Authors: Shirl Henke
PARADISE & MORE
Originally published by Leisure Books
Copyright 1991 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
House of Torres Books:
PARADISE & MORE
RETURN TO PARADISE
Near the River Guadalquivir, Summer 1491
The girl crouched in the marsh grasses, tense as a hare. She endured the suffocating heat and humidity of late August in silent discomfort. A sun-scorched reed scratched her slim, pale-golden arm and she muffled an oath.
“Swearing, another sin to confess to Father Alonzo on the morrow.” She mouthed the words inaudibly and began to crawl along the edge of the brackish water toward the deeper, clearer pool where sounds of loud splashing and singing echoed. Her long plait of dark red hair had come partially undone and hung over her shoulder as she stalked her prey. Approaching a clump of prickly roses, she narrowed her cat-green eyes and peered through the dense low foliage.
Some twenty feet away, a young man stood with his back to her, waist deep in the clear water while his stallion drank noisily at the river's edge downstream. For a fleeting moment, her eyes strayed to the magnificent Barb whose deep chestnut coat gleamed in the hot Andalusian sun. She had often admired the horse, but it was the rider who now held her interest. His shoulder-length hair was curly and badly in want of barbering, yet it gleamed darkest gold as he splashed and sudsed, singing a shockingly ribald soldier's ditty, doubtless learned from older compatriots in the Moorish wars.
Another sin to confess
. She sighed and edged closer, her eyes widening to take in his sun-bronzed beauty.
Muscles, sinewy and corded, rippled across his lean body as he scrubbed vigorously. When he turned, nearly facing her hiding place, Magdalena Luisa Valdés held her breath. He scanned her cover and passed over it to gaze at the stand of olive trees behind which her horse was hidden. She studied his handsome face with its thick, arched golden eyebrows, blazing dark-blue eyes, high sculpted cheekbones and finely chiseled lips, now split in a dazzling white smile. He threw back his head and laughed, launching into another verse of his song. His voice was deep and lusty, resonating from that wide, muscular chest, which was generously furred with a pattern of golden hair that narrowed and then vanished tantalizingly beneath the water's surface.
“Andaluz, you should join me. The water cools and refreshes,” Aaron called out to his stallion standing patiently on the bank. The Barb shook his head as if comprehending, then resumed grazing. “Enough! You will grow too fat for your cinch if I do not ride for home soon,” he said, submerging quickly to rinse off, then breaking the water's surface, shaking his head and sending sun-splashed droplets of water flying.
When he began to wade toward shore, Magdalena forgot to breathe as she watched his bronzed, naked body emerge from the water. “So, it is true!’ she murmured in awe, as her eyes fastened on that male part of his anatomy nestling in a thatch of dark gold hair. Her eyes swept his long slim legs, then once more traveled back to focus on his phallus. It did look different than those drawn in the medical books she had perused in the de Palma's library.
Magdalena had overheard her father and his friends say that Jews mutilated their bodies by circumcision. Diego Torres did not look deformed in any way to her. He looked splendid. All of him! What a penance she would have for this excursion, spying on a Jewish
naked at his bath! If her father ever found out he would be livid. But having her curiosity so well satisfied was worth it.
Magdalena had been infatuated by the youth since she was a mere child of ten and he a boy of fifteen accompanying his father to the court of King Fernando and Queen Ysabel five years ago. Of course, then he had been Aaron Torres. His father was the king's most trusted Jewish physician. Under royal pressure, the Torres family had accepted conversion and their children had taken Christian baptismal names. Aaron was now Diego. But some things could not be erased so easily, she thought with a girlish smirk. If the beardless youth had been a golden vision to her, the battle-hardened young man she beheld now was infinitely more imposing. A fine scar edged his jaw and another slashed across his back where some cowardly Moorish soldier had doubtlessly attacked him from behind. A wide gash on his left leg also attested to his battle experiences. She watched him dry off on a length of white linen, then begin to dress in clean garments he took from a pack.
The clothes befitted his station as an heir of a wealthy and distinguished family. The hose that hugged those lean muscular legs were of the finest cloth, the snowy white linen shirt embroidered at the neck with silk threads in a deep blue that matched the doublet stretching across his wide shoulders. He packed away his heavy leather armor, but buckled the sword and dagger of his trade about his narrow hips and pulled on a pair of well-worn, age-softened kidskin boots.
Aaron ran his hand across his smooth jawline, freshly shaven before his bath, then inspected himself in the reflection of the pool. “This will have to suffice to greet my family,” he muttered grimly, glad to at least be rid of the stench of blood and filth from battle. Odd. He felt as if he were being watched. Attributing the strange sensation to recent close encounters with death, he laughed and asked himself, “Do you expect a Moor to jump from behind yon rosebushes?”
Packing up his discarded clothing and battle paraphernalia, he considered his brief homecoming. Don Carlos had given him leave to visit with his family on the joyous occasion of his younger sister Ana's marriage into a prominent noble family of Old Christians, the illustrious ducal house of Medina-Sidonia. Perhaps his father rejoiced, but he knew his mother did not. He would withhold judgment until he talked with Ana.
Magdalena watched the golden horseman mount up, apparently deeply absorbed in thought. Good. He was far less likely to see her. Crouching low in the scratchy grasses, she held her breath lest his keen soldier's eyes fasten on her vibrant red hair amid the dull greens and tans of the marsh. When his magnificent chestnut trotted off in the opposite direction, she released a low, whistling sigh and stood up. Her legs ached with cramps and every inch of her skin felt abraded. Tossing a damp plait of hair over her shoulder, she stretched like a lithe young animal and began backtracking to where her horse was hidden.
Scarce had she cleared the tall, marshy grasses when she saw them, the Muñoz brothers, Juan and Pedro, nattily decked out in elegant finery. Sons of her family's closest neighbor, they were sly, crafty, and infamous as abusers of the peasant women on their estate. Straightening up to her full five feet, she faced them defiantly. She was the daughter of Bernardo Valdés, a noble of ancient and honorable lineage, if not, at present, great wealth.
Pedro smirked at the damp gown, clinging to her slender, half-developed frame. “What have we here, alone and lost, eh?”
“Perhaps a lady in need of rescue,” Juan answered, then clucked as if reconsidering. “No, no, I think such a sweaty, bedraggled swamp nymph is merely a peasant girl.”
Magdalena's eyes narrowed in fury. “You know full well who I am, Juan Muñoz. Out of my way,” she commanded imperiously.
“Where is your escort? Surely your father would not permit such unchaperoned wandering,” Pedro said with oily good will, moving nearer.
Magdalena saw that they stood between her and her horse. Why had she sneaked off to ride alone this afternoon? Her dueña, Miralda, had scolded and threatened for years to no avail, warning of just such consequences as this. Her mouth felt dry as she scanned the isolated marsh. Only the small dagger at her waist lent her courage. “Are you as barbarous as the Moors to accost a lady?”
“I see no lady, only a slightly damp hoyden who wants for a lesson in manners,” Juan said, lunging for her.
Magdalena freed her jeweled dirk and slashed his offending arm, cutting through the heavy velvet sleeve of his jerkin to draw blood and a hissed oath.
“Take her, Pedro,” he growled as his hand again shot out and this time grabbed her slim wrist in a bone-breaking hold, yanking her toward him.
Magdalena kicked at Juan as her numb fingers relinquished her tiny dagger, but Pedro was quick to come up behind her, grabbing her around the knees as his brother seized both arms. Together they pulled the small girl down to the grass and held her fast. Pedro shifted his hold to imprison her ankles and shoved her skirt high on her thighs. As she struggled, Juan stroked a slim leg and pulled the skirt yet higher.
Magdalena felt the scream ripping from her throat. Why had she followed Diego Torres to spy on him? What folly to enter this deserted backwater and risk the horror now visited upon her!
“Cry out. No one will hear you,” Pedro said in a voice gone hoarse with lust. He began to unbuckle his belt while Juan held her down.
Magdalena twisted, kicked, and thrashed to no avail. Although strong and active, she was but fifteen, of slight stature with fine bones. Pedro freed his hose and pulled them down, exposing his sex, huge and hardened. How obscene and fleshy it looked as he used one beringed hand to roughly pull back the foreskin. Magdalena turned her head away from the impending horror, as Pedro began to lower himself over her.
Suddenly she heard Juan grunt and his fierce hold on her wrists was released as he twisted from his kneeling position to confront an attacker.
“Swine! Stand and fight someone able to defend himself,” Aaron said tightly, his sword gleaming in the afternoon sunlight.
Pedro rolled away from Magdalena and she scrambled to her knees, covering her lower extremities and sobbing. The rapist struggled desperately to roll up his encumbering hose and free his sword at the same time.
Juan stood and faced the challenger, quaking when he saw the grim smile on the blond stranger's face. He no more than drew his sword and made one sweeping, clumsy thrust than it went sailing from his hand. Juan backed up as his taller foe pressed the edge of his blade at the panting man's throat.
By this time Pedro had recovered his wits and arranged his hose sufficiently to confront the intruder.
“Diego, look out!” Magdalena cried just as Pedro lunged at Torres' back.
Aaron whirled with lightning speed, parrying Pedro's steel with his own. He dispatched his shorter but heavier opponent in one swift, practiced stroke that nearly split his body in two. Sensing Juan behind him, sword regained, he turned and again wielded his blade with blinding precision, severing the squat heavy neck of his foe.
Magdalena had not seen so much blood since she had witnessed a sword fight in the streets of Seville two years earlier. Her rescuer methodically cleaned his weapon with the practiced calm of a soldier used to carnage, then sheathed it and looked at the girl standing before him. Filthy and disheveled, she nonetheless had the patrician features and bearing of the Castilian nobility. His eyes narrowed as he considered how nigglingly familiar she seemed to him. “You know my name, lady,” he said, helping the frightened girl to her feet.