"THE BEST OF FRIENDS"

CHAPTER TWO

     Both Diego and Victoria made choking sounds at Teresa's bold question.  She did not seem to notice, but sat expectantly, waiting for an answer.

     "No, I am not married," replied Diego after he regained his composure.  "I have not found my ideal woman as of yet."

    Victoria rolled her eyes.  "Don Diego's ideal woman would have to be a paragon of patience," she observed a bit irritated.  She did not like the direction the conversation was heading and decided to put it to an end.

    "Teresa," she said as she arose, "I imaging you must be tired after your long journey.  Let me show you to your room so you can rest."

  Diego, wholeheartedly concurring with Victoria's suggestion, got to his feet as well.  Teresa had no choice but to stand up also.  Diego soon brightened her downcast expression.

    "I would like to invite both you ladies to dine with my father and me tomorrow night," he requested graciously.  "Then we can all renew our old acquaintance."

    "I would not miss it for the world," Teresa accepted his offer with alacrity.  She beamed up beautifully at him.

     "I would be delighted," Victoria responded with an expression that told another story though.  Her eyes shot daggers in Diego's direction. "Your room is this way, Teresa," she added, starting toward the staircase.

     Teresa still was gazing at Diego.  She offered him her hand which he had no option but to place a gentlemanly kiss upon.  She then followed as Victoria led the way upstairs.  Diego watched the two women with amusement.  The fiery tavern owner turned and gave him another angry glance before marching the rest of the way up the steps.

     Diego was puzzled by Victoria's reaction before it dawned on him that she must be jealous of the attention he was forced to pay toward her friend.

     Hmm, very interesting, Diego thought.  He wandered over to where Felipe and Ana Maria were engrossed in a lively sign language conversation.  He smiled as he joined them.  The two of them had been spending a lot of time together lately.

     Señora Ortega had made several new suits for Felipe as he was outgrowing his clothes at an alarming rate.  He had been joining Diego in strengthening and fencing exercises and had put on a considerable amount of muscle.  Diego had also noticed the beginning of a moustache on the younger man's upper lip.

     At this rate, I am liable to be a grandfather before I have children of my own, Diego mused to himself.  He shook his head then turned his attention to his table mates.
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     The next morning, the pueblo was alive with the hustle and bustle of market day.  Local farmers were selling fresh fruit and vegetables.  There were peasants hawking hand woven baskets, rugs, fabric and all manner of handicrafts.  Victoria, with her large basket her arm, strolled among the stalls with Teresa.  They had spent much of the morning updating old friendships of the Alvarez family.  So much time in fact that Victoria was getting very bored with it all.

     She left Teresa chatting with another old schoolmate so she could select some fresh tomatoes from Señor Martinez, one of the local farmers.  Teresa ended her conversation and wandered over to his heaping cart as well.

     "Does Don Diego ever come to the market?" she asked casually, looking around the plaza. "I swear, he must be the handsomest man in Los Angeles."  She wrinkled up her nose as she glanced at the gapped toothed grin of Señor Martinez, the old farmer.

     Victoria shrugged.  "Sometimes he does," she remarked, watching her friend's hopes rise.  "And sometimes he doesn't," she added, smiling as those same hopes fell.

     Her amiga looked so crestfallen that Victoria decided to take pity on her.  "He comes quite often, usually on errands for Don Alejandro.  Why are you so interested in Don Diego anyway?" she inquired, no longer able to contain her curiosity.  "I know you worshiped him when we were mere girls, but..."

     "Oh, it is so much more than that," interrupted Teresa with a laugh.  She slid her arm through Victoria's free hand in a cozy gesture.  "I am looking for a rich husband," she confided quietly.  "My other husbands left me well provided for, but I have run into a streak of bad luck."  She chuckled mirthlessly.  "I know nothing of investments.  But then I thought of Los Angeles and Diego and well, here I am."

     Victoria was stunned by her old friend's shocking announcement.  Something, it could not possibly be jealousy, she thought, welled up inside her.  It had to be the fact she did not like to see a good friend like Diego hurt, she explained to herself.

     Aloud, she remarked to Teresa, "Well, I am glad you are here, no matter what your reasons."  She pointed at a nearby stall.  "Oh, look. Señora Turron has fresh peppers today." Victoria hurried over, effectively changing the subject.

     Teresa had no choice but to follow her friend.  Victoria selected several red and green peppers and was paying for them when the Alcalde and Sergeant Mendoza ambled over toward the two women.

    "Buenos dias, Señorita Escalante," both men greeted her eagerly.  De Soto gave Mendoza a withering glance.  The sergeant smiled in blissful ignorance.

     "And who is your most charming companion, Señorita Escalante?" asked the Alcalde, turning on the charisma.

     "This is my old and dear friend, Teresa Alvarez," Victoria replied.  "Teresa, this is the Alcalde of our pueblo, Ignacio de Soto, and also Sergeant Jaime Mendoza."

     Teresa had started to extend her hand to de Soto, but when Victoria had said ‘Alcalde', she pulled it back slightly. Then turning on a blazing smile, she fully offered her hand to him.  The Alcalde gave it the obligatory kiss.  Sergeant Mendoza also took his turn.

    "Why didn't you tell me Los Angeles had such a handsome commandante, Victoria?" Teresa queried through slightly gritted teeth.  "Oh, and his sergeant too," she added, smiling at both men.

     "Gracias, Señorita Alvarez," Mendoza responded.  One could almost hear the wheels turning in his head.  "Alvarez. . .   I remember now, your family used to live here a long time ago.  Didn't you all move to San Diego or was it San Clemente?"

    "San Diego, Sergeant," the visibly nervous woman conceded.  She tugged surreptitiously on Victoria's arm.  "I am so sorry, but we are in quite a rush.  Maybe we can reminisce some other time."

     Victoria regarded her friend in a curious manner.  But she took the hint, smiled apologetically at the two men as she and Teresa walked away.

     "What was that all about?" questioned Victoria as soon as the two women were out of earshot.

     "I thought you wanted to finish your shopping, that is all," her friend explained.  She smiled at Victoria's look of disbelief.  "Oh, let us not spoil our reunion.  I am so looking forward to dinner this evening," she stated, changing the subject.  "Is the de la Vega hacienda still as fabulous as I remember it?  What are you going to wear?"

   She and Victoria continued their marketing, making several more purchases.  Meanwhile, the Alcalde and Mendoza were walking back to the garrison.

     "Señorita Alvarez is certainly a beautiful woman," the Alcalde remarked as they entered his office.  He noted the baffled look on the sergeant's face.  "What is the matter, Mendoza?"

     "There was something strange about the Alvarez family's departure from Los Angeles," Mendoza replied.  "It was nearly twelve years ago, but they left in such a hurry."

     Now de Soto was intrigued.  "Perhaps there is something in the official records."

    Sergeant Mendoza began to search for the file in his somewhat haphazard filing system.
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     That evening, everything was in a state of readiness at the de la Vega hacienda.  Everything, that is, except Diego de la Vega.  He was in his bedroom, putting on a clean shirt.  After he buttoned it up, he reached for a thin, black tie and put it around his collar.  He could hear the guests arriving as he fumbled with the length of silk.

    Well, it could not be helped, he thought.  He had gotten another lead on the cattle thieves earlier that afternoon and while out tracking it down, had lost all sense of time.  Diego had returned back to the hacienda only moments before his guests.

     Finally, after three attempts, he finished tying his tie and shrugged his broad shoulders into his dark blue jacket.  Pausing at the mirror, Diego quickly combed his fingers through his thick black hair before leaving the room.

     When he arrived in the library, Don Alejandro had already poured glasses of wine for the ladies.  Señora Gomez, as Teresa's companion, had also been included in the party.  She was perched uncomfortably on the edge of the settee cushion where Teresa was seated easily.  Victoria sat in a chair by the fireplace.

    "I beg your pardon, ladies," Diego apologized as he entered the room.  He shook his head, declining the glass of wine his father offered to him.  Tonight he would definitely need a clear head.  "I was unavoidably detained."

     "Yes, with his head in the clouds or his nose in a book," Don Alejandro grumbled to Victoria, who had to smile.

     Teresa stood up and offered her hand to Diego.  "You must show me around your splendid hacienda, Don Diego," she requested.  "It is even more magnificent than I remember."

     Just then, Maria, the de la Vega housekeeper, discreetly entered the library.  "Ah, dinner is served," announced Don Alejandro.  He turned to Teresa.  "Your tour will have to wait until later.  Perhaps Diego will show you around the garden.  It is quite lovely this time of year, especially in the moonlight."

   Diego grimaced at his father's blatant attempt at matchmaking.  He was also forced to escort Teresa into the dining room, since she already had a proprietary hand on his arm.  Don Alejandro offered his arm to Señora Gomez, while Felipe accompanied a glowering Victoria in to dinner.

     The long table was beautifully set.  The finest linens, china and crystal had been used and a large centerpiece of fresh flowers graced the table as well.  Diego held out Teresa's chair as did the other men so their female companions could sit down.  Then the meal was served.

     "Oh, your cook is divine," Teresa declared after taking just one bite.  She fluttered her long eyelashes at Diego.  "You are fortunate to find such good help.  I could dine here every night."

     Victoria and Diego, as well as Felipe, nearly choked on their own mouthfuls of food at the obvious invitation.

    "Si, we are quite lucky," agreed Don Alejandro, oblivious to their discomfort.

    "It must be heavenly," Teresa sighed.  She touched her hand on Diego's.  It was all he could do not to flinch it away violently.

   Teresa kept up the outrageous flirtation with Diego throughout the meal.  Don Alejandro smiled with approval and even encouraged her.  She batted her eyes, touching his hand and arm constantly.  Teresa even boldly placed her hand on Diego's thigh just for a second.  He nearly jumped out of his chair at that.  He was becoming extremely uncomfortable.  And it only added to his discomfort to see Victoria's growing annoyance with both he and Teresa.  He had sneaked several glances her way.  She looked quite lovely in an off-white blouse with a lace flounce that showed just a hint of her smooth shoulders.  Victoria had tossed a few looks in his direction, her eyes revealing her jealousy and confusion.  He would have been amused if not for his own predicament.

    When the meal was finally over, Diego had hoped the moonlight stroll had been forgotten.  He winced openly when his father brought it up again.

   "Diego, you promised Teresa a tour of the gardens," he said.

    Teresa leapt to her feet at this reminder.  "Oh, yes, Diego," she gushed.  "I have been looking forward to it all evening."

    Diego had no option but to lead the eager señorita out to the courtyard.  Felipe threw him an apologetic glance.  Victoria just glared at him while his father beamed happily.

     The garden was indeed beautiful, especially by the light of the full moon.  Teresa put her arm through Diego's, pulling herself quite close.  He tried to move away so he could show her the plants, but she kept a tight grip on him. Sighing, he pointed out a flowering vine climbing up the hacienda wall.

     "That is an ipomoea cristulata," Diego announced, using its Latin name.  He hoped to bore her, thus cutting the stroll short.  They took several more steps before he indicated some cacti arranged in a circle in the middle of the courtyard.  "And those are succulents.  My father had quite an extensive variety.  His collection is famous throughout the territory.  Oh, and look over there," he pointed again.  "There are some fine specimens of eschscholtzia california and eschscholtzia mexicana."

     Teresa glanced uninterestedly at the flowers.  She then steered Diego over to a wrought iron bench.  The couple sat down before Teresa spoke.

     "I am sorry, Don Diego," she said without a hint of contrition in her voice.  "But I did not come out here to look at a bunch of flowers.  Although they are lovely," she added politely at his dismayed expression.

     "I do not understand, Teresa," Diego played the innocent.  "I thought you wished to see the garden.  We can rejoin the others if you wish. . ."

    "No, no," Teresa shook her head vehemently.  "I had hoped to lead our conversation toward husbands and wives, toward marriage.  Between you and me, Diego," she explained, seeing his blank look.  "But now I know it would be just a waste of time."

     "And why would that be?" Diego inquired naively. Inside he was heaving a sigh of relief.  But that was short-lived.

     Teresa rounded on the bench so she could look him square in the face.  "It would be a waste of time," she stated, "because you, my dear Diego, are in love with Victoria Escalante."
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"THE BEST OF FRIENDS"-CHAPTER THREE