Javier is by turns a rake and an honest man, yet I am honored to call him a friend. But then you likely know that already, on account of the fact that he lent you his horse.”
I rolled his words over in my mind, unsure of what a rake was, but pretty sure it was the opposite of an honest man .
“My uh…last encounter with Señor de la Ventura didn’t go well,” I said nervously, remembering him writhing on the ground, “despite the fact that he lent me his horse. Are you certain he will welcome me?”
John looked me in the eye, clearly wondering just what had passed between me and Javier and how I ended up with the mare. “All I know is that Don de la Ventura will be relieved to have his fine mount back,” he said at last. “He takes great pride in her. Whatever transpired between you, that will buy you a certain amount of grace.”
Don de la Ventura. As in, The Man. The dude who claimed all of this—I paused to look around again—as his own.
We rode between two crude posts and down a road that I supposed marked the formal entry, following along two tracks cut by wagons, closer to the U-shaped house in the distance. As we drew nearer, I could see that the gates could be closed and fortified, but were now open to us in welcome. A massive, twisting bougainvillea vine—heavy with purple flowers—climbed to one side of the front door, nearly reaching the top of the second story. I noted two armed men on the roof—clearly guarding the villa. Were we in danger here? Did it have to do with the guys who’d been chasing Javier early this morning? A stately, silver-haired woman, a younger woman with a baby on her hip, and four children gathered in the center of the U, turning to look our way, but it was Javier who strode forward. Behind him, the older woman—his mother?—and the others hung back, near a bank of rose bushes.
Javier was in a clean jacket, his curly hair pulled into a ribbon at the nape of his neck. But seeing the man I’d met on the beach again, with the bruise from my knee clearly visible on his face, made my heart race.
John and I both spoke at once. But I pushed through when he hesitated. “I wished to return your horse,” I repeated in Spanish, aware, now more than ever, that I needed Javier to think of me as a friend. “Thank you for lending her to me.”
He paused, looking from my bare feet, then across my fine gown, his eyes seeming not to miss an inch of it, to my face. “I do not recall lending her to you.”
I tried to swallow again, but found my mouth was dry. “I…well, I—Yes. But is it not better that I brought her to you than had I not?”
“Or would it have been better for you not to steal her at all?” he said, moving closer to yank the mare’s reins from my hand. He rubbed his hand along her head and neck and then stooped to examine her legs as if he suspected I’d injured her somehow. “Theft of a man’s horse is a hanging offense.”
My eyes moved to the captain.
“Come now, Javier,” John said, dismounting. “Cease your press. No matter what has transpired, a horse rustler never returns what he captures, does he? You and Señorita Ruiz clearly got off on the wrong foot. And this young woman is in need of your hospitality…she’s been injured in a fall and cannot quite remember all she ought.” He handed his reins to an Indian child dressed in a jacket far too small for him, with no shirt beneath, and only a leather-like diaper below. “Perhaps that led her to act rashly. I thought your mother and sisters might see to her until she regains her full faculties.”
He strode toward me and reached up, taking hold of my hips. He wants to help me down, I belatedly realized, when he glanced up, a puzzled look in his eyes over my hesitation. I took hold of his shoulders, and he lowered me gently to the ground, giving me a small, encouraging smile. Urging me to continue to trust his decision in this, no matter how it might feel at the moment.
“Now. Shall we
Elmore Leonard, Dave Barry, Carl Hiaasen, Tananarive Due, Edna Buchanan, Paul Levine, James W. Hall, Brian Antoni, Vicki Hendricks