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By Linda Ladd
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 Linda Ladd
All rights reserved.
"Forgiveness is the broken dream which hides itself within the corner of the mind oft called forgetfulness, so that it will not bring pain to the dreamer." —GEORGE ROEMISCH "FORGIVENESS"
March 1871 New Orleans, Louisiana
As the shiny black landau rumbled past a twin-galleried stucco house on the corner of Rue Royale, excitement raced through Carlisle Kincaid. Soon she and her three companions would reach the St. Charles Hotel for a gala evening in the ballroom, and she couldn't wait. Arantxa Perez, her friend from the convent school, would be there. Together they'd steal a few moments to discuss plans for Carlisle's visit to Mexico.
To conceal her agitation, Carlisle smoothed the lustrous red satin skirt of her ball gown, then laughed inwardly at the thought of how her oldest brother, Gray, would react if he knew the real purpose behind her Mexican trip. If he had even the slightest inkling that she meant to help the Perez family in their quest to topple Benito Juarez from power, he would succumb to apoplexy!
For a second Carlisle closed her eyes and imagined what it would be like riding with the rebel forces now congregating secretly in the mountains near Saltillo.
Arantxa's family had fought with the French troops who had supported Archduke Maximilian of Austria against the followers of Benito Juarez. Both she and her twin brother, Javier, had regaled Carlisle with stories of their father's battles against the Juaristas and his close friendship with the Empress Carlota. At ten, Arantxa had learned to shoot a gun and was still an expert markswoman. Once in Mexico, she'd promised, she would teach Carlisle to handle a pistol and ride a horse—both of which Gray and her other brother, Stone, had never permitted Carlisle to do while she was growing up in Chicago.
The one time she'd seriously defied her brother and marched with Elizabeth Cady Stanton for women's suffrage, Gray had packed her off for a year's atonement in the Sacred Heart Convent, here in New Orleans. But soon she would ride with the rebels, freeing the people of Mexico from tyranny and oppression. According to Javier, the Mexican peasants suffered even more than the poor people she'd seen while doing charity work in Chicago's hospitals. He'd told her about the terrible condition in which they lived, and even worse, how President Benito Juarez was endeavoring to take their faith away from them!
In her mind Carlisle pictured herself atop a great white horse, bandoleras crossed over her chest in the way Javier had said the guerrilleros wore them. She'd be free to make her own decisions and do whatever she wanted. She could fight the injustices of the world without being punished by Gray for her actions!
In the seat across from her, Gray glanced at the woman beside him. To Carlisle's amusement, Tyler, Gray's bride of only a few hours, coldly disregarded his presence. Gray frowned, and Carlisle knew why. He wasn't used to being ignored by women. But Carlisle really couldn't blame Tyler. The girl hadn't wanted to marry Gray, even if he was just about the most eligible bachelor in all of Chicago—and certainly the richest, along with their brother, Stone.
On the opposite seat, Tyler suddenly sighed loud enough for everyone to hear, and Carlisle vowed she'd never allow herself to be coerced into marriage against her will, as Tyler had.
The carriage rocked onward, the rolling wheels clattering against the rough cobblestone street. In the red silk-lined interior no one said a word. The leaden silence was unnerving to Carlisle, who liked friendly chatter. But after all, there was little to say. Her brother's hasty wedding earlier that afternoon had been a disaster.
Carlisle stifled a giggle as she remembered the astonished look on her brother's face when Tyler had walked down the aisle in widow's weeds to express her disenchantment with the groom. Tyler believed that Gray had stolen her family's plantation after the war, forcing her to live with her uncle Burl Lancaster, a Mississippi River confidence man. That's why she'd tried to swindle Gray out of ten thousand dollars, though Gray had discovered her scheme and contacted Chase Lancaster, Tyler's arrogant cousin from Mexico.
Chase was supposed to meet them here in New Orleans, where Gray was to have given Tyler into Chase's guardianship. But instead, he'd fallen in love with her and forced Tyler to marry him—with the help of Chase Lancaster. Carlisle bristled, just thinking about the two men and their high-handed ways with women.
Against her will and after several moments of fighting the compulsion, she stole a surreptitious glance at Chase sitting beside her, his wide shoulder pressing intimately against her. Carlisle disliked him intensely, but at the same time she felt a strange, immensely annoying fascination with him, even though they'd only met the day before, when he'd arrived to take Tyler back to Mexico with him.
Their first encounter had been inauspicious, to say the least, since he had caught her in a very compromising position. Javier Perez had come to ask Gray's permission for Carlisle to visit his family in Mexico City, and she'd climbed the trellis outside her brother's window to eavesdrop on their conversation.
Chase Lancaster, the snake, had chosen that exact moment to arrive, and had come up beneath her and insolently peered up her skirt until she'd been forced to climb down. He'd laughed at her and said she looked like a monkey, but so far he hadn't told on her. Instead, he'd been holding the threat of doing so over her head, which was even more provoking.
With her visit to the Perezes hanging in the balance, she had little choice but to endure his constant baiting, even when he had persuaded Gray to let him escort her to Mexico. Thanks to his interference, Gray had even ordered her to go to Chase's ranch near Monterrey, instead of the Perez house in Mexico City, as she and Arantxa had originally planned. Now she wasn't sure when she'd make it to the capital, or whether Arantxa and Javier would have already left for the guerrilleros' camp by the time she finally arrived. Besides, the idea of staying at Chase Lancaster's hacienda was hardly thrilling. Not only was he a Juarista, he was the rudest man she'd ever met—always mocking her and calling her "ma'am" in the most condescending fashion.
Chagrined, she realized Chase was leaning back against the corner, watching her. He grinned, one blond brow arching. Carlisle immediately shifted her gaze, resolutely vowing to ignore him for the remainder of the evening. He was so vain he was probably thinking she considered him handsome. She did, of course. In fact, in his black evening coat and white brocade waistcoat he looked even more attractive than usual, so tall and blond and tanned, like the big Viking warriors she'd read about in one of her brother's history books. But she'd never let him know she thought so.
Besides, Chase Lancaster knew very well how good-looking he was. The way he combed his hair straight back from his face only drew one's eyes to his high cheekbones and classically chiseled features. He was clean-shaven, which was not the fashion, but he wore rather long, neatly trimmed sideburns that accentuated his lean jaw.
And his eyes! Why, the looks Chase sometimes gave her out of his almond-shaped, dark blue eyes seemed to burn right through her clothes. Even more unsettling was the sense of latent dangerousness about him, as if he were a big sleek animal ready to devour his prey at a moment's notice—or perhaps, she thought derisively, toy with his victim for a while before he moved in for the kill.
Suddenly she shivered, imagining herself helpless in his clutches. Then she shook off the ridiculous notion, berating herself for allowing her thoughts to dwell on the disagreeable Senor Lancaster. She should just ignore him as Tyler did Gray, or better yet, she should think about Javier. He was the one she was in love with, and Arantxa said he was mad about her, too. She couldn't wait to get to Mexico, and then to the mountains where she would be with him all the time!
Carlisle was relieved when she heard their driver call out and felt the horses start to slow. She was anxious to escape the boring company inside the coach. The ball was a diplomatic affair given by the governor, and both Arantxa and Javier were probably already there. The Mayan would sail for Matamoros tomorrow, and though the Perezes would be aboard, they would have little opportunity to talk privately, what with Chase Lancaster hanging around her neck like a ball and chain.
Outside her window, the famous St. Charles Hotel loomed impressively, glowing with lights and bustling with activity. Groups of chattering men and women descended from their elaborate conveyances and crowded together on the steps leading to the grand lobby. Eager to join the throng, Carlisle gathered the scarlet skirts of her voluminous ball gown in one hand and reached for the door handle with the other. Chase Lancaster promptly blocked her way.
"Allow me, por favor, Senorita Kincaid."
Actually, he spoke impeccable English, but when he wanted to annoy her, he assumed a heavy Spanish accent. Carlisle gritted her teeth as Chase gracefully swung his large frame out the door. She looked at Gray and Tyler, but the newly wedded couple hadn't seemed to notice his sardonic tone.
Gray climbed out next and lifted his sullen-faced wife to the ground. He led her toward the entrance as if he'd forgotten all about Carlisle. He probably had, she fumed from where she was left sitting by herself on the red velvet squabs.
Chase Lancaster looked up at Carlisle, and she had to admit he had the world's most charming smile, slow and rakish, with deeply etched dimples on each lean cheek. But she also saw the amused insolence in his eyes. She was infuriated to be stuck with him as an escort. But she decided she wouldn't let him make her angry, because she was sure he enjoyed her pique. She smiled sweetly, graciously extending her hand so he could assist her to the sidewalk. Instead, he gripped her around the waist and lifted her down beside him, keeping his hold on her just long enough to make her flush with anger.
"You can let go of me just anytime now," she said calmly, but her green eyes flashed with annoyance, and the amused look reappeared on his darkly tanned face.
"Only if you'll promise me a dance tonight, querida."
He stood tall, around six feet three or four, she'd guess, and she had to tilt her head back to look up at him. She frowned. Querida meant "beloved," and she certainly wasn't that!
"I'm very sorry, Mr. Lancaster, but my dance card is already full."
"Full? Before you arrive? You must be very popular with the young caballeros of New Orleans. Surely you can find it in your heart to squeeze in one waltz with me?" When he smiled, his almond eyes narrowed at the corners.
"I'd rather waltz with an orangutan, Mr. Lancaster," she told him, lowering her voice so Gray wouldn't hear and smiling politely. "Surely you know that by now?"
He merely inclined his head. But to Carlisle's irritation, she had to admit that she was tempted to let him write his name in her white silk dance book, just to see if he moved with the same easy, masculine grace on the dance floor.
Stay away from him, she ordered herself firmly. Then, groaning inwardly, she realized she would have to endure Chase, first on the short voyage to Matamoros and then for several months in Mexico. She'd just have to arrange to join her friends at their mountain encampment as soon as possible, she decided, even if she had to steal away in the night.
The spacious lobby of the St. Charles was magnificent, carpeted with plush crimson and black, the walls hung with rich gold brocade. A large crowd milled about, greeting friends and laughing, giving the place a festive air. At the cloak attendant's desk near the massive marble staircase leading to a beautiful, balustraded upper floor, she joined Gray and Tyler. As she handed the maid her black silk cape, she was delighted to catch sight of Arantxa rushing across the marble-tiled floor, her twin brother not far behind her.
Arantxa was just eighteen, Carlisle's own age, with a dark olive complexion and luminous brown eyes that nearly always sparkled with excitement. Tonight she looked very pretty in a yellow silk taffeta gown adorned with royal blue ribbons and matching velvet panels down the front. Carlisle knew the two of them made a striking pair, Arantxa's darkness a perfect foil for Carlisle's golden-red hair and sea-green eyes, Arantxa took hold of Carlisle's hands, then pressed her cheek to Carlisle's as she performed the abrazo—the embrace which Carlisle had learned was customary in Mexico.
"Carlita! You are very late!" she cried. "Javier was afraid you were not coming."
As Javier Perez approached, Carlisle saw his black eyes alight on her with pleasure. He was so handsome and gallant that it had been easy to fall in love with him. However, her smile faded when she felt Chase Lancaster's long fingers close around her upper arm. His proprietary gesture surprised her and she turned to stare at him. But his gaze rested speculatively on Arantxa's face, unwavering even when he spoke to Carlisle.
"I've met Senor Perez, but I haven't had the pleasure of being presented to his lovely sister," he said. More impeccable manners to impress her friends and family, Carlisle thought. Was she the only person who saw through his civilized veneer? Down deep, under his glib charm, there lurked a dark, wild nature, she knew it! She pulled her arm out of his grasp as unobtrusively as she could, since Gray had just walked up with Tyler. She introduced Gray and Tyler to Arantxa, ignoring Chase.
"How do you do, Miss Perez?" Gray asked politely. "I've looked forward to meeting
Carlisle's best friend."
"Gracias, Senor Kincaid, and I am very pleased you have agreed to let her visit my country. We've made many plans for her stay."
"When Carly returns to Chicago in August, you must come with her. My wife and I would like that very much."
Carlisle saw a startled look flit across Tyler's face as if she were dismayed to be reminded she was married to Gray.
"Arantxa, this is Chase Lancaster," Carlisle said. "Javier, you've already met everyone, haven't you?"
"Sí, I've had the pleasure," Javier answered, his white teeth flashing beneath his thin black mustache.
Arantxa curtsied before Chase, smiling up at him.
"My pleasure, Senorita Perez," Chase said, lifting her hand to his lips.
Arantxa blushed, but Carlisle noticed a certain hesitancy in her girlfriend's answer that made her realize Arantxa was nervous around Chase Lancaster.
"Gracias. I'm greatly honored, Senor Lancaster, to meet the foreign advisor to El Presidente. Many of our countrymen here in the city are eager to make your acquaintance."
"Indeed?" Chase answered.
Javier apparently sensed Arantxa's unease, because he answered in his sister's stead. "Senor Gonzalez represents the Mexicans living in New Orleans, Senor Lancaster. He awaits you in the receiving line. He asked me to invite you to join him there."
Chase acquiesced with a nod, then turned back to Arantxa. "I hope you'll honor me with a dance this evening, Senorita Perez?"
Arantxa held out her dance book, looking a bit flustered by Chase Lancaster's request. Carlisle frowned. Arantxa would not want to dance with a Juarista any more than Carlisle did. While Chase picked up the pencil hanging from the tiny, lace-covered book and jotted his initials on several lines, Carlisle hid her own dance card in the folds of her red skirt so Chase would not ask her again in Gray's presence, in which case she couldn't refuse.
When Chase finally moved away with Javier, Gray led Tyler to a small, secluded table where he could have her all to himself. Arantxa's gaze remained glued to Chase Lancaster's broad shoulders.
"Even if he is a Juarista, I must say Senor Lancaster is a most handsome man, muy macho, with those dark blue eyes."
"And he clearly knows it," Carlisle said coldly.
"Sí, his reputation is well-known in Mexico City. They call him El Gato Grande, you know."
Carlisle had been studying hard during the last few months to learn Spanish, and when it was spoken slowly, she did quite well.
"The big cat? What's that supposed to mean?" she asked, curious about Chase Lancaster's past and ready to believe anything bad that Arantxa had heard about him. But he did resemble a big, sleek cat, she thought. A lion, perhaps, with his bronzed hair and skin.
Excerpted from Midnight Fire by Linda Ladd. Copyright © 1991 Linda Ladd. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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