Authors: Patricia Hagan
For my sister Eleanor Hagan Leland, who loaned me her faith, borrowed my humor, shared good times and bad, and gave me the love and patience only a big sister can bestow upon a little sister.
The young woman sat alone on the worn leather seat, her gaze transfixed through the grimy train window. Lost in her thoughts, she was unaware of the admiring glances men had given her during the long journey, the envious stares of female passengers. But Amber Forrest had never dwelled on her looks. She supposed she was as attractive as any girl of nineteen. She neither grimaced nor fawned over her mirror reflection. A bit on the slender side, she was occasionally sorry not to be larger and stronger. Her diminutive size sometimes restricted her.
Across the aisle, unnoticed by Amber, a well-dressed, prosperous-looking young man stared openly, thinking she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Now and then his fingers opened and closed, as though he longed to entwine them in the silky mass of silver hair trailing wistfully round her face and slender shoulders. He had never seen hair like that before.
She had glanced in his direction only once, and he gasped as she smiled absently at him, bright blue eyes sparkling beneath long, silky lashes. How could anyone have such incredibly long lashes, he wondered. And her ivory-smooth skin. How he longed to touch her, to trail his fingertips down those satin cheeks. Her lips were full, almost but not quite petulant. She wore a traveling dress of lime velvet, and he could see that, despite her petite build, there was a definite swell to her bosom. Yes, she would have nice breasts. Once more his hands opened and closed and his chest rose with a quick intake of breath.
The most beautiful creature he had ever seen.
He could contain himself no longer. He had to meet the goddess. He lifted his hand to his lips and cleared his throat. “Is this your first trip to Mexico, miss?” he asked in what he hoped was a pleasant but masterful voice.
Amber turned to stare at him curiously, blinking as though seeing him for the first time. “I beg your pardon?” It was not proper for a young lady to speak with a stranger. Grandma had always said so.
“I said, is this your first trip to Mexico?” He flashed a bright smile, leaning closer to the aisle, eager.
Amber nodded silently, then turned her gaze resolutely back to the window.
The man stiffened. He would not give up so easily. “Where are you going?” he asked boldly. “To visit relatives?”
Amber sighed. She did not want to be rude, could not remember being rude in her whole life. And what harm, she wondered, would it do to speak to the man? He was probably feeling as lonely as she was—though she had not been feeling sorry for herself because she was so excited to be seeing her father again after all these years. Turning to look at him, she murmured shyly, “I am getting off the train at a place called Suevlo.”
“Suevlo?” he echoed loudly. She moved back in her seat. Laughing softly, he gestured and said, “Don’t be frightened. I was surprised, that’s all. Suevlo isn’t anywhere at all. It’s in the middle of a wilderness. I hoped you were going all the way to Mexico City.”
“No,” Amber said quickly, shaking her head. “I am being met by my father…and my new family. They have a large ranch and breed bulls for fighting in Mexico City bullrings.”
“Do you think you will be coming to Mexico City?” he asked, too eagerly. Amber withdrew again. Scribbling down his name and a hotel address on a scrap of paper, he held it out to her. “Here. If you do get there, be sure to look me up. I would be honored to take you to dinner.”
Reluctantly, Amber took the paper, knowing she would throw it away later. “Thank you,” she said coolly, then added hastily, “If you will excuse me, I would like to take a nap now.”
She turned her back to him, settling down in the seat, her face to the window. For a long time she could feel his eyes on her, hear his agitated breathing. She knew he wanted the conversation to continue, and she hoped he was not hurt.
Amber allowed her mind to wander back to her childhood. She had been only twelve when her mother died. Her father left her in Louisiana in the care of her maternal grandmother and went to Mexico. He had seldom written, and Grandma hinted that he would never return, as much as saying that he had abandoned Amber. One day, there was a letter, telling of his marriage to the wealthy widow Allegra Alezparito.
Amber would not let herself believe that her father had abandoned her. After all, he had written that when her schooling was finished, he would send her the money to join him in Mexico. He wrote page after page describing the happy life she would have on the bull ranch. She read that letter until it was worn to tatters, for through the next years there were only a few lines at Christmas and on her birthday.
Life with her grandmother was far from happy. The old woman insisted that they live in almost total seclusion. Amber was not allowed friends, and heaven help any young man who dared to come calling! Grandma chased people from the front porch with a corn shuck broom. Their only outings were church on Sundays and occasional shopping trips to town. Even church socials were forbidden. Grandma did not hold with square dancing or picnics or other frivolous activities.
Amber counted the years, then months, until she could escape her miserable life. But just when freedom drew near, her grandmother took to her bed and stayed there for two long years before she died. Amber nursed her night and day, pushing her dreams far into the recesses of her mind.
When the old woman died, Amber sent a wire to her father. The response was immediate. He regretted that he was unable to be there for the funeral, but he enclosed money for Amber’s train ticket. No one attended the funeral except Amber, the preacher, and a few church members. A day after her grandmother was buried, Amber hastily disposed of her grandmother’s small home and belongings.
What lay ahead? Her father had told her she would love life on the ranch in Mexico, and he had mentioned that his wife had a son, Valdis, in his twenties, and a daughter, Maretta. How she hoped they would all be close; a real, loving family. Amber had missed all of that.
More exhausted than she realized, she fell asleep. When someone touched her shoulder, gently shaking her awake, she sat up and stared around in bewilderment. Night had fallen, and the conductor was telling her that they were only minutes from her destination.
As the conductor left, Amber thanked her stars that she knew Spanish. It wouldn’t be the first time she would do so. Since her father’s decision to settle in Mexico, she had cherished a hope of someday living with him, and had fed that dream by studying Spanish, getting books however she could, making up conversations with herself, and engaging a storekeeper who knew the language fairly well in endless talks. She smiled now, thinking of his mock exasperation every time she begged him to teach her Spanish. She sent him a silent thank-you.
She quickly gathered her worn tapestry bag and purse. A large trunk containing her clothes was in the baggage compartment. She checked her reflection in the grimy window, patted her hair, then took a deep breath and closed her eyes, whispering a prayer that the future would hold everything she had longed for all those years.
The train slowed, squealing against the iron tracks. The sheltered life was behind her now. She was going to have to learn to face the world, live with other people.
The conductor took her small bag, and she gratefully took the arm he extended. He helped her down the narrow aisle to the door. She wondered if he could feel her trembling. She was so terribly, terribly excited. In a moment she would see her father again. It had been so long.
“I hope someone is meeting you, miss,” the conductor said. “Suevlo isn’t even a town. We don’t stop here unless we have a passenger getting off. I’ll bet we haven’t had one in six months. I don’t think we’ve even dropped off or picked up any mail in that long, either.”
“My father will be here,” she told him, leaning out the door to look up and down the track. There was no real station, only a dark, deserted little shack off to one side.
He released her arm as he stepped down to the ground, reaching behind him for a crude wooden step which he positioned for her. “Well, I don’t see nobody,” he said indifferently. “Maybe they’ll be along in a minute.”
Her trunk was unloaded, and then Amber found herself alone, backing away from the train as it began to strain forward. There was a loud burst of steam, and then it was moving. Then it was gone. She shivered, looking around the darkness. She had sent a wire telling exactly what time she would arrive. Surely, her father would not leave her standing in this godforsaken wilderness?
She jumped, whirling around to see a tall man stepping out of the shadows. There was the sudden pop of a match, and a lantern was lit. He held it above his head, and she could just make out his features. He seemed large. At first glance, he appeared to be handsome, but then she realized that his face was a bit too broad, his forehead too high. And his eyes! She actually shrank at the sight of those deep, intensely staring eyes. In the lantern’s glow she detected…what? Coldness? No. It was something else, something she could not quite identify. She knew instinctively, however, that she did not like it.
He was wearing a dark brown velvet suit, jacket tapering to the waist, and a white shirt. There was a dash of scarlet in the thin cravat at his throat. He wore a flat-crowned, broad-brimmed hat, and when he tipped it she saw that he had thick black hair. His thin black mustache emphasized his Latin features, but she had known that he was Mexican.
He stepped forward and Amber saw that she was only a few inches shorter than he. His build had made him seem taller.
“Yes, I’m Amber Forrest,” she told him, struggling to suppress a feeling of agitation descending over her. “Where is my father?”
“We must go now,” he said quickly, reaching for her bag. “You have other luggage?”
“A trunk…” she whispered. “Please, who are you?”
He had turned to the trunk, but stopped and tipped his hat once more. “Forgive me, señorita. It is late. I am tired. My manners are asleep. I am Valdis Alezparito, your stepbrother. It is not far to the ranch. When we get there, you will meet my mother and she will explain everything. Wait here, please, while I take your trunk to the carriage.”
But Amber couldn’t just stand there. Something was wrong and she knew it. Trailing after him, she cried, “Please. Where is my father? Why didn’t he come?”
He ignored the question. “Your trip was pleasant?” The smile he gave her was forced and his eyes were wary.
Amber once again took note of the strange eyes. She found him very disturbing. “The trip was fine, just fine. But what about my father?”
“My mother will explain to you.” His eyes raked over her, lingering on her bosom, and this time his smile was genuine.
Amber realized that her stepbrother was not going to tell her anything. She did not like the nagging suspicion that was taking hold. Grandma had said that her father drank. Surely he was not intoxicated, this night of all nights?
When they were settled in the carriage, Valdis said, “It is a shame that you arrive in the middle of the night. I would like for you to see the countryside. It is beautiful.”
“I’m sure I will like it here,” she said, more to herself than to him. “It does seem strange to think of making my home in a foreign country. I suppose I’ll get used to it.”
, I am sure you will,” he murmured. In the darkness, Amber could not see his leering smile, his eyes memorizing the lines of her body.
They rode along in silence for a while until Amber felt a nervous need to say something. “What do you do on the ranch, Valdis? Are you a cowboy?”
He laughed, delighted by her innocence. “No, señorita. I am not a vaquero. I run the business of the ranch. You cannot see it from here by moonlight, but we are approaching my land. There are many adobes—of brick that is colored pink—where the vaqueros live. Some of them have families.”
“You have many vaqueros?”
. It is a large ranch. You will be living in the main house, our hacienda, and you will find it quite beautiful. It is built on a slight rise, surrounded by gardens and tall palms.”
Amber was no longer interested in the house because she had caught him saying “my land.” According to her father, Allegra Alezparito had run the ranch since her husband died. A famed matador, he had been killed in a bullfight in Mexico City. Valdis gave the impression of arrogance, as though the ranch belonged exclusively to him.