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Authors: Iris Johansen

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BOOK: Tender Savage
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Ricardo jumped to his feet and strode toward the window and looked out into the courtyard. He muttered a low curse. “Jurado’s coming.
Mother of God, he’s
coming
. What the hell have you done?”

Lara sat back on the cot, trying to subdue the fear clutching at her. The plan had been put into motion and it was too late for regrets now. “What I had to do.”

Ricardo ran across the room and sent the microphone crashing to the floor before turning to face her. “Damn you, what the hell do you mean by all this?”

She met his gaze and answered quietly, “I didn’t want to lose and this was the only way to win. You were right. Renalto couldn’t have freed you from this cell block, but the interrogation room adjoins Jurado’s office. He can get to you there and run no danger from the machine gun on the roof. He said it was the only way.”

He gazed at her in disbelief. “My Lord, do you know what they’ll do to you?”

“There won’t be time. Renalto should be here any moment.”

“Damn you, why didn’t you tell me what you were planning?”

“Renalto said you wouldn’t let—”

The cell door was unlocked and thrown open.

Lara quickly closed her eyes and began making low, whimpering noises in her throat.

“She’s not a fit mate for you, Lázaro,” Jurado said in disgust. “She’s too weak. Look at her, moaning and hysterical, and we’ve scarcely touched her.”

“You’re right,” Ricardo said quickly. “She’s nothing to me, less than nothing.”

“Perhaps,” Jurado said. “But we all know your weakness for the helpless. Maybe you do care something for her. I think we’ll see if we can spark a response.” He moved across the room and grabbed Lara’s hair and jerked back her head. “Stop that moaning; it annoys me.”

She opened her eyes to see Jurado’s round, boyish face above her. “Please, don’t hurt me. Don’t let them touch me again, Ricardo.”

“No courage.” Jurado’s lips curled in disgust as he released her hair, turned, and strode from the cell. “Bring them both. We’ll try the whip first, I think.”

Lara’s glance flew to Ricardo.

He wasn’t looking at her, and his expression was flint-hard as the guards pushed him toward the door.

The lash struck Lara’s back, tearing through the cotton gauze of her gown.

Her spine arched and she strained against the leather manacles holding her upright. Was it the fifth or sixth blow?

“Well, Lázaro?”

Ricardo’s tone was expressionless. “Do what you wish. She means nothing to me.”

The whip struck again, harder.

Where was Renalto?

The whip struck again.

“She means nothing to me.”

How many times had he said those words? They seemed to be burning into her back with every searing stroke of the whip.

She couldn’t see any longer. The tears ran down her cheeks, blurring everything in the room.

“You might as well stop. Why should I speak? She’s just a woman who pleased me for a few hours.”

The whip struck again.

Her flesh was growing numb. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt at all soon.

The room was growing darker. The chatter of a machine gun … Shouts.

Did they really exist or had she imagined it? Jurado was screaming orders. Someone was freeing her from the leather manacles.

He shouldn’t have done that, she thought hazily. Didn’t he know she couldn’t stand alone?

Her legs buckled and she fell to her knees on the floor.

“Lara …”

It was Ricardo’s voice, but he sounded hoarse, strange.

She tried to lift her head to see his face.

It was too difficult; her neck felt odd, like a fragile stem that would snap if she tried to move it.

It didn’t matter. She probably couldn’t have seen him anyway. Everything was growing so dark.

She pitched forward as the darkness overwhelmed her.

FOUR

S
TALACTITES
.

Beige-, peach-, and cream-colored stalactites hung down from the high ceiling above her like giant jagged icicles.

“It must be quite a shock waking up to this. You’re in the caverns.”

Her glance flickered to Paco Renalto’s face. She was lying on a pallet on a stone floor, she realized, and Renalto sat cross-legged on the floor beside her.

“The caverns?” She looked around her in bewilderment. She appeared to be in a small chamber of some sort, if you could call a naturally formed room in a cave a chamber. Three lanterns affixed to the craggy walls burned brightly in a valiant attempt to dispel the darkness. The room contained no furniture or comforts other than the pallet on which she was lying. She knew there was something she should remember about the caverns…. It was the password Renalto had given her to identify herself to Ricardo at the Abbey! Suddenly everything flowed back to her with overwhelming force. Ricardo, the Abbey, the lash striking her back.

“The caverns network these hills and we use them as an arms cache and primary base of operations,” Paco said quickly, his concerned gaze on her suddenly shadowed face. “How do you feel?”

“Lousy,” she whispered. “Ricardo?”

“Safe. He carried you here.”

“You were … late.”

“I know.” He grimaced and the expression made his puckish features look more elfin than before. “It took longer than we had thought to
get rid of the perimeter guards and cut off the voltage of the fence. I’m sorry, Lara.”

She tried to smile. “I suppose it couldn’t be helped.”

“You’re more generous than Ricardo. He raved at me like a maniac. You were very brave,
pequeña.”

She shook her head. “I was scared to death.”

“But Ricardo said you never cried out once while Jurado was having you whipped.”

“Why should I give him that satisfaction? I knew he wouldn’t stop, and it would have made it harder for Ricardo and me too.” She shifted and flinched as hot pain flashed through her back. “How badly did he hurt me?”

“There will be no permanent scarring, but you’ll be uncomfortable for a few days. Ricardo had the doctor dress and bandage your back as soon as we reached the caverns.”

“Jurado?”

“Still alive, unfortunately,” he said regretfully. “He slipped out of the interrogation room when we attacked and we had no time to search for him. We thought it best to get you and Ricardo
safely away before reinforcements arrived from the cell block.”

“When can I get up?”

“As soon as you feel well enough.”

Lara carefully levered herself up on one elbow. Another hot flash of pain shivered down her spine and her head began to swim. “I think … I’ll wait awhile.”

“I thought you would.” Paco picked up a tin cup from the ground beside him. “Drink this.”

She took the cup and looked dubiously at the milky liquid it contained. “What is it?”

“Just a sleeping powder. It works very quickly and when you wake, you’ll feel much better.”

“I’ll drink to that.” She lifted the cup and drained it. The liquid possessed a vague fruity flavor that was not unpleasant. She handed him the cup and carefully turned over on her stomach as she lay back down. “Where’s Ricardo?”

“In the war room planning the campaign.”

She smothered a yawn with her hand. “Already?”

“It could be the last campaign of the war. We’ve only been waiting for Ricardo to lead us.”

More war, more violence, and Ricardo in the thick of it. She felt a cold sickness in the pit of her stomach. Hadn’t he been through enough for his glorious revolution? A sudden memory of Ricardo’s expression as Jurado had taken them both from the cell block came back to her. “He’s angry with me.”

“Yes, he’s angry with both of us. I told you he would be.” Paco stood up and looked down at her. “But you did well, Lara.”

“Did I?” Her eyes were irresistibly closing as sleep once again claimed her. “It was all like a bad dream. I felt so helpless….”

When Lara awoke some time later, she was alone and had no idea how long she had slept. The flames of the lanterns fastened to the craggy stone walls still burned brightly, but she had slept so soundly, she knew she wouldn’t have awakened if someone had come in a dozen times to refill them.

She sat up slowly, gingerly, and experienced a rush of relief. Movement was still painful but at
least tolerable now. She tossed aside the blanket and started to stand up.

“Wait, I’ll help you.”

A curly-haired boy of eight or nine appeared in the arched opening across the chamber and hurried toward her. He was dressed in the same green army fatigues as the other soldiers she had seen, but they swamped his small body. His brow was wrinkled with concern as he took her arm and helped her to her feet. “You mustn’t move too quickly or you’ll open the wounds, and Ricardo will be angry with me.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Manuel Delguero. I take care of you.”

The words were spoken with such quaint gravity, she found herself smiling at him. “Oh, you do?”

He nodded. “It’s a great honor. Ricardo said that someday the people of Saint Pierre will tell tales around the camp fires of how bravely you came to the Abbey to rescue him.”

She blinked. “Somehow I doubt that.”

He frowned fiercely. “Ricardo said so.”

And evidently what Ricardo said was law to the boy. “What are you doing here?”

“I told you; I take care of you.”

“No, I mean here in the caverns. Where are your parents?”

“Dead.” His voice was without inflection. “Everyone is dead. The junta’s army killed them and Ricardo brought me to the caverns to live.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Oh, I don’t remember them. I was only a baby.”

He was little more than a baby now, Lara thought with compassion. “And you live here in the caverns?”

He nodded. “For a while I lived with María in a nearby village, but three years ago Ricardo sent Paco to bring us here. María helps the doctor.” His voice was proud. “And I help Ricardo. He said he needed me at his side.”

The children following the Pied Piper, she thought with a bittersweet pang. “But didn’t you like living in the village more than here?”

He gazed at her in bewilderment. “I’m a soldier.
The revolution needed me. Ricardo needed me.”

“I see.” She didn’t see. She didn’t understand a world where young men like Brett ended up in wheelchairs and small children became soldiers. “Well, I need you to help me too. I’m filthy and this gown I’m wearing is in rags. Is there somewhere I can take a bath and then get something clean to wear?”

He nodded eagerly. “That’s why I’m here. To guard you and see to your needs.”

She grimaced. “Well, at least he doesn’t make you carry a gun.” She moved toward him, the rough stone floor cold beneath her bare feet. “Shoes. Can you find me some shoes?”

“Leave everything to me, señorita.” He waved his hand grandly. “I won’t fail you.”

He didn’t fail her. The underground pool he led her to was icy cold but clear as a diamond. He helped her remove the bandages, provided her with shampoo, soap, towels, and a washcloth, and then discreetly turned his back as she bathed. When she came out of the water, she found he had set out green army fatigue trousers, two pairs
of socks, boots, and a shirt that were all spotlessly clean. She supposed it was too much to hope for underclothing. The clothes hung almost as loosely on her small frame as Manuel’s garments did on him. She rolled up the sleeves of the shirt and put on one pair of dark-gray socks and stuffed the combat boots with the other pair to make them fit.

“You shouldn’t have put on the shirt.” Manuel frowned in disapproval as he turned around to look at her. “Ricardo told me he wanted to look at your wounds.”

“There’s no need. They’re healing well.”

“Ricardo said he wants to look at them.” Manuel’s jaw set stubbornly. “I’ll go get him.”

“He’s probably forgotten he told you that,” Lara said lightly. “He has a war to run.”

“Ricardo doesn’t forget.”

“Everyone forgets things when they’re under pressure.”

Manuel shook his head. “Not Ricardo.” He turned on his heel and trotted off.

Another worshipper at the altar, Lara thought
wearily as she began to run the brush through her damp hair. How did the man do it?

The question was rhetorical. She knew exactly how he did it. She had a taste of that charisma herself at the Abbey. With the sheer force of his personality and his honeyed tongue he had built a world that had swept her away from fear and desolation into a country where only beauty and love existed. A man with power and eloquence on such a scale could move hearts as well as mountains.

But the country he had created for her had not really existed. Those hours they spent together had been a mirage, a time apart. They had been forced together in the most intimate of circumstances, which had distorted the reality of how different they were. Now that they were free of the prison, she was sure she would be able to look at him with the same objectivity she had before she arrived on Saint Pierre. The sense of loneliness and depletion she had felt when she had first awakened was a bizarre aftereffect of the traumatic events at the Abbey.

“How are you?” Ricardo asked from behind her.

The brush running through her hair stopped in mid motion as her heart gave a leap. She drew a deep breath and didn’t turn around as she resumed brushing her hair. “I told Manuel I was fine. You didn’t need to come and see for yourself.”

“But I’ve not always found you entirely honest.”

“I’ve never lied to you.”

“You don’t always have to lie to deceive.” His tone was hard and unrelenting. “You manipulated me. Paco knew I’d never permit you to put yourself into that kind of danger to save my neck.”

“Things went wrong. He was supposed to arrive with the cavalry earlier,” she said lightly. “I probably wouldn’t have been hurt at all if everything had gone as planned.”

“Things always go wrong in a war. Paco knows that, even if you don’t.”

“Renalto’s not to blame. He warned me it would be dangerous.”

“Dangerous? My God, you could have been beaten to death or gang-raped before he got there. Don’t you know how little time it takes to—Turn around and look at me, dammit.”

She didn’t want to look at him. The fierceness in his voice hurt her too much and she didn’t want to see that same unforgiving fierceness in his expression. But it had to be done sometime. She carefully put the brush down on the rocky ground beside her, stood up, and turned to face him.

BOOK: Tender Savage
8.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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