In Honor Bound

by Kadorienne

Marta had been sweeping a floor that didn't need it — anything to keep herself occupied while she waited — when she heard the back door opening. She swiftly laid down the broom and went into her mistress's bedroom. And there, gazing abstractedly into the mirror, was the Queen of Swords. Alive and unharmed after yet another adventure.

Marta paused briefly in relief before coming to stand behind her mistress and look over her shoulder, joining her in studying the reflection in the long oval mirror. Looking back at them was a trim, tallish woman dressed all in black. Confidence radiated from the set of her shoulders, the black-gloved hand resting on the pommel of the sword at her waist, and the stance of her long legs. But neither the confidence of her demeanour nor the toned muscles of her form, clearly visible in close-fitting black trousers and boots, could detract from the womanliness of her perfectly curved torso and the dark hair flowing past her shoulders, or the sensuality of the mouth beneath the lacy mask that hid her face.

Marta corralled her thoughts back to the moment at hand. "Are you all right, Tessa?"

It was a moment before Tessa replied. Then, with a slight shake of her head, she turned away from the mirror and unbuckled her sword belt. "I'm fine, Marta. I always am."

"So far," Marta added, before she could stop herself.

Tessa's mouth set stubbornly, the way it had since she was a child — not so long ago, really. Marta suppressed a smile at the thought. Ignoring the remark, Tessa went on, "I succeeded. I rescued Dr. Helm."

"I hope he appreciated it," Marta said, a little tartly, as she untied Tessa's mask and then went to work on the lacing of her bodice.

Tessa nodded absently. "Well, I managed to do it without killing anyone. And he agreed not to expose Vera's affair with Capitán Grisham."

"You asked him to?"

"Not exactly. But I pointed out to him what it would do to her, to her life."

"You did that for her sake?" Marta asked sharply, before she could stop herself. When would she ever learn to restrain her jealousy? But Vera Hidalgo was as exquisite as a spring morning. How could anyone, man or woman, resist her allure?

Tessa shrugged. "She's my friend," she said dismissively. "And… I think her secret is safe with Dr. Helm." Tessa's dark eyes grew dreamy. "He said, 'Perhaps some loves should be kept secret.'"

Marta's nimble hands froze in the middle of their task. She stared at her mistress.

The younger woman looked at her after a moment. "You don't like him."

Marta lowered her gaze and went back to unlacing the bodice. "I didn't say that."

Tessa sat down and put up a leg so Marta could pull her boot off. "I can tell you don't."

Marta pulled off the second boot before answering. "What matters is how you feel about him."

The younger woman considered that as she shimmied out of her snug trousers. "I'm not sure," she said at last, pulling on her robe.

"No?"

Tessa turned to look her servant, confidante and friend in the eye. "I'm not sure at all. I kissed him once, did I tell you that? And… I just don't know."

"He seems to care for the Queen of Swords," Marta said carefully. "But can he love Tessa Alvarado?" At the same time, she berated herself. Robert Helm is a good man. Better than most. She could do far worse!

Frustrated, Tessa shrugged. "I don't know what to do. Oh, I wish I were a man!"

"And why is that?"

"Because then I could marry you."

Marta stared at her. Tessa laughed lightly, but there was a wistful note in the sound.

"Why not? You're the only one who—" she held up her mask, "—knows both of me. And accepts us both." Her dark eyes sparkled with mischief. "And you're pretty. Not to mention a great cook."

Since Tessa was so clearly expecting it, Marta picked up a pillow from the bed and threw it at her, her face pink. "Sometimes I wish you weren't too old to spank," she told her mistress.

Tessa had caught the pillow deftly, giggling. But as she lowered it, her expression turned serious.

"Marta. Read the cards for me."

Marta's stomach turned to a flock of butterflies. Slowly, she nodded.

She fetched the cards and the two women sat in the kitchen, facing each other across the small wooden table. Marta clasped the deck in her hands for a moment, contemplating her bond with these inanimate objects which paradoxically had so much life.

It was with a greater weight of portent than usual that she shuffled and began to arrange the cards in the traditional formation her mother had taught her. For so long she had yearned to ask this, but had not dared. If her furtive wishes were not fated to come true, she wished to remain in ignorance so that she could continue to dream.

And reading the cards about a matter one cared about too deeply could be perilous. It was too easy to ignore what the cards said when one did not wish to see it.

Remembering this, Marta offered up a silent prayer for wisdom before she began to turn the cards over.

The first card was the High Priest, followed by the Two and Seven of Swords, and then — a card depicting the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse, a skeleton on horseback holding a scythe. The Death card. Tessa's eyes widened.

Marta shook her head. "These cards are his past. Dr. Helm has a long and frightening past. Much suffering. And much to atone for."

Tessa nodded. "He told me a little about it, once. He killed so many men during the war. He can't forgive himself."

"It seems as if it is more than that."

"More?"

"I do not know what more. But look here — the Hanged Man, and the Hermit. He is… frozen in some way. And his path is a solitary one." Marta drew a breath. All along, she had had a strong feeling that something was not right about the English doctor; there was something uncanny about the man. She had scrupulously avoided criticizing Dr. Helm to her mistress, suspecting her own motives, but the cards could not have been clearer.

Tessa's pretty face was troubled. "Then… who am I destined to love?"

Resigned, Marta turned over more cards. The Queen of Swords, of course, and the King of Cups. "Your destiny, and your duty to protect. These are the most important things for you, not love."

"But love is still important," Tessa whispered.

Marta turned over another card… and her heart plummeted. "The Magician. The Justice card. A man will appear soon. A man who fights the wicked, as you do." Reluctantly, she turned over the last two cards — and caught her breath.

"What?" Tessa leaned forward, anxious. "What do they say?"

"The Page of Cups. He is not the one meant for you. He is to be the messenger, who will help you to find the right one."

"They cards don't say who that is?"

Marta bit her lip. "The last card is the High Priestess. She stands for the wisdom of a woman's soul."

Tessa's generous mouth finally curved in a small smile. "That sounds more like you than like me," she said, her tone one of gentle teasing.

Marta swept the cards up. "I'll heat water. You are going to need a bath; you worked up quite a sweat dueling in this heat."

She left her mistress staring thoughtfully into space.

***

A couple of days later, Marta passed Helm in the market and could not resist giving him a fleeting smile. Whatever the future held, he would not be the one who took Tessa away from her.

Surprised at her friendliness, he turned to look after her. "Good afternoon, uh…."

"Marta," she prompted him cheerfully.

"Marta," he repeated obligingly, and she let her smile widen. She could like the doctor much better now that she knew that he was not Tessa's destiny.

In time, some man probably would be. But that day was deferred, and Marta intended to enjoy it.

He glanced at her basket, overflowing with rich red watered-silk. "Making another dress for Señorita Alvarado, are you? Does she have room in her closet for another?"

Marta laughed. "If she doesn't, she will just build a new closet. Fashionable dresses and parties are all she cares about."

The doctor's mouth twitched in fleeting contempt, and Marta had to stifle the impulse to defend her mistress, even though they had created the persona of the light-minded Tessa Alvarado purposely. "That must be pleasant," he muttered.

"Not every woman can be the Queen of Swords, Dr. Helm," Marta said, covering her tartness with a thin veil of flirtation.

He looked her over with new interest, a slight twinkle in his gray-green eyes. "I suppose not," he said, amused. He took her hand and kissed it with a courtly gesture before striding away through the market.

Marta shook her head indulgently as she went in search of the perfect brocade to set off the watered silk. It was necessary to keep up the façade of Tessa Alvarado, social butterfly. Besides, she enjoyed seeing her mistress resplendent in full finery.

***

Atop a rocky mountain, Creighton grinned wolfishly. Through his telescope, he could see the Oldest Immortal talking and flirting — and with such a pretty lady. After he had taken the Old One's head, he would take his sweetheart's body.

***

As Marta drove the cart back to Casa Alvarado, she found her spirits drooping a little. So Dr. Helm was not the one Tessa would marry. That did not mean there would not be some man, sometime.

And there should be, Marta reminded herself. Love like hers was not unknown among the gypsies, but it did not exist in Tessa's world. Or when it did, it was carefully hidden from the world, not daring to speak its name. A properly reared young lady like Tessa most likely had no idea such a thing existed.

And she was too much of an innocent even to be horrified if she were to find out. But….

Even if she could return Marta's love, did Marta have any right to accept it? To doom the warm-hearted young woman she adored to a lifetime of hiding and secrecy? To deprive her of children?

Absorbed in her pondering, Marta did not notice the thundering hoofbeats until they were quite near. She glanced behind her quickly, and saw a large man with a hard glitter in his eyes and a wide smile that made her nervous, galloping towards her on the back of a dappled grey stallion.

Quickly she slapped the reins on her horse's back, but she already knew her chances weren't good. There was no way this medium gelding could outrun her pursuer's powerful mount. She glanced around the cart for something she could use as a weapon. Only an earthenware jug. She snatched it up, and a moment later, when the man galloped alongside of her and reached out a large, muscular arm for her, she smashed it over his head.

He threw up his arm reflexively and yelled, angry. Her efforts only bought her a few seconds, however. In another moment he had caught up to her once more and dragged her, struggling and scratching, from her seat.

***

When Ichabod Crane disembarked from the merchant ship at Santa Elena, he found the little pueblo already in crisis. Peasants, gentry, and soldiers alike were crowded into the town square, all talking excitedly.

At least whatever had happened kept most of them too occupied to stare at him, even though he was a stranger in a small town. He nervously elbowed his way through the crowd until he caught sight of a trim man with a neatly groomed beard, wearing the uniform of a Spanish colonel. The Colonel was talking to two of the local dons, one an old greybeard, the other stout and approaching middle age, but still robust. Two uniformed soldiers stood behind the Colonel, listening alertly.

His lips pursed with determination, Ichabod made his way to the man. "Pardon my intrusion, Colonel," he said, hoping his still-incomplete Spanish would be up to it. The Colonel broke off mid-sentence and looked at him with irritation. "I am a stranger here. May I ask what is going on?"

"A servant woman was kidnapped. And may I ask who you are, sir?"

Ichabod still could not give false names naturally, but these men would have no reason to doubt his word. "Ian Quirrell, sir."

The words had an impact. The men had given him a brief glance and then waited impatiently for him to go away so they could resume their conversation, but now he had their full attention. "You are Ian Quirrell?"

"None other," Ichabod replied blankly.

The Colonel exchanged a glance with the other men. "Then perhaps you can tell us the meaning of this letter," he said, holding out his hand. One of the soldiers produced it at once, and the Colonel extended it to Ichabod.

Ichabod's eyes widened. It was addressed to "Mr. Ian Quirrell". He reached for it, annoyed that his hand shook.

The Colonel pulled it back. "Excuse me, sir. First I must ask who you are."

"I am a detective," he stammered. "I come from England. I am travelling to collect specimens of plant and animal life throughout the world so that I may classify—"

The Colonel cut him off by handing the letter over.

"Who left this for me?" Ichabod asked as he unfolded it. It had already been opened.

"The kidnapper," the Colonel said acidly. Ichabod looked at him, startled. Before either could say another word, rapid hoofbeats interrupted them. "Señorita Alvarado," the Colonel said in greeting, not looking particularly happy to see her.

Ichabod's first impression of Señorita Alvarado was that she had an excellent seat on horseback. Considering his own poor skill in that area, it was something he noticed. She was comfortable in the saddle, unconsciously melding with the animal in a way he never could, holding the reins with unthinking confidence at odds with her fashionable dress.

She galloped towards them and reined in only a few feet away. "Colonel Montoya, what happened?" Her voice was higher pitched than he'd expected, but perhaps that was anxiety. Her pretty face was distressed, her long dark hair disheveled from the ride. A soldier, who had apparently been sent to summon her, was riding right behind her.

Montoya looked exasperated as the young woman hastily dismounted. When she was on the ground, he explained. "An hour ago, your cart and horse rode back into town without your gypsy cook. This letter," he indicated the paper Ichabod held, "was tied to the seat. I assume it has an explanation or a ransom demand, but it appears to be in German, which nobody here can read. Apparently he wished to make certain that only the letter's intended recipient read it. I trust you read German, Señor Quirrell?"

"Y-yes," Ichabod answered, bending his head to read it. As he did, trepidation settled in. Just as he had feared.

"Well?" the Colonel demanded.

"This man — his name is Creighton. He and I had… a quarrel, back in England. He wishes to duel with me. He will release the lady when I do."

"Well. I am sure you can find someone to loan you a horse to take you to your dueling appointment. You see, Señors, Señorita? The matter will be resolved in no time."

With this announcement, people began to lose interest and leave. The Colonel, evidently considering that the matter no longer concerned him, turned on his heel and strode off, followed by his soldiers.

Señorita Alvarado turned to Ichabod anxiously. "You know this man? What is he doing to Marta?"

Ichabod tried to hide his own tremors to comfort her. "As long as I meet him as he demands, she won't be harmed," he said, as reassuringly as he could. He was far from certain of that, but why torment the girl with worry?

"Why is he after you?" she demanded.

"That is a matter between us, Señorita," he informed her. "But if you are concerned for your servant, perhaps you could be so good as to tell me where Blackbird Ridge is?"

"I'll—" she began, then cut herself off. To his relief, she seemed to think better of what he more than suspected had been an impulse to say she would guide him there. "It's about three miles east of town. There really are a great many blackbirds nesting around it; you won't be able to miss it. Is that where he has Marta?"

"Apparently," he said crisply.

She hesitated. "If Colonel Montoya were to send his soldiers…."

"Then Creighton would kill her," Ichabod told her bluntly.

"Are you good with a sword, Señor…?"

"Quirrell. Yes, I am. I've had to be." He had never been good at fighting, but when he had learned what he now was, his first act had been to take a crash course in swordplay. He had driven himself mercilessly, and practiced rigorously, until in spite of his nature he had become a good swordsman.

Señorita Alvarado, however, did not look convinced. She looked at him dubiously.

"I assure you, Señorita, I will not allow your servant to come to harm. Now, if you will excuse me, I must—" He stopped, his head whipping around. He felt it, that unmistakable buzz of a fellow Immortal. A very strong buzz.

His eyes narrowed. The buzz was coming from a man who was just now strolling into the town square, looking at the milling crowd around him in a bemused fashion. He was tall and lanky, with a mop of sandy hair and sleepy gray-green eyes. He was wearing loose tan trousers with a matching vest that had been left carelessly unbuttoned, and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows in a businesslike fashion at odds with his lazy demeanour.

He detected Ichabod only a few seconds after Ichabod detected him. Their eyes locked.

The young lady followed his gaze, then frowned up at Ichabod. Not very far up, he noted; she was only a couple of inches shorter than he. "Do you know Dr. Helm, Señor Quirrell?"

"Slightly," Ichabod said distractedly. "I do know that he is acquainted with our kidnapper. I must speak with him. If you will excuse me, Señorita—" The Immortal identified as "Dr. Helm" had indicated the nearby church, a humble clapboard affair, with a jerk of his head and was moving towards it.

"Then I need to talk to him too! It's my servant whose life is in danger!"

Ichabod turned to her. "Señorita," he said firmly, "we will return your servant to you safe and sound. But the matters we must speak of are private. Excuse me." He strode away from her, finding to his relief that though he could hear her making a petulant little noise, she did not try to follow him.

One middle-aged peasant woman was in the church praying, but she took a swift glance at Ichabod and left as he entered. Peasants in any nation were suspicious of strangers.

Dr. Helm was sitting in the back row of the bare benches that served as pews, emanating a buzz that almost knocked Ichabod over. Ichabod sat beside him.

"My name is — Ian Quirrell."

"Get used to giving false names, Ian," Dr. Helm informed him. "You'll have to do better than that. I'm Robert Helm, for now."

"Are you really a doctor?"

"Of course. That's why I missed whatever the excitement was; a farmer broke his arm falling from his hayloft and I had to go to his home to splint it. What's going on?"

"You know Creighton?"

Dr. Helm grew still. "Yes."

"I followed him here. I believe he was looking for you. He kidnapped Señorita Alvarado's servant as bait for one or both of us. Do you read German?" Ichabod asked, extending the letter.

"Of course. I hope you've started studying languages; a facility with them is essential for an Immortal's survival." He took the letter and read it quickly.

"Is this true?" Ichabod asked quietly when the doctor was finished reading. "Are you Methos?"

The other man sighed. "Yes." He gave Ichabod an appraising look. "So how did you make your way into Creighton's bad graces?"

"By being an Immortal. He's a headhunter, after all."

"True. But this letter indicates that he's after both of us. I know why he wants me. The oldest head in the world would be quite a trophy. But yours? You can't be more than a century old."

"I'm not. But I've been hunting him. I—"

"You've been hunting a headhunter?" Methos looked incredulous.

"Of course. He can't be allowed to continue going around killing people just because they happen to be Immortal. Someone has to— what are you laughing at?" he demanded.

Methos was chuckling, shaking his head. "You are young. Ideals aren't like wine, Ian; they don't age well. And despite your educated accent, I'm going to hazard a guess that you're an American."

"I was born in Connecticut," Ichabod confirmed.

Methos nodded sagely. "Child of a democratic revolution, full of enlightened ideals. And you're trying to find a way to use your Immortality for the greater good, are you not?"

Embarrassed, Ichabod still stood his ground. "Of course."

The older man looked at him for a minute. "What is your real name?"

"Ichabod Crane."

"Crane." Methos looked pensive for a moment. "Did you know that cranes symbolize long life in the Orient?"

"You've been all over the world, haven't you?" Ichabod asked, his voice hushed.

Methos grimaced. "And now you're going to want to ply me with questions about what Rome was like, and ask if I knew Leonardo da Vinci. Perhaps some other time, Ichabod. That merchant ship leaves within the hour, and I'll be on it."

"But — Creighton! And the woman he's holding!"

Methos looked at the weather-beaten skin of his hands and shook his head slowly. "I've lost the stomach for killing, Ichabod. Some time ago. I'll leave that sort of thing to idealistic young fools like you." He raised his head to look Ichabod in the eye. "But if you want to outlive your own ideals, take my advice. Don't fight. Live. Grow stronger. Fight another day."

"I don't wish to outlive my own ideals," Ichabod informed him coldly.

Methos smiled cheerlessly at that and stood up. "Goodbye, Crane. Remember what I've said."

Ichabod rose as well. "So you'll do nothing to help that innocent woman he's kidnapped? Or to stop him from killing more mortals and Immortals?" he demanded of Methos's back. But Methos walked out without another word.

Ichabod thought of a few more things he could say to the empty air, but, well, he was in a church.

Without further delay, he hurried after the oldest Immortal. If the man insisted on leaving, perhaps he would at least leave Ichabod his horse. If not, he would hire one. He had to get to Blackbird Ridge as quickly as possible.

***

The Queen of Swords galloped towards Blackbird Ridge with her heart in her throat.

Marta, Marta…. Please, God, don't let me be too late.

Never before had the Queen's errand felt so urgent.

If I lose Marta… then I will be alone.

Her father had promised her, in a dream, that she would never be alone.

She dug her heels into her horse's flanks, her hands tight on the reins.

She rounded a curve in the rocky road and reined in, heart hammering.

Marta was there. Alive. Unharmed, for the moment. Tied to a tree, with a large man who could only be Creighton standing beside her, holding a huge sword.

And a few yards away, also holding a sword and with tension radiating from his every limb, was that Ian Quirrell.

All of them turned to regard the Queen as she appeared. When Marta's liquid dark eyes fell on her, she actually looked more frightened. So like Marta — Tessa arrived, armed and combat ready, and rather than being relieved at imminent rescue, Marta was fearful for her.

The men both looked surprised to see a woman wearing trousers, a sword and a mask, but Quirrell's surprise quickly became shrewd and his glance appraising. Though not in the way she was accustomed to being appraised.

Tessa dismounted and drew her sword in the same movement. "Release her!" she ordered in a ringing voice.

Creighton swiftly moved to Marta's side and put his blade to her throat. She gave a hissing inhale at the touch of the steel. "Stay where you are," he ordered, smirking. Tessa froze.

Creighton looked from her to Quirrell and back. "Who are you, girl?"

Her spine stiffened. "They call me the Queen of Swords."

"A female bandit," he drawled, amused. She could not place his accent. "Fighting women doesn't interest me. It's you I'm here for," he said, addressing Quirrell. "You and Dr. Helm." He spoke the name with irony.

"Helm isn't coming," Quirrell said. "You'll have to settle for me."

Creighton studied the other man for a moment before looking back to Tessa. "Go to the cliff face. Try anything and the gypsy dies."

Swallowing, Tessa obeyed, her fingers twitching.

"Put down your weapons."

Tessa obeyed reluctantly. She could see his design clearly enough. He would put himself and this Ian Quirrell between her and her sword so that she could not interfere.

"The knife in your boot, too."

She looked at him. "What makes you think I have—"

"You may be a woman, but you clearly know how to fight. You know how to hold a sword. You carry yourself like a warrior. No one like you would neglect to have a knife in a boot. Maybe in both."

"No, only one," Tessa said, drawing it out with resignation. Marta bit her lip. "But that's a good idea. I'll have to remember it."

"Go back to where you were," Creighton ordered.

Tessa obeyed, indignant. When she had returned to her horse's side, she said, "Let her go."

Quirrell promptly added, "It's me you want, not these women. Release her."

Creighton grinned. Tauntingly, he placed a noisy kiss on Marta's shoulder, exposed by her off-the-shoulder blouse, before stepping away from her. Revulsion was clear in every contour of Marta's face, in the way she bent her body away from him. Tessa's stomach lurched, and her blood turned to fire.

You are a dead man, she thought, with a white-hot fury unlike anything she had ever felt before.

"Ready to die?" Creighton asked Quirrell.

"Do not interfere," Quirrell told her in an undertone as he shucked his black coat. "And don't worry. I can take him."

Tessa gave the white-lipped Quirrell a dubious glance. His voice was unsteady and he was clearly — and unsuccessfully — struggling to hide his trepidation. Further, he was several inches shorter and a good deal lighter than the hulking Creighton.

On the other hand, his stance and his hold on his sword were impeccable.

For the moment, there was nothing else she could do but trust in him. It had been a long time since the Queen of Swords had stood idly by while others acted. It chafed. She cast a longing glance Marta's way as the two men began circling each other, swords ready. Meeting her gaze, Marta drew a breath and tried to conceal her anxiety. Tessa felt another rush of desperate affection — Marta was trying not to worry her!

Steel clanged on steel and the duel began. Both women watched tensely from opposite sides of the fighting men. After one minute, Tessa began to feel a little more hopeful. Quirrell was outweighed, but she had been right, he knew how to handle a sword. Both men were skilled fighters. She would have to hope that Quirrell's skill was enough to tip the balance in his favor.

After a few more minutes, she realized that it would. Creighton, like many large men, relied on overwhelming people with his size and consequently his skill was not up to Tessa's standards, or Quirrell's. Quirrell had the patience and the cleverness to make Creighton wear himself out so that he could seize the advantage.

Both women winced when Creighton's sword grazed Quirrell's left arm. His sleeve was torn open and a red stain spread on the fabric, but though he cried out, he did not falter. Tessa's respect for the man rose a few notches. And only a moment later, he managed to bypass Creighton's parry to pierce his opponent's side, a non-fatal blow that nevertheless knocked the man over.

When Creighton fell, she did not wait longer. She had to seize the advantage while it lasted. She circled them, running to Marta.

"Careful!" Marta warned with a glance at the fighters, but though Creighton was groping for his sword, Quirrell was not allowing his opponent to rise.

"I'll untie you, then we run for my horse," Tessa ordered as her fingers fumbled with the knots that bound Marta's wrists. If only she could get her knife! With a curse, she pulled off her gloves and threw them to the ground and went back to work on the knots.

Marta groaned softly when the rope fell away, and promptly stretched her arms, wincing. She looked down at her chafed wrists for a second before meeting Tessa's eyes. Her lips parted, probably to say Tessa's name, but she caught herself, and let her eyes do the speaking.

And those eyes were full of warmth, and admiration, and relief.

An answering rush of relief flooded Tessa's own mind. Marta was free. They could make their escape now. Marta would be safe. Her heart sang. Thank God and the Holy Virgin and all the saints.

With ardent joy, Tessa fiercely embraced her friend and confidante.

Later she never knew how the embrace had turned into a kiss.

She had no thoughts during the kiss except of the kiss itself, that this was her darling Marta whose arms encircled her, and that she was now complete.

All she knew when their lips parted from that blissful and utterly necessary joining, was that the world had just shifted. In the space of a few eternal seconds everything had changed, and she was going to have to become acquainted with the universe all over again, because nothing was as she had thought.

They stared at each other, both stunned. Marta's pretty face showed worry, but, Tessa found herself noticing, no regret.

An angry cry from Creighton brought them back to the present. They looked in time to see Quirrell's sword raised, and an instant later Creighton's head was severed from his body. Tessa's eyes widened and she clasped Marta protectively closer; she had seen entirely too much violence since coming to Santa Elena, but this impromptu decapitation was a shocking sight just the same.

Tessa gave Marta's hand a protective squeeze before quickly going to fetch her sword, dagger and knife. As she sheathed them, something caught her eye.

Above Creighton's headless body, a sort of glimmering mist was forming. Tessa stared at it for a second before darting a glance at each of her companions. Marta was staring too, as expected, but Quirrel was watching the swirling incandescent mist with resignation.

Abruptly, the mist turned to lightning. Lightning like none Tessa had ever seen. It crackled with a rapidity and violence outside her experience. After only a few seconds of it, she ran to Marta and clung to her, without any thought, only the instinct to protect.

Quirrell's eyes were closed and his jaw set, as if he expected something unpleasant. Nor was he disappointed; the lightning gathered in a blinding ball of light and descended onto him. He convulsed as it enveloped him. Tessa and Marta winced, shading their eyes from the brilliant light.

The conflagration ended as abruptly as it had begun. Tessa cautiously opened her eyes and saw, to her astonishment, that Quirrell was still alive, and standing. Swaying slightly on his feet, but standing nonetheless.

Scarcely had she had time to register her surprise before he dropped to the ground.

They both ran to him and knelt on either side of him. He was unconscious, but…. "He's alive!" Marta exclaimed.

Tessa looked at her dearest friend, feeling as exhausted as though she had just fought an entire army by herself.

"Are you all right, Marta? Did that beast hurt you?"

Marta gave a small, tired smile. "No, Tessa. I am fine. Thanks to you."

Tessa looked at the unconscious man. "And to Señor Quirrell here. Come on. We can't just leave him here. We'll have to take him home."

***

Marta's hands were steady as she gently bathed Quirrell's face with a damp cloth. He seemed to be all right, though he still had not regained consciously; his brow was not too warm, his pulse and breathing even.

Tessa, wearing the pretty garb of Señorita Alvarado, was pacing up and down the guest room, unable to conceal her restlessness as Marta was concealing her own. They found themselves exchanging long looks, but their conversation was, if anything, more trivial than usual. Neither was ready to speak of what happened. Not the bizarre lightning storm that had struck Quirrell without apparently harming him, and not….

And what can I say, when we must speak of it? Marta asked herself with despair. Outwardly she knew she must appear serene, but her thoughts were in a whirlwind.

What can come of this?

The obvious answer was, nothing. And yet….

Her cheeks warmed as she relived that kiss, as she had a hundred times already since it had happened. That moment had been everything she had furtively dreamed of, and more. Beside a moment like that, nothing else really mattered.

Except that it did.

She looked up at her mistress to find Tessa's eyes on her. Marta knew, with unreasoning certainty, that Tessa was thinking of their kiss as well. They gazed at each other, both unable to look away, both unable to take another step.

Señor Quirrell stirred, opening his eyes. Tessa and Marta quickly looked at him.

"How are you feeling?" Marta asked gently, putting her hand to his forehead once more.

He sat up, looking embarrassed. "Very well, thank you. Pardon me for being so troublesome."

"You rescued me, Señor Quirrell," she said. "We are indebted to you."

He glanced from one of them to the other. "Your mistress was most concerned for you," he assented. "I am relieved to see you unharmed — you are unharmed? I was not too late?"

"Not at all," Marta said gently. "You must be hungry. I will get you something to eat."

"I'll get it," Tessa cut in. "I can't sit still."

Quirrell began to rise, but Marta placed a hand on his arm, restraining him. "You should rest."

"I have had enough rest," he protested.

"Stay there until I've had time to get dinner on the table, then," Tessa ordered as she left the room.

With resignation, he assented. Glancing down at his shift, he asked stiffly, "Where is my shirt?"

"Soaking so that the blood may be washing from it," Marta answered calmly. "I will have to mend it for you as well; Señor Creighton ripped the entire sleeve open. You are lucky; it seems he only scratched you, though the scratch seemed to bleed a great deal. But you healed swiftly — let me look at your arm."

She reached for Quirrell's hand. Swiftly he moved it out of reach, out of her sight, putting up his other hand to fend off her innocent gesture. Thus it was that she found herself holding his right hand, staring in surprise at the odd scars dotting it, and a flood of images rushed through her mind.

She saw a beautiful dark-haired woman who bore an unmistakable resemblance to Quirrell himself. She could only be his mother. And a witch; Marta recognized at once the ancient runes she scrawled in the ashes of the fireplace. Then a forbidding parson, a red door… an iron maiden — Marta, who had always feared such a fate in the back of her own mind, flinched. The other images were more fleeting — scientific apparatus, horrifying scenes of torture, Quirrell combating them every step of the way… a tiny village, a leather-clad horseman with no head vaulting out of an immense gnarled tree, a pretty girl with hair as bright as sunshine and eyes as loving as his mother's… an older man lecturing Quirrell, initiating him into ancient mysteries, teaching him to use a sword—

Quirrell snatched his hand away. From his pallor, Marta guessed that he sensed that she had seen into his soul.

"Who are you?" she asked softly.

"Ian Quirrell," he said shortly.

"What are you?"

His obsidian eyes met hers for just a second, and she knew that he understood her question.

"What was that strange lightning?" she persisted gently. "It did not seem to harm you."

He looked away. "I mean you and your mistress no harm. That is all you need to know."

Marta was going to ask more, but Tessa appeared in the doorway. "It's ready. Come along."

Quirrell rose, pulled his jacket on, and followed the women to the table. Tessa had assembled a simple meal of bread, cheese and fruit. Marta did not think this was laziness, but rather a recognition that all of them were too tense to eat much.

They ate in silence for a few tense minutes before Tessa plunged in. Of course she was the one to begin it; she was always so impetuous.

"Señor Quirrell. What brings you to Santa Elena?"

"I was following Creighton. He has murdered more men and women than I can say."

"Did he kill someone close to you?"

"No, it is my calling. I am a detective."

Tessa studied him for a moment. "What happened after you killed him?"

He gave her an ingenuous look. "I assumed such localized storms must be peculiar to the California climate, Señorita."

"Don't be absurd. You know what happened. What's going on here?"

Now Quirrell gave Tessa a piercing look. "Why do you don a mask and trousers and go riding about with a sword?" he asked coolly.

Tessa's eyes widened before she could stop herself. "What are you talking about?"

Quirrell cut himself another slice of cheese. "It's your seat on horseback that gave it away. I've never seen a woman who sat a horse so confidently. Don't worry, only a trained detective would be likely to notice such a thing."

Marta looked at her plate to hide a tiny smile of amusement at the man's hint of conceit.

"Why do you engage in such an unfeminine pastime?" he persisted.

Tessa swallowed. "To avenge my father," she said at last.

Now she had his full attention. "Yes?"

It had been over a year, and still the pain in Tessa's eyes was fresh. It tore at Marta's heart. "When I was in Spain, I received word that my father had died. Of a fall from his horse, I was told. Señor, my father was an excellent horseman. How could he have died so?"

"Suspicious," Quirrell conceded, "but not damning in itself."

She shifted fretfully in her seat. "I keep hearing rumors, but no one will really tell me anything. They're all too afraid. When I first arrived here in Santa Elena, I asked among the dons. They all told me to let it rest. Even Don Hidalgo, who is no coward." She leaned forward over the table. "But I know that my father was murdered, and I am in honor bound to avenge him."

He looked at her as if she had struck some chord in him. At length he said slowly, "Perhaps I can help you."

"How?" Tessa asked, anxious.

"I am a detective," Quirrell reminded her. "I can discover the identity of your father's killer, if you are right and he was indeed murdered."

She took his hand, to his obvious embarrassment. "Señor… if you could, then anything I can do to repay you—"

"It is not necessary," he said, reclaiming his hand, discomfited. "It is my calling. All I ask is that you cooperate with my investigation."

"Anything I can do!"

"Two things. First, answer my questions."

He asked for his satchel, which they had retrieved from his horse's saddle, and drew a large black ledger from it. Turning to the first clean page, he then spent the next two hours plying them both with questions, many of which seemed obscure to Marta, about the late Señor Alvarado, the inhabitants of Santa Elena, and everything that the Queen of Swords had experienced since first donning her mask. He noted everything down in meticulous detail.

At last, he shut his ledger. "And now, the second thing…."

"Anything," Tessa said, promptly and emphatically.

He answered hesitantly. "I will need to examine the body."

Tessa was uncomprehending. "My father's? But he died a year ago. He's buried long since."

"Yes. I must ask you to allow me to exhume him."

Both women stared at him in pure horror.

More confident now that the dread matter had been brought up, Quirrell launched into a persuasive speech explaining his scientific procedures, arguing that it was far more disrespectful to her father's memory to allow his killers to go free than to have a few scruples about his remains, when he himself was now beyond harm.

After listening in shocked silence for some time, Tessa interrupted him with a helpless look at Marta. "Marta? What do you think?"

"Disturbing the dead is a crime in every nation," Marta said. "The taboos against upsetting their rest are as ancient as the human race itself."

Quirrell's lips thinned. Evidently he did not think much of her words. "Señorita Alvarado," he appealed to her, "until you learn of the killer's identity and bring him to justice, he will continue to harm the living. Do you believe your father would have wanted that?"

She stood, not looking at either of them. They both waited.

"I must think about it," she said softly. Quirrell began to speak again, but she only shook her head and headed for the door. A moment later, through the window, Marta could see her walking toward the cliff that overlooked the sea.

"She is going to her father's grave," Marta said softly.

"Señora, I assure you I mean no disrespect to—"

"Señorita," Marta said softly, rising and beginning to clear away the dishes. "And she is the one you must convince, not me. If she decides to do this thing…." Marta paused. The idea was repugnant to her down to the bottom of her soul. She hoped Tessa would not give in. But she knew where her own loyalties lay. "Then I will cooperate with her wishes."

Quirrell gave a deep sigh of martyrdom and gathered up his ledger. He retreated into the guest room. When she came in some time later with his clean and mended shirt, he was at the desk, jotting notes in his ledger and flipping back and forth between the pages with a frown of deep concentration. He did not even look up as she laid the shirt neatly on the bed and departed.

Tessa was equally absorbed in her own thoughts, kneeling at her father's grave, her face raised as if in deep communion. Marta ached to go to her, to help her in this, but she knew only too well that this was something in which she could not be of use. This was Tessa's destiny, not her own.

At last, in need of her own solace, as Señor Quirrell pored over his ledger and Tessa prayed to her father's spirit, Marta sat down and sought her own solace. As so many times before, she dealt the cards and gazed at them, striving to see what they said and not what she wished to see.

But the message was a clear one this time. And a comforting one.

Marta bowed her head and at last, after this harrowing day, allowed herself to shed a few tears… of gratitude.

Whatever happened, on this day destiny was falling into place.

***

Tessa knelt at her father's grave till twilight cooled the air. She shivered slightly. If she stayed out much longer, Marta would bring her shawl to her and insist on draping it over her shoulders.

Tessa wrapped her arms around herself and gazed at the headstone. Never had she needed guidance so badly in her life. In only one day, everything had been changed.

This Ian Quirrell — he was hiding something, so much was blatantly obvious. Even without Marta's Second Sight, Tessa could see that the man had magic of some kind, and he was unwilling to explain it. And yet he gave every indication of being a friend. A man who fought the wicked. Who wanted to help her avenge her father.

But the means he wished to use…. She shuddered and pressed a hand, palm down, to the earth that covered her father's grave. The grass had only just grown sufficiently to hide the signs that it had been disturbed for his burial. Could she interrupt his rest again?

Doubts about this course of action and memories of her father swirled hectically through her mind, blended with disordered thoughts of Marta. She remembered Marta's fierce expression the day she had justified her own foolish risk by declaring, "Because you are not the only one allowed to risk her life for someone she loves!" She thought of Marta's never-failing worry for her and scrupulous care of her. And she thought, over and over, of that single kiss, which had stopped time and fired her senses as no man's kiss ever had.

She felt that she was on the threshold of an entirely new world. It was a daunting prospect, but at the same time… exciting. Possibilities never before dreamed of unrolled before her. None of the old constraints applied now.

She drew a breath and at last, in a whisper, spoke out loud to her father's spirit.

"Father. You promised I would never be alone."

"Tessa?" a gentle voice behind her said.

Tessa smiled before turning around. Marta. Of course.

With her shawl.

Tessa held Marta's flustered gaze as Marta put the shawl on her shoulders. "It's all right, Marta," she said. "I'm coming in now." She rose and slipped an arm around Marta's waist. Marta looked at her uncertainly, but returned the gesture. Together they walked back into the house.

Once inside, Tessa went to the door of the guest room and addressed Quirrell in a firm voice. "Señor Quirrell, you have my permission to exhume my father. I doubt I will be able to persuade my workers to go along with it, however, so we will have to do the digging ourselves."

He rose at once, closing his ledger. "Shall we begin, then?"

For an instant, she was taken aback. Grave robbery was bad enough, but at night? But there was no sense fussing now. "Let me change clothes. Marta, would you please light a couple of lanterns for us?"

"Sí, Señorita," Marta murmured.

***

It was mid-afternoon the following day when Quirrell emerged from the old shed he had commandeered as a provisional laboratory. He had insisted that Tessa leave before he opened the coffin, and she supposed he was right. Though judging by the faintly green tinge to his skin as he closed the door on her, she suspected that it was not her feelings alone he wished to spare, but also his own dignity.

The three of them had stayed up late, digging until they were all ready to drop from exhaustion. Together they had heaved the coffin, just beginning to rot, onto the cart and lead the horse the twenty yards or so to the shed. Once it was safely inside the shed, they barely had the energy to wash the dirt from their hands before falling into their respective beds.

They had all slept late, and Quirrell only ate a thin slice of bread before steeling himself and marching into the laboratory. With nothing else to do, Tessa took up her sword to practice, and Marta wandered about the immaculate house trying to find something, anything, that needed to be cleaned.

When Quirrell at last returned to the house, both women promptly dropped what they were doing to hear his news.

He had washed thoroughly before coming inside. His face was grave. "How were you told your father died, Señorita?" he asked quietly.

"I told you," Tessa replied, impatient. "They claimed he fell from his horse."

Quirrell nodded slowly and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a handkerchief and laid it gently on the table. "These were lodged in your father's chest," he said quietly. Then he unfolded the handkerchief.

Lying on the square of white cloth were two bullets.

Tessa's blood boiled. "I knew it," she whispered, furious. Then she looked at Quirrell. "Who? Who did this?"

"These," he said slowly, "were shot from a .80 caliber Kentucky flintlock. A United States gun." He held her gaze. "Who in Santa Elena owns such a gun?"

"Only one man." She set her jaw. "Grisham."

Quirrell nodded. "He's your man."

Tessa paced back and forth twice before making up her mind. "I'll tend to him tonight," she said, determined. Then her voice softened. "Right now, I'm going to put my father back in his grave."

"I'll help you," Quirrell said promptly.

"You look exhausted," Tessa protested.

He shrugged as he headed for the door. "It's nothing. Excuse me, please give me a few moments to… prepare him." He hurried back to the shed.

Tessa looked at Marta. "At last," she breathed.

Marta nodded, holding her gaze. "I'll cook you a good dinner. And you are going to eat it, Tessa Alvarado. You are going to need your strength."

Her dark eyes warmed with all the things they were not saying. Not yet. "I will, Marta," she promised.

***

Captain Marcus Grisham had been asleep for scarcely an hour when he was unceremoniously awakened by a jugful of water being emptied onto his face.

Cursing, he sat bolt upright, instinctively dashing the water from his eyes. When the water and the haze of sleep cleared from his sight, he saw before him in the moonlight streaming through his window the Queen of Swords.

"Get your sword," she said coldly.

"I always knew you'd come to my bedroom late some night asking me to take out my weapon," he quipped, playing for time as he glanced around for his sword.

"Put on your clothes," she said derisively.

"That may be the first time a woman's ever said that to me," he remarked as he pulled on the trousers nearest the bed. The Queen did not respect his modesty, keep her gaze trained on him steadily, but she also didn't seem particularly impressed.

Well, if he couldn't charm her, he could kill her.

Decently covered, he looked at her. She nodded at the table where he'd laid his sword. He crossed the room and lit the two candles on the table before unsheathing his sword.

Turning to face her, he raised his sword and asked, "You going to tell me what this is all about?"

With a flourish, she pulled off her mask. Grisham's jaw dropped.

"You? You spoiled little rich brat? You're the Queen of Swords?"

"My name," she said with deliberation, "is Tessa Alvarado. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

At the cold glitter in the woman's eyes, Grisham knew it was true: he was fighting for his life.

"You shouldn't have been so chivalrous, Señorita. You should have killed me in my sleep instead of giving me a chance to send you to Hell," he said before lunging at her.

She parried his thrust neatly. Well, he hadn't expected this to be easy. He had crossed swords with this female menace before. He was justifiably proud of his own swordsmanship, but the Queen of Swords — no, Tessa Alvarado — was in a class by herself.

"What are you doing with a sword, anyway?" he asked breathlessly as their blades clanged together again and again. "Is it to substitute for what the fair sex lacks?"

Her lip curled. "Mine's bigger than yours," she pointed out. And only a few seconds later, she knocked the blade from his hands.

He made a move to retrieve it, but froze when her steel pressed to his throat.

"Don't you want to know who gave me the order?"

She raised her eyebrows, her expression glacial.

"Yeah, I pulled the trigger… on the order of Colonel Montoya."

She studied him for a moment.

"You'll be seeing him soon," she informed him, right before she ran him through.

***

Colonel Luis Montoya was awake, going over his account books. Wealth was the only thing he truly loved. Power was only a means to wealth; women were only a fringe benefit. Wealth itself was the center of his life.

He had a fairly respectable cache of gold and jewels hidden away by now. But he was still far from his dreams of treasure, from his fantasies of living like an Oriental potentate.

Fantasies which had been in his grasp a dozen times in the last year, and foiled every time by that bandit woman, the Queen of Swords. Time and again he had laid a trap for her, only to have her elude it by a hair's breadth.

No more. What he was planning now would be her downfall. It would take him only a few days to put his new plan into motion, and then — she would be out of his way within a fortnight.

The first step, of course, would be to procure the appropriate bait to bring her within reach….

"Colonel Montoya," a female voice rang out behind him.

He jumped to his feet. As he had been absorbed in his plans, his quarry had materialized right behind him. The Queen of Swords stood there, her blade ready, regarding him with a gaze that chilled him. Instinctively he knew that she was far more dangerous than usual on this night.

He tried to affect his usual impatient air of command. "Do you have any idea how late it is, Señorita?"

"Too late for you," she retorted. "Get your sword."

He gave her a thin-lipped smile. "I take it you are challenging me to a duel. Don't you realize that that gives me the right to choose weapons?"

"Your choice is, get your sword or die unarmed."

"What is the meaning of this?" he demanded. When her only response was a stony glare, he assented. He owned several swords, many of them with exquisitely jeweled hilts, but he would not soil one of those with the blood of a bandit. He selected a serviceable blade with almost no ornamentation. Then, as unhurried as if he were alone in the room, he removed his jacket, folded it neatly and draped it over the back of a chair.

"Let it wrinkle," she suggested. "You won't be wearing it again."

He took up the sword and assumed a fighting stance. "And what has roused your ire this night, Señorita?"

She whipped off the lace mask. His eyes widened.

"You!" He had suspected, a time or two, but had always dismissed his suspicions — the girl was too empty-headed, too given to vaporing. She couldn't possibly be the criminal mastermind who had foiled him again and again.

Yet, she was.

"My name," she said in a low voice, "is Tessa Alvarado. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

Montoya swallowed, feeling the blood drain from his face. This baggage was honestly bent on murdering him.

On the other hand, she had now given him a golden opportunity to rid himself of her interference once and for all. He drew himself up, the corners of his mouth quirking ever so slightly.

"En garde, Señorita," he said softly, and their blades met.

Given her motives, he would have expected her fighting to be frenzied, driven by emotion. Unfortunately for him, it wasn't. She fought with the cold determination of a fury.

He tried every strategy he knew on her. He tried aggressive attacks; she fended them off smoothly. He tried making her come to him, in hopes she would give him an opening. She didn't. He tried to exhaust her. Her energy seemed boundless.

She was unstoppable.

It seemed that they dueled for an eternity before she slid her blade past his guard, right into his heart.

***

Marta had not even tried to sleep. She suspected that Señor Quirrell was almost as edgy as she was, but exhaustion had conquered him and he was sound asleep in the guest room.

Marta, on the other hand, was awake and walking the floor of the back room where the Queen of Swords' equipment and costumes were kept.

This will be the last time I have to wait for the Queen of Swords to return home, she told herself. Tonight, either the Queen's mission would be achieved for good, or else…. Marta wrung her hands.

And if — no, when Tessa returned home tonight safe and sound and doffed her mask for the last time… what then?

Marta's heart leapt at the sound of familiar footsteps. She turned just as the Queen of Swords appeared in the doorway.

Tessa pulled off her lace mask and dropped it onto the table along with her sword, holding Marta's gaze. "It's over, Marta."

Marta drew a breath of relief which was cut off when Tessa closed the distance between them with two long strides and swept her close for another mind-melting kiss.

It was just as perfect as their earlier kiss had been, just as intense and all-consuming. The kiss seemed to last for an eternity, and during that eternity Marta did not have a single thought of anything else.

But when their lips finally parted, Marta staggered backwards. "We have to talk about this," she managed weakly.

Tessa made a small gesture as if to drag Marta back into her embrace, but stopped herself, anxiety crossing her features. "Was this wrong of me? I thought you — didn't you want me to?" She looked at Marta tensely.

Marta's breath caught in her throat. "This is all I've wanted to do! For years!" she burst out.

Tessa shook her head slowly, wonderingly. "Then why didn't you?"

"I was trying to give you a chance for a normal life!"

Tessa's lush mouth quirked, amused. She looked down at her men's clothing, at the swordbelt and mask on the table, then met Marta's gaze again. "A normal life," she said with irony.

Marta could not help laughing.

Tessa took her hands and pulled her closer. "I don't want a normal life, Marta. I want you."

Did the child even know what she was saying? Marta doubted it. But seeing the love in her young heroine's eyes, strong and pure as only the love of the innocent can be, Marta could not turn away.

But she put her hands on Tessa's shoulders, holding her off. "Tessa — querida… I could not endure for us to — to have this, together, and then see you marry—"

"I won't marry," she said simply.

"But someday you will want a husband, children—"

Tessa shook her head. "Marta… I think I am made differently than other women. I've kissed men, and never liked it as other women said they did. None of them ever made me feel the way you did. I don't know why, but I cannot love a man."

Marta swallowed, guilt coursing through her. Her darling had had to discover this all on her own. She caressed Tessa's cheek softly.

"Some women are like that, Tessa," she said softly. "It is rare, but you are not the only one. Nor am I. And some men are that way, as well."

Tessa's eyes widened. "Men? Really?"

"Really." Marta stifled a laugh with difficulty. "But Tessa, if we do this, you will always have to hide, you will—"

"I'm used to hiding. I'm the Queen of Swords, remember?"

"But this—"

Her words were cut off by another kiss as Tessa dispensed with all formalities. And this time, when their lips parted, Marta did not bother with further protests.

Tessa, however, did. Frowning slightly, she said, "I still wish one of us were a man."

"And why is that?" Marta already suspected the answer.

Tessa dropped her eyes. "So that we could…." She flushed faintly. Marta smiled, her blood warming.

"We can," she whispered conspiratorily.

Tessa looked at her. "We can? How?"

Marta took her hand and clasped it. "I'll show you," she promised softly, and led the way into Tessa's bedroom.

Marta had done this before, of course. But initiating the woman she loved, who was as pure as she was passionate, into the miracle of physical love — nothing that had gone before could compare to it, and the night was as much a revelation to her as it was to Tessa.

***

Epilogue: Six Months Later

Tessa Alvarado laughed breathlessly. "No, no, I couldn't dance another step! Let me sit down!"

Her partner, disappointed, led her to a divan and signaled the nearest servant to bring refreshment. Tessa scarcely had time to unfold her fan before half a dozen other young men were gathered around her, jockeying for position.

Everyone in Santa Elena knew that there was nothing Señorita Alvarado loved better than a party. The dress she was wearing, deep green trimmed with black lace, had been made especially for this occasion.

"She is probably gladder of the excuse to have a new dress made than of Doña Hidalgo's imminent blessing," one of the matrons whispered cattily to another.

"Oh, really! Señorita Alvarado is a silly girl, but Vera Hidalgo is her dearest friend. She has to be glad her friend will be a mother this winter."

"And that Capitán Grisham was considerate enough to be murdered well before Vera found herself with child," the other retorted, unappeased.

Standing behind them by the wall with a few of the other servants, Marta listened to them in silence and smiled to herself. She watched her mistress toy with her suitors with secret pride. None of them knew the half of what Tessa had to offer, and still they longed for what belonged to Marta alone.

A few minutes later, Don Hidalgo elbowed his way through the mob of young men buzzing around Señorita Alvarado. "Age before beauty, lads. As host, I claim Señorita Alvarado's next dance."

Tessa laughed and acceded graciously. When they were twirling together on the dance floor, she said pertly, "There are so many more parties since you became Alcalde. You're much better than Colonel Montoya was."

Don Hidalgo shook his head, unsure whether to be amused or irritated at her priorities. "Perhaps we will be having a fiesta celebrating your engagement soon, Señorita."

She opened her eyes wide in elaborate astonishment. "My engagement? To whom?"

With an avuncular smile, he nodded at the crowd of young men she had deserted. "Take your pick."

She tossed her hair, giggling. "Oh, I don't know…. Maybe next year."

"Did that handsome Señor Quirrell steal your heart when he rescued your servant?" he teased gently.

"Humph. All he cared about was his work. Not even here for a week before he was off searching for more specimens."

"Ah, well. Perhaps the right one is waiting here in your own backyard."

Tessa looked over Don Hidalgo's shoulder and caught Marta's gaze on her. For just a few seconds, before the dance turned Tessa around, they shared a smile of perfect understanding.

"Perhaps so, Señor Hidalgo," Tessa said happily.

 

 

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