Marco Mondragón and his wife Paloma are living hectic but happy lives at the Double Cross, on the edge of Comanchería. Five years after the death of Comanche leader Cuerno Verde, cautious diplomacy between the tribe and the colonists is underway to end Comanche raids into New Mexico. Paloma's time has been fully consumed by her two toddlers and newborn son and Marco's by spring planting.
The Seven Year Audit of 1784 arrives and with it comes auditor Fernando Ygnacio. After years of incarceration for a crime he did not commit, Señor Ygnacio is a broken man. Although his daughter Catalina is bitter about his mistreatment by his superiors, her storytelling abilities captivate the household, including a frequent visitor from the nearby presidio, El Teniente Joaquim Gasca, who has been undergoing his own reformation from rascal to leader.
Unknown to him, Marco has peculiar enemies plotting his downfall. When Paloma and Catalina set out on a visit to Marco's sister, meant to give Paloma relief from her busy life, the women are kidnapped. Devastated, Marco is torn between love and duty. He yearns to search for his wife, but feels bound by colonial duties to accompany his friend Toshua to Río Napestle, where Comanches have gathered to debate the region's fragile peace. In his absence from the Double Cross, will Joaquim Gasca and Toshua's wife Eckapeta be able to find the missing women?
About the Author
A well-known veteran of the romance writing field, Carla Kelly is the author of thirty-one novels and three non-fiction works, as well as numerous short stories and articles for various publications. She is the recipient of two RITA Awards from Romance Writers of America for Best Regency of the Year; two Spur Awards from Western Writers of America; two Whitney Awards, 2011 and 2012; and a Lifetime Achievement Award from Romantic Times. Carla's interest in historical fiction is a byproduct of her lifelong study of history. She's held a variety of jobs, including public relations work for major hospitals and hospices, feature writer and columnist for a North Dakota daily newspaper, and ranger in the National Park Service (her favorite job) at Fort Laramie National Historic Site and Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site. She has worked for the North Dakota Historical Society as a contract researcher. Interest in the Napoleonic Wars at sea led to a recent series of novels about the British Channel Fleet during that conflict. Of late, Carla has written two novels set in southeast Wyoming in 1910 that focus on her Mormon background and her interest in ranching. You can find Carla on the Web at: CarlaKellyAuthor.com.
Read an Excerpt
In which disturbing news upsets a timid accountant and his daughter
Santa Fe, Febrero 1785
Catalina Maria Ygnacio hated winter in Santa Fe with all the venom she could muster, which was quite a lot. Ten years they had been exiled to this godforsaken bit of impoverished real estate — ten years of chilblains, a cold bed at night, ink freezing in the bottle, and no one to complain to, not even in jest.
Her cross might have been easier to bear if the Mendozas had not moved in next door. Carmen and Luis Mendoza were newlyweds, the curse of the earth. Their houses connected, a common fact in this poorer side of town. Long after she was in bed, stockings on her feet, mittens on her hands, Catalina heard them laughing together. Later, the bed began to squeak rhythmically as her neighbors warmed each other up in time- honored, legal fashion.
At first the creaks and moans had embarrassed Catalina. Now they just made her sad, and more fully aware nearly every night just how lonely her life was. She would end up drawing herself tight into a little ball, wishing the Mendozas would move somewhere else, wishing for a man of her own, wishing for something as simple as spring.
She knew better than to trouble her father about what was missing in her life, for he was worse off. Leather satchel slung over his increasingly stooped shoulder, Fernando Ygnacio left the house every morning at half seven o'clock. He never returned before six o'clock and generally was later. Though older than most of the governor's accountants, los contadores, he was the one who bore the stains of scandal and imprisonment, which meant last-minute work fell to him. A scapegoat he was, and a scapegoat he would always be, world without end, amen.
Too bad no one knew the father he was, kind and courteous, with a generous heart. She stifled whatever discouragement she felt, even as the practical side of her nature yearned to know how she was to support herself and make her solitary way through life when Papa finally shuffled off this mortal coil.
Those were the worries tormenting Catalina Ygnacio as she waited for her father. She sat in their cozy sala — some might call it small — and waited to hear the day's news from one of the Spanish empire's more timid functionaries.
There came his knock. Catalina remained in the sala and listened for the quick footsteps of the all-purpose girl. She heard them speak in low tones and knew the servant had relieved him of his hat, coat, mittens, and muffler, which went in a small chest by the front door.
She rose when he entered the sala, not one to forget the honor owed him, even if the nagging reality of his shame dogged him like a bad odor. He was still Papa, and she loved him.
Usually his tired eyes brightened when he saw her, but not this evening.
Accustomed from youth not to encourage bad news, she waited for him to speak. Perhaps his complaint would be as simple as wet boots. It could not be as bad as fifteen years ago in Mexico City, when the magistrate had hauled Papa away in chains to make him answer accusations that ultimately boiled down to his becoming the whipping boy for cost overruns on a simple bridge project. Five years in prison had followed, only to be compounded by exile. No, bad news could wait, and so Catalina waited.
With a sigh, Papa handed her a single sheet of paper with the seal snapped. "I'm too old for this," was all he said before she started to read.
Catalina brushed through the flowery first sentence, typical of all Spanish documents, and went right to the second paragraph. "'When the mountain passes are free of snow, you are required to travel with a small guard to Valle del Sol, where you will conduct the seven-year audit,'" she read out loud. "You've done these before."
Or rather, they had. The fact that she checked and double- checked the columns of figures was their little secret. She had no doubt that she could handle an audit as easily as Papa. He had taught her well.
Papa nodded, his eyes full of enough worry to move her to sit by him. She looked closer, seeing his resignation, as if he had been waiting for such an order.
"Yes, but ... but Valle del Sol!"
She didn't understand. "You've done many audits in many places. What is wrong with Valle del Sol?"
He took the orders from her hand and looked at them again, as if seeing them for the first time. "Valle del Sol is on the edge of la frontera, my child," he said. "Comanches, thieves, and murderers live on frontiers." He snapped the paper with unaccustomed venom. "This is an assignment for a young man. They're finding a new way to kill me."
"Oh, Papa," she said, loving the man but wondering why he continued to see himself as a victim. "I do know it's been safe to travel in recent years. Don't worry."
He nodded, but the frown did not leave his face.
Catalina took his hand, rubbing it between her warmer ones. "Papa, let's have supper. "
He let her help him to his feet. The kitchen was but a few steps away, so she had no trouble keeping up an inane conversation she forgot as soon as the words left her mouth. She had become good at inane conversation, so good that it should have distressed her. So many things should have distressed her.
Papa rallied during supper, a modest meal in the kitchen, the warmest room in the house and the place where their servant slept, curled up on a pallet. More than one or two nights this winter, Catalina had wanted to join her in the kitchen, simply for warmth.
"Winters are getting colder here, Papa," she said, not even trying to disguise her wistful tone.
She had retired to her frigid bedroom when she heard a quiet knock at the door, then another. Catalina scuffed her feet into slippers and pulled a shawl around her shoulders, but Papa reached the door first, throwing the bolt and stepping back as a poorly clad man came inside and closed the door behind him.
"Pablo," Papa said, and ushered the man into the kitchen, rather than the sala, telling Catalina volumes about his modest status. Of course, the kitchen was still warmer.
Papa did not indicate that he required her presence, but Catalina tagged along anyway. Nothing ever happened in her life, so the prospect of an unexpected late-night visitor intrigued her. Enough hot water remained in the iron pot inside the fireplace, so she made him a drink of watered-down wine.
"What brings you here so late, Pablo?" Papa asked.
"Papa, who is —"
"Oh, my manners! Catalina, Pablo cleans the offices in our wing of the governor's palace. Pablo, this is my daughter, Señorita Ygnacio."
The servant ducked his head in subservience, and returned his attention to Papa. "Señor, I overheard something tonight."
Papa tsked with his tongue. "Pablo, it's not wise to carry tales from the governor's palace. Your exaggerations have gotten you in trouble before."
"Please hear me!" the man exclaimed. "I didn't come all this way, avoiding lantern lighters and thugs, to waste your time."
"Very well," Papa said, putting up a hand to calm the man. "Tell me your news." He looked at Catalina, but she was seated by now, too.
"Señor, you know I work late cleaning the office."
"You do a fine job, Pablo," Papa said. "Señor Moreno is the governor's chief contador," he told his daughter. "I, uh, believe you know his daughter, Maria Tomasa."
She did, and made a face.
"What happened?" Papa asked.
"Remember this afternoon, when your office partner dropped that box of pens? He told me to pick them up after he left. I crawled under his desk to look." He darted a quick glance at Catalina. "We can trust her?"
"She is my daughter!" Papa exclaimed. "You need not fear, Pablo, and the hour is late. Tell me."
"While I was under the desk, I heard someone next door with Señor Moreno, who spoke first. 'I can solve your problem, Miguel,' he said."
"Miguel?" Papa asked.
"You know. The young man who shows up there now and then. I believe he is trying to get a position in your department."
Papa nodded. "He is newly affianced to Señorita Maria Tomasa Moreno." He turned to Catalina. "That one."
Don't remind me, Catalina thought. Tomasa Moreno was stuck up, silly, and condescending. Theirs was a mere nodding acquaintance, which was precisely the way Catalina wanted it, after watching Tomasa slap a servant around for dropping a hairbrush. "She had an older sister who married a man from Valle del Sol, didn't she? I believe they all died in a smallpox epidemic," Catalina said. "There was someone else: a servant girl who stole money and ran away."
"I am not certain how much to believe about that tale," Papa said. He shrugged. "It was four or five years ago."
He returned his attention to Pablo. "I know the man you speak of. His name is Miguel Valencia, and he took it badly when the governor himself assured him that there were no openings in the accounting department."
"The very one," Pablo said. He cleared his throat. "Only a half hour ago, I heard Señor Moreno assure Miguel Valencia you would never return alive from Valle del Sol, and that your position would become his." He sat back with something resembling relief, now that the bad news was someone else's burden.
Catalina reached for Papa's hand. "He would do this?"
Poor Papa. He had turned so pale. "I believe he would do anything to accomplish his goals, my dear." To Pablo, he said, "What else did you hear?"
"They both laughed, as though it was a good joke. Someone slapped someone on the back and I heard the contador principal say, 'Never you worry about who will do the deed. The less you know, the better.' Then they left the office."
"Did anyone see you leave?" Papa asked, his voice soft, as if spies might be lurking behind the cistern.
"Oh, no!" Pablo declared, pounding on his chest. "I stayed still as a mouse until everyone was gone. Then I came here."
"You were brave, Pablo. I can't think of anyone else who would have bothered."
"You stood up for me when all that ink was spilled in the oak cabinet," the servant said quietly. "I didn't do it."
"I know, Pablo, I know," Papa assured the fellow. "Now I think you had better leave us as quietly as you came, to be safe."
Señor Ygnacio walked with Pablo to the front door. Catalina heard the bolt slam into place. Back in the kitchen, Papa sat down heavily.
Silence claimed the room for a long while. Catalina finally asked, "What can we do?" She wanted to sound calm and rational, but her voice shook.
After another long silence, Papa shrugged. "Go to Valle del Sol when the passes are open," he said. "Knowing the contador as I do — hay caramba, what a man! — he won't strike until the audit is done."
"We go to Valle del Sol?" Catalina asked. "That's all?"
"Yes, when the passes are open. Let us hope someone will help us in that godforsaken place."CHAPTER 2
In which the Mondragóns receive a sweet reward for last summer's fooling about
"Sancha, may I have a warm blanket for Paloma?" Marco asked from the foot of their bed, where the smiling midwife was tidying up his wife. "She's shaking."
The same thing had happened after Claudito's birth nearly three years ago. Eckapeta had put a piece of sagebrush between Paloma's breasts to remedy the shakes. Eckapeta was not here this time, but Marco was nearly certain the warm blanket was preferable to sagebrush for calming his wife and putting her to sleep.
When Sancha returned with the promised blanket, Marco sat in the chair next to the bed, holding Paloma while another servant replaced stained sheets with clean ones. He kissed Paloma's cheek and put her back in bed, standing aside for Sancha to apply the warmth Paloma craved.
Paloma's sigh of relief melted his already tender heart. Marco looked away to regard his newest son, who gazed back at him with what appeared to be considerable interest.
You have such old eyes, son, Marco thought, enchanted with this new arrival, who came into the world quietly, compared to Claudito. He seemed content to observe his new surroundings in silence.
"May I pick him up?" Marco asked the midwife, who nodded and stepped back respectfully, her work done.
Father and son regarded each other solemnly. To Marco's further delight, the baby's eyes were dark blue, like his mother's beautiful eyes, half closed now as she snuggled down into the warmth.
Careful to hold his son's head, Marco rested the baby against his shoulder and enjoyed the peculiar fragrance of an infant newly eased from the womb. He knew the scent would fade soon, never to return. Amazing how a bit of afternoon fun near the hayfield last summer had led to a new person, bone of his and Paloma's bones and flesh of their flesh.
He perched on the edge of the bed and held their son closer to Paloma, whose eyes opened, her interest overruling her exhaustion. Without a word, she made a crook of her arm and he placed the baby with his mother.
Her free hand went to her buttons and stopped there; she was too tired. "Could you?" she asked. He obliged her by unbuttoning her nightgown and spreading the fabric away from her shoulder and breast. With practiced fingers, Paloma held her nipple close to the baby's cheek and brushed it until he turned his head and latched on.
She lay back with a sigh that went straight to Marco's heart as their son nursed, with the instinct of all newly birthed creatures. Marco smiled when chiquito patted his mama's breast, his little fingers digging in.
"He looks like you, my heart," Marco said, his face close to Paloma's. He kissed her and she returned his kiss with more fervor that he would have thought she possessed, considering her long night's work. He whispered, "Paloma, how do I break this to you? Too much of this causes babies."
She laughed softly, the intimate laugh uniquely hers that he had heard many times, and God willing, would hear many more. The Lord had been good to them both.
If it were June or July, the sky would already be light. Since it was barely April, their bedroom was still cloaked in shadows. The midwife and her apprentice had left. Sancha made the sign of the cross over them and left, too, closing the door behind her.
"Get in bed," Paloma said. "Let's share this wonderful blanket."
It took him no time to shuck his moccasins and pull off the breeches he had yanked on so quickly when Paloma had awakened him before midnight and told him to fetch the midwife. He surrendered to the mattress and the warmth and the love that surrounded the three of them. Claudito had been born in the middle of the day; this was better.
"You know, you could request a warm blanket anytime you want," he said to his wife, who was examining their son's fingers. He remembered his dear Felicia counting the fingers and toes of their twins, as if she had a mental list of what a baby should arrive equipped with, and would not be satisfied until she completed the inventory.
"I know I could, but I think of this warm blanket as my reward for a job well done."
They lay close together, Marco adding his warmth to the blanket, until his wife stopped shivering. Practiced himself, Marco took their son from her slack arm when he started to move about restlessly. He raised him to his shoulder for a burp, which came out so emphatic that the baby jerked in surprise, his eyes wide open.
"You'll get used to it, mijo," Paloma told her new son. "Soon you will make as many noises as your father and brother, and Soledad and I will have no peace."
"Paloma, you slander us," Marco teased back. "I know I warned you about cooked onions even before we married."
He handed back their son and settled him in her other arm. More experienced now, the little fellow went right to work. His quiet suck put a half-smile on Paloma's face. She closed her eyes and her head drifted toward Marco's shoulder. In a moment, she slept, weary of labor and content to be warm.
Marco stood the watch, his eyes on the dearest wife a man could have and this new child of theirs, who had found his way into the Mondragón family. For now, his cradle would occupy a spot close to the corner fireplace. Perhaps Claudito and this newest arrival, small but a brother, could occupy the room across the hall recently vacated by Marco's brother-in-law Claudio Vega and new wife Graciela. They were finally in residence on the old land grant belonging to Soledad's father and mother, who had died of smallpox.
A house for Claudio and Graci had been started immediately, to replace the one he and Toshua had burned to the ground to avoid contagion. The mild winter meant construction went faster than usual, freeing up the bedchamber across the hall.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Star in the Meadow"
Copyright © 2017 Carla Kelly.
Excerpted by permission of Coffeetown Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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