She feared he was correct. She would not succumb, though! Her voice as chilly as the peaks of PopocatÃ©petl in winter, she said, “Shall we talk business? Do you have anything to report now, SeÃ±or Montgomery?”
Reece faced the sea. “You're forgetting something. I haven't been paid.”
The scoundrel! “You'll be paid.”
Half turning her way, he cocked a brow. “Let's hope you're good at your word.”
“I am. NowâWhat are Santa Anna's plans?”
“First of all, a trip to Mexico City,” Reece answered smoothly. “President Bustamante has ordered him there. I don't know why, not for certain, but I imagine he wants to keep his eye on Antonio. Antonio wants to make peace with those in the ruling party. He plans to leave next week. There. Now you know.” Reece smiled. “I'll expect payment at your dinner party. I'll have more to report by then, no doubt.”
“Fine,” she replied casually. And she almost laughed. This really had been much easier than she had ever imagined. Wouldn't Erasmo be surprised? Anxious to relay the information to him, she marched toward the door. Reece's words stopped her.
“I'll be bringing a guest.”
“A guest? Fine.”
“Don't you want to know who to plan for?”
“You surprise me, my sweet. I thought you'd worry about seating arrangements.”
She sighed. “It seems to be important to you, so go on. Who is the mystery guest?”
“General Santa Anna.”
An invisible cleaver rent her chest. “He is not welcome at Campos de Palmas.”
“Why is that?”
“Were you deaf to all I've said? He is my enemy.”
Reece's expression was nonchalant. “You've nothing to fear from the good general. Prepare a table, offer him wine.”
“I refuse hospitality to Santa Anna.”
“Now why is that?” Reece asked. “I think as Don Colonel Miguel Sierra's widow, you owe his commander an invitation.”
“Wrong. He is the scourge of this land, and I will not associate with the likes of him.”
“You will if you want my cooperation.”
Ashamed at ever finding this scoundrel attractive, she battled against feminine weakness. Be strong! she told herself. “SeÃ±or, you'd put me in jeopardy, bringing him to my home. Several who are his outspoken opponents will be there. Even if that weren't so, he'd be suspicious, would wonder why I've now seen fit to entertain him.”
“Knowing Antonio as I do, I believe he'd be nothing but honored. It's hurt him, being shunned by so many families. He did, you know, lead a good-faith and valiant attack on Texas.” Reece paused. “Mexico is one country, and as long as the factions are divided from within, there'll never be peace. Antonio wants peace for Mexico.”
She shortened the space between herself and the Santanista pig, pointing a finger at his smug face. “If he appears on my doorstep, you'll not receive one measly
from me. Not one!” She gritted her teeth. “Do you understand?”
“Absolutely,” he replied solemnly and took her hand. “I understand every word you say.”
Again Reece had capitulated much too easily, even though her demands had been met. The sooner she rid herself of his influence, the better. Her heart pounded. How easy would it be, retreating? While Reece Montgomery may have been easy with his principles, Alejandra felt certain he wouldn't be quite as easy to get rid of.
Even before the widow Sierra's carriage pulled away from Casa Montgomery, Reece poured himself a stiff brandy. Trouble beset him. When Alejandra had mentioned FranÃ§ois of Joinville, he knew she'd seen the prince leaving here. He wasn't unduly worried over the French connection, though. Fronting his house was a public road; everyone traveled it. He could explain away the “coincidence.” No, his problem wasn't his ally, the Orleanian prince.
Trouble had black hair, hazel eyes, and was all Mexicana.
Alejandra's words of outrage against her late husband's commander had been powerful and convincing. Almost. For a while there, Reece had wondered if he was wrong in thinking the vainglorious Antonio LÃ³pez de Santa Anna sent her. But Alejandra, naive little spy, had incriminated herself.
She was a liar.
He knew it, there was no getting around it, and it didn't have one thing to do with a broken harness trace. At least once in the past six weeks she had spoken with Antonio. From the narthex of San Fernando Church, Reece had seen her conversing with the man she professed to shun.
He knew he had to be carefulâdamn careful!âas he snared ex-General Santa Anna in his own trap. Reece took a sip of his drink. His troubles burned hotter than the liquor as it ate a path to his stomach.
Alejandra wasn't the only liar in this tangled intrigue.
Reece had deceived her about Antonio's plans. It had to be this way. The cur of Manga de Clavo must be assured of his “trusted” liege man's loyalty.
Like a restless cat, Reece paced his house. He tried to make sense of the Alejandra situation. Women of quality didn't soil their gloves with underhanded politics, and lady spies were women with nothing to lose.
Why had Alejandra dirtied her hands? From all he had heard about her, she was the personification of caring and gentility. Gossip said she had devoted herself to Campos de Palmas and the people working it. She wasn't a gadabout, stayed close to her
When she did leave the plantation, her circle of friends didn't include those of the unseemly variety. He had admired these things in Alejandra Sierra.
But her visit spoke for itself. And then there was that part about spying on Antonio . . . Why would a rich widow, a member of an influential family, embroil herself in a scheme with the likes of that murderer of Texans and Mexicans alike?
Again Reece considered the things he knew about her. What if she was on the up-and-up? What if she was opposed to the man who likened himself to the Little General?
If Antonio returned to the presidency, he could make things rough for Alejandra Sierra. Did she realized what she was endangering? Her home, her plantation. Her freedom.
Maybe her life!
For that to happen, however, Reece would have to betray her. Running a hand through his hair, he frowned. Never had he caused a woman to suffer and didn't want to now. It might be best to send word: the deal was off.
He stopped pacing in the bedchamber. Of course he could tell her no. A flat-out no, leaving no room for speculation or for possible trouble with Antonio. He shook his head. Despite the mystery of her, despite the deviousness of Alejandra, he wanted to be with her, and a “No thank you, ma'am” would send her out of his life. After all these weeks of yearning for the sultry Widow Sierra, he would go to any lengths to solve those mysteries . . . to melt her defenses . . . to conquer her deviousness . . . to meld her spirit with his.
He would, come hell or high water, make her his woman for the duration of his stay in Mexico.
Despite the mellow warmth of November in southern Mexico, gooseflesh rose on Reece's arms. A pleasant feeling at the moment. Lost in reverie, he imagined . . . he responded. Sweat popped on his brow, and his breeches tightened across his groin.
Mentally, he parted the mosquito netting on the huge, soft bed. He saw himself carrying Alejandra there, then undressing her . . . all slow and easy . . . to stoke the fires of her passion. Lips to lips, body to body, flesh to flesh, they wouldâ
A growl rolled from his throat before he admonished himself. “You've got to stop thinking like this, dammit. You can't give Antonio Santa Anna's spy the upper hand.”
An object on the bureau drew Reece's attention. A gilt-edged miniature. With shaking hand, he picked it up. Seven years ago and under duress, Garth Colby sat for a New Orleans artist, not knowing this portrait would be impetus to keep Reece searching . . .
“I miss you, Brother,” he whispered raggedly.
Three years Reece's senior, Garth was the first son of the New Orleans-born Karine LaTouche and her first husband, an Anglo in predominantly Creole Louisiana. Left a widow when the boy was an infant, she married another Anglo, Josiah Montgomery, and they settled in St. Louis, where Reece was born. Where Karine died ten years later. Josiah reared the boys, never showing any favoritism. And Reece never thought of Garth as a half sibling. They were brothers, period.
“Â¿Por quÃ© haces eso, seÃ±or?”
Reece opened a bureau drawer and placed the painting inside before turning to his faithful manservant. “Nothing about you, Pepe,” he said in Spanish. “I was talking to myself.”
Beaming like a row of piano keys, Pepe nodded. “I talk to myself, too. I am a most entertaining companion to myself.”
Reece laughed. “I find you quite amusing as well.”
“That is good. For you will find mirth in the dinner I burned.”
“Now, Pepe,” he said with mock sternness, “why is my dinner ruined?”
“After I bribed the driver to stay out of my way, I spied on you and the beautiful seÃ±ora. You have a fine eye for the ladies, SeÃ±or. Rosario . . . ah, she is muy
but now I understand why you moon like a cow over the green-eyed
Pepe put a hand over his heart. “She is like the flowers growing up the vines, the honey from the bees . . .”
Reece rolled his eyes. The theater was missing a good one in SeÃ±or Zecatl of Coatlpoala. “You were wicked to eavesdrop, my friend. Plain wicked.”
“I couldn't understand a wordâI was feasting my eyes.”
“Speaking of feast, I'll send you back to your village if you don't cook a good meal.”
Pepe swaggered to a chair to make himself comfortable. “You will not send me away. I am a passable cook . . . mostly . . . and no one else would stay to work for such a hard taskmaster.”
Reece's dry comment was ignored. “Without me to prepare your meals, you would grow skinny as a cactus thorn. And then the fine seÃ±ora would call no more. She would lift her nose to you as if you were manure on her slipper. I will not have that for my SeÃ±or. Not at all.”
“Only because I pay you royally.”
With an exaggerated roll of eyes, Pepe responded.
There it was again. El Cazador. Reece disliked the term, even though it was a literal translation of the way he had earned his living as a lad. While Pepe had a tease to his inflection when saying “the hunter,” most Mexicans spoke it more as a term of awe or respect, as if he were capable of great feats, as though he could fell grizzlies with his thumbnail. Which made Reece uncomfortable. For most of his thirty years he hadn't been respectable. He had done as little as possible to make something of himself; had gambled and cheated; had caroused and cavorted with no conscience about the consequences. And a lot of other things short of murder and treason. No, El Cazador spoken with awe didn't swell his chest. He would rather be known as plain ole Reece Montgomery.
And, hell, he wasn't even a great hunter. That title went to his brother. Garth . . . don't think about him, Reece told himself.
Reece picked up a brandy decanter sitting on the bureau. “Say, Pepe ole boy, join me in a drink?”
“A game of cards, too?” was the hopeful reply.
“No cards tonight, Pepe. Not tonight.” Reece filled two snifters and handed over the second before walking to the French doors that opened to the patio and afforded a commanding view of the beach. “Tonight I need to talk.”
“About the seÃ±ora?”
“Not about her,” Reece lied. Taking up his native English, he said, “Yes, I want to talk this thing out, and you're going to lend an ear, like Garth did in the old days.”
“I cannot understand. Try the Totonac I have been teaching you?” Pepe's round face took on a sunny expression. “Maybe you will teach me English?”
“We'll start the English lessons soon,” Reece promised faithfully, “but not today.”
Again lapsing into the anonymity of an American's tongue, he continued. “What does it matter, her allegiances? My best bet is to go with my plans to mislead her. With this tack, Antonio will know I'm âloyal'. It has to be this way.”
Uncomprehending, Pepe scratched his head.
“She put herself in a man's world, so I shouldn't feel guilty for protecting myself.”
“SÃ, la seÃ±ora es muy bonita,”
Pepe put in.
“I can't think about that. I can't be a prisoner to my lust, dammit! My loyalties are to my brother and the Republic of Texas, not to Mexico or that bastard at Manga de Clavo or to a certain green-eyed siren.”
For the past thirty-two months he had invested his heart and soul in perpetrating an elaborate ruse. None was more loyal and true to the disgraced and dishonored former
of Mexico than the disgraced and dishonored Texan from St. Louis.
Or so he and Sam Houston of Texas wanted it to appear.
In truth, none was more loyal to the Republic lying north of the Rio Bravo than Reece Montgomery. It started out simple enough. As an investigation of his brother's whereabouts.
Six years ago Garth Colby was granted a tract of land south of San Antonio. He became an outspoken critic of the government in Mexican Tejas. Then he had become militant. In late 1835 he was arrested, chained and led south. He wasn't in the state prison in northern Mexico, an escaped Texan prisoner had attested to that. Garth had to be in one of four places: San Juan de UlÃºa, Perote, Oaxaca, or Mexico City.
There was no escaping those places. Not yet anyway.
Reece glanced at the drawer where he'd placed Garth's picture, then looked away. At the time of his brother's arrest, he had been in New Orleans, making his living at the gambling tables and waiting for his land grant in Texas to be approved. After years of the high life, he had been ready for ranching and the quiet, steady life.
When word arrived of his brother's trouble, Reece had ridden hard for Texas. Provisional Governor David Burnet had too much on his mind to worry over one political prisoner. Five thousand well-armed and well-provisioned Mexican soldiers were bearing down on less than two hundred ragged, starving, ill-equipped but determined freedom fighters at the Alamo.
Reece caught war fever. By God, he wouldn't put up with the atrocities Mexico was wreaking on the settlers As a tracker, Reece served under Sam Houston's command. And he did his part at San Jacinto, though General Houston had hushed up his contribution. After Antonio had capitulated, Reece had been ready to ride for Mexico and find Garth. But the Texan commander had had a different idea.
“Look for your brother, but help Texas while you're doing it. I need someone to keep a close eye on ole Santa Anna.”
“I want to get into Mexico. I won't pussyfoot aroundâ”
Houston took a plug from his always ready jug of corn. “You ought to know they don't cotton to our kind. You'd be slaughtered before you got past Matamoros. What good would you be to Colby? Listen to me, and listen good. The only hope you've got is to have a Mex on your side. Santa Anna is your best bet. Now, they're not gonna like him when he gets home, but that'll change. You mark my words. He'll be leading that country again. I wanna know every time he so much as sneezes, hear me, goddammit? And while you're helping me, help yourself.”
Reece itched to serve Texas, but it took a couple of hours of contemplation before he agreed to the ruse. He ached to liberate his brother, but duty to Texas had to come first. Thus, he couldn't steal through Mexico, charging the prisons. He became Antonio LÃ³pez de Santa Anna's savior, then adviser. Over and over and over again, he had swallowed his bile while playing the role. The diminutive Mexican had given Reece his trust, allowing him to be privy to his plans and schemes. These were shared with Sam Houston, now President of Texas.
Then Texas had been dealt an ace. Reece's distant cousin, a yeoman under Admiral Baudin's command, had arrived with the French fleet. Not only were they keeping the Mexicans occupied and away from disputed lands between the Bravo and the Nueces, Baudin provided a courier to relay Reece's reports. Sam Houston had insisted Reece share his information with Baudin and the prince who would be emperor of Mexico.
That was the duty part of Reece's mission.
On the personal side, after all those long, laborious months of waiting with Antonio for an open berth to Mexico, he was finally in a position to begin a clandestine search for his brother.
And wouldn't you know it, fate intervened and undermined his concentration. Fate, hell. Lust had gotten the better of him. Everything had been all cut and dried before that black-haired, black-hearted Jezebel had captured his imagination. Too often Alejandra had crowded his thoughts when he should have been attending to business.
“I'd better be more careful protecting our ally,” he said, “or Baudin will quit providing me a courier.”
Reece ignored Pepe's fairly correct pronunciation of the name. Continuing with English, he said, “Until I've accomplished my aims, I've got to be more Mexican than you Mexicans.”