Authors: Patricia Hagan
Amber felt her cheeks flushing, and she turned toward the sound of approaching voices. Her heart beat rapidly as she saw Valdis striding purposefully toward them, looking quite angry. Maretta was hurrying after him, trying to keep up.
“Mendosa!” Valdis’s voice boomed. “What is the meaning of this? How dare you lure my stepsister down here!” He came to a halt a few feet from them and stood, feet spread wide apart, hands on hips.
Armand did not back away before Valdis. He was unintimidated by Valdis’s heavier build. “We do nothing wrong, Valdis,” he said tightly. “And I did not ‘lure’ her here.”
Maretta’s face was twisted in anger. Shaking a fist in Amber’s direction, she said to Armand, “Amber lacks the proper breeding to know it is indecent to be alone with a man, but you, Armand, you should know better.”
“Now wait a minute.” Amber was less nervous, and growing angry. “I resent your insulting my breeding. And I only met Armand when he saved my life!”
“Silence!” Valdis roared.
“I will not be silent!” Amber raged, furious. She was not used to being spoken to that way. “We have not been doing anything wrong, and I resent your insinuations.”
Valdis’s lips curled in a snarl, and he whispered raggedly, “You try my patience, Amber. I gave this fiesta for you, and you have brought shame upon my house. Now go to your room and remain there. I will deal with Armand.”
Amber stood her ground. “I will not be sent to my room like a naughty child, Valdis. Just who do you think you are?” she snapped, undaunted by his fiery gaze. “I told you. Armand saved my life. I went for a walk and accidently wandered into one of the bull pens. I might have been killed if he hadn’t happened along. He distracted the bull so I could escape.”
“So you just happened along, eh?” Valdis glared at Armand.
Armand’s eyes twinkled as he goaded Valdis. “
. It is but a short walk on the eastern side of your property, Valdis. Remember?”
Valdis struggled with his temper, trying to ignore the reminder that he did not control that particular border. “She went into the pens? You fought one of my seed bulls? Which one?”
Armand’s grin spread. “Chico. He was not so bad. I think perhaps he mellows with age.”
“And I think you grow more insolent with age,” Valdis hollered. To Amber, he snapped, “You should not have been walking about alone. There are many dangers. Now you have not only caused me embarrassment, but—” Abruptly, he stopped. Taking a deep breath, he covered his face with his hands as he struggled for control. A stiff smile on his lips, he looked at Armand and Amber in turn and said wearily, “Enough. Let us all go inside now. There are guests waiting to meet you, Amber, and my sister has been waiting to dance with you, Armand. Let us attempt to have a pleasant evening.”
Maretta moved quickly, slipping her fingers around Armand’s arm. With an apologetic nod to Amber, Armand turned and led Maretta toward the house.
Valdis held out his arm to Amber, but she made no move to take it. Chuckling softly, he reached out and took her hand and placed it in the crook of his arm, pressing down to hold it tightly against his side. “We will join the others, little sister,” he murmured. “I wish to be the envy of every man in the valley.”
“And I wish to retire for the evening,” Amber snapped. “I am quite tired after my…ordeal.”
Ignoring his pleas, Amber jerked her hand away, lifted her skirts, and, avoiding the terrace and the party, hurried to a side entrance. She made her way quickly upstairs. Entering the privacy of her room, she locked the door and sighed with relief. Oh, how long would it be before she could leave this place? Valdis was insufferable, and Maretta was just as bad. If only she could find her money and be on her way!
Sudden thoughts of Armand washed over her: memories of his kiss, of the feelings he had evoked. Even in the moonlight, she had known he was handsome, but when they stepped into the glow of torches along the terrace, she had realized he was truly beautiful. Here was a quandary, she told herself. Did he really find her attractive, or was he, a celebrated matador and probably sought after by many women, merely enjoying another flirtation?
What difference did it make? She shook her head. She was leaving soon. Why worry about it?
Stepping behind the dressing screen, she removed her gown and put on the satin robe Dolita had laid out for her. She then moved through the balcony doors. The night was still beautiful, with a mellow sheen of moonlight and a soft breeze.
“My moonstar! You do exist! It was not a dream!”
The softly laughing voice startled her, but she quickly gripped the wrought iron railing and leaned over to see Armand standing below, arms folded across his chest, smiling up at her.
“I found the fiesta intolerable without you,” he called softly, “and since I do have to fight in the ring tomorrow, I will slip away now and get my rest. But I wanted to see you once more. I am afraid,” he added mischievously, “that your stepsister will be waiting rather a long time for the sangria she thinks I went to get her.”
Amber giggled. “You flirt with danger in your public and your private life, too, don’t you?” she teased.
He nodded happily. “But I much prefer fighting a bull. The odds are much better.”
They laughed together. Then, suddenly, their eyes met. Gazes riveted on each other, they fell silent. After a moment, Armand called softly, “You will come tomorrow. Please?”
Amber nodded. “I will, because you asked me to, Armand.”
“Aha!” His wide grin broke the mood. “If you do everything I ask, then I have no problems, eh?”
Amber blushed, calling, “Yes! I mean—oh, Armand, you confuse me!”
With one last grin, he bowed, blew her a kiss, then spun about and disappeared into the shadows.
Amber stepped inside and closed the doors, feeling warm and happy. Perhaps there was no future in this, but for however long she was in Mexico, was there really any harm in being happy?
The desert winds blowing lazily from the Sierra de la Madera were hot, giving no respite from the oppressive heat of the crowded arena.
Amber, in the presidential box high above the other spectators, waved her lace fan limply. Nothing, she thought, would help except for an improbable icy wind from the north.
Beside Amber, Valdis sat ramrod straight, his head held high, looking out over the multitude below him.
Amber glanced at Maretta, who sat on the other side of her brother. Maretta’s eyes were shining with the happy anticipation of what was to come, and Amber wondered for the hundredth time how anyone could actually enjoy these spectacles.
Valdis suddenly leaned over and covered Amber’s hand with his, but she snatched her hand away. He chuckled. “You are like a frightened little bird, lovely one. Do not be. I will explain everything that takes place.”
“That won’t be necessary,” she said tightly. “I’m not interested, Valdis. I should not have come.”
“Ah, but you should have,” he said quickly, a note of reproach in his tone. “It is expected of the Alezparito family. For many years, we have accepted from time to time the invitation of the president to represent him here in his box. It is an honor bestowed on our family because of my father’s glorious name.”
He turned abruptly to Maretta, who seemed to be waiting for him to do so. As he nodded, she stood up and, with a single swift gesture, raised her white lace handkerchief and released it to flutter gently to the ground below. The crowd screamed with delight, and Valdis said to Amber, “It is the signal to begin the parade to open the day’s corrida. Allegra usually gives the signal, but I felt it best she remain at home today.” His expression grew dark. “She becomes more and more senile every day. I am afraid she will embarrass us if I allow her to be seen in public.”
Amber started to speak up hotly, then decided it would do Allegra no good. She kept silent. She knew very well that Valdis was deliberately keeping Allegra locked away from her.
Trumpets shrilled above the din, and Valdis leaned so close that Amber cringed. Excited, he explained, “See the two men riding out from under those arches? They are leading the procession, which heralds the entrance of the matadors.”
As Valdis continued to speak, Amber scanned the procession entering the arena. The horses were prancing to stirring martial music. All around, people were screaming, arms waving as, suddenly, the three matadors of the day emerged from beneath the arch, each riding a splendid mount. Resplendent in costumes heavy with gold and silver embroidery, parade capes slung over their shoulders, they were a stirring sight.
The matadors were preceded by the banderilleros, whose costumes were similar to the matadors’ but lacked the gold embroidery. The picadors wore broad-brimmed, low-crowned, beige hats, and costumes also similar to the matadors’. “See the steel armor sticking out from beneath their trousers on their right legs?” Valdis pointed to one of the picadors. “It is made of steel one-eighth of an inch thick and goes from hip to ankle. On their other leg, the armor is only knee-length. Their trousers are made of heavy chamois, and they also wear thick, protective chamois ankle boots.”
As the matadors, still on horseback, approached the presidential box, the crowd roared deafeningly. The three men removed their hats and bowed. Amber felt a sudden rush as her eyes met Armand’s eyes. He smiled, and she knew he was addressing himself to her alone. She could feel Maretta’s angry look, but would not let herself care. Armand had been kind to her, and after all the sadness she had known, she was grateful.
Her eyes moved over him. Strong, muscular thighs strained beneath skintight, knee-length trousers of richly embroidered satin. He wore a hand-drawn linen lace shirtwaist, coral pink stockings of heavy silk, and flat black slippers. His hat was made of tiny, black silk chenille balls, hand-sewn on heavy buckram. His sleek black hair was tied back in braids at the nape of his neck. His whole being exuded courage and strength, Amber reflected, a warm flush moving through her. She flashed a happy smile in his direction, which he returned eagerly.
A moment later, the matadors whirled their horses about and returned to the procession. As they moved away, Maretta whispered to Valdis, “He is so beautiful. I must marry him soon. Make it happen, my brother.”
“It will happen,” he said coldly, grimly. “Only be patient.”
Amber pretended not to hear them. She gave her full concentration to the matadors, who were removing their heavy parade capes and handing them to attendants. The attendants spread the capes along the front of the wall that protected the first rows of seats. While this was being done, other men moved quickly to smooth the sand, which had been disturbed by the procession.
One of the matadors selected a heavy cape, and Valdis said it was a fighting cape. It was rose-colored on the outside, bright yellow on the inside, with a big, wide, stiff collar, and long enough to fall to a man’s knees. The matador took the cape and went to stand behind a little, flat wooden shelter outside the ring. It was wide enough, she noted, for two men to stand in but barely narrow enough to dodge behind.
Valdis explained as the
rode toward the presidential box. “They come for the key to the red door, the
, where the bull is kept.”
Maretta stood, dropping the key, and to the delight of the crowd, one of the men caught it in his plumed hat. Quickly, he turned and galloped across the ring to hand the key to another man who stood outside the red door. Then he trotted his horse back to the box and saluted Maretta before riding out of the ring. Once more, men hurried forward to sweep away the traces of the horse’s hooves from the sand.
A hush fell over the arena. All eyes were upon the red door. The man holding the key looked at Maretta, and when she gave the signal, he moved to unlock the door, then ran backward. The passageway opened.
The bull appeared in a great cloud of dust and the roll of thunder Amber remembered from her narrow escape. As he passed through the gate, she recognized Cord Hayden astride the railing above. He boldly attached a silken rosette to the harness around the bull’s shoulders.
Maretta swore, and Valdis hissed at her reproachfully. “I cannot help it,” she cried. “I hate that man. He is evil.”
“It is his job to attach the rosette,” Valdis reminded her, then whispered, “Restrain yourself, Maretta. When we are seated in this box, everyone watches us and hears what we say. I agree the man is evil, but this is not the place to say so.”
Amber could not resist goading them. “I think Mr. Hayden is quite nice. He helped Armand save me from the bull last night.”
Valdis tried to quiet her with a look, but she asked, “Why did he put the flower on the bull?”
“It is a red silk rosette,” Valdis said tightly. “Red is the color of our ranch. It identifies the bull as Alezparito stock.”
Maretta sniffed. “She would defend him. They are both Americans.”
“Enough,” Valdis snapped, and Maretta fell silent. But she glared at Amber once more before returning her attention to the ring.
The bull moved slowly, staring belligerently around. A banderillero waved a bright red cape, and the great beast charged.
“He does this,” Valdis quickly explained, “so that the matador may watch and judge whether he shows any preference in his horns, and also whether he attacks from both sides.”