Diego glanced over at the doctor then down at Zafira. "Is everything all right?" he asked. He gazed at his daughter and noticed that she was quite a robust little thing.
Hernandez smiled. "Si, Don Diego, everything's fine," he replied. "Little Isabella here is very healthy despite coming so early." He looked over at Zafira. "Perhaps our calculations were a bit off?"
"No." Zafira shook her head weakly in protest. "I know when I got pregnant."
Diego tipped his head toward his wife. Yes, she would know exactly when Isabella was conceived. It had only been that one time. Possibly.
The physician fussed about, putting things back into his black bag. "I'll arrange for the niñera to be here within the hour," he said to Zafira, who nodded wearily.
"A niñera?" inquired Diego as he rocked his little daughter in his arms. He turned his eyes to Zafira. "Surely you intend to. . ."
"Only peasant women nurse their own children," his wife said, her voice full of barely concealed scorn.
Diego was taken aback by her vehement objection to breast-feeding. He hadn't given the subject much thought, he had to admit. He had no idea that women of the so-called upper class wouldn't do it themselves. A picture came unbidden to his mind, of Victoria with an infant at her breast. She looked like a beautiful Madonna, looking down at her child so lovingly.
He groaned inwardly, erasing the image from his mind then chastising himself. Gazing down at his daughter, Diego studied her little face, with its tiny nose and rosebud mouth. Her blue eyes focused on him and he realized how small and helpless she was. He owed it to her mother to make things right between them. He vowed to make sure Isabella would grow up surrounded by love and happiness.
Sighing, Diego leaned over the bed, intending to slip the niña back into her mother's arms. But Zafira turned onto her side, facing away from him.
"No, you keep her," she said, as she closed her eyes. "I'm too tired.."
Once again Diego was stunned by his wife's seeming indifference to their daughter. He glanced over at Doctor Hernandez, who was holding his bag and was on the verge of leaving.
"It's perfectly normal for the mother to be a bit fatigued for a few days after giving birth," the good doctor advised. "Let Doña Zafira get some rest. She'll be better in no time."
"Si, Doctor," Diego said. "Gracias." He escorted the physician to the door of the bedroom where outside in the hallway, an anxious Don Alejandro and Felipe were waiting.
"Let me see my granddaughter," said the old don, reaching out with both hands. Diego passed the bundle of blankets over to his father. Isabella promptly began to wail.
The elder de la Vega chuckled as he gently rocked the little niña in his arms. Diego smiled fondly as he watched as his father fussed over Isabella, finally getting her to quiet down.
Over the next several weeks, Diego spent
as much time with his daughter as he could fine. Diego knew
that he was trying to compensate for Zafira's continuing lack of interest
in Isabella. She was such a beautiful child and once she had settled
down into a routine, a good-natured little girl as well. He couldn't
understand why his wife could barely look at the infant, let alone do all
the things he thought mothers did instinctually.
Z Z Z
[parts of the following scene taken from "The Devil's
Fortress" written by Robert L McCullough]
Isabella was about three months old when Victoria made an unexpected visit to the de la Vega hacienda with some startling news. Diego had been working in the secret cave with Felipe, mixing up batches of chemicals. Don Alejandro had sprained his ankle earlier that morning and was resting in his bedchamber when loud knocks sounded at the front door.
Diego and Felipe immediately departed the cave and rushed to open the door, allowing the lovely innkeeper inside the foyer. "Victoria!" he said, a bit surprised to see her. She still evoked the same reaction that she always had, he mused wistfully, that jolt of longing and desire. "Come in. Forgive the delay."
"Diego, may I please speak to your father?" Victoria asked as she walked further into the hacienda.
He explained to her that the elder de la Vega had injured his ankle falling off his horse, Dulcinea. "What's wrong?" he inquired, his voice reflecting the concern he saw in Victoria's liquid brown eyes.
She held up an envelope which was a bit crumpled and smudged. "I don't know," she stated. "It has something to do with my father." She handed the missive to Diego.
He led her into the library. "Your father?" he asked nonplused. "I thought he died in Mexico. . .during the revolution." He indicated the nearest chair. "Please sit."
Victoria sat down with a sigh. "Well, that's what we all thought," she began, her tone growing more animated. "But he's alive, Diego. He's a prisoner at Devil's Fortress. The letter will explain it all."
Diego opened the envelope and turned toward the fireplace as he began to peruse the letter that had the señorita in such an agitated state. He was about halfway through it, unable to believe its contents, when Don Alejandro came hobbling toward them, leaning heavily on a cane.
"Victoria!" he exclaimed. "What a pleasant surprise." The old don then plopped down on a settee so that he faced Victoria. He stretched out his linen bound left foot in front of him.
"Victoria has just received this letter," Diego declared, his eyes still skimming its incredulous contents. "From a man who was recently a prisoner of Fortaleza del Diablo."
Don Alejandro expressed his pity and questioned why it was any of Victoria's concern.
Reading from the letter, Diego said, "This man claims to have shared a cell with her father."
His father glanced over at the beautiful innkeeper. "Alfonso?" he asked, his voice full of disbelief but in which Diego heard a glimmer of hope. "My old friend is still alive?" Victoria nodded, her eyes shining with unshed tears. "Oh, Victoria, my dear, how do you know you can trust the man who wrote the letter?" he queried.
"He swore to my father he would write to me and my brothers upon his release," she revealed. "And somehow I have to believe him." One of those threatened tears slowly slid down her smooth cheek.
"He says Señor Escalante's health is declining rapidly," Diego supplied, reading again from the tattered paper. A quick look at the top of the page showed that it had been written nearly a month earlier. Diego clenched his jaw as he realized that Victoria's father might already be dead. His former cellmate had written that he thought the older man wouldn't last much longer.
Victoria was telling the elder de la Vega about the whereabouts of her brothers when Diego's attention wandered back to their conversation. He watched with a heavy heart as she rose from her chair and went over to sit down beside his father.
"Don Alejandro, I can't let my father die in that foul place," she stated with an unspoken plea in her tone.
"Of course not," the old don agreed. "We'll do something. And quickly."
Victoria slid to the edge of her seat. "But what?" she asked. "What can we do?"
Diego knew as he listened to his father wishing he could volunteer himself that he had be the one to go to the infamous prison and bring back Victoria's father.
"I'll ride to the fortress," he declared in a voice that brooked no argument. But he got one anyway.
"You, Diego?" the elder de la Vega inquired skeptically as Victoria chimed in with a worried, "But. . ."
"Well, it appears I'm the only volunteer," he replied calmly. Diego turned to Felipe, who had been standing in a corner near the fireplace. "Felipe, pack my bags at once."
"Pack your bags?" asked Zafira fretfully as she walked into the library, passing the young man as he left the room. "Where are you going?"
"To rescue Señorita Escalante's father from the Devil's Fortress," replied Diego.
"But you can't leave," his wife said anxiously. "What about the baby? You just can't leave it to go off on some foolish errand."
"I'll only be gone a week, two at most," Diego said. He was quite disturbed that Zafira still referred to Isabella as ‘the baby', or worse, ‘it'. Combined with the fact that she showed little interest in their daughter, he paused for a moment, wondering if leaving her alone with the niña would be a good idea. Or maybe, he supposed, it would force Zafira to start taking care of little Isabella.
"No, you can't go," reiterated his wife. She whirled around to face her father-in-law, who now stood, awkwardly leaning on his cane. "Tell him, Father. He is needed here." Zafira flicked a disdainful glance in Victoria's direction. "Surely someone else can help her."
"That's just it, my dear," said the old don. "There is no one else Victoria can turn to. Besides, I made a promise to her father before he left Los Angeles that I would keep an eye on her and her brothers." He gestured toward his foot. "And since I'm incapacitated at the moment, it's up to Diego to keep my word of honor."
Zafira looked from Don Alejandro to her husband, her blue eyes bright with tears. "He can't go," she repeated. "I can't. . . I just can't. . ." She turned and fled the library, sobbing loudly.
"Is Doña Zafira all right?" Victoria asked uneasily, glancing up at Diego. "I would understand if you needed to st. . ."
"I said I would go," Diego stated firmly. "We de la Vegas keep our vows." He stepped toward Victoria. "You have been a good and loyal friend to the de la Vegas." He placed his right hand on her left arm, trying vainly to ignore the yearning the small contact caused. "Your family is our family."
Victoria gazed up at him, her eyes full of gratitude and yet confusion. She then encircled her arms around Diego's waist and placed her head on his chest. "Thank you, Diego," she murmured quietly.
Diego was overwhelmed by her embrace as it sent all of his senses spinning out of control and his arms involuntarily slipped around her. It had been over a year since he had held her thus. A year of remembering that brief moment in the courtyard, when she had kissed him and nothing else in the world had mattered but how right it had felt. His arms tightened around her as he closed his eyes, drinking in her closeness. He wondered if she was experiencing the same sensations as he. Or was it just a show of appreciation to her?
The sound of Don Alejandro clearing his throat brought him out of the haze of pleasure that had encompassed him. Diego took a step back, dropping his arms to his sides. Victoria looked up at him, a bewildered expression on her lovely, tear-streaked face.
"There's not a moment to lose," he declared, attempting to smile at her reassuringly. He walked out of the library, but not before catching the look of warning on the old don's face. Whether his father was cautioning him about the trip he was about to make or about the intimacy he had just shared with Victoria, Diego wasn't sure.
Felipe had several changes of clothing spread out on Diego's bed when he entered his room. "I can finish here," he stated to the young man. "Go to the cave and saddle Toronado."
The youth stared at him questioningly. "I plan to use a false identity as I travel," he explained, revealing the plan that had came to him after his head had cleared on the way to his bedchamber. "But just to be safe, I think Zorro should make the journey south to the fortress as well." He grinned at Felipe mischievously.
The lad smiled back then left the room. Diego quickly threw a few of his clothes into the satchel. He wanted to travel as swiftly and as unencumbered as possible. Tossing a few more items in the bag, he then closed it and turned to leave. Zafira blocked the doorway.
"You cannot do this," she stated. "You can't leave me here by myself."
"Zafira," he said in exasperation. "You'll hardly be alone. My father and the servants will all be here. Señora Batido, too." He knew the niñera would keep a close watch on Isabella. The plump nurse loved the little girl as if she were her own child.
"But. . ." Zafira bit her lip and waved her hands agitatedly. "But what if she cries? I don't know what to do."
Diego stared at his wife and realized that she was completely distraught by the idea of having to spend time with her daughter. Shaking his head, he thought he had never met such an unnatural mother.
"Do what you've been doing," he instructed. "Let someone else take care of Isabella."
He tightened his grip on his satchel and moved toward her. She refused to budge, instead looking up at him with pleading blue eyes.
"Diego, por favor," she begged tearfully. "Don't leave me."
"I have to do this." He bent down and kissed her damp cheek. "I'll be back before you even miss me."
Zafira jerked away from him then glared up at him, her face marred with anger. "I won't miss you at all, Diego," she declared adamantly. She then laughed wildly before turning and leaving his room.
Diego just stared after her for a few moments.
Shaking his head, he went into the hallway and to the nursery, where he
said goodbye to Isabella.
Z Z Z
[parts of the following scene taken from "The Devil's Fortress" written by Robert L McCullough]
"And please let me see my father again."
Zorro stepped out of the shadows and made his presence known to Victoria, who was praying before a statue of the Virgin Mary at a side altar inside the Mission church. "I pledge that you shall, Señorita," he vowed, breaking his oath to stay out of her life.
"Zorro." His name came out as a breathless whisper as Victoria got to her feet and came toward him.
"If it is within the power of man," he declared solemnly, trying not to let her nearness affect him. "I will bring your father home.
"Promise to come back quickly," she requested tearfully.
Zorro touched his gloved hand to her cheek, the slight contact making his body harden with desire. "Why would a man not hurry home with such beauty awaiting him at the end of his journey?" He reached out and grasped both of her hands, bringing them to his lips. "Adios."
He left go of her and started to leave but Victoria stopped him by grabbing his hands. "Take care of Don Diego," she asked, gazing up at him pleadingly. He saw the fear and confusion in her lovely brown eyes. Fear that her friend might be out of his league and might get hurt. And confusion that the feelings that she harbored for him were more than that of just friendship.
"He will never be out of my sight," Zorro
promised with a wry grin.
Z Z Z
"CADENAS DE AMOR" - CHAPTER FORTY