"That was a most delicious meal, thank you, Marta," Isabelle said as Tessa's Gypsy servant removed her plate.
"Yes, stupendous," Robert agreed.
"It is nice to cook for those who appreciate it," Marta said with a smile as she removed the rest of the dinner plates.
"Marta is the best cook in the territory," Tessa told her two guests.
"Thank you," Marta acknowledged their praise. "If you would like to go into the sitting room, I will bring you your coffee."
"Perhaps I can interest you in a game of chess?" Tessa asked Robert as they made their way from the dinning room.
"I would like that very much," he replied with a smile.
Falling behind them, Isabelle said, "I shall be there in a moment. I wanted to ask Marta about her progress on my dresses." It wasn't really true, but Isabelle had decided it was the best way for her to leave Tessa and Robert alone for a time. Not too long as to be inappropriate, but long enough, she hoped, for the two to get to know one another better.
"Don't be long," Tessa said with a smile. "I was hoping you would play for us."
"I would be happy to," Isabelle replied. "I won't be long." Turning, she made her way to the kitchen, sitting down at the large kitchen table.
"Can I get you something, senorita?" Marta asked, looking surprised at their guest's sudden appearance in her kitchen.
'I'm fine Marta, but I'm afraid I told an untruth."
"I told Tessa and Robert I wanted to discuss the dresses you are making for me; a small deception to allow them to spend some time alone together." She clasped her hands together on the table. "I hope you don't mind?"
Marta laughed. "Not at all. In fact, I wholeheartedly approve."
Smiling, Isabelle said, "I had hoped you might!"
"And to make sure there is no lie involved, we must discuss the dresses. I was going to show you the lavender one tonight as it is almost completed. The yellow one should be done by week's end."
"Thank you so much, Marta. You have been so kind; I do not know how I can properly thank you."
"Just to see your happy face is thanks enough," she assured her.
"It is a fine thing to be able to play chess with such an enthusiastic opponent," Robert told Tessa as she moved a knight.
"Doesn't your sister play?"
"She does, but she does not favour the game as you do," he explained while pondering his next move. "Cards are more to her liking."
"I see. And how is Isabelle settling in? Is she adjusting to life here, do you think?" Tessa knew that Isabelle's excuse of wanting to talk to Marta was merely a ruse to leave her and her brother alone together, and it was one she intended to take full advantage of.
Robert looked at his hostess. "She is having a difficult time of it, I believe; though she would never confess that to me. I do appreciate all you have done, senorita, to help my sister make the transition to life here in California."
Tessa inclined her head slightly. "It has been my pleasure."
"I am in your debt."
"Not at all, Doctor." She contemplated the chessboard briefly before making her next move, capturing one of Helm's rooks and smiling smugly at his look of consternation.
"Well done, senorita. There's more to you than meets the eye, isn't there?"
"Why whatever do you mean, Doctor?" she asked innocently.
Robert snorted. "I am on my guard now, Senorita Alvarado," he warned with a smile.
Tessa watched him for a moment, before asking, "I have a heard a rumour that Isabelle has been teaching a reading class at your casa. Is it true?'
"So it would seem. Though I only found out today; it has been going on under my nose for a fortnight." He sounded more than a little peeved.
"Servants do gossip, Doctor. But isn't it an odd sort of thing for a lady to be doing?" Tessa had been quite curious when Marta had told her that Senorita Helm had been teaching peasant girls to read. Tessa approved, of course, but it wasn't something that had ever occurred to her to do herself.
Robert smiled, shaking his head. "Not if you had known Isabelle longer, senorita." He sighed. "Despite his many faults, our father did not stint on her education. He was a firm believer that all his children, sons and daughter, should be well educated. The subject of educating women is one my sister feels most keenly about."
"How admirable, Doctor. But I can only imagine the reaction of men like Colonel Montoya to your sister's project."
"Colonel Montoya," Helm said the man's name with distaste, "has been cultivating Isabelle's good opinion quite assiduously. So I have few worries on that score."
"Oh? And why do you think that is?" Tessa asked nonchalantly.
Robert's jaw tightened. "Who knows what goes on in Montoya's mind?"
"Who indeed," she replied brightly. Of course, Tessa Alvarado would have no idea, but the Queen of Swords was another story entirely. She knew quite well why the military governor would seek out Dr. Helm's young sister. And that was her fault. She vowed to pay more attention to Colonel Montoya's attentions towards her new friend.
"Actually, Senorita Alvarado, I wonder if I could impose upon your kindness yet again?"
"But of course, Dr. Helm."
"Perhaps, if the opportunity arises, you could speak to my sister on the subject of the Colonel? Make her see that his company is unsuitable? I daresay she would take it better from you than from her overprotective older brother," he finished with a rueful smile.
"I'll see what I can do," she said reassuringly as Isabelle and Marta joined them; Isabelle holding a lavender dress and Marta with the coffee.
"Is she besting you, Robert?" Isabelle asked.
"She may very well be!"
"Well done, Tessa!" Isabelle said.
Marta placed the coffee tray down on the sideboard behind the couches. "I'm sorry we were delayed." She shot Isabelle a knowing smile. "But I needed to confer with Senorita Helm on the trim for her dress." Taking the dress from Isabelle, she moved to a chair in the corner of the room next to a table with a lit oil lamp and a sewing basket that was underneath.
"You will be able to wear your new dress to the Hidalgo's spring picnic," Tessa pointed out.
"I am not sure I shall be able to attend," Isabelle replied apologetically.
"Why ever not? You must come!"
Robert answered for his sister. "I'm afraid that's my fault, senorita. I leave for my monthly visit to the outlying villages on Wednesday, and I do not know if I will be home in time on Saturday to escort my sister to the picnic."
"That is easily enough solved!" Tessa replied with laugh. "Isabelle, you must come stay with me while your brother is away. Then we can go to the picnic together. I will not take 'no' for an answer!"
"That is very kind of you," Isabelle said.
"Indeed, Senorita Alvarado, it would be a weight from my mind. I little liked the thought of leaving Isabelle alone in town while I was away." His sister shot him an exasperated look, but held her tongue.
"Then it is settled! I will pick you up on Wednesday morning, Isabelle."
"Thank you, Tessa, I am most grateful." Her smile lit up her whole face.
"Now will you play something for us?" Marta asked from where she sat working on Isabelle's dress.
"Of course," Isabelle agreed, walking over to the pianoforte and lifting the lid from off the keyboard. "What would you like to hear?"
"Play us something from your home in England," Tessa requested.
"Very well." Isabelle thought for a moment as she placed her fingers on the keys. "This was a favourite of our brother, Andrew's." Soon after, the strains of Katharine Ogie filled the hacienda.
Tessa and Robert, their chess game temporarily forgotten, sat in companionable silence while Isabelle played for them. For a brief moment, Tessa allowed herself to imagine this as her future, in a home full of the warmth of family and friends. Tomorrow, she would light a candle, and make a prayer, and perhaps, if God were kind, it might be so.