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 Two
“It is remarkable,” Robert Helm declared as he entered the sitting room of the small home he shared with his sister.
“What would that be, Robbie?” Isabelle asked from the settee, her attention fixed on the mangled hat she held in her hands, regarding it thoughtfully. Perhaps if she trimmed the chewed off bit and added extra ribbons.
“The striking resemblance you seem to bear to Corporal Santos, of course.”
Setting the hat down next to her, she looked at her brother quizzically. “What on earth are you talking about?”
“It is either that, or Ana is as blind as bat. Why else would I find her with him when she was supposed to be accompanying you into town?”
“How silly you are,” she said, averting her eyes.
Impatiently, he slapped his hand against his thigh. “Isabelle!”
“For pity’s sake, Robert! I am not a child. Surely I can walk the streets of Santa Elena without the constant companionship of my maid!”
“Your age has nothing to do with it – as well you know – however much you are acting like a ten year old,” he said reprovingly.
“Do not start, Robert!”
“There are proprieties to be observed, Isabelle! This is not England.”
Her hand clenched at her skirt, the knuckles white. “You have little need to remind me of that!” she said in a tight voice.
“I’m sorry, I am.” He sat next to her. “I only want what is best for you, you know that.” He placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Tell me you know that.”
Sighing, she shook her head, relenting. “Yes, I know, Robbie.”
“Promise me you will keep Ana with you when you leave the house.”
“I can not! I swear to you that sometimes it is as if the walls of the pueblo are closing in around me! You have your work, your patients. What do I have? I am little used to being confined so.”
She was a misfit here in Spanish California, and as the weeks passed, that became more and more evident. She had even begun to doubt the wisdom of turning down Lord Haley’s proposal of marriage and coming here at all. However valid her reasons for doing so at the time, she now was beginning to see it as so much folly. But she couldn’t tell her brother any of that. God help her, she couldn’t tell anyone. There was no one for her to tell; other than a horse in a stable in this foreign land.
“I know this is not the life you have been used to. If it were in my power, I would grant you everything you desire.” He sounded tired and sad.
Isabelle was immediately remorseful. “Forgive me, Robbie.” She knew her arrival had not been an easy adjustment for her brother. There was some undercurrent of tension that seemed to run through his life here, but she had no idea what it was. She was afraid her presence had somehow made it worse. Taking his hand as he sat next to her, she said quietly, “If I seem ungrateful for all you have done for me since I landed on your doorstep, then I apologize. I shall endeavor to be less petulant in future.”
Kissing the top of her head, he put an arm around her shoulder, pulling her close. “No apologies are required, little sister. Neither of us are the most even-tempered of souls.”
“Do you remember what Andrew used to say of the two of us? That the crockery quaked in fear when we butted heads.” She laughed softly, remembering their dead brother. “He was always able to get us to kiss and make up.”
“And now we have to do that for ourselves.” His voice was heavy with sadness and memory.
“Yes, we do.” She reached up, kissing his cheek. “I love you, Robert. You are most dear to me.”
“As are you, sweet Isabelle.” He hugged her before moving back to look down at her hat. “And now, perhaps you can tell me what befell your poor hat. It looks like it was eaten by a cow.” She knew he was trying to lighten the mood.
“A horse actually,” she replied, looking down at it. “I am not sure it is salvageable.”
“A horse ate your hat?” He was momentarily confounded by her response, shaking his head as if he might not be hearing correctly.
“It did.” She didn’t seem inclined to elaborate.
“Come now, Isabelle, you can’t mean to leave me in suspense!”
Sighing, knowing her brother would not find it nearly as amusing as she did, she complied. “I was at the stables, visiting the horses, and Royo pulled the bonnet from off my head, thinking it a fine snack.”
“Royo is Montoya’s horse.”
“So he is.”
“And just how exactly did you acquire this knowledge?” he asked with seeming nonchalance.
She stood, taking the hat with her. “He told me.”
“You really are most ridiculous, Robbie.” She brushed at her skirt. ”Colonel Montoya told me, of course.”
He sat up straight. “You were alone in the stables with Montoya?” he asked sharply.
“Yes, I was! And really, I do realize you have no liking for the man, but what exactly do you expect me to do when I encounter him? Run away screaming?” she asked sourly. Sometimes, she wondered if she would ever discover the source of the animosity between the colonel and her brother. She had asked Tessa, but her friend had feigned ignorance. Isabelle didn’t really believe that the young Dona was as unaware as she pretended to be, or as most, including her brother, seemed to think she was. It was yet another vexing mystery that she had yet to solve.
“Very amusing, sister!” He sat back, extending his long legs. “I don’t suppose I need remind you that if you had Ana with you, this would not be an issue?”
“Don’t be such an old woman!” She waved the hat at him. “Colonel Montoya has been a perfect gentleman.” Not to mention charming and excellent company. But that thought remained unspoken.
He ran a hand through his hair in frustration. “That is not the point!”
“In fact—“ she looked at him sidelong “—he has most generously offered me the use of his stable, telling me I am welcome to the use of any of his horses whenever I like.”
“Absolutely not!” In a slightly calmer voice, he said, “It is out of the question.”
“Why? It is a most kind offer! And I swear to you, Robert, that if I can not have at least a temporary escape from the walls of this town, I shall most certainly go mad!”
“Robert, please? I ask only for this one concession,” she entreated. “It would mean everything to me.”
He made an inarticulate sound, slumping down into the settee. “I shall think about it,” he finally said, relenting a little.
Bouncing on her feet, she said, “I knew you would agree!”
“I said I would think about it!” he reminded her.
She seemed to be paying him no mind. “And I am sure, if I were able to have this small freedom, that I would be much more inclined to keep Ana with me when I am in town,” she told him with a note of challenge.
“That is coercion!” he protested.
Ignoring him, she said, “Ana and her cousins will be waiting for me in the garden. I shall see you at luncheon.”
“Ana and her cousins?” He seemed confused at the sudden shift in subject.
She paused at the door. “Their reading lesson, of course. I am certain I told you.”
“And I am certain you did not.”
“Well, no matter.” She waved a hand negligently. “I have been teaching Ana to read. She asked if she could bring her cousins Maria and Jaucinta with her today.”
Coming to stand next to her, he placed a hand on her arm, keeping her where she was. “Just how long have these lessons have yours been going on?”
“About a fortnight.” She was obviously impatient with his questions, pulling out of his light grip.
“A fortnight? And exactly how did you come to appoint yourself teacher for the peasant girls of Santa Elena?” he asked dryly.
“Do not take that tone with me, Robert Helm! Ana could not even sign her own name! It is quite intolerable.” Her voice rose. “How can she have any control over her life not even being able to read a merchant’s bill of sale? Let alone a poem or a story! No, education is what these women need, and I shall provide it if they so desire.”
“Calm yourself, Isabelle,” he said soothingly. “I do not reproach your intent. I just had not realized your zeal for social reform.”
“You are laughing at me.” She looked down at her hands. “Mock me if you will, but I shall continue with their lessons!”
“I am not laughing at you, Isabelle, and I would never mock you.” With a finger under her chin, he tipped her face up to meet his eyes. “It is an admirable thing you do. Just step carefully; there are many who are quite happy with the status quo.”
She sniffed. “I would like to see them try and stop me!” Whirling, she strode from the room.
Sighing, he said softly, “So would I, little sister, so would I.”