Renegade Embrace

Renegade Embrace

Virginia Brown

March 2014 $16.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-4-129

Destiny brought them together in Spanish California.

She is a New Orleans lady with a defiant thirst for adventure.

He is a New Orleans scoundrel with a talent for seduction


 
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Hot-tempered belle Laurette Allen gets more than she bargained for when she leaves the stifling confines of polite, southern society for the wilds of 1830s California. At her very first fiesta, she is nearly seduced by notorious Cade Caldwell, a fellow Louisianan whose reputation for swordplay is only exceeded by his skill with women.

But soon Laurie’s attention is consumed by threats to the local villagers, who are suffering under cruel tax collectors. If only there were an avenger brave enough to sweep in with blade in hand . . . a brave soul trained at riding and dueling, just as she is . . .

Cade’s desire for beautiful Laurie Allen is tainted by his memories of betrayal by another southern belle; he learned a hard lesson about trusting Laurie’s type. He wants to possess Laurie, to own her body and soul but not to love her. What is the hint of danger around her? Cade suspects his competition for her affections might just be El Vengador—The Avenger—the masked rider who’s been stealing from the corrupt tax collectors.

But is The Avenger her partner in crime, or does Laurie need his protection?

Virginia Brown is the author of more than 50 novels in romance, mystery and general fiction. She’s the author of the bestselling Dixie Divas mystery series.

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Excerpt

Prologue

I

New Orleans, Louisiana, 1835

LAURETTE ALLEN had just turned sixteen that spring of 1835 when she discovered that her life was about to completely change. That morning her father, Phillip Allen, had told her that he intended to remarry after almost sixteen years of being a widower.

Shocked, Laurette could only stare at him for a long moment of silence. "M-m-marry Carlota?” she echoed, hating herself for stuttering. Her fingers tightened into the satin skirts of her fashionable gown, and her wide hoops swayed as she took several steps forward. "But I never thought you would—that you were serious, Papa!”

Phillip Allen smiled slightly, his thin lips curving in amusement. "A man needs a wife, Laurie,” he said as gently as possible. "I’ve been alone a long time now since your mother died.”

"But Carlota? She’s so... so different, and she disapproves of me so—you know she does, Papa!”

Laurie’s cry was forlorn and childish, and she could not help the quick start of tears in her large amber eyes. Her lower lip quivered slightly, and Phillip drew her into his embrace, one hand stroking her blond hair.

His poor, beautiful child. She really didn’t understand about a man’s needs, but one day she would. Phillip spared a brief prayer that his headstrong daughter would find a man who could handle her as well as love her, then tilted up her face, his finger beneath her chin. He almost changed his mind about chiding her when he saw the huge golden eyes swimming with tears, the slight quivering of her full lower lip, and the delicate arching of her winged brows. He steeled himself.

"You’ve not done a lot to encourage Carlota to approve of you, you know,” he said softly. "Some of your escapades have shocked her sensibilities. She was brought up in a strict household, Laurie, and I think some of her discipline would benefit you a great deal...”

"Oh no!” Laurie twisted out of his embrace, and her drenched gold eyes swiftly altered to a biting clarity. "I am not about to become a Spanish simpleton with a prayer book in one hand and a sanctimonious cloak in the other! Why, I’ve seen Carlota’s family, and they’re all just like her, swathed in gray or black from ankles to chin like crows, with those long veils over their heads and faces—they don’t know anything about fashion or beautiful things, and...”

"Laurette!” Her father’s voice was sharp. "You have just insulted your future stepmother. Please be so good as to mind your tongue and your manners in my presence. I cannot tolerate such behavior from my daughter.”

Much more meekly than she felt, Laurie lowered her rebellious face and muttered, "Yes, Papa.”

She kept her eyes on the carpet while her father told her about the wedding plans and his expectations for her behavior.

"And you must no longer ride your horse astride or continue with your fencing lessons,” Phillip Allen ended his conversation, bracing himself for the storm to come. He still wasn’t prepared for the sharp glitter in Laurie’s eyes as her tawny head jerked up. Phillip recoiled slightly when her large, dark-fringed eyes narrowed as she stared at him, and he was reminded more than ever of his late wife. Françoise had had eyes like that, cat’s eyes, startling and beautiful and dangerous...

"What? Am I to cease everything I enjoy because it annoys Carlota’s sensibilities?I refuse!” Laurie grated.

"Laurette,” he began warningly, but she rolled over him like a storm cloud.

"Cease riding and my fencing lessons? But you’ve never minded them before, and you know how I enjoy them, Papa!” Her tone altered from angry to slightly wheedling. "I’ve done as you asked, and I haven’t let Gilbert—Monsieur Rosière—talk me into disguising myself as a man again and joining in another contest. You were right about that, and I...”

"Laurette, you will stop them,” Phillip Allen repeated firmly. "If anyone in New Orleans were to discover that you were doing something so common, your reputation would be ruined. I allowed it only because you pleaded so, and I’ve never been able to withstand your sulks. All that will change now.”

Everything will change, Laurie thought with a pang, everything!

She was right. Everything did change. Carlota Sanchez y Alvarado swiftly and irrevocably changed the entire household in the space of only a few weeks. Laurie’s former freedom was sharply curtailed, all in the name of propriety, and as time for the wedding drew near, and the spacious house on Rue Royale became crowded with guests and Carlota’s family, the tension grew.

"But I don’t see why he wants to marry that cold fish!” Laurie raged as she crossed her bedroom to gaze out on the wet New Orleans streets. "She is so... so haughty!”

"Ah,ma petite, crooned Isabeau Lautrec, "you would not approve of anyone who wanted to marry your papa. You have had him to yourself for too long now.”

Whirling, Laurie glared at her old nurse. Her small chin tilted stubbornly. "That’s not true!”

Isabeau just smiled, her creamy brown face as smooth and placid as always. Laurie’s rages and occasional tantrum had no more effect on her now than they had had when the girl was a small child. Granted, Laurette had matured a great deal and no longer threw herself to the floor with her tantrum, but she had not yet learned to keep her anger to herself, either. Isabeau was still trying to convince her tawny-haired charge that one’s anger was much more effective if expressed in scathing words rather than with a broken mirror or vase.

"Well,” Laurie amended after a moment of Isabeau’s silence, "perhaps it is true a small bit.”

"Oui,perhaps,” Isabeau agreed. She continued checking the clothes hanging in the huge armoire against one wall, sliding Laurie an occasional glance. The girl paced the floor, pausing to gaze moodily out the rain-spangled window, then paced back to the fireplace. The fire crackled, and rain hissed softly against the glass windowpanes as Laurie fought her own private misery.

Finally, sinking into a deep-cushioned settee, Laurie looked up at Isabeau’s understanding face. "I will try to be nice to her for Papa’s sake,” she whispered through a throat aching with unshed tears. "But I don’t have to like her.”

"Non, ma petite,” Isabeau agreed, "you don’t have to like her.”

"And as long as we stay here, I suppose everything will be the same,” Laurie said reflectively. She shrugged her shoulders. "After all, it’s not as if I have to put up with all her relatives for very long.”

"That’s true,” Isabeau said with another sidelong glance at Laurie. "They are here only for the wedding.”

Nodding, Laurie propped her small chin in the cup of her palm and sighed. "They jabber in Spanish all the time, so fast that I can barely understand a word they say. And they stare down their long, pointed noses at me as if I had two heads and tell me that my gowns are too daring, and only loose females wear paint.”

Isabeau hid a smile. "It is known that well-bred Spanish girls do not use artifices to enhance their beauty, but this—this is New Orleans, and here are many Creoles who believe in fashion.”

Laurie laughed. "Like you, Isabeau!”

Smoothing her day dress of fashionable mint-colored brocade, Isabeau gave a self-satisfied, "Tch, tch! It is true that I know fashion, while those ladies—ah, they are still wearing muslin, and no hoops!”

Laurie laughed again, her eyes sharpening with slight malice. "Those old crows must not get the latest fashions out in California.”

"No,” Isabeau agreed, and rearranged the full sleeves of her dress. "They must not. But California is a primitive place, and so far from civilization.”

"I find it hard to believe that they would travel all this way just for a wedding,” Laurie muttered, and Isabeau reminded her that Carlota’s relatives had been returning from a visit to Spain.

"And you must recall, that although Señorita Alvarado is from California, they are very well connected. It’s just that her father came to New Orleans, and she came with him for a time. She had never left her rustic home before, you’ll recall.” Isabeau smiled at Laurie’s scowling face and smothered a laugh at her delicate shudder.

Laurie murmured, "No wonder Carlota stayed here in New Orleans! If only she would not marry my father, I would not care. But...”

She let her voice drift into silence and rose from the settee to go to the window again. The house was on the corner of Rue Dumaine and Rue Royale, and delicate wrought-iron balustrades enclosed a courtyard that helped muffle the sounds of the busy city. In early spring, the courtyard was filled with fragrant blossoms and new green foliage. Laurie pushed open the window and inhaled the sweet fragrance of spring. A gust of damp air swirled into the room, and Isabeau hurriedly crossed to shut the window. The mulatto maid’s face was indignant.

"Do you invite the sickness?” she demanded. "Do you want the shakes, the chills, and fever that come with the air?”

Restlessly pacing from the closed window back to the fireplace, Laurie fought against the prick of rebellion that urged her, and lost. She turned to face her nurse with a defiant stare that immediately put Isabeau on her guard. "I shall go to Exchange Alley. That will cure my boredom.”

"You know your papa has forbidden it.”

"No, he just forbade fencing lessons, not visits to Monsieur Rosière.”

Isabeau shrugged, but muttered underneath her breath, "It is an embarrassment that you visit those maîtres d’armes, such low-class ruffians! How your papa allows it, I do not know!”

"I heard that,” Laurie observed. "Now, come unlace my gown so that I may change.”

Still muttering under her breath, the maid did as her mistress bade her, albeit disapprovingly. As she laced the fresh gown around Laurie’s slim waist, Isabeau had the thought that her young mistress was too tempting to allow so much freedom, especially with a hot-blooded Creole. Laurette’s maturing beauty had already caught many a young man’s eye, and there would be trouble if she was not curbed soon. For what young man blessed with even the most limited sight could long resist the vision of Laurie, with her cloud of golden hair, high cheekbones, pouting mouth, and seductive topaz eyes? Not many at all, Isabeau had found, to her extreme pride. Mixed with that pride, however, was the fear that Laurie’s promising beauty would attract the wrong kind of suitor, and her headstrong charge was not prone to advice most of the time. No, she rushed headlong into life, not pausing to think about possible consequences along the way.

Oui, perhaps it was good that the stern Californian would be her step-mama, for Isabeau had seen the effect Laurette had on the gentlemen of New Orleans. That a young woman of breeding should visit free-spirited men like Gilbert Rosière, even though he was French and had come from a good family, was courting disaster. It was simply not done, and it did not matter if she was chaperoned or not. The friendship would ruin her if it was discovered. What was Phillip Allen thinking of, that he would allow his only child to run about New Orleans so freely?

"Papa is distracted lately,” Laurie said slyly, somehow sensing Isabeau’s thoughts, and the maid’s head jerked up indignantly.

"He should not be that distracted!” was the swift retort.

"But he is, and after the wedding, when Carlota takes up residence here, I shall never get out again, so I intend to take full advantage of it now,” Laurie said. Her steady gaze dared Isabeau to object or refuse her, and the maid did not.

"I still think it is a dreadful thing to run about New Orleans like a stevedore’s child,” Isabeau muttered as she withdrew Laurie’s heavy rain cloak from the armoire. "What if someone should see you? What if your Tante Annette should see you?”

That gave Laurie a moment’s pause, for she loved her mother’s sister dearly. But then she gave a characteristic shrug. "She will think I am on my way to the Market, and that is all,” Laurie said impatiently. "Now, do hurry, or we shall miss Monsieur Rosière.”

With that in mind, Isabeau dawdled as long as she dared, until Laurie threatened to go alone with only old Jaspar as chaperon.

"And him as old as dirt and just as wise!” Isabeau snapped as she grabbed up her own cloak and swirled it around her shoulders. "He is a coachman, not a chaperon!”

Laurie just smiled, and was still smiling when the closed landau rolled to a stop in Exchange Alley. Rain pattered softly on the top of the carriage as old Jaspar climbed slowly down and went to the front door to announce his mistress’s arrival. He was back in a moment with a sheet of paper, his leathery face crinkling into a frown as he handed it up to Laurie without a word.

"What is this?” she began, then understood that he had found it nailed to the door. After swiftly scanning the hastily printed words on the paper, she gave a short, determined nod of her head. "Very good. Proceed to the Oaks, Jaspar.”

"The Oaks?” Isabeau echoed in a horrified tone. "Sacré bleu, you have gone mad!”

Laurie gave Isabeau a hard look. "I most certainly have not. At once, Jaspar,” she repeated, and the grizzled old coachman shook his head as he climbed back up to the driver’s box.

Laurie could feel Isabeau’s disapproving frown even in the dimly lit interior of the landau. She did her best to ignore her. After all, it was only to watch, wasn’t it? And didn’t everyone in New Orleans know that only the most exciting duels were fought beneath the Oaks? Gilbert Rosière was about to fight a duel, and she intended to be there, to see his skill with an epée demonstrated in a real duel, not just a match.

But once there, Laurie wondered with a sudden lump in her throat if she should have listened to the things she had not allowed Isabeau to say. It was much more bloody than she had ever thought. And it seemed as if Gilbert Rosière, for some astonishing reason, was not faring that well at all.

His opponent seemed relaxed, even amused as he feinted, lunged, parried, and thrust, barring Gilbert’s most expert moves with a slim-bladed rapier. Rosière was bleeding from a long scratch on one arm, and his face was grim as they circled on the wet ground beneath the spreading arms of the huge live oaks. A light rain made the ground slippery and treacherous, yet Rosière’s opponent had the surefootedness of a large cat as he moved.

Laurie sat forward, her gloved hand clenching the edge of the carriage window, her lips slightly parted as she watched the two men with awe and excitement. Gilbert Rosière was small and slightly built, with a compact frame that hid his sinewy strength.

His opponent was tall and muscular and looked much too large to be as graceful as he was. He moved lightly on the balls of his stockinged feet; his boots lay discarded on the wet grass a few yards away. The rain had plastered his dark hair to his skull, giving him a saturnine appearance that made Laurie shudder and Isabeau cross herself. His bored voice carried through the rain to the carriage.

"Are you tiring, Monsieur Rosière? We can stop anytime you please...”

Rosière’s lips tightened into a grim line, and his dark eyes flashed at his opponent. "Do you mock me?” he shouted, and gave a graceful lunge with his rapier. It almost caught the other man, but he moved swiftly out of the way and returned the lunge with a counterthrust that brought blood from a slice across the Frenchman’s upper arm. Rosière recoiled in shock, looking from the bloodied arm to his antagonist, who smiled.

"Second blood,” was the soft remark. "Do we continue?”

Rosière stiffened. "Of course, Monsieur. I would not dream of stopping now.”

Rosière’s seconds rushed to his side and anxiously checked his wound, while the tall American waited with a casually indifferent pose. He was lean, and the rain had drenched his loose white shirt so that it clung to his broad shoulders as if a second skin, outlining the smooth flux of his muscles. Laurie stared at him in fascination.

When Rosière stepped forward again and said, "En garde,” Laurie dragged her attention from his opponent. The fencing master seemed tired, and his eyes were bright with pain.

Excitement drummed in Laurie’s ears, and her breath was short and fast as she watched the two men move warily through the rain. The grass under the oaks had been churned by their feet, and it had grown slippery. Once the tall man almost slipped, but he quickly caught himself and returned Rosière’s expert rapier thrust, deftly fending off a counterattack. They lunged and parried, and it was apparent that the men were almost equally matched in spite of the difference in their sizes.

Leaning forward, her gaze fastened on the duelists, Laurie did not hear Isabeau’s swift order to Jaspar until the carriage lurched forward.

"Wait!” she cried, but Isabeau would not listen.

"It would be a great scandal if you were to be seen!” Isabeau hissed angrily. "I will not allow it!”

"I must know who wins!” Laurie cried, but the carriage rolled on, leaving the Oaks behind.

II

CADE CALDWELL was still wet from his duel in the rain. Cursing the weather and his luck, he slammed into the house on Rue Royale and found Cecelia waiting on him, another stroke of the bad luck he’d been suffering lately. Damn it! Hadn’t she caused enough trouble already? If he’d known who she was when she began pursuing him, nothing would have come of it. But he hadn’t, and now there’d been trouble because of it. He flicked her an impatient glance, noting that she wore nothing other than a thin silk peignoir that did nothing to hide her considerable charms.

"What are you doing here?” he asked in a blunt, harsh tone. He tossed his soaked hat on a table and stalked to the fire burning in the grate. His clothes were plastered to his body, outlining hard ridges of muscle and the fact that Cecelia’s scanty attire and firelit curves had begun to interest him.

She noticed his reaction and smiled. "Waiting on you, mon chèr, she purred. She walked toward him, and in the dim light afforded by the fire and a candelabra on the table, she could see that Cade’s desire was increasing. Her smile grew even wider.

Cade did not move when she reached him and exclaimed softly over the blood on his shirt. Nor did he react when she ran her fingertips lightly over his body to assess the damage. It was only when she began to remove his wet shirt that he grabbed her hand, his fingers tightening around her small wrist.

"Don’t.”

"But I...”

"But don’t. It’s only a scratch, nothing serious, and I don’t want you fussing over me. Especially if I take into consideration that the duel would not have been necessary had you not decided to spread around your charms.”

The brunette beauty blinked, and her full mouth formed a ripe pout. "But I only flirted a small bit, chèr—just to make you jealous—and that is all!”

Cade turned away in irritation. "Your flirting could have cost a man his life, CeCe. Did you stop to think of that?”

She shrugged. "Well, what of it if he is foolish enough to challenge you?”

Turning back, Cade glared at her in the dim light, his eyes raking her perfect features with condemnation. "You don’t really care, do you, CeCe?”

She shrugged again. "Non, chèr, I do not. It was his choice, you understand.”

Unbuckling his sword belt, Cade tossed it to the table beside his hat, then turned in the same smooth motion and jerked Cecelia close. He held her against his hard, wet frame, and she could feel the imprint of him against her stomach. The silk wrapper parted from around her throat and floated to the floor, and she smiled as she curled her arms around his neck.

"Don’t you want to know if he’s still alive?” Cade asked against her parted lips, and felt her shrug.

"You are alive, and that is all that matters right now, chèr.

Cade lifted her into his arms, and as he strode toward the bedroom he muttered, "You are an amoral cat, CeCe, unlike most women, who possess at least a small degree of conscience.”

Wriggling in his arms as he placed her on the bed and bent over her, Cecelia let her small, hot tongue flick over his bare skin before she whispered against him, "I am not at all like most women, who are dull and boring and would not think to do this for you... or this...”

Cade pushed her back onto the bed and stripped off his clothes, ignoring her appreciative gaze. Then he was over her, penetrating her without preliminaries, hearing her cries of satisfaction in his ears as he took her.

When it was over, and they lay panting and listening to the beat of rain against the windows, Cade surprised the brunette by pulling her into his embrace and holding her gently. It was all the more surprising to her because of his earlier anger and disgust, and Cecelia snuggled closer to him.

"You like me more than a little,” she murmured, and felt the rumble of laughter in his chest.

"I like doing this with you,” he said, running a finger over her full breast, then over the curved arch of her ribs to her flat stomach. His hand wandered to the thrust of her hip, then smoothed over her buttocks as he pulled her hard against him. When his palm smacked against her bare buttock she cried out with shock, and he laughed again. "But that’s all,” he said before smothering her indignant protest with his mouth.

"This is not all you like about me,” Cecelia said after several minutes. Her slim arms curved around his neck, and she looked into his handsome face. Her heart gave a funny lurch as she saw the amusement in his dark eyes, and suddenly she knew that he was telling her the truth. She sat up and glared at him. Shaking her long dark hair from her eyes she said, "You fought a duel for me! You must like me more than this, more than the time we share in your bed! I would be a good wife to you, and—”

Cade’s burst of sardonic laughter stopped her words, and she stared at him as he uncoiled his lean frame and rose from the bed to look down at her.

"CeCe,amour, while I freely admit that I enjoy your charms in the bedroom, I fought the duel only because I was challenged to it. It was a point of honor, not love, that took me to the Oaks. Whatever you may think, I will never marry you.”

Stunned, Cecelia de Marchand felt a burning anger. Rising to her knees on the bed, she burst out, "Don’t you know who I am?”

Cade’ s amusement was obvious. "Of course I know who you are. You’re the governor’s spoiled niece.”

Vibrating with rage and rejection, Cecelia clenched her small hands into impotent fists. "You are a nobody, a man with mixed heritage, yet you dare to reject me? To refuse me as a wife?”

"I’m not a marrying man, CeCe. I told you that a long time ago,” Cade said impatiently. He stepped into a dry pair of trousers and pulled them up, buttoning them around his lean waist.

"But I never thought you meant... meant me,” the girl said in such a bewildered voice that Cade felt a pang of pity for her in spite of the fact that she had relentlessly pursued him.

"Look,” he said, "I’m sorry you got the wrong idea, but that’s the way it is. It has nothing to do with you, but I am just not ready for marriage.”

Cecelia’s aristocratic nose tilted upward, and her brows drew down over her dark Creole eyes. "That is your misfortune,” she said softly, and Cade looked at her through narrowed eyes.

"What do you mean by that?” he demanded, but Cecelia did not reply. He did not discover the answer to his query until the following morning, when a squad of soldiers appeared at the door of his house and arrested him.

"And the charges?” Cade asked as he buttoned his trousers and stepped into his boots.

"Unlawful dueling,” the sergeant replied without a flicker.

"Unlawful dueling?” Cade laughed shortly. "How interesting, Sergeant. I had no idea the law was being enforced now.”

Cade had plenty of time to think about it in the following days as he languished in a damp cell. River breezes did not enhance his small quarters, nor did the occasional meal of weevil-infested rice cereal with chunks of fish floating on the surface.

By the time an official solution presented itself he had long since come to the correct conclusion for his imprisonment.

A stone-faced Creole officer sat behind a desk and did not look up when Cade was escorted into his office. The prisoner’s chains rattled slightly as he swayed, and finally the officer looked up with an expression of distaste.

"You smell unpleasant, Monsieur Caldwell,” the officer remarked, and put a scented linen handkerchief to his nose. It was an affected gesture, and Cade disliked him on sight.

"How unfortunate for you, but I’ve grown accustomed to it,” Cade said with a lift of one dark brow. His manacled hands clenched into fists behind his back, and he was well aware of his unkempt appearance and the lice in his hair and the fact that his stomach was growling, and the Creole had a plate of untouched food on a tray beside his desk. The tempting aroma wafted to his nostrils, and he did his best to school his features into indifference.

The linen square fluttered as the Creole said from behind it, "I’m afraid I have not grown accustomed to the odor. Be so good as to stand back a bit, if you please.”

"Look, I didn’t ask to come here, so if you object to my presence...”

The guard behind Cade slammed his rifle stock across Cade’s back, and his legs buckled, sending him to his knees. The Creole officer stood and walked a few paces away, looking down at Cade thoughtfully.

"I shall make this very brief, Monsieur Caldwell. You have been arrested for dueling, which is against the law. There are many witnesses who can testify against you, so it is apparent what the outcome of a trial will be. You can spare the state the expense if you will only be sensible.”

"I’ll think about it,” Cade said when it seemed that an answer was expected of him. "What are the conditions of my, uh... cooperation?”

Seating himself on the corner of his desk, the officer reached out and plucked a hot roll from the tray. Butter dripped between his fingers as he bit into it, and he seemed to take pleasure from the fact that Cade’s stomach was audibly growling. Cade looked away, and a muscle in his jaw twitched with anger.

"It’s very simple,” the officer said when he had finished the roll and wiped his hands on the linen handkerchief. "You will agree to wed the young lady you have compromised. For some reason, she desires it greatly, and her uncle is very indulgent.”

"So I’ve heard,” Cade muttered. "And the alternative to a wedding?”

"A well-attended hanging,” was the prompt reply.

"Ah, my choice of deaths. How pleasant.”

The officer laughed. "You are very amusing, monsieur! I have heard that the lady is well favored, so perhaps you should think of that, heh? After all, one death is permanent, while the other—well, there are consolations to marriage at times, and you are still young. What— twenty-four years of age? Think about it.” He made a gesture to the guard, and Cade was jerked to his feet. "I will send for you tomorrow and hear your answer.”

But it was two days before Cade was summoned again, and he was weak with hunger and from being chained.

"Phew!” the Creole said with a shake of his head and a grimace. "You smell much worse, and I did not think that possible, monsieur!”

Cade said nothing, just stared at the officer with flat, dark eyes. For some reason his direct, piercing gaze made the smaller man shift uneasily, and he retreated behind his desk to look at Cade.

"Your reply, monsieur?”

"Yes.”

It was all Cade said, but it was enough, and the Creole hurriedly had him removed from his office and taken away, giving the order that he was to be released at once.

III

"THEY SAY HE IS a devil with a sword,” Isabeau remarked as she brushed Laurette’s heavy hair into curls on each side of her face.

"He who?” Laurie asked idly, frowning at herself in the mirror over her dresser. She looked pale, too pale, and her eyes had circles under them. It was difficult to pay attention to anything Isabeau was saying when she had so much on her mind lately, but the woman’s next words jerked up Laurie’s head.

"Cecelia de Marchand’s fiancé. He is the one who defeated your precious Monsieur Rosière a fortnight ago.” Isabeau smiled at her in the mirror, a slightly malicious smile that made Laurie’s eyes narrow. "They say that he fought and won six duels in as many days, and that he compromised the governor’s niece and refused to marry her until he was imprisoned for it.”

"They say, they say—who are they?” Laurie demanded crossly. "And besides, who cares about Cecelia de Marchand? I think she is terribly vain and haughty, and I never have been very fond of her, even though we attended the same classes at the convent last year. Though two years older than I, she was always disrupting the nuns with her silly, constant chatter about men, and I grew tired of her.”

"Nonetheless,” Isabeau continued imperturbably, "she is to be married, while you are not. And she is only a little older than you are...”

"And marrying a man who went to prison rather than face marriage to her!” Laurie ended with a snap. "If you ask me, he is smart even though he weakened in the end.”

"Well, he is not a Creole,” Isabeau said, as if that explained his weakening. "His father was American, while his mother was Spanish, a gauchupine.

Rising from the dresser chair, Laurie turned away, her face set and pale with misery. "Enough of this. I am much more concerned with Papa’s wedding than Cecelia de Marchand’s forced vows.” She paced the floor, then went to stare out at the dark street. "It will all change somehow, I know it will,” she murmured. "I have this feeling that my life is about to change quite drastically.”

Isabeau said nothing, though her heart ached for her young mistress. It was quite true that Laurie’s life was about to change, for she had overheard Phillip Allen agree with Carlota that his daughter should be sent abroad for a continental education. They would not tell her until after the wedding, and her pauvre petite would be given no opportunity to refuse. Laurie would be sent away from New Orleans for four long years, and there would be nothing she could do.

Stepping up behind Laurie, Isabeau said softly, "Just remember, ma petite, that you will face whatever the future may bring. You are strong, much stronger than your maman ever was.”

Laurie turned to look at Isabeau. "Am I? Am I much like my mother, Isabeau? I mean, I know I have her eyes, and her color of hair, but am I like her in any other ways?”

After a moment of silence, Isabeau said, "Françoise was delicate and fragile and lovely, just like you are, but she did not have the inner strength, the fire that you have. A strong wind defeated her, where you may bend with it, but you do not break, as did poor Françoise.”

"You make it sound as if my mother died of a broken heart,” Laurie said in a puzzled tone, and Isabeau nodded.

"That is true,” she said, and silence fell again before Isabeau spoke slowly. "There was another child, a boy, and when he died, my pauvre Françoise wanted to die also. But then she was enciente with you, and so she held on until you were born. Not long after, she died, and the physician said she died of a broken heart, not the milk sickness.”

For a long moment Laurie said nothing, then she released her breath in a soft sigh. "Oh,” she said. "I see. I had always thought... I mean...”

Isabeau hastened to say, "She loved you very much, ma petite, truly she did! She could not have stayed alive so long if she did not, but the loss of a child was too much for her, and not even your birth or your papa could keep her alive.”

Laurie had the rebellious thought that if her mother had truly wanted to live she would have. Her chin tilted up and her mouth hardened, and she knew that she would never give up so easily.

Seeing her face, Isabeau knew that Laurie would never lie down to die as her mother had, and she gave an inward sigh of relief. She had done the right thing in telling her. Perhaps she would not always be with Laurette, and her old bones had lately been telling her so. But if the girl had a strong will to live, she would survive whatever life dealt her. Isabeau smiled. It would be all right; even if Phillip Allen sent her away, Laurette would be all right.


 

 

Chapter One

California, 1840

STANDING ON solid ground for the first time in so many weeks it seemed like she’d always been aboard a rolling ship, Laurette Allen glanced at the California coastline with a frown. Grudgingly, she admitted to herself that it was beautiful, with blinding white sand along the beaches and water as blue as the bright sky overhead. Fields of brilliant blossoms dotted rolling hillsides with splashes of color—red, orange, creamy white, and yellow, and the stucco houses with red tiled roofs looked quaint and picturesque.

Yet somehow, actually arriving was even worse than her overactive imagination had visualized. It was hot. And as glad as she was to disembark from the dreadful steamer that had rolled ceaselessly over the swells of the Atlantic and Pacific, she was not glad to be standing on the docks of a sleepy village that looked as ancient as the caves she’d seen in northern Italy.

After leaving Europe, where cities stood in soaring splendor and civilization was crowded, arriving in a primitive coastal town was anathema. Though she was eager to see her father, for after all, it had been almost five long years, Laurie could not help but be dismayed by California.

Why had Phillip Allen accepted the position as diplomatic ambassador between Spanish California, which was a province of Mexico, and the United States? Just because he had Spanish connections through his wife did not mean he should have left gracious New Orleans. A pang hit her at the thought that she no longer had a home in that lovely old city. Of course, her Tante Annette was still there, and it was still home, would always he home, yet now here she was in Higuera, California, a tiny coastal town perched amid green hills and overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

There was only a small fort, or presidio, in the center of the town, a walled fortress guarded by what looked to be a minimum of soldiers. Fig trees—hence the village’s name, she presumed—shaded the mercado, or marketplace, in the center of town. There was an air of somnolence, lent credence by the dozing figures in wide-brimmed sombreros and dusty serapes under the trees.

"Señorita,”a voice prompted at her elbow, and Laurie turned. "Do you wish to have your trunks put in the wagon?” a young boy asked, pointing to the high mound of baggage stacked on the wharf.

"Yes, I suppose so,” Laurie said with a trace of impatience. She looked around again and saw only strangers and dock workers, busy sailors scurrying over the long wooden docks that jutted into the crisp blue waters of the bay. Gaily dressed men and women swept past her, some throwing her curious glances, but most intent on going out to the ships and steamers to examine the goods aboard.

She had seen the cargo aboard the steamer, the casks of wine and brandy, teas, coffee, sugars, spices, raisins, molasses, hardware, crockery, clothing, boots and shoes, and huge bolts of material. The hold had been crammed with all styles of furniture as well, making Laurie wonder if these Californios produced anything at home.

As she waited on the dock a feeling of uneasiness crept over her, but Laurie determinedly ignored it with a toss of her head. After all, she was twenty-one years of age now, mature enough to travel over half a continent alone, so she would not allow a small thing like having to wait alarm her.

Yet in the back of her mind was the uneasy feeling that she had been forgotten. Hadn’t her father received her letter? She had written it months before, giving the approximate time of arrival. A servant sent down to the docks would have been able to discern when the steamer would arrive, because it had already stopped at every tiny port on the California coastline. She would have probably made better time if she’d disembarked in San Diego and taken a carriage the rest of the way.

But she hadn’t, and now here she was, waiting, feeling like a small, lost child again as she stood on the dock and looked for a familiar face. Why was no one there to meet her? Was she to find her own lodgings, or had they even gotten her letter? If only Isabeau was still with her, then she would not feel quite so alone.

But Isabeau would never be with her. Her old nurse had taken a chill in the spring before Laurie had been sent to her mother’s family in France and had died in only a few hours. It had been sudden, with little suffering, but had left Laurette more alone than she’d ever felt before. In the past five years she had learned to deal with her new independence, and though she still missed Isabeau’s loving, scolding guidance, she rarely felt at a loss.

Now was one of those times. Standing on the wharves and waiting for her absent father, she felt a slight qualm, as if she was truly alone. She turned abruptly.

"Take my baggage to the nearest inn,” Laurie told the waiting boy in a decisive tone that helped banish the qualm of uncertainty. She would send word to her father’s house, and he could look for her there. "Pronto!” she added when the boy just stared at her, and he jumped into action.

But before Laurie had hired a carriage to take her to an inn, her father’s carriage arrived with two servants.

"We are from Señor Allen. Are you Señorita Allen?” a voice inquired, and Laurie nodded.

"Yes. It’s about time you arrived. Has there been trouble?” she asked as she was handed into the carriage. A surge of relief made her unconsciously haughty, but her smile was tremulous as she looked down at the older man.

"Sí, but it has been settled,” was the reply from the old man. He smiled, his gnarled hands twisting his hat as he bobbed his head at her.

Laurie smiled back, some of her tension easing. It was never well-bred to be impolite, especially to servants, she had been taught, and as she settled back into the cushions of the open carriage she said, "Thank you. Will it take very long to get to my father’s house?”

"No, señorita, it will not take long at all,” the old man said with another smile. "Unless we run into soldados again,” he began when the other servant quickly interrupted with a nervous laugh.

"What Tómas means, Señorita Allen, is that unless we must wait for soldiers to clear the road of a fallen tree, we shall be there shortly,” the younger man said, nudging Tómas. "I shall finish loading the trunks, Tómas, while you take the señorita home.”

Laurie surveyed her new surroundings as the open carriage rolled down quiet streets. Adobe buildings lined dirt and cobblestone lanes and paths, and alleys jutted erratically at every conceivable angle. Thatched roofs adorned some of the buildings, while others had the distinctive red tile that she’d noticed from the steamer. The entire town seemed to cling precariously to the sides of the slopes, rushing seaward, until the buildings looked as if they only waited to slide into the ocean. Though the breeze was brisk and salty, the air was already hot in early June. Laurie waved a painted fan to stir the air and wished she had worn something a bit cooler.

She saw brightly dressed women with lacy shawls over their heads and shoulders and short sleeves that left their arms bare. Amazed, Laurie stared at them, wondering why she had assumed that all Californian women wore only drab gowns with no color. These women wore dresses of silk, crepe, and bright calico. None of them appeared to be wearing corsets, but wore skirts above the ankles and loose blouses circled with a sash. Their shoes were fashioned of kid or satin, and the women all wore necklaces and earrings, sometimes several at once. Bright scarves were worn around necks or draped over shoulders like capes. All the women were dark like Carlota, with long black hair worn loose or in braids. Laurie stared at them with interest, feeling rather out of place with her gold hair and pale complexion.

And the women were staring at her, too, chattering among themselves, obviously wondering about the identity of the newcomer in their midst. Feeling ill at ease, Laurie tried not to notice their stares, or the stares of the men she saw, all of them on horseback.

Nervously smoothing the wrinkles in the shimmering blue skirts of her gown, she lifted her chin in an unconsciously haughty gesture, avoiding their admiring gazes. Why did she feel like a duck in the henhouse, as her cousin would say? She felt very out of place, very different, and even the few comments she overheard did nothing to make her feel more at ease.

Clad in broad-brimmed hats of dark material with gilt hatbands, the men made admiring comments as Laurie’s open carriage rolled slowly through the narrowstreets. She slid them surreptitious glances, noting their short jackets, white shirts open at the neck, and straight-legged trousers of velvet or broadcloth. And to her astonishment, in spite of the warm weather, every man wore a long broadcloth cloak of black or dark blue. Some were festooned in a great deal of gilt trim. Even the horses wore trappings of velvet and gilt, with silver bridles and huge saddles.

The men on foot wore loose-fitting garments—white trousers and long shirts, and some of them wore a sort of blanket with a hole in the middle for their head. Those men were barefoot, or sandaled, and obviously from the lower class, Laurie decided. They looked down at their feet and scurried between the long rows of adobe buildings with an indolent haste, carrying baskets of produce or fowl over their shoulders. The women of the class seemed similarly burdened, with children slung in brightly woven blankets across their backs. Small children ran about the streets either half-clad or clad like their elders.

She had donned her best dress that morning, hoping to impress her father and Carlota by sweeping down the wharf from the ship in a sophisticated arrival. Her exit had been remarked only by sailors and stevedores, however, so she hoped that she would not wilt completely before arriving at her father’s home. It would be embarrassing to be all damp and smelling of the ship in spite of the expensive French cologne she wore.

Laurie realized that she was nervous about meeting her father again, and why not? After he had so summarily sent her away immediately following his marriage to Carlota, she had vowed never to see him again. She had been hurt by his detachment and grief stricken over Isabeau, and it had seemed as if her world was ending. But time had slowly eased the pain, and she’d even lingered in Europe for a year after her schooling had ended, visiting with relatives and touring the Continent. When his letter had come pleading with her to return to the United States, she had done so reluctantly. Now she found herself eager to see him again.

Had he changed much? Would he recognize her? After all, he had last seen a red-eyed, rebellious daughter who barely filled out the bodice of her dresses. Now she had matured, and she was no longer that awkward child who had left New Orleans vowing eternal hatred.

Indeed, Laurie had been quite the rage in London, Paris, Barcelona, and Rome, where she had moved in the circles frequented by her French cousins. It had been a gay whirl of laughter and dancing, and she had loved it. Now she was back, only not in her beloved New Orleans but in California, where life moved at a snail’s pace and nothing ever happened.

As the carriage rolled to a halt in front of a sprawling adobe structure, Laurie peered out the windows and was pleasantly surprised. A red tile roof and a profusion of greenery lent the house a comfortable atmosphere and made her think of Spain, and so when she was helped down from the carriage and Phillip Allen strode down the walk to greet her, she was smiling.

"Papa!” she cried in a natural way, and the slightly uneasy expression he wore vanished.

"My lovely Laurette!” He opened his arms, and she rushed into them as if she had only been gone a week instead of five years. "Oh, my child, my lovely child!” Phillip said over and over, then held her at arm’s length to look at her. "Though I suppose I should not be referring to you as a child now. You are definitely quite a young lady, and the most beautiful I have seen!” He said it with such conviction that she laughed.

"And you have grown to be quite a flatterer, I see,” she teased, though she was delighted at his words. When she glimpsed Carlota standing in the arched doorway watching them, Laurie decided she could be gracious, so she smiled and said, "I have brought gifts for you and some pretty things that I hope will please Carlota.”

Putting an arm around Laurie’s shoulders, Phillip walked her up the tiled pathway to the house. "I am sure she will be delighted with your gifts, Laurie,” he said, unconsciously reverting to his old name for her.

Carlota’s greeting was reserved, and not as spontaneous as her husband’s, but pleasant. And she exclaimed with pleasure over the painted fans Laurie had brought her, and the lace mantilla from Spain.

"Thank you,” Carlota said with a smile that made her sallow features light up most attractively. For the first time, Laurie could see what had attracted her father to the Spanish woman. Carlota truly adored Phillip Allen and looked to his every need and whim with genuine attention. The wine had to be exactly the right temperature to suit him, and his chair must be just so and his dressing gown pressed with just the right pleats—Laurette found herself thinking that her own mother must never have devoted herself to him so completely. It would stand to reason, as Françoise had not wanted to even live for her husband.

Forcing such thoughts from her mind, Laurie tried to follow the thread of their conversation as best she could, until finally Carlota noticed her weariness and suggested she get some rest.

"We have been selfish,” Carlota said softly, "and not thought of your long journey. I shall have Serita show you to your room.”

Gratefully, Laurie followed the young girl down a hallway to her room. "Here we are, señorita!” Serita said with a cheerful smile. She was slender and dark complected, with the lustrous black hair that seemed common in California. She wore a bright yellow skirt, a scoop-necked loose blouse, and a bright orange scarf tied around her slender waist, and Laurie thought she looked very pretty and comfortable. No tight shoes nipped her feet, but a pair of loose leather sandals slapped against the stone floors.

It was obvious Serita was measuring her, too, for her dark eyes flicked over Laurie’s fashionable gown, and she gave a small sigh of envy. "You are so lovely, with such fine, pale skin—and such lovely gowns, señorita. It must be wonderful to have such things.”

Laurie smiled back at her as she unpinned the wide-brimmed bonnet atop her head and noticed that Serita had already hung up all the clothes from her trunks. They stood open and empty, her clothing neatly stored in a huge armoire against one wall. She tossed the bonnet to the bed and sat down in a chair nearby.

"Serita, I have some things that are too small for me now,” she said in a burst of generosity. In France it was common for cast-off clothes to be given to the maids in her aunt’s house, so she thought nothing of offering her clothes so casually. "Would you care to have them? I think there is a gown that would just fit you if you would like...”

"Oh no!” Serita quickly shook her head. "I could not. It would be... dangerous.”

"Dangerous?” Laurie laughed. "Come now; it’s just a gown, and I assure you that no one will think you stole it.”

"That’s not it, señorita. If a soldado saw it, he might think I had money to pay for such a gown, then he would think my taxes should be raised, and... oh, I dare not!”

Puzzled, Laurie would have said more, but the girl quickly ran from the room. Perhaps it wasn’t the same here, she mused as she gave a shrug. Alone, Laurie wandered about the large chamber, looking from the turned-down bed to the ornately carved dark Spanish furniture. Some of it appeared to be very old, and she assumed it had been in Carlota’s family for years, as was the ranchero. It wasa lovely old house, with large, airy rooms and tile floors that kept it cool.

Serita returned to help Laurie get ready for bed, and she seemed so subdued Laurie did not attempt to ask her any questions, just thanked her for her attentiveness. After placing a small carafe of water on the bedside table, Serita left again, and Laurie realized how tired she was after her long journey. A small courtyard filled with greenery and sweet-smelling flowers was just outside her bedchamber. As she lay on the soft mattress that was a welcome relief after the weeks spent on a ship’s hard cot, the moonlight streaming through the open doors seemed to smile a welcome to California.

Perhaps it won’t be so bad, Laurie thought drowsily just before she drifted to sleep.

She slept soundly, but was awakened in the night by voices. The moonlight had faded, and only pale patches lit the floor of her room. Sitting up, Laurie pushed at tumbled waves of hair in her eyes and strained to hear the voices.

It was a man and a woman, and they were speaking in guarded tones, the man’s insistent, the woman’s fearful.

"You must do so!” the man was saying, and Laurie heard the woman moan with apprehension.

"But it is so dangerous, and if the alcalde should find out, we would be executed, Juan!”

The man she had called Juan must have grabbed her, for the woman—who sounded like Serita—gave a soft cry. "Oh! I shall do it, but it is so dangerous in these times. To hide monies from the tax collectors invites instant death, even if we starve slowly by paying...”

The voices faded, and Laurie realized that they must have been passing by her open doors and windows. She frowned. What had they meant? The alcalde must be the official responsible for collecting the taxes, and a small amount of resentment was normal, but those two had sounded almost desperate.

Lying back down, Laurie made a mental note to ask her father about it the following day. The thread of true fear in Serita’s voice haunted her.

But Phillip Allen did not have an easy answer for her question. He frowned, looking down at his hands. "I do not know who you heard talking,” he said, for Laurie had not mentioned a name or that she thought it was Serita, "but I am afraid that they are correct to fear the alcalde. He has imposed rather... brutal... taxes upon the peons in Higuera.”

"The alcalde is the tax collector, then?”

Phillip shook his head. "No, not really. Usually, you see, there is a governor-general who is appointed by the central government in Mexico, but Higuera is too small. You may have noticed the size of the presidio—the fort?”

"Yes, and I saw very few soldiers lounging about in the sun.”

A wry smile curved his mouth as Phillip nodded. "Yes, it’s almost unmanned most of the time. The cannons are old and rusty, and the soldiers undisciplined; usually just peasants from the countryside who hope to better themselves. Higuera, instead of having a general, has a military commandant in charge of the fort and one alcalde. The alcalde is usually elected by the citizens, but Don Luis was ‘appointed’ by Mexico after his predecessor’s untimely death.”

"And now he is heavily taxing the peons.”

"Yes, and the hacendados, too, the wealthy landowners like Carlota’s family. But they can afford it. The peons cannot so easily afford it.”

"But some of these people must work for you, Papa. Would the taxes be unbearable for them? I mean, could you not cushion the severity of their life?”

"As ambassador, I am required to abide by a few rules myself, Laurie. Foreigners and Protestants are allowed no rights under the law. And I must truthfully report the wages I pay the peons and servants who work for me. The soldiers collect the taxes, and while I do what I can to provide food and lodging for those people, I’m afraid that it is not very much help to their families.”

As Carlota joined the breakfast table the conversation changed by unspoken agreement, and Laurie greeted her stepmother with a smile.

"Good morning, Carlota. Did you sleep well?”

"Very well, thank you,” Carlota said, blushing slightly and looking shyly at her husband.

Laurie sat in awkward silence, suddenly realizing that her father was a handsome, virile man who loved his wife, and what that meant. A faint flush stained her cheeks, for she had learned a great deal in the past five years, and though she was still a virgin herself, she had listened to the young married girls talk among themselves quite frankly. It had been another part of her education.

"That is a very lovely gown you are wearing,” Carlota said after a moment, and Laurie smiled.

"Thank you.”

"Don’t you think it is a little—immodest?” Phillip asked with a faint lift of his brows.

"Immodest?” Laurie looked down at her gown, at the low scooped neck that bared just the smallest hint of her breasts. It was the latest fashion, and she had made a concession in not wearing one of her other, more daring gowns. In France, such gowns were common, but she had realized from observing Carlota’s attire that the fashion had not yet reached the Californios living here. Carlota always wore a scarf around her neck, pinned with an ornate brooch, but modestly covering her.

"Well,” Phillip said quickly, voicing her thoughts, "perhaps it’s just that the latest fashions have not yet reached California,” and Laurie nodded silently.

She had already noticed the modest gowns with pinned scarves and the large black lace mantillas worn in public by most of the women from the upper classes, covering them from the tops of their heads to their waists in some cases. They adorned themselves with jewelry and glitter, but did not believe in showing too much flesh.

Phillip Allen cleared his throat and pointed to a bowl of fruit. "Some of your favorites are there, and I know how you love fresh melons.”

"Yes, I do.” Laurie sipped hastily at her chocolate, a thicker version of the hot brew than she was accustomed to drinking. "This is very good,” she said when it seemed as if the conversation lagged. "It’s richer than what the French prefer.”

"But not as good as café brulot, eh, Laurie?” her father teased, and she laughed.

"You remembered!”

"How could I forget the scene you made when I refused to allow you to drink it? You were only six, but oh, what a determined child you were!”

Laurie smiled at him over the rim of her cup. "I still am, Papa.”

Phillip nodded, and his gaze met hers. "I rather thought so. You always were strong-willed.”

"Do you still like to ride?” Carlota asked after a moment. "Everyone rides here, from the smallest child to the oldest.”

Laurie nodded. "Yes, I love to ride.”

"I will have Paco escort you, if you like. We have some excellent horses, and you may choose your favorite.” Carlota slid a shy glance toward her husband. "If we can manage to drag your papa away from his work, perhaps he will ride with us.”

"You know I’ve been very busy lately, but I will try,” Phillip promised with a smile.

After breakfast, Carlota accompanied Laurie outside, where horses roamed freely in the pastures, trailing long ropes the vaqueros used to catch them. Laurie stared up the hillside, wide-eyed at the fine-blooded horses peacefully grazing.

"Why, they’re beautiful, Carlota!”

"Yes, my father was quite a horseman and had an eye for bloodlines. These come from his stock.”

"Where are the stables?” Laurie asked, and Carlota laughed.

Sweeping her arms out in an expansive gesture, she said, "The hills are their mangers, the mountains their fences. We do not stable them here, as you did in New Orleans. Here, if a man wants to ride, he goes out and catches his mount. When the horse is weary, he gets another one. It is simple, ?”

"I suppose, but don’t they run off? Or get stolen?”

"Sometimes. But usually they are returned. We brand them with our mark, so that they can be easily recognized.”

"Brand them?”

Carlota nodded and explained to Laurie how marks were burned into them or the ears notched. They walked as they talked, under huge shady trees and the long-trunked, top-heavy trees called palms. The mountains edged the horizon, and the gentle hillsides were green and fertile, spreading as far as the eye could see. Laurie took a deep breath, detecting the salty tang of the ocean on the currents.

A warm sun beat down, and Laurie was grateful for her thin cotton gown with short, puffed sleeves and a low bodice. It seemed to be drawing Carlota’s attention, however, and after a moment the older woman said in a hesitant voice, "Girls here don’t usually wear such... daring... gowns until after they are married, you know.”

Laurie laughed gaily. "Really? What’s the point after they’re married? I mean, I thought a pretty gown was meant to attract a suitor, didn’t you?”

"This is not New Orleans,” Carlota said after a moment. "It is not the same here. This is a small village, and here the girls must wear proper gowns.” She cleared her throat when Laurie did not reply, then said more strongly, "I promised your papa I would say something to you about it. He wants people here—my family and some of the older families—to accept you without reservation.”

"And they won’t if my gowns are too risqué?” Laurie’s voice was brittle, and Carlota gave an unhappy sigh.

"No, they won’t. It could endanger your papa’s position here, you understand.”

Some of the brightness faded from the day, but Laurie could see how unhappy the conversation was making Carlota and bit back a sharp retort.

"I see,” she said. "Perhaps I should wear a modesty-bit and a shawl, then.”

"Perhaps,” Carlota said, and Laurie had the dismaying thought that the auspicious beginning of her stay in California was quickly fading.

When Laurie appeared at lunch in the same gown, she wore a thin scarf tucked into the bodice and pinned, and a light shawl or mantilla was draped over her head and shoulders. Phillip seemed pleased with her concessions, and Carlota smiled gratefully, but to Laurie it was a sharp reminder that California was not New Orleans or Europe.

Here she was called Doña Laurie by the servants, a term of respect accorded her. And she could not leave the hacienda without a dueña right behind her as chaperon, another irritating reminder that she was far from home.

Another reminder came the next day.

Carlota Alvarado y Allen’s hacienda lay just on the eastern edge of Higuera, on a slope overlooking the town. To reach the market near the harbor, they had to ride through the town. On this day, soldiers had cordoned off the square and were publicly flogging a man.

Laurie paled and turned to her father. "What are they doing, Papa? Why?”

Phillip’s face was grim, his mouth a taut line. "Taxes. He must have tried to withhold more than he was supposed to withhold. The new alcalde has invested a great deal of time and energy in collecting the correct amount of taxes, it seems, and raises them every time the wind shifts direction from east to west... but I speak out of turn. It’s not my place to interfere with the existing government, but to maintain diplomatic relations with the Californian people here.”

"How can you remain neutral when that poor man is being beaten?” Laurie demanded. "Doesn’t it sicken you?”

"More than you know,” Phillip replied tersely and signaled to the driver to turn around.

It was when the carriage was maneuvering in the tight space bounded by the crowd of silent peons ordered to watch the punishment that Laurie recognized Serita. She was at the edge of the crowd, her face pale and eyes wide as she held up her hands in a pleading gesture. The soldiers paid her no attention, but continued to flog the now-unconscious man tied to a post.

That evening, Laurie confronted the red-eyed maid. "It was you I heard under my window the other night,” she said, then put out a hand when Serita gave a frightened gasp. "I don’t intend to say anything. But—why, Serita? If you needed more money, why didn’t you come to my father or even to me?”

Looking down at her sandaled feet, the girl muttered, "It would not have mattered. If we gave them more, then the next time they would expect the same amount, or even more. And my family, they cannot continue paying such outrageous sums.”

"I’ll speak to my father, and we...”

"Oh no!” Serita begged. "Por favor, Doña Laurie! Do not do so! If Don Luis should discover that one of the peons has complained to the American ambassador, it would be very bad. And at least Juan was only beaten and not killed.”

"Don Luis is the alcalde?”

Serita nodded. "Sí. And he has spies everywhere. It is not easy now since he came to Higuera, but we must live. Surely you understand.”

Staring into the girl’s frightened brown eyes, Laurie nodded slowly. "Yes, I suppose I do. If there is anything I can do to help, please let me know.”

Serita laughed bitterly. "Unless you can steal back our pesos, there is nothing! We will starve one day, and the alcalde will have no one else to steal from.” Then, as if frightened by what she’d said, the girl clapped a hand over her mouth and fled, leaving Laurie to ponder her words.

 


 

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ISBN: 978-1-61194-205-7

Book 4 of the Dixie Diva Mystery series

Our Price: US$16.95

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Capture the Wind
Virginia Brown

October 2012 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-211-8

A rogue pirate. A beautiful Englishwoman. Who would win their battle on the high seas?

Our Price: US$14.95

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Wildest Heart

Virginia Brown

January 2013 $16.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-253-8

Book 2 of the To Love An Outlaw series

Our Price: US$16.95

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Return to Fender

Virginia Brown

May 2013 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-290-3

Book 4 of The Blue Suede mystery series

Our Price: US$14.95

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Divas Do Tell

Virginia Brown

October 2013 $16.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-368-9

Book 5 of The Dixie Divas Mystery series

Our Price: US$16.95

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A Colorado Christmas

Virginia Brown

November 2013 $3.99
ISBN: 9781611943900

Available in E-book ONLY. This item is not available directly from BelleBooks/Bell Bridge Books.

Once an outlaw, always an outlaw?

Our Price: US$0.00

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