"I assure you, Senorita Alvarado, that is a scientific impossibility."
"Truly, Dr. Helm? I must say I am relieved! I can always count on you to make sense of all these confusing matters."
"I'm always happy to be of service, Senorita," he replied, laughter colouring his voice.
"I honestly don't know what I'd do without you, Doctor!" she said, slightly breathless.
"Oh, I'm sure you would do quite well."
The two walked side by side down the dusty street towards Dr. Robert Helm's surgery in the small Alta California pueblo of Santa Elena. The doctor, a transplant from England, was tall and lean, his hazel green eyes framed by long dark lashes and the crinkle of fine laugh lines. His companion, Dona Maria Teresa Alvarado, 'Tessa' to her familiars, was tall for a woman, with the lines of a young doe, and eyes just as brown. Her long dark chestnut hair hung loose down her back, kept away from her face with fine Spanish combs.
It was March, and the mid-morning sun had yet to take the bite from the early spring chill that seeped up from the coast. Tessa pulled her heavy shawl a little tighter across her chest, glancing up at the doctor with a look that belied far more intelligence than her companion would have given her credit for.
"You're far too modest, Doctor," she remonstrated gently.
Helm laughed outright. "I'm sure I am not, Senorita!"
"Very well! It's far too beautiful a morning to argue, don't you think?" Before he could respond, she asked, "You will be attending the fiesta tomorrow, won't you?"
Glancing down at her, he replied, "I wouldn't miss it."
"Then I look forward to dancing with you at the fandango," she said with more than a touch of satisfaction. Catching sight of something ahead, she tilted her head in curiosity. "You seem to have a visitor, Doctor Helm."
"A visitor?" His eyes sought out his adobe, coming to rest on a figure in black, sitting on a trunk by his office door. He quickened his pace, the look of confusion on his face replaced by the shock of recognition as he drew closer. "Excuse me, Senorita," he muttered absently as he practically ran the last few steps.
"Isabelle?" he asked almost to himself, then louder, "Isabelle?"
The figure in black looked up at the sound of his voice, a smile lighting her face. "Robbie?" She stood, looking as if she didn't quite believe what she was seeing. "Robbie!" she shrieked, as Helm enveloped her in his arms, lifting her off her feet and swinging her around.
Forgotten in the joyous reunion, Tessa looked on, an expression of pain flitting across her eyes.
Gently, he set the woman on her feet, looking down into eyes that matched his. "My God, Isabelle, is it really you?"
The woman blinked back tears, taking a steadying breath. "It really is."
Even dressed head to toe in black, she was a striking young woman. Shorter than Tessa, with a dancer's build, her face was framed by softly waved russet hair, tucked up under a black lace trimmed bonnet.
Helm reached out, brushing her fair cheek with his fingertips, momentarily speechless.
"You are very popular, aren't you Doctor?" Tessa interrupted the tableau , reminding him of her presence. "An old friend?"
Helm shook his head. 'Yes, no, I mean…" Laughing, he took Isabelle's hand, turning his attention to Tessa "Senorita Alvarado, may I introduce you to my sister, Lady Isabelle Helm."
"Sister?" Tessa replied a note of relief in her voice. Relief that Helm didn't notice, but his sister did.
"Isabelle, allow me to introduce Dona Maria Teresa Alavarado."
The two women nodded in acknowledgement. "A pleasure," they murmured.
Helm seemed to still be lost in the unexpected arrival of his sister, so Tessa decided to step in. "It's a cold morning, Doctor, and it would appear Senorita Helm has been outside for some time awaiting your arrival."
"What? Oh, yes, you're absolutely correct. Isabelle, how long have you been here?"
"A few hours. Captain Molera kindly brought me into town when it became obvious you hadn't received the letter informing you of my arrival." She looked at Tessa thankfully. "I am somewhat chilled and would welcome a cup of tea."
"Of course! Senorita Alvarado, if you'd excuse us?"
"It was a pleasure meeting you, Senorita Helm," Tessa said.
"Likewise," Isabelle responded before her brother ushered her into his office.
"You're going to love this, Colonel!" The man was practically crowing as he entered his commanding officer's office.
"You'll forgive me if I restrain my excitement till I actually know what you're babbling about, Capitán Grisham," was the acid reply.
The younger man didn't seem at all put out by his superior's response. If anything, his smile grew wider. "No, really!"
Colonel Luis Ramirez Montoya leaned back in his ornately carved chair, his piercing steel blue eyes raking his subordinate. "Very well. What precisely has you in such a state of excitement?"
Tall and compactly muscled, Marcus Grisham, formerly of the United States Army, now Captain of the Guard in the service of his Majesty the King of Spain, tossed an open log book down on the desk in front of his colonel. He slouched negligently, one hand on his hip as he waited for Montoya's reaction.
"And this would be?"
"The passenger manifest from the Perla de la Noche. She made port early this morning."
"I'm aware of that, Capitán! But what exactly is it that you believe is worth my notice?"
Luis Montoya was a slender though imposing man, with an aristocratic bearing. His dark shoulder length hair was swept back and tied in place with a leather cord. He had little patience for fools, and this morning, his Capitán was trying what little he had.
Grisham sighed in exasperation. Montoya was always such a killjoy. "Sir, look at the 'H's'," he instructed.
Quirking a brow, Montoya glanced down, scanning the log. The look of impatience was soon replaced by one of anticipation. "Well now, isn't this an interesting development?" He rubbed thumb and forefinger together, a thoughtful expression on his face.
"I thought so," Grisham said smugly. "Who knew Helm had a wife? The dog!"
"Wife? No, no, much better than that, Grisham. Isabelle Helm is the good doctor's young sister."
"You don't say?" Grisham dropped into the chair in front of Montoya's desk, his long legs extended.
"I do indeed! Though, I admit, I am puzzled. She was supposed to have been married this summer past. Yet here she is, sans husband."
"You seem to be remarkably well informed," Grisham observed, his lips quirking in a lopsided grin.
Montoya turned his full attention to his subordinate, a self-satisfied look passing across his eyes. "The young lady has had occasion to write to her brother since his arrival last year in our humble pueblo."
"I see." Grisham smirked.
"I'm sure you do, Capitán." Montoya smiled a smile that didn't reach his eyes. "Fate seems to have been kind to us once more, Grisham," he declared. "I'm sure Doctor Helm will be much more amenable now he has his sister to look out for, don't you?"
"Oh, absolutely, Colonel." The anticipation in his voice was palpable. "Absolutely."
fic, fic: queen of swords, queen of swords, series: 'to follow the west wind'
Robert Helm closed the door behind him, leaning against it has he tried to take in the fact his young sister was really standing in the middle of his reception. It had been nearly nine years since he'd last seen Isabelle, just before he'd left for medical school in America. She'd been barely fifteen, a scrawny little thing on the verge of womanhood. Night and day from the mature and self-possessed young woman that stood before him now.
He finally said the words, the reason for her being here, thousands of miles from home. "He's dead then." It wasn't even a question, not really.
She nodded. "Yes."
"As you might expect, I suppose; too much alcohol, too much laudanum." She shrugged. "He fell asleep, and he never woke up."
Helm's eyes flashed. "I can only hope the old bastard got a warm welcome in hell!" he snarled angrily, pushing away from the door.
"Robert, please--" Isabelle began, only to be cut off by her brother.
"No! It's true! I do not want to hear that he was our father and that we should pretend that we aren't glad he's dead and gone! Good riddance, I say!"
"I wasn't going to say that!" she protested angrily. "But do please tell me what I should think and say! It isn't as if I haven't been told exactly that my entire life!" She whirled away from him, her arms clasped tight around herself.
Running a hand through his hair in frustration, he apologized. "I'm sorry, Isabelle--" he touched her shoulder, "--truly. It's no excuse for my appalling behavior, but it has just all been such a shock."
Softly, she said, "I was going to say don't be angry. Don't let him ruin this happy meeting as he has ruined every moment of happiness I have ever had."
Helm drew her into his arms, holding her tight. "You're right." Kissing her cheek, he took a deep breath. "I promised you a cup of tea."
"Shhhh... There will be time for the all the details of how you came to be here later; tea and food first."
She nodded in acquiescence. "Very well."
Reaching over, he opened the door to his study. "I'll bring your trunk in. While I do that, go through the door on the far side of the room, which will take you to the kitchen. When I'm done, we'll see if I can't be a better host, and a better brother."
When Robert finally made it back to the kitchen, he found his sister carefully studying every nook and cranny of the room. She'd removed her coat, bonnet and gloves, and he realized she was still dressed for mourning, her black dress relieved only with a small silver bar brooch at her throat. That would be his sister, following propriety to the letter however much she might have loathed their father.
"You've grown," he told her, smiling.
She sniffed. "I'm pleased you noticed."
"Oh, I'm quite sure the entire male population of Santa Elena will notice. I'm going to have to keep an eye on you," he said, eyes twinkling with mirth.
Ignoring his last comment, she said, "You can't call me Jackie Sprat anymore!"
"Me? I'm quite sure I never called you any such thing!" he protested his innocence. "It must have been your other brother Robert."
Joining in his laughter, she said, "Yes, it must have been. What was I thinking?"
As they'd talked, Robert had begun making tea. "You must be hungry. It's my housekeeper's day off, but I'm sure I can come up with something."
"Famished!" she agreed, sitting at the table. "Anything that isn't dried, salted, or fish would be wonderful!"
"This might do as a start," he told her as he rummaged around in a cupboard, pulling out a ceramic bowl. "Here we are." When he turned back to her, he was holding a small orange. "A ship from the Orient was here last month, and brought these. I have two left."
She snatched the orange delightedly from his hand. "Thank you, Robbie!" Deftly peeling away the thin flesh, she broke off a segment, closing her eyes in rapture as the first drops of juice hit her tongue. "That is the best thing I think I have ever tasted," she declared.
"I remember how good fresh food tastes after a long sea voyage," he told her, pleased at her reaction. "Aren't you going to eat the rest?" he asked, noticing she'd put the remainder of the orange back down on the table.
"I'm saving it for after lunch. I want it to be the last thing I taste," she informed him, sighing in anticipation.
Shaking his head, he smiled at his sister, holding out the second orange. "You can have this last one as well."
Tilting her head, she considered his offer for a moment before temptation won out over restraint and she happily took her prize. "Thank you, Robert," she said demurely, her eyes sparkling mischievously.
"You are quite welcome, little sister." As she finished off the first orange with unrestrained enthusiasm, he laughed.
"What?" she asked suspiciously.
"I was just remembering when you were eight and you convinced Andrew to steal sweets from the trays set out for the party that night. And not only did he, but you also managed to get most of his share as well. You had a similar expression on your face as you tore into your pile."
She joined in his laughter. "Andrew would always do whatever I asked."
"He loved you very much."
"I know," she said softly.
Silence fell as both recalled the bittersweet memory. Finally, breaking the sudden mood of melancholy, Isabelle asked, "Is that tea ready yet?"
"Just." He put the teapot and the cups and saucers on the table. "Let me get the milk."
Soon, they were both sitting at the table drinking the strong brew and eating the bread, cheese and meat that Robert had laid out, quietly enjoying the almost forgotten companionship of childhood.
Tessa sat at her kitchen table watching Marta as she kneaded the evening's bread. The other woman was older than Tessa, with long curly dark brown hair, and amber brown eyes. The Gypsy, though Tessa's servant, was much more than that. Marta had been a mother to Tessa when her father, the late Don Rafael, had sent Tessa to Spain at the age of twelve to be properly educated. She had returned to California with Tessa after the death of her father the previous year.
"How was your trip into town?" Marta asked curiously.
"It was interesting." Tessa had a distracted look on her face.
"Oh, how so? Though I'm sure from the look on your face, Dr. Helm was somehow involved." Marta smiled knowingly.
"Don't tease, Marta! You know it's the Queen he cares for, not me." She slumped in her chair. "I wish I could tell him the truth, and not play the part of a woman he barely notices, let alone respects." The young woman sighed dejectedly.
Marta brushed her hands off on her apron, coming to sit next her. "You could tell him. You know you can trust him. Why put yourself through this pain, Tessa?"
"I can't. I won't put him in even more danger than he is already from aiding the Queen. Montoya was fully prepared to have him killed last winter, and it wouldn't take much to put Robert back in his sights. And now, it's even more vital to keep him safe."
"I told you my trip into town was interesting. I was walking with Dr. Helm, and when we arrived at his office, there was a woman waiting for him; his sister."
"His sister? How can that be? Didn't you tell me she was supposed to marry some nobleman's son in England?"
Tessa shrugged. "That's what Robert told me, but she was alone, and he introduced her as Isabelle Helm."
"What was she like?"
"She seemed pleasant enough. Pretty, about Vera's height, very fair, with her brother's eyes and chin."
"But not his nose?" Marta asked, a twinkle in her eye.
That got a laugh from Tessa. "No, not his nose."
"That's probably just as well, don't you think? While it's a fine nose for the very handsome doctor, I'm sure it's best suited to a man."
"Marta!" Tessa exclaimed in amused outrage.
"What? It's true!"
Tessa just shook her head. "We should invite them to dinner, don't you think? Help her to adjust to living here, so she won't feel isolated. Santa Elena is a far cry from London."
"Mmmm... And to have an entire evening to yourself with Dr. Helm," Marta said with a smug smile, "wouldn't be a hardship either, would it?"
Tessa just sniffed and Marta's smile grew wider.
Robert poured wine into Isabelle's glass. They had finished their lunch and had moved to the walled courtyard of the adobe. The back of the building, with its own entrance, housed his office and exam room; the front contained his private quarters. In the center was the courtyard, with its private entrance to the street outside.
The courtyard was tiled, with a cistern, summer kitchen, an herb garden, and a few small citrus trees. Under the bougainvillea covered pergola where they now sat was a small table and a few chairs. The afternoon sun had warmed the air, and the walls surrounding them protected them from the cool spring breeze.
Isabelle sipped her wine tentatively. "This is lovely," she said with some surprise.
Robert laughed. "Believe it or not, California isn't quite the end of the world. It has its charms." His sister didn't look like she quite believed him. "It's from the Hidalgo Hacienda," he added. "I'll have to introduce you to Senora Hidalgo. She's about your age, and I think you might get on with her."
Though she nodded, it was clear she wasn't really paying attention to what he was saying. "That would be lovely, I'm sure."
Taking her hand, he squeezed it gently. "I'm glad you're here, Isabelle." And he was. One of his greatest regrets was leaving her behind in England. But their father had practically disowned him when he'd resigned his commission. Had told him to never set foot in the family home again. And Robert hadn't. But if he was being brutally honest, he'd been too wrapped up in his own pain to give as much thought to the young sister he'd left behind as he should have. He swore to himself in that moment that he would make it up to her.
"I am too," she whispered, blinking back tears. She brushed at her eyes angrily. "I promised myself I wouldn't cry!"
"You're allowed, you know."
"No! I've shed more than enough tears. I'm done!"
"If you change your mind, I have a hankie," he offered, trying to lighten the mood.
The ghost of a smile brushed her lips and she nodded. Beyond the walls, the sounds of horses and the chatter of bypassers could be heard, and in the trees of the garden, the small sounds of birds. "It's very peaceful here. Hard to believe that less than twenty-four hours ago I was aboard ship, anxious about what might await me."
Then she looked her brother square in the eye. "It's gone Robert, all of it: the house, the land, the entire contents of the estate. You may have the title now, but I'm afraid there's nothing left to go with it."
Taking a gulp of his wine, he stared off into the distance. "I never wanted the title. It should have been Andrew's, never mine. I had no interest in it then, I have none now."
"I know." She sighed. "I knew things were bad, but it wasn't till after father died that I realized the extent. After the back taxes were paid and his gambling debts settled, there was nothing left. They let me keep some personal items, but they even took mother's sapphire necklace, the one grandmother gave her on her wedding day. Worse, they took the portrait of mother wearing the necklace. You remember the one?"
"I do. You used to spend hours looking at it as a child."
"Since I never knew her, it was my only connection to her. I think I believed that her spirit looked down on me from that painting. Silly, I know."
"Not silly," he protested. "Perfectly understandable. I don't know if it will make you feel the loss any less, but, Isabelle, if you want to see mother, you have only to look in the mirror. You look so much like her."
"Do I honestly?" A real smile appeared this time. "Thank you, Robbie, for telling me that."
"It's only the truth, dearest."
He poured them both more wine. "Was money the reason you didn't marry James Sunderland? The letter you sent with the book last Christmas didn't say, only that the engagement had been called off."
Nodding, she explained, "When James' family discovered there was not the agreed upon dowry, they broke off the engagement."
"I'm sorry. I remember how I felt when Camilla's family refused to let her marry me." The memory of that day was a bitter one still.
"Don't be. Unlike you, I didn't love my intended, and he didn't love me. It was an arrangement between our families, nothing more. Oh, we were fond of one another, I suppose, and he would have been an agreeable enough husband, but nothing more."
"Still, you didn't deserve the humiliation!" he protested vehemently.
"It's all right, Robbie, truly. The last year has been instructive in regards to swallowing one's pride. I feel quite virtuous now!"
"You are too good, Isabelle."
"Nonsense! You'll find I'm still as stubborn and headstrong as ever I was. And rather vain as well," she finished primly.
"I'm pleased to hear it!"
"I will remind you of that the first time I fail to heed your counsel and you're cross with me."
"I'll try and remember that." After sipping some more of his wine, he said, "So, the Sunderlands broke off the engagement?"
"Yes, and they sent James' oldest brother to do the deed. You remember Everett, don't you? Everett broke the news, and he seemed most discomfited that I was there, but father had insisted. And of course, father blamed me for it. Flew into a rage, telling me if I'd been a proper lady with any accomplishments whatsoever the lack of a dowry would not have mattered." She didn't meet her brother's gaze.
All good humour was now erased from his face. Clenching his fists, he asked softly, "Then what happened?"
She swallowed, looking down at her hands clasped on the table in front of her. "Everett tried to assure him that the fault was not with me, but that just made it worse. He hurled horrible accusations before taking me by the wrist, breaking it before Everett was able to intervene. He was appalled and at the same time relieved, I think, that his brother had escaped marriage into such a family." Her voice was deceptively calm as she recounted the circumstances of her broken engagement and all that followed.
There was inarticulate snarl of grief and rage from her brother. She placed her hands over his clenched fists. "I couldn't tell you that in a letter, Robbie. How could I? There was nothing you could do for me so far away. I didn't want to add to your burdens."
He bowed his head. "I have failed you, as I did Andrew before you."
"I won't hear such talk, Robert Helm!" She shook his hands. "It is in the past, all of it. You were no more responsible for Andrew's death on the field of battle than you are for my treatment at our father's hands. So stop it this instant! Do you hear?"
"I had forgotten just how bossy you could be." He brushed a curl of russet hair from her face. "I promise you, things will be different from now on."
Isabelle raised her glass. "To the future."
Robert tapped his glass against hers. "The future."
An emergency involving a man who had punctured his foot with a pitchfork interrupted Isabelle's explanation of just how she'd ended up in California. In a way, she was grateful for the reprieve. Robert was not going to like how her passage had been paid for. One thing she was sure hadn't changed about her brother's personality, and that was his temper. It had always gotten him into trouble in the past, and she was willing to bet that it still did.
She looked around the room that was to be hers here in this strange land. It was small, but neat, the walls plastered a gleaming white. The sparse furnishings and decorations made it clear that the room was has it had been when Robert had taken residence, and had never been used.
It took but a short time to empty her trunk, placing her few belongings in the drawers and clothes cabinet. Then she sat on the bed, staring at the wall. What on earth was she doing here, throwing her fate to the winds and coming to this wild and untamed land? She gave herself a mental shake. It was far too late now for second thoughts or regrets. The die was already cast and there was no taking it back.
"And that concludes our tour of Santa Elena," Robert declared grandly, squeezing her arm. "What do you think?"
Isabelle paused momentarily before replying. "It was... short."
"Yes, well, what Santa Elena lacks in size, it more than makes up for in atmosphere," Robert assured her with a grin.
"I'll have to take your word for it!"
After Robert had finished with his patient, it had nearly been time for supper, so he'd suggested a 'grand tour' of the pueblo. After, they would go to the hotel for dinner. Isabelle had been more than willing to go along with his plan. She had done her best during their walk not to gawk at the unfamiliar surroundings like a gormless country girl, but it was so very different from England! Everyone she had been introduced to so far had been warm and welcoming, and the nervous anticipation that had gnawed at her over the last many months was slowly fading away.
Robert led her up to the wooden deck in front of the hotel. "Trust me, Isabelle, it will seem familiar one day; perhaps not the comforting familiarity of home, but comforting nonetheless."
"If I am with you, dearest Robert, it will always seem like home." She rested her head against his shoulder. This was indeed a strange place, but being reunited here with her beloved brother, from whom she had been so long apart, made it worth it.
Their brief moment of tranquility was shattered by a voice. "I see it is true!"
Robert's hand tightened ever so imperceptibly around her arm. "And what would that be, Colonel?" he asked as the man came into sight.
He wasn't as tall as her brother, but he had a commanding presence. Impeccably dressed and groomed, he seemed almost incongruous in their present surroundings. And Isabelle needed no words to tell her that Robert did not like him one bit.
"Why, the presence of your lovely visitor," the man exclaimed. "The news is all around town, Dr. Helm's mystery woman."
He turned his attention to Isabelle and she found herself quite taken aback by his eyes. Not brown as she would have expected, but steel blue, like the eyes of a wolf. And something told her he was just as dangerous.
Then he was introducing himself. "Colonel Luis Ramirez Montoya, at your service."
She extended her hand as Robert said, "Colonel, allow me to present my sister, Lady Isabelle Catherine Pembroke Helm."
Montoya bowed over her gloved hand, briefly raising it to his lips, his eyes never leaving hers. "It is a great pleasure to make your acquaintance, Senorita Helm." He held her hand for another beat before releasing it.
"Likewise," she responded politely.
"Indeed, I would have never believed such beauty in a woman could exist outside Spain. Your arrival here is like a beautiful rose being added to a bouquet of mere wildflowers here in our savage land."
Delighted, she smothered a grin. For the first time since leaving England, she finally felt like she was standing on solid ground. This was a game she knew how to play.
Isabelle quirked a brow. "I must say, Colonel, to discover that such a charming gentleman could exist outside of England is a pleasant, though a rather surprising, revelation." She smiled demurely, hearing Robert choke back laughter behind her.
This time, the smile on Montoya's face reached his eyes. "Then it has been a fine day, Senorita, when both of us of us can say we have learned something new, no?"
She nodded her agreement, matching his smile. "A fine day indeed, Colonel."
"I hope that you will be staying for a time here in our humble pueblo?"
This time it was Robert who answered. "My sister will be living with me for the foreseeable future."
She glanced up at her brother, then back at Montoya. "Robert is a compassionate man, Colonel, taking in his destitute sister in her hour of need. No woman could have a kinder or more loving brother."
Montoya looked as if he were enjoying some private joke. "Indeed, Senorita Helm, your brother's compassionate nature and kind heart are the stuff of legend here in Santa Elena. Though he's far too modest to tell you that himself."
"Yes, well, modesty is a virtue, Colonel," Robert said wryly.
He smirked. "So I have heard." Bowing to Isabelle, he said, "But I have kept you long enough. Doctor, Senorita, enjoy your dinner."
"You were right," Isabelle told her brother as Montoya walked away. "Santa Elena is just brimming with atmosphere!"
"You seemed to enjoy that," he observed.
"I did indeed."
"But 'destitute sister'? That was a bit much, wasn't it?"
"It's the truth! I am destitute. I did tell you, Robert, that I have little enough pride left these days. And I know how people talk. I don't want people making the incorrect assumption that I'm some sort of English heiress. I'd rather that any gentleman who might exhibit an interest knows from the outset that there is no money to be had."
"Fair enough; but lack of a dowry isn't necessarily an impediment to a good marriage here. Not to someone of Montoya's rank, of course. Though even were he the richest man in all of California, I wouldn't let him within ten yards of you," he said darkly.
"I gathered there was not much love lost between you and the Colonel," she told him.
"That would be one way to put it. However, there's no need to ruin our supper with such talk." He opened the door for her, telling her as they entered, "There are few women here, and many Dons with younger sons who would find you perfectly suitable as a wife to any one of them. Not that I want you to ever feel as if you must marry, Isabelle." He took her hands, turning her to face him. "No more arranged loveless engagements. If you marry, I want it to be for love. It's the only thing you deserve."
She took a deep breath. She had felt as if she should marry so as not to be a burden to her brother. She didn't relish the thought of being the spinster sister, dependent on her brother and resented by his wife as an intruder in their home. But she liked the thought of marrying another James Sunderland even less.
Reaching up, she kissed him on the cheek. "You truly are the best of brothers."
He didn't immediately reply, taking a seat on the small olive green upholstered divan in his office, contemplating the amber liquid in his glass. A sip first, followed by a self-satisfied smile, before finally agreeing with the other man's assessment. "Oh, I am, Grisham; quite happy indeed!"
"Okay then." He waited impatiently for an explanation of just why the military governor of Santa Elena was in such a good mood. When none appeared forthcoming, he drawled, "And.…?"
"Ah-ha! You met her then?"
"Dr. Helm was escorting her to dinner at the hotel, so I took the opportunity to become acquainted with the young lady." Another swallow of brandy, then he added, "Her Spanish is excellent, Capitán, perhaps she could tutor you."
Grisham narrowed his eyes in irritation. "Funny."
Montoya didn't reply, just smiled like a cat on the hunt.
"So besides her Spanish, what was she like? Mousy little thing, I bet."
"Quite the contrary; the Doctor's sister is in fact quite lovely."
"Now we're getting somewhere! I can turn on the charm, a little wine, a few flowers..." Grisham drifted into silence, obviously deep into mentally planning his conquest.
Montoya's sharp bark of laughter quickly brought him back to the here and now. "Ah yes, Grisham, you do inhabit your own special fantasy world, do you not?"
The captain looked offended. "Hey, the ladies like me! Why should Helm's sister be any different? And isn't that the plan? Get our hooks into the girl so her brother behaves?"
"Yes, the ladies of the pueblo do seem to readily succumb to your rather dubious charms... especially the married ones. However, Isabelle Helm, in addition to possessing a pleasing countenance, has a sharp wit and a keen mind. You, my dear Capitán, would have no hope of attracting the senorita's attention.
"But you would?" He seemed doubtful.
Finishing his brandy, Montoya placed the snifter on the end table. "Who else can offer her the trappings of civilization that she left behind in England?" He waved a hand at the room, with its extensive library, fine furnishings, and small, but tasteful collection of art. "And I admit that I will not find it an onerous undertaking in the least."
"I bet you wouldn't," Grisham muttered. "So, some music and poetry with the sister while setting up the brother to be stabbed in the back?"
The predatory smile was back. "Crudely put, Grisham, and yet... quite apt."
"For you, Senorita Helm."
Isabelle accepted the pink rose with a smile. "Why thank you, Senor Ramirez! It's lovely."
"I would like to welcome you to Santa Elena, and hope you will be very happy here." He bowed then nodded to her brother. "My Maria will be out with your coffee shortly."
"How very kind," Isabelle said as the owner of the hotel walked away. "Such a lovely scent."
"Oh, yes, very kind is Senor Ramirez," Robert replied with a smirk. "His wife died two years ago, and he has three children under the age of twelve." He paused, considering. "Though he is a very successful businessman. I suppose it wouldn't be half bad having a man like him in the family. I'd never have to worry about getting a meal again!"
"Robbie!" She rapped his knuckles with her fan. "Behave!" she ordered as Senor Ramirez's eldest child brought their after-dinner coffee. He was totally undeterred by her scolding and made an unsuccessful grab for her fan.
"Gracias, Maria," she said kindly as the girl set their coffee down. After she'd left, Isabelle tapped the end of her fan against the table. "Really, Robert, sometimes you act as if you're still twelve!" She sounded stern, but her lips twitched with suppressed laughter. She sipped her coffee, then asked, "His wife died?"
More serious now, he replied, "There was an epidemic, and there was no doctor then."
"How very sad." Death from infectious disease was a fact of life, but it didn't make the losses any easier to bear.
"It was the impetus for Colonel Montoya to attempt to procure a doctor for the pueblo."
"And he got you." She looked at her brother curiously. Robert the doctor was something she was just beginning to adjust to. "What made you decide to accept the offer here and leave Texas?"
"New horizons." He shrugged. "The idea of traversing the continent, the New World, was a challenge, I suppose."
Isabelle just nodded. Privately, she thought Robert was still running from his demons. He didn't think she understood what had driven him to forsake his life in England. But she understood more than he would ever know. Isabelle had her own demons, after all.
Senor Ramirez interrupted anything she might have said in response with yet another appearance. "I thought you might enjoy an after dinner sweet, Senorita," he told her, placing a small plate in front of her. "My mother's specialty, flan. I think you will enjoy it." Before she could respond, he was gone.
"Don't you dare!" she warned her brother, waving her fan menacingly.
He just looked at her with an almost pained expression before practically collapsing with laughter. "And now he's trying to fatten you up!" he gasped.
Sighing in exasperation, she said, "I had forgotten what a dreadful tease you could be."
"I have no idea how you could forget such a thing, dear sister!"
She resisted the urge to stick her tongue out at him. Instead, she pushed her plate towards him. "Have some flan."
Robert poured more brandy into his sister's glass. They had returned to his adobe after dinner, and were now relaxing in his small but cozy sitting room. He'd started a fire that had soon taken the edge off the damp California spring night.
"You must be exhausted." He sat down next to her on the settee. "You've had a very long day, and the fiesta is tomorrow - you should get some sleep."
"I am tired, but too tired too sleep." She stretched her head back, closing her eyes. "Just let me sit for a while beside the fire."
"Drink your brandy, it will help you relax," he instructed.
She did as he bid, lazily taking a few swallows from her glass. "It almost doesn't seem real," she said softly. "I thought I'd never make it here, and yet, finally, here I am."
He looked sidelong at his sister. It hadn't escaped his notice that she'd managed to avoid explaining how she'd arranged for the passage to California. "And how exactly did you get here, Isabelle?"
She shot him a quick look before dropping her eyes to the glass in her hand. "What do you mean?"
"Isabelle…" he chided.
Sighing, she replied, "You won't like it."
"My God, what did you do?"
At the tone of trepidation in his voice, her head shot up. "Lord, Robert, nothing like that! What do you take me for?" She was partly offended and partly reassuring.
'I'm sorry, it's just…" He wiped his face with a hand. "Just tell me."
"Lord Haley arranged for my passage," she said bluntly. "He didn't like it, but he respected my wishes."
Robert leapt to his feet. "That pompous, arrogant little…" He suddenly seemed to remember his sister was present and cut off whatever other choice words he might have had on the subject of Lord Haley.
"You see? I knew that's how you'd react!" He continued to pace around the small room, muttering to himself. "Do sit down, Robert," she instructed tiredly. "Let me explain."
"Fine!" He took his seat and waited.
"I know how you feel about him, but he loved Andrew, they were best friends from the time they were children. You know that."
"Yes." That one word was clipped.
"Lord Haley… Thomas," she amended, "isn't the man you knew. War and loss have changed him. You know how devastated he was by Andrew's death. However much you disliked him, you can't deny that, Robert."
He shook his head as if he'd like to gainsay her words, but he couldn't. "I know."
"About a year before Waterloo, he lost an eye. He was sent home to England to recuperate. We became reacquainted then. He looked out for me. After the Sunderland's broke the engagement, he was the one who helped me pick up the pieces. He'd invite me to gatherings at his estate with his friends as often as he could to keep me from father's notice. Arranged for his sister to have me as a guest at their home in London in the winter. After our father died, he took me in, cared for me as if I was his own sister. He said he owed Andrew that."
Robert realized she was crying, and put a comforting arm around her shoulder. "I'm so sorry, Isabelle. I should have been there. I should have never left you behind."
"It's not your fault, Robbie. I understand why you had to leave. And so did Thomas, whether you choose to believe it or not. He has as many regrets as you do." She fell silent, leaning into her brother's embrace.
"So he paid for your passage to California."
"Yes, and for a maid who stayed with me as far as San Diego. He wanted to make sure all the proprieties were observed."
"I will repay him, of course."
"No! You will do no such thing! It would be an insult. You must see that?"
"No, Robert! This time it is you who must swallow your pride. This was done for love, and no amount of gold can repay it." She stood, walking to the fireplace, staring into the flames. "A fresh start, Robbie."
"What haven't you told me?" he asked softly.
She looked over her shoulder, shrugging slightly before turning away once more. "He wanted to marry me. My lack of dowry was of no concern to him, he had no father to answer to."
"But you refused him. Why? Because of me?" He felt a pang of guilt that his intense dislike of Lord Haley might have kept his sister from a marriage that would have made her happy.
"I won't lie to you, Robert. Knowing you would never give your blessing to such a union played a part. But in the end, it was because to Thomas I was a way to remember Andrew. And I wanted to be loved for me, not the memory of my dead brother."
Isabelle looked out the kitchen window at the fog that draped the courtyard. When she had traveled to California, she'd had no idea that there would be such a vivid reminder of the home she'd left behind. She felt a pang of homesickness as she watched the fog drift amongst the branches of the trees and slide across the rooftops. Like this, it was almost as if she were looking out her own bedroom window at home.
After the emotionally charged revelations of the previous night, she had actually slept like the dead. Whether it was the relief of unburdening herself, or the brandy, she wasn't sure. But she had woken up this morning feeling like anything was possible. She just needed time to adjust. Absently, she wondered if she would ever think in Spanish. And she wondered if Robert did after all the years he'd spent in the Spanish colonies.
"Absolutely not!" she heard her brother say from behind her.
She whirled, startled by his sudden appearance. "What?"
"Go take off that black thing and put on something else!"
She looked down at her dress. "But, Robert-"
He interrupted her protest. "He doesn't deserve it, Isabelle. I won't allow you to cover yourself in mourning for our father any longer. You've paid enough."
It was as if a weight was lifted off her shoulders. "All right." Truth be told, she hated the black crepe dress and everything it represented. Robert was right. It was time to put it aside.
Before Isabelle could return to her room to change, there was a knock at the door. "Were you expecting company?" she asked her brother.
"Probably a patient," he said as he pulled it open. "Senorita Alvarado, what a surprise!"
"Good morning, Doctor," she greeted him as she entered the hall. "Is you sister about?" she asked, only to answer herself as she caught sight of Isabelle in the doorway. "There you are!" Under her arm she held a paper wrapped package.
"Senorita Alvarado, what a pleasant surprise," Isabelle greeted their guest. "May I get you some tea?"
"That would be lovely!" Tessa smiled warmly. "And I have something for you, a small welcoming gift."
"For me?" Isabelle accepted the package that Tessa handed her.
"If you ladies would excuse me? I have a few patients to see to before the fiesta," Robert interjected.
"Of course, Doctor," Tessa said. "I'm sure Senorita Helm and I will become great friends."
"Excellent! And, Senorita Alvarado, make sure my sister changes before you let her out of the house!" He grinned at the two women before heading through the door to his office.
Tessa set her teacup back in its saucer. "I'm so glad to have the opportunity to get to know you better, Senorita Helm."
"Isabelle, please," the other woman said.
"Tessa." She pointed to the package that still sat on the table in front of them. "Aren't you going to open it?"
"Oh, yes, of course! You really shouldn't have," Isabelle protested as she picked it up.
"Nonsense! I know what it feels like to come to a strange place where you don't know anyone. I know you have your brother, but it can still be very lonely."
Isabelle undid the brown paper, revealing a lace shawl in dark terracotta. "It's exquisite!" she breathed, running her fingers across the delicate lace. "Tessa, this is far too fine a gift!"
"Every Spanish woman has a lace shawl," Tessa explained. "This was my mother's. Her colouring was like yours -- the shawl will bring out the copper in your hair as it did hers."
"You are too kind." Isabelle didn't know what to say. Such generosity from someone she barely knew was totally foreign to her.
"Don't cry!" Tessa took a hankie from her pocket, dabbing at Isabelle's eyes.
"I'm sorry, it's just… your kindness…" Isabelle fought to control the emotions that threatened to overwhelm her.
Tessa placed a hand on her arm. "Haven't you ever had a friend?"
She shook her head. Thinking back, she realized she never really had. Growing up, she'd had her brothers, and when they'd gone off to war, there were the social acquaintances a young woman of her station maintained, but no real friends; never a confidant her own age. "No," she whispered.
Placing the shawl across her shoulders, Tessa said, "Now you do."
Isabelle, Tessa, and Marta, to whom Isabelle had just been introduced, congregated in Isabelle's small bedroom. She had done as Robert had bid and changed out of the black dress, and with Tessa's assistance, had put on instead the nutmeg brown wool. During the change of dresses, Tessa had taken a complete inventory of Isabelle's clothing, and had found it wanting.
"It simply won't do, Marta," Tessa told her servant. "Look. She has only the one dress that can be worn once the weather warms." She pulled out the pale grey cotton, eyeing it critically.
Isabelle had been more than a little overwhelmed by all the attention and Tessa's somewhat imperious attitude. "Tessa, I can make do," she protested.
"The fiesta today is perfect timing," Tessa continued, seeming not to hear. "With the ship from yesterday, and the merchants with their wares here from Monterey, there should be ample cloth to choose from."
"Tessa!" Isabelle exclaimed, this time in a much louder voice. Personally, she thought her pride had taken enough of a beating this last year, but it seemed God had a different idea. Sighing, she repeated, "Tessa," a little more softly. "I appreciate your concern, but I have no money for such things." She dropped her eyes at the look of surprise then pity on the other woman's face. "The passage to California took practically everything I had." Money that was charity to begin with.
"Then you must speak to your brother. You are his responsibility now you're living under his roof," Tessa said kindly but firmly. "It wouldn't do for you collapse from heat exhaustion wearing a wool dress in the summer. That would only give Dr. Helm another patient."
Isabelle thought she might cry. Could this get any more humiliating? How could she land on Robert's doorstep, already dependent on his altruism and then beg for yet more?
"Senorita," Marta said softly, putting a comforting arm around her shoulder and shooting a look at Tessa. "I know this is difficult. But Tessa is correct; you must have clothing suitable for the climate here. And your brother has standing in the community. He will be judged by how he treats his sister. How would it look if it seemed he was being miserly and disregardful towards you?"
She sat Isabelle on the edge of the bed, stroking her back as if she were a little girl. "It will get better, I promise you. Let Tessa speak to your brother, it will be easier, hmmm?" She leaned her head against Isabelle's. "The Senorita is an excellent haggler; she will help you purchase what you need. Then you and I will make some beautiful dresses that will be the envy of every woman in the pueblo."
Tessa sat on the other side, taking Isabelle's hands in hers. "Listen to Marta, she's always right."
"I will remember you said that!" Marta told her, eyes laughing.
Isabelle just nodded, wondering if she would ever stop feeling like she was going to cry.
Tessa had explained the situation to Robert, and his only reaction had been to kiss the top of his sister's head and give Tessa an amount of gold and silver. Once they'd made their way to the Plaza, he told them that lancing boils was preferable to going on a dress making expedition and that he was leaving his sister in their capable hands. He said something softly to Tessa, then bid the women fair shopping, before leaving them with a grand bow.
They wandered through the various stalls looking at what was available, and Tessa had settled on one merchant in particular. "The butter yellow I think," she said, running a hand across the fabric. "Do you like it, Isabelle?"
"I was actually thinking this one." She laid a hand on a bolt of pale brown cotton. Tessa moved Isabelle's hand over to the yellow one Tessa favoured.
"No mouse colours," she explained. "Those were Dr. Helm's instructions."
"Is that what he said to you?" Isabelle asked, more than a little miffed that now she wasn't even allowed to pick the colours.
"Yes," Tessa replied cheerily. "His only stipulation was that we make sure you get colours that are happy ones." She pulled a bolt of pale pink cloth over. "Now, which do you like best; the pink or the yellow?"
"I hate pink." She knew she sounded peevish, but didn't quite care.
Tessa either didn't notice or had decided to ignore her mood. "Then the yellow it is. It will go so well with your colouring! Now, what do you think for the second dress?"
Isabelle sighed in defeat, running her fingers across several before coming to rest on the lavender. She'd always been partial to that colour. "This one, I suppose."
Holding it up under Isabelle's face, Tessa nodded. "It suits her, don't you think, Marta?"
"It will look lovely," Marta agreed. She had been choosing trim and other bits and pieces needed for the dresses. "The young men of Santa Elena will be very appreciative!" Both she and Tessa laughed at Isabelle's blush.
All their purchases were bundled up and paid for, and Marta left instructions for it all to be sent to the Alvarado Hacienda.
"Now, I'm hungry!" Tessa declared. The other women agreed that food would be a very good idea. "I think Senor Ramirez's empanadas would do quite nicely."
Soon, the three women were eating the most excellent savoury empanadas and drinking lemonade while taking in the sites and sounds of the fiesta. Isabelle had been introduced to so many people, she was sure she wouldn't remember half of them.
"Look, the fandango will be starting soon," Tessa said, pointing to the cleared space in the center of the plaza where a group of musicians had gathered.
"Is it safe yet?" Robert's voice said from behind them. "Shopping all done?"
"Perfectly safe, Doctor," Tessa replied.
Isabelle handed her brother an empanada. "These are delicious!"
"Ah yes, I see you've discovered my secret vice," Robert told her. "Yet another reason it would be an excellent match," he teased.
"Do hush, Robert," Isabelle scolded as her brother made short work of the empanada. He was thoroughly unrepentant, grinning at her wickedly. "You really are quite dreadful."
"Match?" Tessa asked.
"Pay my brother no mind, Tessa. He just delights in teasing me."
"Senor Ramirez and my sister," Robert explained. "He was quite taken with her when I took her to dinner at the hotel last night. I'm merely pointing out there are far worse things than her marrying a man who can cook like this!"
"Your sister is right, Dr. Helm, you are dreadful!" she said admonishingly, though her eyes were laughing.
"I'll have you know it's my god given duty as a brother to tease my sister!" he informed her loftily. "Anything else would be unthinkable." His wide grin practically split his face.
"Impossible," Isabelle muttered, though she did reach up and kiss her brother on the cheek. "I love you despite it all."
"Glad to hear it," he told her, tapping her chin with a finger. "And now, if you ladies will allow me to spirit my sister away for a short while?"
"Of course, Doctor. Just don't forget you promised me a dance," Tessa reminded him.
"As if I could ever forget such a thing," Robert said with a small bow. "Senoritas, we will see you at the dance later."
Tessa watched them leave. "I should have been more tactful about her clothes, shouldn't I?"
"Just a little -- but your heart was in the right place, Isabelle knows that," Marta replied. "You can be a force of nature, Tessa. Just remember that sometimes it takes a softer touch when dealing with those you are trying to help."
Nodding, she said, "I was just thinking how I'd have felt in her place. It must be mortifying for her."
"You are in a position most women aren't, Tessa. You have no male relatives to answer to; you can be your own woman. You are independent."
"And I had a father who loved me more than anything in the world. I can't imagine what it must have been like to have had a father you feared, who didn't love you." She sounded sad.
"And that is why you must remember to take a gentler hand with Senorita Helm. She is like a timid rabbit peeking out from its burrow, terrified that if it ventures away, the shadow of the hawk will fall upon it. Give her time to realize the shadow is gone forever, and she will bloom. Just be her friend, Tessa."
"Let her be your friend. Don't hide behind a mask this time."
"I'll try, Marta."
Isabelle straightened her new hat, a gift from her brother. It was a light-coloured straw, with ribbons that matched the shawl that Tessa had given her earlier in the day. She was ridiculously pleased at his gesture; it somehow seemed more special than the yards of fabric he'd paid for earlier. This, he'd done on his own, getting her something she didn't really need, just because. She gently fingered the silk butterfly that was nested in the ribbons. Robert had told her it was called a Monarch, and that they were one of the many beauties she would soon see here in California.
A few hours had passed since Robert had first taken his sister away on his errand, but now having returned to the Plaza, Isabelle had joined Marta, the two of them watching the dancers swirl past. Both were pleased at seeing Robert and Tessa dancing together.
"Tessa is fond of my brother, isn't she?"
"You could say that," Marta replied with a smile. "Though, don't tell her I told you so."
Isabelle laughed. "It was hardly necessary for you to! It's quite obvious." She looked over at Marta. "Well, obvious to everyone but Robert," she amended.
Sighing, Marta nodded in agreement.
"My brother can be so oblivious at times." She looked thoughtful. "But now that I'm here, I'll have to see what I can do to open his eyes to what's right under his nose."
"I wouldn't object to anything you might be able to do in that area," Marta said softly, watching the two move to the music, in sync, if even just for these few moments.
"Robert is such a good man, and nothing would please me more than to see him happily married, with a family of his own."
"And what about you, Isabelle?" the gypsy asked unexpectedly. "What would you wish for your future?" Marta's gaze seemed to pierce into her soul.
"Me? I don't really know. All I wanted for so many years was to be free of my father." Isabelle felt lost. So much of the last months had just been about getting here and reuniting with her brother, that she hadn't really thought a great deal about some indistinct future.
"And what about now?"
"I suppose I'd like to not be afraid anymore." That was true enough. Isabelle had spent too many years in fear of her father's alcohol induced rages, and worse, the ones that happened when he was totally sober.
"And what else?" Marta's voice was pitched low, almost mesmerizing.
She bit at her lip, and then from somewhere, drew the courage to tell Marta her secret desire. "I want to be loved."
A short while later she stood alone, Marta having been asked to dance, and Isabelle insisting she accept the invitation. Her brother and Tessa had moved on to other partners after Isabelle had shooed them both away when they'd come to check on her. Truth be told, she was glad of the solitude. Her conversation with Marta had left her feeling unsettled, and she wasn't sure just what had possessed her to confide in her. And she enjoyed watching the almost hypnotic movements of the dancing couples, whether in sets or separately. While she loved to dance; right now, she was content to merely observe.
Slowly, she walked the periphery of the dance, lost in her own thoughts; so involved in those thoughts that she nearly jumped when she heard a voice at her ear.
"It is a great shame when the most beautiful woman present is not dancing," Colonel Montoya said with urbane regret. Drawing even with her he extended an arm which she accepted, placing her hand in the crook of his elbow.
"Then by all means, you should go ask the poor thing to dance, Colonel!" Isabelle replied, her eyes alight with mischief. "It would be the gentlemanly thing to do."
For just a moment he seemed nonplussed by her reply, but only for a moment. He laughed softly. "Indeed, Senorita, if there had been any doubt you were your brother's sister, there would be none now."
"I shall take that as a compliment; though I am quite sure you did not intend it as such." She looked up at him with a look that was almost a dare.
"Then you have misjudged me completely, Senorita Helm, wounding me with your words!" They paused near where the band played.
Isabelle laughed gaily. "Then please accept my sincerest apologies, Colonel."
"There is only one remedy," he informed her.
"And that would be?"
"That this next dance be mine." He turned her, bowing over the hand he held in his. "Senorita, may I have this dance?"
"I would be delighted," she said in reply.
The music began with a discordant chord before falling into the strains of a haunting waltz. The colonel, not surprisingly, was an excellent dancer, and Isabelle reveled in dancing with such a talented partner. As they moved across the floor, she asked, "What is this piece? It's beautiful."
"La Bruxa," he answered. Her brow creased as she tried to translate the unfamiliar word. "The Sorceress," he said, this time in English.
"My thanks, Colonel! I apologize for my inadequate Spanish."
"On the contrary, Senorita, your Spanish is excellent. I'm actually quite surprised at your proficiency."
"You can thank Captain Molera, his crew, and the passengers aboard the Perla de la Noche for that! Months aboard ship gave me very little to do other than perfect my language skills. They were all very helpful."
"And you had never spoken it before?"
"Italian, not Spanish," she explained. "But the Italian helped, no doubt."
"No doubt," he agreed, smiling down at her.
From the other side of the Plaza, Robert had taken notice of his sister dancing with Montoya. Next to him, Tessa saw the look of concern on his face as his sister laughed at something the colonel had said.
"Colonel Montoya can be very charming," Tessa observed, glancing up at him.
"Yes, he can," he replied, obviously distracted. Then he seemed to come to a decision. "She's enjoying herself, no need to ruin it because it happens to be Montoya she's dancing with."
"It is only a dance," she agreed.
"Exactly. My sister is a sensible young woman, and Montoya knows she can be of no benefit to him. Let her enjoy this evening without her brother hovering at her side, making a mountain out of a molehill."
"A wise decision, Doctor." She brushed her fingers across his arm. "Perhaps we should join them?"
Helm looked down at her in surprise, a smile curling his lips. "Perhaps we should." He extended a hand. "Senorita?"
Montoya moved her smoothly across the dance floor, totally in control of the waltz. "It is indeed a pleasure to dance with so gifted a partner," he told her sincerely.
"Likewise," she replied with a serene smile. At this moment, she was truly enjoying herself.
"Forgive my curiosity, but tell me, Senorita, what brought you here to California? It is a long way to come for a woman alone."
Her eyes clouded over and the expression of joy on her face was replaced with a carefully constructed mask.
"I am sorry, Senorita, I should not have pried," Montoya said quickly, noting the change in her mood.
"No apologies are required, Colonel," she said coolly. "Your curiosity is only natural, after all. The death of my father brought me here. Robert is my only remaining family," she explained.
"Don't trouble yourself, Colonel. The death of my father was not a tragedy, but an escape. I am quite sure that he was greeted most warmly at the gates of hell." Then she laughed bitterly. "I'm sure you must think me quite wicked to say such things."
This time, there was no subterfuge, or insincere platitudes in her companion's response. "No, Isabelle Catherine, I do not think you wicked at all. In fact, I understand your feelings more than you could possibly know."
Swallowing, she looked into his eyes, seeing only empathy. Nodding, she allowed him to tighten his hold more than was absolutely proper. But they both seemed to need the comfort of human touch as they both recalled a past that had shaped them into who they were today.
The moment passed, and Montoya stepped slightly away, to a more appropriate distance. "No more talk of sad things this night. As governor, that is my decree, agreed?" Once more, he was smiling.
"Agreed," she replied with an answering smile.
By the end of the evening, Isabelle was sure she'd danced with most of the male population of Santa Elena. And in amongst those dances had been many requests for permission to call on her. Even though she knew it was vain, Isabelle was rather tickled with the attention. She had even danced with Senor Ramirez, something she was hoping her brother hadn't noticed, or she'd never hear the end of it.
Now, at the end of the evening, she danced with her brother to a lovely waltz called Las Blancs Flores.
"I'm so pleased you could make the time for me," he said with a smirk.
"Can I help it if my charm and wit are irresistible?" she asked, quirking a brow.
"I don't suppose you can," he replied laughing.
"You were quite popular yourself! Don't think I didn't notice, Robbie."
"Whatever are you babbling about?"
She snorted indelicately. "You just wait, Robert Helm! I will see you properly married before I'm done."
"I'm quaking in my boots!" He twirled her around and she laughed like a young girl at her first dance. "You have no idea how happy I am to hear your laugh again, Isabelle."
"It has been a long time since I've heard it myself," she admitted.
They danced in silence for a time, both wandering in their own thoughts. Then Robert said, "I hope you'll be happy here, Isabelle. That you will find your heart's desire, whatever, or whoever, it may be."
"And I hope you will find yours, dear Robbie. That would bring me true happiness."
"To happiness," he said, kissing her cheek.
"To happiness," she replied, hugging him. "And to our hearts' desire."