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January, 1836Southern Texas Territory
The ground shook.
Victoria Torrez jerked awake from a dreamless sleep and glanced about her room. Nothing was out of place. The full moon shining through her window cast shadows of bare branches on the plaster walls. What had woken her?
She swung her feet onto the tile floor and tiptoed to the window. Nothing moved in the blue moonlight. A heavy frost covered the ground near the hacienda, unusual for this time of year, but then it had been an unusually cold, dry winter. The bats that lived along the Rio Grande had long since flown south. Even the owl that hooted in the ancient oak tree was still.
Her senses heightened, she moved to the opposite window to search the courtyard.
It came to her thena steady, rhythmic trembling like thunder in the wake of an approaching storm. Her heart took up the cadence as she held her breath and listened, trying to understand what was happening.
The iron latch on her door jiggled. "Victoria? Wake up!" her mother urged with a frantic edge to her voice as she stepped into the room.
Grabbing her robe from the back of a chair and stuffing her arms into the sleeves, Victoria secured the tie around her waist. "I'm awake. What is it?"
"El Presidente has come."
Victoria's stomach lurched. "No! Santa Anna? It cannot be!" Then soldiers marched across their land! How many must there be to make the ground tremble?
Mama joined her and together they peered outside.
Victoria's father stood on the far side of the ornate iron gate that closed off the courtyard. His back was to them, and although he'd dressed hastily with his shirt hanging loose rather thantucked into his pantalones, his stance was wide and proud. His breath rose, a warm vapor in the cold air, as he spoke to another man who held himself tall, chin up, his feathered hat tucked in his arm. The stranger wore a dark uniform with brass buttons that gleamed in the moonlight and a sword at his side. Not Santa Anna. She had seen a painting of El Presidente once when she visited Monterrey. Perhaps this was an emissary.
Behind him, she could barely make out the gray forms of more soldiers standing in rows. With the low mist creeping from the river, her eyes failed to see beyond the third line of men, but there must be more. From what she'd heard, the general's army was vast.
The two men spoke softly at first and Victoria could hear only the low tones, unable to differentiate the words. Then their voices rose to an angered pitch. Her heart thumped hard in her chest, worried that next they would come to blows or worse. A heavy silence hovered while each man weighed the other's intent. After a moment, the officer bowed stiffly and retreated. Her father turned away, an uncharacteristic slump to his shoulders.
This couldn't be happening! "Santa Anna was to come in the springand by boat," Victoria murmured, still unable to believe what was before her.
"We will not see Monterrey now," Mama said, her hands clasped and trembling around her beaded rosary.
Father had planned to take the family safely to his brother's house before the army came. Victoria had spoken against it. She did not want to leave the cattle and horses to be used by the Mexican army. She would not hand over anything to them so easily.
Heavy footsteps in the great hall startled them both. Mama stepped forward and wrapped the ends of her heavy shawl across her chest, a five-foot, one-inch formidable fortress. Searching for a quick weapon, Victoria grabbed the silver letter opener from her writing desk and hid it within the folds of her robe. She moved next to her mother. Steadying her breathing, she prayed fervently the intruder was simply their cook.
The door swung open.
"Esteban!" His name rushed from her lips as she recognized her childhood friend. His face was more angular now, more mature than when she'd last seen him in the summer. "What are you doing here?" The moment the words were uttered she realized he wore a soldier's uniform and carried a pistol in his hand. A sinking sensation settled in her chest. He'd joined the Mexican army.
Darting a quick look around the bedroom he strode toward them, the sharp planes of his face stern. "Señora Torrez, Victoriayou must get out of here."
"But this is my home," Victoria said, raising her chin. "I will fight for it."
His dark eyes flashed as he gripped her shoulders with his long fingers. "I have seen the army. There are too many coming."
"And you have made it one more." She shrugged out of his grasp, not caring that the anger in her voice was audible. How dare he do this! And now she realized the clothes he wore were not those of a common soldier. From the crown of the golden helmet protecting his head all the way to the bottom of his polished black leather boots, authority oozed from every inch of him. Gold epaulets padded both shoulders of his dark blue coat and a sword with a brass hilt hung from his belt. Of course that would be the way of it. He was not a common man, after all, but one of the aristocracy of Mexico.
"Why, Esteban? Why did you do such a thing? You come now to fight against my family and steal our land? Land that has been ours for generations."
His closed expression gave his answer before he spoke. "You had a chance to save this land, and gain more besides. But you refused me, remember? My offer of marriage did not agree with you."
Beneath his hard facade she could see the hurt her rejection had caused. In his eyes she caught a glimmer of what looked like hope.
"I explained my reason. I will not have my future arranged for me. I will choose my own husband."
"Your father has been too lenient with you."
"I am his only child. Can you blame him for doting? I know you, Esteban.You would do the same with your daughter." She'd hoped by being honest they could remain friends. She cared for himbut as a brother.
Moving to her bureau, she opened a small drawer and removed the engagement ring he had given her on her twenty-first birthday. She held it out until he reluctantly raised his hand for it. As she folded his fingers around the cold metal with her own she beseeched him. "You have always been a good friend. Do not ruin that now."
For a moment he struggled with her answer, but then with his hand resting on the brass hilt of his sword, he hardened his jaw. "Now I choose my own path. In honor of my gentleman status, El Presidente has given me a commission in his army. I command a contingent of dragoons."
"Then you had better get back to them," a deep voice said from behind him.
Esteban spun around, whipping up his pistol as he turned.
"No!" Victoria jumped forward, pushing the gun to the side. "What are you doing? You know my father! Often you have sat at our table."
Esteban pushed her aside, out of his way, but never lost sight of the man before him. "Stay back." He brought his gun back up and trained it on the man before him.
Her father spoke first, his voice calm but steely. "Do you come as a friend to this house, Esteban? Or as the enemy?"
The air charged with electricity as they faced each othera Tejano believing Tejas deserved its freedom, and a Mexican patriot trying to quell a rebellious uprising, one that threatened to split the country in two. There would never be a middle ground. The time for that had passed long ago.
Slowly, cautiously, Esteban holstered his gun and removed his hat, tucking it under his arm. Then, in the way of the dons, gentleman to gentleman, he bowed to her father. "Señor Torrez. It is with relief that I find you well."
"And you, too, Esteban Castillo," Father said, making an equally cautious bow.
"Surely you understand the danger of the situation. You are no longer a young man and there are too many soldiers for you to fight."
"Your General Romero has asked politely enough if his army can camp on my land, eat my grain and slaughter my livestock. He, of course, wants the hacienda for himself and his officers. I suppose that means you." Sarcasm thickened her father's voice.
"If you agree to this, he will count you as loyal to Santa Anna and leave you unharmed with only the loss of a few chickens. Refuse him, and you and your family are dead."
"I understand these things," Father growled. "I have considered long on what could happen should he come here, but I was not prepared to see him in winter. What general marches his soldiers at winter's end when there is little stored grain for food and little protection from the weather?"
"One who understands the use of surprise as a weapon."
Father's gaze was cold. "Or one who cares little for those he commands." He turned to contemplate Mama and then her, his face drawn. "I thought he would come by boat, not march so many across this harsh land."
She stepped forward, afraid for what she saw in his eyesso close to despair. "Your way made more sense, Papa." She took his hand.
"I thought there was time to take my family to safety in the spring." He placed his free hand over hers and squeezed. Searching her face, his gaze lighted on her with loveand worry. "But now there is no time."
Esteban watched him dispassionately. "Then you know what you must do."
Father's jaw clenched. "I will do what I must to survive this. To keep my family safe."
"What are you saying?" Victoria asked. Father was a proud man. He believed in the causea free Texas. They had talked of it often in his study and when riding across the ranch together.
He released her hand. "We will submit."
"You would give up everything to protect us?"
She couldn't let that happen. His dream was her dream. She loved this land. She couldn't let him give up his beliefs because of worry for her. "No, Papa. Commancheros, droughts, firesthere have been many enemies over the years. Santa Anna is but one more."
"A most formidable one," Father said, his slight smile only for her. "Don't worry, pequeñita. I can fight another day."
At overhearing the words, Esteban's brow furrowed. "You must not say such things or when next we meet, one of us will have to kill the other. I do not want to be that man."
Father turned, shielding her with his body from Esteban. "We must all choose our side. You have not told me anything I did not already know. Which makes me wonder againwhy are you here?"
Esteban smoothed the feathered plume on his helmet as he considered his reply. With a glance in Victoria's direction, he said, "Please, señor, I know your daughter will not have me as her husband." He swallowed hard. "I must respect her decision in this, but still I do not wish to see her hurt. You cannot protect her. Not against so many. And once the officers see her " The words trailed off, and he struggled with finishing his thoughts. "She is a rare beauty, Señor Torrez. I I am afraid for her."
The letter opener dropped from her hand unheeded and clattered to the floor as a new fear rose up inside her. The officers would not dare to touch her, would they? She was no camp follower. Her lineage could be traced back nine generations to the Acalde in Madrid, Spain.
"So your general makes war on women?" her father said.
"No. Of course not. But Victoria is beyond compare. And Santa Anna has appetites. I I am afraid for her," he repeated awkwardly. A slight flush came to his cheeks.
"Then what do you propose?"
"To take her far from hereas far away from the fighting as possible."
Victoria couldn't believe he would separate her from her family. She needed to stay here and help. "That is impossible, Esteban!"
Father turned to her and studied her face, lifting the point of her chin with his fingers.
Shocked that he would consider Esteban's words, she grasped his forearm. "No! I wish to stay with you. I am strong. I can fight."
His gaze hardened. "In this, Victoria, you will do as I say."
"Father," she said once more, "do not send me away."