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Rio Grande Valley, Texas, 1880
Tess Hennessy stared down through the darkness at the image taking shape before her in the chemical bath. The photograph she had taken of the Spanish mission-style home in which she lived was to be a present for her parents on their anniversary tomorrow. She had captured it at a moment when the lighting was perfect, with the noon sun directly overhead so that the palm trees didn't cast their shadows over the house. She smiled, pleased at her work. They would love it, especially after she mounted it in the elegant oak frame Francisco, her helper, had prepared. She'd have to sneak out here to her developing shed after they returned from the party tonight, no matter how late it was, so that the picture would be ready for gifting tomorrow.
If only it were as easy to see her future develop before her as it was to develop a photograph. Her mother, she knew, expected her to marry. But what man would want to marry a girl who had an unladylike pastime that involved messy, finger-staining chemicals and long sessions in a darkroom?
Was there such a man? If only she could submerge one of her collodion plates into the chemical bath in the basin before her, and see his image take shape
"Tess! Tess! Where are you? Now, where can that girl have gone, Patrick? I specifically told her we were leaving for the barbecue at one o'clock ."
Oh dear, she'd lost track of time again. It was so easy to do when she was immersed in photography, her passion. "Mama, I'm in the darkroom, developing a picture. Don't come in, please"
But it was too late. Sunlight suddenly flooded the little shed by the barn as Amelia Hennessy burst in.
Tess groaned. Her mother's untimely arrival had just ruined the photograph.
"Tess! What are you doing in here?" her mother cried. "We have to leave for the barbecue, and you're not even dressed. Look at you!" Her mother spoke as if she expected Tess to look down and be surprised that she was wearing her serviceable navy skirt and waist.
Behind her mother she could see her father, looking sympathetic and uncomfortable, his eyes appealing with Tess to comply so peace could be restored.
She would have to give her parents an IOU for their anniversary present and take the photograph again. Her father would understand and apologize privately to Tess for not stopping his wife before she'd burst into her darkroom.
Amelia Hennessy tapped her foot, her face tight with impatience.
"I am ready to go," Tess replied in a level voice, wishing she could avoid the inevitable confrontation.
"Surely you weren't thinking of wearing that at the Taylors' barbecue?" An imperious finger indicated Tess's utilitarian clothes, in contrast to her own elaborately lace-trimmed dress with a fancy, bow-topped bustle.
Tess took a deep breath, praying for calm. She did want to obey the commandment that instructed her to honor her parents, and with her father that was easy. No matter how often she explained to her mother what was important to her, however, Amelia Hennessy seemed incapable of understanding. Tess shot a look at her father, but though his eyes were full of sympathy, he said nothing.
"Mama, I'm not going as a party guest, but to work. I told you the Taylors hired me to take the photographs of them and their guests. The developing chemicals can be messy, and with all the bending and stooping while posing the subjects, what I wear is apt to get dusty and stained, so it's hardly practical of me to wear a light-colored, frilly dress."
Her mother sighed and put her slender fingers up to her head as if she felt a migraine coming on. "Tess, I do not understand you!" she said for surely the thousandth time. "You're a beautiful girlor you would be, if you'd take some trouble to put yourself together. You could make a brilliant marriage, but you'll never do it if you insist on spending so much time on this little hobby of yours. You're always at your little shop in town. I don't know why your father ever let you take it over when James passed away. And when you're not photographing, you're drawing. Patrick, say something to your daughter to make her see sense!"
Patrick Hennessy put one hand on his wife's shoulder, the other on his daughter's, and smiled the charming smile that usually mellowed his wife's anxious reaction to his daughter's individuality.
"Yes, she is a beautiful girl. Thanks be to God, our last chick in the nest got your looks, Ameliaespecially your blue eyes, and only my red hair," he said, with a quirk of amusement that lifted the corners of his mouth and eyes. "Whenand if" he added, with a hint of steel "she's ready, our youngest has only to crook her finger to have any man she wants. But she's not a brainless belle with no thought but how many beaux she can collect. If she wants to be a photographer and carry on for James, I don't see the harm."
Amelia Hennessy's lips thinned and she sighed again. "You never do, when it comes to Tess, Patrick, but she's already twenty and she's going to end up an old maid, you mark my words."
"I always do, Amelia," he said, giving his wife an affectionate peck on the cheek. "But an old maid? Nonsense. Our Tess is the prettiest girl in Hidalgo County. A man would be a fool to think otherwise if he had eyes in his head. And now, we'd better leave or we really will be late."
Tess sighed, too, knowing the battle was only postponed, not won, and followed her mother out of the shed. As she left the dimness, the tropical heat of the Rio Grande Valley washed over her. For a moment she envied her mother's lightweight dress, low cut over the shoulders.
In front of them stood two carriages, the open victoria, with its matched bays and driven by Mateo, and a smaller vehicle that resembled a Civil War ambulance, covered on all sides and in back by heavy canvas and pulled by Ben, the same mule that had once pulled the wagon for Uncle James. Tess had requested that her photography wagon be ready at the same time as her parents' vehicle, and Mateo had done so.
"We're going to be the laughingstock of the party with that wagon following us," Tess heard her mother grumble as her husband assisted her up into the carriage.
"Horsefeathers," her father scoffed. "They'll be lining up to have their pictures taken, and Tess will be very popular indeed."
"If it comforts you to think so," her mother sniffed. "But I just wish Lula Marie had had the decency to ask me first before hiring our daughter. I would have forbidden it."
"Sam talked to me," Patrick Hennessy told his wife. "I said it was all right." There was a warning note of finality in his voice. Tess heard no more objections. She climbed into the driver's seat and gathered up the reins.
Her heart warmed with love for her father. He'd always supported her dreams, God bless him. She loved her mother, too, and knew despite her mother's fretting about her future, that the feeling was fiercely reciprocated.
Tess understood that her mother had grown up in a simpler time. She'd been a belle in the truest sense before the charming Patrick Hennessy, an Irish immigrant, had swept her off her feet. Everyone said she was marrying beneath her, but apparently she had known what she was doing. Starting from scratch, Hennessy had built his empire in south Texas until he was one of the richest cattlemen in the state, even after the Civil War.
If only she could convince her mother that she, too, knew what she was doing. Tess had grown up on her uncle James's tales of working as a photographer for the famous Mathew Brady during the war. She had taken her first daguerreotype at her uncle's direction when she was only seven. By the time she was fifteen, she was working alongside him in his shop in nearby Chapin whenever she wasn't away at school, and by the time he died, he had taught her everything he knew.
Tess glanced backward into the wagon to assure herself that all her bottles of chemicals were safely and securely bestowed inside. "Giddup, Ben," she said, clucking to the mule. And the beast obediently took his place behind the victoria for the short drive to the Taylors' plantation.
"I tell you, Dupree, we're going to have to call the Rangers in again to deal with these Mexican cattle thieves like McNelly did in seventy-five," Samuel Taylor said, turning to the man sitting next to him. "He certainly showed Cortinas what was what."
"I'm sure you're right, Sam," Mr. Dupree agreed. "I'm sick and tired of losing cattle to these bandits, not to mention two of my best broodmares." He slapped his hand on his knee as if to emphasize his disgust.
Tess threw off the heavy, dark canvas cover under which she had been crouching and faced the two men she had posed standing in front of their wives and daughters.
"Please, Uncle Samuel, Mr. Dupree. You must remain still, or you will be a blur," she pleaded, striving for a tactful tone. She swatted at a horsefly that had taken advantage of her coming out from cover to land on her neck. "The exposure will take only a few seconds and then you may talk all you want."
"I certainly hope we'll be done so soon," Maribelle, one of the Dupree daughters, complained. Like her sister, she was sitting at her father's feet with her skirts spread out decorously in front of her. "I'm roasting here in this heat, and without my parasol, the sun will bake my complexion, I'm sure. I don't know why we could not have sat on the veranda where it's shady."
Tess had already explained the need to use natural light, so she didn't bother to do so again. "Just another minute, Maribelle, and you can go back to the party. Just think, you and your family will always have this picture to commemorate the day."
Maribelle made a little moue of distaste, as if nothing Tess could create with her camera could possibly compensate her for her suffering, but then her eyes shifted to something behind Tess and her camera. Her eyes widened. Without turning her head, she spoke out of the side of her mouth to her sister. "Melissa, who is that?"
"Who is who?" snapped her sister, also irritable in the heat.
"Ladies," Tess begged. She had been about to duck back under the canvas again and take the picture.
"That man who just stepped off the veranda, the one who's now standing by the fiddlers' platform," Maribelle Dupree told her sister. "Don't look now, because he's looking this way, but my stars, he is quite the handsome fellow!"
"You know I can't see that far without my spectacles," Melissa whined, "and I could hardly wear them here."
Involuntarily, Tess looked back over her shoulder, and saw just what had caught Maribelle Dupree's attention.
The man was tall, probably all of six feet, and whipcord lean. He wore no hat, and in the sunlight his hair gleamed raven-black and a bit overlong, brushing the collar of his white shirt in the back. His features were angular, his nose slightly aquiline. He held up his hand to shade his eyes, peering around as if looking for someone or something.
What a fascinating face, Tess thought. What she wouldn't give to photograph him, to try to capture those angular planes of his face, that magnetism and sense of determination that radiated from him.
"Oh, he's coming this way!" squealed Maribelle to her sister. "Melissa, is my hair all right? Is it coming loose in the back?"
"Girls, please," Taylor implored, just as Tess was about to remonstrate with them again. "If you two chatterboxes could hush up while we get this picture done, I'll present him to you."
Even as the girls squeaked blissfully and went into their poses again, Mr. Dupree spoke up. "I'd rather you didn't, Sam. I don't like what I've heard of the man. They say Sandoval Parrish is two different people, depending on which side of the border he's on."
Taylor blinked in surprise, then said, "Very well, a father has that prerogative, after all. Now, if we could let Tess take her picture? I believe there are several others who also want theirs done. Tess dear, thank you for your patience."
"Of course, Uncle Samuel." Tess took one last, fleeting glance at the object of the Dupree girls' attention. The stranger had paused to accept a drink from a tray proffered by a servant, and was now lifting it to his mouth as he continued to look in their direction.
Had he seen her staring right along with the giddy Dupree girls? Tess ducked under the canvas with the same feeling a mouse must have as it darts into a hole to escape the scrutiny of a hungry hawk. Half a minute later, she had completed the exposure.
"I'm done now. You are free to move," she said, coming back out from under her cover. She watched the Dupree girls stroll away, their bustles swaying as they each took one last, longing look over their shoulders. Apparently they had lost their nerve and weren't bold enough to stay and hold Taylor to his promise of an introduction.
Tess wondered if the stranger was still standing where he had been, but she was much too busy now to look at him again. Carefully, she removed the glass photography plate from the camera and strode over to where her wagon stood parked in the shelter of three shady live oaks. Her darkroom while at a job consisted of a larger, dark canvas tent stretched over the square, shallow bed of the wagon, in which sat the developing bath. She had only ten minutes to develop the picture or the collodion in the plate would no longer be wet, and her efforts would have been in vain.
Tess wished Francisco, her assistant in the shop, could have come to the barbecue today to take care of the preparation of the collodion plates and the developing while she took the pictures so she could be done sooner. But he had told her he had to help his father today. She straightened her shoulders, reminding herself that Uncle James had often worked alone to photograph the aftermath of battles during the war. Whatever he had done in the hardship of the battlefield, she could certainly do at a barbecue.
"Tess, can you come out for a minute? There's someone here who'd like to meet you," Sam Taylor said, just after she had gone into the developing tent.