The glass Victoria had been holding slipped from her grasp and shattered on the floor. She rounded the bar to confront the woman.
"What did you say?" she demanded in a voice that bordered on the hysterical. Diego was not sure if she was going to strangle the newcomer or burst into tears. He had nearly dropped his own glass as well at the woman's announcement.
"Zorro, he is their father," she repeated, nonplused by Victoria's reaction. "We have traveled from San Pedro because he sent me a note saying to come to Los Angeles. He said the tavern owner was a generous lady who would let us stay here until he could meet us."
"Señora, what proof do you have that Zorro fathered these children?" Diego intervened before Victoria could say anything. He had never seen this woman before in his life and he knew she was lying. Unfortunately he could say nothing without arousing suspicions.
The commotion had drawn the attention of everyone in the building. Felipe, followed by Ana Maria and her mother, had approached the others by the bar. The Ortegas' faces held expressions of bewildered sympathy directed toward Victoria. Diego flinched at the look of betrayed disappointment Felipe shot his way.
"My name is Monica Lopez," the woman introduced herself. "This is Maria Elena," she indicated the child in her arms, "and this is our son, Juan Diego." The boy peered out from behind his mother's skirts. Diego stiffened at the mention of the boy's name. Dios mio, was it just a coincidence and he was named for the popular saint or. . .
"I have baptismal papers," Monica interrupted Diego's thoughts as she finally answered his question. She lifted her arm that had a reticule dangling from it. "I can show you. . ." She held out the baby for someone else to hold so she could have both hands free. No one immediately offered to take the child but finally Leonora extended her arms and took the little girl.
Monica reached into her purse and drew out two documents, handing them to Diego. Perusing them swiftly, he noted that Zorro was listed as the father on both certificates. They had to be fakes. The young woman put out her hand so Diego could give them back to her.
"Wh-What do they say?" Victoria asked in a whisper. Diego noticed she was trembling and very pale. Possibly in shock, he surmised. Dios, he wished he could reassure her the woman was a fraud.
"Zorro's name is on both documents," he stated flatly. Victoria gasped softly, looking as though she was about to faint. The baby started to fuss in Señora Ortega's arms and little Juan Diego tugged on Monica's skirt and said urgently, "Mama."
"Please, Señorita," the woman pleaded as the baby was returned to her. "The children are tired and hungry. May we have a room?
Diego reached out and touched Victoria on the shoulder. The gesture brought her back to her senses. "Pilar," she called out in a shaky voice. The tavern employee emerged from the kitchen wiping her hands. "Take this. . .this woman," instructed Victoria, "and the children upstairs, por favor. Then get them something to eat." She shook her head. "I am sorry. . ." She ran into the kitchen, then everyone heard a door slam.
Pilar led the family to the staircase as Leonora started for the kitchen. "I will go speak with her," she offered. Diego halted her progress.
"No, I will," he asserted and ducked through the curtained doorway. He tapped on the door that led to Victoria's private quarters. Receiving no response, he knocked a little louder then opened the door.
He could hear muffled sobs coming from her bedroom. "Victoria," he called out quietly. "It's Diego. Let me talk. . ."
"No, go away," she snuffled, taking a ragged breath. "Leave me be."
"Victoria, please," he pleaded. He knew he could not say to her that which would ease her pain. But he could not bear to see her suffer. He stepped over the threshold into her room.
She raised up from where she had flung herself on the mattress and tried to wipe her tears. Diego noticed the faded blood stains that marred the otherwise beautiful quilt that covered the bed. Zorro's blood.
"Diego, I said to go away," she repeated in a monotone.
"Victoria, look into your heart," he began earnestly. "You know it cannot be true. I. . . I have seen the way Zorro looks at you. He loves only you. You must believe that."
"I want to believe it," she said fiercely. "He says that we will be together someday. But still he could be that woman's lover. Giving her the children that should be mine."
"True," Diego concurred, playing devil's advocate. "We both know there isn't always love involved when it comes to the creation of children. But do you truly think Zorro would betray you like that? He is such an honorable man."
"Yes, and a passionate one as well," Victoria replied, rising from the bed. "We don't. . . We've never. . ." She dissolved into tears again
Without thinking, Diego gathered her into his arms and embraced her tightly. She buried her face into his chest, soaking his shirt. He became highly aware of the danger in what he was doing. Desires were beginning to stir in his loins. Desires he had fought hard all these years to suppress whenever he was near her. Desires she thought he slaked elsewhere. He groaned slightly.
Victoria stopped crying and looked up at Diego. He could see the pain and confusion in her beautiful dark eyes. His self control was slipping fast especially when she unconsciously moistened her lips with tip of her tongue. Their mouths drew to each other like magnet to steel.
It occurred then to Diego if he kissed her, she would know without a doubt that he was Zorro. And she was extremely unhappy with the masked man at the moment.
"No." He pulled away from her. "I will be not used so you can get back at Zorro."
Victoria realized what she had almost done. She was surprised when she saw a spark of longing in Diego's eyes. "I-I am sorry," she apologized to him for the second time that day. "I did not mean. . ."
"I know," Diego replied sympathetically. "You've had a bad shock today. I can understand if you are a little dazed right now."
"Oh Diego," she sighed. "That does not even begin to describe how I feel." She touched the dampness on the front of his shirt. "I'm sorry."
Diego smiled wryly. "Promise me you will not do anything out of anger." he began. "I do not believe her story for a minute. But we need to find out why she would tell such a tale."
"Do you truly think that, Diego?' asked Victoria. She had calmed down some and was thinking more rationally. "She seems so sincere. And she has those certificates."
"They could be forgeries," Diego asserted. He placed his hand on her shoulder. "You will be all right?"
"Si" she responded. "I promised to do nothing rash. But Diego, that woman. . . It will be all over the pueblo by nightfall."
"Yes," he agreed tersely. Unfortunately, Doña Carmen Estevez had been in the tavern that afternoon. The señora was the biggest gossip in the territory. Victoria's assessment was correct except for one thing. Everyone probably knew everything already. "I better get back to the hacienda," he stated. "I worry about Father when he goes out on these all day searches. He's not getting any younger."
Victoria smiled sadly. "None of us are. Gracias, Diego."
"Adios, Victoria." He walked
briskly from her room, through the kitchen and into main area of the tavern.
He crooked a finger at Felipe, who realized his adopted father was very
upset. He quickly signaled goodbye to Ana Maria and her mother and
followed him out of the building.
Z Z Z
Diego said nothing until they had mounted their horses and had ridden a fair way out of the pueblo.
"I am not the father of those children," he avowed grimly. "Felipe, you must believe that."
"I-I do." Felipe, once the shock had worn off, knew the woman was not telling the truth. "B-But wh-why?"
"I wish I knew," Diego replied, shaking his head. "It doesn't make any sense."
They rode down the road in silence before Felipe spoke again. "D-Diego?" He had to work up the courage before he could continue. "I-I w-want to ask Ana M-Maria t-to m-marry me."
"Felipe," Diego did not know what to say at first. "We've discussed this before. You both are so young. . ."
"I w-will b-be tw-twenty-one s-soon," he declared. Since they did not know his real birthday, they had picked the day Diego had found him on the littered battlefield to celebrate his passing years.
"That's true." Diego slowed his horse and took a good look at his adopted son. He had grown a mustache to match the one Diego wore. His shoulders were broad and strong and he nearly as tall as Diego. Yes, Felipe was a man now, he could no longer deny it. Which reminded him. . .
"Felipe, this doesn't have anything to do with Ana Maria thinking she was to have a baby, does it?" he suggested sharply. He did not think the young woman would use that excuse to trap Felipe, but one never knew.
"W-What? N-No!" came Felipe's stunned reply. "W-We have n-never. Sh-She n-never s-said. . ."
"Well, evidently, you did something to make her think it was a possibility," maintained Diego. "Felipe, are you sure about this? It worries me that you have known each other such a short time. I know you think you are in love." He held up his hand to stop Felipe's protest. "What of your goal of becoming a lawyer? I think you should wait a few more months. That would make it about a year since you two met. I think it would be for the best."
"All r-right," the young man agreed reluctantly. "D-Diego, I sw-swear, w-we n-never. . ."
"I believe you," Diego stated. "I know how hard it is to control certain desires, but you must if you truly love her."
Felipe nodded then changed the subject. "Is V-Victoria all r-right?"
"As well as be can expected," the older man replied. "I think, however, that Zorro should avoid her for the next few days."
Felipe smiled but another thought crossed his mind. "Wh-What about th-the attacks?"
"Perhaps the ranchers can help themselves this time," Diego asserted. "They cannot depend on Zorro forever."
He nudged Esperanza's sides and went galloping
down the road. Felipe's eyes were wide as he urged his own mount
Z Z Z
Sometime in the middle of the night, the Valverdes' ranch was hit. Several sheep were killed and a pregnant ewe was missing. Don Alejandro had awakened Diego and Felipe at first light. They were not looking forward to another all day hunt, but the elder de la Vega gave them no choice.
Diego had not slept well, spending the night tossing and turning. Too many disturbing thoughts clouded his mind. He glanced over at Felipe, who looked like he had not gotten much sleep either. The young man smiled weakly as they headed out into the countryside.
The posse gathered at the Valverdes hacienda. A quick look at the tracks left there confirmed Diego's suspicion it was not a mountain lion responsible for the raid on the sheep. He and Felipe rode with his father and the other caballeros for several hours before breaking away to search on their own.
"No wonder they never find anything," Diego declared disgustedly. "All they do is argue and miss the most obvious clues. I counted at least twice we headed in the wrong direction because of their stubbornness."
Felipe nodded in agreement. The two of them spent the rest of the day scouring the arroyos and hills surrounding Los Angeles. They had dismounted several times to get a better look at the signs left on the ground.
"Definitely a member of the canine family," Diego deduced. "But it cannot be a coyote. Look at the size of that print. Much too large. And the toes aren't right." He glanced over at Felipe. "Most likely it is a domestic dog gone wild." Both men remounted their horses.
"Let's hope it isn't rabid." Diego's face was somber as they rode off.
Tired, hungry and thirsty three hours later, they decided to stop at the tavern for supper. Diego wanted to check on Victoria and Felipe was always eager to see Ana Maria. When they strolled into the building, they found that several of their fellow searchers had had the same idea.
"Don Diego," greeted Don Esteban Estevez. "Come join us."
Diego could hardly turn down the invitation without appearing rude, so he and Felipe made their way over the caballeros' table. Its occupants shifted over to make room for the newcomers. "Two more bowls of albondigas soup, por favor," Don Esteban called over to Pilar who was serving at the next table. She nodded and went to the kitchen. She swiftly returned with two bowls of the steaming soup and placed them in front of Diego and Felipe.
"Gracias," said Diego. He put a large spoonful into his mouth then had to keep from choking. Hearing a similar noise from across the table told him Felipe was having the same reaction. Diego was not sure if he had ever tasted anything so awful. The other gentlemen at the table were heartily dipping into their bowls. Diego shuddered.
The room grew suddenly quiet as Señora Lopez walked down the stairs with her two children. Whispered conversations commenced as she assisted the boy into a chair then took one herself.
"Did you hear about Zorro?" began Don Esteban. "It is all over the pueblo. He and that woman. . . Those are his children."
"I wonder how Señorita Escalante took the news," remarked Don Jose Montez.
"Not well," relayed Don Esteban. "They say she had to be kept from clawing the woman's eyes out."
"Yet the señora is staying here," Diego pointed out coolly.
"She could not turn the poor woman out into the cold," Don Jose commented. "Think of those poor children. Señorita Victoria is a compassionate woman after all."
Diego smiled at the older man's wise evaluation. Don Esteban however had a few more nasty tidbits of what he had ‘heard' to share. Things invented by his sharp tongued wife no doubt, Diego mused. He almost ate another spoonful of the soup before he realized what he was about to do.
A hush grew over the room again as Victoria appeared at the curtained kitchen entryway. She motioned to Pilar and then whispered something in her ear.
The tavern began buzzing with anticipation. Diego had straightened as he stared at the innkeeper. She wore her riding habit and held a pair of saddle bags in her hands. When she had finished speaking with Pilar, she turned back into the kitchen.
"Excuse me." Diego dropped his napkin as he stood up. He strode across the room quickly. He just passed through the curtains as Victoria was opening the back door. "Where are you going?" he asked urgently, surprising Victoria.
"Diego," she said, taking a deep breath. "I am leaving town for a few days," she replied when she regained her composure. "It's been ages since I took a break so I thought. . ."
"Where are you going?" Diego repeated. "Victoria, please don't. . ."
"I don't know," she admitted, looking downcast. "I cannot stay here, Diego. Seeing that. . .that woman every day. And those children. I cannot bear to look at them. I know they are just innocent babies, but. . ."
"Come stay with us," invited Diego, the idea suddenly coming to him. He did not relish the thought of her out there wandering alone in her state of mind. Who knew what would befall her? He would just have to follow her anyway. It would be easier to keep an eye on her at the hacienda.
"Are you sure? Will Don Alejandro. . .?" she queried, uncertain of what to do.
"Father would insist," he replied. "Wait here and I will let Felipe know we are leaving." She nodded and closed the door. Diego started to go but swung back around. "Who made the soup tonight?" he inquired, curious to know why it had been so dreadful.
"I did," Victoria answered, bewildered by the question. "Why, is there something wrong?"
"No," he lied. "Delicious as always."
Felipe had remained at the table with the other caballeros since the Ortega women were nowhere in sight. Diego glanced over at Monica Lopez who sat calmly eating her meal, seemingly unaware of all the turmoil she had caused. The little boy sat on a block of wood atop his chair, messily playing with his food. The señora had discreetly put the niña under her blouse to nurse.
No wonder Victoria felt the need to get away. The scene even tugged at his masculine heart. It should be his child at Victoria's breast, he thought wistfully.
Felipe followed his father into the kitchen, eager to leave. Diego had not realized that everyone had been silent when he had stepped out from the kitchen until he heard the noise level return to normal after he and Felipe were on the other side of the draperies.
Busy bodies, he though a bit harshly.
He smiled though at Victoria as they departed via the rear door.
Z Z Z
'THE BIRDS AND THE BEES"-CHAPTER THREE