Authors: Constance O'Banyon
Tags: #Historical, #Romance, #Fiction, #19th Century, #American West, #Western, #Adult, #Adventure, #Action, #GOLDEN PARADISE, #Curvaceous, #BBW, #Exploit, #Dancing, #San Francisco, #Crystal Palace, #Profession, #Charade, #Double Identity, #Veiled Jordanna, #Innocent Valentina, #Wealthy, #Marquis Vincente, #Older Brother, #Vincente Siblings
Table of Contents
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This is for you, Sharon. You came to me as a daughter—not from pain of birth, but through marriage to my son, Rick. I love you for your sweet nature, for your kindness and consideration to others. Most of all I love you for the happiness that twinkles in my son's eyes.
Against A Golden Sky
In the land of the golden sun, life bursts forth anew.
Where blue sky touches golden hills, destiny waits for you.
Cry not for what you leave behind in the icy, barren land.
Sorrow will soon disappear like a trickle through the hourglass sands.
Dance, Valentina, whirl, Valentina, with beauty to inspire the poet's eye.
Your tears will all be washed away, against a golden sky.
. . 1848
The golden sun beat down on the beautiful green countryside, warming the air with its soft glow. A small sea otter awkwardly made its way down the beach toward the shimmering, blue Pacific Ocean. Diving into the water with a clean splash, the creature soon became lost from sight in the swirling tide. A sea bird circled in the sky as though carried on the wind. Suddenly the bird spotted his prey and swooped down to catch an unsuspecting fish that had leapt out of the water.
A lone observer sat astride his prancing black steed, taking in the beauty around him. His dark eyes moved almost caressingly over the land, with the soft gaze of a lover. This golden California was his land—the land of his ancestors, and, if God were willing, the land of his sons. Gazing out to sea, he watched the whitecaps washing gently past the inlet to splash white, frothy foam upon the shore. His eyes lifted to a mission that stood on a distant hill, a sad reminder—as well as a glowing triumph—of a time when the mighty Spanish Empire had established her hold on this young land.
Marquis Domingo Vincente was of noble blood. He was pure Castilian Spanish. At thirty-five years of age, he cast a tall shadow. His body was lean and hard, his complexion dark, his face handsome. He was dressed in Spanish trousers that flared at the bottom. Silver weaving ran down the outside seams of his trouser legs and across the front of his matching bolero jacket.
Marquis's great-grandfather had first come to California in 1769 with the explorer, Gaspar de Portala. The Vincente family had been granted land from the Spanish king and had passed it down through the generations. The Vincente Ranch, Paraiso del Norte, now belonged to Marquis's grandfather. One day it would pass to Marquis as a sacred trust for generations to come.
The Vincentes were a proud family, steeped in Spanish tradition. Marquis had seen many changes in this land he loved. He had watched California pass from Spanish to Mexican rule, and he remembered the day the Mexican flag had been lowered over the customs house and the American flag had been hoisted in its place.
A frown narrowed Marquis Vincente's dark eyes as he glanced down the steep slopes, past the clump of scrub oaks, to his right, where he could see the small village of Yerba Buena—or, as the American intruders had renamed it, San Francisco.
His lips curled in contempt at the changes that had taken place in his beloved California. Hordes of people crowded the streets and byways of San Francisco, changing her from a small, sleepy little village, to a bustling, foul pesthole.
He could feel the growing unrest, the disappearance of a gentle way of life—a life in which Spanish grandees ruled their land like kings; a life in which families dwelt amid bountiful Nature's hand of plenty. Tradition and honor were being trampled in the mud, beneath the boots of greed.
The sun went behind a cloud as Marquis watched the restless waves lap against the shore. He did not know that soon his honor would be tested and that he would be challenged to give up his way of life, to turn his back on family customs.
There was a strange restlessness that stirred within Marquis's breast. He turned his mount toward Paraiso del Norte and nudged the animal into a steady lope. Marquis soon pushed aside the unsettling feeling that something was about to happen to him that would change his life forever.
Valentina Barrett stood atop a jagged rock formation and gazed down at the churning sea that washed up on the rock-strewn shoreline. It was damp and cold, and she pulled her wool cape tightly about her and shivered. The day was bleak and gloomy. The gale-force wind picked up the sleet from the ground and hurled it into her face as a frenzy of white seemed to drop out of the sky. The winter-white world held no appeal for Valentina. She thrived in the warmth of the sun and had always detested the cold.
Valentina was unaware that she was a beauty. She did not know that her silver-blue eyes would soon reflect a deep fascination for three very different men in a far distant land. How could she know that her sweetly curved body would soon inspire men to worship her like a goddess? She was miserable and unhappy, feeling loneliness in the very depths of her soul.
Chilled to the bone, Valentina made her way toward the family home, dreading the solitude she knew she would find there. Stopping to glance back in the direction from which she had come, she noticed the snow was beginning to pile into high drifts along the roadway. No one would come calling in this storm, she thought miserably. Not that anyone ever came anyway.
This land was almost cut off from the rest of the world. The sea was too treacherous for visitors to reach her home from that direction, and the roads were rocky and craggy—even in summer they were often washed out and in bad repair.
Valentina sighed heavily, feeling a chill that was only partially induced by the cold. Walking up the front steps, she entered the dark, gloomy house, knowing her ever-faithful maid, Salamar, would be waiting for her. She longed for the time her father and mother would return to England. They were traveling the world and she never knew where they were until an occasional letter arrived from some distant country.
Valentina had been living with her grandmother, who had died the night of Valentina's nineteenth birthday. Now Salamar was Valentina's only companion. She had never felt so alone in her life and she hoped fervently that her parents would soon come home or arrange for her to join them.
Forces were already at work that would bring together this daughter of the cold North land and this son of the golden country. The time would come when Valentina would stir Marquis's Spanish blood to the boiling point and their lives would be played out amid the splendor of a golden paradise.
The hauntingly exotic music sounded strangely out of place filtering through the windows of the English cottage. A dark-skinned woman, sitting cross-legged on the faded rug and plucking the strings of the
, watched as her pupil whirled around the floor in a flurry of red silk.
The knowledge that Valentina had far surpassed her teachings made Salamar's dark eyes sparkle with wonder. The young English maiden had a wonderful talent that one rarely found in a dancer. Each movement she made was like poetry. Valentina's waist-length, golden hair swirled around her in a soft curtain of sunlight. Her eyes were such a light color blue that they seemed almost transparent silver. At the moment, those eyes were gleaming with wild abandon and excitement. As Valentina turned and whirled, her well-shaped legs were faintly visible through the filmy material of the costume Salamar had made for her.
Salamar realized for the first time that her charge had grown into a lovely young woman. As she observed Valentina moving her hips so that the beads at her waist made a jingling sound, Salamar wondered why she had not noticed before how beautiful the girl had become.
As Valentina dipped down in a final, graceful curtsy and the last chord of music faded away, Salamar laid her instrument aside and smiled proudly.
"You are magnificent. I have never seen anyone dance as well as you—not even your mother. If you were in a harem, the sultan would make you his favorite, perhaps even his wife."
Valentina's cheeks were flushed with excitement, and she took a deep breath to slow her exhilarated heartbeat. "Do you mean it, Salamar? Am I really that good?"
"Yours is a true gift."
Valentina dropped down on the floor, unfastened the tinkling bangles from her wrist, then handed them to Salamar. "I love dancing, but I will never be as good as Mother was when she danced. She was the best."
Valentina's mother, Evonne, had been born and raised in a small village in southern France. Evonne's father had been a dance master who had taught his daughter to dance the ballet. Her talent had been boundless. When Evonne was but nineteen, she became the rage of Paris. Since it was considered risqué to dance on stage, Evonne had changed her name to Jordanna. As the dancer Jordanna, she had obtained fame and had been heralded as the greatest dancer who had ever lived. She had been courted by dukes and princes alike; she had been showered with jewels and expensive gifts. She had danced for kings and queens all over Europe. Once she had danced in Saint Petersburg and Czar Nicholas had come to every performance.
One day, with no warning, Jordanna simply dropped out of sight, taking her maid, Salamar, with her. Her audiences were never to see or hear of her again. A search was made to find her, but no trace was ever discovered— she had just disappeared. What the people did not know was that Evonne had met and fallen in love with a handsome, dashing, Englishman, Ward Barrett, who had swept Evonne across the English Channel, where they had married. Theirs had been a magical romance. Valentina was the result of their union.
"You are a much more dedicated dancer than your mother ever was," Salamar stated. "She danced only because her father expected it of her. You dance because you love it. You are not restricted to just the ballet as your mother was. You have mastered all the dances I taught you."
Valentina glanced at her maid, her only friend and companion. Salamar's story was a sad one. She had been born in a sultan's palace in Turkey. Her mother had been one of the sultan's favorites, and Salamar was their daughter. After the old sultan died, his jealous young son had rounded up all his father's women, selling them into slavery.
Valentina had often been told how Salamar had first come to her family. Twenty-one years had passed since Valentina's grandfather had been traveling in Arabia. When he chanced upon a slave auction that was being held in a public street, he had been horrified that people could be bought and sold like cattle. He was never to know why he bought the young fourteen-year-old who was being degraded and poked by many leering men. Perhaps it was because the young girl had been the same age as his daughter. Valentina's grandfather had purchased Salamar with the intention of giving her her freedom. But at the time he could not make Salamar understand that she was free to go where she wanted.
Alone and frightened, in a foreign land, Salamar had followed him, not understanding what was happening to her. Finally, Evonne's father decided he would send the girl home to France as a maid for his daughter. Salamar had been educated with Evonne and had proved to be eager and intelligent, mastering several different languages. When Evonne had run away to marry Ward Barrett, she had taken Salamar to England with her. Since the day Valentina had first drawn air into her lungs, Salamar had loved and cared for her.
Valentina's father, Ward Barrett, was a wanderer. The only son of a wealthy English family, he was too restless to settle down in one place. Evonne adored her husband and gladly went everywhere with him. Even Valentina's arrival did not stop the young couple from traveling; they simply bundled up their daughter and took her and Salamar with them. By-the time Valentina was ten years old, she had seen half the world.
When Valentina was twelve, she, Salamar, and her parents came home to Cornwall for a visit with her English grandmother. As they were preparing to leave, Valentina's grandmother had insisted that her granddaughter remain with her so the child could receive a proper education. Valentina had been devastated when her parents had reluctantly agreed.
The long years passed with Valentina seeing her parents only at the Christmas season. Letters would reach her from faraway places and she received gifts from all over the world. Valentina's growing-up years would have been very lonely if it had not been for Salamar. The maid created fun for her charge. They talked about distant places they had visited, and both longed for the day when they would join Valentina's parents again.
While Salamar had lived in the harem, which had consisted of women of many nationalities, she had learned the dances of many countries. She had passed on her knowledge of those dances to Valentina. Valentina could perform the Dance of the Seven Veils, Gypsy dances, Spanish dances, and endless others. And Valentina's mother had instructed her daughter in ballet.
Because it was so isolated in Cornwall, Valentina had been allowed to wear the gauzy veils and costumes that Salamar had made for her. Slipping on the finger cymbals, she would swing her hips in an enticing manner while dancing her loneliness away. Valentina's grandmother had not approved of her dancing, but she had loved the child and had been very indulgent. She had seen that her granddaughter was wasting away with loneliness, so she had finally allowed her to practice the dance. She had insisted, however, that Valentina finish her other lessons each day before commencing the instruction in dance. Now Valentina was nineteen and Salamar insisted that she could out dance her mother.
Last spring Valentina's grandmother had taken ill and within three weeks had died, and still Valentina grieved. The loneliness was almost like a physical pain. She had the feeling she and Salamar were living on an island, alone and deserted.
Now Valentina rose and moved across the room. "I'm going to change my gown so I can meet the mail coach. Perhaps there will be a letter from my parents today."
Sadly, Salamar watched Valentina leave the room. Shaking her head, she felt heartache for this girl who had been all but abandoned. Salamar knew Valentina's parents loved her, but they were like children chasing rainbows, forgetting that they had responsibilities in England.
When Valentina returned from meeting the mail coach, there was no need for Salamar to ask if she had received a letter. The dejected look on her face told the grim story.
Following Valentina into the kitchen, Salamar watched her remove her cape and hang it on a hook. "I have some nice hot stew for you, Valentina. After you have eaten, you will feel much better about everything."
Valentina shook her head. "I'm not hungry. I don't want anything to eat."
Glancing out the window, the young girl thought how dreary the landscape was. The dark storm clouds grimly predicted it would snow again before morning. The sun had not come out in over a month. Even the cheery fire blazing in the kitchen hearth did little to dispel the gloom that hung over the house.
Salamar took Valentina's arm, gently pushing her down in a chair. "You must keep up your strength. When your mother and father send for you, you will not want to be suffering from ill health."
Valentina nodded in agreement but ignored the stew and hot bread dripping with butter and wild honey in favor of a cup of steaming, cream-laced tea. Rising from the table, she carried her cup over to the window and stared down the road, wishing someone—anyone— would come to see her. She had not seen anyone besides Salamar and the mail carrier in over three months.
"You must come away from that window or you might become chilled," Salamar scolded mildly.
"What does it matter? Who would know or care?" Valentina answered in a rare burst of self-pity. Usually her disposition was sunny and she smiled readily, but today she was overcome by misery.
"It is not good to dwell on unhappy thoughts, Valentina. Think instead of pleasing things. In my father's harem, I knew a woman who could project herself into any place she wanted to be. If she wanted to be atop a mountain, she would just close her eyes and describe it to us in detail. She could describe a sunset and actually make us see it. She taught me how to do this, and I will teach it to you."
"No. I do not want to live in a world of dreams and shadows. I want to feel life through every pore of my skin. I want to feel the sun on my face. I want to be in a land green and alive with life."
"Perhaps it is better that I do not teach you to project your thoughts," Salamar agreed. "I believe that you will soon be happy without weaving magic dreams."
Valentina's face brightened. "Tell my fortune, Salamar. Please tell me what will happen to me in the future," she begged, knowing Salamar sometimes had the uncanny ability to predict coming events.
"No, I will not. I told you many times before that I will not look ahead for you. If it is bad, I do not want to know about it."
"Why?" Valentina demanded. "Perhaps you will see something good."
"You know that I never tell the fortunes of the people I love," Salamar declared stubbornly.
Valentina frowned, aware that once Salamar made up her mind about something it was useless to try to change it. "Could anything be worse than the life I'm living now.'
Seeing Valentina's disappointment, Salamar reluctantly motioned for the girl to join her at the table. "Very well, but I will not tell you if I do not like what I see." When they were both seated at the kitchen table, Valentina watched Salamar's face closely, expectantly.
The maid picked up Valentina's slender hand and gripped it tightly. Valentina had expected Salamar to study her open palm, but instead her grip tightened and she stared into Valentina's face.
"I see in the near future a long journey by sea," Salamar began. "The way is not clear, but you will enter a golden country . . . this is not clear either."
Valentina stared at Salamar's arresting face, trying to see past her heavy-lidded eyes. "Where in this world is there such a place as a golden country, Salamar?"
"It is a far journey to a new world. You will search for that which is lost to you." Salamar's voice was trancelike and sounded far away.
"I don't understand; what new world?"
"I see sadness. . . ." Salamar's voice trailed off. "This isn't clear. . . ." Salamar tightened her grip on Valentina's hand. "I see fame, adoration. You will be worshiped by many men, but you will love only one. This man will love you as two people, then he will reject you as both."
Salamar's face whitened, as if she had been drained. Releasing Valentina's hand, she leaned back in her chair, trying to regain her strength.
"What does it all mean, Salamar? What golden country, and who will worship me? Will I end up with the man I love? What do you mean, he will love me as two people?"
"I will say no more than this." Salamar lowered her dark eyes, and watched Valentina closely. "Tomorrow will bring a letter, and soon you will begin your journey."
Valentina's heart was beating with excitement. "Will you come with me, Salamar? I will not leave without you."
"Yes, I will come with you."
"Can you not tell me what the prediction means?" It made no sense to Valentina. What was the vague promise of love? Where was the golden land?
"No, I will tell you no more. It was a mistake to have gazed into your future. It does no good to see these things." Suddenly Salamar smiled and it seemed to ease the troubled wrinkles about her mouth. Reaching out, she drew Valentina into her arms. "You are the child I could never have. I will stand by you in all your troubles. I will help you all I can."
No matter how Valentina begged, Salamar would say no more on the subject. That night in bed, Valentina stared into the darkness, wondering what the future held for her. Perhaps Salamar was only playing a game with her. Yes, that was it, she reasoned. She had just been trying to entertain her so she would forget about her loneliness. Valentina would know tomorrow if Salamar had indeed seen into the future. If the mail coach brought her a letter, she would believe.