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RIO The Texans
By Georgina Gentry
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Lynne Murphy
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOn the outskirts of Austin, Texas, mid-April 1876
Turquoise Sanchez knew she was in trouble when her mare began to limp. She dismounted and patted Silver Slippers's velvet muzzle. "Now what are we to do?" she murmured to the dapple-gray horse as she examined the loose shoe.
Silver Slippers nuzzled her owner and blew softly.
Turquoise looked around, assessing the situation. She was several miles from her downtown hotel and at least two miles from her friend Fern's ranch. In her tiny riding boots, with the midmorning sun getting hotter, walking and leading the mare didn't seem very appealing.
She sighed and took off her large-brimmed hat that shielded her face from the unforgiving sun and felt perspiration begin to break out under her turquoise, long-sleeved riding outfit. The turquoise and silver jewelry she wore now felt heavy on her small frame, and her long black hair was partially loose from its pins. She must look a mess.
Well, she'd gotten herself into this predicament. Most young women her age would never have gone riding alone, but then, Turquoise was more daring and resourceful than most young ladies.
"Silver Slippers, we'll just have to walk up this road a ways and see if we can find some help."
That wasn't likely to be forthcoming, she thought as she began to walk; this was a deserted dirt road without much traffic. At least Uncle Trace would become alarmed when she didn't meet him for luncheon at the hotel and would come looking for her. Except she hadn't left any messages as to where she was going. Sometimes it was not wise to be so independent.
Stubbornly, she set off walking up the road, leading the limping mare. Surely along this road somewhere she would run across a ranch or some chivalrous gentleman who would come to her aid. "Dammit," she muttered as she trudged forward, kicking at stones with her small riding boots. "What do I do now?"
She walked another quarter of a mile, perspiring and annoyed. She needed a cold drink of water and so did her mare. Turquoise rounded a curve in the road, and ahead she saw a small, rather run-down building with a rusty sign that read BLACKSMITH.
Sometimes the good saints do answer prayers, she thought. Without thinking, she crossed herself and walked faster. As she grew closer, she noticed a movement inside the big door and saw a man, and what a man.
He was tall, muscular, and very tan with a mop of unkempt black hair. He was naked to the waist and a silver cross gleamed on his sweating chest as he hammered on a piece of metal.
"Hello! Are you the blacksmith?" she called and he looked up, staring at her with big dark eyes. Mexican, she thought, or at least part Mexican.
"Si, senorita," he nodded as she approached. "How may I be of service?" He had a Mexican accent, as she expected, and a pleasing deep voice.
Rio Kelly watched the girl approaching him. She was a small woman, smartly dressed, and everything about her spoke of wealth. She led a very fine dapple-gray horse, also of quality, just like the young lady.
She frowned as she walked up. "Some water for me and my horse," she snapped.
This was evidently a spoiled, high-class girl who was used to being waited on.
"You might at least say 'please.'" He pulled a handkerchief out of his back pocket and wiped the sweat from his dark face. Despite her ebony hair, she had light-colored eyes and very creamy white skin.
"I'm sorry," she apologized. "I'm hot and thirsty and, as you can see, in need of some help."
He stepped forward and took the reins from her hand and felt almost an electric shock as their two hands touched, although his was so much larger and stronger than hers. "There's a horse trough by my building and I've a well nearby. Let me get you a drink."
"Gracias—I mean, thanks," she blurted and he wondered again about this turquoise-eyed beauty. Her eyes were large and the color of a pale sky. "My mare has a loose shoe and I need to get back to town."
"Such a fine mare. She must have cost a fortune." He took in the wealth of silver and turquoise jewelry she wore and the fine leather boots.
The girl shrugged. "My guardian bought her for me two days ago."
"Does he buy you everything you want?" He was abruptly annoyed with the wealthy girl.
She blinked as if wondering why he was so short-tempered. "Not everything, but I wanted this mare."
He looked at her critically. "It's very warm to be wearing long sleeves and such a big hat."
"To protect myself against the sun," she said. "Ladies always protect themselves against the sun. It darkens the skin."
She had the lily-white skin of the rich gringos. He led the dapple gray over to the trough, where the horse drank gratefully. Rio tied the mare up and gestured toward the well. "Here, senorita—I mean, miss—let me get you a drink."
"'Senorita'is all right." She nodded. "I, too, am Mexican."
She didn't look Mexican, but he didn't say that. Instead, he led her around the building and down the lane a few yards to the well where he brought up a bucket of cold spring water, reached for the metal dipper, and offered it to her.
Even as she drank, he noted she was staring at his hand.
"A four-leaf clover?"
He glanced down at the small tattoo on the back of his right hand. "For my father. He was Irish. Allow me to introduce myself, senorita. I am Rio Kelly."
"Odd combination," she murmured and sipped the water again.
"I'm half-Irish, half-Mexican," he said by way of explanation and smiled at her in spite of himself.
"I am Turquoise Sanchez," she said, "and I need to get back to town to meet my uncle for lunch."
He nodded. "Si. As soon as I can heat my forge a little more, I'll get a new shoe on your horse."
"Gracias," she said and took off her big hat, fanning herself with it.
She had the most luxurious long black hair and it was falling out of its pins and down on her shoulders. With her unusual turquoise eyes, he thought she was the most striking woman he had ever seen.
"Come then," he gestured and turned back to his shop. As they walked, she fanned herself with her big hat and looked around. "Lovely landscape. Do you own all this?"
He chuckled as he strode into the shed and she followed.
"Hardly, only fifty acres, this shop and that barn and house up there on the hill."
She turned and looked at a modest adobe ranch house and a red barn. "It's still very nice."
He shrugged and grabbed the bellows, blowing the fire still bigger. "There's five thousand acres next to me, but it's owned by some big New York company and I can never hope to earn enough to buy it."
She watched him as he grabbed his pliers and strode out to her mare, lifted the dainty hoof, and talked softly to Silver Slippers. "Ah, beautiful one, you'll let me change your shoe, no? Then you won't limp."
"Careful, she can be a little wild," Turquoise cautioned. "She has not been treated well."
He looked the mare over and scowled at Turquoise. "This mare has whip marks on her."
"I didn't put them there," she said, defending herself. "My guardian and I were out for a walk two days ago and I saw a well-dressed young drunk beating this horse. Before I thought, I ran out, took the whip from him, and struck him several times. Then my guardian knocked the man down and insisted he sell us the horse."
"Ah," the blacksmith said, nodding approval.
"So now she's my baby and I love her." Turquoise stroked the mare's velvet muzzle and the mare whickered and nuzzled back.
"I'd say the feeling is mutual," the man said and smiled, showing even white teeth in his dark face. He looked at Turquoise over his muscular shoulder, then returned to taking off the loose shoe as he reassured the mare. "Horses like me."
Silver Slippers barely blinked as he examined her hoof.
"Well," Turquoise said, surprised, "you really do have a way with horses."
He came back to the forge, picked up a new shoe, and held it in the fire. As it began to glow, he pounded and hammered it into shape. "And what are you doing in Austin, Senorita Sanchez?"
"I'm here for the big debutante ball tonight at the governor's mansion," she said. "Are you going?" Then she felt foolish as he paused in pounding the horseshoe and stared at her, a slight smile on his handsome face.
"Do I look like I fit in with Austin's fancy gringos?" he asked.
"I'm sorry," she murmured.
"Don't be." He shrugged his wide shoulders and examined the glowing horseshoe a long moment. "The Mexican population hardly knows what the gringos are doing and care less."
"Well, it's at the governor's home," she said. "Surely you have seen the governor's home?"
"Only from a distance," he said and, picking up the glowing shoe with his pliers, he carried it out to the horse trough and dunked it in, where it hissed and sent up steam as it cooled. "I'm sure, though, you will be the most beautiful lady there."
She felt herself flush at the bold way his dark eyes looked her over. "I doubt that. I'm sure there will be many of the most beautiful girls from the very best families."
He chuckled and she winced at the past memory. From the very best families. It had only been half a dozen years that her guardian had sent her away to the fine Houston school for upper-class Texas girls, most from Stephen Austin's original Three Hundred, the blue bloods of Texas founders. The girls had been so cruel to her that she had stayed only a week before fleeing back to the Durangos' ranch. She never told her guardian why she didn't like the private school. She was too proud to say that the gringa girls had taunted her about her Mexican name, teasing her with cruel words like "hot tamale" and "greasy Mexican girl."
"There, senorita." He held up the horseshoe, bringing her out of her memories with a start as he walked with the horseshoe back out to her mare.
Turquoise watched him pick up the mare's hoof and gently and expertly pound the shoe on while the horse seemed unconcerned. "You are better than good with horses," she said.
"Gracias." He smiled at her. "Someday, I hope to make a living strictly as a vaquero and raise fine cattle and horses, but right now that's not possible."
"Well, I will pay you handsomely." She stepped forward, opening her small reticule.
"I did not mean to hint for more money." His expression turned cool.
"Oh, I intend to tip you for your trouble. After all, if you hadn't helped me—"
He backed away from her, holding out one big, calloused hand. "The charge is one dollar, miss, and I am not a lowly servant to be tipped by a rich lady."
"I only meant ...," she stammered as she realized she had humiliated him. "All right, one dollar." She put the silver in his palm and waited for him to assist her in mounting her mare.
"I'm sorry." He ducked his head. "You see how dirty my hands are and I wouldn't want to spoil your fine dress."
"Yes, of course." She realized then she had been looking forward to feeling the strength of this big man as he lifted her to her saddle. "I've been raised on a ranch and am perfectly capable of mounting myself." She swung up into her saddle and adjusted her hat so that it would protect her face from the sun. "Well, adios."
He only nodded and she rode out at a brisk canter without looking back.
Rio Kelly stood holding the silver dollar and staring after the mysterious girl who was so obviously more white than Mexican, but had a Mexican name. This fine lady was far above him socially and not for the likes of a poor vaquero, but still, he knew he would think of her all the rest of the day.
Turquoise rode at a canter back to Austin and down Congress Avenue until she reined in in front of the Cattlemen's Hotel, the finest of its kind in all Texas.
The doorman hurried out to meet her and took the reins as she stepped down.
"What time is it?" she asked.
He pulled out a pocket watch. "Nearly noon, ma'am."
Turquoise heaved a sigh of relief as she turned to him.
"Please put my horse in your stable and give her a good rubdown and plenty of water. She's had a long ride."
"Yes, miss." He nodded with a smile, and she tossed him a coin.
That made her think of the haughty but poor blacksmith who had spurned her tip. Oh, well. She hurried inside and up the stairs to her suite of rooms.
Good, Uncle Trace wasn't here, which meant he was probably in the bar or in the lobby reading the papers.
She took off her hat and laid it on the dresser, looking in the mirror. She felt a fine layer of dust on her pale face and took off the long-sleeved riding outfit, then sighed as the cooler air touched her skin.
Walking to the bowl and pitcher, she poured a bowlful and proceeded to wash herself, especially her face. Then she sprayed herself with forget-me-not cologne.
Turquoise brushed her hair and put it up on her head with silver clips. Then she selected an expensive, pale pink lawn dress and tiny white slippers.
Now she picked up a lace, beribboned parasol that matched the dress and went down the stairs to lunch.
The maître d' met her at the dining room door and bowed. "Your uncle is already seated, miss."
"Gracias," she said and followed him across the crowded dining room, ignoring the many men whose gazes seemed to follow her path.
"Dios, Turquoise, where have you been?" Trace Durango got up from his chair to greet her as the maître d'pulled out hers. "I was worried about you ridin' that new horse."
"It's a long story," she said, reaching for a linen napkin. "Silver Slippers is a wonderful mare, but she had a loose shoe and I was sort of stranded until I found a blacksmith."
His dark face frowned. "I've told you not to go ridin' alone. A girl could get into trouble in this big town, or get thrown by a spirited horse."
"Oh, stop fussing over me." She picked up her menu, noting that her half-Cheyenne, half-Spanish guardian was still handsome, although his black hair was graying at the temples as he approached forty. "I ride well. You should know. You taught me. By the way, we are going to shop for a ball gown after lunch, aren't we?"
He sighed heavily. "Now that's one chore I could do without. Reckon I could just sit in the buggy while you do it?"
"You are planning on coming tonight, aren't you?" she asked, looking over the menu.
"Si, but I'd rather be horsewhipped than get all dandied up and mix with these gringo city snobs. Honestly, Turquoise, I don't know why this means so much to you."
"Because all Texas girls of good family have to be presented as debutantes, or so the Austin papers say."
"Huh," he reminded her, "we sent you to mix with those snooty girls once at that fancy school, and you were home in a week."
She winced, not wanting to remember that painful time. However, she was grown now and her guardian would be with her. At the debutante ball was where she would meet the most eligible of Texas bachelors, rich, important, and influential, some handsome gringo who would protect her from slights and continual questions about her white complexion but Mexican name. "What looks good?" she asked.
"I'm having Mexican food, myself," he said, "with a cold mug of cerveza and plenty of chili peppers."
"If Cimarron were home, she'd be telling you you might get heartburn," Turquoise chided.
Trace grinned. "But she and the kids are gone 'til July to the big World's Fair thing."
"Philadelphia Centennial Exposition," she corrected. "And it's going to be a very educational experience for both your wife and the children, celebrating our country's one hundredth birthday."
"I don't understand why you passed up the chance to go with them," Trace grumbled and closed his menu.
"Because I wanted to be part of the debutante ball," she reminded him.
"I hope you enjoy it. It cost me enough to get you on the list. Besides being from the best gringo families, they must all be rich to pay that fee."
"And I can never thank you enough." She smiled at him and then nodded to the patient waiter. "I'll have the cold cucumber soup, those tiny chicken sandwiches, and a very tall glass of iced tea."
"What about dessert?" Trace asked as he gave his order to the waiter.
She sighed. "Maybe. That chocolate mousse looks excellent but so does the strawberry tart."
The waiter left and she sipped her water and thought. Somehow it was not as refreshing as that she'd had from the tin dipper at the blacksmith shop.
Excerpted from RIO The Texans by Georgina Gentry Copyright © 2011 by Lynne Murphy. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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