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A Taste of Fire
By HANNAH HOWELL
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2009 Hannah D. Howell
All rights reserved.
Royal Bancroft was unaware of the dangerous company he had wandered into. Just twenty-one, he was drawn to border towns by cheap liquor, cheaper women, and that air of recklessness that prevailed. His jade green gaze had drifted from the abundant charms of the woman by his side to rest upon a sight he had never expected to find in a border town cantina.
The girl made Royal think of a little china doll, despite the roughness of her attire and appearance. Her pale hair hung far past her hips, held in place only by a bandana, her low-crowned, wide-brimmed hat hiding little of it. The black of her shirt and pants only accentuated the creaminess of her skin. In profile her small straight nose and full mouth as well as the delicate bones of her face already held promise of a womanly beauty, sensuality, and passion. Glancing over her black-clad figure, Royal decided that so did her budding figure.
Royal did not like seeing a young girl in such a place. If she had any innocence left it would not last long. He could only think of his sister, Patricia, who was probably this girl's age. It was wrong for that child to be in the cantina and, even as he cursed the idealism and sense of right that drove him, Royal moved to do something about it. He stopped before the girl, a little stunned by her incredibly lovely eyes. He was about to speak when all the noise in the cantina abruptly ceased, accentuating the sound of the hammers on several pistols being drawn back. Slowly Royal raised his arms and, just as slowly, turned around.
"You are young, gringo, so I let you explain yourself. Then I might shoot," Juan shrugged, "or I might not."
Wondering how to ease the deadly tension he had inadvertently caused, Royal said, "I meant the child no harm."
The word child eased the tension just slightly. "Then why do you approach my niña?"
Despite his best efforts to hide it, Royal knew his surprise was showing. The tall Mexican eyeing him so closely and coldly over the barrel of his gun could not possibly be the girl's father. It was an effort not to look at her again to reassure himself of her fair coloring.
"I was simply concerned about a child being in a place like this."
With a barely perceptible signal from the man, Royal was relieved of his weapons. Cautiously, as the other men put away their weapons, Royal obeyed the man's signal to come and sit at his table. He could not help but smile a little at the way the man roughly pushed the whore from his lap and, with another subtle gesture, summoned the little girl to come and sit there. The way the hard man's eyes softened when the girl drew near, as well as the way she snuggled against him so naturally, made the man seem less dangerous, but Royal knew that was a very costly assumption to make.
"My niña always comes with me. She has seen many of these cantinas, eh?"
"Well, all I could think of was my sister, who's about your girl's age. I wouldn't want her in a place like this," he paused, "learning."
"She is a child. It is too early for her to learn."
"Her childhood is fading, señor." Royal nodded toward the girl's chest.
The way she had put her arm around Juan's neck had stretched Antonie's shirt taut against her budding breasts. She scowled as Juan then Manuel looked down and both men's eyes widened. Ignoring her protest, Juan pulled out the front of her shirt to peer inside and gape in total disbelief at the small breasts forming there.
"Por Dios," he said softly, hastily letting go so that the shirt fell back into place. "Why did you say nothing, chica?"
"I hoped they would go away. Then you could not laugh like you did when my woman's bleeding started. I do not like to be laughed at."
"Ah, querida, we did not laugh at you, only at you thinking you were dying."
The man looked around at his men pawing the whores and his face darkened. Royal could guess at his thoughts. The child was growing and soon her thoughts would catch up with her body. She could all too easily join the ranks of the women that now offered to pleasure his men for a few pesos.
"Look, just send her back to her room," Royal suggested gently.
"She sleeps near me, here, when I choose a room."
"My God," Royal breathed, shocked to his young soul. "You let her watch?"
"No," the man growled. "She sleeps outside the door."
"So she only hears," Royal said sarcastically.
"Oh, Juan does not make much noise. Only grunts a bit. Now Manuel —" Antonie's revelations were halted by Juan's hand over her mouth.
"We know how Manuel is. You should not," Juan said sternly as he removed his hand. "What do I do now, eh?"
Royal was about to offer a suggestion when his gaze was suddenly captivated by a fleeting image in the mirror behind the bar. There was a furtive movement outside, but he was not sure what it meant until he caught the gleam of a rifle barrel. It was taking aim at the man seated across from him, a man too deep in thought to sense the danger or defend himself. So, too, would the child with the lovely eyes get caught in the fire.
Yelling a warning, Royal hurled himself at the man and the child, bringing them all to the floor as the first shot was fired. Unarmed, Royal could do nothing but cover the girl and keep his head down as the battle raged. With a speed that Royal had to admire, Juan had the table and chairs placed as barricades. It looked and sounded like pandemonium, but Royal noticed only two men in the bar were taken down and they had fallen in the first few seconds. The attackers, however, were bitterly defeated, and the ones who were able to fled for their lives. He continued to sit on the floor with the girl and her mangy dog as some semblance of order was restored.
"Who was it?" Antonie asked calmly as she finally returned to her seat with Juan as Royal collapsed in his.
"Raoul and his scum." Juan looked at Royal. "I owe you, gringo, and Juan Ramirez does not forget a debt. Your name?"
"Royal Bancroft," he answered automatically, in shock at meeting a near legend and saving the life of the man all of Texas was aching to hang. "Texas. Outside San Antonio." He absently accepted the return of his weapons. "Christ, they would hang me if they knew."
Juan laughed heartily. "Sí, sí. You would have not been so quick if you had known, eh?"
Sighing, Royal grinned and shook his head. "There is still the child. They aren't looking to hang her."
"No?" Juan rubbed his cheek against the top of Antonie's now hatless head.
"No." Royal took a long pull on his beer and decided to be honest. "They think you stole her and would like to take her back."
"It is as I thought. They have already tried, but no one will take my niña. She is an orphan. Antonie Neumann."
"Hello, Antonie." Royal saw her smile shyly at him and could easily foresee her beauty.
"She came with me when she was nine. I am her father now. My men, her family. We see that she goes to church." Dancing black eyes returned Royal's grin. "We teach her all we know. She can ride, shoot, all of that, as good as any man." He frowned and looked around the cantina again. "I do not want her to learn of this life, but this bandido knows of only putas."
It was not easy, but Royal hid his surprise. The man was the scourge of Texas and the Territory of New Mexico, swooping across the border to rob and kill and disappear back across the Rio Grande into Mexico. El Diablo was only one of the names given this hard man who eluded capture so easily. Yet, here he sat, as concerned as any father for the chastity of the girl he had picked up on some raid. Royal now thought it a lost cause, but he was willing to help if he could.
"You can start by keeping her out of places like this. This isn't what she should learn of men and women."
Nodding, Juan stood up. "You come with me, gringo, and tell me more while I find a room for Antonie. Julio, I give you two hours to have your fun, then you come to the inn and take my place watching Antonie."
Two men, well armed, followed Juan, Antonie, and Royal. It was evident that Juan had no intention of being caught out alone and unaware. Royal noted that the girl was calmly accepting of these precautions. As they walked, Royal obediently related all he could think of pertaining to the proper raising of a young girl. Having a sister gave him some insight, but not much.
When they reached the room obtained for Antonie, a door away from his own, Royal kept his eyes averted as she got ready for bed. Once she was neatly tucked in bed, he sat at a small table with Juan to share a bottle of tequila. Royal could not fully shake the strangeness of talking about the proper raising of a girl with a man like Juan Ramirez.
"I did not do the killing of her parents."
That softly spoken statement made Royal flush guiltily. "I had wondered."
"You are an honest man. There are few left. They were gringos, but poor. I do not go after ones who have nothing, or men whose hands are fitted to a plow, not a gun. They are a waste of my time, eh? Men come and go in my band. Not all follow orders. Four took a little — how you say — detour. They do the killing. I had just shot the leader as a lesson when the girl comes. She was nine and very tiny." He shrugged. "I decided to be a father."
"They think you stole her and they want her almost as much as they want you."
"Sí. They have tried. I left her with Manuel's woman once. She proved she was not to be trusted."
"She sold my niña to the gringos. We did not kill her for that, but Manuel took his sons. So, we follow and bring my niña back."
"Was that best?" Royal ventured to ask. "You are a bandido, living each day by your gun. God knows how many men ache to kill you. Maybe she'd be better off if she went back. There would be families ready to take in such a pretty child."
"Antonie is mine. The gringos could not hold her. She slipped away from them and we found her walking back to me. The child made her choice. She wants to stay with Juan Ramirez."
There was no more to say. Amazing though it was, Juan Ramirez plainly adored the little girl with all the ferocity of a true father, perhaps more. He was a hard man born of a hard life, but evidently the child filled some need, touched some long unused softness in the man. The child looked neither abused nor unhappy. She was clearly just where she wanted to be.
Deciding that he had had enough excitement and drink for the evening, Royal did not go back to the cantina. He crawled into his bed and quickly fell asleep.
Although he knew it was morning when he next opened his eyes, it was not sunlight he first saw, but a pair of wide purple eyes staring into his. He was suddenly very conscious of his nudity.
"I brought you your breakfast, señor." Antonie sat down on the edge of his bed.
Gingerly he sat up, taking care to keep himself covered, the smell of rich hot coffee and food further waking him. "That was very kind of you, Antonie, but you really shouldn't be in here."
"I left the door open as I heard you say a lady should."
Royal nearly choked on his coffee for the door was indeed open, wide open, letting anyone who walked past look in on him. "Yes, well, when I was speaking of rooms, I wasn't meaning bedrooms." The way she looked at him told him that she did not understand. "Ladies do not enter a man's bedroom." He decided to eat while he thought of a way to explain it to her.
She watched him while he ate. His thick chestnut hair was tousled from sleep, but did as little as his youth to soften the slightly harsh lines of his face. He was not as dark as Juan but not as pale as some gringos. The deep green of his eyes, set beneath neatly drawn, vaguely winged brows, fascinated her.
"Kiss me," she abruptly ordered when he ate the last of his food.
After choking on that last bite for a minute, Royal gasped, "Don't be ridiculous."
Suddenly he found a knife at his throat.
"I said kiss me, gringo."
"Antonie," drawled an all too familiar voice from the door, "this is not the way to seduce a man."
Putting away her knife, Antonie groused, "I thought you were still with Maria."
Strolling up to the bed, Juan looked at her sternly. "Ah. So you thought to rush in here and learn to be a puta."
"I just wanted a kiss. None of that other business. Oro and Tomás are only two years older than me, and they have done it all."
"They are learning to be men. Doing it all is part of becoming a man."
"I do not want it all. Just one kiss. I asked Oro and Tomás, but they said no and threw me in the water. Last time I was at church the girls were talking about kissing. I just wanted to know. Everybody has done it but me."
Juan stared at her. It was clear that her thoughts were already growing with her body. He knew how stubborn she could be once she got an idea into her head. Leaning against the wall by the bed, he took out a cigarillo.
"What?" Royal gasped. "She's just a kid, for Christ's sake."
"Sí and no." He lit his cigarillo and slowly drew on it. "She is thinking she is missing something, eh?" "And you expect me to show her she isn't?" Royal did not feel very flattered.
"No. I expect you to answer what this question is in her stubborn mind. She will keep asking until she gets her answer, and I do not want someone to tell her too much, sí? You kiss her."
"Oh for god's sake," Royal muttered and yanked her to him to deliver a brief kiss.
"That is all?" Antonie asked in disappointment.
"For you, sí. Now, vamoose."
"It does not seem worth all the excitement," she grumbled as she left, Sage at her heels.
"That should end that," Juan said with satisfaction.
"Are you sure?" Royal was trying not to be too insulted by her reaction.
"Sí. She does not like it when the girls at the church talk of things she does not know. Now she knows." Juan moved to the door. "Some day I will repay my debt. Vaya con Dios, amigo."
Before Royal could reply, the man was gone, the door shut after him. It was time to go home for a while. Things might be dull there, but at least he did not find himself cheek to jowl with notorious bandidos and precocious little girls.
An hour later he was mounting his horse in preparation of leaving, only to see that Juan Ramirez was doing the same. The girl sat on a huge black stallion flanked by two mounted youths who obviously had some Indian blood in their veins. They made an impressive trio, the two tall, dark youths beside the tiny fair Antonie. He returned their farewells as he rode past them on his way out of town.
* * *
When Royal reached his home several days later, he found that the girl still troubled him. She came to mind as he greeted his sister. Patricia was growing up wrapped in the protection of her family, enjoying all the innocent games and interests of a young girl facing womanhood. It was hard not to compare that to Antonie's life, steeped in violence and danger. It still did not seem right but he knew there was nothing he could do about it.
Since he did not want anyone to know that he had saved the life of Juan Ramirez, Royal never mentioned Antonie to anyone, only listened more closely to any tales of Juan Ramirez that came his way.
A short time after his meeting with Juan and Antonie, war exploded within the country. Royal lost all interest in Juan Ramirez and his young charge, as he and two of his brothers rode off with many another young Texan to become mired in hate and blood. His brother Denton fell at Gettysburg, while he and his brother Cole managed to survive until Lee surrendered. Bitter, scarred inside and out, he returned home with Cole after a year to find their parents dead and Patricia and the youngest son, Justin, struggling to keep the ranch together. Cole joined the Rangers, while Royal tried to forget the war by immersing himself in the fight to hang on to the ranch.CHAPTER 2
"What the hell happened to you?"
Cole Bancroft eased himself into a chair and tried to grin at his elder brother. "Can I have a drink before I go into any details?"
Royal's anger hid his concern. He had lost one brother and had no intention of losing another. By the looks of it, the wound in Cole's shoulder had come far too close in succeeding in its clear intention of killing the lawman. Scowling, he handed Cole a drink.
"Don't you think four years of getting shot at was enough?" Royal snapped.
"Plenty, but I've got two months left before I get out. Damn, Royal, we almost had the bastard."
"Ramirez?" He forced away a sudden vision of wide purple eyes.
Excerpted from A Taste of Fire by HANNAH HOWELL. Copyright © 2009 Hannah D. Howell. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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