Isabelle straightened her new hat, a gift from her brother. It was a light-coloured straw, with ribbons that matched the shawl that Tessa had given her earlier in the day. She was ridiculously pleased at his gesture; it somehow seemed more special than the yards of fabric he'd paid for earlier. This, he'd done on his own, getting her something she didn't really need, just because. She gently fingered the silk butterfly that was nested in the ribbons. Robert had told her it was called a Monarch, and that they were one of the many beauties she would soon see here in California.
A few hours had passed since Robert had first taken his sister away on his errand, but now having returned to the Plaza, Isabelle had joined Marta, the two of them watching the dancers swirl past. Both were pleased at seeing Robert and Tessa dancing together.
"Tessa is fond of my brother, isn't she?"
"You could say that," Marta replied with a smile. "Though, don't tell her I told you so."
Isabelle laughed. "It was hardly necessary for you too! It's quite obvious." She looked over at Marta. "Well, obvious to everyone but Robert," she amended.
Sighing, Marta nodded in agreement.
"My brother can be so clueless at times." She looked thoughtful. "But now that I'm here, I'll have to see what I can do to open his eyes to what's right under his nose."
"I wouldn't object to anything you might be able to do in that area," Marta said softly, watching the two move to the music, in sync, if even just for these few moments.
"Robert is such a good man, and nothing would please me more than to see him happily married, with a family of his own."
"And what about you, Isabelle?" the gypsy asked unexpectedly. "What would you wish for your future?" Marta's gaze seemed to pierce into her soul.
"Me? I don't really know. All I wanted for so many years was to be free of my father." Isabelle looked lost. So much of the last months had just been about getting here and reuniting with her brother, that she hadn't really thought a great deal about some indistinct future.
"And what about now?"
"I suppose I'd like to not be afraid anymore." That was true enough. Isabelle had spent too many years in fear of her father's alcohol induced rages, and worse, the ones that happened when he was totally sober.
"And what else?" Marta's voice was pitched low, almost mesmerizing.
She bit at her lip, and then from somewhere, drew the courage to tell Marta her secret desire. "I want to be loved."
A short while later she stood alone, Marta having been asked to dance, and Isabelle insisting she accept the invitation. Her brother and Tessa had moved on to other partners after Isabelle had shooed them both away when they'd come to check on her. Truth be told, she was glad of the solitude. Her conversation with Marta had left her feeling unsettled, and she wasn't sure just what had possessed her to confide in her. And she enjoyed watching the almost hypnotic movements of the dancing couples, whether in sets or separately. While she loved to dance; right now, she was content to merely observe.
Slowly, she walked the periphery of the dance, lost in her own thoughts; so involved in those thoughts that she nearly jumped when she heard a voice at her ear.
"It is a great shame when the most beautiful woman present is not dancing," Colonel Montoya said with urbane regret. Drawing even with her he extended an arm which she accepted, placing her hand in the crook of his elbow.
"Then by all means, you should go ask the poor thing to dance, Colonel!" Isabelle replied, her eyes alight with mischief. "It would be the gentlemanly thing to do."
For just a moment he seemed nonplussed by her reply, but only for a moment. He laughed softly. "Indeed, Senorita, if there had been any doubt you were your brother's sister, there would be none now."
"I shall take that as a compliment; though I am quite sure you did not intend it as such." She looked up at him with a look that was almost a dare.
"Then you have misjudged me completely, Senorita Helm, wounding me with your words!" They paused near where the band played.
Isabelle laughed gaily. "Then please accept my sincerest apologies, Colonel."
"There is only one remedy," he informed her.
"And that would be?"
"That this next dance be mine." He turned her, bowing over the hand he held in his. "Senorita, may I have this dance?"
"I would be delighted," she said in reply.
The music began with a discordant chord before falling into the strains of a haunting waltz. The colonel, not surprisingly, was an excellent dancer, and Isabelle reveled in dancing with such a talented partner. As they moved across the floor, she asked, "What is this piece? It's beautiful."
"La Bruxa," he answered. Her brow creased as she tried to translate the unfamiliar word. "The Sorceress," he said, this time in English.
"My thanks, Colonel! I apologize for my inadequate Spanish."
"On the contrary, Senorita, your Spanish is excellent. I'm actually quite surprised at your proficiency."
"You can thank Captain Molera, his crew, and the passengers aboard the Perla de la Noche for that! Months aboard ship gave me very little to do other than perfect my language skills. They were all very helpful."
"And you had never spoken it before?"
"Italian, not Spanish," she explained. "But the Italian helped, no doubt."
"No doubt," he agreed, smiling down at her.
From the other side of the Plaza, Robert had taken notice of his sister dancing with Montoya. Next to him, Tessa saw the look of concern on his face as his sister laughed at something the colonel had said.
"Colonel Montoya can be very charming," Tessa observed, glancing up at him.
"Yes, he can," he replied, obviously distracted. Then he seemed to come to a decision. "She's enjoying herself, no need to ruin it because it happens to be Montoya she's dancing with."
"It is only a dance," she agreed.
"Exactly. My sister is a sensible young woman, and Montoya knows she can be of no benefit to him. Let her enjoy this evening without her brother hovering at her side, making a mountain out of a molehill."
"A wise decision, Doctor." She brushed her fingers across his arm. "Perhaps we should join them?"
Helm looked down at her in surprise, a smile curling his lips. "Perhaps we should." He extended a hand. "Senorita?"
Montoya moved her smoothly across the dance floor, totally in control of the waltz. "It is indeed a pleasure to dance with so gifted a partner," he told her sincerely.
"Likewise," she replied with a serene smile. At this moment, she was truly enjoying herself.
"Forgive my curiosity, but tell me, Senorita, what brought you here to California? It is a long way to come for a woman alone."
Her eyes clouded over and the expression of joy on her face was replaced with a carefully constructed mask.
"I am sorry, Senorita, I should not have pried," Montoya said quickly, noting the change in her mood.
"No apologies are required, Colonel," she said coolly. "Your curiosity is only natural, after all. The death of my father brought me here. Robert is my only remaining family," she explained.
"Don't trouble yourself, Colonel. The death of my father was not a tragedy, but an escape. I am quite sure that he was greeted most warmly at the gates of hell." Then she laughed bitterly. "I'm sure you must think me quite wicked to say such things."
This time, there was no subterfuge, or insincere platitudes in her companion's response. "No, Isabelle Catherine, I do not think you wicked at all. In fact, I understand your feelings more than you could possibly know."
Swallowing, she looked into his eyes, seeing only empathy. Nodding, she allowed him to tighten his hold more than was absolutely proper. But they both seemed to need the comfort of human touch as they both recalled a past that had shaped them into who they were today.
The moment passed, and Montoya stepped slightly away, to a more appropriate distance. "No more talk of sad things this night. As governor, that is my decree, agreed?" Once more, he was smiling.
"Agreed," she replied with an answering smile.
By the end of the evening, Isabelle was sure she'd danced with most of the male population of Santa Elena. And in amongst those dances had been many requests for permission to call on her. Even though she knew it was vain, Isabelle was rather tickled with the attention. She had even danced with Senor Ramirez, something she was hoping her brother hadn't noticed, or she'd never hear the end of it.
Now, at the end of the evening, she danced with her brother to a lovely waltz called Las Blancs Flores.
"I'm so pleased you could make the time for me," he said with a smirk.
"Can I help it if my charm and wit are irresistible?" she asked, quirking a brow.
"I don't suppose you can," he replied laughing.
"You were quite popular yourself! Don't think I didn't notice, Robbie."
"Whatever are you babbling about?"
She snorted indelicately. "You just wait, Robert Helm! I will see you properly married before I'm done."
"I'm quaking in my boots!" He twirled her around and she laughed like a young girl at her first dance. "You have no idea how happy I am to hear your laugh again, Isabelle."
"It has been a long time since I've heard it myself," she admitted.
They danced in silence for a time, both wandering in their own thoughts. Then Robert said, "I hope you'll be happy here, Isabelle. That you will find your heart's desire, whatever, or whoever, it may be."
"And I hope you will find yours, dear Robbie. That would bring me true happiness."
"To happiness," he said, kissing her cheek.
"To happiness," she replied, hugging him. "And to our hearts' desire."
Join us next time for At the Edge of Heaven, chapter two of To Follow the West Wind, coming soon to an internet near you!