The large courtyard of the Governor's residence was filled with the brightly dressed, well to do citizens of Santa Elena, their chatter, and the clink of glassware, twining around the music of a string quartet that played in an alcove, rising up to the stars that glittered above the gathering.
Colonel Montoya climbed the few steps to a platform that had been erected at the top of the courtyard, accompanied by a man perhaps ten years his senior. The older man held himself ramrod straight, inquisitive grey eyes taking in the room around him. Stopping in the center, Montoya said something quietly to the man at his side, and he smiled in response.
Clearing his throat, Montoya raised his arms, and the music stopped. Then clapping his hands, he signaled for the attention of his assembled guests. "Señoras y señores, thank you for attending my little gathering in honour of my cousin, General Ramiro Valerio la Cueva. As many of you know, Don Ramiro, after serving our Majesty the King, loyally and with great distinction for many years, has joined us here in California. I hope you will welcome him, and show him the same friendship that you have extended to me." He waved a hand at la Cueva, stepping back.
"I thank you for your warm welcome to California, and I look forward to making my home here." He bowed, and then said, "Please, enough now of speeches, let us enjoy the excellent repast Colonel Montoya has provided for us."
"She's lovely, isn't she?" Tessa asked with a smile, coming to stand next to Junípero Castillo. The young man, son of Don Gregario Castillo, was staring at Isabelle Helm from across the room where she stood with her brother, speaking to Don Gaspar Hidalgo.
Startled, Junípero blurted out, 'Yes—" immediately blushing at his unplanned honesty.
Tessa laughed gaily. "I would have introduced you at the picnic, but you didn't attend."
"One of our mares was foaling and I could not leave her," he explained shyly.
Junípero's father was a minor Don, with a small landholding an hour's ride from the pueblo. They raised fine horses there, horses that were more like an extension of their large family than livestock. Junípero was the youngest child of eight, and the fifth son. Tessa had always found him to be a shy, but kind, young man. From the look in his eyes, as he gazed at Isabelle, it was clear that he was enchanted.
"Come now, Junípero, allow me to make an introduction," Tessa urged.
"Very well." He nodded in assent.
As they made their across the room, they heard Don Gaspar say to Isabelle, "You must come spend a week at my hacienda, child. I shall hold a dinner in your honour, inviting many young men who would make fine husbands. As I am always telling Tessa—" he said with a beaming smile and a nod as Tessa and Junípero joined the small group "—a beautiful woman should be married, have babies. Marriage is a great blessing. I would be lost without my Vera."
Isabelle seemed somewhat taken aback at Gaspar's forward remarks. Her brother looked amused, replying, "I have been apart from my sister for many years, Don Gaspar, and would hope to have more time with her before you marry her off."
Gaspar tsked. "You should set a better example, Doctor, and find a wife of your own."
"I assure you, Don Gaspar, that we shall all find love soon, and you shall be content with us," Tessa said, laughing lightly. Then, turning to Junípero, who was practically blushing, she said, "Senorita Helm, may I present Senor Junípero Castillo." Isabelle made a little curtsy, and Junípero bowed. "Senor, Senorita Isabelle Helm. I believe you share a love of horses and will have much to speak of.
The young man's face brightened at Tessa's words. "Indeed, I am most pleased to make your acquaintance."
"Likewise," Isabelle replied with small smile and a nod.
"Doctor, I am feeling quite parched. Perhaps you might get me a glass of sangria?" Not waiting for a reply, Tessa made off for the refreshment table.
With a shake of his head and a grin, Helm followed, calling over his shoulder, "Nice to see you again, Junípero."
Don Gaspar also had a sudden desire for a glass of sangria, leaving the two young people alone. Taking a deep breath, Junípero squared his shoulders. "Do you ride often?"
"As often as I am able. Though, with no horse of my own, I am reliant on the kindness of others for my opportunities."
"Perhaps Doctor Helm could bring you to our hacienda one day. We have many horses, and I am sure that we could find you a suitable mount."
"Thank you, senor, that would indeed be most welcome."
"What holds your thoughts, cousin?" La Cueva asked, joining him. Following his gaze, he smiled. "Ah, not what, but who; a pretty lady, I see. They seem an amiable match."
A wolfish grin twisted Montoya's lips. "Isabelle Helm is meant for much more than amiable, Ramiro; married to a country boy with no more ambition than which stallion to breed to which mare."
"So you have intentions towards this English girl? No fortune or lands, a foreigner. You surprise me, Luis. You had told me you planned an empire here in California."
Montoya chuckled. "An emperor requires an empress, cousin—children, grandchildren." He looked up at la Cueva. 'Heirs."
"And yet, there are a dozen daughters of Spanish Dons who could give you that."
"A dozen vacuous girls without an ounce of intellectual curiosity amongst them," he shot back. "This is not Spain, Ramiro. There is no city one may escape to, for a husband to find distraction from the tedious company of a wife whom he has no desire for, be it conversation at the dinner table or in bed."
La Cueva pondered Montoya's words, studying Isabelle Helm as she laughed at something her young companion said. "And is the young lady aware of your intent?"
"Not yet. For now, she believes my attentions are merely to vex her brother. There are many more moves to make before check and mate."
Tessa smiled smugly. "There's nothing wrong with assuring that Isabelle feels appreciated by the young gentleman of the pueblo, is there, Doctor Helm?"
Laughing he shook his head. "No I don't suppose there is."
"Actually, I think Don Gaspar's idea of a dinner party is an excellent one. The more friends Isabelle makes here, the less she will miss England and her life there, don't you think?" She looked up at him when he did not answer. He seemed decidedly unhappy.
"What is he up to?" he said to himself.
Tessa looked back towards Isabelle, seeing that Montoya and Don Ramiro had joined the two young people. While Isabelle seemed in good cheer at the arrival of the two men, Junípero appeared extremely uncomfortable. He said a few words to Isabelle, before taking his leave.
"Demonstrating his impeccable manners, it would appear," she said wryly in response. He seemed puzzled by her words. She jutted her chin towards them. "He's introducing General la Cueva," she elaborated.
He nodded. "Of course." Then he looked down at Tessa, smiling ruefully. "Doesn't mean I have to like it."
"Our fair English lady proved to be the best shot in Santa Elena," Montoya explained to his cousin.
Isabelle, cheeks pink, protested, "Not at all, merely the most fortunate amongst those gathered that day."
"You continue to be far too modest, Dona Isabelle."
"Modesty in a lady is a trait to be admired," la Cueva said, with an approving nod to Isabelle. "Not something to be reproofed, Luis."
Laughing, Montoya shrugged, as if awarding the point to his cousin. "You are, of course, quite correct, Ramiro." He shared a smile with Isabelle, one she returned. "Senorita Helm is indeed possessed of a great many admirable qualities, her modesty chief amongst them. There, does that please you, cousin?"
La Cueva chuckled. "It does, Luis." Turning his attention to Isabelle, he said in English, "You must forgive us, my lady. Luis and I have not seen one another for many a year. I am afraid that our teasing might be somewhat untoward."
"Not at all, Don Ramiro—I find it to be quite refreshing. Gatherings such as this can be quite stuffy at times, don't you agree?"
"I do." His eyes swept the room, before settling once more on Isabelle. "Tell me, my lady, how does our little assembly here in California compare to those you have attended in England?"
"Remarkably similar, General."
Looking at her shrewdly, he said, "I would think that might be more disquieting than comforting, Lady Isabelle; reminding you more sharply of the home you have left behind."
"Indeed, I have found it so, sir. There are moments when one feels that they are home, which is all the more jarring when realizing that you are not." Her pensive expression brightened as her brother joined them. "But when I am with my brother, I am always home."