Fireworks owns the copyrights to the characters from the Queen of Swords.
The story plot and other characters are copyright to the author: Maril
Acknowledgements: Thanks very much to my beta readers - Eliza, Greg, Jo and Terry - for their comments and suggestions which made this story so much better. You're the best.
The Blood Stone
by Maril Swan
Part One of four
Chapter One: Something Evil
He lifted his wineglass to take another sip, and gasped, inhaling some wine and nearly choking. Across the square from the cantina, he spied a young woman, leaning against a wagon chatting animatedly with what looked like a Gypsy woman. The harsh midday sun outlined her in high relief, making her seem to radiate light. He swallowed convulsively and took a longer look. So far she hadn't see him so he could take his time. With a well-practiced eye for the female form, he stared in fascination at the raven hair spilling over her bare shoulders, down over a tight white blouse that hid nothing of the well-formed breasts whose shape he already imagined in his own hands. His eyes continued down over the full dark skirt flaring seductively over her hips. She was looking at her friend, so he could not see her face fully, but he was sure she was beautiful. With a body like that, how could she not be? He continued to stare, willing her to turn his way.
"Madre mio, it can't be!" Tessa turned away quickly and began to fiddle with the baskets in back of the wagon. "Marta, see that man over there in the cantina?" She grabbed Marta's arm and said urgently, "No, don't look. He'll see us watching him."
Marta gave an irritated shrug. "How can I see him if I don't look?" She peered over her shoulder carefully and turned back to Tessa. She raised her eyebrows and smiled appreciatively. "Hmm. Handsome. Who is he?"
"Tomas Orvieta!" Tessa spat out. "I met him in Señor Torres' fencing class. He was dismissed for his dishonourable conduct during a duel."
In alarm, Marta whispered sharply, "He knows you? Knows you can fence?"
"Don't worry, Marta. He doesn't really know me. I wore a disguise during my fencing lessons, and the class thought I was a boy. I never told anyone my family name. He shouldn't be able to recognise me."
"I do not like this. We must get out of town right now! Help me load the wagon." Marta lifted a large bottle of olive oil and placed it in the back. Tessa bent and abstractedly picked up a small basket and set in the wagon while Marta tried to hoist a heavy crate of vegetables. "That was helpful," Marta said shortly. "Now maybe you can lift one end of this crate for me -- if it is not too much trouble." She stood with her hands on her hips, waiting for her companion's attention to return to her.
"Perhaps I can be of some assistance." A voice from behind made them both start. They spun to face a tall, red-haired man whose blue eyes were twinkling with good humour. He picked up the crate as if it weighed nothing, and stowed it in the wagon. Grinning nonchalantly, he brushed at his elegant dark jacket and straightened his silk cravat.
For a second, Tessa could not speak, so taken aback was she by the sudden appearance of her old nemesis from the fencing academy. He had hardly changed, only grown taller and broader of chest. The old arrogance still flashed in his bold eyes and aggressive bearing. His ruddy face was more filled out and handsomer with its trimmed ginger goatee, giving him the roguish look of a pirate. 'If I did not already know him, I might be taken in by his very attractive manly appearance', she thought appreciatively. She almost missed his next statement, lost as she was in her reverie.
He had taken her hand and pressed a warm, lingering kiss on its back. The blue in his eyes seemed to intensify as he gazed into hers. "Señorita," he began in a mellow, well-modulated Castilian, "You find me, a stranger in your land, needing the help of a good Samaritan." At her look of curiosity, he continued, "I am Tomas Orvieta. Do you know Señorita Mona Aguilera? I need directions to her hacienda."
Tessa forced a smile across her features. "Si, I know the Aguilera hacienda." She briefly gave him directions.
He took her hand again, and pressed it with more fervour than her small courtesy demanded. "I am in your debt, Señorita..." A question hung at the end of his sentence, and he peered into her face inquiringly.
After a second's hesitation, Tessa replied, "Maria Theresa Alvarado."
He bowed elaborately. Then his eyes narrowed as he focussed more fully on her face. "You look very familiar, Señorita Alvarado. I am sure we have met before."
"No, Señor Orvieta," she said as she flourished her fan, coquettishly batting her eyes. "I am sure I would have remembered 'you'."
"Do you have a brother named Diego?" he persisted, as his eyes narrowed with a hint of skepticism.
"I am an only child, Señor Orvieta. Perhaps I have one of those common faces that people think they know."
He smiled broadly, revealing a row of even white teeth. "If you will excuse my boldness, your face is anything but common. You are the loveliest woman I have ever seen. If only..." His face suddenly flushed, and he backed away with a slight bow. "Gracias, I must go. I hope we will meet again," he said hurriedly, then turned and strode across the street toward a horse tethered near the cantina. He mounted and with a quick wave, rode in the direction of the Aguilera hacienda.
"He is trouble!" Marta said brusquely. "I can feel it. Stay away from him, Tessa." After a moment, Marta asked, "What did he do to be dismissed by Señor Torres?"
Tessa gave Marta a considering look. Finally, she said, "He attacked a student after a duel was over and the student had let down his guard. He cut the other boy on the arm. Señor Torres threw Tomas out of his academy."
Marta abruptly turned her attention to the wagon, yanking the canvas over the goods in the back to protect them from dust on the return trip. She tied the ropes down to the wagon, jerking hard on the knots, her movements quick and irate.
"You were the student," she said bluntly. Marta faced Tessa, her dark eyes challenging the younger woman to deny it.
"Yes," Tessa admitted, her voice muted. "Tomas insulted me and I had to defend myself."
With a sharp intake of breath, Marta said, "I sometimes wonder how many more of these little surprises you have in store for me, Tessa." Marta sighed resignedly. "You might as well tell me the rest of it."
"It was after the duel that Señor Torres discovered I was not a boy as he had thought. He nearly threw me out too, but I was able to convince him to give me private lessons." She smiled wryly at the recollection, and added, "I have not seen Tomas since then, though I heard at the fencing class that he had found another maestro, a man who had been dismissed from the Spanish Academy."
"What did Tomas do that insulted you?" Marta asked carefully.
Tessa hesitated, and mumbled, "He said I preferred men to women."
Marta's mouth opened in surprise, then she began to chuckle, and finally laugh, having to hang onto the wagon for support. "Oh, Tessa! You fought a duel over that! How ridiculous!"
The younger woman pouted, lifting her chin indignantly. "He thought I was a boy and offered it as an insult. What else could I do? I had been avoiding a fight with him for nearly a year. And I won. Fairly too," she added sulkily.
The wagon rocked as Marta climbed onto the bench. She reached out to assist Tessa up onto the seat. "What do you suppose he wants at the Aguilera hacienda? How does he know Mona Aguilera?"
Tessa shrugged absently as she settled on the wagon bench, her mind already churning with possible reasons for her former rival being in Santa Helena.
A few days later...
As the wagon drew to a halt near the village fountain, Tessa saw Mona Aguilera surrounded by a cluster of giggling young women in the cantina. She recognised them all and descended the wagon to go over and see what the excitement was about.
Mona saw her coming; a sly look crossed her face. As Tessa stepped up onto the verandah, Mona called to her. "Tessa, my dear friend. Come and share my joy. Look!" She held up her hand to show an enormous ruby ring on her finger. At Tessa's seeming confusion, Mona laughed delightedly. "It is a betrothal gift, from my fiancé, Tomas Orvieta. I am to be married in a month, as soon as the banns are read. Are you not pleased for me, Tessa?"
Tessa was at a loss for words. Mona ...to be married to Tomas Orvieta? How could she? How well did she know him? Had he changed in the past six years? All these questions chased through her mind as she slowly reached for the hand bearing the ring, ostensibly to admire it. The crimson fire of the gem flashed in the bright sunlight; its clasp of pure gold gleamed richly. Tessa felt a sudden unwelcome surge of jealousy. Mona was several years her junior, Ramon's younger sister. And now she was going to be married. How Mona must be enjoying this triumph! She had always been envious of Tessa, of her friendship with Ramon, of her wealth and social status. The Aguileras had come down a long way since Don Aguilera died and Ramon had to flee to Monterrey. But now Mona had her moment of victory. And how she was gloating over it!
Mona's face smiled but in her eyes there was no mirth, only a gleam of pure malice. "Well, Tessa," she remarked, glancing around at the other girls, "Aren't you going to congratulate me?"
Her voice croaked a bit as Tessa finally managed a reply. "Of course, Mona. I wish you all the happiness in the world," she said, trying to put some heartiness into her words. She leaned forward to give Mona a brief kiss on the cheek. "Who is the lucky man? Anyone I know?"
"No, you wouldn't know Tomas. He only travelled in the 'best' circles in Madrid and Barcelona." Mona waited for that barb to sink in, then continued, "I met him while I was in Madrid, as a student. Tomas was a soldier in the War of Independence, much decorated for bravery," she boasted. "We were introduced at a gala by mutual friends. Since I returned to California, Tomas has been writing to me and finally asked me to marry him." She turned to her giggling companions and held up the ring once more. "He gave me this ring which has been in his family for generations as a gift. Have you ever seen a finer ruby?"
"It is indeed a fine gem, the most beautiful I have ever seen." A memory tugged at Tessa while she stared at the jewel. Then she remembered. 'It couldn't be!'
Tessa needed to get away to think. Hurriedly, she said, "Congratulations on your engagement, Mona. I would like to stay longer, but I have some business to conduct in town. Please excuse me." As she hastened away, she heard Mona murmur something and the other girls laugh. Tessa squared her shoulders and moved quickly into the plaza. She would not let Mona get under her skin.
Montoya frowned as he shuffled through the sheaf of papers from the despatch case. It had come in on the supply ship. He sighed impatiently over the new directives from the Colonial Office. Raise more taxes, send more money, build roads and bridges, convert the Indios, expand the presidios, increase the population. He tossed the pages aside and scowled. Easy for them to command. He snorted at the flowery phrase in the orders "The Conquistador spirit must be kept alive". 'Who writes such drivel?' he wondered. Obviously, they had never set foot in these colonies. There was a new world to conquer here, but there was no mention of Spain sending any help in the form of more armaments or soldiers. 'We must manage it all on our own,' he thought irritably. 'At least if they sent me a few cannon, or some modern rifles, I could do what they ask. But all I have are a few dozen lazy and stupid soldiers and a capitan who is prepared to lead a mutiny at the drop of a hat.'
The colonel got up and wandered to the window of his office, and looked down into the busy main street. Across the plaza, the cantina was bustling with customers. A group of young women caught his eye, and he smiled at their colourful beauty and their animation. They were grouped around one girl. Montoya recognised Mona Aguilera and wondered what the excitement was about. He shook his head wistfully at their carefree youth. 'They are probably talking about the next party I will have, or their current beaux. Not a care in the world.' He shrugged resignedly, aware that at his back was the pile of bureaucratic rubbish that he had to deal with soon. Putting off the moment, he continued to stare at the young women, enjoying their freshness and vivacity. He laughed mirthlessly. 'Was I ever that young?' he wondered. 'No,' he admitted ruefully, 'I had to grow up too fast in the army.'
As he watched, he saw another young woman alight from a wagon and join them. A nettle of irritation worried at him as he saw her step up to their table and receive their greetings. 'Maria Theresa Alvarado'. He grimaced in contempt. She was all that stood between him and the most valuable property in the area. She had no idea how valuable it was. There was something more precious than gold on that hacienda water and plenty of it. She was just using it to irrigate her grapevines. But, Montoya noted to himself, she could sell the water to the dons with large cattle herds and enrich herself beyond calculating. He snorted disgustedly. 'That is what comes of letting a woman run a hacienda. She has no head for business, just parties and dresses.' Still, he had to admit to himself, she had kept the stream fed that flowed through her property and across the Hidalgo's. By branching off one of the irrigation ditches to the stream she had assured a steady supply of water to Don Hidalgo's herds. What did she get in return? His undying gratitude, no doubt. 'Once I have that hacienda, the dons will dance to a different tune. There will be no free water. With control over the water, you have real power. And wealth.'
He noted with surprise that Tessa seemed troubled as she left the other girls. Petty jealousy, no doubt, he thought. Women have nothing better to think about than who is the prettiest, richest, has the handsomest beau.
Montoya stretched, flexing his neck to relieve the tension that sitting so long over the despatches had caused. He rubbed his tired eyes, and with a heavy tread, returned to his desk. As he riffled through the pages, one document captured his attention. It was a drawing of a ring, with a description. He read the information carefully. A precious ruby ring had been stolen over a year ago from a member of the Duke of Alba's family, a priceless family heirloom. The culprit had not been caught though all of Spain was on the lookout for the ring. The document stated that the military commanders and soldiers were to watch for this ring though it seemed unlikely it would turn up in the colonies. A ruby of such size would be hard to sell without causing notice.
The colonel chuckled over the idea of a famous jewel thief landing in his tiny pueblo. 'However,' he decided, 'I must comply with the directive. I will call a meeting of the soldiers, and show them the picture of the ring. Though,' he sighed, 'they probably would not know a ruby from a goose egg.'
The mantle clock began to strike the hours and Montoya noted it was past his lunch time and he was hungry. He got up and went out through the balcony door and descended the staircase which led to the plaza. With a few quick steps, he crossed to the cantina, searching for an empty seat. The supply ship had brought many people into town and the places in the cantina were few.
As soon as the colonel set foot in the cantina, the noise level dropped and several peasants stood up, with their sombreros clasped nervously in their hands. They gestured to their chairs as if inviting him to take their places. Montoya smiled graciously and uttered, "Gracias, but please finish your lunch. I will find another place." The peasants fled, leaving the colonel with the chairs. He compressed his lips in annoyance. It was always the same, wherever he went in the pueblo. The common people were afraid of him. Still, he had to admit to a small satisfaction. With fear, there is order.
The giggles and chatter of the young women attracted his attention and Montoya strolled down through the tables toward them, a warm smile on his face as he watched their fresh young faces. The object of their attention, Mona Aguilera, looked up as he stopped at their table. Her face was flushed most becomingly, making her quite pretty. He had never taken much notice of her before.
"Buenos dias, señoritas," he said with formal bow. "I was drawn like a moth to a flame by the beauty I see at this table." He was charmed by the sudden blushes and giggles as they flourished their fans and eyed him coquettishly. "What is the occasion of this little party? Is it someone's birthday? Feliz cumpleaños to the celebrant." He glanced around at each face, enchanted by their sweetness and innocence.
Finally, one of the girls spoke up. "We are congratulating Mona on her betrothal. Show the colonel your ring, Mona," the girl urged, lifting Mona's hand.
Chapter Two: The Legend
As Montoya approached the young women, Tessa dodged behind a vendor's cart in the plaza. She pretended to be examining some squashes, but from her covert she surreptitiously observed the colonel's reaction as he bent to examine Mona's ring. His face betrayed no emotion other than a slight narrowing of his eyes. It was enough to tell Tessa that he knew Mona was wearing the famous 'Blood Stone', which had been stolen from a cousin of the Duke of Alba. Tessa had seen that very ring several years before on the Marchesa's hand at a reception in Madrid. There was no mistaking its blood red colour or its enormous size. When the ring had vanished, it had caused a furor that was all the talk in Madrid for months.
Montoya spoke briefly with Mona then bowed curtly to the group of girls, a tight smile on his face. Tessa was too far away to hear what he said. With her eyes, she followed him as he marched out of the cantina and back to his office. Tessa could almost hear her heart hammering from fear for Mona. What would Montoya do now? Why had he not done something if he suspected she had the stolen ring? Perhaps it was not too late to save Mona from a scandal. Her mind whirled with plans as she turned abruptly, bumping into Doctor Helm.
"Are the squashes that fascinating, señorita?" he asked with a quirk of his lips.
She quickly apologised and made to step past him but he caught her arm in a gentle hold. Taking the basket from her hand, he steered her toward the next cart. "Perhaps I can help you with your shopping since Marta isn't here today." He seemed vastly amused by the indignant look she gave him.
"I can manage without help, Doctor Helm. Thank you for the offer." As she tried to take the basket, Helm picked up some sweet red peppers and placed them among the squashes. Tessa wondered why he was being so nice to her. Usually he passed with a brief comment or nod.
"You will need these too for paella," he said reaching for a couple of chorizo sausages hanging from the cart. "It's your favourite dish, isn't it?" His knowing grin was disconcerting.
"How do you know that?" She frowned slightly in confusion. 'What does he want?' she wondered as they moved among the vendors' carts. Of all the times to want to be sociable, this was the worst. She wanted to get away to think, to plan.
"Marta told me." Helm laughed as she drew in an angry breath.
'Marta is telling him things about me behind my back? What is she up to? Matchmaking? I will have few words to say about that!' she thought in annoyance. 'I thought we had already settled this when he told me of his feelings for the Queen.'
"It's my favourite Spanish dish too," he added after a moment's silence. Tessa saw the trap but she had no choice but to fall into it. Spanish hospitality demanded it.
"Would you care to join us for dinner tomorrow night, Doctor? It seems we are having paella." In spite of his obvious manoeuvring for an invitation, Tessa had to laugh. "We dine around seven o'clock." She had a sudden thought and shook her head sadly. "We can't have paella. We have no saffron. I'm sorry. But we will have something nice. Marta is a good cook."
He took her hand and kissed it warmly. "All is not lost. Follow me," he said with a grin. After she paid for her purchases, Tessa allowed herself to be led down the sidestreet toward the doctor's office. As she was walking with him, she observed the party in the cantina breaking up and the young women going their separate ways. A couple of the girls noticed her with Helm and bent their heads together, giggling.
'Now they have something else to gossip about,' she thought with an exasperated sigh.
Helm opened his door for her and she walked in. As he was about to close it, she stopped him. "We were seen coming in here together. You must leave the door open. It will cause talk if you close it."
He shrugged unconcernedly and went to a cabinet and began to search among the various bottles and jars. At length, he pulled out a dusty earthen jar with a cork stopper. "It's saffron," he said somewhat apologetically, blowing the dust off it as he handed it to her. "I've had it since I left Spain, but haven't had much need for it. I hope it's still good."
She set the jar in her basket. An awkward silence hung between them for several seconds, then Tessa turned to leave. Helm gently restrained her. His hazel eyes seemed to burn with a strange intensity as he held her hand. He swallowed several times and a muscle in his jaw jumped convulsively. He seemed about to say something but instead he let her go. "I'll see you tomorrow night," he said.
Tessa hurried out of the office, her heart beating wildly. It had been all she could do not to pull him into an embrace and unleash the passion that lay so near the surface. She was sure her face was flushed. Her whole body was heated. As she gained the main street, one of the young women from the party fell into step beside her, almost as if she had been waiting for her.
"Buenos dias, Ynez," Tessa said with false heartiness and a forced smile. "How well you look today."
"Not nearly as well as you look, Tessa," Ynez replied with a sly grin. "Should we be getting ready for another wedding?" The girl laughed. It was a restrained sound as if she tried to subdue it. Ynez was a petite girl with a pert face and a sprinkling of freckles on her pale cheeks. She always carried a parasol to keep the sun from darkening her skin.
"Whose wedding are you talking about?" Ynez had a way of getting under her skin, like touching nettles. Tessa tried to control her impatience as she walked quickly toward her wagon.
"Yours and Doctor Helm's. The way he looks at you, Tessa." Ynez rolled her eyes and giggled.
"Doctor Helm is just a friend, nothing more. Now, please excuse me, Ynez. I must get back to my hacienda." With that, Tessa climbed onto her wagon and set the team in motion. She glanced back to find Ynez still watching her with a speculative look on her face. 'Damn,' Tessa thought. 'This place is worse for gossip than the Royal Court.'
Montoya stepped back into his office and closed the door, his appetite having vanished in his excitement. He rubbed his hands together gleefully. A smile crept across his features as he congratulated himself on his self-possession when he had recognised the stolen ring. He had reacted coolly and without a hint of surprise. Now, he would consider how best to use this knowledge. What could he glean from not exposing Mona Aguilera as the receiver of a purloined treasure? The Aguilera hacienda was hanging on by a thread with taxes owing and it bordered the Alvarado property. It was not a large tract of land, but its closeness to its valuable neighbour made the hacienda worthwhile acquiring.
The colonel had been careful about procuring properties for taxes and putting his own name on the deeds. Some of the dons were becoming alarmed at the size of his holdings. He must be more discreet from now on. He could get the Aguilera land and allow Señorita Aguilera and her mother to live in the villa. That would allay suspicion. Rather than cause a scandal, they would hand over their hacienda to him.
'Of course', Montoya reminded himself, 'I will return the ring and the thief to Spain, and perhaps claim a reward. In any case, I will regain some favour with the Royal Court. The Duke of Alba will be in my debt.' He sat at his desk, ignoring the correspondence and other documents requiring his attention. His mind was focussed on one thought; how best to use this trump card and when to play it.
'I must go out to the hacienda soon, perhaps tomorrow, and make the Aguileras an offer they cannot refuse.' He drummed his fingers on the desk, impatient to put his plan into action. 'But "ripeness is all", as the Bard said. I will give Mona another day of happiness, poor girl, before I must destroy her dreams.' He shook his head disbelievingly. 'It is amazing what kind of men women will fall in love with. They have no perception at all when it comes to character. A handsome face, a few flowery phrases, some romantic encounters, and they are swept away by passion.' He sighed contentedly. 'Fortunately, Nature has endowed men with more acuity.'
Montoya picked up the drawing of the famous jewel and studied it. The paper trembled slightly in his hands. The 'Blood Stone'. A stone of ill fortune, bringing evil to anyone who possessed it. He scoffed at the thought. 'Superstitious nonsense.' Yet, he recalled that the current owner, the Marchesa had only had the ring for a few years when both of her sons were killed in the War of Independence, and her husband suffered a paralysing stroke, eventually dying. The legend said that the stone cast a spell on anyone who saw it, creating a lust to possess it, then cursing the possessor with bad luck. He chuckled to himself. 'The Blood Stone is certainly bringing misfortune to the Aguileras and Señor Orvieta. Maybe there is something to the legend after all.'
Helm closed the door gently, leaving his hand pressed against it; meditatively, he gazed off into nothingness. His breathing was ragged as if he had run a long distance. She had really gotten to him. He had to admit it. He was falling in love with Tessa. In her presence, he could barely keep himself under control. How had it happened?
His thoughts turned to the Queen with her fatal attraction. 'Like the dark and the light,' he thought. 'I seem to be drawn to both for different reasons. The Queen, with her darkness and danger, and Tessa with her gentleness and sweetness. The choice would seem to be a simple one, but how can I abandon the Queen to her lonely vigilante life and its risks? Yet all I really want is peace and contentment. A family and children.' Helm smiled at the thought of children of his own. In Spain, it had seemed like a vain hope, a chimera. He was sure he would die there.
He nearly had, several times. Involuntarily, he thought of Marguerita. The memory was still sharp as a knife. She was a Partisan, fighting alongside the guerrilleros to free her country from the French. Her family had been killed and she was filled with hatred, with vengeance. 'A face like a hawk,' Helm thought as her image floated before his mind's eye. 'And a fierce passionate soul to match.' They had become lovers, taking what happiness they could from the hell of the war. She was quick-tempered and hot-blooded. That had been her undoing. She had taken a dangerous risk and got caught by the French. Helm rubbed his hand over his eyes as if to remove the memory but it forced itself to play out once again. She had been tortured to reveal the names of other conspirators but had remained silent. She had died well, Helm was told later. He felt the quick start of tears behind his eyes and an impotent rage against the forces that killed her. The same forces that would eventually take the Queen. Now as then, there was nothing he could do to stop it.
The colonel groaned slightly and yawned, turning over in his sleep as he clutched his pillow and trapped her hand under it. The Queen held her breath as she carefully withdrew her hand with the pistol grasped in it. 'He's a sound sleeper for someone with so much on his conscience,' Tessa thought wryly as she stepped back holding the gun. She tapped him on the shoulder and he started awake, reaching under his pillow. The Queen's sword pricked his neck as he opened his mouth to call out.
"Let's just have a nice quiet talk, Montoya, without a lot of soldiers barging in." She pressed the sword point and Montoya gritted his teeth against the pain. "I've dreamed about this moment so many times, it just seems so natural to keep on pushing the sword home. Do you agree to keep silent or do I get to live out my dreams?"
Sweat popped out of the colonel's forehead as the Queen increased the pressure on his throat. "All right,'" he whispered hoarsely. "What do you want?"
"I've come to offer you a bargain." Tessa pulled the sword back just far enough to give him relief.
Montoya snorted derisively. "Does this bargain involve your surrendering to me and accepting your just punishment?"
Tessa laughed, keeping a close watch on the colonel. "Maybe another time. This time I want to help you avoid a scandal in Santa Helena, and save an innocent girl from a dreadful fate. And make yourself a hero as well," she added blithely.
"Perhaps you would care to explain this deal a little more fully." Montoya's eyes glittered in the pale light that streamed in from his bedroom window. The danger in those eyes shook her as they often did. He frightened her with his coldness under which she knew there was a streak of passion, a lust for power. His single-mindedness was unsettling.
"There is a valuable jewel in the possession of one of our noble ladies. She does not know it was stolen from a grandee in Spain. When this is revealed, it will cause a scandal and her chances of marriage will be ruined forever. We hold her future in our hands, Colonel. We can save her reputation and retrieve the stolen gem without anyone knowing about it. So far as I can tell, only three people know about the jewel you, me and the thief."
Montoya remained perfectly still, his hands resting on the counterpane of his bed. Tessa watched as he regarded her closely, wondering what machinations were going on in his head. Finally, he spoke, his voice quiet and deliberate. "I do not see how a scandal can be avoided once I expose the thief. His relationship to Mona Aguilera will drag her into this sordid business. How do you propose to save her?"
Tessa smiled, and laughed lightly. "I will steal the ring from her and bring it to you. I will also deliver Tomas Orvieta to you at a predetermined place outside of the pueblo. No one needs to know where he went. Mona will announce the engagement is off and that will be the end of it. You can then send the ring and Orvieta to receive his just punishment at the hands of the Royal Court. You will be a hero in Spain."
"Why do I need you, my Queen? All I have to do is fetch the ring from Mona Aguilera and arrest Orvieta. I will be a hero without your help."
Tessa grinned and pulled a length of cord from around her neck. She withdrew it slowly, pulling something from between her breasts into the pale moonlight. A large ring dangled from the cord and she swung it like a pendulum in front of his nose. "Because of this." She held out the ruby ring for a second, long enough for the colonel's jaw to drop with surprise. Then she slid it back into its enclosure with a sensuous smile. "That seems to be its safest place for now."
The colonel seemed fascinated as much by the gem as by its hiding place, making Tessa laugh cheekily. He licked his lips then finally seemed to find his voice. "How did you get it?"
"A little sleeping potion in the ear and a quick slip of the ring off the finger, that is all it took. Now do we have a deal? Or do I take all the credit when I return the ring to Spain myself?"
Montoya waved listlessly, too tired to react. Then he nodded and said, "We have a deal. Give me the ring."
"All in good time. Mona will come into town tomorrow when she discovers the ring is gone. She will also have a slight headache, as will you, mi coronel. Now here is the plan."
Even as she spoke, Tessa could see him fighting the lassitude that was overcoming him as he tried to keep his eyes open. "I took the precaution of putting the same potion in your ear while you slept. It is slow acting but very effective. I don't want you calling for the guard while I'm still in town." She patted his cheek as his eyes closed and he subsided onto his pillow. 'Just one more stop to make and then I'll go home,' Tessa thought, her heart beginning to race with anticipation. The ruby ring between her breasts seemed to radiate a strange warmth, making her want to laugh aloud. She was exhilarated by her success and wanted to share it.
The hair stood on the back of his neck as a sudden draft blew through his office. Without turning, he knew who it was. Something seemed to clench in the region of his heart, making it hard to breathe. The sibilant whisper of silk confirmed it as he turned slowly to see her face with its impudent smile and the dark mischievous eyes covered by the lace mask. Despite her black garb she seemed radiant, so alive and full of fire. So attractive and so deadly. He could hardly keep himself from crossing the small distance between them.
She lounged against his doorframe, her stance deceptively casual though Helm knew she could spring into action in a split-second if necessary. His eyes seemed to burn as they glided over her. She was remarkable in every way from her undoubted courage to her unrivalled beauty. To think she had risked her life to come here time after time to see him made him feel chagrined and guilty. Would he be so audacious for his love? Would he risk all just to spend a few stolen moments with her? He knew he would. That was part of the problem.
Helm moved uneasily, not knowing where to look. Her eyes followed him closely, as if she was trying to discern his mood. She seemed to be waiting for him to speak, the smile melting away replaced by worry. Finally, she said, "This is a rather strange welcome. I was expecting something a little more friendly. Is there something troubling you, Doctor?" She pushed away from the door and stepped toward him.
He turned to his worktable and fiddled with some bottles and instruments, his hands trembling. A muscle worked in his jaw, and he swallowed several times, trying to find his voice. At length he faced her.
"Actually, there is. I don't want you to come to see me again."
Her mouth opened in a soundless exclamation and she stepped back as if warding off an attack. An eerie silence followed like the explosion of a gunshot, the ear persisting in echoing it over and over. He could hear her laboured breathing, and saw the look of pain in her eyes. That look drove a spike through his heart and he advanced toward her. He brushed his hand over his face trying to blot out the sight of her wounded eyes.
His voice deepened as he said gravely, "I want peace. I've had enough of war and death. I want to be with a simple woman who wants a family and nothing more. No risks, no vengeance, no terror that each time she leaves me, she'll never return."
"And have you met such a woman?" she asked quietly.
He hung his head, and nodded. "Yes. Tessa Alvarado. She is not as exciting or as extraordinary as you, but somehow, she has found her way into my affections."
"Are you in love with her?" The question was barely audible, as if half-strangled by an effort to contain her emotions.
He looked away guiltily. "Not exactly, but in time, I think I could be." He heard a sudden movement as she stepped away from him. Glancing back, he saw a look of disbelief spread over what he could see of her face. She whirled and started for his door. He spoke up; he had to say something.
"I'm sorry. I would never want to hurt you..." Helm spread his hands helplessly as she suddenly turned back for a moment, her eyes locked onto his.
"To be hurt you have to be able to feel. Suddenly, I feel nothing," she half-whispered. Then she was lost in the shadows of the night.
Continued in Part Two
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