Nothing stood in the way of design. Soon Erasmo and Don Valentin would arrive by coach. Some way or another, Reece Montgomery would be here. The plot against Santa Anna was hatched.
Campos de Palmas, the Sierra coffee plantation lying on a gentle rise outside of Vera Cruz, on the road to mountainous Jalapa, was alit for guests. In the house's courtyard, marimba musicians were setting up a xylophone as well as a drum, a guitar, and a gourd. Silver and crystal sparkled in the orchid-festooned dining room. Servants poured fine wines and aged whiskeys into decanters. Dish after dish of delicacies wafted marvelous smells, the number belying the small list of invitees and the dearth of exotic spices brought on by the French blockade.
Alejandra had thought of everything, then plans began to fall apart.
Her hair half arranged, she left her toilette to greet an unexpected visitor. Just her luck!âan all-too-familiar carriage rolled to a stop on the coconut-palm-lined carriageway.
Portmanteaux and two servants in her lavender-scented wake, Mercedes Toussaint Navarro, all plumes and bloom and with no telling what intention beyond invading her sister's privacy, alighted from the conveyance.
Alejandra cursed inwardly.
“Dulce,” Mercedes cooed, bussing both of her sister's cheeks.
The petite, shapely Mercedes wore feathers and silk, Continental style. Ash-blond hair was arranged in fetching curls. Sapphires dangled from small ears and complemented huge cornflower-blue eyes. Lovely, that was the only way to describe her.
Yet there was an air to Mercedes, a brittle aura marring her perfect beauty. It didn't used to be that way, and Alejandra missed that more tender part of her only sibling.
“Mercie,” she said, exchanging nicknames, “what brings you here?”
“I detect a certain dread in Dulce's voice, no?”
Alejandra was loath to answer. Though they adored each other, neither quite understood her sister beyond a few absolutes. The elder one was a busybody
both were opinionated, stubborn and possessed with a strong Latin temperament. Peace was hard to come by. Thus, Alejandra was skeptical of this impromptu appearance.
She stepped back and folded her arms. “My problem? How about, what are you doing here?”
“I'm wanting to visit my baby sister,
Mercedes lifted her perfect little nose and gave the servants a sharp look, since they were showing too much interest in the conversation. Just one of those glaresâinfamous across two continentsâgot results.
She swept past her younger sister to enter the vestibule and make for the orchid and vine bedecked courtyard. A gloved finger pointed to the wrought-iron staircase. “Manuel, Fernando, put my things in the blue bedchamber.” Shapely derriere swaying, she began the ascent to the second floor. “Ninfa, run out to the
and fetch me a glass of pineapple juice and a nice ripe mango.” Turning her lovely blue eyes to her fuming sister, she said, “Dulce, you should do something with your hair, yes?”
If Mercedes had been anyone else, she might have been throttled for that remark. Alejandra's urge to do so was powerful anyway. A deep sigh lifted her bosom. She wasn't up to Mercie Without Mercy, as a young swain in London had dubbed her. Tonight Alejandra had Reece Montgomery on her mind.
Last Wednesday evening he had both irritated and enticed her. Her thoughts had turned, over and over again, to the golden-haired Tejano . . . even though his unprincipled ways were beneath contempt. Never had she been this flustered by her emotions.
She must not just stand here, in any case and at any rate, with a blank look on her face while she scratched her head in perplexity, both at her emotional distress and at her sister's unexpected visit.
Alejandra lifted the hem of her skirts and rushed up the stairs. “Mercie, gather your servants and belongings. Go home to your husband. Right now!”
“I'll do no such thing.”
Mercedes topped the stairs to sail down the balcony to her chosen quarters, slamming the door in her sister's face. There would be no getting rid of Seflora Navarro of Hacienda del Noche. Not tonight. And Alejandra was yet to receive the full import of her sister's tongue.
The wait wasn't long, however. Ten minutes.
Mercedes opened the door to her sister's elegantly appointed bedchamber. “Be gone with you,” she ordered the maid. After throwing the door lock, she charged over to the windows and snapped the fasteners, cutting off the erotic beat of marimba that filtered into the thick-walled room. Stomping to within a few steps of Alejandra, Mercedes ground to a halt.
“Dulce, why are you hosting a dinner for Erasmo de Guzman?”
How did she know about the dinner? Surely Erasmo hadn't mentioned it. Wednesday night, after rushing from Reece's arms, Alejandra had informed him of everything that had transpired at Casa Montgomery. Well, not quite everything.
“Dulce, answer me.”
Poking a final hairpin into her dark coil of hair, Alejandra sat at her dressing table and frowned into the mirror. She didn't wish to answer. On more than one occasion they had argued over her involvement in political matters.
Alejandra chose a diversion. “How is your dear husband? I haven't seen Joaquin in weeks.”
Three years ago Mercedes had met and married a celebrated young surgeon from Soria. Afterward, he continued his profession as well as becoming master of a Toussaint sugar plantation here in Veracruz state. It was difficult to determine whether the Spaniard had made the adjustment with equanimity. But Alejandra suspected the Navarro marriage was less than blissful. It was a subject Mercedes refused to discuss, which spoke for itself.
Alejandra glanced at her sister, who stood in the center of the room, frowning and tapping the toe of her velvet slipper. “Mercie, have you had words with Joaquin? Is that why you're here?”
“No, no, no!” Her eyes contradicted the swift denial. “Dulce, I am here for your benefit, not for mine. I ask youâI beg of you!ânot to associate with Erasmo. His reactionary ideas will come to nothing but disaster.”
Two things set Alejandra's teeth: her sister criticizing Erasmo, and her sister's superior tone of voice. Not disposed to abide either one, Alejandra removed from the chair and stood. “I don't know what you have against him. You used to think quite highly of him, I recall.”
“I never thought highly of him. I hate him. He is a nothing, a simple
coffee peddlar unworthy even to speak with a daughter of our parents.”
Alejandra could tell when her sister wasn't being honest, especially with herself. Mercedes denied her heart, she knew. For so long this had gone on, delusion had become reality. It was high time she faced her feelings.
“Mercie, you do not hate him.”
The petite blonde took a backward step to turn toward the huge brass bed. Her hand, quivering slightly now, touched the mesquito netting. “You don't know what of you speak.”
“Yes, I do. You don't hate him.”
Silence pulled rigid as a stretched spring. Tears formed in the beautiful blue eyes. “You are right, Dulce. I don't hate Erasmo.”
“Then don't be critical of him.”
Mercedes took a restorative draft of air. “In this case, I have a right. I don't appreciate what he's doing to you. Dulce, why are you loyal to him?”
“I shouldn't have to remind you, he and Miguel were best friends. Or that they marched together to Tejas. It was 'Rasmo who brought me the news of Miguel's death.” Alejandra swallowed. “He was the one who's held my hand since then. He is the one I count on. And he's opened my eyes to a lot of things about this country. He is a saint in my eyes.”
Jealousy replaced Mercedes's aggravation. “Since he is so special, perhaps you should take him to your bed, yes? Or has he been there already?”
Alejandra shook her head. “Of course not! No man has known me but my husband!”
Relief burst across Mercedes's heart-shaped face. As to be expected, though, her comeback had its usual acidic quality. “Arranged marriages can be boring, I should imagine.”
“Mercedes Navarro, that is most unkind of you!” Sitting down on the bed, Alejandra flattened her palms on the counterpane. “Our love was tender and sweet. That is thrilling in itself.”
He had worshiped and touched her with a reverence that drew no fevered responses. Alejandra had never known such fire existed . . . before those moments in the Tejano's arms. Was she being disrespectful to Miguel's memory, comparing the two men?
“You should find another man to love, my Dulce.” Mercedes, calm and tender now, took her hand. “Let him fill your heart with love. And your womb with babies. But for now . . .” She paused for emphasis. “Stop this scheming against Santa Anna!”
Erasmo and his big mouth. Alejandra, for his indiscretion, could have throttled the man she had defended. After a few seconds, she reasoned with herself. She had to be fair. Mercie Without Mercy, despite her aggravating ways, could be trusted. And she was Erasmo's weak spot.
Which was small consolation at the moment.
At the same time, something else came to mind. “Since when have you started seeing 'Rasmo?”
“When did I stop? But don't get the wrong impression, I don't slink around to be with him. He is the one making advances, none of which have I ever encouraged or acted on.”
Listening to the tone and the intensity in it, Alejandra believed her.
Her sister fluttered a hand. “Whether I see him is not the point, because my purpose is to stop your scheming with him!”
“If I choose to plot against Santa Anna, ”Alejandra pointed out, “it is my business.”
“Would that we could all be so selfish.”
Alejandra sat straighter on the bed. “What do you mean by that?”
“Have you stopped to realize what you're doing, what you could be sacrificing? Many families depend on the Sierra fortune, and fortunes, for their livelihood. What will happen to Campos de Palmas if you get in trouble with Santa Anna? What will happen to you?”
For the first time, Alejandra gave full consideration to what sheâand to what the people of Campos de Palmas!âcould lose if plans went awry. Her mouth dry, her nerves twitching, she tried to swallow. Santa Anna was ruthless, wasn't above all sorts of retributions and cruelties.
“He'll remain where he belongs, at Manga de Clavo,” she replied on a wing of bravado. “I've nothing to fear.”
“And if he doesn't stay put?”
“I'll find a way to stay out of trouble. Erasmo is behind me.”
“Â¡Madre de Dios!
What could he do for you? Bring a plate of
to the Perote dungeon? Hold your hand while the firing squad tamp their muskets?”
“Don't lecture. There's no turning back for me.”
Mercedes ran the tip of her tongue across her upper lip. “I would say, from what Erasmo told me, that a particular soldier-of-fortune may be influencing your thoughts. A certain SeÃ±or Reece Montgomery, yes?”
Hearing his name wrought a warm shiver, and a flush darkened Alejandra's cheek.
What's happening to me?
“Am I right about SeÃ±or Montgomery?”
“I find some of Miguel's sweetness in him.” Alejandra sighed. “I'd like to believe he isn't as evil as he appears.”
“Dulce, you amaze me. You charge headlong into Erasmo's cock-eyed games, yet you stall at living life to the fullest. You need a man in your bed, sister dear. One would cure all that ails you. Why not let it be the Anglo who is too handsome and virile to be anything but worthless?”
“What makes you think such a thing! Do you know him?”
“I've heard tales. He is supposed to be pleasing in bed.”
“Excuse me?” A nervous laugh paused Alejandra's comeback. “Are my ears clogged? You would frustrate my good intentions with âRasmo, yet you promote a liaison between me and an Anglo who is âtoo handsome and virile to be anything but worthless'? And pleasing in, uh, some areas. Surely, Mercie, you spoke without thinking.”
“Surely, Dulce, you know me better than that. I don't do anything without thinking through the repercussions.”
I beg to differ,
Alejandra wanted to argue but didn't. Her sister's character wasn't on trial here, just her suggestions.
“I concede to your sterling character, big sister. But I'd still like to know why you want a stranger in my bed.”
“Because, as I said, you need a man. And he is one without compare . . . I've heard. Many women would die for the opportunity to caress his naked skin.”
The mere suggestion did peculiar things to Alejandra. She recalled those moments in his arms . . . his silvered words . . . her shocking reaction. Had she no shame? Besides, there were other considerations. Reece's mysterious appearance at the San Jacinto battlefield. His connection to Santa Anna. The thousand
stuffed into a bag, awaiting him.
“His shortcomings outweigh the good,” she said past a constricted throat.
Her sister giggled, then reclined to rest an elbow on a pillow. “Shortcomings? Oh, my precious innocent, how dumb you are. Gossip in Vera Cruz says SeÃ±or Montgomery is anything but short.”
Five minutes later, Alejandra stood in the shadows and caught her breath. Entering the vestibule and handing over his cape was Reece Montgomery. His hair curled against the collar of his velvet coat, and as if they had minds of their own, her fingers ached to wind into that streaked gold. She