Authors: Parris Afton Bonds
Standing stiffly, Kathleen tried not to betray how uncomfortable she felt under the appraising gaze from the unblinking eyes, but dutifully thanked the lieutenant when he offered to escort her to La Palacia Posada.
"Whomever you are waiting on would know to find you there," he assured her.
Ordering his men to proceed without him, Aguila assisted Kathleen up the grass-worn slope, although she abruptly withdrew her elbow from his grasp once they reached the main dirt road.
"Are you visiting relatives here, señorita?" he asked, detaining a carriage and typing his horse to the carriage's rear.
Kathleen grimaced at the thought of riding in close contact with the man. "No," she replied tersely, turning away from the officer's hooded eyes to look instead at Santa Barbara's outskirts of brown, box-shaped houses with low, flat roofs.
How far could she trust the supercilious officer? What if this ranchero, Seíor Reyes, didn't find her at La Palacia? What would she do? How stupid she had been to set out blindly for the Mexican province!
But then, in truth, there hadn't been time to make any arrangements. Only time to hurriedly pack the valise with several of Amanda's dresses -- how the scraggly hag would screech when she found them missing -- and, of course, the derringer from her father's small arsenal. How soon before her father would miss the prized pistol given him by Edmund, who had even gone to the expense of engraving the Whatley name on it?
The carriage rolled into the plaza, where stood the Commandante's Palace, with its graceful architecture of the Spanish renaissance, and the two-story shops, their long white arcades of shaded stone
protecting mud sidewalks. Here Kathleen saw strolling women whose eyes were half hidden by the colorful
and men whose faces were barbarously mustached beneath glazed sombreros heavy with metal ornamentation.
Looking around at the sleepy, improverished town that was such a stark contrast to the bustling prosperity of Boston, Kathleen knew she would need every ounce of fortitude she could muster to exist there. She, who was accustomed to being waited on, would now have to wait on others; accustomed to having everything, she would have to survive on little. Yet she could do it ... she
do it before she would return to Edmund.
La Palacia Posada, a two-story adobe building lavishly ornamented in the churrigueresque style, ran the entire block on one side of the plaza. Inside, sparkling chandeliers of thousands of candles radiated their light, creating an intimate atmosphere over the plush mulberry-red sofas and the Brussels carpets spread on plank floors.
Even though it was still early in the evening, Kathleen saw, in the gambling room that opened off one end of the main
men richly dressed in dark boleros and tight trousers, crowded around the monte tables, testing their skills against the golden goddess of chance. At the other end of the
there appeared to be a ballroom, now empty.
But it was toward a door at the rear of the establishment that Aguila led Kathleen.
"Gemma will see to it that you have a room," he said.
Kathleen noticed the taut nervousness of the man's voice, and a warning bell rang in the back of her mind. Something was awry. Or perhaps itw as her own nervousness.
Aguila nodded. "And, to a greater degree, the real authority over Santa Barbara -- through her influence over Micheltorena, the new governor." The tone of Aguila's voice changed. "Other girls have found it profitable to emulate her. It's said that Gemma Chavez was born a ragged
in Mexico and came here as a comely young girl. That her reputation as the best monte dealer helped her to lay away a fortune."
Kathleen neither missed the lieutenant's implication nor the reptilian eyes that slithered over her. Warily, she moved on ahead of him.
Watching her straight, proud back, Aguila permitted himself a smile. He could also tell the girl that Gemma had an uncanny knack for intrigue. He hoped he could persuade Gemma to aid him in his plans for this naïve girl. A mistress as golden as a field of sunflowers could carry prestige and perhaps draw the governor's attention, remedying the stagnation of his own military career.
As Kathleen entered the office, she saw the chocolate-brown eyes of the proprietress look her over shrewdly before flickering past her to Aguila. Kathleen had expected a hard, painted woman of advancing years, but the female who sat on the edge of the pine-paneled desk could not have been more than thirty. Her auburn hair was swept back from the magnolia-white face into a demure chignon at the nape of her neck. And a soft yellow gown of chenille tightly hugged the curvaceous figure before flaring at the hem in flounced ruffles. A picture of devastating feminity -- but for the thin cigarillo she held between long, tapering fingers.
However, it was the other in the room who drew Kathleen's attention. He sprawled negligently in a chair, his long legs, stretched out before him, encased in leather leggings. From the right legging protruded a long, wicked-looking knife.
Slowly Kathleen's eyes raised past the soiled gray poncho, upward to the spare, swarthy face, which was nearly concealed by the handlebar mustache and short, stubbled beard. Narrowed eyes regarded her from the shadow of the stained sombrero. It was a rough, not at all handsome face. Totally in keeping with the one copper earring that gleamed ominously in the left earlobe. He looked more like a Mediterranean corsair than a common vaquero, she thought, unconsciously moving a step backwards.
Gemma arched one delicately plucked brow.
she asked of Aguila, although she continued to openly appraise Kathleen.
"A room." Aguila went on to explain about a room he would need for -- the light brows raised meaningfully -- his friend here. But Kathleen paid little heed to the exchange between the lieutenant and the proprietress of La Palacia, so uneasy was she under the vaquero's relentless glare.
It was with relief that she escaped Gemma's office to follow Aguila up the main staircase and along a maze of corridors to her room. To her surprise, she found the room was little more than a narrow bed and a notched bureau. Quite drab in contrast to the plushness below. Only the terrace door that opened out onto the small balcony saved the room from resembling a cell.
As she turned back to the door, she realized for certain what Aguila had in mind. She waited as he closed the door, adroitly tucking the room's key into the high pocket of his short braided jacket. When he faced her, his desire showed plainly in the bulge of his pants. Coolly, Kathleen produced her father's pistol from the folds of her skirt.
Noting Aguila's startled expression, which was swiftly replaced by barely controlled fury, she said, "I seriously doubt, Lieutenant Aguila, that your intentions are honorable. No,
es la verdad?"
He took a step toward her, and she raised the pistol so that it was only inches from his chest.
"The derringer does not miss at close range. Now unlock the door, drop the key on the floor, and get out!"
He hesitated only a moment before doing as she instructed. But after the key clanked on the plank floor, he said between gritted teeth, "No one treats a member of the Aguila family like dirt beneath their feet -- especially not a
-- without reason to regret it later."
He whirled from the doorway and was gone. Kathleen sighed, the tension of the day escaping in the delayed trembling of her hands. Carefully she replaced the pistol in her valise. She could not stay there. Aguila could easily obtain another key from Gemma.
But where could she go? Even if she managed to find her way out through the labyrinth of hallways, it was already dark outside. She would only be inviting more trouble.
No, better to stay the night. With the pistol, she would be comparatively safe. However, as a precautionary measure, she would abandon the room. Surely one of the rooms in that wing of the establishment was unoccupied. After knocking tentatively on one of the doors farther down the fall and receiving no response, she tried the knob. It was unlocked.
Her heart beat like Thor's hammer in her ears as she slipped inside the room, which was much the same as the previous one. When she had ascertained that it was indeed vacant, she dragged the one chair in the room across the floor and propped its back beneath the knob.
Dizzy now with fatigue and hunger and fright, she discarded the idea of rummaging through her valise for the flannel nightgown. Instead, after sliding the derringer beneath her pillow, she stripped down to her flimsy satin chemise and fell across the bed in an exhausted stupor ... certain that she was safe, at least for the night.
A hand clamped across her mouth much later, proving how wrong she was.
"Is there some reason why you're anxious to share my bed?" a low, slightly slurred voice asked in Spanish at her ear.
Kathleen's eyes flew open. Above her, scant inches away, loomed a dark face. The odor of tobacco and leather mingled with mescal to envelop her in a pungent cocoon.
Half drugged with sleep, she frantically began to fight the stranger, but his free hand caught her two hammering fists in an iron grip, yaking her hands ruthlessly above her head. The heavy, muscular body rolled across her tossing one, so that she was locked motionless beneath the man. Desperately, Kathleen bit the hand that covered her mouth.
"Damn!" he swore beneath his breath, and released her abruptly. "So the vixen wants to play the bitch. Shall I tame you?"
He sank his teeth into her neck. Kathleen's body jolted in surprise and pain. But when she would have cried out, the man covered her mouth with a hard, brutal kiss, his rough beard abrading her skin.
Could this really be happening to her? She, who hitherto had yet to feel the touch of a man's lips on her own -- to suffer such an indignity as this?
But shock after shock he dealt her as he ripped the satin chemise down the front, then half caressed, half assaulted her tender breasts, his hands demanding. Kathleen stiffened in a frightened paralysis as the man's knowing fingers traced a searing path from the rose-tipped peaks to the sunken navel ... and even lower to the triangle of spun gold.
Her breathing came in ragged gasps wherever he touched her, electrifying her like currents of white lightning. With a frenzied lunge, she twisted the lower half of her body out of his reach, but one hand still held her wrists firmly.
"What? The woman of the night still plays hard to get? Or is it that you want your money beforehand?" He rolled to his feet in one lithe, catlike motion and dug into his pants.
Standing there in the descending moon's light that streamed through the wooden slats of the terrace doors, he looked like some grim-visaged specter, and, as a peripheral thought, Kathleen realized he had entered her room by way of the balcony, for the chair was still in its place against the door.
But even as she noted this in the distant recesses of her sleep-filled mind, he advanced on her, once again in the shadows, and she cowered against the pillow. With a start, she felt the cold, heavy coins dropping on her nude belly.
Spanish gold for a piece of gold!" he laughed lowly.
It was then that she glimpsed the glint of copper at one ear. The vaquero! She opened her mouth to scream.
"Go ahead ...if you want spectators."
Good God! She must be in some sort of bordello! She bit her lips until she tasted blood. Stark fright mingled with helpless rage as she heard more than saw the man unbuckle his belt, dropping the leather
carelessly on the floor.
There was one hope! Kathleen's mind soared like a bird, released at the thought that all was not yet lost. Furtively, she slid one hand beneath her pillow. The pistol -- it was gone!
His laughter was low and harsh. "Your derringer -- if it is yours,
-- is on the bureau. Without the shells."
Inexorably then, he moved towards the bed and lowered himself atop her. In spite of her fierce struggle, he subdued her with his greater strenth. And finally his sinewy body posed above her, for what seemed an eternal moment that would be forever engraved on her memory, before ripping into her flesh.
Again and again his rigid organ drove in her, burning her like a cattle brand, marking her his possession. And with each thrust her own body arched upwards, as if riding on a tidal wave of pain before ebbing downwards again into semioblivion.
Dear God, would it never end? Would that she could mercifully die! Then, with an explosion of his breath, he slumped across her.
And in the haze of the physical degradation, Kathleen's mind seemed to clearly say: "So this is it. This is what the other girls sigh over in romantic, curious giggles ... and matrons whispered about behind dimpled hands, their attitudes ones of martyred resignation."
she heard him whisper harshly. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Her body was as limp as a rag doll's, but her mind still rebelled, still fought to keep the flickering ember of self-mastery ablaze. She would never give the cutthroat the satisfaction of knowing he had been the first!
"Tell you what?" she taunted. "That you rut like a beast in the fields? Besides," she said, her voice dropping to a listless whisper, "would it have stopped you?"
For a fraction of a second she felt the man's fathomless eyes intent on her. Then the bed creaked as he rose. Does he plan to kill me now? she wondered apathetically.
But from across the room came the sound of water swishing in the basin. Then there was the shock of the cold cloth on her face, wiping away the perspiration.
"No!" she cried hoarsely as one hand gently spread her thighs. Ignoring her pleas, he wiped the stickiness from her with the cool, damp cloth.
When he finished, he fell across the bed, prepared to sleep, already forgetting her presence. It was the final humiliation. The very touch of his arm half-flung over her in a proprietary manner revolted her almost as much as his brutal act of rape had, and she sprang from the bed out of his reach. He laughed, softly, mockingly, but did not stir from his sprawled position.
Gathering courage, Kathleen retrieved her muslin day gown and rapidly began to dress. But when she bent to button the high kid boots, a metallic gleam caught her eye. There among the vaquero's rumpled clothing strewn on the floor was the long knife she had seen earlier, tucked into his legging. Stealthily, she bent, her fingers outstretched.
The steely-hard hand locked over hers. Kathleen looked up to meet his cold eyes. In spite of the fact that he was still sprawled on the bed, there was a tenseness in the muscles of his arm, communicating to Kathleen that he was, like a mountain cat, quite capable of springing within the blink of a lash.
"Unless you're sure as hell you could succeed,
I wouldn't try it."
Stooped as she was, Kathleen's eyes were on a level with his. Their gazes locked. Before his compelling, unrelenting stare, her own lids drooped, the sweep of her long lashes laying like dark fans over her high cheekbones.
The knife clattered to the floor between them.
Her eyes raised in a blaze of fury to meet his steady regard. "You had best kill me now," she told him in a hissing whisper. "Because if we ever meet again, if I have the chance, I swear before God I'll kill you!"
At that moment, with the heavy hair hanging loose over one shoulder and the tantalizing tilt of her eyes no longer concealed by the thick glasses, Kathleen's beauty was fully exposed to the man before her.
His eyes ran boldly over her. "Killing you," he said in a lazy drawl, "is not what I have in mind. You sorely tempt me to forgo my sleep, the longer you stay."
She jerked erect. Grabbing up her valise, she backed toward the door, damning the vaquero with every step. But had she curse dhim aloud, she doubted that he would have heard. Already there came the soft steady cadence of his breathing.
It was not until she wandere4d down the complex of hallways that she allowed the bitter tears to flow freely. And yet she was still alive. That was something. She would find a way to stay alive for the next twelve months. But how -- with no prospects for employment?
It hurt unbearably to walk, even with the slow, unsteady steps she forced herself to take, and she would have dropped then, uncaring of what could further happen to her, had not the sight of light at the far end of one hall drawn her onward.
She paused there at the railing, overlooking the main
and blinked her eyes unbelievingly. Was it really the muted light of sunrise that shined through the wooden shutters to tall in slanted patterns on La Palacia's carpets?
She shrank back as two early risers -- Californios -- passed directly below her, engrossed in talk. When they had moved on, Kathleen crept down the stairs, hugging the wall. If only she could slip through the front doors.
She whirled, prepared to fight, to scream -- whatever it took. The great purple eyes, glazed with fatigue and fear, closed in sheer relief. "Nathan." It came as little more than a whisper.
The sea captain caught her up as she sagged, setting her gently on the nearest sofa. The violet shadows beneth the fringe of inky lashes, the tawny curls that fell about her shoulders in abandoned disarray ... What had happened? he asked himself grimly. What was she doing there -- in the most notorious house of promiscuity on the California coast? Had the girl come looking for him? Or had he been wrong in rejecting the rumors that she was some cast-off mistress?
Kathleen's eyes opened to see the contradicting thoughts that played on Nathan's weather-lined face. What else could he think, she thought furiously, trying to sit up straight and at the same time distractedly pushing at the curling strands that laid on her shoulders. "Nathan, I've -- is there somwhere else I can stay ... until I can locate someone -- a Señor Reyes?"
A startled look passed over the man's ruddy face. "I can take you to Santa Barbara Mission, Kathleen. You can stay there. This Señor Reyes -- if he's in town, I'll find someone to get word to him."
By the time Nathan obtained a carriage for Kathleen, Santa Barbara was coming alive with street vendors on their way to the plaza's market, driving their produce in clumsy oxcarts or carrying their wares atop their heads.
Neither of them spoke during the few minutes it took to reach the mission. In the early morning sunlight, Kathleen thought the mission's arched roof of tiles set above the earth-plastered stone walls looked like a fiery cyclops eye, and she shuddered in spite of the sun's warmth. Only the five copper bells in the high-towered belfry ringing out the matins helped dispel her inexplicable aversion.
Nathan helped her alight from the carriage, and a plump monk in a coarse brown cassock came down the mission steps to greet them with an effusive welcome. After Nathan arranged for a room, he turned back to Kathleen, taking her hands in his larger ones.
"If you shoul dneed me, I have to sail up the coast to Monterey to report to the customs officials. But you can find me there -- if --"
"Thank you, Nathan," she said, sparing him his tactful groping for words. "I'll always remember your kindness to me."
Reluctantly, she watched him go, before following the padre down a damp, musty corridor to one of several small but amply furnished cubicles kept for guests.
She did not even bother to undress as she fell across the rawhide bed, both Nathan's kindness to her and the horror of the vaquero's violation of her body temporarily forgotten in the slumber of exhaustion that claimed her.