Authors: Shirl Henke
RETURN TO PARADISE
Originally published by Leisure Books
Copyright 1992 by Shirl Henke
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means without the written permission of the author.
Other electronic works by Shirl Henke:
A FIRE IN THE BLOOD
“Billie Jo and the Valentine Crow”
The Blackthorne Trilogy:
LOVE A REBEL…LOVE A ROGUE
The House of Torres Saga:
PARADISE & MORE
RETURN TO PARADISE
La Chateau Oublieux, August, 1524
The comtesse raised one milky white arm and traced his saber scar with her long tapered fingers. It was a casual, elegant gesture, yet Rigo knew it betrayed more curiosity than was her jaded wont. He arched one heavy black brow in sardonic amusement as he watched her compare their flesh, hers so softly pale, his so exotically dark. “Still you speculate about my ancestry,” he said with a trace of bitter humor in his voice.
Louise of Saint Gilles shrugged her shoulders in Gallic dismissal, knowing the movement raised her large, luminously white breasts provocatively. “Tis no matter that you are dark for a Castilian, but rather that the Moorish strain in your blood gives you away as an enemy to France.”
Rodrigo de Las Casas laughed aloud. “Since when does a Provencal worry about loyalty to France? Charles of Bourbon sold himself to my emperor and now declares that he is Count of Provence to sweeten the bargain.”
Louise made a moue of distaste. “One never knows when the winds of politics will shift. Today your Spanish emperor holds sway, tomorrow perhaps King Francois will retake Provence. I only worry for your safety, beloved,” she whispered, draping one plump, pearly thigh languorously across his lean dark hips.
Rigo gave a feral growl at her invitation and rolled their entwined bodies across her bed to plunge into her wet, eager flesh for another surfeit of pleasure. He could feel her long nails dig into his back as she arched hungrily beneath him.
Louise gazed up at his dark countenance with passion-glazed eyes. She had always been aroused by the contrast in their coloring. The first time he had undressed her and run his swarthy hands over her pale skin, she had nearly swooned with the forbidden excitement. He was the enemy, a mercenary in the pay of King Charles of Spain, but also the most exotically striking man she had ever seen.
Louise was entranced by his classically sculpted features, framed by shoulder-length blue-black hair. His tall, lean frame was sinewy with the muscles of a man born to horse and weaponry. Louise gloried in his scars, symbols of the hard, dangerous life he led, so unlike Henri's. Poor dear Henri, her pale, fat little husband, was in Aix feting the conquering Imperial Army. She gave a feline smile of anticipation as she pulled on Rigo's thick, straight hair, drawing him down to devour his mouth in a harsh kiss.
I, too, am honoring the victors.
Later, as Louise slept, Rigo untangled himself from her lush curves and rose to dress. He pushed the heavy red brocade bed curtains back impatiently, then placed his bare feet firmly on the thick Turkish carpet. Saint Gilles provided handsomely for his lady, Rigo thought with grim amusement. The lavish wall hangings, intricately carved teak tables and jewel-encrusted wall sconces attested not only to the Comte's wealth, but to the Provencal trade with the Moslems of North Africa.
Having appeased his long sexual abstinence, he began to dress, finding no exotic allure in her milky flesh. Over the years he had bedded too many beautiful noblewomen, French and Flemish, English and Spanish, all possessing pale skin and a marked absence of morals. As a callow boy of fourteen he had been seduced by the wife of an Argonese duke. Life had taught him that the same alien blood that forever closed to him the doors of political and economic advancement opened the doors to women's bed chambers. The duchess had been twice his age and very inventive in the arts of love. He proved an apt pupil over the years.
Hearing the rustling whisper of fine linen when he donned his under tunic, Louise awakened and peered at him with heavy-lidded eyes. He had left the satin coverlet undisturbed when he rose, but now she let it fall artlessly to her waist as she sat up. Unable to restrain a note of petulance in her voice, she said, “You need not depart so soon. Henri will not return for at least another three days.”
“Henri is not the only man needed in Aix. Pescara awaits my report and I have dallied long enough in the countryside, Louise,” Rigo replied soothingly. Always he hated the leave-taking. Were all women so pettishly intent on holding a man until they did the dismissing?
“Ah yes, Pescara, that little Italian fop you spy for,” she said in silky insult. When her remarks caused not even a twitch of irritation as he continued dressing, she changed tactics. “Please, the marquis has no need of you until the army leaves Aix. Bourbon enjoys the adulation of the city and he, not Pescara, is in command of the army.”
Rigo snorted in disgust. “More's the pity. That little Italian fop, as you so charmingly call him, is ten times the soldier your puffed-up Frenchman will ever be.”
Louise sensed that she could not sway him, yet refused to relinquish her lover so easily. He was such a splendid barbarian. “I do not want to discuss military matters or politics or the men who decide such things. You know I have been lonely these past months since we met in Naples. I thought never to see you again and then you arrive at my gates, bold as one of your Moorish ancestors.”
He smiled with his lips but not his eyes. “Tis you who says I am of Moorish blood. I never have.”
She knelt at the edge of the bed and placed one white hand against his swarthy cheek, then ran her nails lightly down his throat and buried her fingers in the thick black hair curling at the opening of his linen shirt. “And what Spaniard as dark as you could claim aught else?”
His eyes darkened in pain, which he quickly suppressed. “Yes, what Spaniard could,” he echoed expres-sionlessly.
“Does it yet disturb you so much?”
“My inferior blood has kept me from advancement where my bastard blood would not have done. Many a capable soldier has risen to high rank and won land and titles, even if born on the wrong side of the blanket. But only if his parents possessed
limpieza de sangre
.” He spoke in the Provencal dialect, all but for the words “purity of blood,” which somehow required Castilian.
“The Spanish are such barbarians,” Louise cooed, trying to soothe and seduce him. “I have told you the sorry tale of my life, wed to a fat, stupid boy when I was but twelve years old. Yet you have revealed almost nothing of yourself.” She twined her arms about his neck and rubbed her large breasts provocatively against his chest.
Firmly disengaging her arms, he replied, “There is little to tell. You see me as I am. A mercenary in the pay of the Imperial Army. I grew to manhood on the plains of Andalusia and was first blooded serving old King Fernando in the conquest of Navarre. By the age of eighteen I had already learned I had no hope of earning my way but by my sword. I was raised by a pious family whose eldest son took Holy Orders, a vocation denied me because of my bastardry, even as my mixed blood kept me from studying law or medicine.”
Louise let out a small trill of laughter. “You, a priest! Or a healer.” She appeared to consider. “Well, perhaps a lawyer, but only if women were allowed to sit in judgment!”
“Born to wealth and position, you may easily jest about such matters,” he said tightly as he turned away from her and resumed dressing.
“I meant no offense, Rodrigo. For all your fine, sad words about being illegitimate and of mixed blood, you have the devil's own temper. Hot Moorish blood, yes,” she purred.
“Not Moorish, for they are civilized far beyond the comprehension of Europeans. I am a savage scorned even by the barbarous Spanish—my mother was a primitive from the Indies, too mean and insignificant for my proud Castilian father to wed. God curse his soul, whoever he may be!”
Louise looked astonished for an instant, a most unusual expression for the sophisticated comtesse. Her hazel eyes grew round and her cheeks pinkened with a flush of renewed excitement. She tossed her long, tangled mane of amber hair over her shoulder and twisted one curl nervously in her fingers. Studying the methodical way in which he was donning the light armor of his profession, she said with a sigh, “Now I have made you angry with me. I care not a fig if your mother was chief wife of the Caliph of Bagdad or an Indian slave from the New World. I want you, Rigo. Do not leave me with such rancor between us. When can you return?”
Rodrigo de Las Casas turned to face the beautiful blonde woman kneeling so pleadingly on the bed. She was right. If only women, not men, held the reins of social advancement in their hands, he would prosper indeed, but such a dishonorable thought gave him no comfort at all. If he could not prove himself on the battlefield, he would not dance attendance on unfaithful wives to secure his future. With a cynical smile he said, “The army marches south to lay siege to Marseilles. If all of Provence falls under the Imperial yoke, mayhap I shall return, Louise...if you are yet certain my savage blood does not frighten you.”
“You may frighten me at times, Rigo, but tis the kind of fear a woman comes to relish...like rare sweetmeats from hot foreign climes,” she added with a breathless chuckle as he scowled darkly.
* * * *
Benjamin Torres combed his fingers through his long gold hair, plastered to his head in the driving summer rain, then quickly grabbed for the oilskin-wrapped bundle of books in danger of tumbling from the pitching boat. Two stout gromets rowed against the pitiless wind that was driving the small boat farther out into the Golfe du Lion, away from the dim lights flickering on the Provencal coastline.
“Some mission of mercy this has turned out to be,” he muttered beneath the howl of the wind and roar of the waves swamping the tiny boat. The fat caravel he had sailed on from Genoa bound for Marseilles had gone down seemingly hours ago, all its desperately needed cargo of food, gunpowder and weapons lost to the angry sea. The only items salvaged were a few medical supplies and the equipment that the young Jewish physician had carried onto the ship's boat. Now it seemed both the remnants of the cargo and even his own skills were to be lost as well.
“I see fire—a campfire on the beach!” the boatswain cried out over the din.
Several of the seamen cursed as one Genoese said, “They will be Imperials, ready to cut our throats. We have been blown too far north of Marseilles to reach Frenchmen.”
“Tis dry land and a fire. I care not what army holds it,” another replied, renewing his rowing with vigor.
“You, Physician, can you speak anything but the Latin and Greek from your books?” the Genoese boatswain asked in his Ligurian dialect.
Benjamin smiled in spite of the danger. “My family was from Seville. If you say nothing of my being Jewish, perhaps I can deceive the Spanish soldiers into believing I am a loyal subject of King Carlos on my way home to Malaga, blown off course in the storm.”