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Authors: Iris Johansen

Tender Savage (9 page)

BOOK: Tender Savage
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He looked different. It wasn’t only the clean uniform and the fact that his long hair had been cut several inches and no longer flowed down his back. That aura of indomitable strength that he had been forced to keep suppressed while he had been a prisoner was now almost visible to the naked eye. She felt as if she could reach out and touch it. Her gaze lifted to his face and she shivered. His expression was as forbidding as she had thought it would be. His dark eyes were glittering and his lips set in a thin line. Her glance quickly shifted to the top button of his shirt. “Why dwell on possibilities? Nothing irreparable occurred.”

“It seems we have a difference of opinion. If I remember correctly, I took your virginity. I’d say that was irreparable.”

“We’ve discussed that before. I don’t see why you bring it up again.” She shrugged. “It’s not important. It would have happened some time or another.”

“Not in a prison cell.”

“It didn’t matter. You were very … kind to me.”

“Kind?” He looked at her in disbelief. “I tried to make it bearable for you, but there was no way I was kind. I drank you like a man dying of thirst in the desert.”

She smiled faintly. “As I remember it, you made sure I was equally thirsty before you indulged yourself.” She straightened her shoulders and raised her eyes to his. “And you’re not really angry that we were forced to … do that, are you? You don’t like the fact that I tricked you, that I made Jurado take us out of the cell block to the interrogation room.”

He nodded grimly. “You’re damn right I am. You gave me no choice.”

“And by denying you that choice, we managed to get you out of prison.”

“At a considerable sacrifice to yourself.” His black eyes glittered down at her. “And I wasn’t permitted to decide whether I wanted to accept that sacrifice. You forced it on me.”

“Would you have accepted it?”

He was silent a moment. “No.”

“That’s what Renalto said you’d decide. The defense rests.”

“The hell it does.” He covered the distance between them and grasped her shoulders. “I decide what price is worth my freedom.”

“Or your life?”

“Or my life.”

“Your gratitude certainly isn’t overwhelming.” She tried to shrug off his grasp. “Would you mind letting me go? You’re hurting me. One of the whip strokes must have struck my shoulder.”

He released her so quickly, she staggered back.

“Lord, I’m sorry.” His voice was hoarse. “I forgot for a moment.” He reached into his pocket and drew out a small jar. “Turn around and take off your shirt.”

She didn’t move.

He smiled crookedly. “It’s a little late for modesty now. I know every curve and facet of your body, down to that little mole in the hollow of your back.”

She felt heat suffuse her body as she remembered when Ricardo had discovered that mole, his voice murmuring behind her while the water of the shower pounded down on them. “Circumstances are different now.”

“Yes, they are. I won’t deny it.” He reached out and began to unbutton her shirt. She inhaled sharply as his hard knuckles brushed her upper breasts. His gaze flew to her face and for an instant he didn’t move, his hand pressing against her flesh. Then he glanced away and quickly finished unbuttoning the shirt. “It’s an entirely new situation.” He turned her around to face the spring. “Let the shirt fall to your waist.” She obeyed and she heard the sound of a jar being unscrewed behind her. “We have a whole new battery of choices to make.”

“I don’t agree. What happened in the cell has nothing to do with—”

“You won’t need the bandages any longer, but I’ll have to apply the ointment every day after your bath.” He began to smooth the salve carefully into the raw flesh. “The caverns are damp and not the cleanest place in the world.”

“I said I didn’t agree,” she persisted. “Why aren’t you listening to me?”

“Because I know what you’re going to say and I don’t want to hear it.” He knelt on the ground behind her and began to rub the ointment into the stripes on her lower back. He murmured, “The bastard brought the blood here, but the wound’s already scabbed over.”

“All I’m saying is that we’re back to the point we were when I first walked into that cell,” she said, trying to ignore the warmth generating through her body in fanlike waves wherever he touched her flesh. “And we have to look at what happened between us clearly.”

“I’m looking at what happened with great clarity. It’s amazing how clearly you see everything when a woman is being whipped to death before your eyes.” His voice thickened. “Do you know
how I felt as I stood there watching them beat you, not able to show a flicker of feeling because I knew that would only make Jurado hurt you more?”

“It must have been very difficult for you.”

“I felt as if I were being torn to pieces.” His voice lowered until it was barely audible. “I wanted to kill them and snatch you away and take you somewhere no one would ever hurt you again.”

The rancho. Tall green grass and a lake with water lilies floating on its mirrored surface.

“So don’t expect me to be grateful that you let yourself be put through that hell for my sake. I’d rather have rotted in that place than stood there and watched them do that to you.” Suddenly his warm lips brushed the sensitive flesh at the hollow of her spine. “Never again, Lara,” he whispered.

Her lungs contracted; her lips parted to take in more air. Her knees felt suddenly weak and she had to force herself to stand upright. “It was my choice.” She hurriedly drew her shirt back over
her shoulders and began to button it with trembling fingers. “And I didn’t do it for you. I did it for Brett.” She turned to face him and found him still on his knees. The position should have diminished him, but somehow it didn’t. She doubted if anything could make him seem less than he was. “And that’s who we have to talk about.”

“Brett?” He shook his head. “I told you I couldn’t make his choices for him.”

“You can.” Her hands closed into fists at her sides. “Don’t spout your blasted philosophy to me now. If what I did at the Abbey has value at all to you, you’ll give me your promise.”

He flinched. “Lord, you’re tough.”

“I want to keep my brother safe. Give me your promise.”

“I can’t.”

She looked at him in disbelief. “Don’t you have enough wide-eyed children like Manuel in your army? Do you have to have Brett too?”

He paled. “Manuel doesn’t fight. What do you think I am?”

“The Pied Piper. Why didn’t you leave him in that village instead of bringing him here?”

“María sent word that the secret police suspected I’d placed him with her. Do I have to tell you what would have happened to María and Manuel if I hadn’t brought them here?”

She wearily shook her head. “No, I guess I can see why you had to do it.” She met his gaze. “But that has nothing to do with Brett.” She tucked her shirt into her trousers. “Tell me what I can do to keep you from getting him killed in your damn war.”

“It may be over before he’s well enough to return.”

“And it may not. It’s gone on for nine years.”

“I can’t interfere with his free choice. I’ve fought a war to preserve that principle.” He held up his hand as she opened her lips to speak. “But I can put him in a unit that will see a minimum of action.” He paused. “And I can promise to protect him with my life if he does return.”

It wasn’t what she wanted, but it might be enough to keep Brett safe. “And will you promise to do that?”

“Yes.” He gazed at her directly. “If you’ll also make me a promise.”

She looked at him inquiringly.

“You must choose to stay with me.”

She became still. “Stay with you?”

The corner of his mouth lifted in a crooked smile. “Do you think I don’t know you wish only to run back to the States and forget Saint Pierre and I ever existed? I can’t let you do that, Lara.”

She gazed at him, stunned. “Why not?”

He met her gaze. “Because I love you.”

Shock and an emotion she refused to identify soared through her. “You couldn’t.”

“I do.”

She vigorously shook her head. “It was propinquity and a situation that—”

“I do.” He rose to his feet. “I know myself and what I feel. At first, it was lust and an instinct to protect. But it became something else somewhere along the way.”

“I don’t love you,” she whispered. “I
love you.”

He nodded. “I know. I’m at the opposite end of
the pole from what you want for yourself. But it doesn’t matter. I’ve learned to take what I can get.” He shrugged. “Hell, I’ll be lucky if I manage to live through the next few months. I want something of my own before I die.”

Ricardo die? Pain jagged through her. “You’re not being fair. That’s emotional blackmail.”

“I didn’t mean it in that way. I only want to make you understand.” He took a step toward her, speaking softly, urgently. “We’ll be launching a major campaign before the month is over. Give me that month.”

“You want me to stay here in the caverns?”

“It’s the safest place for you.” He cupped her cheek in his hand. “I’ll take care of you. I promise nothing will happen to you, if you stay with me.” He brushed back the hair from her temple with an infinitely gentle hand. “Please,
, you won’t regret it.”

He was wrong; she would regret it. She felt the panic rising by the second as she looked up at him. She had been with him only two days and in that time he had managed to move her to pity, admiration, and lust. How the devil could you fight
the Pied Piper with his magic flute? “I can’t stay. It’s sex. You only want me.” She took a hasty step back. “It’s not love.”

For an instant she thought she saw a flicker of pain on his face before it hardened. “If you want to think so.” He stood quietly, gazing at her. “But you will stay, Lara.”

She looked at him incredulously. “You’d force me to stay?”

His lips twisted. “I told you that we have a new battery of choices to make. You made certain of that when you chose to come to the Abbey to rescue me.” He paused. “We made love several times that night. How do you know that you’re not with child?”

She didn’t know and had been afraid to think about it. It’s not likely.”

“Neither of us can know that and I don’t choose to let you run away when you may be carrying my child.”

child? It would be my child.”

“Our child.” His smile was bittersweet. “And if the baby exists, it would open an entire new range of decisions to make. I fully intend to make
them together. You’ll stay here until we know one way or the other.”

She laughed incredulously. “So that’s why you want me to stay. I may be a brood mare for the great liberator.”

“No!” He drew a deep breath and said with less violence, “I suppose you’ll have to think what you like. I should have known you’d try to erect walls between us.”

“I don’t have to erect them; they already exist.”

“Can’t you see that I have to know? Everything that’s ever belonged to me has been destroyed and I can’t bear the thought that I might have destroyed you too.”

“A baby wouldn’t destroy me.”

“But it would hurt you. Lord, I don’t want to hurt you anymore, Lara. I don’t think I could stand it.”

His tone was so anguished, for a moment she felt a twinge of sympathy pierce the anger she was feeling. She mustn’t feel sorry for him, she thought desperately. If she let in one breath of softness, she might as well give up the fight.
“You don’t want to hurt me, but you’re threatening me?”

His lips tightened. “Yes.”

“With what exactly?”

He hesitated. “I could send a message to Brett that I need him.”

Her eyes widened. “You bastard. He’s still in a wheelchair.”

He smiled bitterly. “But you seem to think I’m some kind of wizard. Surely all I’d need to do is snap my fingers and he’d come running.”

“He can’t run. Your damn revolution almost crippled him.” Her fingernails bit into her palms. “But, yes, he’d come if you snapped your fingers.”

“Then don’t make me do it. Let him stay safely in Barbados.”

“You’re right; you may not live more than the next few months. I may murder you myself.”

“I expected you to be angry.”

“Then your expectations have been abundantly fulfilled. I hope you didn’t also expect me to jump into your bed?”

He shook his head. “I want you, but it’s your choice, Lara.”

“I’m getting very tired of that word. I seem to have no choice at all in this particular matter.”

“We always have choices,” he said. “For instance, you could do as you threatened and murder me.”

She stared at him in bewilderment. He appeared perfectly serious. “And have your followers tear me apart.”

“Paco would try to protect you.”

“If he didn’t kill me himself. He loves you.”

“True.” He shrugged. “But he likes you and there’s a possibility you could end the revolution and your dilemma with one blow.”

“I think you must be crazy.”

“I’m only showing you that there are always choices.”

“Not one I’m willing to take. I’m no murderer. I couldn’t …” She trailed off and shook her head. “I’ll find another way to win.”

“I forgot for a moment how much you hate to lose.” A ghost of a smile touched his lips. “I don’t
want you to lose either. I just want to protect you and my child.” He turned away. “I’ll send Manuel in to you. He’ll show you around the caverns and introduce you to my officers. We’ll try to make your stay as comfortable and pleasant as possible. I’ll be busy a good deal of the time for the next few days, but I’ll try to get away for dinner.”

“I don’t want to see you.”

He glanced back over his shoulder. “But I want to see you,” he said softly. “I just want to be with you. Don’t worry; you don’t even have to speak to me.”

He was gone before she could reply. She stood looking after him, her emotions in a tumult. It was anger, she told herself desperately. She was angry and frustrated, and this aching inside had nothing to do with pity or the strange bonding forged between them in those days together. She wouldn’t allow herself to feel anything else for him.

What she was feeling had to be anger.

BOOK: Tender Savage
5.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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