The morning of the Hidalgo's spring picnic dawned bright and clear, and by noon, a pleasant warmth could be felt. Dozens of people gathered in a field that was carpeted with purple lupins. Long tables, covered in white linen, dotted the picnic grounds, and off to one side, a tent had been erected that contained an outdoor kitchen. From its open sides, servants scurried to and fro, serving drinks and food to the gathered assembly.
Feeling shy, Isabelle was hanging back, sitting under an oak tree's spreading branches. Tessa was on the other side of the field, surrounded by a group of admiring young men. For now, she was content to observe. The setting was both familiar and terribly foreign, and it unsettled her. She had attended dozens of such gatherings in England, but here, the chatter was in a language not her own, and this was a place thousands of miles and a lifetime away from her home. She almost wished that she had not come today; instead, staying in town while her brother was away.
"And once more, I find you all alone while the party goes on around you."
Isabelle started at the unexpected voice, looking over her shoulder. "Colonel Montoya, a good day to you."
"And to you, senorita." He came around to stand next to her, before going down on one knee and picking a lupin from the grass. "You look as if you have sprung from this field of blooms," he remarked, holding the flower next to her face.
Isabelle smiled. "I suppose I did inadvertently dress to match the landscape," she said, looking down at her dress, which matched nearly the colour of the lupins. With her dress, and the green of her hat, she did rather look like she'd grown there.
Thankfully, he made no rote response about her beauty eclipsing the surroundings; Isabelle had grown quite weary of empty flattery. Instead, he looked thoughtful.
"It is hard to feel at home in a strange place, is it not; even a friendly one?"
Nodding, she replied, "It is." She was surprised at his insight.
She was beginning to realize she did a poor job of masking her thoughts, when he laughed, saying, "Despite what others might think, I am not without empathy, Isabella Catalina."
Or perhaps she was just very bad at concealing them from him. "Of course not, Colonel; I would never think such a thing."
He stood, holding out his hand. "Would you walk with me, my lady?" he asked, switching to English. "I would like to show you something."
"Of course," she murmured, allowing him to raise her to her feet. She put her hand on his arm as he led her away from the picnic.
They walked up a small hill, and still in English, he said, "I know that California must seem very foreign to you, Lady Isabelle. And indeed it was to me when I first arrived upon these shores. But it did not take me long to see the possibilities of this land; the freedom, the potential to create whatever I wished." They reached the top, where they came to a stop. Montoya waved his hand at the valley below. "There you see my future. One day, I shall build a fine house, the wines that my heirs and I shall produce, rivaling those of the Continent. Great things are possible here, my lady. I truly believe that, and I hope that one day, you will as well."
Isabelle surveyed the vista before her. It was indeed beautiful, albeit a wild beauty. She was touched that he had chosen to share his dream with her, knowing that he was not a man prone to such confidences. "I have no doubt that you will fulfill your dream, Colonel, and possess that which you desire most in this life. Thank you for sharing it with me; you give me hope."
Whatever he might have said in response was interrupted by a new arrival. "There you are, Senorita Helm," Don Gaspar Hidalgo said, puffing from his walk up the hill. Isabelle removed her hand from Montoya's arm as the two turned, suddenly feeling as if she'd been caught doing something untoward. "What must you be thinking, Colonel, to bring the senorita so far?" Gaspar said reprovingly.
"The fault is mine, Don Gaspar," she said in a rush. "I had no wish to join the assembly, and Colonel Montoya was kindness itself in trying to settle my nerves."
Hidalgo patted her on the arm with fatherly concern. "That is understandable, my dear, but in Spain, a lady should not be in the company of a gentleman sans chaperone. Colonel Montoya knows this." He once more sounded disapproving.
"Don Gaspar is correct," Montoya agreed. "My apologies, Dona Isabelle, I had not realized how far we had strayed." He smiled down at her, his eyes making it clear he was not sorry at all, and Isabelle smiled in return, the awkwardness of the situation quickly evaporating.
"Good, good," Hidalgo said, beaming. "Now, Senorita Helm, there are many young men to whom I have promised an introduction. Let us rejoin the party, hmmm?"
"I don't suppose Spanish ladies are allowed to participate."
"Why ever would you want to do that?" Vera Hidalgo asked, her brow creased in confusion.
Isabelle sighed; she hadn't meant to speak her thought aloud. "At home, I used to shoot and hunt. It was a perfectly suitable pastime."
"England sounds a very strange place."
"I suppose it does."
Colonel Montoya joined them. "Tell me, senorita, are you a better shot than my Capitán?" he asked, having obviously heard their conversation.
She flashed him an impish grin. "I am a better shot than my brother."
"Indeed." There was a hint of mischief in his eyes. "Then you must demonstrate."
"Colonel, I couldn't possibly—"
"She will never find a husband if she competes against the young gentlemen," Vera protested.
"Nonsense." He waved away Isabelle's objection and ignored Vera entirely. "I shall make you the loan of my pistols." He placed a hand under her elbow, leading her towards where the men were gathered. "Señores, Dona Isabelle would like to join your competition, if there are no objections?"
None of the participants seemed offended by her presence; in fact, the overwhelming reaction seemed to be amusement. Well, let them be amused, she thought, testing the weight of Montoya's pistol in her hand. Her heart fluttered a little in nervousness.
"You know which end the bullet comes out of, right?" Grisham asked in English, smirking.
"I have some vague idea, yes, Captain," she answered with a bit of a snap. Then, in Spanish, she added, "I have not held a gun since I left England, and am afraid I am quite out of practice."
Grisham seemed bored. "Tell you what, senorita; we'll give you one free shot." He looked at the gathered men. "What do you say?"
At their murmurs of agreement, Isabelle nodded, taking her stance. She had not been lying – she was out of practice. However, she was also very good. Isabelle had competed against her older brothers her entire life. One summer, Andrew had even used her to win pocket money at the village fête, betting that his twelve-year-old sister could outshoot most of the men present. She smiled a little, remembering, hearing his dear voice behind her, whispering, 'There now, little Belle, play to their overconfidence, let them humour you.' She raised the pistol, taking a breath, aiming, and then another breath, pulling the trigger as she gently exhaled. Her shot hit the target, though far from the center.
"Not bad—for a girl," Grisham said with a laugh. "Still up for joining the menfolk, Lady Isabelle?"
"You know what they say, Captain – in for a penny, in for a pound." She gave him a brilliant smile. "Always assuming you are up to the challenge, of course."
"Oh, I think I can handle it."
"Then it is settled," Montoya said, interrupting the two, before saying in Spanish to the entire group, "To add interest to the competition, I shall award a matched pair of pistols to the winner.
"I could use some new pistols." Grisham was acting as if he'd won already.
I hope you can deal with losing, she thought. But what she said was, "Shall we begin then?"
"It is good to see the young senorita smiling, is it not?" Montoya said unexpectedly from beside her.
"She seems to be in her element, it is true," Marta replied, wondering just what the Colonel was up to.
From the gathered competitors, they heard Grisham crow, "Close, but no cigar, senorita!"
"I believe my Capitán, as the English would say, is about to be fleeced," Montoya remarked.
"The wagering seems quite lively," Marta said.
"Indeed. I would suggest, senorita, a small wager of your own on the lady."
"Servants are not allowed to gamble," she reminded him.
"It shall be our secret," Montoya replied, a genuine smile on his face.
Marta gave in to the temptation, fishing a silver coin from her pocket and handing it to Montoya. "Why not?" As unlikely as it seemed, it appeared Montoya was honestly enjoying himself.
"A wise decision," he said, before leaving to place her bet.
Across the field, she saw Dr. Helm, who was still dressed for the trail, join Tessa. It appeared that he was not at all perturbed to find his sister competing against a group of men. Indeed, if his facial expression was anything to go by, he was enjoying it as much as Montoya was.
"You think she's going to win then?" she asked.
"I have no doubt. What Grisham doesn't realize is that my dear sweet sister is playing him; something our brother Andrew taught her when he used Isabelle to win him pocket money when she was small."
Indeed, it did not take long for Tessa to realize that was exactly what her friend was doing. Her shots were respectable, comparable to Grisham's, though just shy of his, which was making the capitán cocky and over confident—not that it was much a journey for the American. Now, the betting was closed as they entered the final round, and Isabelle glanced over her shoulder, winking at her brother before turning her attention once more to the task at hand.
As the round progressed, Grisham's expression morphed from confident, to worried, to outright disbelief. Robert chuckled, and said softly at Tessa's ear, "Now you see why Isabelle prefers cards to chess."
And then it was over, coming down to the last shot, Isabelle the victor. Tessa and Robert joined the participants as Montoya gestured towards Isabelle, saying, "Our fair victor." There was applause, and Isabelle blushed. Grisham looked as if he'd bitten into something particularly sour. "Congratulations, Senorita Helm. I will be happy to present you with your prize two nights hence at my celebration welcoming Don Ramiro la Cueva to California."
"That sounds delightful, Colonel," she responded politely. Tessa was positive the last thing her friend wanted was to be the center of attention at Montoya's party, put she was putting a good face on it. Like Tessa, Isabelle was a lady, and that included playing the part whether or not one wished to.
"And perhaps I should make you capitán of my guard, hmm? Or at least have you teach Grisham how to shoot."
"Merely luck, Colonel Montoya," she demurred.
During the exchange, Grisham strode away, and as Montoya watched him, he shook his head, looking pleased. "I do not believe in luck, Dona Isabelle, other than that which we make for ourselves. A lesson I believe my capitán learned today."
Opening it, she poured the contents into her hand. "This much?" She was amazed at the amount of money she was holding.
"The fruits of your labour," he said with a grin.
"Oh, Robert, with this I can have a ball gown made and purchase supplies for my reading class! I was thinking of adding arithmetic, and slates for the ladies would be so useful."
Robert couldn't help himself as he began to laugh. "Ball gowns and arithmetic; only you, little sister." Then he asked, "Ball gown?"
"The Hidalgo's summer ball, in August, Robbie; Tessa told me all about it during my stay with her."
"August is a way's off," he reminded her.
"And yet, it will be upon us soon enough. And a gown does not just make itself, you know."
Robert was pleased that his sister was contemplating the future so enthusiastically. "Very true, Isabelle."
"Robbie," she said, suddenly looking pensive.
"Do you think Captain Grisham was very upset at the outcome?"
He snorted. "I'd wager upset doesn't begin to cover it." At the look of unease on her face, he added, "Isabelle, do not waste your concern in regards to Grisham's feelings."
"I would not make an unnecessary enemy, Robert." There was an edge of anxiety to her voice.
He quickly got up from his chair, coming to sit next to her on the settee, taking her hand. "Isabelle, if Grisham harbours ill will towards anyone, it is Montoya for setting the stage. Do not distress yourself, sister."
Montoya sat back in his chair, contemplating his subordinate, one hand rolling a gold coin over his fingers and back. "Such a mood, Grisham," he remonstrated. "And for what?"
Grisham's eyes snapped to Montoya's. "For what? You know damned well! You set me up. I looked like a fool, losing to Helm's kid sister."
"I disagree, Grisham—if anyone 'set you up', it was you."
Montoya looked heavenward for patience. Then he asked, "Did it ever occur to you that the young lady might have some skill with a pistol?"
Grimacing, he shook his head. "No."
"And why would that be?"
"She's a girl!"
Rubbing his temple with a fingertip, Montoya sighed. "And the Queen of Swords is…?"
"Oh no, she isn't a girl, she's a…a…." He stopped, trying to think of a suitable description.
Waving him to silence, Montoya said, "The Queen could be any girl, just like Isabelle Helm. You underestimate the fairer sex of Santa Elena at your peril, Grisham. But it seems that lesson, like so many others, has been lost upon you entirely."
The Gypsy shot her a saucy grin. "Colonel Montoya led me into sin."
"Something he's very good at." Turning serious, Tessa touched the coins with a fingertip. "What do you think he was really up to?"
Laughing, Marta shook her head. "I do not think Montoya knows the answer to that question himself."
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, he is using Senorita Helm, of that, I have no doubt. But if the Colonel is not careful, he will be caught in his own net."
"Marta, you can't honestly believe Montoya might actually care for Isabelle?" Tessa asked in disbelief
Marta waved away her protests. "Do not make the mistake, Tessa, of assuming your enemies are not capable of love. Montoya is a complicated man and has many sides; you forget that at your peril."