"A FRIEND INDEED"
Two months later, Zafira stepped into the doorway of the study as Diego and his father were looking over their cattle breeding records. They both turned their attention to her, Diego noting that the elder de la Vega smiled happily at his daughter-in-law. He knew his own countenance was less welcoming
"Hija, come in," the old don greeted her warmly. "Do you need something?"
Zafira walked into the room, holding out a thick sheaf of vellum. "It's my friend," she began, "Amanda Herrera. She's written that she and her father should be arriving in Los Angeles any day now."
"And you wish her to visit?" asked Don Alejandro indulgently. "Zafira, my dear, you know you don't need my permission to have a guest. This is as much your home as it is mine."
"Gracias, Father," she said demurely. She flicked a hostile glance at Diego before returning her gaze upon the elder de la Vega. "Señor Herrera is going to be surveying territory from here to Monterey." She held out the letter to her father-in-law and pointed to one of the pages. "Amanda worries that she'll be stuck in some shabby little inn while her father is completing his work for the government."
"The tavern in Los Angeles is entirely respectable," declared Diego, not quite keeping the anger from his tone as he felt the need to defend Victoria's business. "And it definitely isn't shabby."
Zafira rolled her eyes at him. "That's beside the point," she responded argumentatively. She looked up at Don Alejandro beseechingly. "She can stay here, with us, while her father does his survey?" she queried.
"I don't see why not," replied the old don. "Any amiga of yours will surely be a lovely addition to our hacienda."
"Gracias, Father," Zafira said before kissing his leathery cheek. "I'll write her a note immediately."
She turned to leave the room but not before tossing one last antagonistic glance at her husband. He just stared at her passively and she curled her lips into a triumphant smile.
Diego shook his head as he watched her walk out the door. What was she up to now? He had never heard mention of this friend of hers before. But then, he told himself, he had known Zafira such a short time before they married, there was probably more things he didn't know about his wife than the meager handful he did.
He had the feeling that he was about to
learn more about her than he ever wanted to know.
Z Z Z
Not quite a week later, Señorita Herrera and her father, Don Patricio Herrera, arrived at the de la Vega hacienda. Diego watched as his wife and her friend embraced, kissing each other's cheeks. He still thought it strange that Zafira had never mention the woman's name until only five days previously.
Don Alejandro joined them in the foyer and Zafira introduced him to Señor Herrera and his daughter. Then she turned to Diego, who was lounging against an archway, his arms crossed over his broad chest.
"And this is my husband, Diego," she said, managing to maintain a polite veneer. "Diego, this is my best friend, Amanda Herrera."
Pure undiluted lust hit him like a punch. He understood now why Zafira had not introduced her friend to him while they had been courting. Amanda Herrera was beautiful, perhaps the most classically beautiful woman Diego had ever seen.
She had bright blue almond shaped eyes with long dark lashes. Her lips were like soft pink rose petals. Her face was a perfect oval, her skin a smooth alabaster. And her body could tempt a saint, which he definitely was not.
Diego drew a deep breath before taking the señorita's proffered hand and placed a courtesy kiss upon it. "Hola," he said in what he hoped was a detached tone. "Zafira has told us so much about you." The deliberate lie hung heavy on his lips.
"Has she?" inquired the young woman, gazing at him through her thick dark lashes as she curtsied shallowly before him. He realized he was still grasping her hand and quickly let go of it.
He could feel the heat of his spouse's glare boring into the back of his skull. "Come, Amanda," she said, coming forward and linking her arm with the other woman's. "I'll show you to your room."
"Gracias." Amanda gave Diego another assessing look before turning her full attention to Zafira. "You didn't tell me your husband was so gorgeous," she said sotto voce as they walked toward the bedrooms.
Diego was unable to hear his wife's reply as the women disappeared from sight. Shaking his head as if to clear its thoughts, he tried to listen to the conversation between his father and Don Patricio about the difficulties of obtaining accurate surveys but his mind kept wandering.
Was he one of those men who could never be true to one woman? If, by some miracle, he ever got the chance to be with Victoria, would he soon tire of her charms as he had with Zafira's? He recalled with a grimace that he had been relieved when his mistress had broken off things between them after only eight months, because she had no longer fascinated him as she had when they had first met.
It was at dinner later that evening that Diego realized another reason Zafira had never mentioned her friend, other than the fact she and her father had left Madrid five years earlier. Amanda Herrera was a woman who wanted; no, demanded; the attention of every male in the vicinity. She sat at Don Alejandro's right and flirted with him throughout the entire meal. Diego sat to her right, as far away from her as the table would allow. Amanda noticed the distance he had placed between them and would smile over at him knowingly from time to time.
The beautiful señorita was even charming to the masculine servants, who all blushed at the unfamiliar attention. After they had retired to the library when everyone had finished eating, Felipe came hesitantly to the room's entrance, clutching some papers in his hands.
"Oh, he's so adorable," gushed Amanda in a loud whisper to Zafira. "Who is he?"
"Just the houseboy," replied Zafira dismissively. "He's a deaf mute," she added in a warning tone.
Amanda just shrugged. "He's still cute," she declared to her friend as they sat next to each on the settee. She glanced over to where Diego was standing next to Felipe as he looked over the youth's essay on the American Revolution.
Diego felt his body tighten under the scrutiny of her gaze. He was going to have to keep on eye on his spouse's dear amiga, he thought. She was a woman not to be trusted. He put his hand on Felipe's shoulder and guided the young man away from the library.
He had convinced himself that his reaction to the beautiful Señorita Herrera was due to the fact he hadn't had sex for nearly two years. That his body was just responding to her because of pure animal instincts. At least, that was what he kept telling himself.
The next morning, Señor Herrera departed the hacienda to join up with his surveying crew. Zafira and Amanda decided to go into Los Angeles so the newcomer could see the ‘quaint little village' where her friend now lived. Diego and Felipe accompanied the ladies into town.
The women wended their way through the market stalls scattered throughout the plaza. Diego made his way to the tavern and thought Felipe was following him but when he turned to look over his shoulder, the young man had disappeared. Diego shrugged then stepped inside the bustling inn.
Several of his father's friends were there and they engaged him in a conversation about that year's beef prices. Diego's attention, however, kept drifting over to where Victoria was working behind the bar. Nearly an hour had passed when Zafira and Amanda walked through the front doors of the tavern. Diego was a bit astonished to see his wife as she rarely set foot inside Victoria's establishment. It, however, was no surprise that her friend headed straight toward him and the other caballeros.
Amanda wasted little time in charming the older gentlemen. Zafira stood to one side, a unbecoming pout on her face. After a few moments, Diego had had his fill and wandered over to where Mendoza and several other lancers were having a rather raucous time at a nearby table.
[parts of the following taken from "The Tease" written by Robert L McCullough]
Unfortunately, after Diego offered to buy the soldiers a round of coffee, the stout sergeant set his eyes on the flirtatious Señorita Herrera.
"Who. . . Who is that?"the bemused lancers asked as he got to his feet.
Diego sighed. "That's Amanda Herrera. She's staying with us while her father surveys rangeland for a new cattle ranch."
"She is a princess. . . A dream. . ." murmured Mendoza. Diego was dismayed to see that the sergeant's gaze was glassy as he walked over to the señorita. There would be no warning him about the señorita's coquettish nature.
He watched with a pitying expression as the soldier introduced himself to Amanda, only to have a younger, more handsome lancer cut in and sweep the young woman away. Diego went over to commiserate with the sergeant.
"But he's only a private," stated a nonplused Mendoza as he watched Amanda and the other lancer chatting animatedly with each other on the other side of the room.
Victoria reached her hand across the bar and patted him on the shoulder. "Perhaps some fresh tamales would help?"
Zafira rolled her eyes dismissively. "Food is the last thing he needs," she declared, looking the portly soldier up and down, her gaze lingering on his prominent belly.
Victoria's face took on a hurt expression. "That was uncalled for," said Diego to his wife. "Apologize."
"You're my husband," Zafira fired back at him. "Not my jailer." With that, she spun around and flounced out of the tavern.
Diego shook his head wearily. "I'm sorry. . ." he began to say.
"It's all right, Don Diego," said Victoria sympathetically. "You did nothing wrong." She glanced over at Sergeant Mendoza. "He didn't even notice."
Victoria's words were reinforced by the lancer's preoccupied sigh. "She so beautiful," he said dreamily.
"Persistence is the key to genius, Sergeant," Diego suggested, knowing if the soldier was patient, Amanda Herrera would eventually be willing to toy with his affections. "Try again." He patted Mendoza on the shoulder.
"No, Don Diego," said the soldier, now with a determined countenance. "I have other plans."
Diego was pensive all the way back to the hacienda once he found out Mendoza's plans included making Private Sanchez, Amanda's brash suitor, perform many hard and disgusting tasks, like cleaning out the latrines. And against his better judgement, he had acquiesced to the sergeant's plea for help in wooing the young lady.
At least she and Zafira had decided to stay in town for the afternoon while he instructed Mendoza in the finer points of courting a woman. A subject, he admitted, about which he was not all that knowledgeable.
Which was how Diego found himself skulking in the darkness of his own courtyard, listening to Luis Ramón inform Amanda Herrera of all the reasons why she should marry someone she had known for less than a day.
He didn't know whether to laugh or to be ill. The Alcalde was being a pompous ass. But even so, the señorita was sitting there on the stone bench, smiling prettily as Ramón pleaded his inane suit. Diego only hoped the long-winded commandante would get on with it before the good sergeant showed up to take his turn to court his wife's friend.
Frankly, Diego was a bit surprised that there wasn't a queue of men stretching the two miles from the pueblo to the hacienda, all desperately waiting to win the hand of the fair Amanda.
[parts of the following taken from "The Tease" written by Robert L McCullough]
Diego had to refrain from making a rude noise. Then he heard someone whistling as they drew closer. Then he heard the yowl of a cat, then Mendoza's voice as he apologized to said cat.
Oh Dios, the sergeant had arrived and the Alcalde had not yet departed.
"Señorita Amanda," the soldier said. Diego shuddered as he listened to the sounds of a wet kiss he hoped was being placed on the young woman's hand. "I have come to tell you of my feelings."
"Do come in, Sergeant." Amanda's voice sounded quite pleased. No doubt she was deriving some kind of twisted gratification in having two men prepared to fight over her. Diego furtively moved behind a post that gave him a clear view of the tense tableau.
He watched as Amanda led Mendoza to where Ramón was now standing. Despite the darkness, he saw the shock register on the lancer's face. Even five feet away, Diego could feel the tension in the air.
"I think you two know each other, don't you?" the señorita asked coyly.
Diego waited anxiously as the Alcalde fumed and sputtering, finally threatening his subordinate with a long march the following day before he made his exit. Now he prayed that Mendoza would not forget the lessons he tried to teach him earlier that day. Surreptitiously, he signaled the sergeant who saw him behind the nearby pillar and nodded.
"Her eyes," Diego hissed as Mendoza had just stood there for several minutes, his mouth gaping open and closed like a fish's. Diego groaned inwardly as the other man compared the señorita's eyes to the dried-up lake outside the pueblo.
"Her lips. Tell her about her lips," whispered Diego. And winced for the poor sergeant as the heartless Amanda told him that flowers made her sneeze after he had told her that her lips were like rosebuds in the early spring.
Sensing the soldier's despair, Diego murmured, "Tell her how you feel."
Mendoza stuttered and stammered then very obviously peered over to where Diego was hiding. The señorita leaned over and her eyes lit up excitedly.
"Don Diego," she purred as she sashayed toward him. "What are you doing out here?"
Diego gulped nervously before glimpsing a basket of flowers hanging to his right. He started fiddling with them. "Oh, I was just doing a little gardening, that's all," he stated idiotically.
"At night?" questioned Amanda, her voice full of disbelief. No doubt she thought he was another besotted fool, ready to grovel at her feet. Which he had no intention of ever being. He hoped.
"Oh, that's the best time for my night-blooming. . ." he started to say casually, but then with an edge of panic as he had no idea what kind of flowers were growing out of the basket. He plucked one out and looked at it. "Geraniums," he said as he identified the blossom.
Amanda's sultry stare told him that she wasn't buying his story for a second.
"I have a good job!" interrupted the sergeant. "With excellent benefits! I would make a good husband!"
Diego came over and stood beside Mendoza. "What he really means to say it that his feelings for you lie beyond the tangible or physical realm, Señorita." Unwittingly he stared deeply into her eyes, losing himself in their blue depths, forgetting about his wife, the man standing beside him, and even the woman he truly loved. "His love for you comes from the heart, from the soul."
"That was exactly what I was going to say," Mendoza piped in, breaking the spell the bewitching woman had wove around Diego.
Amanda stared at him, her bosom heaving. "Are you sure you speak for him?" she asked breathlessly.
"Absolutely," declared Diego, his own heart pounding erratically as he glanced over at the soldier. "His feelings entirely. I just run off at the mouth. I. . ." He handed the sergeant the flower he had been holding before he said anything else he would regret. Going back to fiddle with the basket of flowers, he watched as a grinning Mendoza handed the geranium to Amanda, whose gaze kept sliding Diego's way.
Which was why he shouldn't have been shocked that when he went to his bedroom at midnight, he found Amanda Herrera standing there, clad in only a thin silk robe.
Z Z Z
"CADENAS DE AMOR" - CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO