Grinning, rubbing his jaw, and wishing for a fresh shave, he recalled all he knew about her. Educated on the Continent, entertained by the first families of America, Alejandra Sierra was born to comfort and advantage. Her French-born papa was a rich sugar planter even before marrying an
land baroness and adding her Veracruz lands to his. Alejandra had married well, too. But none of that mattered to Reece. He wasn't a fortune hunter.
“I'm very free,” he said, watching her lips. “But why make a party of it? A dinner for two is more to my liking.”
Her mouth straightened. What with his training to read people's expressions, Reece saw something in hers. It might have been offense, but he got the impression there was more to it than that. Recalling her lack of surprise at seeing him, he decided this happenstance meeting didn't ring true.
It was a lousy feeling, the suspicion gnawing at him.
From the shed no more than fifty feet to the right, Pepe, his voice elevated, said, “I am not a carriage driver,
but I have worked with leather enough to know this is a funny break to a trace. I'd say it's been sliced.”
Reece honed in on a flicker in Alejandra's eyes. A flicker of guilt at being caught. Why was she here? What did she want? And why did she want it?
It was a good thing His Highness, FranÃ§ois of Joinville, had left before she showed up. Reece couldn't be too cautiousâand should have been more so from the moment Alejandra walked through his door. He was surrounded by enemies and few allies, being that he was an agent for the Republic of Texas in collusion with his mother's hereditary countryman, Charles Baudin.
“Seems as if you have a lax stable boy,” Reece commented, probing. “Or someone means you harm.”
She wet her lips before saying offhandedly, “I'll look into it.”
“You aren't concerned for your safety?”
“I'm sure your
is making too much of a broken trace. Didn't we both hear him say he isn't an expert at driving?” She rushed on. “Do you find Mexico to your liking, SeÃ±or Montgomery?”
Striving for a taste of sanity in a stewpot of inner conflict, Reece leaned back to cross his leather-booted ankles. “Tell me, Alejandra,” he said, much too familiar, “how do you know I haven't lived here all my life?”
“Your presence hasn't gone unnoticed.”
“In connection with what?”
“Why, our hostesses . . . It's just that you've been . . .” She waved her fan in front of her face. “Really, SeÃ±or Montgomery, you are much too forward!”
“Yes, ma'am, I reckon I am.” He leaned to rest his forearms on his spread knees. “Since you don't seem to have a problem speaking to me now, why'd you turn your back last Monday?”
“Speaking to you wouldn't have been proper.” She hurried on with, “It was kind of you, helping the little girl.”
“And it was sweet of you to give her a coin. And the shrimp.”
Not a murmur passed her lips. The only sounds came from the sea, from birds, from a family of monkeys playing in a nearby poinciana tree.
Reece scratched the edge of his mustache. “What brings you here?”
“The trace . . .”
“That trace didn't break, and you know it.”
Her hazel eyes darkened. “Surely a man of your esteemed calibre isn't suggesting that I am a liar.”
“Let's get something straight. My calibre is not esteemed. I'm a frontier ruffian. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Fifteen seconds passed before she uttered a word. “And what frontier would that be?”
“Is that where you came to be called El Cazador?”
Personally he didn't cotton to that moniker. It made him seem predatory, which he wasn't. No, that wasn't true. Circumstances had made him that way.
“They don't do much Spanish speaking around those parts,” he said, answering her question. “How'd you know I'm called the hunter, anyway?”
“Vera Cruz is a long way from St. Louis,” she replied, her change of subject speaking for itself.
“That it is, ma'am.”
She tilted her head. “I seem to recall . . . St. Louis used to be a French possession.”
What was she getting at? Did she suspect his connection to Baudin? “I'm not French.”
“Montgomery is a Norman name.”
He didn't reply.
“Are you making our fair city your permanent home?”
Reece listened to the absurd question. This woman was a novice at intrigue, and the person who sent her here ought to be horsewhipped.
Irritated, Reece took the offensive again. “Let's cut the mouth-flappin',” he said, glad they were conversing in English, where he could get his exact meaning across. “What are you after?”
Her face tightened. “There's no need to be rude.”
“Granted, I can be rude.” Hoping this tack would loosen her tongue, he continued. “Furthermore, I guarantee you I'm not a man to mince words. If that offends your sensibilities, sweetheart, let's say
right now, and that will be that.”
“I'm not offended,” she replied quickly, nervously.
He watched as she set her glass on the table next to her chair, bringing the silk fan to a point below her chin and fanning herself anew.
Easing up, he said, “Alejandra, you're as nervous as a cat in a roomful of rocking chairs. It'll ease your mind, telling me what you want. I'm willing to listen.”
“Well, I . . . Iâ”
At that moment Pepe stepped onto the patio. “All done,” he said, dusting his hands and wiggling his brows at Reece. “Need anything else?”
“No.” Aggravated at the intrusion when he had been making headway, Reece drilled a look of disgust into his grinning servant's mug.
Pepe departed before Alejandra said, “I really must be going. About my invitation, will you be joining me and my party for dinner?”
Reece ran his thumb across the rim of his juice glass. “Yeah, I'll be there. Make it for Saturday night.”
“I shall expect you around nine.” Smoothly, she rose from the chair, closed her fan and turned to leave.
“Just a minute.”
He got to his feet and caught her arm. The fan fell to the tiled patio. He pulled her close and caressed her elbows. Taffeta rasped against the pads of his fingers as the curve of her ear drew his lips. Perfume mingled with womanly warmth to wreak havoc with his reasoning. Almost.
“Tell me, pretty peach, what do you want from me?” he whispered into that perfectly shaped ear. “Anything I'd know about advancing a coffee plantationâthe thing that should be of interest to the mistress of Campos de Palmasâwell . . . my knowledge wouldn't fill a saltcellar.”
He pulled back to study her expression. “Who put you up to this?”
Something flashed in her eyes, a brief reflection Reece had seen before: the face of an animal caught in a trap.
Someone had sent her, and that person, to test Reece Montgomery's loyalty, was probably the cur of Manga de Clavo.
After all, Antonio LÃ³pez de Santa Anna was aware of his obsession with the widow of Campos de Palmas, and the ambitious despot wasn't above trickery such as using a woman to loosen a man's tongue. Once before he had sicced a spy to assess fealty. That had been back in '36. Reece supposed he'd gotten complacent not to suspect another test.
Of course, the former general had grounds for doubt. Reece served him for a reason having absolutely nothing to do with admiration. In fact, he would just as soon run a saber through that black-eyed sidewinder as look at him.
Which had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the quasi-Napoleon of the West was vain and pompous and self-important to the point of imbalance. But weren't most leaders that way? On the surface, Reece allowed, Antonio LÃ³pez de Santa Anna was a charmer and a bounder.
Through and through, he was lethal as a rattlesnake.
Which had absolutely nothing to do with the reason Reece hated him.
Earlier today, the whys and wherefores of his hatred would have been enough to keep him dedicated to the success of his mission. Alejandra's appearance at Casa Montgomery added reason atop reason. Women were for loving and protecting, but Alejandra Sierra had made herself his adversary.
Thanks to Santa Anna of Manga de Clavo.
Now Reece Montgomery had another reason to hate him.
This was not going as planned.
Just as Alejandra had feared, Reece Montgomery wasn't to be toyed with. As loudly as the surf rushed toward the beach beyond this patio, her heart hammered.
It wasn't because he held her elbows, nor was it because his ice-blue eyes were challenging the truth from her. As much as she hated to accept it, his nearness, along with the melded scents of soap and cigar and warm male, roused feminine responses she never knew existed. This manâthis puzzling man!âreminded her that she was a woman.
And he was every bit a man.
The rescuer who had doctored a beggar girl's knee. A charming swain one minute, a rude boor the next. An enemy aligned to Santa Annaâthe devil of Manga de Clavo.
None of those things mattered, not really. She was here at Reece Montgomery's home to make him a spy, but Erasmo had warned her to use caution, to make certain El Cazador wouldn't turn on them before she made her offer.
Right now she didn't know what to do.
“I'm waiting,” Reece said, the vibrating timbre of his voice filling Alejandra's senses. She moved her gaze to his soft-appearing mustache, then to his clefted chin. What should she do? Blurt the truth?
Taking Reece Montgomery into a confidence so early could be folly of the first order.
Along that line there was another consideration. Before making an appearance here at Casa Montgomery, she had her driver stop the carriage short of the house. Around a curve in the poinciana-lined road she had waited while Zenon sliced the carriage trace. A rider had passed by, and she'd recognized him despite his attempt at disguise.
He was FranÃ§ois, Prince of Joinville. Was it more than a coincidence that the prince had been on the road leading from Casa Montgomery? Was there some sort of conspiracy between Louis Philippe's son, Santa Anna, and the man holding her arms?
She didn't know about Reece Montgomery, but even Santa Anna wouldn't sink to the depths of cavorting with Mexico's enemy!
What would it hurt to ask a question or two? “Do you know the Prince of Joinville?”
“I've heard of him,” Reece answered smoothly. “Who in Vera Cruz hasn't? But I've never met him.”
Alejandra listened intently. Should she trust him? If she didn't appear to, his trust might never be gained. “I'm glad to hear that,” she offered halfheartedly.
He touched her cheek, and his fingers were callused and strong, though gentle. “At last I've pleased you. That pleases me.” A smile edged his finely sculpted lips. “But what made you think I know the French prince?”
She was saved from answering. The male servant, dressed in blouse-like white
and sporting a broad grin, padded out of the house and onto the patio to light a wall lamp. Making a show not to pay mind to his master or to the guest, the houseboy withdrew into Casa Montgomery.
Again, Reece stepped in front of Alejandra. Candlelight from the sconce to his right reflected in his penetrating blue eyes. He pointed to the chair she had abandoned.
“Sit down. Sit down and let me hear what you have to say.”
New to intrigue, she lost her courage. “I can't. I must leave.”
“Then go,” he responded quickly, offhandedly.
His suggestion took her aback. Shouldn't he have protested or something? Was his reply the trick of a hunter?
Reece wheeled around. She watched him stalk toward the patio's seaside boundary, his muscles straining his white shirt and buff-colored, tight-fitting trousers, while his black suede boots, hugging the calves of his lanky legs, echoed on the patio's tile floor.
Momentarily he stared at the water. She ought to quit gazing at him . . . for some reason she felt obliged to continue. The last rays of afternoon sun shot through his hair, turning it to burnished gold. Once more, he did an about-face. He took a cigarillo from a silver case and rolled it between his fingers. His intense regard settled on Alejandra's eyes.
“If you're not leaving, you might as well take a seat.”
Taking a breath for courage to carry through with the plans hatched at CafÃ© Plantain, she moved to the chair and subsided into it.
Hoping for the best, she said boldly, “I want you to spy on Santa Anna.”
“I see.” Reece flicked the unlit cigarillo into an ashtray, then moved to pick up the fan she'd dropped during her attempt to depart. Crouching on his heels, he settled in front of her and handed over the fan. His thumb and forefinger touched her little finger. Next, his nail drew circles on the heel of her hand, and his baritone had less of an edge as he said, “I thought that might be the case.”
Relieved that he hadn't said no . . . so far . . . she smiled.
A certain tender quality to his inflection, he pointed out, “That's the first time you've smiled at me.”
“You've had me frightened,” she admitted as he squeezed each tip of her finger tenderly.
“Don't be scared. I mean you no harm.”
She feared him, but her anxiety was more inwardly directed. Before encountering this Tejano of uncelebrated character, no man beyond Miguel had entered the private world of her passions.
What was she thinking? Salaciousness was wrong, wrong, wrong! Yet she couldn't deny it.
“Will you help me?” she asked, determined not to dwell on her emotions. “Will you spy on Santa Anna?”
Reece's finger and thumb moved to her wrist, applying a slight pressure. “Why would I want to do that?”
“For a thousand pesos.”
Silence. Beyond removing his fingers from her flesh, Reece didn't budge. A cricket's screak was the lone sound beyond the pounding surf.
Eventually Reece said, “That's a lot of money, even for the rich DoÃ±a Alejandra.”
“Then you'll accept?” she asked hopefully.
His mustache, darker by a couple of shades than his hair, flattened as he frowned. “Not so fast. Tell me something. Have you ever met Santa Anna?”
“Once, several years back,” she answered. Yet that wasn't quite true. She'd tried to put it out of her mind, with some success, but now bits of memory tumbled each over the other. There was that one time. When she'd been forced by propriety to answer Santa Anna's greetings. That one brief encounter didn't bear repeating, did it? Reece Montgomery hadn't been there. In the meeting's insignificance, Santa Anna wouldn't have repeated it, surely.
Did Reece question her hesitation?
Her nervousness abated when he said, “Seems to me you would've made a visit to his hacienda, if nothing else than to extend your condolences over his loss of Texas.”
“I had my own loss to lament.”
Reece studied her lips, her face, her eyes, yet he said nary a phrase much less a syllable. Not even a sigh passed his lips. It was an eloquent silence speaking louder than words.
He didn't believe her.
She knew it.
She should have been more straightforward in expressing her lack of sentiment toward Santa Anna.
By now the sun had set. From Vera Cruz, orange lights twinkled across the sands. From San Juan de UlÃºaâand from the gunwales of French warships!âthose same displays shone. Night sounds whispered through the patio, above the roaring surf and around the man and woman facing each other. Alejandra knew that while it was too late for what-I-should-have-done's, she had to figure out a powerful or clever quip. She decided on the truth.
“I want nothing to do with him,” she said forcefully and vehemently, determined to amend her previous statement.
Reece rubbed his chin. “Didn't your husband follow him to the Alamo? Wasn't he a faithful Santanista to the end?”
“All of those things are true.”
“Why do you want me to spy on Santa Anna?”
“I want nothing from you personally. We Federalists need your help.” She took a breath. “Yes, my husband was loyal till death to his betrayer. But Miguel's was an . . . an awful death,” she said bitterly. “For two weeks he lingered in that place called San Antonio de BÃ©jar. Two weeks, SeÃ±or Montgomery, without medicine or bandages or proper food or even a roof to protect him from the elements.”
She swallowed. “He wasn't alone in his suffering. Many Mexican soldiers died the same horrific death . . . all the while their commander took no regard of their pain.”
“It was a time of war, Alejandra.”
Reece's face was an unreadable mask, requiring her to say, “You're an Anglo. A Tejano, I have heard! Don't you have any sympathy for your own kind? Santa Anna massacred every one of the filibusters at the Alamo! Then he went against the tenets of international law, ordering the execution of JosÃ© Urrea's prisoners-of-war at Goliad. Don't youâ”
“What was he to do, send tea and cookies to his enemies? Roll over and play dead? The Alamo's commander asked for victory or death. Buck Travis, uh, got his wish. As for Antonio's supposed misdeeds, Sam Houston and his outnumbered and unrestrained yeomen defeated the mighty Mexican Army at San Jacinto. An eye for an eye . . . and all that malarkey.”
“You're a cold, cruel man, SeÃ±or Montgomery. The buzzards have flocked together, you and General Santa Anna.”
“And you are a woman. A typical woman bemoaning what you don't understand.”
How dare he stare at her, blase as he pleased, and turn her heartbreak to mere trivialities? Her fingers clawed, and scratching his eyes out would have been infinitely satisfying. Yet she wouldn't react in a woman's fit of anger, not after his accusation. It took plumbing the very depths of her patience to muster an evenly modulated voice.
“There's no point in arguing our diverse philosophies or the past. I am interested only in Mexico's future. Santa Anna must never again enter the presidential palace.”
“Sweetheart, you're putting too much stock in me. Nothing I could do will keep Antonio from his destiny.”
“Yes, there is.”
She began to explain how he could help.
Reece stood and faced the Gulf of Mexico. A sudden gust of wind plastered his hair and clothing to the moon-limned lines of his frame. Then he began to pace. Over the next few minutes, as she continued her explanations, he frequently glanced at her.
Finished, she too left her chair. “Can we count on you, SeÃ±or Montgomery?”
He stepped in front of her. “I accept on one condition.”
Too fast. He agreed too fast, as far as she was concerned. It was just as she'd been warnedâReece Montgomery could be bought. Disappointment filled her, for she would have liked for him to be more the man who helped the beggar girl.
“Don't you want to know the condition?” he asked.
“I offered you money. What more could you want?”
Shocked, she stared up at his intense face. After a moment she was both excited and offended. “I'm not part of the bargain.”
Tilting his head, Reece moved a fingertip to her earlobe. “I don't want a whore, Alejandra, my darling, I want the pleasue of your company,” he whispered. “I want to be the man you think of first thing in the morning and the last thing at night. I want to be the one who crosses your thoughts at the oddest moments, as you do mine. Let me be the one whose caresses are more welcome than wine or music or riches or . . . anything else.”
A strange sensation crackled through each of her limbs. It might have been attributed to the feel of his finger on her ear. Or perchance to the sound of his deep and dreamy voice. Mayhap the utterly male scent of him had something to do with the spell she was under. The sight of himâthis Tejano, this Nordic, this American, this tall and golden stranger-worked against sense and sensibility. And most certainly against her inhibitions.
She closed her eyes.
It would be so easy, just resting a cheek against his shoulder and letting his hands caress and stroke, allowing his lips to . . .
. . . to do what they were doing to the corner of her mouth.
“I'll not have that,” she managed to protest.
“Yes, you will, my sweet. Yes, you will.”
His insistence subdued her protests. The fan dropped from her fingers for a second time. His mouth dipped toward the curve of her throat, the faint breeze of his breath curling on her sensitive skin as the tip of his tongue touched her pulse point, the brush of his mustache tickling that aroused flesh.
Unwittingly, unexplainably, she reacted in woman's age-old way of responding to a man.
Her fingers wound into Reece's thick hair, and she brought his mouth to hers. His arm slid behind her back, urging her to him while his lips slanted across hers.
Moments later, Reece fell to Spanish whispers against her ear, “Ah,
Stunned into sanity, she turned her head. “Don't! My husband called me that! And how could I mean so much to you? We are strangers!”
“Not any more.”
His fingers began to massage her shoulder, but she jerked away.
“Don't touch me,” she demanded, refusing to meet his eyes. “I don't want to be touched.”
“Lie to me, lie to the world, but don't lie to yourself, Alejandra.”
Her eyes flew to his, studying his expression. Her voice a husky whisper, she admitted, “Widowhood does strange things to a woman. But that's all I felt: I was missing my husband.”
“Your husband is gone, Alejandra.”
“Not as long as he lives in my mind.”
“I don't want to take his place. I want my own. And in time, I'll have it.” His gaze settled on the lips still warm from his kiss. “I'm thinking it won't take much time for me to find my own place.”