Authors: Patricia Hagan
But Amber was not interested in the ring. Something had made her look back to Cord Hayden, still perched on the railing. He was handsome, but in a very different way from Armand. Cord was ruggedly good-looking, his hair windblown, his whole appearance a little disheveled. She thought that his appearance probably matched a reckless spirit.
He was tall and muscular, yet lean and lithe. She wondered whether she remembered the color of his eyes correctly, and then she realized that he had seen her staring at him and was grinning. He tipped his hat, and she looked away, deeply embarrassed.
A cry went up from the crowd as the matador entered the ring, making a few passes with his cape. Valdis explained that these passes were called “veronicas,” meant for the matador to show his skill with the cape and demonstrate his domination over the bull.
The brassy cry of a trumpet split the air, the signal for the picadors to enter the ring. The picadors moved into position and the bull pawed at the ground. Lowering his head, he charged the nearest horse, and the mounted picador reined his steed sharply to one side while he lifted his long steel pike and planted the point between the bull’s neck and shoulder blades.
Amber closed her eyes tightly, wincing every time she heard the crowd boo. They disliked this part of the fight, Valdis whispered, because of their great respect for the bull.
Another bugle blared, signaling the retirement of the picadors and the entrance of the banderilleros.
A wave of screaming filled the air and Amber’s eyes flashed open. Amidst the dust clouds, the banderilleros were trying to get the bull’s attention with shouts and violent gestures. The bull hesitated, then charged, and one of the men twisted his horse to safety at the same instant he planted barbed sticks, decorated at one end with colored paper, into the bull’s shoulders. The crowd, Amber thought wryly, seemed to love that part as much as it had hated the driving of the pics.
The bull emitted a mighty roar as he lunged at one of the men. Then, at the last instant, he changed course and moved to the right, taking one of the other men by surprise. His horns drove into the man’s horse, rupturing his belly.
Amber got to her feet. She had seen enough.
“Sit down!” Valdis ordered, reaching out to grasp her wrist, but Amber twisted away.
She moved toward the stairs, and Maretta gasped, “Oh, Valdis, do something. For a member of the Alezparito family to leave the presidential box is disgraceful! Oh! I’m afraid I may faint.”
“Do whatever makes you feel comfortable,” Amber said over her shoulder as she hastened away. “That is what I am doing.”
Maretta went limp in her chair, and Valdis turned to minister to her—forced, for the moment, to allow Amber to leave.
She made her way down from the box, moving to the outside of the arena. Leaning against the high wooden fence, she lifted her lace fan and waved it rapidly before her face.
She started to run, then realized it was not Valdis calling to her, but Armand.
As Armand reached her, he clutched her shoulders, looking at her searchingly. “Are you ill?”
“In a way,” she told him bluntly. “It made me sick to see that horse being gored. I just couldn’t watch anymore. I’m sorry. Please go back inside and do what you have to do. I’m going to wait out here.”
“Now listen to me.” He gripped her tighter, forcing her to meet his steady, unwavering gaze. “I was afraid of this. You must understand that the killing of the horses in the ring is indefensible. But it sometimes happens. I can understand your revulsion, but please, my moonstar, return to the box. I have to know that you are watching me today.”
She looked at him in surprise. “Do you know what you are asking of me? I don’t like any of this.” She shook her head firmly.
He grinned, squeezing her shoulders. “This is my world, Amber, and now it is your world also. You must learn to live in it. Please return to your seat. I ask you to do this for the friendship that grows between us.”
She looked confused. “Armand, we just met last night, and—”
“Something is happening to us,” he interrupted, cupping her chin in his hand, his eyes shining into hers. “You feel it. I feel it.” He shuddered involuntarily. “God, but you are beautiful. I must go now, before I forget where we are. Please, say you will go back inside. I will hold you in my heart until we meet again.”
Amber could only nod dizzily.
He released her, bowed slightly, then turned and walked purposefully back into the arena.
Amber stared after him. What was happening to her? There was a frightening emotion within whenever he touched her. What was this feeling taking hold, threatening her?
Just then, Cord Hayden stepped from behind a wooden partition, and Amber gasped, startled. He leaned back against the wall, arms folded across his chest, the play of a smile on his lips. “Well, Miss Forrest, it seems you have gotten yourself into quite a dilemma in a very short time.”
“How long have you been eavesdropping?” she asked coolly, accusingly.
“I wasn’t eavesdropping. Just overhearing. I saw you run out, too, and I was coming to ask if anything was wrong, but Armand got to you first. Now, about your dilemma.” He grinned. “You’ve got yourself caught between Armand Mendosa and Valdis Alezparito, the former a good man, the latter a real mean character. It’s a logical choice for any decent woman, but that same choice would be dangerous.”
She sighed, exasperated. “I really don’t know what you are talking about, Mr. Hayden, nor why you concern yourself with my business.”
“Ordinarily, I wouldn’t,” he answered smoothly. “Armand can usually handle himself where his women are concerned, but this time it’s different. Since meeting you last night, he’s talked of nothing else. I’ve known him a few years, and I’ve never seen him so taken with any woman. I can see why. You’re damn beautiful,” he nodded matter-of-factly, “but you’re also poison because it’s obvious Valdis has designs on you.”
“Well, no one need have designs on me,” she snapped indignantly. “It is my intention to leave Mexico as soon as possible. I’m not interested in Armand in the way you suggest. He’s…my friend. He saved my life. As for Valdis, I hate the man,” she finished, wondering why she had confided so much.
He smiled. “Well, I’m glad to hear all of this. The last thing Armand needs is to lose his head over a woman. Just make sure you let him know he’s just a friend.”
She tilted her head to stare up at him defiantly. “May I ask what is your interest in all of this?”
He shrugged. “Armand is my friend. I don’t want to see him so involved with a woman that he loses his concentration in the ring. When that happens to a matador, when he doesn’t have his mind totally on what he’s doing, he can be killed. I’ve seen it happen.”
He flashed her a grin that she found infuriating. “There will be some problems if he tries to court you. It’s going to be hard for him to visit the Alezparito ranch, because Maretta’s determined to marry him, and Valdis means to make it happen.”
Amber ached to tell him to keep silent. After all, how much did she really know about this man? He might really be a friend of Valdis’s, and if she told him she was scheming to get her stolen money back, he might tell Valdis.
She said tightly, “Thank you for your warning, Mr. Hayden. I assure you that my first concern is also for Armand’s safety, and I think you worry needlessly.”
He smiled in that arrogant manner. “Men do tend to forget themselves when they fall for a pretty face,” he said.
Amber snapped, “And has that ever happened to you, Mr. Hayden? Has a pretty face ever made you forget yourself?”
His dark brown eyes suddenly became stormy, flecked with red. His lips twitched, and it was apparent that she had struck a disconcerting chord.
But the moment passed just as quickly, and Cord Hayden looked at her coolly and smiled. “I would say that it has, Miss Forrest—and that is to my advantage now. While I find you quite appealing, you won’t make me forget a damn thing. But you’ll make me remember plenty.”
Before she could reply, he tipped his hat and walked away. She watched him go, swaggering. She saw, too, that other men instinctively got out of his way as he walked. He was not a man to be crossed.
Now there was a new feeling surging up inside her, this one more disturbing than what she had felt with Armand. It was, she reflected, as though she had felt this before…in another time, another place. But what did that mean?
“There you are!” Valdis’s voice cracked, and rough hands reached out to grasp her arms painfully. He moved her along toward the arena. In an ominous whisper, he said, “I will not have you making a fool of yourself, Amber. You will come inside and sit next to me in the presidential box, and whether you enjoy what you see or not, you will act as though you do. For if you do not, when we get back to the ranch, so help me, I will strip your buttocks bare and thrash you like the willful child you are.”
She looked up at him and gasped, astonished, stumbling as he yanked her along roughly. “You…you wouldn’t dare!” she cried.
“You listen to me.” He ground out the words between clenched teeth. “I own and control everything on that ranch, and everyone—on four legs or two—obeys me. I will whip you until you beg to do my will. Do you understand me?”
Amber could restrain herself no longer. She lashed out, “I understand that you’re a coward and a bully, Valdis, and I will never bend to your will. I would rather die! Don’t you ever threaten me again!”
They had reached the outside of the presidential box. Valdis stopped and looked at her with so much fury that it was all she could do to stop herself from trembling. “Tonight,” he hissed, “you will learn what happens when you dare to defy me.” He pushed her inside the box and into her seat.
Maretta glanced at her reproachfully, then saw Valdis’s face and turned away.
“I am not frightened of you, Valdis,” Amber snapped.
He kept silent, taking his seat without looking at her again.
Amber sat silently, looking straight out into the bullring but not seeing the scene at all. Her mind was turned inward, to the realization that she was in terrible trouble. Valdis was as intent upon having her for his own as a man could be, and everyone around Valdis was frightened of him. What, then, could she expect if she spurned him?
Keeping all expression from her face, knowing how great a mistake it would be to let Valdis know she was afraid of him, Amber willed her emotions aside and told herself to wait until she was alone. She would think this out in a safe place, away from him. For the moment, she would perform, make herself seem fearless and poised. There was, heaven knew, time enough for her jumbled emotions later on.
Amber forgot Valdis as Armand entered the ring. After a moment, her eyes went from Armand to the bull: over a thousand pounds of raw fury. He could, in a short lunge, travel faster than a galloping racehorse. He could toss both a horse and its rider into the air. He could kill a man in a few seconds.
Armand had only fifteen minutes in which to kill the bull. He had to rely on his skill with the cape and his ability to create an illusion.
She watched, heart pounding wildly, as Valdis stiffly explained that this was the third and final act of the bullfight, the most dangerous part.
A scream locked in her throat as she saw Armand, arm raised high, pass his body directly over the bull’s right horn, exposing for daring seconds the femoral artery and vein of his upper thigh. The misjudgment of even an inch could mean the matador’s life.
!” Armand cried, and the crowd responded unison, “
Again and again Armand called out the challenge, and each time he was answered by hundreds of voices making one thunderous cry of approval.
The bull, head down, shoulder muscles pierced by pics and banderillas, snorted and pawed the ground as he watched Armand’s every move.
Armand stepped to his waiting attendant and accepted the heart-shaped cape of scarlet wool. Holding the cape high in the air with one hand, he used his other hand to remove his hat and began to strut in a circle, waving to the screaming crowd.
Pausing before the presidential box, Armand looked up at Amber and smiled.
“He smiles for me!” Maretta cried.
Amber said nothing. Valdis sat in stony silence. Suddenly, Armand waved his hat in the air for a few seconds, and then, with a well-aimed pitch, landed it right in Amber’s lap. With a sweeping bow, he turned to face the waiting bull.
Maretta attempted to stand, but Valdis had seen the movement coming and placed a restraining arm across her, pinning her in her seat. “No,” she cried softly. “He cannot do this to me.”
Amber fingered the little hat, not really understanding the significance of the gesture.
Valdis turned stiffly and said accusingly, “Armand Mendosa has dedicated the bull to you by throwing you his montera. We will discuss this tonight…when we discuss other things,” he added meaningfully.
Amber sighed. None of this was her fault. Her eyes wandered to the railing, and she saw Cord Hayden watching her. He tipped his hat in an “I-told-you-so” gesture. Lifting her chin in dismissal, she looked away.
Armand was working closer to the bull, his passes death-defying before the alternate waves of sound and silence washing down from the stands.