Characters: Dr. Robert Helm, Colonel Luis Montoya, Captain Marcus Grisham, Tessa Alvarado, Marta, OFC
Summary: Isabelle does her best to settle into her new life in California, while her brother Robert once more aids the Queen of Swords -- aid that inadvertently places Isabelle in a dangerous situation and puts her squarely in the sights of Colonel Montoya.
Notes: WIP, the second story in the ‘To Follow the West Wind’ series. The first was ‘Santa Elena Welcomes You’. Many thanks to em_kellesvig and ninjababe for their mad beta skilz!
At the Edge of Heaven ~ Part One
“You are the most beautiful boy. Yes, you are! Are you lonely here all by yourself?”
Colonel Luis Montoya, military governor in the service of his Majesty the King of Spain here in this part of Alta California, paused at the sound of the female voice, speaking in English. It wasn’t at all what he had expected to encounter on the way to his morning ride.
The as yet unseen woman laughed in delight. “It is a very tasty carrot, is it not?”
Bemused, Montoya worked his way deeper into the stables, stopping at the sight of Isabelle Helm scratching his horse’s ears. She seemed to be unaware that she was no longer alone. Staying where he was, he watched as the young sister of the pueblo’s doctor caressed the horse’s throat, murmuring in soft words that he couldn’t make out.
“I wonder what your name is, my beauty?”
“Royo,” he answered, finally stepping into her line of sight. “His name is Royo.”
If she were startled by his sudden appearance, she masked it well. “Is he yours then?” Montoya nodded. “I should have guessed. He is a fine animal.”
“You seem to have become fast friends,” he remarked as she returned her attention to his mount, stroking her fingers down his muzzle. Feeling a twinge of what might have almost been envy at the attention she was paying to Royo, he moved closer, till he was standing just in front of her. At the curve of her jaw, outlined by the straw bonnet she wore, tendrils of russet hair peeked out to lie against her cheek. He restrained the urge to brush away those strands.
“We have!” Then she looked up at him with a slightly guilty expression, her hazel-green eyes wide. “I hope you do not mind?”
“Not at all, Dona Isabelle. But I will admit to some surprise; Royo is a spirited mount and does not usually take kindly to strangers.”
“That is only because one needs to know how to speak to him,” she said with a warm smile. He was gratified that the smile was directed at him this time instead of the horse.
"Tell me, Senorita, what brings you here? It is not common for the ladies of the pueblo to frequent the stables.”
If it were possible, she looked even guiltier than before. Dropping her eyes, she replied, “You won’t tell my brother, will you?”
Montoya was baffled. “Your secret is safe with me, but why?”
She darted a look up at him before turning away again. “Robert is the best of brothers, but he treats me as if I am still twelve.” A touch of indignation coloured her voice. “He has retained a maid on my behalf, and while she is a fine girl, her constant company has become quite tiresome.”
“Ah, I see.” He smiled down at her. “Perfectly understandable, Senorita.”
“Truly?” She seemed relieved. “Really, I am being a good mistress. Ana is terrified of horses, so it would be cruel to make her come to the stables with me.”
“Indeed it would,” he agreed, amused at her attempt to rationalize her actions. Despite himself, he found the company of Isabelle Helm to be quite engaging. In the six weeks she had been in Santa Elena, he had made a point of cultivating the good opinion of Doctor Helm’s sister for his own purposes. What he hadn’t expected was to enjoy it quite so much. “I am sure Royo would welcome your presence here at any time.”
“Thank you, Colonel.”
“Not at all – but perhaps you might consider some place more suited to a lady as your hideout? The Rose Courtyard, perhaps?”
“In truth, Colonel, I prefer the company of horses to people most days.” There was the vestige of some old hurt in her eyes. “They have no expectations and you are incapable of disappointing them. I have missed their company since leaving England.”
“I admit that I can indeed understand your feelings.” That was not a lie. He was a solitary man, and there were few people he had the patience or desire to spend time with.
“Royo reminds me of my horse back home. Well, my brother’s horse,” she amended.
“No, our older brother, Andrew; he left Hadrian in my care when he went to war.” The hurt in her eyes was now evident in her voice as well.
He didn’t need her to say the words to know her brother had never returned. He allowed his gloved fingers to brush across her wrist; as much comfort as a gentleman could properly offer a lady. “I am sorry for your loss.” Napoleon had left a trail of blood and destruction that had stolen loved ones from uncounted families during the years of his attempted conquest of Europe. It seemed the Helms had been no exception.
She nodded. “He died at Talavera. Everything changed after that. Andrew was the light of my father’s life, a tangible reminder of our dead mother.” Once more, her attention was fixed on Royo, though he knew that she was someplace an ocean and a lifetime away. “While Robert and I resemble our father, Andrew was like our mother, all golden hair and blue eyes; the countenance of an angel. And the disposition of one,” she explained softly.
“And Hadrian? What of him?” he asked into the quiet that had fallen between them, pulling her back from whatever sad place she was remembering.
“Taken, along with everything else we owned to repay my father’s debts after he died. Honestly? I miss him more than all the jewels and property that were taken with him. I used to spend hours riding to escape my father and the hell our home became after my brothers were gone.”
“Then you must come here as often as you wish, Isabella Catalina.” He used the Spanish form of her name with more gentleness than he would have thought himself capable. “I have many horses, and it would please me to know they were in the hands of someone who had a true appreciation for them.”
“That is most generous of you, Colonel. I have missed being able to ride since arriving in California. Robert’s horse is required for his work, of course, and while Senorita Alvarado has been kindness itself in allowing me the loan of a horse, her hacienda is too far distant for me to be able to visit other than infrequently.” A genuine smile appeared on her lips that reached her eyes, dispelling the veil of sadness that covered them. “I appreciate your offer more than you can know.”
“It is my sincere pleasure. I will inform my groom that he is to be at your disposal.” He bowed over her hand, only to be startled by her near shriek. Looking up, he realized Royo had pulled her bonnet halfway off and was snacking happily on the brim. Quickly, he pulled it from the horse’s mouth. “My apologies, Dona Isabelle!”
She was looking at her mangled bonnet, her hands covering her mouth, with what sounded like sobs coming from behind her fingers. Placing a hand on her elbow, he moved her away from the offending equine. “Perhaps you should get some air,” he suggested, sure she was about to faint at his feet.
Then her hands clenched into fists against her lips, her eyes as big as saucers. That was when he realized what he’d thought were sobs were in actuality spasms of laughter. Unable to hold back her mirth, Isabelle laughed till near tears.
She took a shuddering breath. “I am sorry, Colonel, but you looked so…stricken!” she gasped out.
He was, for once, at a loss. Isabelle Helm did not fall into any of the carefully categorized boxes that he mentally kept. Her face was flushed, eyes sparkling, and her hair, with the aid of Royo, had escaped its pins. If he had maintained anything less than perfect mental discipline, he would have kissed her in that moment. That realization was like a splash of cold water. Stepping back, he made a slight bow. “Most ladies of my acquaintance would be distressed.”
“I assure you, Colonel, I am not one prone to vapours,’” she said with some asperity. “In fact, I have never fainted in my life. Well, that is not entirely true; I did when I was ten. But I had fallen off a wall and broken my wrist, so I think I might be forgiven for that.”
Handing her the partially eaten hat, he asked curiously, “Why, pray tell, were you on a wall?”
“I had two older brothers, and no mother. Whatever they did, I did. Robert dared me to walk the wall along the north pasture; then I fell. Poor Robbie was guilt ridden. But it served me well for years after; I only had to remind him of the incident to get him to do whatever I wanted!” She flashed an impish smile. “But that can be just between us as well, don’t you think?”
“All your confidences are quite safe with me,” he assured her.
“I am most beholden to you, Colonel.”
“Not at all, Senorita; the very least a gentleman can do for a beautiful lady is to hold her secrets close.”