Somewhere in España
Lucita labored to lift her eyelids, but they withstood her efforts. Musty air filled her lungs. Nothing around her felt familiar. The ache in her bones and muscles told her she’d been sitting on the cold cobblestone floor for some time. The last thing she could recall was Anton pressed against her back, caressing her neck with his kisses, his arms cradling her belly.
Drip . . . drip . . . drip.
Her eyes finally opened to an unfamiliar room with water dripping down roughly hewn stone walls. Shivers ran through her. The reek of urine and feces hit her like a fist, causing involuntary convulsions to torment her sore body. Lucita tried to shield her nose from the smell, but ropes held her hands to a wooden post at her back. The bitter taste of bile burned the back of her throat, and she coughed.
Water. I need water. “Help. Is someone there? Help.”
A movement just out of sight caught Lucita’s attention, so she craned her neck to get a better look. Despite the rank smell, her breathing turned to gasps of panic. The bruised body of her fiancé dangled from the ceiling directly behind her. Sweat-drenched curls clung to his forehead.
“Anton?” she said.
An unexpected voice spoke from the shadows. “How good of you to join us, mi amor.” Lucita froze.
Manuel Tudó appeared in the corner of her eye, casually wiping the moisture from his brow and patting down his disheveled hair. She struggled fiercely with her bonds but kept her eyes averted from his penetrating stare.
He paced the room like a restless cat, his obsidian eyes piercing through her. Lucita didn’t need to look at him to see the confident sneer on his face. When they first met during Carnival in Águilas, Manuel’s self-assured demeanor and stimulating conversation drew her to him. Smartly dressed, his manner easy and genial, Manuel won people over with his straighttoothed grin; that ever-present confident sneer. There were times, however, when he’d turned on her, violently, behind closed doors. Lucita came to know Manuel as a deceptive manipulator who played games with his victims like a cat would a mouse. She’d chosen kind, gentle Anton instead of powerful, oppressive Manuel, which appeared to have put them in mortal danger; mere tokens in Manuel’s latest game.
Lowering himself to one knee, the rejected suitor took Lucita by the shoulders and lifted her to stand. She flinched at his touch, wishing she could shield her belly from him.
“I’m sorry for your discomfort, mi amor, but I’m afraid it is necessary for the moment,” he cooed.
“Stop calling me that. I am not your love.”
Manuel chuckled as he removed something from his belt. “That is why we are here. Isn’t it, Anton?” He walked behind her, blocking her view from what happened next. A clink of
chains. A sickening thud. Anton screamed.
“Stop! Stop it,” Lucita begged.
Before she could mutter another word in protest, Manuel stuffed his soiled handkerchief into her mouth. Gently brushing a tear from her cheek, he said, “This is your fault, mi corazón.” Moving close enough to lean his body against her, he inhaled her scent and caressed her middle.
“The ultimate betrayal is evidenced in your blossoming figure. What would people think if they found out you were unwed and carrying Anton’s child? I thought you and I shared something special.” He paused. “Of course, I am not completely unforgiving. Others would shun you, but I would protect you, Lucita.”
Lucita bit down on the cloth in her mouth and scrunched her eyes shut as he prowled around her.
“We could still be together. A quick visit to Father Arnold, and no one else needs to know what you have done.”
She shifted as far from him as she could and shot a glance toward Anton. Manuel moved past her, there was a flash of movement, and Anton cried out again. The suffocating cloth gagged her mercilessly, but Lucita screamed through her sobs. God help us.
Manuel ignored her. Instead, he considered the fresh blood on his leather boots. Yanking the handkerchief from her mouth, he wiped at the stains. “Love is such a filthy business.”
Regarding her with false compassion, he lifted Lucita’s chin with the ornate handle of his handmade flail. “It is a childish fantasy to think you can be with him now. He is going to die.
You must see the mistake you made choosing a coward like him.”
Unable to control her tears, they streamed down her ashen face. Lucita wanted to cover her ears and escape the agony of Anton’s deafening moans, but she knew she deserved to suffer with him. She’d chosen Anton knowing that Manuel, incapable of forgiveness, would take revenge, but never considered something so heinous as this.
Manuel carefully set his tool of torture aside and wiped her tears with his bloodstained handkerchief. “Shh, mi amor.”
Lucita whispered, “I am not your love. I could never love you.”
A growl started low in his gut. His dark eyes flashed as he grabbed his flail and heaved it at Anton again. Only a faint protest escaped her fiancé.
“Stop. Por favor.”
Watching her gasp for air between sobs, Manuel spoke after several long minutes. “You could make his death mean something. You could agree to be my bride. What is your decision?”
Lucita shook her head in defeat. I hope you can forgive me, Anton, though I will never forgive myself. I cannot accept him—not even to save you.
“I would rather die than marry you.”
The malicious assassin didn’t hesitate to continue his unrelenting torture. Anton’s cries went on and on, each cutting away a piece of Lucita’s heart. Finally, the cruel pounding ceased.
She strained to hear Anton’s labored breathing. One more breath and then another and then . . . silence. She couldn’t bring herself to look toward his motionless, broken body to affirm his death, but the harrowing rattle of swinging chains seemed to laugh at her pain.
The father of her unborn child was gone—murdered. That reality drained Lucita of her strength. Her knees buckled, taking her to the ground where she lost the contents of her stomach. God, keep sweet Anton and give me strength. Somehow, I must protect our child from this demon.
Manuel rushed from the shadows to lift Lucita to her feet and clean the sick off her chin and the front of her blouse.
“Such things the pure in heart should never experience. I’m sorry you had to be a part of that, but you mustn’t work yourself up, mi amor. Think of our child. I will be a good husband to you. A good father.”
Flushed with anger, she spit in his face. “You are a coward and a fool. I could never love a fool.”
The hard flesh of Manuel’s elbow collided with the back of Lucita’s head. Stars erupted in her vision, but she had enough presence of mind to feel his excitement press against her side.
“Hold still.” The stench of his sweat curdled her stomach. Lucita felt him tugging at her hair. Before she could discover his intentions, Manuel had braided a small section of it, produced a knife, and cut his plaited trophy at the nape of her neck.
“This is something I’ve wanted for a long time.”
Lacing his fat fingers into her thick locks, he pulled her head back and ran his tongue from the hollow of her neck to the corner of her mouth. Lucita strained away in protest.
“Look at me, Bonita.” She didn’t, so he pulled harder. “Look at me.” Opening her eyes, she glared at him to convey the hate she felt.
Manuel loosened his grip and smiled. “How brilliant your green eyes shine when kissed with a few tears. You are truly my greatest prize.” He licked his lips and caressed her cheek with his thumb. “We will be together and raise our child, mi Amor. We will be a family.”
It took every ounce of self-control not to swing her head forward and ram him in the nose. Lucita wrenched her head away. Never. I’ll die before I let you anywhere near my child. If I lose my life in the process, God will find a way to protect you, sweet bebé.