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At The Edge Of Heaven

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Isabelle greeted the young women in her class as they entered the garden. It was a beautiful morning, and she felt as if anything were possible. Gone was the melancholy of earlier; now, she actually held hope for the future, and it surprised her. Drawing closer, she realized only two of her pupils were present, Ana and her cousin, Jaucinta. Ana, her face drawn with worry, put a protective arm around her cousin, who was looking down at the ground, her long dark brown hair covering her face like a curtain. The girl was cradling her arm, and Ana murmured something softly that caused Jaucinta to nod jerkily.

"What has happened?" Isabelle asked.

"Senorita, please, my cousin, she is hurt. She has no money for the doctor, but I will work for no wages till her debt to Doctor Helm is paid," Ana answered in a rush of Spanish that Isabelle had trouble keeping up with.

"Slower, please, Ana," Isabelle entreated, raising a hand.

"I am sorry, Dona Isabelle," she replied, much more measured this time. "Will your brother see Jaucinta, please?"

"Of course he shall, and I will hear no more talk of payment." Ana's shoulders slumped in relief. Isabelle reached out a hand, pushing Jaucinta's hair away gently. She drew her breath in sharply, like a hiss, seeing the injury that had been done. "Who did this?" she demanded more sharply than she intended. Jaucinta drew back against her cousin fearfully.

"I am sorry, truly. It was not my intent to frighten you." She drew her hand back. "Please, tell me who hurt you."

Ana looked at Jaucinta before saying, "She fell down the stairs, senorita." Ana didn't meet her eyes.

Shaking her head, Isabelle said, "We shall discuss that later." She did not for one moment believe her maid. "Come, let us find Doctor Helm."

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"I am going to examine the cut along your eye," Robert said gently, drawing a tall stool next to the examining table where Jaucinta sat. "Ana, will you please hold her hair away from her face so I may see her injuries more clearly?"

"Si, Doctor."

Isabelle had drawn back, to give them more space in the small surgery. She leaned against the cool plaster of the wall, feeling slightly ill.

Robert picked up a square of cloth, soaked in iodine. "This will sting." The girl gasped a little has he cleaned the cut. "You will need to keep it clean, but stitches will not be required." Now he reached for the arm she was still cradling against her chest. "If you will allow me, senorita?"

Isabelle felt oddly disconnected from the room around her. Unbidden, memories she had tried very hard to lock away came to the fore, and she felt as if she could not breathe.

If you will allow my physician to examine your wrist, Lady Isabelle," Lord Hadley said softly, motioning the man forward. "You know Doctor Weymouth, do you not?"

"We have been introduced," Weymouth said, when it was apparent Isabelle would make no answer. "Come now, child, let me see."

Obeying, she held out her right arm, allowing the doctor to unwrap the linen cloths that her housekeeper, Mrs. Bright, had bound her injured wrist with yesterday. The pain of it almost made her faint. But she would not, could not. She clenched her uninjured hand around the fabric of her skirt and squeezed as hard as she could. The two men shared a look as the swollen, purple and black wrist was revealed.

"That will need to be set, my lady," the doctor said gently. "My lord, pour out a measure of laudanum, if you please. This will be quite painful."

Isabelle felt bile rise in her throat, a feeling of sheer terror crawling up her spine. As if from a great distance, she heard her brother say, "Drink this first, senorita, to help numb the pain when I set the bone."

Pushing herself away from the wall, she said, "I am in the way here. I shall have Carmelita make tea." She tried to keep her voice light, but failed. Robert looked over at her, concerned.

"Are you well, Isabelle?"

"Of course! I shall check on you in a bit," she said in a rush, already halfway out the door.

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She had fled the house, not even taking a hat, or putting on her gloves, panic propelling her she knew not where, just somewhere, anywhere, that held no reminders of the past. She nearly screamed as she ran into someone as she flew around the corner, hands grasping her shoulders. "Isabella Catalina," a voice said, sounding concerned as she struggled against the hold he had on her. Then the hands were gone, and she fell back, gasping for breath. "What has happened?" Still the concern, her tangled thoughts finally recognizing the voice as Colonel Montoya's.

"My apologies, Colonel," she managed to stammer, embarrassment at her behaviour warring with the fear that still plagued her. "Please forgive me."

"No apologies are necessary, senorita. But if you would, please tell me what distresses you."

She finally looked up at him, and saw real worry in his eyes. "I…it was…nothing, it was nothing."

He clicked his tongue. "And I am afraid, Dona Isabelle, that I do not believe you. Something has you running through the streets of the pueblo as if the devil himself were at your heels. Would you allow me to escort you back to your casa? Surely Doctor Helm would be concerned at your present state."

"No! Please, Colonel, I swear to you that I am well, and just need some air." The last thing she wanted was for Robert to know of this.

"Then you must accompany me to my residence. I cannot in good conscious leave you alone." He took her hand in a gentle hold. "Please, senorita, allow me to aid you."

She found herself nodding, allowing him to put her hand in the crook of his arm. Looking around as they walked, she realized she had come farther than she thought. They were not so very far from the Governor's home. It was not long before Montoya was ushering her in to a small reception room and seating her on a divan of ruby red brocade. Then he was holding a snifter of brandy, handing it to her. Startled, she realized that she'd had very little impression of time passing since she'd entered the house, lost in some fugue state.

"Thank you, Colonel," she said quietly, taking the glass. After a few sips, she set the snifter on the table next to her. Sitting in a chair at her elbow, Montoya did not press her for explanations or conversation, for which she was grateful.

"Does your wrist pain you?"

Her left hand froze as she realized she'd been unconsciously rubbing her wrist. Looking down, she shook her head. "Not today, no. Sometimes, when it is damp, or I've been riding…"

"You told me once, that as a child, you fell off a wall and broke it," he recalled.

"Yes, that was the first time." The feeling of panic was once more tickling at her. She leapt from the chair. "I thank you for your courtesy, Colonel, but I really must not inconvenience you further."

"And I must insist you stay till you are calmer, senorita, else I be left with no option but to speak to Doctor Helm." His tone was gentle but firm and Isabelle found herself once more sitting on the divan. He smiled for a moment, and then he returned to her previous words. "And the second time?"

Shaking her head mutely, she reached for the brandy snifter, her hand shaking as she grasped it. Taking a swallow, she stared into its amber depths, not responding to his question. Instead, she said, "My maid, Ana, brought her cousin to see Robert. She had been beaten, but claimed to have fallen down a flight of stairs."

"Distressing to a gentle soul such as yourself, Lady Isabelle, but not, I think the reason for your current state." He had switched to English, seeming to divine that she was having trouble sorting her thoughts in Spanish.

Still looking at her brandy, she shook her head. "Old memories, Colonel. Very silly, I know, to allow the past such power over the present."

"I disagree, my lady. Our past can hold sway over our present, our future, whether or not we acknowledge that fact."

"Perhaps."

Shifting, he placed his hand on his knee, leaning closer to her. "When I was at war, as a young man in Spain, there were soldiers who would seem to relive the horrors of battle, almost as if it were happening again in the present."

Her eyes shot up, looking startled. "I have never seen battle, Colonel Montoya."

Ever so fleetingly, his fingers skimmed over the wrist she had been rubbing earlier. "It has been my experience, Isabella Catalina, that not all battle scars are the result of war."

Once more, she dropped her eyes, hunching back against the divan, as if that alone could ward off the all too perceptive observations of her companion.

Standing, he looked down at her with a compassion that would have surprised anyone who might have witnessed it. "I am certain that you would like some time alone, to gather your thoughts, Dona Isabelle." She nodded, still not looking at him. "When you feel you are able, one of my men will make sure you reach home safely."

She took a shaky breath. "I thank you for your kind care, Colonel Montoya, truly."

"And I am pleased to have been of service, Dona Isabelle."

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Isabelle finished her brandy, and fought to compose herself. A short time later, Corporal Santos arrived to escort her home. Now, Isabelle furtively unlatched the gate that led into the courtyard of the home she shared with her brother, hoping to remain unnoticed. She thought she'd been successful, as she placed her hand on the doorknob of her bedroom, but it was not to be.

"Isabelle!" she heard Robert say from behind her. "I've been worried sick; leaving the house without a word, even to Carmelita. Where have you been?" he demanded.

Slumping, holding the doorknob in a tight grip, she shook her head. "I felt unwell and merely took a walk to get some fresh air."

His hands came to rest on her shoulders. "I was concerned," he said, this time, in a gentler tone.

"I am sorry, Robbie. It was not my intention to worry you."

Pulling her around, he embraced her, and then stepped back. "Why don't you take a nap? I will have Carmelita attend you. I sent Ana to care for her cousin—I did not think you would mind the loss of your maid for a few days," he finished lightly.

She managed a smile. "I would not mind in the least," she agreed.

"I thought as much." This time he chuckled. "Rest, Isabelle, and I will see you at supper."

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"You saw Dona Isabelle safely home?" Montoya asked Corporal Mateo Santos, who stood at attention in front of his desk.

"Si, Colonel."

Montoya leaned back in his chair, a half smile tugging at his lips. "At ease, corporal."

Santos nodded sharply, barely relaxing from his previous stance.

"I am given to understand that you and Senorita Helm's maid, Ana, are betrothed."

Santos paled. He found his voice, replying, "We have an understanding, sir. When I have something to offer her, we will wed."

Nodding thoughtfully, Montoya said, "A sergeant would have something to offer the lady, no?"

"It is my hope, Colonel."

"Truth be told, corporal, I have grave concerns in regards to Dona Isabelle's safety. The young lady is a foreigner, unused to our ways, and this troubles me greatly. It would ease my mind were you to keep me informed of her activities. Her brother, Doctor Helm, is a busy man and often away from their casa. You see why I worry, do you not?"

Santos swallowed several times, nodding his head. "Of course, sir."

"A man so dedicated to his duty would make a fine sergeant in his Majesty's army, no?" Santos seemed to lose his voice, nodding sharply at his commander's words. "I am glad we have an understanding, corporal."

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Robert Helm made a notation on one the lists his sister had written out for him. He hadn't realized just how disorganized his records had been till Isabelle had taken them in hand. Reaching to the lamp at his side, he raised the wick, throwing more light across the desk. Outside the circle of illumination cast by the oil lamp, the rest of the study was veiled in shadow. Setting aside the list, he slid another towards him, picking it up. He looked at his sister's neat handwriting, leaning back in his chair, eyes unfocused as he thought back on the events of the day. He was concerned for Isabelle, for her state of mind. Despite her protests, he knew that Jaucinta's injuries had distressed her greatly, no doubt reminding her of similar violence she had endured at the hands of their father. He hoped the bastard was burning in hell. Slapping the desk with suppressed anger, he shoved his chair back, dropping the list on a pile of papers at his side.

"Working late, Doctor?" an amused voice asked from the dark near the door.

Leaping from the chair, Robert hissed, "You cannot be here!"

"I'm hurt, after all we've been through together," the Queen of Swords replied with mock sadness, stepping out of shadow, and into the ring of light around Robert. She perched on the corner of his desk.

"No, no, I said, not be here, not make yourself at home!"

She waved away his protest. "I was careful—no one saw me come in."

"That is not the point! My sister is asleep just a few doors away. I cannot have her find you here."

"That's right; I'd heard your sister had joined you from England. I can't wait to meet her."

"Absolutely not!" Robert strode around the desk, looking down at his uninvited guest. "There will be no meetings, do you understand?" The Queen put a finger to her lips as Helm's voice rose. Slicing his hand in the air, he heeded her warning, saying in a softer voice, "You must promise me you will not approach Isabelle, she would not understand."

Standing now, she leaned against the desk, crossing her arms. "Not understand that together, we've helped the people, brought them justice? Why wouldn't she understand that?"

Scrubbing at his face with his hands, he sighed. "Cavorting with bandits, that is how she'd see it, and it would disquiet her. I tell you that I will not bring any more anxiety into Isabelle's life; she has enough to deal with."

"I think you underestimate her—" holding up a hand, she forestalled the angry words on his lips "—but I'll do as you ask, Doctor."

"Thank you." His shoulders slumped. "I won't stop aiding you when I can, but I must be cautious. Montoya has already threatened me as to the fate of Isabelle should I not mend my ways."

Straightening, she said, "Don't you think she'd be better of knowing about us? It would help guard her against the Colonel's web of deceit."

Shaking his head, he said, "Isabelle is a gentlewoman, and is incapable of subterfuge; such knowledge would only serve to put her, and us, in greater danger."

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