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A loud knock on the bedroom door shattered the early dawn silence.
Maria Elena de Vega groaned and pulled her pillow over her head. It didn't help.
"Elena? Are you awake?" her sister, Conception, asked in a loud whisper.
Of course she was awake. She hadn't slept in a week--not since she had agreed to this insanity.
"Elena, open the door!" her sister demanded.
Elena scowled. She wasn't about to open the door. Conception had kept her up half the night going over every detail of her mad scheme. Elena didn't intend to subject herself to it again, especially at this hour of the morning.
When footsteps fading down the hall told Elena her sister had left, she sighed wearily and rose from her rumpled bed. Savoring the coolness of the floorboards against her bare feet, she walked to the window, opened the shutters and gazed down on the courtyard, where a multitude of birds gathered for a bath in the fountain. So quiet. So peaceful. How she envied their tranquility. She rubbed a hand over her middle hoping to quell the turmoil building inside her. Only a few hours from now--if things went as planned--she and Conception, would exchange places, and Elena would be on her way to the convent.
Unable to still her foreboding, she went to the dresser and picked up her brush. Drawing it through her long black hair, she eyed her image in the mirror and shook her head in disgust. "How could you let Cepi talk you into this crazy thing?" The deeply shadowed topaz eyes staring back at her had no answer.
Another soft tap on her door sent her heart into her throat. Conception back again? Or had Father discovered their plan? Praying it wasnot the latter, she hurried forward and opened the door a crack. Her knees buckled with relief when she saw it was only her maid, Lupe.
"Buenos dias, senorita," Lupe said with a bright smile. "I was across the patio and saw your shutters open. Would you like your bath now?"
"Si, Lupe. And please bring some headache powders along with a breakfast tray. I have a terrible headache." This was supposed to be her excuse for not riding as she usually did every morning. In truth her head was pounding, and she felt quite ill.
After she'd bathed and choked down a portion of her breakfast, Elena stretched out on her bed and attempted to calm her jangled nerves. Before long she got up and smoothed the covers. It was no use. If she was this undone, she wondered at her sister's state of mind.
Feeling a desperate need to keep busy, she rebraided her hair. Twisting it into a coronet on top of her head, she fastened it securely with her hairpins.
She paced around her comfortable but sparsely furnished room, straightening things, touching childhood treasures: a small brightly colored rock; a silver-framed daguerreotype of her mother. You're not leaving forever, she told herself, but still she shivered, feeling that after today nothing would ever be the same.
She jumped when another knock sounded on her door.
"Elena, it's me," Conception called out. "Open the door. I've come to say goodbye."
Knowing she was as ready as she'd ever be, Elena placed a hand over her stomach. Her middle felt as though she had been kicked by a horse. She opened the door and ushered her older sister inside. She stared at Cepi's dark dress and thickly veiled hat. "You look like you're in mourning."
"How else do you think we could get away with it?" Conception whispered, already removing the hat. She tossed it on a chair and quickly slipped out of her blue traveling dress. "Are you ready?"
Elena noted ruefully that her sibling showed no sign of her own unrest. In fact, Conception's blue eyes fairly danced with excitement. "You act as if you were going on a picnic."
"Even better. I'm eloping," Conception teased.
"Aren't you worried at all?"
"Not in the least. Now, hurry and get dressed." Conception darted to Elena's closet and rummaged among the few hangers. "Ugh! Don't you have anything more stylish?"
"No. I don't," Elena said with disgust. "I didn't plan on you wearing my clothes."
Conception finally chose a dark cotton frock and put it on. She drew a black wig from her traveling bag and held it up. "Remember this? I took it from the masquerade trunk in the old wing." After covering her silver-blonde tresses, she eyed herself critically in the mirror. Her nose wrinkled in distaste. "Well, I won't have to wear it long. My own clothes are packed in the trunk I said you borrowed for your trip to Santa Fe."
"I know. Remember? Lupe and I had to move it down here last night. I think you stuffed your furniture in there, too. It weighs a ton."
"I only packed everything I might need," Conception said innocently.
The sound of rattling harness and pounding hooves in the courtyard drew Conception away from the mirror and sent her scurrying toward the open window. Cautiously parting the lace curtains, she peered out. "The coach is here."
Trying to calm her shaking hands, Elena frantically fastened the last of the buttons on the high-necked navy silk dress. "There. How do I look?"
"The hat--quickly." Conception grabbed the headgear and slapped it down on Elena's head. "Stoop down."
Elena bent so that the heavy veiled piece could be anchored to hide her dark hair. "Oww! You don't have to ram the hatpins through my scalp," she said, wincing.
"I'm only making sure it won't fall off. Perfecto. See for yourself." Conception shoved her toward the dresser mirror.
Gazing at her reflection, Elena gasped. "I can't believe it." The girl in the mirror looked exactly like Cepi when she'd entered the room only minutes before. For the first time since she'd agreed to this charade, Elena actually believed they might get away with it.
"Do you remember what to do, little sister?" Conception asked, anchoring the hat with yet another hatpin. "I've already bid Father goodbye, so all you have to do is go to the carriage."
Elena nodded, remembering the "goodbye." The row had practically shaken the rafters in the hacienda the day before. It ended with their father shouting that Conception would do as she was told, and with Cepi screaming back a vow that she would never speak to him again. Elena knew, that unless he had changed his mind, she wouldn't have to worry about confronting him. The knock on the door sounded loud as a cannon.
"It is time, senorita," the guard called from the hall.
Filled with icy apprehension, Elena walked to the window and looked out. Below, four matched horses pranced in front of a shiny black coach bearing the Spanish Angel crest. A dozen well-armed outriders accompanied the carriage. All of them waited for her. She sucked in a ragged breath.
"Don't forget these," Conception said.
Elena wiped her sweaty palms on her dress and took the long white gloves from her sibling's pale hands. She drew them on to hide her own darkly tanned skin. She glanced at her sister. "I guess I'm ready."
Conception gave her a hasty embrace, then pushed her toward the doorway. "Go quickly, Elena, before they come to see what is taking me so long. Vaya con Dios, my sister, until we meet once more."
"Vaya con Dios, Cepi. Be happy," she whispered. She waited until Conception, wearing the simple clothes and dark wig took her seat by the window. After a farewell wave of her hand, Elena opened the door and stepped into the hall. "I'm ready, Francisco," she whispered to the waiting man.
"Bueno, senorita. Then we will go." He turned to lead the way down the stairs.
"All you have to do is get to the carriage." Conception's instructions had sounded so simple. Elena took a deep breath to gather courage. Swallowing against the dryness in her throat, she slipped passed the open door of the library--and her father seated at his desk.
"Goodbye, my precious," he called out.
"Goodbye, Father," she croaked before she recalled Conception's vow never to speak to him again. Please, God, don't let him follow me to the carriage. She shivered, forcing her cowardly legs to increase their pace down the shadowy hallway toward the arched entry doors of the hacienda. By the time she'd reached the sunlit courtyard, she was running to the safety of the waiting coach.
When they were out of sight of the walled compound, relief and exhaustion overcame her, and rocked by the coach's movements, Elena drifted off to sleep.
Sometime later a gnawing pang in her stomach awakened her.
Yawning, she sat up and tossed back the multitude of veils. She frowned, wishing she could remove the uncomfortable contraption but knew she dared not. Even though she'd closed the coach curtains to keep out the dust, a sudden stop could be her undoing. She'd never be able to get the hat on again before the door opened.
Patting her rumbling stomach, she glanced about the coach. Cepi loves to eat. There has to be food somewhere. She spied a large lump under a folded lap robe on the black leather seat opposite her. A basket. Lifting it to the seat beside her, she grinned. A heavy basket. She removed her gloves and poked around the contents, finding tortillas filled with shredded beef; a goat cheese wrapped in corn husks; beans and rice in a covered pot so thick it was still warm; grapes, along with a rosy peach fresh from the orchard; and a bottle of chilled sangria.
As Elena sampled the fare, it occurred to her that after the sisters at the convent discovered who she really was and sent her back to her father, she might be on bread and gruel for the rest of her life. She took another bigger bite. Well, at least today I won't starve.
After devouring a good portion of the meal and a half bottle of the wine, Elena replaced the hamper. Now in better spirits, she chuckled, knowing if Conception had remembered the basket, she would have removed it and taken it with her later.
She lowered her veils and raised the coach curtain. Moving to the opposite seat so she could avoid most of the dust, she gazed out the window, nodding her head when a close-riding vaquero touched his hat in respect. She noticed the ammunition belts crisscrossing the man's chest and the rifle encased in his saddle sheath. The others she could see were likewise armed. Father might be sending Conception to the convent, but he appeared to be taking no chances with her safety.
Elena knew she owed her armed escort to the bandit that had plagued the ranch's gold shipments. El Gato del Noche, the cat of the night, people called him. Because like another mysterious black cat, the jaguar, he appeared out of nowhere and disappeared the same way--along with the Spanish Angel gold. Her father had placed a five thousand dollar bounty on the man's head, but no one had yet collected it.
Apparently the outlaw had a personal vendetta against her family's Spanish Angel ranch, for he robbed no one else. She'd heard the maids whisper tales of his mysterious good looks and his daring deeds. They made him sound quite romantic. But romantic or not, Elena hoped he remained elsewhere. She would have enough trouble this trip without any bandit adding to it.
The coach wheels churned the red earth, filling the inside of the carriage with fine silt. Elena reluctantly lowered the curtain to avoid more of the dust that covered her clothing and the seats. The air grew stifling with the coach closed, and Elena envied the men outside, wishing she, too, could be on her horse. She considered asking if she might ride atop the carriage but immediately dismissed the idea. Conception, loathing the heat and dirt, would never ride outside, and since Elena was supposed to be Conception, she couldn't either.
Realizing by the position of the sun that it was just past noon, Elena knew they wouldn't reach the convent until well after dark. Shut inside, the day would drag. Hoping another nap would help pass the time, she leaned back against the seat and closed her eyes.
The sound of gunfire jolted Elena from her sleep. She sat up puzzled. Leaning forward, she yanked at the window drape and stuck her head out the window. The flat-land had disappeared, and sage and juniper-covered hills rolled into the distance. She twisted to peer in the other direction. The coach was entering a narrow red-rock canyon.
A gunshot cracked from above. Someone in the rocks was firing at them!
"Senorita, close the curtain! Get on the floor. Bandits!" the man riding beside the coach shouted at her.
Elena slide from her seat to her knees. "Bandits?" Unable to contain her curiosity, she lifted the edge of the shade and peeked out.
Zing! A ricocheting bulleted penetrated the drape above her head. It plunked into the seat facing her.
"Madre de Dios!" Elena dropped the covering and hugged the floor.
"After them!" a voice called out. Hoofbeats thundered away from the coach and faded into the distance.
A loud rumble filled the air. The ground trembled.
Thunder? Impossible. A landslide!
The coach rocked. It teetered on edge.
She gripped the seat. It's going over. She screamed as her fingers lost their hold. Her head rammed against the door.
The coach crashed down on its wheels and jolted to a stop. The door jerked open. Dazed from her bump, Elena looked up from the floor. Her eyes widened. The biggest man she had ever seen stood in front of her.
From under a massive, battered sombrero, eyes as big and brown as a puppy's stared at her in amazement. "Dios mio! Et es a woman!"
More angry than afraid, Elena hastily straightened her skirt, which in the tumble had risen above her thighs. She scrambled to the seat and tried to regain a portion of her dignity. Staring past the man, she saw that her father's "protectors", lured away from the coach, had been overpowered. She was surrounded by bandits.
The big man motioned to another until a series of bewildered eyes gazed at her. Clothed in rags, but armed to the teeth, the men milled around the carriage, arguing in hushed voices. They seemed unsure, uncertain of what to do. Apparently she was the last thing they'd expected.
Other hoofbeats raced toward them. The men backed away from the coach.
A man on a huge black stallion galloped up to the gathering. He drew the prancing beast to a stop just outside the open coach door.
"Que pasa?" he growled. "What is wrong? Why aren't you unloading the gold?"
"Jefe, there is no gold," the giant answered. He stooped to peer inside again, as if hoping to see something he had missed. His large fingers tugged at a thick, drooping mustache. "The coach, she carries only a woman."
"A woman?" The newcomer jumped from his horse. With a jangle of spurs, he strode to the coach.
Staring into the large barrel of the bandit's pistol, Elena was grateful for the heavy veil. She forced her eyes upward, past the gun to the gloved hand; up the sleeve of the silk shirt; across a broad shoulder to the scarf tied around a tanned neck. She raised her gaze to the thin, unsmiling lips above a strong chin. The rest of the man's face was hidden behind a mask. The bandit chief, from the top of his flat-crowned sombrero to the toes of his shiny boots, was clothed entirely in black.
Elena gasped, knowing him instantly. It wasn't just his clothing, nor his unusual height or the breadth of his shoulders that identified him. It was the watchful menacing stillness with which he regarded her, the lethal predatory awareness radiating from him.
Elena's heart beat with such frantic painful strokes she found it hard to breathe. She shrank back against the seat. No romantic figure this, the man was terrifying. "El Gato del Noche," she whispered.
"I see you recognize me," the man purred in a dangerously silken voice.
Elena fought rising panic. She must remain calm; to do otherwise might incite him to further violence. She sat frozen, every nerve, every muscle, every fiber of her being distressingly away of his tall, virile masculinity. The faint scent of horse, leather, and tobacco drifted through the open coach door to assail her nostrils. Sensual and sleek, like the cat he was named for, he had a restlessness, a barely leashed savagery, that she sensed could erupt at any time.
His features expressionless, he made no effort to ease her tension. He brazenly assessed her, going from the tip of her veil-covered hat, to insultingly linger on the agitated rise and fall of her breasts, before sliding down her dress to her booted feet. Uneasy, she watched, waited, wondering what his next move would be.
Slowly, deliberately, El Gato backed away from her and turned his gun toward the now unarmed men who had been yanked from the top of the coach. "What trick is this?" he asked so softly that the men appeared more frightened than if he had shouted.
Raising a hand, the driver touched his forehead, making the sign of the cross, as if hoping his hasty prayer would save him from the outlaw's wrath. He stammered an answer. "It is true, senor. There is no gold. We carry only don Enrique de Vega's daughter." He pointed toward Elena.
A snarl of pure rage came from the bandit chief's throat. "Where do you take the bastard's spawn?"
"We travel to the Convent of the Virgin of Lasting Sorrows, senor. Senorita Conception is to become a nun," the driver whined.
El Gato again glanced inside the coach.
Elena trembled under his piercing gaze.
He tilted his head back, studying her thoughtfully. "He must think highly of this daughter to offer her such protection."
The coachman twisted his hat nervously. "Si, senor. She is the joy of his life."
"Then he would pay well to get her back," El Gato said.
Conflicting, turbulent emotions coursed wildly through Elena's veins, belying the icy perspiration that trailed down her back, making her shiver. He couldn't--he wouldn't. But she knew that was exactly what he intended.
"No, senor. You cannot do this," the coachman protested. "Senor, por favor. Let her go," he pleaded. "Don de Vega, he will be very angry if you do not."
The bandit's laugh was cold, without feeling. "He can have her back--after he pays the price."
"What price, senor?"
"Fifty thousand dollars ... in gold."
The coachman gasped. "But that is a fortune."
The chief nodded. "Is she not worth it?"
"Si, senor. But this is much money. What if El Patron, he does not have it?"
"Then he will no longer have a daughter." The bandit chief gripped the top of the doorframe and bent his head to peer inside the coach.. His gaze raked Elena's body, then his eyes locked on the veil. His lips drew back in a humorless smile, showing teeth, brilliant white against his dark skin.
Her heart fluttering like a trapped bird, Elena gasped, recognizing the smile for what it was. The joy of a tiger sighting its prey. Fighting the impulse to scream, she rubbed the gooseflesh prickling her arms.
As though sensing her fear, his smile widened. Through the slits of the mask, eyes of midnight blue glittered like frozen chips. The sun flashed off the bandit's guns as he straightened to motion to one of his men. His voice, chilling as a blast of winter wind, commanded, "Take her!"