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Authors: Iris Johansen

Tender Savage (17 page)

BOOK: Tender Savage
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Her eyes widened in disbelief. “So I’m supposed to stay here and let you take care of me? I don’t suppose we’re talking about marriage?”

“No.”

It was the answer she had expected and still the pain spiraled through her. She had to fight desperately to keep him from seeing it.

“I didn’t think so.” She turned away and looked through the window down into the courtyard. “Then what are you suggesting?” She pretended to think. “Let’s see, you want to marry me to one of your officers so that you can keep an eye on your offspring?”

“No.” His voice was hoarse and so low she could barely hear it.

“That’s good,” she said sarcastically. “I’d be disappointed in your lack of ingenuity. That kind
of arrangement went out of fashion in the nineteenth century and you’re a man of the future, a man who carves new frontiers and—”

“Shut up!” His tone held such violence, her gaze flew to his face. Lines of pain carved either side of his mouth, and his eyes glittered with torment. “I can’t take any more of this.”

“Why not? Everything I’ve said is true. What did you have in mind? Perhaps I’m to become
el presidente’
s mistress with a covey of bastards clinging to my skirts?”

“No, you can’t stay here on Saint Pierre.”

“You’re probably right. I’ve noticed you become bored quite easily and it would prove an inconvenience to you to have me—”

His hand clamped over her mouth. It was shaking. His voice also shook as he said, “I told you I couldn’t—you’re tearing me apart. I know I hurt you. I know I’m hurting you now. But I can’t stand here and let you do it to me anymore. It’s worse than Jurado’s sharp little ice pick jabbing and jabbing and …” His hand moved yearningly from her lips to hover above the soft swing of hair
touching her shoulders. “Lord, I’ve wanted to touch you. Do you know how often I’ve thought of the way you move beneath me and the way you look and smell and …” He trailed off and closed his eyes for an instant. Then his lids flicked open and he took a step back. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that.”

She gazed at him in wonder, as a tiny glow of hope suddenly flaring within her. Something was wrong here. Or perhaps something was wonderfully right. “Then why did you do it?”

“I couldn’t stop—” He broke off and then said jerkily, “What else? Sex rearing its head again. We’ve always had a very combustible reaction to each other.”

He was lying. Oh, there had definitely been lust in his expression, but there had also been something else. The hope flared higher.

She moved away from the French window and dropped into a high-backed cushioned chair. She must be careful. The flame of hope could be infinitely fragile. “Very well, I’m listening. Why am I here?”

“Two reasons. We have to come to an agreement about the child.”

“And the other reason?”

“To receive your medal.”

She blinked. “For having your child?”

He smiled for the first time since she had entered the room. “I hope the conception wasn’t that terrible.” His smile faded. “For bravery. Do you still have those whip marks on your back?”

“They’re almost gone.” She shook her head to clear it. His last words had taken her completely by surprise. “You brought me here to give me a medal?”

“You deserve it. It will be presented tomorrow night at the inauguration ball. The Saint Pierre Ribbon of Courage.”

“I don’t want a medal.”

“You’ll receive it anyway.” Ricardo’s jaw tightened stubbornly. “You gave to us. Now we give to you.”

She smiled faintly. “I’ve already been advised there’s a gift on the way.”

Ricardo’s expression became shadowed. “That’s not a gift; it’s a burden.”

She shook her head and repeated softly, “A gift.”

His eyes met hers and suddenly there was a velvet intimacy charging the atmosphere between them. Ricardo tore his gaze away from her and said huskily, “I’m glad you view it in that light, but there are still problems.”

“None I can’t overcome.”

“With my help. I intend to settle enough on you to make you and the child secure for the rest of your lives.” He waved his hand as she started to speak. “And I’ll assign a man to guard you and the child. You needn’t worry. He’ll be very unobtrusive.”

“Guard me? Why should I need guards?”

“I still have enemies. If they can’t get to me, they may try to hurt the people I care about. Even though we’ll make sure no one knows that we were lov—close, I’d still feel better if you were protected.”

Something that had been tugging at her memory clicked into place. “Protected …” She studied him thoughtfully. “Oh, would you?”

“Yes.” Ricardo stood with his hands clasped behind his back, his legs astride. “Here’s what I plan on doing. Tomorrow night you’ll receive your medal. Naturally, we’ll be careful not to let anyone know that we are more than friends.”

“Naturally.”

“The next morning Paco will escort you back to the United States and find you a house wherever you choose.”

“By a lake,” she murmured.

“If you wish.” He frowned. “I know you prefer a small town, but you’ll have to be close to good medical care.”

“I’m sure Paco can find something that meets the requirements. Do you suppose he can also locate a suitable dog?”

“You’re laughing at me.”

“At least I’m no longer contemplating flushing your medal down the nearest toilet.”

“You’ll accept the medal?”

She rose to her feet. “Yes, I believe I’ll accept your Ribbon of Courage.”

“And the house and—”

“We’ll discuss that later. I’ll take it under advisement. Now, may I go to my room?” She glanced around the stiff grandeur of the sitting room. “I gather you don’t want me here.”

Something flickered in his eyes. “Would you stay if I asked?”

“Heavens no. I certainly wouldn’t want to interfere with all these intricate plans you’ve been hatching. Will I see you before the ball?”

“I don’t think it would be wise.”

“Oops!” She snapped her fingers. “I forgot for a moment. Discretion is the name of the game.”

His gaze narrowed on her face. “Why aren’t you angry any longer?”

“Understanding banishes anger.” A brilliant smile lit her face. “All you had to do was explain your position.”

“And you’ll be reasonable?”

“Very reasonable. What am I supposed to wear to this ball?”

“I’ve had a gown made for you.”

Her eyes widened. “Then you must have been planning this for a long time.”

“Since the time we took the
palacio.”
He
smiled faintly. “I would have brought you back here even if you hadn’t been pregnant. Saint Pierre owes you a debt and we pay our debts. I hope you find the gown to your satisfaction.”

She lifted a brow. “Will it fit?”

“It will fit. I gave the dressmaker the yellow robe you left behind. And if the gown needs to be let out, the seamstress here can do it.” He paused. “You looked very beautiful in that robe.”

“Señora Sardona’s lovely hand-me-down. I liked it. I hope you got it back from the dressmaker.”

He shook his head. “I didn’t think you had any use for it.”

“A woman can always use another robe.” She smothered a yawn. “Can one of these stalwart guards at the door show me my quarters? Paco woke me up at three
A.M.
and I can’t seem to get enough sleep these days.”

“Yes.” As she moved away from him, he took an impulsive step forward. “But I’ll take you.”

“Oh, no.” She gazed up at him limpidly as she opened the door. “We wouldn’t want to give the impression we’re more than friends.”

She sailed through the doorway and shut the door quietly behind her.

“You wanted to see me?” Paco asked as Lara opened the door of her suite at his knock.

She nodded, then stepped aside to let him in. “I have a few questions to ask.”

Wariness flickered in Paco’s expression. “I don’t know if I can answer them.”

“For Pete’s sake, Paco, we’ve been through too much together for you to close up on me now. I need answers.”

Paco didn’t reply. His glance fell to the floor.

Lara drew a deep breath and then burst out, “Does he love me?”

“How should I know?”

Lara could see it was going to be like pulling teeth to get information from the man. “Has he ever talked about me?”

“No.”

Disappointment surged through her. “Never?”

“Only to say you must be protected.”

“Why did he send me away?”

Paco didn’t answer.

“That day of the sniper attack he changed toward me in the blink of an eyelash. Dammit, he must have said something to you on the way back to the caverns.”

“No.” His gaze finally lifted to her face and he said reluctantly, “But he said something to Juan while he was bandaging his shoulder.”

She held her breath.

“He said, ‘The bullet went through my shoulder. An inch to the left and it would have blown Lara’s brains out.’”

It was what she had suspected, what she had hoped for. Her breath escaped in a rush of air. “Thanks, Paco.”

He shook his head. “I don’t think it will do any good. He won’t admit it, and he won’t change his mind. He’s seen too many friends and loved ones die over the years. He won’t risk you.” He gently touched her cheek with his forefinger. “I’m sorry, Lara.”

“I’m not. I’ve got a weapon to fight with now. Before I had nothing. I didn’t even know I had a battle to fight.”

“Good luck.” Paco turned to leave the suite. “I hope you win your battle.”

“I don’t see why I shouldn’t.” She grinned. “Haven’t you heard? I’m a genuine, medal-sporting heroine, and a heroine always carries the day.”

NINE

D
EAR HEAVEN, SHE
was nervous.

Lara smoothed the wide silk skirts of her ball gown and tried to breathe slowly and deeply. It was all very well to talk big and exude confidence before the fact, but now that the moment of truth had arrived, she could feel her confidence eroding. Standing in the hall waiting to go into the ballroom to accept that damn medal didn’t make her any less upset.

“You look very beautiful,” Paco said quietly in
her ear. “The television cameramen will have a field day.”

“It’s the gown.” The square-necked ball gown Ricardo’s dressmaker had created for her was fashioned of a magnificent pink silk embroidered in a delicate floral design with glittering golden bugle beads. “I feel like Princess Di.”

“Don’t say that.” Paco made a face. “You’re a heroine of the Republic. We don’t recognize royalty here on Saint Pierre.”

“I’d rather not be recognized at all. Can’t you go in and tell Ricardo I don’t want the blasted medal?”

He shook his head. “You agreed to accept it. It will be over in just a few minutes. When your name is called, you and your escort cross the ballroom to the raised pedestal where Ricardo is standing and—”

“My escort? Those two men who got medals didn’t have escorts.”

“You’re a woman.”

“I think we need a feminist organization down here.”

“Ricardo thought you might be nervous.”

“Who, me?” She shivered. “I’m scared to death.”

Paco smiled. “Then he was right.”

“He has a tiresome habit of being right—well, sometimes. Are you going to escort me?”

“No, Ricardo has reserved that right for someone else. I have to meet a late arrival downstairs.”

“If it’s not going to be you, I’d rather go it alone.”

Paco shook his head. “You’ll feel quite comfortable with this escort.” The door to the ballroom opened and he turned. “Here he is now.”

Manuel stood in the doorway, dressed in a full dress army uniform, his black shoes shined to a high luster no brighter than his eyes. “You don’t mind?” he asked Lara with quaint gravity. “It would be my very great honor to escort you.”

Ricardo had done this. He had known how nervous Lara would feel and had sent the one person who would put her instantly at ease. She felt the tension leave her as she swept Manuel a curtsy and said gently as she took his arm, “And it would be my very great honor to accept your escort.”

——————

The medal was a green, white, and scarlet ribbon embellished with a golden sunburst medallion.

Ricardo slipped the ribbon over her head and then stepped back as the medallion nestled against the pink satin of her bodice. Flashbulbs went off somewhere in the background and she heard the click of camera shutters.

“The government of Saint Pierre gives thanks for your service, and honors your courage.” Ricardo’s tone was formal, stilted, and Lara did not receive the warm smile he had awarded the other two honorees.

She vaguely heard polite applause as she stepped off the raised pedestal and moved to the side to merge with the other guests at the ball. Ricardo immediately turned away and must have made some signal to indicate the awards ceremony was at an end, for the orchestra began to play again. “You did very well,” Manuel said solemnly. “I was afraid you’d trip on the hem of your gown as we crossed the ballroom.”

“I’m glad you didn’t tell me before. I probably
would have done just that.” She heard a buzz of conversation from the elegantly dressed people surrounding her and received a few tentative smiles. She smiled automatically in return before she turned away. Now that the ceremony was over, she only wanted to escape. “Find me a way out of—”

“Quite a necklace. A little gaudy with that gown, but then you never did know how to coordinate an ensemble.”

“Brett!” She whirled around to face her brother’s teasing grin.

Paco stood behind Brett’s wheelchair, a broad smile on his face. “Our late arrival. I told you I’d let him know you had a good reason for going to Saint Pierre.”

Lara flew across the few yards separating her from Brett’s wheelchair. “Are you okay? The trip wasn’t too much for you?”

Brett grimaced. “The trip was fine. It was getting outfitted in these fancy duds that wore me out.” He waved his hand at the tuxedo he wore. “I hope you appreciate the sacrifice I made just to see you get that fancy piece of jewelry.”

“I appreciate it.” Lara swallowed to ease the tightness in her throat. “They shouldn’t have given it to me. You’re the one who deserves it.”

“I receive mine at the military ceremony next week. This is the glitz-and-glamour edition.”

BOOK: Tender Savage
5.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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