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Last Train from Cuernavaca
By Robson, Lucia St. Clair
Forge Books Copyright © 2010 Robson, Lucia St. Clair
All right reserved.
1A CAKE WALK
Captain Federico MartÃn loved everything about women, but this was the first time he had fallen for a pair of pale English hands. Their owner sat so upright and Anglican on the piano bench that it could have been a church pew, but her long, supple fingers harbored no piety. They chased the syncopated lilt of the â€œMaple Leaf Ragâ€? across the keys like sprites on a spree. Her fingers were so sure, so swift, they flouted assorted laws of classical mechanics, gravity, drag, and human fallibility.
A score of couples danced the Cake Walk and the One-Step under hundreds of tiny lights strung like stars across the 383-year-old ceiling beams of the Hotel Colonialâ€™s ballroom and restaurant. The Hotel Colonial was one of the few places where Cuernavacaâ€™s foreign community and its elite Mexican society mingled. Christmas of 1912 was six weeks away, but they could always find something to celebrate. Most of the dancers sported the latest fashions, but several men wore the dark blue dress uniforms of the Mexican Army.
Captain MartÃn wore the same uniform, and he thanked his own lucky stars that Colonel Rubio had chosen the Colonial as lodging for himself and his aides. The colonel was a difficult man, to say the least, but now Rico counted himself fortunate to be one of those aides. This was his first visit to the hotel where he would billet while in Cuernavaca, and he liked what he saw.
The glossy toe of his knee-high cavalry boot tapped in rhythm with the music. With arms and ankles crossed he leaned a shoulder against a tiled column next to the piano. He swirled a snifter of cognac in the palm of one hand, while his dark eyes followed those runaway fingers more closely than the dice in a game of hazard.
With her deft hands, the piano player would make a fine thimble-rigger. She could have held her own among the shell game experts he had seen fleecing suckers in Harvard Square. Federico imagined her shuffling the three walnut hulls with such speed that no poor sap could guess which one hid the dried pea.
What intrigued him most about her was the contrast of those devil-may-care hands with the ramrod line of her spine, the intensity of her concentration, and the gleam of two pearly teeth biting her lower lip. And such a voluptuous lower lip it was. Rico wouldnâ€™t have minded nibbling on it himself.
One of the waiters had referred to her as la Inglesa, so he assumed she was British, and aristocracy, too, by the refined air about her. She had hiked her long skirt up several inches, freeing her feet to work the piano pedals. Her slim ankles looked English enough, but a spatter of freckles across her nose and a mass of hair the dark amber of aged whiskey hinted at an Irishman somewhere in her familyâ€™s woodpile. Her hair had probably started the day pinned in a fashionable heap on top of her head, but a gaggle of locks had slipped their tethers. They danced around her neck as she played.
He wondered if she was a guest here and if she was married. Not that the latter mattered. He had enjoyed the company of more than a few wives of careless husbands, but he had never laid siege to an Inglesa before.
Two years ago, against the wishes of his highborn family, Federico had joined the workersâ€™ rebellion ignited by Francisco Madero. Heaven knows, under the aging dictator Porfirio DÃaz, Mexicoâ€™s workers had much to rebel against. The insurgent forces had prevailed and sent DÃaz into exile. Rico thought often about the day when, along with 100,000 of his cheering countrymen, he watched Madero installed as president.
Now, however, the prospect of peace gaped like a long yawn for him. Seducing la Inglesa would provide an amusing diversion. As easy as a cake walk.
Rico had no doubt about the outcome of his campaign. The high collar on his tunic framed a strong jaw, a sensuous mouth, and an aristocratic nose. He had a physique that didnâ€™t require a tailor for uniforms to fit perfectly. He didnâ€™t have to see his reflection in the pianoâ€™s polished surface to know he was handsome. In his twenty-nine years, uncounted numbers of women had told him so, beginning with his Zapotec nurse when he was all of three minutes old.
The music brought him back to the present. La Inglesaâ€™s right hand flickered through a long glissando before coming to rest, like a bird gliding in for a landing. The dancers applauded, then made their way back to the roast beef and parsleyed potatoes delivered by a bevy of white-coated waiters.
â€œJoplin was right,â€? Rico said.
â€œI beg your pardon?â€? She looked up and Rico saw that her eyes were as deep blue as delft porcelain and just as cool.
His heart jilted her hands and fell boot heels-over-epaulets into infatuation with her eyes. He didnâ€™t realize yet that his plans for seduction had turned on him like an ungrateful cur. When la Inglesa stood up she could almost look straight into his own eyes. He noticed that most of her height was legs.
â€œScott Joplin,â€? Rico said. â€œHe claimed he could â€shake de earthâ€™s foundations wid de â€œMaple Leaf Rag.â€? â€ â€œ
He expected her to exclaim in surprise that a soldier in the Mexican army not only spoke English, but American Negro dialect as well.
Instead she gave him a smile that was cordial, but noncommital. â€œAnd you are? . . .â€?
â€œCaptain Federico MartÃn at your service.â€? Rico clicked his boot heels and bowed smartly.
â€œPleased to make your acquaintance, Captain MartÃn. Iâ€™m Grace Knight.â€?
Grace. Gracia. Perfect. God Himself must have named her.
She extended her hand in greeting, but instead of shaking it he raised it to his lips and kissed her fingertips. That didnâ€™t seem to surprise her either. Did men kiss her hand on a regular basis? If they did he had a sudden urge to floor them for it.
Charm had always worked for Rico. This womanâ€™s immunity to it caught him off guard. He was trying to think of his next move when a crash came from the Colonialâ€™s maze of back corridors. It sounded like breaking pottery, probably in the kitchen. Shouts followed, but not in any language Rico recognized, and he spoke six of them. The shouterâ€™s gender was also a mystery.
â€œPlease make yourself at home here, Captain MartÃn,â€? said Grace. â€œNow if youâ€™ll be so kind as to excuse me.â€? She nodded and hurried off toward the commotion. The long curve of her skirt looked like water flowing.
Rico listened intently as he watched her go. He thought the distant shouting might be Chinese, but he still wouldnâ€™t wager serious money on whether the source was male or female. And Rico would wager serious money on just about anything.
â€œRico! Weâ€™ve been waiting for you.â€? Another blue uniform with captainâ€™s bars called to him in Spanish from the doorway of the Colonialâ€™s cantina. â€œHurry up! Theyâ€™re ready to play.â€? From the bar came the rarest, most beautiful sound in Mexico, the chime of ice in glasses.
Before he joined his friend, Juan, Rico glanced over his shoulder in hopes that Grace Knight would reappear. She didnâ€™t. The piano looked like it missed her, too.
Juan led him through the fog of tobacco smoke toward a table at the rear. On the way he gestured to LuÃs, the barman, to keep the cognac coming. Rico detoured to ask for a bottle of whiskey, a small glass, and a tumbler of ice.
â€œWhen did ice become available?â€? he asked Juan.
â€œDonâ€™t they have ice in El Norte?â€?
â€œYes, but this isnâ€™t El Norte.â€?
â€œWe canâ€™t have the chilangos drinking warm whiskey.â€? Juan used the less-than-affectionate term for people from Mexico City. â€œThereâ€™s a new ice plant at the de Leon bridge. The flow of water produces electricity. Donâ€™t ask me how. Welcome to the twentieth century, my friend.â€?
Juan turned his chair around, straddled it, and introduced Rico to the two lieutenants at the table. They would be todayâ€™s lambs for the gaming slaughter.
While one of the lieutenants shuffled the cards, Juan said, â€œSo, youâ€™ve met Mamacita.â€?
â€œDoes she work at the Colonial?â€?
â€œShe owns it.â€?
â€œI donâ€™t remember a hotel here.â€?
â€œSeÃ±ora Knight came on the train from Mexico City with that piano lashed to a flatcar. She bought this place just after you left for El Norte five years ago.â€? Juan leaned across the table to bring the lieutenants up to date. â€œMy friend went to college in the United States and returned agringado.â€?
The gist of what Juan had said about la Inglesa and the Colonial sank in. He looked around, startled. â€œIs this the pile of rubble that stood vacant for years?â€?
Rico remembered the buildingâ€™s crumbling faÃ§ade and broken windows. Its weed-grown courtyard had been visible from the street through a rotted gate. He had trouble reconciling that memory with what stood here now.
To reach the ballroom he had passed through a pair of intricately carved front gates and under a covered entryway to an open courtyard paved in a mosaic made of the local volcanic rock. Small wrought-iron tables and chairs lurked half-hidden in bowered nooks. A cascade of water flowed down one wall of blue tiles and splashed into a pool below. Darkness had since fallen, but when Rico arrived earlier birds still had been confabulating in the lush growth of trees and shrubbery. Hummingbirds had been attacking the tapestries of flowering vines like starving guests at a free steam table.
â€œIs she married?â€? Rico feigned interest in his cards.
â€œWidowed. Her husband was Carlos Mendoza.â€?
â€œOf the Mendozas who administered the foreign mining concessions?â€?
â€œExactly. What is it they say? â€The government, although a beggar, is the richest man in Mexico.â€™ â€?
â€œThen why does she call herself Mrs. Knight?â€?
Juan shrugged. â€œPerhaps she is one of those modern women we hear about.â€? He looked up. â€œIf youâ€™re planning to woo the widow Knight, my friend, youâ€™re wasting your time. The word is that at least a brigade of men has tried to scale those ramparts.â€?
â€œLa seÃ±ora es formidable,â€? muttered one of the lieutenants.
Rico went back to studying his cards.
With only that local malcontent, Emiliano Zapata, left to stir up trouble, the next few months here in Cuernavaca were going to pass slowly. Rico had plenty of time to make the acquaintance of the formidable Mrs. Knight.
Excerpted from Last Train From Cuernavaca by .
Copyright Â© 2010 by Lucia St. Clair Robson.
Published in April 2010 by Tom Doherty Associates Book.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Excerpted from Last Train from Cuernavaca by Robson, Lucia St. Clair Copyright © 2010 by Robson, Lucia St. Clair. Excerpted by permission.
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