Early June 1898
The juggler tossed the burning torches into the air in an outstanding display of skill, catching the unlit end of each before sending it up again in a circle of yellow flame. Suddenly, he stopped all four and plunged them dramatically into a waiting bucket of water. The dying torches hissed in protest. With a flourish, the juggler bowed.
The eighty dinner guests burst into enthusiastic applause.
Derek Christopher Carlisle, Viscount Graystone, concealed his sigh of impatience. He clapped along with his fellow guests, honoring his upbringing as a gentleman and the lessons of diplomacy that his father had taught him were so essential to achieving one's goals in a foreign country.
Derek sat back against the red brocade of the richly upholstered chair, his fingers gripping the carved armrests. Beneath the floor-length white linen covering the long table his leg jiggled with the anticipation and irritation he dared not show. He would play his host's game, though it qualified as a bloody nuisance.
He recognized the unceasing string of entertainers for what they truly were.
Don Geraldo de Vargas was toying with his guest of honor, building the suspense and trying to seize a position of power in the upcoming negotiations. The Spanish sugar baron hadn't expanded on his inherited wealth, nor maintained his position in Cuban society, by being dull-witted. Surely he had guessed that the heirloom documents in his private collection must be worth a great deal if Derek had sailed all the way from England in search of them.
Whatever the price, Derek was willing to pay it.
He possessed the monetary resources. What he didn't have was the one essential item he'd been tracking down for a year.
He prayed that Don Geraldo didn't understand the true worth of his ancestor's journal.
Derek picked up his cut-crystal glass and swirled its contents. The wine clung to the inside of the glass before sliding smoothly back down. The rich, fruity aroma teased his nostrils. The respite in the entertainment allowed conversation to rise among the guests, droning like a swarm of bees. All these people were strangers to Derek, except for the two highest-ranking members of his crew relegated to the far end of the huge U-shaped table.
Slanting his blue-eyed gaze to the left, Derek covertly studied his host's classic Spanish profile. A thick mustache and neatly trimmed goatee accented a bold nose and rigid jaw. Don Geraldo's walnut-brown coat matched the hair brushed straight back from his broad forehead. Silver hair streaked down the center of his goatee, and similar flecks dusted throughout his collar-length hair. An ivory satin waistcoat stretched across his slender torso. The right questions around Havana had revealed that the don was a cruel taskmaster, demanding maximum work in the sugarcane fields while paying as little as possible . . . just the type of Old World inequality the Cubans were rebelling against.
Cold distaste slid through Derek. In his world travels he'd crossed paths with more than one self-proclaimed tyrant, making it natural for him to sympathize with the Cuban revolutionaries . . . or anyone fighting for equal opportunities and the right to govern their own lives. The only way to gain an advantage with a man like de Vargas was to approach negotiations from a position of strength.
"Very impressive, Don Geraldo," Derek commented. "This food is excellent, the wine superb. My compliments."
The don waved a hand with token modesty. "Gracias, Lord Graystone. I am pleased that you are pleased."
Expectancy tingled beneath Derek's skin. "I am amazed you chose to honor me with this occasion."
"You are an aristocrat, like myself. You are a guest in my country. It delighted me to invite you to stay in my hacienda. What other reason is needed?"
What other reason, indeed, except to keep a close eye on me and manipulate the situation to your advantage. "You certainly put on quite a celebration on such short notice. My ship sailed into port only yesterday."
"We Spaniards are always looking for an excuse for fiesta, senor." De Vargas stroked his goatee. A sapphire large enough to choke a cat sparkled from his right hand. "We do not allow ourselves to become too serious about life."
Derek tried not to let de Vargas see his irritation. The sly fox couldn't resist a poke at him, contrasting the Spaniards' love of fun with the staid attitude of the British. Although de Vargas intended the comment as a slur, Derek couldn't argue with the assessment. A lingering sense of responsibility and duty constantly threatened to crush the lighter side of his spirit, leaving him feeling as if he couldn't breathe . . . until he embraced the wind behind the wheel of his ship, or spent days searching through historical archives, or plunged his hands into fresh dirt as he sought to extricate something precious and ancient from the earth's secret hiding places. Archaeology gave his life purpose and an excuse for adventure . . . in a word, freedom.
Then again, he could aptly remind Don Geraldo how the English traits of bulldog stubbornness and daring had enabled them to defeat the Spanish Armada and drive the Spaniards out of most of the New World. The antagonism between England and Spain extended back centuries.
If de Vargas knew what Derek was really after, and why, the antagonism would run even deeper.
Derek took a sip of wine. "The entertainers have been excellent. Quite a variety. Where do you manage to find them all?" he asked, thinking of the tedious string of musicians, singers, contortionists, and magicians. He also hoped the question would prompt the don to reveal when they could abandon the preliminaries and simply get down to the business that had brought Derek across the Atlantic.
With a tilt of his head, Don Geraldo indicated the central area between the tables. Eight men entered the room. Each pair carried a large square slab of wooden flooring.
"The best is yet to come. Lord Graystone. You are about to witness one of the greatest art forms to come out of Spain. One of my favorites."
Curious despite his cynicism, Derek watched the men arrange the wooden flooring in a large square before the head table. It resembled nothing more exciting than a dance floor.
An elderly man, clearly Spanish from his olive-toned skin, entered the room. He carried a guitar and a chair. Setting the chair on the far side of the flooring, he sat down and devoted his attention to the instrument. Gray-haired head bent, shoulders hunched, he caressed the guitar as if it was his one true love, softly testing the tuning of the strings. Rich tones like aged whiskey drifted across the room. The compelling sound drew Derek's interest for the first time that evening.
"So, senor," interjected Don Geraldo. "Tell me again how you eluded the Yankee bastardos guarding our harbor."
Derek reluctantly tore his gaze away from the guitarist. He took note of the bitterness in the don's voice. Negotiate from a position of strength.
"Ah, yes, the Yankee blockade. This Spanish-American War must be damned inconvenient for you. Actually, there was no need to elude them. When the crew of the Eagle hailed us, I simply showed my papers, proved that we were not carrying weapons or smuggled goods, and they let us pass in peace. But not before Captain Bancroft and I shared dinner and a toast. Capital fellow. The wine, alas, was not as fine as this."
One corner of Don Geraldo's lip lifted in a sneer. "Perdoname for my not understanding your casual attitude toward the Americans. After all, they stole a valuable source of income from the English crown in their War of Independence, then proceeded to issue you an inglorious defeat in the last war."
Derek suppressed a sigh. He could thank Elizabeth I and generations of English royalty for souring relations with the Spanish and making his job more difficult. But if Don Geraldo wanted to stand toe to toe and match subtle insults, he could accommodate him and still maintain a veneer of diplomacy.
"Dealing with Napoleon in 1812 was a slightly higher priority. Damn good thing that Wellington and his troops came along to push the French out of the Peninsula, or Spain might be under French rule now . . . and thus Cuba. That would have been disagreeable for you."
A muscle twitched alongside the don's nose and tugged at his mustache. "I can think of a worse rule to be under," the other man hinted.
Derek smiled at the aspersions cast on Queen Victoria and countered, "Indeed. I assume you find these Cuban rebels a persistent lot of ruffians."
The game was only beginning--point and counterpoint, like the thrust and parry in the sport of fencing at which Derek excelled. But their positions of power were fairly evenly matched. Don Geraldo desperately needed money, since the Yankee blockade had cut off his ability to ship sugar and other crops. On the other hand, if Derek failed to convince de Vargas to part with the journal, hundreds of hours of research might have been in vain. The primary focus of his life for the last four years would sputter and die, not unlike the juggler's flaming torches.
Don Geraldo tugged on a gold chain draped across his waistcoat. A brass ring with an ornate key attached slid from a pocket.
"The key to my collection room," he explained. "I hope we shall be able to put it to good use tonight." Unhooking the ring from the chain, he held the key up, dangling it from his manicured fingers enticingly.
Derek's expression remained bland from long practice. "I have no doubt it shall be put to its intended use before the night is over."
Don Geraldo smiled without humor. He set the key on the table beyond his place setting, next to a crystal vase containing half a dozen red roses. Derek's hand tightened around his wine glass. He stubbornly directed his gaze forward. Although he noticed the guitarist watching them, every fiber of his body was keenly aware of that key.
It lay there, taunting him, a scar against the white tablecloth and amid the fine crystal and china. His palms itched. How tempting it would be to sneak back later, spirit away the key while Don Geraldo slept, and avail himself of the journal without needing to deal further with this pompous aristocrat. Something inside Derek instantly recoiled, appalled by the direction of his thoughts. Steal the journal? Carlisles prided themselves on their integrity.
Dammit, he would acquire that journal through honest means, or not at all.
The guitarist's hand strummed across the strings in a dramatic flourish. The rich chords hushed the crowd. The time had arrived for the next entertainer.
More delays. Derek resolved that he would spend the endless dinner plotting strategy, his next move in countering Don Geraldo's evident hostility toward anyone of English origin.
At least, that was Derek's plan before the young woman appeared in the doorway opposite.
She entered the room and paused to speak with the guitarist, commanding attention as much with her regal bearing and the confident tilt of her chin as the outrageously daring dress she wore. Derek had never seen a gown like it. It cut away in the front, just below the knees, revealing shapely calves sheathed in sheer black stockings. Black flounces gathered dramatically along the lower edge of the burgundy gown, sweeping back in a short train and moving sinuously with every graceful step she took. Although Derek felt a twinge of disappointment as he tore his gaze away from the trimmest ankles he'd ever seen, his regard moved irresistibly upward.
The gown's neckline scooped modestly below the delicate line of her throat. There was nothing demure in the way the bodice hugged her trim torso and full breasts. The tight sleeves opened at the elbows in flowing bells lined in black satin, imitating the hemline.
A sheer black lace shawl was draped over her head, yet failed to conceal the ebony hair hanging to her waist. Tendrils of hair at her temples were waxed into a curl against either cheek. Another black strand curled down the center of her forehead like an ornament. Lines of kohl bordered vivid green eyes that needed no accents.
Silence reigned in the room. The audience seemed to hold its collective breath.
The woman advanced to the middle of the wooden floor, then struck a dramatic pose. With her black leather shoes at right angles, she held one arm overhead, her wrist and hand curved in a way that was both rigid and graceful at the same time. Words of encouragement burst from the enthralled onlookers.
She stared at the floor, seemingly oblivious to the spectators. She licked her lips, leaving a sheen in her tongue's wake.
A sensual shudder rippled up Derek's spine, warming him like the brush of a Caribbean summer breeze. Her lids drooped languorously over her eyes, her expression reminiscent of a woman lying among mounds of pillows, replete after a round of fervent lovemaking, boldly watching her lover retrieve his rumpled clothes. The hairs on his nape prickled with awareness.
"Flamenco, Lord Graystone," Don Geraldo whispered in a reverent tone. "The dance of the Gitanos. The true expression of passion."
Gypsy dance. The guitarist began again, coaxing the soul from his instrument, entering into a song that seemed to celebrate life yet weep for its struggles at the same time.
The woman began to move, slowly and sinuously at first, her arms and hands accenting the music.
"The dancer is one of the best in Cuba," added the don. "Alas, not as excellente as her mother. The mother was a legend in my country. But the daughter makes up the difference with her great beauty, no?"
"On that we can agree, Don Geraldo," Derek murmured.
He couldn't tear his gaze away as the pace of the music increased. Her heels drummed the floor in a staccato beat that perfectly complemented the lush rhythm of the guitar. She moved with a unique combination of power and grace. The dress hugged her torso, failing to disguise even the slightest movement.
She was arresting, a figure of sexual intensity . . . and the last thing Derek needed to monoplize his attention while everything he'd strived for depended on keeping his wits about him. His goal hung in the balance. The merest thought of dalliance held no place in his plans.
She danced to the edge of the floor nearest him. Several members of the audience began to clap in rhythm with the music. Her right arm rose in an arc that raised the shawl before her face like a sheer curtain.
Her gaze met Derek's through the black lace.
His mouth went dry.
As she continued to dance, her gaze did not leave him. Was it his imagination, or was she dancing for him now? Her heavy-lidded eyes examined his face, then dipped lower, encompassing his shoulders and chest, lingering. She watched him as if she beheld something unique and wondrous.From the Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Promise of Gold by Kristen Kyle. Copyright © 2002 by Kristen Kyle. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.