Authors: Mallory Kane
Tags: #romance, #Historical Romance, #holiday, #christmas
This novella is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents and products of the author's imagination, or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
This updated edition is copyright, 2014 by Mallory Kane. A previous edition was published by Diskus Publishing in the anthology entitled,
Cover, copyright 2014, by Mallory Kane
This novella is dedicated to my New Orleans best bud, Deborah Cox.
Christmas Eve, 1847
he change in the rhythm of the wheels woke Lorilla Harmon. She straightened and winced as her back muscles protested. Squinting against the late afternoon sunlight, she thought about her dream and frowned. She'd been back there, under Ray's thumb, little more than a maidservant to him and his sons, her stepbrothers.
The wagon hit a bump and her woolen shawl almost slipped from around her shoulders. She was certainly no longer in St. Louis. For the past five months, she'd traveled with a wagon train headed to Santa Fe, New Mexico, over some of the roughest, most dangerous terrain in the entire country.
The middle-aged priest who had traveled with her from Pueblo Mission nodded toward the horizon. "Look, Miss Harmon," he said.
Lorilla craned her neck but all she saw were the other wagons and the same red hills she had seen for days. Red hills and odd, dark green trees. But then, her eyes were drawn to a patch of paler red.
"Oh, look!" she cried. "A town. That's Santa Fe, isn't it?"
The cluster of rose-colored buildings sat nestled in a valley. As the wagons rolled slowly on, Lorilla sat up straighter, stretching her cramped limbs. "It's larger than I expected."
"Well, it's certainly not as large as St. Louis."
"No," Lorilla shook her head. "But then, I never saw that much of St. Louis." She kept her eyes peeled as the splotches of color grew closer and turned into buildings.
"Oh," breathed the priest as they turned onto the main road into town. "The church."
At the far end of the road stood a pink building with twin towers and a tall steeple. The other low buildings, with their arched doorways and unpainted boardwalks, faded to a blur. She would be married there.
. For five months, she had dreamed about this day, and now she was here. Moistening her dry lips with her tongue, Lorilla squeezed her hands together and wondered, for the hundredth time since she'd set out on this long journey, if she'd done the right thing. Although she really hadn't a choice.
As the wagons rolled down the street, Lorilla saw a crowd of people in the courtyard in front of the church. "What are all the people doing?"
The priest smiled. "Today is
, Christmas Eve. There have been celebrations all week. Tonight they will hold the
Miso de Gallo
, the Rooster Mass. Then tomorrow, Christmas Day, is observed as a day of rest."
," Lorilla said softly. "Christmas Eve," A pang of loneliness gripped her and her eyes stung and her chest ached with barely concealed panic.
"Miss Harmon, is something wrong?"
"No, no," she said tightly. "I just realized how far I am, from…" her voice died.
Lorilla shook her head as she blinked back tears. She had not cried yet, and she would not cry now.
? No. Not home. How could she explain to the priest that she hadn't truly had a home since her mother had died when she was eleven? In the years since, she'd kept house for her stepfather and her half-brothers. Her stepfather considered her a burden, excess baggage, suffered only for the work she did.
Lorilla fought the panic that threatened to overwhelm her. She'd had five months to prepare for this day. But she wasn't ready. The man she'd traveled cross-country to marry was a stranger.
"I don't even know him," she whispered. She heard the faint sigh from the priest. This wasn't the first time she'd said that to him.
"Miss Harmon, many very good marriages are arranged ahead of time," he said patiently. "Just remember what the Bible says about your duties as a wife. And don't forget, you may always come to the Church for solace."
"Thank you, Father. That is a comfort." Lorilla sent up a prayer of forgiveness for the lie. The priest's words did nothing to ease her fears.
"Tell me again what you know of Gabriel Beltran."
Father O'Malley smiled. "You've heard the little I know a dozen times, child. He is wealthy. He is respected. He's a good man."
A good man
. After years of hearing people refer to her stepfather, Ray Stegall, as a good man, those three words did not give her solace.
"Well," the priest said, as the wagon creaked to a halt, and men began unloading supplies. "Here we are. I must say I'm curious about the church. May I help you with your things?"
"Yes, thank --"
"Senora Lorilla Harmon?"
Lorilla started at the sound of her name. She turned and met the bright, black gaze of a wizened little man.
"Yes?" she responded cautiously. "I'm Lorilla Harmon." Her heart raced. Her throat closed in apprehension. "Are you Gabriel Beltran?"
"Buenos Dias, Senora. I am Benito la Hoya." He removed the straight-brimmed black hat he wore and inclined his head slightly, then gestured to someone.
Lorilla allowed Benito to help her down from the wagon. She groaned as her cramped muscles protested and straightened gratefully once her feet were firmly planted on the ground.
"Adios, Miss Harmon," Father O'Malley said. "God be with you."
She smiled gratefully at him. "Thank you, Father."
Lorilla turned, relieved to hear a woman's voice. Her relief soon gave way to panic as several black-haired women surrounded her and herded her off with them. Helpless to resist their insistent urging and confused by their lyrical chatter of which she understood not a word, Lorilla found herself taken around the back of the church into a small room.
"What are you doing?" she asked, over and over again. "Where are we going?"
But the women just buzzed around her like bees around their queen. An ivory lace dress appeared from nowhere, and quick, browned hands removed her dusty traveling dress.
She was led to a bowl and handed a washcloth. "Oh, thank you," she said, and was rewarded with a smile from one of the women. She gratefully washed her face, neck and shoulders. The cool, clean water was heavenly, after days without a bath.
But all too soon, she was hurried into the dress, a comb was applied to her hair, and a beautiful lace mantilla was draped over her head. Then she was led outside and back around to the front of the church.
The wizened little man waited for her.
"Excuse me, Mr. la Hoya?" She brushed her hands down the front of the ivory gown, feeling the sleek material covered with tiny pearls and delicate lace. She took a deep breath. "What's going on?"
"Father Larue and Senor Beltran are waiting."
"Waiting? For what?"
"For the wedding, Senora."
"Wedding? You mean now?" Lorilla gaped at him. "No. No. That's impossible. I need some time. This has all been too fast, too sudden."
Benito's eyes glinted with compassion as he shook his head. "My pardon, Senora, but the Patron, he is ready."
Lorilla looked at him in disbelief. He shrugged, putting a wealth of information in that one gesture.
What can I do
? it said.
I merely work for him
"Yes well, I understand that feeling," she muttered.
She swallowed her apprehension and straightened her aching shoulders. She touched the lace that covered her head and pushed an errant strand of hair back. The gestures calmed her nerves a bit, although nothing could remove the panic that hovered at the edge of her brain. She had traveled all this way in the hope that she could find a better life.
"All right," she said bravely, lifting her chin. "But tell me, Mr. la Hoya? Isn't today Christmas Eve?"
She was to be married on Christmas Eve. She nodded helplessly.
"And you must call me Benito."
"Benito." As he escorted her through the courtyard toward the church, she realized all the people who had been there earlier were gone.
They entered a small foyer that led into the sanctuary of the church. Lorilla stopped, gazing in shocked wonder at the splendor. Even here on the edge of the frontier, the church was magnificent. Stained glass windows lined the walls. Through them jeweled sunlight shone upon the heads of people seated in polished wooden pews, and glinted off the gold-plated altar and statues. Through the dappled darkness, Lorilla recognized the flowing robes of the priest. A tall, dark figure stood next to him.
Oh God, I can't do this
! Panic threatened to steal the last of her breath. She wanted to turn around and run, but there was no place for her to go. "Benito?"
She gestured toward the sanctuary's interior. "Why is everyone here? How did they know?"
Benito shrugged. "Today is the celebration of
. Plus riders reported to the Patron two days ago that the wagons bringing you to Santa Fe would arrive today. So the Patron, he say to prepare you as soon as you arrive, then start the ceremony."
"Oh." Lorilla admitted defeat in the face of Benito's placid logic.
The Patron said so
. Therefore it must be so. She had a feeling those words would govern her life from now on. A hollow, queasy apprehension built in the pit of her stomach. She wasn't at all sure she liked this Patron, who controlled everything, even to the clothes she wore for her wedding.
What had she done? She was here on the promise of a man she had never met, never even spoken to. According to Ray, Gabriel Beltran had seen her from afar and offered for her hand. Five months ago, Lorilla had been entranced by the romance of it, but now, Ray's story sounded weak and implausible.
She stepped into a beam of sunlight, turned red and yellow by the stained glass. Across the heads of the guests, down at the altar, the priest touched the tall man's arm. The man's head jerked up, and with a muted rustle of fabric, every head followed his gaze to look at her. A quiet gasp, then a lyrical murmur swelled. The priest gestured and all was quiet.
Lorilla clutched her hands together in front of her, and took her first step down the aisle. She tried to keep her eyes on the priest, an elderly man whose dark face and hair bespoke his Mexican heritage. But the figure of the tall man drew her gaze. Finally, she was compelled to look at him.
Her first, hazy impression was of a looming figure dressed in black. As she approached, she saw him more clearly. He was taller by a foot than the priest, and his stance was at once arrogant and relaxed. From his polished boots to the broad shoulders of his embroidered jacket, he stood like a proud king, awaiting the homage of his subjects. This was Gabriel Beltran, the Patron.
Lorilla forced herself to look at his face and met shockingly intense blue eyes. His unreadable gaze raked her up and down as she stopped before the altar. She stood, quaking under his fathomless stare, but couldn't tear her gaze from his. He stepped to her side, facing the priest.
His presence beside her was worse than his eyes on her. He towered over her, and she felt the heat from his body. Gabriel Beltran was nothing like she had imagined. The words
to her conjured an image of a kindly gray-haired gentleman. Someone old. The man standing beside her was not old. He was a man in his prime. The thought convulsed Lorilla's dry throat. She swallowed nervously.
The priest murmured in Latin. Lorilla tried to drag her attention away from the patron. She couldn't.
Then, to her shock, Gabriel Beltran bent toward her, his mouth near her ear. Lorilla stiffened, unable to breathe.
"Mrs. Harmon," he said, his rumbling whisper echoing through her body. "Welcome to Santa Fe."
She bit her lip as the priest looked at her expectantly.