Vera Cruz, in the State of Veracruz, Mexico,
It might have been a typical morning in the port city.
As it had for two centuries, the islet fortress of San Juan de UlÃºa overlooked the bay's black sands and the city's high walls. Sea gulls cawed and dipped. Inside the town gates, and only a block from the pier, meat and fowl hung in market stalls while odorsâshellfish, tortillas, chiles, citrus, mildewâpermeated the tropical air.
Even the mood seemed commonplace. The evocative strains of marimba music beat through
Vendors pestered shoppers. Children shouted and played; lovers strolled around the palm and almond trees; a wife harangued her husband when his wandering eyes strayed to a beautiful seÃ±orita. A sultry breeze, warm as the nearby Gulf of Mexico's waters, ruffled the black mantilla covering an especially beautiful young woman's dark hair as she alighted from her carriage and headed toward CafÃ© Plantain to meet with her Federalist friend Erasmo de Guzman.
She was Alejandra Toussaint Sierra, mistress of one of the region's largest coffee plantations, Campos de Palmas. Rarely did her lips ease into one of her once ready smiles. Her hazel eyes no longer sparkled. It was broadly whispered her seriousness resulted from a foreign education. That was partially true. For the last three of her twenty-two years she had lived with sorrow having nothing to do with passing from a wild child into a solemn woman. Her sadness today wasn't out of the ordinary.
Thus, taken at face value, this might have been a typical Monday morning. But it was not. The French had blockaded Vera Cruz's harbor.
A foghorn blared. No doubt it belonged to the menacers. Alejandra grimaced. Admiral Charles Baudin and his men should have been the widow Sierra's allies, her father being a patriotic Gaul even though he had lived in nearby Jalapa for many years. But she held no such allegiance to
Alejandra believed in Mexico. Mexico forever.
A ragged Indian girl of about five stepped in front of her and held out a grubby hand. Huge pleading eyes looked up.
Accustomed to such a situation, Alejandra sighed in sympathy and dug into her pocket. “For you, my sweet,” she said in Totonac, placing the silver coin in that palm. “Go with God.”
“Thank you, fair lady.” The girl took off in the harbor's direction, the coin clutched as if it were a talisman.
No more than a quarter block away, in a less crowded section of the marketplace, the beggar girl stumbled and fell to the patterned marble walkway. A nearby vendor of bananas, exotic birds, and crucifixes fashioned from seashells turned a blind eye.
Alejandra started toward the child.
At that same moment a tall and dashing man rushed to offer aid. Rocking back on his booted heels, he lifted her shoulders from the pavement. Alejandra stopped several paces from the pair, but she couldn't turn her eyes from the touching sight.
She heard the man's words of comfort, uttered with deep resonance. Obviously he wasn't fluent in the Indian's language. Just as obviously he wasn't
. His features were neither fine as a Spaniard's nor coarse as an Indian's, and a mixture of the two he wasn't.
Since he did not look at Alejandra, she couldn't distinguish the color of his eyes, but he gave the impression of being Nordic: above average height; features etched to rugged and manly perfection; hair the color of freshly scythed flax.
Somewhat out of the ordinary described his clothes. A Panama hat tilted cavalierly above his tanned and mustachioed face, a blousy-sleeved white shirt open at the neck to reveal a hirsute chest, gray linen trousers hugging narrow hips, plus boots of black suedeâthigh high above silver spurs. Alejandra detected the outline of a knife in the right boot.
And they were big boots. Even though she had traveled extensively through Europe and the United States, and had seen many towering men in both places, she was struck by the size of his feet and hands. Mexico was a land where men prided themselves on small bones; it was a sign of breeding. But Alejandra found this foreigner's big bones intriguing.
A breeze ruffled his sleeves, pressing the material against well-developed muscles. To gaze upon the lines of a man shouldn't have been this interesting to a widow respectful of her husband's memory. It shouldn't be, especially since she had never been prone to ogling men.
There was no accounting for Alejandra Sierra's continued interest.
Except the strangerâhe appeared to be around thirtyâgave the impression of mystery and danger mixed with compassion. Was that why she was intrigued? Probably. Who wouldn't be curious about a man certain in his actions, commanding in his presence, and tender in his ministrations?
He smoothed the little girl's brow and asked in broken Totonac, “Can you walk now?”
She shook her head, perched on his knee, then nestled against his broad chest.
“May I carry you to your mother?”
She closed her eyes before snuggling deeper.
No way was the child giving up that safe haven. And it certainly appeared to be comforting. A bizarre feeling tugged at Alejandra. For the first time since her husband's deathâand possibly a good while before thatâshe yearned for physical comfort. And ached to be held against a man's chest. What was she thinking? Such thoughts were
She flushed, lifted her lace fan, and retreated a step to the side. Cooling her face, she made mental amends. Despite a far different appearance, this man reminded her of Miguel Sierra. Her departed husband, predictable as rain in springtime, had been a compassionate soul, deserving to love and be loved. In her world of Latin tempersâand she had her ownâMiguel's calm, soothing ways had been refreshing.
Poor Miguelito, she thought. Miguel, who loved children and sunsets and fandangos. And Alejandra. He died childless on his twenty-fifth birthday. In March of 1836. He had not died in the arms of his devoted wife. Don Colonel Miguel Sierra y de Leon fell in battle. In the Tejas village of San Antonio de BÃ©jar. At a mission turned fortress called the Alamo.
A tear formed. As clearly as if he were standing beside her, Alejandra could hear Erasmo de Guzman say, “Stop torturing yourself.”
It wasn't easy, jacking up her chin and sniffing back that tear, but Alejandra did, and felt better for her efforts. Erasmo, friend to both Alejandra and the late Miguel, had been right in his advice. She must quit crying over her husband. All the tears in the world wouldn't bring him back.
Calm again, she wondered about this kind stranger, who was telling the little girl some story about trapping muskrats as a lad. Who was he? Surely not a pirate, though his clothing outside of the spurs befitted one. Perhaps he was an American? There were many on these shores, Vera Cruz being a cosmopolitan seaport.
Uneasiness tugged at Alejandra. He might be Norman French. After all, Normans were of Nordic extraction. Could it be that he was one of Admiral Baudin's men come ashore to spy on the Mexicans? Surely not, she reasoned. Even the French wouldn't be so bold. In bright daylight anyway.
And he didn't strike Alejandra as an enemy.
“SeÃ±orita, you want
A dirty-faced boy shoved a pungent, cloth-covered basket toward her face. “The boiled shrimp is excellent today.”
“No thankâ” Alejandra glanced at the beggar girl. She wasn't as plump as a youngster ought to be. Taking another step backward, Alejandra whispered to the shrimp monger, “I'll take a dozen. Give them to the child.”
He flourished his
, kneeling on the blanket to bundle the huge, pink crustaceans. He grinned at Alejandra as he took her money, then sauntered to hand the parcel over.
The girl looked at her benefactress. “Thank you, generous lady.”
Her rescuer started to glance at the source of that appreciation, but tiny fingers pressing against his cheek stopped him. “Thank you, nice gentleman.” There was a funny look on her face. “Your cheek isn't smooth like my people's. It's all . . . like sand, or something. It tickles my fingers. But it is a nice feeling.”
Barely aware of her actions, Alejandra edged closer to the two of them. The man was laughing at the comment. “Little one,” he said and patted the thin shoulder, “you'll break many hearts one day.”
She beamed and lowered her chin in sudden shyness. “I will go now.” Paper-wrapped
clutched in one hand, her coin in the other, she departed.
Finally the man turned his gaze to the now smiling Alejandra. He levered to stand. Something lit the eyes that were blue as a Nordic fjord. Something akin to recognition. Such an expression from a stranger was unsettling, especially when a grin as sensuous and evocative as the marimba pulled the left side of his face, lifting his mustache, as he said simply, “DoÃ±a Alejandra.”
Her smile vanished. How did he know her name and title? Never before had she seen this blond man. Never. Nonplussed and perhaps frightened at this disadvantage, she stepped back. In these perilous times, one couldn't be too cautious.
“Lovely day, isn't it?” There wasn't a trace of an accent to his Spanish beyond a slower cadence and a deeper timbre than was usually detected hereabouts. “DoÃ±a Alejandra, may I introduce myself?”
Not a syllable passed her lips. She must not dally here chatting with this mysterious, socially forward personâwho just might be French!âwhen other matters required her attention.
Alejandra whipped around and hurried in the direction of CafÃ© Plantain. Over her shoulder she heard the stranger say, “You disappoint me.”
Recalling his kindness to the beggar girl, Alejandra almost turned around. Almost. It took reminding herself that ladies did not engage with those not of their acquaintance, especially in times like these, to keep her feet moving. Besides, she was late for her appointment.
Last evening she received a note from her friend and confidant, Erasmo de Guzman, urging that she meet him at the coffee shop located catercorner to Vera Cruz's plaza, and that was where she needed to be. Now.
Yet she couldn't help wondering . . . How did the stranger know her? Could she have forgotten a previous meeting? Surely not. If they had met, she would have recognized him. A man so handsome and considerate would be unforgettable.
You're making too much of it.
Her family, the Toussaints, were well-known residents of Veracruz state; the Sierras, all of whom were now dead, had been even more prominent. It wasn't unusual for Alejandra to be recognized. But by a foreigner?
me. She didn't wish to mull the source of why the man's statement bothered her. Nearing CafÃ© Plantain now, she decided not to give it one more thought.