Erasmo's gently spoken word pulled her back to the present. “Why rid Mexico of Santa Anna?” she asked, fastening her hazel gaze to the brown of his. “President Bustamante, in his only action I've approved of, has decreed he stay exiled at Manga de Clavo.”
“Which is right outside our city,” the don reminded.
“Yes, Santa Anna's estate is near Vera Cruz, but with the French in our
he should be the least of our problems.”
Don Valentin coughed again, and Alejandra handed him a glass of water. “Would you like to take a rest?”
He shook his head. “No. This meeting is too important.”
“True.” Erasmo got back to the business at hand. “Alas, our fallen president will use the blockade to his best advantage. Already he's sent word: his services are available. He yearns to defend San Juan de UlÃºa. By driving Admiral Baudin from these waters, he figures to ride a wave of popularity all the way to Mexico City.”
She almost laughed “That will never happen. Mexico won't give that cretin another try.”
“Complacency is folly,” Erasmo said. “Our defeated leader is a man of high charisma, and his offer could be taken as one of a savior by many of our people. Some are still loyal to him.”
She quivered with revulsion, thinking of Mexican vulnerability to enemies from abroad and from within.
the French have presented him with the opportunity he's been waiting for.”
Was it only a moment ago she had thought the most dangerous threat to Mexico was France?
Odd, how matters could change in the blink of an eye. Suddenly it all was too much for her. She would have welcomed her bed, its covers pulled over her eyes.
She leaned toward the wheezing Don Valentin. “The people might be duped into returning Santa Anna to power.”
“Exactly,” he replied.
“Unless we stop him,
Don Valentin nodded. Composed now, he said, “DoÃ±a Alejandra, you are the key. You're the most beautiful woman in Veracruz . . . and you've come to a certain party's attention. We want you to play on his weakness.”
Alejandra overlooked the expansive praise. “I'm insulted you would ask.” She glared at both of them, then shored up her dignity to present facts to free herself from commitment. “Besides, I'm much too old for the general. Twenty-two. And I'm a widow, certainly no virgin. Santa Anna prefers females of the nubile variety.”
Erasmo colored. The Yucatecan, having no problem comprehending, choked on his coffee.
“We don't mean you should offer yourself to Santa Anna,” Erasmo amended, indignation in his tone.
Too often she rushed to conclusions, and a blush heated her face at this one. “What . . . what do you mean, 'Rasmo?”
“Until the French can be paid, or repulsed from these shores, Santa Anna must be stalled from entering San Juan de UlÃºa.” Erasmo rubbed his lips. “There's an American adventurer, a man called Reece Montgomery. We think he'll help us stall Santa Anna.”
She rolled her eyes and clicked her tongue. “For curiosity's sake, and for no other reason, I'd like to know how you figure
would fit into this intrigue.”
“We need him as a spy and we'll pay him to be one. You'll convince him.”
Erasmo patted his hand in the air, chest level. “Would you allow me to finish before saying no?” He rushed on. “Under mysterious circumstances Montgomery aligned himself with Santa Anna. The circumstances were strange, but his motives are not. Montgomery can be bought. He went like this”âhe snapped his fingersâ“to Santa Anna's payroll. Among the army being collected, we know there is no man as corruptible as SeÃ±or Reece Montgomery. So . . . we intend to raise his salary.”
She laughed. “The nuns from the Insane Hospital should pull you to their bosoms. Surely this Montgomery you speak of won't fall for some harebrained scheme.”
“We think differently,” Erasmo replied. “He holds an allegiance to money, nothing else. Yet he, like Santa Anna, has a weakness for ladies. To his credit, though, Montgomery favors women to girls.”
“Oh, 'Rasmo, how very kind of you to think of your best friend's widow,” Alejandra retorted in scathing outrage. “You, a tower of strength in my widow's grief.”
He took her hand. “I mean no disrespect. All we're asking is for you to gain Montgomery's trust. That is
“Why doesn't some man approach him? Why would you choose me for the deed?”
“What was that?” the grandee asked. She repeated her question and he nodded, “Understand, DoÃ±a Alejandra, Montgomery has seen you.”
For some strange reason, Alejandra thought of the foreigner in the marketplace. Could they be one and the same? Preposterous!
Don Valentin went on. “He's made inquiries about you. Is she married?' âIs she pledged to another?' Those sorts of questions. If you're with him, no suspicions will be aroused. After all, your late husband was a martyr to the Santanista cause. Sierra loyalty won't be questioned. And now that your period of mourning has passed, the general would think it normal if you choose a suitor from his ranks.”
He took a sip of water. “You will meet the SeÃ±or, he'll find you enchanting, you'll offer him money for his information. When he accepts, which he will, you'll retreat. It's as simple as that.”
“You paint a dismal picture,” she said. “The man of easy virtue.”
The Yucatecan nodded. “Yes.”
Already she didn't like SeÃ±or Reece Montgomery. Men without standards were the lowest form of life. To DoÃ±a Alejandra Sierra, honor was everything.
“Montgomery spent some time in Tejas,” Erasmo was saying. “He even applied for a land grant.”
“Which qualifies him as a Tejano. Which means you would have me fraternizing with one who faced my husband in battle.”
, Montgomery didn't do any fighting. He turned up at the San Jacinto battlefield after our surrender, and General Sam Houston called on him to act as interpreter.” Erasmo paused. “As you know, there was a cry to kill Santa Anna in retribution for the Alamo and Goliad. But he gave a signal, the Masonic sign of distress. Montgomery interceded with General Houston.”
“I suppose SeÃ±or Montgomery has one point in his favor,” she allowed, watching Don Valentin cup his hand to an ear. “He believes in defending a fellow Freemason.”
“Not so. Montgomery isn't a Mason. He simply reminded Houston of
pledge to the Order.” Erasmo chuckled. “Later, in Washington, Montgomery and Santa Anna met again.”
“And the two just struck up a friendship? Seems odd.”
The grandee nodded and took his cupped hand from his ear. “Actually, SeÃ±or Montgomery sent him his own distress signal. A letter pleading for help. It seems the seÃ±or was charged with crimes against the government of Tejas.”
She gasped. “What did he do?”
“Stole some state papers and offered them to the Mexican ambassador,” Erasmo explained. “For compensation, of course.”
Through her shock, she said, “It's beneath our dignity to consider taking such a person into a confidence.”
“We are desperate, DoÃ±a Alejandra.” The lined furrows of Don Valentin Sandoval's face deepened to gullies. “SeÃ±or Montgomery isn't repugnant, not on the outside. We've heard he can be quite charming to the ladies. He's young, maybe thirty. Attractive, too, if a lady favors the working class. He is tall, his proportions are balanced, and his hair is fair of color. Many of our women seem inclined toward those things, I've noticed.”
Affront marked Erasmo's wide features. “She is interested in neither his charm nor his looks.”
Alejandra was still as a post. Her mind's eye drew a picture of a long-legged man with hair of sun-shot gold. A stranger by no means of advanced age. The man who had helped the little beggar girl and had called Alejandra by name and title. A frisson skipped down her spine. She couldn't rid herself of the notion: he might be the odious Montgomery.
If he was, it would explain why he recognized her. “Tell me, 'Rasmo, is he mustachioed?”
“I believe so.”
“Does he speak broken Totonac?”
“He has an ear for languages. Can speak several. He's least fluent in Totonac.” Erasmo, his brow knitted, studied Alejandra. “Apparently you've met him,” he said.
Her heart quickened. “Not exactly.”
Don Valentin spoke up. “Yes or no, DoÃ±a Alejandra. Can we count on you?”
Come face to face with the man who, upon no more than the sight of him, had made Alejandra realize she was a lonely woman? She couldn't. Just couldn't. Rising from the table, she stepped back. “Find someone else.
She departed the cafÃ© and hastened to her carriage that waited near the city ramparts. On the opposite side of the wall, the French fleet lay siege. Damn her father's countrymen for creating an opportunity for the despicable and ambitious Santa Anna!
The driver handed her into the carriage's interior. Not three seconds later, a voice boomed from the street, “I am ashamed of you.”
Erasmo. Alejandra had two choices. Tap on the roof for her driver to depart or get out of the conveyance. Before she could decide, the choice was taken away from her.
Alejandra's burly friend hauled himself into her carriage, dropped onto the seat next to her and yelled to the driver, “Campos de Palmas.”
She glared at Erasmo de Guzman as the coach headed toward her home. Speaking with a frankness impossible in front of the elderly grandee, she asked, “Whose idea was it, that scheme?”
“Don Valentin's. When he arrived from Merida, he asked if I knew anyone who could help. I'd heard rumors about Montgomery so I, uh, I told the donâPlease don't be angry with me.”
“Oh, 'Rasmo, I'm not. But I . . . I'm just, wellâ”
“Scared.” Moving a shoulder against the seat back, Erasmo crossed his arms. “I'd say you're scared of Reece Montgomery.”
“Don't be ridiculous,” she lied.
“Exactly how do you know him?”
The carriage took a corner before she replied, “I think I saw him on the street, just before I met with you and the don.” She chuckled. “You know, the peculiar thing is, I thought he might be French. Now I know he's much worse.”
“That he is,” Erasmo returned dryly. “Tell me, Alejandra, do you find Montgomery attractive? Is that why you ran like a spooked rabbit from the cafÃ©?”
She could have answered in the affirmative to both questions. “Dear friend, can't you just accept that I've said no? I want Mexico to be free of Santa Anna forever, but I must be in control of what I do. Can you understand that?”
“One cannot be in control, not when the good of the nation is at stake. No one has that privilege. A dictator lurks, waiting to pounce. We must stop Santa Anna, in the guise of fighting the French, from making a move against our people.”
A half minute passed before Erasmo continued. “If Santa Anna is allowed to return to power, the whole of Mexico will suffer much more so than from any French bombardment. Think on that,
On Miguel's grave can you dust your hands?”
His words chipped at Alejandra's defenses. “You're not playing fair.”
“I hope you understand why.”
She sighed. “ 'Rasmo, I don't know what to think. Mainly, I'm wary. As for SeÃ±or Montgomery, if he is the man I saw in the square, I don't know what to think of him, either. He was ever so kind to a little girl who needed a strong shoulder, yet you and the Yucatecan sketched a horrific picture of his true character. I don't want to get involved.”
Erasmo laced his fingers with hers. “You needn't commit your heart. Such as a soldier facing an ememy, you should think of the outcome, not the battle.” He tightened the pressure. “The Tejano has Santa Anna's ear. He knows his plans ahead of time. Let your charm and our money stop that despot. ”
A carriage wheel hit a rut and jostled the occupants, the motion matching Alejandra's anxieties. “What if I get caught? Santa Anna mightâ”
“I'll be there,” Erasmo promised quickly. “Never will I be far away. I'll make certain nothing happens to you.”
“Yours is a chivalrous pledge that would be difficult to live up to. SeÃ±or Montgomery doesn't sound as if he . . . Well, I imagine he's not a man to be toyed with.”
“You needn't worry. His attraction to you is but an entree to his mercenary streak.” Erasmo ran his thumb across the seat's rich-grained squabs. “With all haste he'll agree to spy on his master. Then your duty will be done.”
Erasmo twisted in the carriage seat, facing Alejandra. “I offer my life to Mexico, to you, for the future. What will you give, Alejandra?”
Her eyes closed. Once, she'd wanted nothing more than a long marriage and many children. Those dreams had been wrenched away. Agreeing to the conspiracy wouldn't return Miguel to her empty arms, of course, nor was it any assurance the former dictator would stay an exile.
But if she didn't try to do something that might keep Santa Anna at bay, she must live with the guilt of knowing she had done nothing to bring honor to her husband's inglorious death.
Rectifying Miguel's honor was of supreme importance. At least in her soul. To do so, she must sacrifice propriety. A small enough price to pay to ensure that no other Mexican suffered under Santa Anna's demonic orders.
“All right,” she conceded, not opening her eyes. “Tell me what I should do.”
“First of all, be cautious. Be certain you can trust Montgomery before you take him into your confidence. He is called El Cazador by some. He has a hunter's cunning.”
“I fear not hunters.”
“Don't be over sure of El Cazador, Alejandra. And if you get the least indication that something is amiss, back off. Don't tarry in the doing. Montgomery is capable of anything, the least of which is treason. He is dangerous.”
Her muscles stiffened momentarily, but for some strange reason she found humor in the situation. Opening one eye to Erasmo, she laughed. “In one breath you tell me to make certain of his trustworthiness, then you caution me to be careful. You might've mentioned the danger before I said yes.”
“A man plays but one card at a time,
And he doesn't renege. Now, listen closely, because we can't waste a moment, not with Baudin threatening to attack. You should . . .”
When he finished, she planted her palm on the carriage seat. “That will never work! No one would be that gullible.”
“El Cazador will be so pleased to see you, he won't think to be suspicious. Call on him, Alejandra. Today.”
It took two more days of his cajoling, but she finally agreed.
Breezes ruffled his hair. The sun waned. Waves crashed ashore in the black sands separating the Gulf of Mexico from Casa Montgomery, a waterfront house outside the city gates and in clear view of San Juan de UlÃºa.
Grasping the patio's wrought-iron fence, Reece Montgomery gazed across the waters. His thoughts weren't on the exotic seaport of Vera Cruz, nor were they on the
and the other French warships dotting the harbor.
Dark hair, hazel eyes, and the Mexican beauty of his yearnings filled those thoughts.
Was it only day before yesterday that he'd come within a hairsbreadth of making Alejandra Sierra's acquaintance? Why hadn't he gone after her when she'd turned from him? He had been ready to further breach Mexican etiquette and demand to know why she was so cool and disinterested. But something had stopped him. It was the frightened look in her beguiling eyes.
“You must stop brooding over the seÃ±ora,” said a man in Spanish from behind him. “A woman is a woman is a woman. And they're all soft in the dark.”
His study broken, Reece chuckled and turned away from the harbor view to eye his manservant who spoke nary a word of English.
Pepe Zecatl smiled toothily and rocked on his huaraches. “We could travel to my village, and I will introduce you to my cousin Rosario. She is a widow and very beautiful. Hot as a
and soft as a tortilla. Mm-mm! You wouldn't need to wait for gray of night.”
Reece rolled his eyes. Pepe was more than a mere
They were pals, and the younger man was the closest person Reece had to a confidant since his brother had vanished into the political cauldron of this country.
That painful thought clipped, Reece eyed his servant.
Short of stature but long on advice and humor, Pepe stood waiting for a reply. Reece wondered where this young
whose face bore the proud visage of his Totonac mother, had gotten such a jovial spirit. Well, Reece decided, the Spanish were a happy people, and Pepe's veins flowed with a bit of that blood, too.
“About Rosario . . .” Pepe wiggled his brows.
“Thanks but no thanks.”
“Rosario could make you forget the seÃ±ora. Oooh, she can make a man forget! It's only a couple hour's ride to my village, and there'll be plenty of
to drink. Oh, our heads will be as big as a mountain in the morning!” He pulled a face. “But you'll thank me anyway.”
As a rule Reece enjoyed joking around, but he was in no mood at the moment. “Conversation closed on the cousin, my friend. I don't want to forget the doÃ±a. She's all I can think of. She's the sun on the water at dawn and the mist of sunset. She'sâ”
“She's a sore you can't get rid of,” Pepe interrupted and shook his head in exasperation. “She's the woman who turned her back on you. You are smitten because she's unattainable, that's all. Andâ”
The front door's heavy knocker rapped, cutting off Pepe's words. He rushed past clay pots of bougainvillea and hibiscus to answer the summons.
From his point near the patio's edge, Reece heard muffled words. Not an unusual occurrence, since only the sitting room separated this area from the front entrance. The white-plastered house was built U-shaped around the patioârather like three New Orleans shotgun houses shoved edge to edge. The patio jutted beyond the house walls, for flower garden purposes and to give a commanding view of the waters. Where Charles Baudin and his men waited to collect their due.
Reece heard laughter. Curiosity caught him.
Entering the sitting room's door, he heard a uniformed driver speaking with Pepe. Apparently a carriage was broken down on the other side of Casa Montgomery's gate. Nothing serious, just a harness trace come apart. Could the good SeÃ±or provide a spare? Could the gracious lady rest inside while repairs were under way?
Pepe rose on his toes to crane his neck out the door. He chuckled. “I think we can find something in the shed to do for a trace. And your gracious lady . . . oh yes, she is most welcome!”
Reece scowled. The last thing he wanted was a visit from some tiresome Veracruzana chatterbox. A swish of skirts drew his regard. Pique vanished.
His heart beat clicked into double-time.
Exotic and gorgeous, Alejandra Sierra stood before him. For six long weeks, since the first time he gazed upon her beauty as she alighted from her carriage in front of San Fernando Church, he had been lusting after her. Each time he visited the city, he'd searched for those eyes. Those bewitching eyes.
“We meet again,” she said in English, her voice husky.
“You don't seem surprised to see me again.”
“I assure you, I am. And I shall introduce myself, since the broken-down carriage precludes proper introductions. I am DoÃ±a Alejandra Sierra of Campos de Palmas. It's a pleasure to meet you, although the situation could be better. Thank you for the lend of a trace.”
Her calm comeback had Reece puzzled. Yet pleased for this meeting, he cast caution to the breezes. “Welcome.”
He looked into her eyes. They were gorgeous, flat-out gorgeous. Hazel irises, almost green, almost burnt almond, were like a leaf turning in autumn. Gorgeous.
“Reece Montgomery at your service, ma'am,” he said, escorting her to a cushioned chair on the patio.
The sight and nearness of her, the faint scent of flowery perfume, that rich tone to her voiceâthese things closed around Reece's heart. Somehow he managed to pour two glasses of orange juice, to take his own chair not three feet from hers and to answer her traditionally Veracruzana introductory chatter. As goggle-eyed as a lad in front of a sweets shop, though he hoped she didn't notice, he stared at the black-haired enchantress.
Rose-colored bougainvillea grew up the wrought-iron trellis behind Alejandra Sierra, framing her dark beauty in the best of light. Reece knew she was twenty-two, just right for his thirty. Taller than most Mexican women, five-six, he'd guess. Her figure? It curved in all the right places. Holding a fan, her hands were slender and well-shaped. She wore black, both in dress and in mantilla. Red was probably her best color. But, hell, even black looked good on her. She had an exquisite face, oval in shape and ivory in complexion. Lips neither too full nor too thin were infinitely kissable. Parted in the middle, pulled back in a chignon, her raven hair gleamed with bluish highlights. Every inch the proper lady was DoÃ±a Alejandra Sierra of Campos de Palmas.
He yearned to muss all that perfection, all that propriety.
If he had been a gentleman, he might have worried over lascivious thoughts about an upstanding lady in Mexican society. But he wasn't to the manor born, and experience had taught him the high-born ladies could be just as hot-blooded, or could get that way, just the same as any other woman. He got the impression it would take some heating up with this particular lady.
“SeÃ±or Montgomery? Is something wrong?” Alejandra asked when he forgot to reply to one of her niceties.
“Nothing's wrong. Nothing could be better.”
That was true. Almost. Here he was in a tropical paradiseâin the best and coolest part of the yearâwith every amenity a man needed for the good life. He had more money than he could spend, had a seaside home, and his health and youth. And now Alejandra was sitting right here in one of his chairs. What more could he need?
Well, for one thing, he needed to complete his mission. And that was no mere addendum to his raison
His attention was captured by a hand that fluttered to a creamy throat. . . and by Alejandra's mellifluous voice as she purred, “SeÃ±or Montgomery, I'd like to thank you for helping me and my driver. Would you be free to join my party for dinner, say tomorrow night?”
“I might be free.”
He swallowed a smug grin. Imagine, after all this wondering just how to go about meeting her, Alejandra was inviting him to dinner. Giving him a chance with the finest lady in the state of Veracruz. He was glad for his five years in New Orleans, where he'd been introduced to clipped hair, shaven face, and fine clothing. And he knew how to act gallant.