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Bev HustonGive yourself a romantic gift and put this anthology under your tree. Be sure to sign the tag with love!
— Romantic Times
Rancho de Arguello,
The California Territory, 1844
Isabella giggled as she hung the last of the drying peppers in the scorching summer heat. She danced a fandango to celebrate the finishing gesture. Her older sister shook her head at the precocious young beauty. Isabella had been named for her striking looks. She was blessed with lustrous, silken black hair and full, warm brown eyes that complemented her sun-drenched skin. Her loveliness was renowned throughout the territory, but her grown-up appearance hid a tender and naive young heart.
As Isabella's parents watched their vivacious daughter from their sprawling, adobe home, they discussed her future in serious tones.
"You see, my dear? She is far too young for marriage. She still giggles like a child," Señora Arguello argued.
"She is seventeen. The rancheros have been lining up for marriage since she was ten years old. A beauty like Isabella can only benefit from marriage; remaining here will simply lead to trouble." Señor Jose Arguello shook his head. "She will mature in her wifely role. It is time, Ramona. It is probably past time. The priest will come at Christmas and she will be married. Why wait another year? We can certainly use the cattle her marriage will bring."
"Yes, Señor." Ramona Arguello relented uneasily. "But whom shall she marry? She has had so many offers, yet I've never seen a man who caused her heart to stir." Señora dropped her head sadly, her faded black hair falling forward around her worncomplexion.
"Don't talk to me of such fancy of heart stirrings. I am the patriarch of the rancho, and as such, I will choose for my daughter the man whom I see fit. Just as your father did," Señor Arguello added firmly.
Señora Arguello remained undeterred. "But, I loved you, Jose," she pleaded with her husband. "Isabella is not in love."
"She will have better than love. I am offering her to Antonio Fremont for a thousand cattle," Señor Arguello revealed.
His wife inhaled deeply, her hand slapping her chest in surprise. "A thousand cattle! Oh, Jose, no. Not even for a thousand cattle. He is nearly thirty years older and he's already buried two wives! Surely you can find her someone more suitable."
"Are you questioning my judgment?" Señor Arguello charged, his eyes growing thin.
"Of course not, Señor. I-I just ..." Señora Arguello bowed to the determination of her husband. "I will make arrangements for her dress and the celebration." She walked despondently from the room and the conversation.
Señor Arguello turned to the nearby window. "Isabella!" he snapped impatiently.
Isabella stopped her lighthearted play and grew solemn. "Yes, Papa?" But it wasn't long before her high spirits reappeared. "Papa, look at the peppers. Are they not beautiful this year? I can't remember when they had more color," she pressed excitedly.
Her father's demeanor appeared to soften momentarily before his scowl returned. "Your mama needs to see you immediately."
Isabella lifted her full, ruffled skirt and dashed into the dim house to her parent's private room. The occasions when Isabella entered the quarters were rare, so she knew her mother had something important to tell her. Isabella found her mother sitting with her head bowed. She caught her mother surreptitiously wiping her eyes before looking up at Isabella.
"Mama, are you feeling okay? Papa says you must see me. Did you see the peppers are all hung?" the young woman chattered persistently. The golden brown of Isabella's bare shoulders glistened under the midday candlelight used against the darkness within the whitewashed adobe walls. Señora Arguello straightened her back and ceased weeping.
"Yes, my darling. Your father and I have decided it is time for a rancho and a family of your own. Your father has made arrangements with Antonio Fremont. You are to be married this Navidad, when the priest comes to visit and celebrate the birth of our Savior. Your papa will make sure Pastor Sola is here as well."
Isabella fell to her knees, nearly fainting at the news. She felt dizzy and sickened, yet she knew to argue her case was pointless. Arrangements had been made, and to question her father's authority, especially after he had given his word to Señor Fremont, could only lead to disaster.
She remembered the bedraggled, old character who came to the annual cattle counts. She pictured with clarity his oversized belly and the hungry eyes that scrutinized her as if to devour her very soul. She shuddered at the image of marriage to such a man. She was very nearly ill by simply being in the same room with him and his foul smell of drink. Now she would be forced to share a home with the surly ranchero.
"Isabella?" her mother questioned. "Did you hear me?"
"Yes, Mama," was all Isabella could manage to say.
"Señor Fremont is a fine man. He is the wealthiest Califorñio in the territory. You will have dresses of fine Spanish lace for everyday wear. You can plan fiestas and rodeos that last for weeks on end. There are no limits with such a man. You will be the envy of every señorita on the rancho," Señora Arguello said enthusiastically, but her downcast eyes gave her true feelings away.
Isabella knew her mother didn't approve of Antonio Fremont. It was obvious by the tears she'd shed and the desperate attempts to convince Isabella that her new life wouldn't be so desolate.
Isabella closed her eyes in agony. She felt physically weak that she would be leaving the only home she'd ever known to live with a ranchero older than her father. Such was the way of life on the ranchos. Women lived in complete submission first to their father's authority and then to their husband's. She let out a deep sigh. "Yes, Mama, Spanish lace."
"You will own more cattle than any woman in the territory," her mother added brightly.
"The Bible says better a dry morsel, and quietness therewith, than an house full of sacrifices with strife," Isabella quoted.
"It is your duty to make sure your home is without strife, Isabella," her mother reprimanded.
"Of course, Mama. I'm sorry. May I be excused, please?"
Señora Arguello nodded, and Isabella curtsied in deference, then ran to the patio and fell to her knees in desperate prayer. Oh Lord, why of all men must I marry him? Lord, You have ordained each and every day of my life. Please find a different path for me. Please. I beg You, Lord. Anyone but him, anyone!
"Isabella?" Victoria, her older sister, blocked the last of the sun from Isabella's view. Tears welled up in Victoria's eyes. "I'm so sorry." Her words let loose a wave of tears and the sisters instinctively embraced.
"Oh Victoria, how can they do this to me? Does Papa care nothing for me?" Isabella cried.
"He cares greatly for you, Isabella," Victoria responded softly. "He has betrothed you to the richest man in all of California. As far as Papa's concerned, that is the best. The other rancheros have been trying to betroth their daughters to him for some time now. Papa would only allow you to marry a true Califorñio. Born and bred on God's land."
"Why did you get to choose your husband, Victoria?" Isabella protested, tears streaming freely.
"Because I am not beautiful, Isabella," Victoria answered gently and plainly, wiping her sister's tears away.
Isabella's eyes widened. "Of course you are. Who told you such nonsense?"
"My sweet sister." Victoria caressed her again before pulling away and looking directly into Isabella's deep, brown eyes. "You see only what you want in those you love. I appreciate that you find me beautiful, and I know in your virtuous way you believe it with all your heart. But the commotion you cause at the annual rodeo shows the difference between you and me. Father has been planning your marriage for a long time, Isabella. I'm sure he knows what he's doing."
Isabella shook her head violently and stood up, her dress whirling wildly. "No, not you." She pointed a long, slender finger at her only sibling. "I can take the lying from Mama because she must support Papa, but I know you can't possibly approve of my marrying that—that squalid, old man!"
Victoria remained silent at the accusation, its truth apparent.
Posted January 3, 2000
Fireside Christmas received top rating from Romantic Times. I wrote my novella, 'Eyes of the Heart' after watching a movie about a blind couple who married against tremendous odds. The plight of these lovers touched my heart and I had to write a blind heroine. The story is about Julie Simmons, a blind young woman who lives in the shadow of her vivacious younger sister, Honey. When Honey comes home for Christmas with her beau, Jim, Julie wants to stay in her room. She feels nervous around strangers. However, when Jim hurts his ankle and has to stay indoors while the others go skating, Julie learns that Jim has a big heart under his sophisticated exterior. This one will make you laugh and cry.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.