A small table was set for tea, and one of the two seats was already occupied by an older woman, richly dressed in a style long out of fashion. Mouth dropped open, Aleksandra approached the table.
“Good morning, I seem to have…ummm…where am I?”
The lady inclined her head, graciously. “This is Haverford Castle, in England. Allow me to introduce myself, my dear. I am Eleanor Haverford. Please, do take a seat and join me for tea?”
“Haverford? England?” Aleksandra stuttered. “Yes, thank you, I’d love that.”
She took the offered seat, looking around at the unfamiliar landscape. “I’m Aleksandra Lekarski. I’m from…California. From the Rancho de las Pulgas.” Behind her, grey stone walls loomed. When Xavier first took her to the rancho, the mansion, surrounded by its lush gardens and many smaller buildings, had impressed her with its size, and its sense of history and permanence. The castle before which they sat was ten times as large and many hundred years older.
“Haverford Castle,” the lady explained. “There has been a castle here since the Norman conquest, and when my husband’s ancestor was raised to a dukedom, he took his title from the castle. The lady was a duchess, then. Aleksandra tried to remember what her mother said about addressing a duchess.
The duchess offered several different types of tea, then milk and sugar, and passed the cup to Aleksandra with a small plate containing iced cakes, bringing a smile to Aleksandra’s face.
“OOooohh, my mother once made these!” Her brows drew together again. “But why am I here?”
The duchess tilted her head and gave a slight lift to one shoulder; not enough to be called a shrug. “It is most peculiar, is it not, Miss Lekarski? I do not know how it works, but every Monday afternoon I have a visitor, and I never know the place and time they will come from and return to. Please, do relax and tell me about yourself.”
Alexsandra began obediently. “I was born in Vienna, but my family ran to the United States when I was just an infant. We ended up trapping in the wilderness of Utah Territory, then after I met Xavier, I moved home to his family inheritance, the Rancho de las Pulgas!”
“Xavier is your husband? But no, the name you gave me is Polish. His name is surely Spanish.”
“Yes, he is.” Remembering her brother-in-law’s drunken ramblings, she frowned. “Or I I thought he was… until yesterday. We’re working on that. And, yes, it’s a Spanish name. He’s from an old Californio (yes, with a ‘o’ ) family, which has the Spanish Conquistadors as their origin, so he’s Latin.”
“That sounds like a story! You thought you were married and you found yesterday you were not?”
“Something my brother in law said…our marriage might not actually be valid…but as soon as he wakens from his drunken stupor, we’ll find out!
“How distressing for you. I hope it is just his drunkeness. I can hear in your voice that you are happy with your Xavier. And what does Xavier think of you?”
“I really have to answer that?” Alexsandra gave a big sigh, but her eyes twinkled at the duchess. It was a pleasure talking to someone she would never meet again outside of a dream such as this. “He’d say (I’ve heard him say, anyway) I’m lovely (he can’t get enough of my golden curls that reach past my derrière), an unparalleled rider (I was trained by my father in dzhigitovka), smart (I speak five languages and do math in my head), sensitive, generous to a fault, and a lot of fun.”
She chuckled. “But…he’d also say I’m opinionated, bossy, inclined to always want to do things my own way, and difficult to get to know. But he loves me anyway. Dzhigitovka and horses are my greatest loves, other than Xavier, of course.”
The duchess had been listening intently. “Tell me, what is Dzhigitovka?”
“Oooohhh… Dzhigitovka originated with the Caucasians, long, long ago, and it was kept alive by the Cossacks, and now the Russians. It’s a form of riding we now call trick riding, but it evolved as a form of mounted warfare. Even the names are wonderful… the Cossack hang, the death drag, to name a few… My papa learned, back in Poland, from a Ukranian, Vladimir, who, incidentally, plays a large part in book One, A Long Trail Rolling!”
Alexsandra’s hostess opened her hazel eyes wide. “How exciting! You have led a very adventurous life, my dear.”
“It’s very adventurous. I’ve only just now begun wearing skirts. I had one muslin dress to my name, but several pairs of buckskins!”
“And your papa taught you. What does your Xavier think of your trick riding?”
“Xavier loves it,” Aleksandra said proudly. “I’ve taught him some, too! He a magnificent horseman, and rides a gorgeous gray Andalusian stallion. My mount of choice is Dzień, a mustang.”
“Then your man is a match for you, and Aleksandra (may I call you Aleksandra?) if you are not married yet, it will be simple enough to amend the situation will it not?”
“It should be a simple matter…if we’re not actually married, there should be no impediment. I’m sure my mother in law, Maria Arguëllo, will be ecstatic to not miss this wedding, and will go to great lengths to make it the most remembered ceremony of the year! The rancho is the biggest old Spanish land grant in the San Francisco Bay Area, after all! She will make sure it’s quite the fiesta!”
The duchess put down her cup and held out her hand, taking Aleksandra’s hand in a firm glass. “How I wish this afternoon tea portal worked both ways! I should love to see you as a bride, my dear. But I wish you all the very best, you and your Xavier both.”
“Thank you, I really enjoyed the cup of tea, haven’t had one like that since my mama died. I will try to write to you and let you know what happens. Thank you again, and…take good care!”
The Hills of Gold Unchanging
No one will stand in their way—
As the Civil War rages, secessionists menace California.
Trying to get back home, Aleksandra and Xavier journey through the mining camps of 1860’s Nevada and California, the Sacramento floods and Old San Francisco to Xavier’s Californio Rancho de las Pulgas.
Embroiled in the Confederate’s fight to drag the new state from the Union and make it their own, can Aleks and Xavier survive? The secessionists mean business.
This is Book Two of The Long Trails Series of historical romantic thriller sagas, following Lizzi’s characters from the wilderness of 1860’s Utah to Colonial New Zealand
Meet Lizzi Tremayne
Lizzi grew up riding wild in the Santa Cruz Mountain redwoods, became an equine veterinarian at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, practiced in the California Pony Express and Gold Country before emigrating to New Zealand. When not writing, she’s swinging a rapier or shooting a bow in medieval garb, riding, driving a carriage or playing on her farm, singing, or working as an equine veterinarian or science teacher. She is multiply published and awarded in special interest magazines and veterinary periodicalsPhotos
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His blade glinted in the sunlight as he lunged toward her, but she ducked and spun, her own sword flashing in figure eights while she retreated, and his strike met with only air. He recovered and set himself up for the onslaught he knew would come, coughing as the dust kicked up by their boots thickened.
Blade up, he parried the blows she rained down upon him. He managed to get in one of his own, and retreated for a moment, breathing hard. She stepped back as well, her breasts heaving beneath the thin linen. Blue eyes glittered below brows narrowed with concentration, before her sword returned to action with a vengeance. They circled, dodging and striking in turn. Her skill was far greater, but the girl’s injuries from her last fight, combined with his greater reach and fitness were beginning to tell. A movement tugged at the edge of his vision—he glanced up from her sword to see her hat tumble off. Her hair cascaded down in a tangle to her thighs, and his heart surged.
She’s mine now.
He offered the ghost of a smile as he moved in to disarm her with a passing lunge and struck at her sword arm.
The air left his lungs and he tasted dirt in his mouth as he hit the unforgiving ground face-first. He groaned and rolled over, expecting the worst.
Above him, her laughing visage met his eyes. Her glorious curls, molten gold, fell around his face like a veil as she bent to wipe his face and kiss his lips. She slid the hilt of his sword from his hand.
“All right, halte, hold, you two,” their instructor said, in his heavy Russian accent. “There’s still work to be done, Xavier, but you’ve done well.”
Xavier Argüello took the hand his opponent offered, hopped to his feet and dusted off his clothes.
“Well done, Querido,” said his intended, Aleksandra Lekarski, as she returned his sword.
“Xavier, come here, please,” Vladimir Chabardine said, from the doorway of the cabin, where he was propped up in his sickbed. “You have worked hard. I am impressed, and it is rare that I am compelled to say that. That shashka now belongs to you. Use it in good health.”
Xavier stared at him, then at the Don Cossack saber in his hand, its leather grip smooth with years of use. He was silent for long moments.
“But it’s yours, Vladimir,” he finally said.
“It was one of mine, yes. Now it is yours. Tatiana brought my other two shashkas with her from Russia. One is for Nikolai, when he is ready, and this one is for you. It’s the least I can do, after my part in,” he looked at Aleksandra and grimaced, “your papa’s death.”
She nodded, her face grim, in acknowledgement.
“Thank you, from the bottom of my heart,” Xavier said, shaking his head at the Russian, as he ran a finger from the tooled embellishment on the pommel through to the rawhide bouton and strip they used for their practice sessions. He slid the protectors off and his new shashka whispered into its scabbard. He turned to face Aleksandra, and bowed to her. “Thank you,” he said, then turned to Vladimir, “and again, to you.”
She returned the bow and smiled at them both.
“You’re not quite done,” Vladimir said. “Xavier, replace the guard.”
“What would you like?” Aleksandra asked.
“One more bout. En garde,” he said, and they prepared.
“Prêt.” They nodded.
“Allez,” Vladimir snapped, and they began.
Aleksandra feinted, then moved to strike, but Xavier saw a hole in her defense and lunged. She twirled way, with a laugh, then drew back, looking frightened, her body twisted strangely to the right.
Was she injured?
His gaze lifted to her face, but no pain resided there, though her brow was furrowed. What a chance! Her whole left side was unguarded, and he went for the opening.
Before he could alter his course, she unwound and her shashka flashed toward him. For the second time in his life, he froze as he found her blade across his throat.
“¿Recuerdas? Remember this?” she said, her eyes merry.
“How could I forget, Querida,” he spoke for her ears alone, “our first meeting?”
Hands clapped behind them and they spun as one, hands on their sword hilts.
“No need fer that, no need fer that,” said a man, mounted on a chestnut horse. Beside the horse walked a black man, tied by the wrists to the rope in the rider’s hands.
“What do you wan—” Xavier began, then clamped his jaw, as his breath came short. Blood pounded in his ears and his face heated. “What can I help you with,” he finally managed, past gritted teeth, as he walked away from the house door, toward their callers.
“Well, hello theah,” the rider said, his Southern accent heavy. “Good fightin’, and fer a girl, too.” He looked sideways at Aleksandra.
“Aleks,” Xavier hissed, as he felt, rather than saw, her bristle beside him. He glanced at her knuckles showing white on the pommel of her saber. He reached out and covered her sword hand with his own and she took a deep breath and stilled.
“We’re yer new neighbors down th’road. Y’all wanna buy a slave? We’ve jus’ done come West ‘n now we’ve done finished buildin’ the house, he’s,” he nodded at the man at the end of his tether, “jus’ ‘noth’r mouth t’feed. Ca’int use ‘im to grow nuthin’ in this rock y’call dirt around heah.” He stopped and looked at the yard and cabin. “Nice place y’all got here.”
Xavier nodded, silent.
The man’s brows narrowed, then he continued. “Well, ah wondered if y’all had a breedin—ah, a woman slave I could trade fer him. The missus wants help in t’house, an’ I could use a little…too.” The glint in his beady eyes turned his grin into a leer.
Xavier closed his eyes and clenched his fists. “This territory may allow slavery, but nobody holds with it around here.”
The Southerner was silent for a moment, then answered with a voice dripping with sarcasm. “Now that’s mahty neighborly of ya. Are y’all some o’them ab’litionists we come West to git away from?”
“As you wish.” Xavier raised a brow at him, then shifted his gaze to the man on foot, staring at the dirt. “I apologize to you, sir, but you’ll have to go home with him again. May you find yourself a better life soon.”
The corners of the slave’s mouth lifted briefly. His eyes flickered up to Xavier’s, brightened, then dulled again as he dropped them to the ground.
“C’mon Jordan,” the rider growled, “we’re not welc’m here, by all accounts.” He jerked his horse around and they retreated the way they’d come.
Xavier stood silent, watching them go, then began to shake. He closed his eyes, willing himself to control the anger, and the deepening darkness. He inhaled sharply. When he opened his eyes, Aleksandra was staring at him.
“Are you all right?” she said, her brow furrowed.
“Yes.” Xavier nodded.
“More Southerners,” Aleksandra scowled as she wiped sweat from her brow with the back of her sleeve, “running from home before the government takes their slaves away?”
“That’ll never happen,” Xavier said, from between clenched jaws. “Too strong, too wealthy—cotton—slaves. Poor beggars down South.” He peered around. “Even here. I can’t believe it.”
“Believe it,” she said. “They’re coming.”
He shook his head. “I just wish we could stop it—the abuse, the owning.”
Aleksandra wrapped her arms around him, held him close until the tremors quieted. She leaned back in his arms and studied his face, then seemed satisfied with what she saw.
“Having you here makes it bearable, I think,” he said, and kissed her.
“I’m so used to you being the strong one…sometimes I forget the demons that still eat at you,” she said.