Actions

Work Header

At The Edge Of Heaven

Chapter Text

“You are the most beautiful boy. Yes, you are! Are you lonely here all by yourself?”

Colonel Luis Montoya, military governor in the service of his Majesty the King of Spain here in this part of Alta California, paused at the sound of the female voice, speaking in English. It wasn’t at all what he had expected to encounter on the way to his morning ride.

The as yet unseen woman laughed in delight. “It is a very tasty carrot, is it not?”

Bemused, Montoya worked his way deeper into the stables, stopping at the sight of Isabelle Helm scratching his horse’s ears. She seemed to be unaware that she was no longer alone. Staying where he was, he watched as the young sister of the pueblo’s doctor caressed the horse’s throat, murmuring in soft words that he couldn’t make out.

“I wonder what your name is, my beauty?”

“Royo,” he answered, finally stepping into her line of sight. “His name is Royo.”

If she were startled by his sudden appearance, she masked it well. “Is he yours then?” Montoya nodded. “I should have guessed. He is a fine animal.”

“You seem to have become fast friends,” he remarked as she returned her attention to his mount, stroking her fingers down his muzzle. Feeling a twinge of what might have almost been envy at the attention she was paying to Royo, he moved closer, till he was standing just in front of her. At the curve of her jaw, outlined by the straw bonnet she wore, tendrils of russet hair peeked out to lie against her cheek. He restrained the urge to brush away those strands.

“We have!” Then she looked up at him with a slightly guilty expression, her hazel-green eyes wide. “I hope you do not mind?”

“Not at all, Dona Isabelle. But I will admit to some surprise; Royo is a spirited mount and does not usually take kindly to strangers.”

“That is only because one needs to know how to speak to him,” she said with a warm smile. He was gratified that the smile was directed at him this time instead of the horse.

"Tell me, Senorita, what brings you here? It is not common for the ladies of the pueblo to frequent the stables.”

If it were possible, she looked even guiltier than before. Dropping her eyes, she replied, “You won’t tell my brother, will you?”

Montoya was baffled. “Your secret is safe with me, but why?”

She darted a look up at him before turning away again. “Robert is the best of brothers, but he treats me as if I am still twelve.” A touch of indignation coloured her voice. “He has retained a maid on my behalf, and while she is a fine girl, her constant company has become quite tiresome.”

“Ah, I see.” He smiled down at her. “It is perfectly understandable, senorita.”

“Truly?” She seemed relieved. “Really, I am being a good mistress. Ana is terrified of horses, so it would be cruel to make her come to the stables with me.”

“Indeed it would,” he agreed, amused at her attempt to rationalize her actions. Despite himself, he found the company of Isabelle Helm to be quite engaging. In the six weeks she had been in Santa Elena, he had made a point of cultivating the good opinion of Doctor Helm’s sister for his own purposes. What he hadn’t expected was to enjoy it quite so much. “I am sure Royo would welcome your presence here at any time.”

“Thank you, Colonel.”

“Not at all—but perhaps you might consider some place more suited to a lady as your hideout? The Rose Courtyard, perchance?”

“In truth, Colonel, I prefer the company of horses to people most days.” There was the vestige of some old hurt in her eyes. “They have no expectations and you are incapable of disappointing them. I have missed their company since leaving England.”

“I admit that I can indeed understand your feelings.” That was not a lie. He was a solitary man, and there were few people he had the patience or desire to spend time with.

“Royo reminds me of my horse back home. Well, my brother’s horse,” she amended.

“Dr. Helm’s?”

“No, our older brother, Andrew; he left Hadrian in my care when he went to war.” The hurt in her eyes was now evident in her voice as well.

He didn’t need her to say the words to know her brother had never returned. He allowed his gloved fingers to brush across her wrist; as much comfort as a gentleman could properly offer a lady. “I am sorry for your loss.” Napoleon had left a trail of blood and destruction that had stolen loved ones from uncounted families during the years of his attempted conquest of Europe. It seemed the Helms had been no exception.

She nodded. “He died at Talavera. Everything changed after that. Andrew was the light of my father’s life, a tangible reminder of our dead mother.” Once more, her attention was fixed on Royo, though he knew that she was someplace an ocean and a lifetime away. “While Robert and I resemble our father, Andrew was like our mother, all golden hair and blue eyes; the countenance of an angel. And the disposition of one,” she explained softly.

“And Hadrian? What of him?” he asked into the quiet that had fallen between them, pulling her back from whatever sad place she was remembering.

“Taken, along with everything else we owned to repay my father’s debts after he died. Honestly? I miss him more than all the jewels and property that were taken with him. I used to spend hours riding to escape my father and the hell our home became after my brothers were gone.”

“Then you must come here as often as you wish, Isabella Catalina.” He used the Spanish form of her name with more gentleness than he would have thought himself capable. “I have many horses, and it would please me to know they were in the hands of someone who had a true appreciation for them.”

“That is most generous of you, Colonel. I have missed being able to ride since arriving in California. Robert’s horse is required for his work, of course, and while Senorita Alvarado has been kindness itself in allowing me the loan of a horse, her hacienda is too far distant for me to be able to visit other than infrequently.” A genuine smile appeared on her lips that reached her eyes, dispelling the veil of sadness that covered them. “I appreciate your offer more than you can know.”

“It is my sincere pleasure. I will inform my groom that he is to be at your disposal.” He bowed over her hand, only to be startled by her near shriek. Looking up, he realized Royo had pulled her bonnet halfway off and was snacking happily on the brim. Quickly, he pulled it from the horse’s mouth. “My apologies, Dona Isabelle!”

She was looking at her mangled bonnet, her hands covering her mouth, with what sounded like sobs coming from behind her fingers. Placing a hand on her elbow, he moved her away from the offending equine. “Perhaps you should get some air,” he suggested, sure she was about to faint at his feet.

Then her hands clenched into fists against her lips, her eyes as big as saucers. That was when he realized what he’d thought were sobs were in actuality spasms of laughter. Unable to hold back her mirth, Isabelle laughed till near tears.

She took a shuddering breath. “I am sorry, Colonel, but you looked so…stricken!” she gasped out.

He was, for once, at a loss. Isabelle Helm did not fall into any of the carefully categorized boxes that he mentally kept. Her face was flushed, eyes sparkling, and her hair, with the aid of Royo, had escaped its pins. If he had maintained anything less than perfect mental discipline, he would have kissed her in that moment. That realization was like a splash of cold water. Stepping back, he made a slight bow. “Most ladies of my acquaintance would be distressed.”

“I assure you, Colonel, I am not one prone to vapours,’” she said with some asperity. “In fact, I have never fainted in my life. Well, that is not entirely true; I did when I was ten. But I had fallen off a wall and broken my wrist, so I think I might be forgiven for that.”

Handing her the partially eaten hat, he asked curiously, “Why, pray tell, were you on a wall?”

“I had two older brothers, and no mother. Whatever they did, I did. Robert dared me to walk the wall along the north pasture; then I fell. Poor Robbie was guilt ridden. But it served me well for years after; I only had to remind him of the incident to get him to do whatever I wanted!” She flashed an impish smile. “But that can be just between us as well, don’t you think?”

“All your confidences are quite safe with me,” he assured her.

“I am most beholden to you, Colonel.”

“Not at all, senorita; the very least a gentleman can do for a beautiful lady is to hold her secrets close.”


_______________________@@_______________________

Chapter Text

“It is remarkable,” Robert Helm declared as he entered the sitting room of the small home he shared with his sister.

“What would that be, Robbie?” Isabelle asked from the settee, her attention fixed on the mangled hat she held in her hands, regarding it thoughtfully. Perhaps if she trimmed the chewed off bit and added extra ribbons.

“The striking resemblance you seem to bear to Corporal Santos, of course.”

Setting the hat down next to her, she looked at her brother quizzically. “What on earth are you talking about?”

“It is either that, or Ana is as blind as bat. Why else would I find her with him when she was supposed to be accompanying you into town?”

“How silly you are,” she said, averting her eyes.

Impatiently, he slapped his hand against his thigh. “Isabelle!”

“For pity’s sake, Robert! I am not a child. Surely I can walk the streets of Santa Elena without the constant companionship of my maid!”

“Your age has nothing to do with it – as well you know – however much you are acting like a ten year old,” he said reprovingly.

“Do not start, Robert!”

“There are proprieties to be observed, Isabelle! This is not England.”

Her hand clenched at her skirt, the knuckles white. “You have little need to remind me of that!” she said in a tight voice.

“I’m sorry, I am.” He sat next to her. “I only want what is best for you, you know that.” He placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Tell me you know that.”

Sighing, she shook her head, relenting. “Yes, I know, Robbie.”

“Promise me you will keep Ana with you when you leave the house.”

“I can not! I swear to you that sometimes it is as if the walls of the pueblo are closing in around me! You have your work, your patients. What do I have? I am little used to being confined so.”

She was a misfit here in Spanish California, and as the weeks passed, that became more and more evident. She had even begun to doubt the wisdom of turning down Lord Hadley's proposal of marriage and coming here at all. However valid her reasons for doing so at the time, she now was beginning to see it as so much folly. But she couldn’t tell her brother any of that. God help her, she couldn’t tell anyone. There was no one for her to tell; other than a horse in a stable in this foreign land.

“I know this is not the life you have been used to. If it were in my power, I would grant you everything you desire.” He sounded tired and sad.

Isabelle was immediately remorseful. “Forgive me, Robbie.” She knew her arrival had not been an easy adjustment for her brother. There was some undercurrent of tension that seemed to run through his life here, but she had no idea what it was. She was afraid her presence had somehow made it worse. Taking his hand as he sat next to her, she said quietly, “If I seem ungrateful for all you have done for me since I landed on your doorstep, then I apologize. I shall endeavor to be less petulant in future.”

Kissing the top of her head, he put an arm around her shoulder, pulling her close. “No apologies are required, little sister. Neither of us are the most even-tempered of souls.”

“Do you remember what Andrew used to say of the two of us? That the crockery quaked in fear when we butted heads.” She laughed softly, remembering their dead brother. “He was always able to get us to kiss and make up.”

“And now we have to do that for ourselves.” His voice was heavy with sadness and memory.

“Yes, we do.” She reached up, kissing his cheek. “I love you, Robert. You are most dear to me.”

“As are you, sweet Isabelle.” He hugged her before moving back to look down at her hat. “And now, perhaps you can tell me what befell your poor hat. It looks like it was eaten by a cow.” She knew he was trying to lighten the mood.

“A horse actually,” she replied, looking down at it. “I am not sure it is salvageable.”

“A horse ate your hat?” He was momentarily confounded by her response, shaking his head as if he might not be hearing correctly.

“It did.” She didn’t seem inclined to elaborate.

“Come now, Isabelle, you can’t mean to leave me in suspense!”

Sighing, knowing her brother would not find it nearly as amusing as she did, she complied. “I was at the stables, visiting the horses, and Royo pulled the bonnet from off my head, thinking it a fine snack.”

“Royo is Montoya’s horse.”

“So he is.”

“And just how exactly did you acquire this knowledge?” he asked with seeming nonchalance.

She stood, taking the hat with her. “He told me.”

“The horse?”

“You really are most ridiculous, Robbie.” She brushed at her skirt. ”Colonel Montoya told me, of course.”

He sat up straight. “You were alone in the stables with Montoya?” he asked sharply.

“Yes, I was! And really, I do realize you have no liking for the man, but what exactly do you expect me to do when I encounter him? Run away screaming?” she asked sourly. Sometimes, she wondered if she would ever discover the source of the animosity between the colonel and her brother. She had asked Tessa, but her friend had feigned ignorance. Isabelle didn’t really believe that the young Dona was as unaware as she pretended to be, or as most, including her brother, seemed to think she was. It was yet another vexing mystery that she had yet to solve.

“Very amusing, sister!” He sat back, extending his long legs. “I don’t suppose I need remind you that if you had Ana with you, this would not be an issue?”

“Don’t be such an old woman!” She waved the hat at him. “Colonel Montoya has been a perfect gentleman.” Not to mention charming and excellent company. But that thought remained unspoken.

He ran a hand through his hair in frustration. “That is not the point!”

“In fact—“ she looked at him sidelong “—he has most generously offered me the run of his stable, telling me I am welcome to the use of any of his horses whenever I like.”

“Absolutely not!” In a slightly calmer voice, he said, “It is out of the question.”

“Why? It is a most kind offer! And I swear to you, Robert, that if I can not have at least a temporary escape from the walls of this town, I shall most certainly go mad!”

“Isabelle—“

“Robert, please? I ask only for this one concession,” she entreated. “It would mean everything to me.”

He made an inarticulate sound, slumping down into the settee. “I shall think about it,” he finally said, relenting a little.

Bouncing on her feet, she said, “I knew you would agree!”

“I said I would think about it!” he reminded her.

She seemed to be paying him no mind. “And I am sure, if I were able to have this small freedom, that I would be much more inclined to keep Ana with me when I am in town,” she told him with a note of challenge.

“That is coercion!” he protested.

Ignoring him, she said, “Ana and her cousins will be waiting for me in the garden. I shall see you at luncheon.”

“Ana and her cousins?” He seemed confused at the sudden shift in subject.

She paused at the door. “Their reading lesson, of course. I am certain I told you.”

“And I am certain you did not.”

“Well, no matter.” She waved a hand negligently. “I have been teaching Ana to read. She asked if she could bring her cousins, Maria and Jaucinta, with her today.”

Coming to stand next to her, he placed a hand on her arm, keeping her where she was. “Just how long have these lessons have yours been going on?”

“About a fortnight.” She was obviously impatient with his questions, pulling out of his light grip.

“A fortnight? And exactly how did you come to appoint yourself teacher for the peasant girls of Santa Elena?” he asked dryly.

“Do not take that tone with me, Robert Helm! Ana could not even sign her own name! It is quite intolerable.” Her voice rose. “How can she have any control over her life not even being able to read a merchant’s bill of sale? Let alone a poem or a story! No, education is what these women need, and I shall provide it if they so desire.”

“Calm yourself, Isabelle,” he said soothingly. “I do not reproach your intent. I just had not realized your zeal for social reform.”

“You are laughing at me.” She looked down at her hands. “Mock me if you will, but I shall continue with their lessons!”

“I am not laughing at you, Isabelle, and I would never mock you.” With a finger under her chin, he tipped her face up to meet his eyes. “It is an admirable thing you do. Just step carefully; there are many who are quite happy with the status quo.”

She sniffed. “I would like to see them try and stop me!” Whirling, she strode from the room.

Sighing, he said softly, “So would I, little sister, so would I.”


_______________________@@_______________________

Chapter Text

“A word, if you please, Colonel.” Robert Helm strode up to Luis Montoya in the town square. Having just finished his rounds, he had been heading back home when he’d spied the Colonel. Still early in the spring, the sun was already beginning its trip down the western horizon, casting long shadows across his path.

“And how may I help you today, Doctor?” Montoya’s voice held that same half-mocking tone it often did.

“My sister,” he bit out.

“Ah yes, the lovely Dona Isabelle. It is quite hard to believe the two of you could actually be related.” He looked up at Helm with a sly look in his eyes. “She is charming; the epitome of delightful and engaging company.”

“Let her be,” he warned. “I want no more offers of horses or meetings alone in stables.” He was determined in this. If he accomplished but one thing, it would be to keep his sister far away from the malevolent interest of Colonel Montoya.

“Really, Doctor,” he said disapprovingly. “Do you care so little for your sister that you would deny her some small happiness? Anyone can see that she is touched by melancholy and in need of a distraction.”

“That is not your concern,” he replied stiffly. “She is doing her best to adjust to her life here, and you are not helping!”

Montoya’s eyes flashed. “It is indeed sad, Doctor, that you would let our past disagreements interfere with what would bring joy to Isabelle, whom you profess to have such concern for.”

“Past disagreements?” he replied in disbelief. “You tried to have me murdered!”

Waving a negligent hand, he replied, “And yet here you are. Really, Doctor, you must learn to let these things go. It is not good for your health to dwell on the past.”

Laughing with no humour at Montoya’s faux concern, he spat out, “She is my responsibility, and I will do what is best for her.”

“Indeed? I can only hope that is true. Could it be that that the presence of your sister will deter your propensity for adventures with beautiful bandits?” He tugged at his shirt cuff. “After all, what a shame it would be for Isabelle to find herself all alone in a foreign land due to your lack of judgment.” The threat in his words was obvious.

And reply Helm might have made was interrupted by the sound of raised voices and the crash of breaking crockery. Both men turned their attention towards the sound as two men came out through the doors of the hotel.

“Don Isandro, please!” Senor Ramirez, proprietor of Santa Elena’s one hotel, pleaded holding his hand against his cheekbone, blood seeping from between his fingers.

“No!” Don Isandro de la Cruz shouted, stumbling away.

Helm and Montoya made their way towards the two men. “What is the meaning of this?” Montoya demanded. Soldiers quickly made their way to their commander’s side, taking de la Cruz by the arms and shoulders, restraining him.

“It’s all right, Colonel,” Ramirez answered quickly. “Just a misunderstanding, that’s all.”

“A misunderstanding that appears to have left you bleeding,” Montoya observed as Helm pulled aside Ramirez’s hand to get a better look at his wound.

“Honestly, there is no problem, Colonel.” He hissed a little in pain as the doctor put a cloth against his cheek, pressing it firmly against the cut. “Don Isandro just had a little too much too drink.”

“Public drunkenness and brawling will not be tolerated,” Montoya replied firmly.

“Go ahead! Lock me up” Isandro snarled, struggling against his captors. “Why would I care?” He suddenly slumped, nearly unconscious in the soldiers’ grip.

Ramirez’s eyes darted around. “Let me deal with him. I’ll let him sleep it off in one of the rooms. He’ll be fine. Please, Colonel, Senor de la Cruz is having difficulty dealing with the death of his wife and son. He just needs time. I understand what he’s going through,” he finished sadly.

Helm took a butterfly bandage from his medical bag. “Hold still please, Senor Ramirez.” Then he said to Montoya, “Surely you can let it go this once, Colonel? It’s only been a few months since Don Isandro lost his family. Surely some allowance can be made?”

Montoya sighed. “Very well.” He motioned to the guards. “Take Senor de la Cruz inside.”

“Thank you, Colonel!” Ramirez said gratefully.

Finishing with the man’s face, Helm said, “Come by my office tomorrow, senor, and let me take a look at it."

“My thanks, Doctor Helm.”

“Not a problem,” Helm assured him.

“Just make sure there are no more incidents, Senor Ramirez,” Montoya said sternly. “I will not have my town square become a brawling ground.”

“You have my word,” Ramirez assured him.

As the man headed back to the hotel, Montoya said, “I am glad we had this time together, Doctor, but now, if you’ll excuse me?”

“I will take care of my sister,” Helm reiterated before striding away.

A calculating look in his eyes, Montoya replied softly, “You can try, Doctor. You can try.”

_______________________@@_______________________

It really was like taking candy from a baby, he thought with satisfaction as Robert Helm walked away. He only wondered what Isabelle’s reaction would be if her brother forbade her the offer of his horses. Montoya didn’t know the young senorita well enough to know if she would obey her brother or defy him. Though upon reflection, Helm probably wasn’t sure what his sister’s reaction would be either and would most likely err on the side of caution rather than find out. So much the better for his eventual plans, to be sure.

But those reflections were interrupted. “Colonel Montoya!” the voice of Don Nazario Delgado said angrily from behind. He closed his eyes, willing himself to patience. Nazario was one of his least favourite Dons and had a constant litany of complaints which he expressed whenever Montoya had the misfortune to encounter him. Fortunately, the man’s lands were far enough distant that he was only in Santa Elena infrequently compared to other of the Dons.

Stifling a sigh, Montoya turned, plastering an insincere smile on his face. “Why, Don Nazario, what a pleasant surprise.”

“It is an outrage!” he exclaimed, not bothering to engage in the usual social pleasantries.

“And that would be?”

“More foreigners settling here in the pueblo! Mark my words, Montoya, there will be nothing but trouble if this is allowed to continue!”

“I assume you are referring to our newest residents, the Carmichaels and the McAllisters?”

“Them; and all the others you have allowed to settle here!”

“May I remind you, Senor Delgado, that it is the express wish of his Majesty the King that settlement be encouraged here in Alta California, no matter the nationality of those settlers. I merely carry out those desires as his representative.”

Delgado looked as if he’d eaten something sour. “Spain is very far away, Colonel. You needn’t be so enthusiastic in your duty!”

“Indeed, Don Nazario, one can only hope you never require medical attention. That would be most unfortunate considering your principles, would it not?” As if the man would forgo medical aid even if it were at the hands of an Englishmen; the hypocrite.

Delgado ignored his jab. “When we’re subject to drunken brawls in the town square, there is a problem!”

He shook his head impatiently. “Considering the brawl was perpetrated by one of your fellow Dons, I can hardly see the connection.”

“That is not the point, Montoya!”

“Then what, pray tell, is?” Really, the man was most irritating and a constant thorn in his side.

“What did I miss?” Marcus Grisham, Captain of the Guard asked cheerfully, joining the two men. “A bar fight, and no one invited me.” He seemed totally oblivious to the daggers shooting from Don Nazario’s eyes.

“I rest my case, Colonel!” Delgado snapped, storming away.

“Was it something I said?” Grisham asked his commanding officer.

“Isn’t it always, Grisham? Isn’t it always?”

_______________________@@_______________________

Helm sat down on the bench next to his sister in the garden courtyard of their home. “How did the lesson go?”

She looked up from the book she was reading. “It went well. Ana brought another girl, Amalia, with her, so it was a lively lesson.” Robert was pleased at the note of happiness in his sister’s voice. He hated to admit it, but Montoya was correct; his sister had been melancholy these last weeks.

He reached up, accepting the glass of Madera wine that his housekeeper brought him. “Gracias, Carmelita.”

“Will there be anything, else, Dona Isabelle?” the woman asked. It had not escaped Helm’s notice that the housekeeper now deferred to his sister in all matters regarding the running of his household.

”No, that will be all, Carmelita, thank you. My brother and I will be dining out this evening, so you may leave early if you wish; I’m sure your husband would appreciate it,” she finished with a smile.

“Gracias, senorita.” The woman bobbed a curtsey.

As the woman reentered the house, he asked, “We’re dining out?” He had finally noticed his sister had changed her dress and that her hair was pulled back in a more ornate style than it was usually.

She gave him a look. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten? You have! We’re dining at Senorita Alvarado’s tonight,” she reminded him with a note of exasperation. At the look on his face, she added before he could protest, “And yes, Robert, we are going. It would be unforgivably rude to cancel at this late hour!”

Robert did his best to look chastened. “Yes, ma’am,” he said, trying to hold back a grin.

“Honestly! Do go make yourself presentable, would you Robert?” she scolded.

‘I am always presentable!” he protested.

Her raised eyebrows said it all. “Go!” She pointed at the door, the ghost of a smile on her lips. “Now!”

“I hear, and obey.” Draining his glass, he stood, bowing grandly. “I shall even clean behind my ears,” he declared.

“Something for which we shall be grateful for, I’m sure!” This time, she couldn’t hold back the laughter.

_______________________@@_______________________

Chapter Text

“That was a most delicious meal, thank you, Marta,” Isabelle said as Tessa’s Gypsy servant removed her plate.

“Yes, stupendous,” Robert agreed.

“It is nice to cook for those who appreciate it,” Marta said with a smile as she removed the rest of the dinner plates.

“Marta is the best cook in the territory,” Tessa told her two guests.

“Thank you,” Marta acknowledged their praise. “If you would like to go into the sitting room, I will bring you your coffee.”

“Perhaps I can interest you in a game of chess?” Tessa asked Robert as they made their way from the dinning room.

“I would like that very much,” he replied with a smile.

Falling behind them, Isabelle said, “I shall be there in a moment. I wanted to ask Marta about her progress on my dresses.” It wasn’t really true, but Isabelle had decided it was the best way for her to leave Tessa and Robert alone for a time. Not too long as to be inappropriate, but long enough, she hoped, for the two to get to know one another better.

“Don’t be long, Tessa said with a smile. “I was hoping you would play for us.”

“I would be happy to,” Isabelle replied. “I won’t be long.” Turning, she made her way to the kitchen, sitting down at the large kitchen table.

“Can I get you something, senorita?” Marta asked, looking surprised at their guest’s sudden appearance in her kitchen.

‘I’m fine Marta, but I’m afraid I told an untruth.”

“Oh?”

“I told Tessa and Robert I wanted to discuss the dresses you are making for me; a small deception to allow them to spend some time alone together.” She clasped her hands together on the table. “I hope you don’t mind?”

Marta laughed. “Not at all. In fact, I wholeheartedly approve.”

Smiling, Isabelle said, “I had hoped you might!”

“And to make sure there is no lie involved, we must discuss the dresses. I was going to show you the lavender one tonight as it is almost completed. The yellow one should be done by week’s end.”

“Thank you so much, Marta. You have been so kind; I do not know how I can properly thank you.”

“Just to see your happy face is thanks enough,” she assured her.

_______________________@@_______________________

“It is a fine thing to be able to play chess with such an enthusiastic opponent,” Robert told Tessa as she moved a Knight.

“Doesn’t your sister play?”

“She does, but she does not favour the game as you do,” he explained while pondering his next move. “Cards are more to her liking.”

“I see. And how is Isabelle settling in? Is she adjusting to life here, do you think?” Tessa knew that Isabelle’s excuse of wanting to talk to Marta was merely a ruse to leave her and her brother alone together, and it was one she intended to take full advantage of.

Robert looked at his hostess. “She is having a difficult time of it, I believe; though she would never confess that to me. I do appreciate all you have done, senorita, to help my sister make the transition to life here in California.”

Tessa inclined her head slightly. “It has been my pleasure.”

“I am in your debt.”

“Not at all, Doctor.” She contemplated the chessboard briefly before making her next move, capturing one of Helm’s Rooks and smiling smugly at his look of consternation.

“Well done, senorita. There’s more to you than meets the eye, isn’t there?”

“Why whatever do you mean, Doctor?” she asked innocently.

Robert snorted. “I am on my guard now, Senorita Alvarado,” he warned with a smile.

Tessa watched him for a moment, before asking, “I have a heard a rumour that Isabelle has been teaching a reading class at your casa. Is it true?’

“So it would seem. Though I only found out today; it has been going on under my nose for a fortnight.” He sounded more than a little peeved.

“Servants do gossip, Doctor. But isn’t it an odd sort of thing for a lady to be doing?” Tessa had been quite curious when Marta had told her that Senorita Helm had been teaching peasant girls to read. Tessa approved, of course, but it wasn’t something that had ever occurred to her to do herself.

Robert smiled, shaking his head. “Not if you had known Isabelle longer, senorita.” He sighed. “Despite his many faults, our father did not stint on her education. He was a firm believer that all his children, sons and daughter, should be well educated. The subject of educating women is one my sister feels most keenly about.”

“How admirable, Doctor. But I can only imagine the reaction of men like Colonel Montoya to your sister’s project.”

“Colonel Montoya,” Helm said the man’s name with distaste, “has been cultivating Isabelle’s good opinion quite assiduously. So I have few worries on that score.”

“Oh? And why do you think that is?” Tessa asked nonchalantly.

Robert’s jaw tightened. “Who knows what goes on in Montoya’s mind?”

“Whom indeed,” she replied brightly. Of course, Tessa Alvarado would have no idea, but the Queen of Swords was another story entirely. She knew quite well why the military governor would seek out Dr. Helm’s young sister. And that was her fault. She vowed to pay more attention to Colonel Montoya’s attentions towards her new friend.

“Actually, Senorita Alvarado, I wonder if I could impose upon your kindness yet again?”

“But of course, Dr. Helm.”

“Perhaps, if the opportunity arises, you could speak to my sister on the subject of the Colonel? Make her see that his company is unsuitable? I daresay she would take it better from you than from her overprotective older brother,” he finished with a rueful smile.

“I’ll see what I can do,” she said reassuringly as Isabelle and Marta joined them; Isabelle holding a lavender dress and Marta with the coffee.

“Is she besting you, Robert?” Isabelle asked.

“She may very well be!”

“Well done, Tessa!” Isabelle said.

Marta placed the coffee tray down on the sideboard behind the couches. “I’m sorry we were delayed.” She shot Isabelle a knowing smile. “But I needed to confer with Senorita Helm on the trim for her dress.” Taking the dress from Isabelle, she moved to a chair in the corner of the room next to a table with lit oil lamp and a sewing basket that was underneath.

“You will be able to wear your new dress to the Hidalgo’s spring picnic,” Tessa pointed out.

“I am not sure I shall be able to attend,” Isabelle replied apologetically.

“Why ever not? You must come!”

Robert answered for his sister. “I’m afraid that’s my fault, senorita. I leave for my monthly visit to the outlying villages on Wednesday, and I do not know if I will be home in time on Saturday to escort my sister to the picnic.”

“That is easily enough solved!” Tessa replied with laugh. “Isabelle, you must come stay with me while your brother is away. Then we can go to the picnic together. I will not take ‘no’ for an answer!”

“That is very kind of you,” Isabelle said.

“Indeed, Senorita Alvarado, it would be a weight from my mind. I little liked the thought of leaving Isabelle alone in town while I was away.” His sister shot him an exasperated look, but held her tongue.

“Then it is settled! I will pick you up on Wednesday morning, Isabelle.”

“Thank you, Tessa, I am most grateful.” Her smile lit up her whole face.

“Now will you play something for us?” Marta asked from where she sat working on Isabelle’s dress.

“Of course,” Isabelle agreed, walking over to the pianoforte and lifting the lid from off the keyboard. “What would you like to hear?”

“Play us something from your home in England,” Tessa requested.

“Very well.” Isabelle thought for a moment as she placed her fingers on the keys. “This was a favourite of our brother, Andrew’s.” Soon after, the strains of Katharine Ogie filled the hacienda.

Tessa and Robert, their chess game temporarily forgotten, sat in companionable silence while Isabelle played for them. For a brief moment, Tessa allowed herself to imagine this as her future, in a home full of the warmth of family and friends. Tomorrow, she would light a candle, and make a prayer, and perhaps, if God were kind, it might be so.

_______________________@@_______________________

Chapter Text

A knock at the study door drew Isabelle's attention from the list she was writing. As she looked up, the door opened. "Yes, what is it, Carmelita?" she asked the housekeeper.

"You have a caller," the woman replied. Before Isabelle could ask, she said, "It is Colonel Montoya." Her tone was decidedly not happy.

"Indeed? Please, show him in." The housekeeper nodded her understanding, closing the door. Why on earth would the colonel be visiting? Robert had left not even a half hour before on his trip to the outlying villages, and she knew her brother would not approve of her receiving their guest without him there.

Putting aside her pen, Isabelle carefully wiped her fingers clean of ink with a rag, before smoothing her hair. Soon came another knock; this time Carmelita accompanied by Colonel Montoya. As they entered, she rose from her seat behind the desk, straightening her skirt. "Colonel Montoya, what a pleasant surprise."

"I hope this is not an imposition," he said, looking at the blizzard of papers that covered the desk.

"Not at all; I was writing out an inventory of Robert's medical supplies. He is so busy that he isn’t able to keep a proper accounting himself." He walked farther into the room, and Isabelle noted that he held what appeared to be a hatbox in one hand. She indicated one of the chairs in front of the desk. "Please, do sit down, Colonel Montoya."

"Gracias, senorita."

"That will be all, Carmelita," she said to the housekeeper, who was still standing in the doorway. When it seemed as if she might object, Isabelle added, "Thank you; please shut the door behind you." Carmelita bobbed her head, lips pressed together disapprovingly, before leaving the study and closing the door behind her with a firm snap.

"To what do I owe the pleasure?" Isabelle asked as she walked around the desk, sitting in the chair adjacent to her guest's.

"I had hoped to make amends," he replied genially, "on behalf of Royo." He handed her the hatbox. "He, and I, hopes it is an adequate offering."

"Really, Colonel, this is quite unnecessary," she objected, placing the box on her lap.

"Not at all, Dona Isabelle," he contradicted. When all she did was look at the box, he added, "Aren't you going to open it?"

"Of course." Somewhat apprehensive, she removed the lid, putting it aside on the desk next to her, before lifting out the hat within. "It is lovely." There was a note of surprise in her voice that she couldn't quite mask.

"And this astonishes you." He sounded amused.

Cheeks pink, she shook her head. "My apologies, Colonel Montoya, it was just…." She decided on honesty. "When I realized it was a hat, I am afraid that my first thought was that it would be something from the window display at the mercantile."

He laughed. "The one with the rather large cabbage roses?"

Joining his laughter, she said, "The very same!" She eyed the hat more closely; it was a capote of pale green silk taffeta, trimmed with darker green ribbons and ivory coloured feathers. "It is exquisite, thank you, Colonel."

"You are most welcome, senorita. And I hope, that lacking straw, Royo will find it less appetizing."

Isabelle giggled. "One can only hope, Colonel, one can only hope."

He leaned in a bit. "And I, Dona Isabelle, hope to see you wearing it at the Hidalgo's gathering on Saturday—though the beauty of the wearer will far eclipse its charms."

For a mere moment, Isabelle allowed herself to believe that his compliment was sincere, before pushing aside such nonsense. The only reason he paid her any attention was to irk Robert. "You shall turn my head with such flattery," she replied lightly.

"You think it flattery?" There was some secret in his eyes. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

She took a breath, disconcerted by his words, and thinking that maybe she should not have sent Carmelita away.

And then he was smiling. "However, I would never argue with a lady."

And the moment passed as if it had never happened. You are such a ninny, she scolded herself. He stood and she followed suit.

"I regret that I must take my leave," he said. "Duty calls."

"Of course." She held out her hand, which he took, bowing over it. "Thank you again, Colonel."

"It was my pleasure," he assured her. "'Til Saturday then."

"'Til Saturday."

==============----------------------==============

That was foolish. Montoya strode down the street toward the town square, anyone who might have thought of approaching swiftly changing their mind after seeing the look on his face. Isabelle Helm was a tool, he reminded himself sharply; a tool against her brother, and ultimately, the Queen. And for that tool to work effectively, she had to trust him, believe that their flirtations were harmless diversions. Today, he had overplayed his hand. It must not happen again. He could not allow her to see the trap that was his endgame until it was too late for her and for her brother.

>>>

From her hidden vantage point across from the Helm's home, Tessa watched Montoya, biting at her lip worriedly. She wondered what pretext he'd used to call on Isabelle, knowing full well that her brother was not there. She knew that Robert thought Montoya's interest in his sister was merely to vex him, but Tessa was sure there was more to it than that. And the look on the colonel's face as he strode away only solidified that belief. She feared for her friend, and of what might happen if Montoya were allowed to succeed.

==============----------------------==============

Tessa knocked against the doorframe. "May I come in?" she asked, pushing the door open a little more.

Isabelle, in nightgown and wrapper, looked up from the vanity she was sitting at, undoing her braids. "Yes, of course, Tessa."

Tessa had brought Isabelle to her hacienda that afternoon, and the two young women had spent the rest of the day riding, before returning home for dinner. After they had eaten, Isabelle had played the pianoforte while Tessa had embroidered, though not very successfully. Tessa had never been particularly gifted at the domestic arts, despite Marta's tutoring, Finally taking pity on her friend, Isabelle had come to sit next to her, pulling out half Tessa's stitches, and helping her redo what had been a tangled mess. They had spent the remainder of the evening drinking wine and giggling like schoolgirls, till repeated yawns has made it clear it that was time for sleep.

Picking up the hairbrush, Isabelle began to brush out her hair, before Tessa's hand on hers stopped her. "I can do that if you like?" At Isabelle's nod, Tessa took the brush, slowly pulling it through Isabelle's thick russet hair.

"Just because Ana is not here does not mean you need to act as my maid, Tessa," she said with a smile.

Tessa shook her head. "I enjoy doing it. It's very restful."

Isabelle sighed softly. "It is."

Tessa continued to brush in long, smooth strokes. "You are very beautiful."

Isabelle looked at her friend in the mirror. "You are beautiful, Tessa. While I, on the other hand, am pleasing. I will never bring a gathering to a halt with my beauty."

Laughing, Tessa set the brush down, taking a seat on the trunk at the foot of the bed. "And you think I have?"

Shifting in her seat, Isabelle looked at Tessa. "I am quite certain."

Tessa shook her head. "How can you not think you're beautiful?"

"There is nothing wrong with being merely pretty, Tessa. In fact, I would say that it simplifies matters a great deal. Any man that might have an inclination towards me does so with no illusions."

"And what about Colonel Montoya?" Tessa cocked her head curiously.

Isabelle raised an eyebrow. "Really, Tessa, Colonel Montoya? I have no fortune, no station that amounts to any worth in Spain, and no great beauty. There is little to recommend me to such a man other than the pleasure he seems to derive in driving Robert mad."

"And if you had all those things?"

"I find little benefit in imagining the improbable, let alone the impossible," Isabelle replied firmly.

Tessa sighed. "You must have dreams?"

"Oh, Tessa, of course I do, but realistic ones."

"Montoya is very handsome; I know you must have noticed," Tessa pressed.

"I am not blind!" she replied, a little more sharply than she'd intended. In a calmer voice she continued, "You may tell Robert that I remain his dutiful and obedient sister, and that Luis Montoya has not turned my head."

Tessa looked a little guilty. "I'm sorry—"

She held up her hand. "Do not be, Tessa. I know my brother well, and I know he is trying his best."

"He worries for you."

Nodding, Isabelle turned away, staring off somewhere in the distance. "But I shall confess something to you, Tessa; I wish that a gentleman's attentions might be paid to me because he finds pleasure in my company. That is not too much to ask, is it?"

==============----------------------==============

Chapter Text

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?"

==============----------------------==============

True to his word, Don Gaspar presented several young men to her, before Tessa finally rescued her for lunch. The food had been delicious, and the wine had flowed freely. Now, various games and competitions were being held, and Isabelle found herself watching a group of men target shooting. So far, Captain Grisham seemed to be in the lead.

"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?"

>>>

Marta watched the competition with interest. Isabelle Helm had seemed the unlikeliest of young women to be participating in a shooting competition. Yet the quiet English girl was practically glowing, for once seeming to belong, as odd as it seemed. Amongst the gathered onlookers on the opposite side of the contest, she could see Tessa, and Marta knew she was wishing she had the freedom to exhibit her skills as Isabelle was. However, Tessa's secret, as the Queen, made that impossible.

"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.

>>>

"For once, Montoya and I are in complete agreement," Robert told Tessa after she explained the circumstances of just how his sister had ended up in a shooting competition. "And I expect my little sister to earn me a tidy sum in winnings once she thrashes Grisham." The vengeful delight in his tone made Tessa laugh.

"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."

==============----------------------==============

Sitting in the parlour after dinner, Robert tossed a small bag to Isabelle. "Your share."

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.

"Yes?"

"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."

==============----------------------==============

"Will there be anything else, Colonel?" Grisham asked stiffly, looking over his commander's shoulder.

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."

"The hell."

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."

==============----------------------==============

Marta contemplated the stack of coins on the table in front of her with a satisfied smile as Tessa sat down across from her. "Marta, I'm shocked you'd gamble!" Tessa teased.

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."

==============----------------------==============

Chapter Text

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."

==============----------------------==============

"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.

==============----------------------==============

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."

==============----------------------==============

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."

==============----------------------==============

"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."

==============----------------------==============

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."

==============----------------------==============

Chapter Text

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."

>>>

The official part of the evening now completed, Tessa made the rounds, greeting friends and acquaintances as she circuited the courtyard.

"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."

>>>

From his vantage point on a balcony across from the young couple, Montoya watched, rubbing finger and thumb together.

"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."

>>>

"Are you in league with Senor Hidalgo?" Robert asked Tessa as they drank their sangria, looking over at his sister and Junípero.

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."

>>>

"Thank you, Colonel," Isabelle said, accepting the case containing the pistols she'd won at the shooting competition two days prior.

"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."

==============----------------------==============