where you are until he comes for you.”
“But I want to go with you.”
He didn’t answer and in a moment he had disappeared behind the thick screen of shrubbery of the rain forest.
She stared after him in bewilderment, feeling isolated, shut out, terribly alone.
Lara hurried into her clothes but had to wait another few minutes for the sentry to arrive to take her back to the caverns. By the time she reached the infirmary, Paco was nowhere in sight, Salazar had finished bandaging Ricardo’s shoulder, and Manuel was handing him a clean shirt to slip on.
“Are you okay?” Lara hurried toward him across the room. “Is he okay, Juan?”
Juan Salazar nodded. “Fine. The shoulder will be stiff for a day or two, but it was scarcely worth a bandage.”
“It bled—” Lara shuddered as she stopped before Ricardo. “You’re certain?”
“I’ve had much worse wounds.” Ricardo slid his arms awkwardly into the shirt and started to button it. His lips twisted grimly. “But none I’ve deserved more.”
“No one deserves to be shot. Here, let me help you with that.” She reached out to button his shirt.
“No!” He took a step back away from her. “I don’t need help. I’m fine.”
“You’ve just been shot. That’s not fine. I want to help you, dammit.”
For an instant something flickered beneath the expressionless mask he had assumed. “I know you do.” His gaze dropped to the fastenings of the shirt he was buttoning. “Go to your quarters. I have to talk to Paco about the sniper. I’ll join you when I’ve finished with him.”
She was dismissed. This was not the Ricardo she knew. She might as well have been one of the soldiers in his command. This man was crisp, commanding, coolly remote.
She hesitated, staring at him uncertainly. She could sense the doctor’s discomfort as he gazed at both of them, but she ignored him as she asked urgently, “Ricardo, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” He didn’t look at her again as he strode from the infirmary.
She turned immediately to Salazar. “Are you sure there’s nothing seriously wrong with him? I’ve never seen him like this before.”
“You’ve seen Ricardo, the general, for the first time.” Salazar grimaced. “I told you he could be intimidating.”
“Yes.” Her tone was abstracted as she turned and moved toward the door. Everything would be
all right, she assured herself. She couldn’t expect Ricardo to behave normally. He had just been shot, for heaven’s sake. Probably by the time he finished his talk with Paco and came to her quarters, he’d be entirely himself again.
Ricardo’s manner was exactly the same when he walked into her room two hours later—remote, cool, completely impersonal.
“Paco interrogated the sniper. The location of the caverns hasn’t been compromised.”
“That’s good.” Lara’s fingers nervously laced together as she leaned back against the stone wall. “Will the junta send someone else when he doesn’t report in?”
“Probably. But not for a day or two. We have time to get you out.”
She froze. “What?”
“I’ve told Paco to radio for a helicopter to take you to Barbados.”
She stared at him without speaking.
“The helicopter will arrive on the island shortly after dark. Be ready.”
“Why?” she whispered.
She rose jerkily to her feet. “What do you mean ‘it’s best’? Who the devil is it best for, and why are you acting like a damn robot?”
“I’m not acting like a robot. I’m behaving like a responsible commander.” His lips twisted. “At last. I’m not surprised you don’t recognize it. I haven’t exhibited anything but blatant self-indulgence since I brought you here. I let my sex drive get in the way of my good sense. After five months in prison I suppose it would have been excusable in someone who didn’t have a revolution to run but not—”
“Sex? You’re saying I wasn’t anything more to you than a good lay?” She shook her head. “I don’t believe you.”
“Why not? You told me yourself it was no more than that.”
“But that was before—” She stopped. That was before she had realized he was the center of her existence, before she had discovered that she loved him. Why did the fact that she loved him have to mean he still loved her? Few things came
out evenly in this world. “You said you loved me.”
“I was wrong. I mistook gratitude and sex for something else.” He shrugged. “I’ve gone through nine years of madness; I suppose I was reaching out for something sane and real.”
The words were cutting into her with agonizing sharpness. “May I ask what brought this sudden rush of responsibility to the forefront?”
“A bullet through the shoulder is an excellent reminder of duty. Another inch or so and I would have been dead.”
She shuddered as she remembered that moment when she had seen the blood flowing from the wound. “Yes.”
“And, though I don’t believe I’m as important to the revolution as Paco says, my death would be a definite setback now that we have victory within our grasp.” He shook his head in self-disgust. “And I risked all we’ve fought to gain for the last nine years just to let you take a sunbath.”
“I wouldn’t have let you do it if I’d known.” Lara could barely get the words past her lips. She
wouldn’t cry. She wouldn’t let him see the pain. “I didn’t want any of this to happen.”
“It did happen.” Ricardo stared at the craggy wall past her left shoulder. “You’d better get something to eat before you leave. It’s a long flight.”
Food. He was talking about food? “Haven’t you forgotten something?”
“I don’t think so.”
“What if I’m pregnant? Wasn’t that why you insisted I stay in the beginning?”
He flinched, his gaze shifting to her face. “Naturally, I’m concerned,” he said haltingly. “I’ll expect you to let me know if that happens.”
“The hell I will.” A jolt of anger momentarily banished the pain. “I told you once it would be my child. I won’t come running and give you the choice of whether you want to bear the burden. No, thank you.”
“It’s my responsibility to care—”
“The hell with your responsibility. I’ve had it with your—” She broke off and shook her head dazedly. This was all wrong. It couldn’t be happening. She had been so sure in that moment by
the lake. She looked up and said carefully, “You have to be lying. It wasn’t only sex. I know it.”