CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT - "FALSE OF HEART"
Madre de Dios! Ricardo was alive and well and in Los Angeles. Diego thought briefly if Zafira knew that her brother was in town. He hadn't seen her in days, let alone spoken to her.
He sat in stunned silence as he watched the rest of his brother-in-law's performance. Ricardo was quite talented but Diego noticed that his slight of hand wasn't perfect. He wondered when his wife's brother had become a magician. Had he given up his rebellious activities? And why was he using an alias?
Diego knew the only way he could learn the answers to his questions was to ask Ricardo himself. The next hour seem interminable as the circus carried on with its show. Ricardo appeared on stage again, this time as a sword swallower. Diego realized as the players took their final bows, that the acrobat, Señor Alevar, had not returned.
People began to leave the tavern as Diego stood, intending to follow the performers to the kitchen. But Victoria blocked his way, a curious expression on her face as she still held his daughter.
"Papa!" Isabella shouted happily. "I love circus!" She held out her arms to him.
He reached out and gathered her close. "I'm glad, princesa," he said absently. He glanced down at the lovely innkeeper. "If you will excuse us."
"Of course," she agreed but he noticed the hurt look in her dark brown eyes as he moved past her and toward the kitchen.
The room was deserted except for one old woman who was gathering up pieces of clothing and stuffing them into a trunk. "Pardon me, Señora," he said. "I wanted my hija to meet the clowns."
"They're out back." The woman jerked her thumb over her left shoulder. She added brusquely, "They're not in costume anymore."
"Oh," replied Diego. "Well, gracias anyway."
He turned and walked through the curtained doorway back into the main room of the tavern which was nearly empty as the circus goers had mostly departed. He wasn't sure why he hadn't asked the woman for Ricardo by name. He just had a hunch that his reception would have been even less friendly if he had done so.
Shrugging, he carried Isabella outside and into
the waiting carriage, where Felipe and Victoria had gathered up the ranch
hands' children. They all waved at the innkeeper as the vehicle pulled
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Odd, Diego thought as the carriage came to a halt in front of the hacienda a short while later. There was only light coming from one window, the parlor's. It was the least used room of the house and he wondered who was inside. His father was still in Santa Barbara and wouldn't be home until the end of the week.
Felipe tapped his shoulder then signed that he would take the children back to their parents. "Gracias," Diego said as he watched the young man lead the chattering youngsters around the side of the hacienda. Bouncing Isabella in his arms, he turned and walked up to the front door.
"Zafira!" he called out as soon as he stepped inside, eager to share with her the news about her brother. "Zafira!"
For the second time that evening, he was shocked beyond words. He had turned toward the parlor where his wife was kneeling beside a man lying on a cream colored settee. She was pressing a white cloth against the man's abdomen.
"Zafira, what happened?" he asked as he moved closer. "Who is. . ."
His words trailed off as he suddenly recognized that it was Señor Alevar being attended to by Zafira. He also grew aware that three other men were in the room, the other performers from the circus. And his brother-in-law, Ricardo. Obviously his wife already knew her brother was still alive.
"What is going on?" he demanded a bit crossly. "Why are they here? How did Señor Alevar get injured?"
"He tore open his stitches," Zafira replied stonily as she dabbed at the acrobat's wound.
"Why does he have. . .?" Diego started to ask.
"Callarse!" barked Ricardo. He swirled around and looked down at the man on the sofa. "Should we kill him now?"
Diego was taken aback not only by his question but by how coldly it was delivered. Isabella began to whimper fretfully as she clutched at his jacket.
"No," Alevar rasped out. "Not yet." He struggled to sit up, waving away Zafira's protests. "I'll be fine, it's just a flesh wound. Señor de la Vega needs to be told the truth. Si, the truth about a great many things."
Zafira grabbed Alevar's arm and helped him stand up. "No, Joaquin," she stated agitatedly. "We don't have to do this."
Joaquin. An icy chill ran down the length of Diego's spine. He had heard that name before. He took a good look at the man standing unsteadily before him. Dios mio, it was Joaquin Correna, the leader of the group of murderous rebels that had been terrorizing the territory. Now he knew why the other man seemed familiar. He remembered seeing him once in Ricardo's company during his brief courtship of Zafira, although they had never been formally introduced.
Then Diego noted in the intimate way his wife was holding onto the wanted criminal. Joaquin. Then he remembered how she had said that name that night aboard the ship while on their journey to California. The night she had learned about the siege of Segovia and how the rebel fighters had been defeated. He recalled her tears that night, tears he had thought were for her sibling. Had they instead been for this man?
Correna turned and stared at Zafira. "Are you backing out on us, querida?" he queried harshly. He glanced from her to Diego. "Have you been lying to me as well as your husband?"
Zafira shook her head mutely as Diego grappled with the meaning of what the outlaw was saying. He put a protective hand on his daughter's back. "I need to take her to her niñera," he stated as Isabella nuzzled against him sleepily.
"No, she stays," contradicted Correna. He turned back to look at Zafira. "Do you want to start or should I?" She shook her head again and Joaquin laughed mirthlessly. "Very well," he said. He stared at Diego.
"I can see that you have figured out who I am," the bandit stated. "And that your wife knows about her dear brother. But what you don't know is that she's known for more than two years now."
It was beginning to make sense now, Diego reasoned. The long rides, the secretive behavior. She had been going out to meet with Ricardo and his friends. But, he told him, there was more to it than that. And he knew intuitively that he wasn't going to like what he was about to hear.
"Si, she's been meeting with us," Correna confirmed. "It took us nearly a year to recover from the wounds we received at Segovia, Ricardo and I. And it was another year before we discovered that you had taken Zafira to California." He paused and glared at her. "Even though she was instructed to keep you in Spain at any cost."
"She is my wife," Diego said through clenched teeth. "And this is my home. My father summoned. . ."
"Silence!" Joaquin cut off his explanation. "We know all that. Still, she was to make sure that you didn't leave Madrid. We needed you there. We needed your connections to the royal family."
Again Diego was astounded by the revelation. "My connections?" he inquired in confusion. "What are you talking about?"
"It was simple, really," declared Correna. "Zafira was to marry you, keep you in Spain, and we were going to use you to get close to King Ferdinand so that we could assassinate him."
The outlaw continued on before Diego could recover his senses. "Granted, the plan had to be implemented a bit sooner that we intended. We didn't think even you were stupid enough to believe that a baby born more than two months prematurely could be yours."
Zafira had been pregnant with another man's baby when they had gotten married? Diego had never lain with a virgin before their wedding night and obviously, he still hadn't. He recalled thinking at the time of the odd similarity between his supposedly innocent wife and his much more experienced mistress. He had known of the thin barrier that proved a woman's virtue, but hadn't noticed it was missing when he had made love to Zafira their first time together. He had been too infatuated, too eager, to seek something he had never before encountered.
Then he realized that there had been no child. "What happened to the. . .?" he started to ask.
"I miscarried, on the ship," Zafira stated stoically. "The night I learned about Segovia." She stared down at her feet. "I told myself it was for the best. . ." A hiccup interrupted her speech and Diego saw the moisture gathering in her blue eyes.
"And the other miscarriage?" he queried. "Whose child was that?"
"Yours," she choked out.
"Did you get rid out it?" he ground out heatedly.
"No," she replied and he could tell she was telling the truth. The truth. She wouldn't know it if it bit her on the nose, he thought disgustedly. Then he realized that he still held Isabella in his arms.
"Who does she belong to?" he asked, as he indicated the little girl. His gut churned sickly as he knew deep down, he already knew the answer.
"She's mine," declared Correna. "As was the first one she lost." He grinned maliciously. "Haven't you figured it out yet, de la Vega? Zafira is my lover and has been long before she ever met you. She's been sneaking out nearly every day and making love with me while you slept in your lonely bed night after night with your misguided notion of remaining faithful to a woman you don't even love.
"She even gave you a chance to relieve your celibacy," the other man sneered. He chuckled at what Diego knew was a nonplused expression on his face. "Amanda Herrera," Joaquin elucidated. He swept his hand at the other four men in the room. "They all sampled her charms. But you were too honorable to take what the little whore had to offer."
Diego glanced over at Zafira, seeing the guilty look on her face. He found he was liking this conversation less and less as too many of his suspicions were being confirmed as fact.
"So why reveal this all now?" he wanted to know. "Why wait until now to start attacking government troops?
"When Ricardo and I arrived in California," Correna said, "we had no money, no men, nada. We had to start from scratch. We used our little circus as a cover to travel from pueblo to pueblo, gathering information and people with the same goals as we.
"It seems the citizens of this territory are ripe for rebellion," he went on, "even more so than in Spain. It has been incredibly easy to recruit members. More people support us than you might think."
Diego thought of Victoria and how she had been for the freedom these men's actions promised. He supposed that even Zorro could be viewed as a advocate. They both wanted to end the oppression of the people of California. Their methods were greatly varied, though, as were their motives.
Diego then turned to his wife. "What are you planning to do now, Zafira?" He tightened his grip on Isabella. It didn't matter to him that she was not his biological child. He was her father, in all the ways it counted. He wouldn't surrender her to his unfaithful wife and her outlaw lover. Not without a fight.
"We're leaving Los Angeles," Correna answered instead of Zafira. "And we're taking her with us."
Diego nodded as he suspected as much. He felt a bit ashamed by his relief at the other man's pronouncement. He wasn't about to stand in the way of a wife who didn't want him and was sleeping with another man. He thought of the night he had believed that Isabella had been conceived and shuddered, sickened to know that she had already been pregnant with her paramour's child.
"You really don't care, do you?" asked Zafira. Diego was sure that he had misheard the hurt in her tone. But her next words revealed just how his cavalier acceptance of her departure bothered her. "I meant what I told you that time," she declared spitefully, "that I was disgusted every time you touched me. You never knew that I closed my eyes and pretended you were Joaquin every time we. . ."
"Be quiet, I've heard enough." Diego was shaking with fury. He turned to Correna. "Get her out of my sight," he said forcefully. "Just take her and get out."
Joaquin shook his head. "I think you misunderstood me before, amigo," he said "When I said we were taking her with us, I meant Isabella."
Diego, amazed that he could still be so flummoxed by Correna's declaration, hugged the toddler to his chest. "She's staying here," he asserted resolutely. "I'm her legal father."
"Si, and she's her mother," said Correna, pointing to Zafira. "You know she's not yours. Why would you still want her?" He didn't wait for Diego's response. "She's mine and I'm not leaving here without her."
"She hasn't cared for this child since the day she was born," stated Diego, thrusting his chin at his wife. Which, now that he thought about it, was strange. One would have thought that having a baby with the man she loved would have created a special bond between the mother and infant. Zafira had been indifferent from the beginning. "You're taking Isabella over my dead body," he added unequivocally.
"Ah, si," Joaquin said as he drew out a pistol and aimed it at Diego. "I was hoping you would say that. You see, the one thing we haven't told you yet is that when we planned to use you to assassinate the king, we were going to kill you once you had reached the end of your usefulness."
He cocked back the hammer on his weapon. "And that usefulness, Señor," he began, " has just expired." He motioned at Ricardo with the gun. "Take the child," he ordered. "I don't want her used as a shield."
"I would never put my daughter at risk," Diego declared through gritted teeth. "Only a dishonorable snake like yourself would ever think to do. . ."
He broke off the rest of what he had been about to say as his brother-in-law stepped forward and grabbed at Isabella. Diego, for a split second, thought about resisting but then the idea of the innocent little girl being injured in the ensuing struggle was more than he could bear. He allowed her to be taken from his arms.
Ricardo carried his niece back over to stand again behind Correna. "So this is adios, de la Vega," Joaquin said dispassionately. "Time to say your prayers."
"Joaquin, no!" Zafira cried out, grasping at his arm. "We don't have to do this. He'll let us go. He doesn't want her to be harmed."
"Shut up, woman," her lover responded angrily, shaking off her hands. He looked intently at Diego. "He won't rest until he has her back," he stated, echoing Diego's own thoughts. "He has to be disposed of. It's been the plan since the beginning."
He took his eyes off Diego to glance at Zafira. "You're not getting cold feet, are you?" he asked scornfully. "Don't tell me you have some feelings for him after all."
"He doesn't deserve this, Joaquin," she said vehemently. "He's a good man." She gazed up at Diego. "I'm sorry, Diego," she murmured. "I want you to know that."
"Enough!" shouted Correna. He pushed Zafira away roughly before raising the pistol, aiming it straight at Diego's heart. "Vaya con Dios, de la Vega."
With an odd detachment, Diego watched as the other man squeezed the trigger. He heard the explosion of powder and braced himself for the pain he knew he would feel for a brief moment before he would feel no more.
Only it didn't come. He stared in
horror as Zafira ran out in front of him and the bullet meant to pierce
his heart penetrated her forehead instead.
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"CADENAS DE AMOR" - CHAPTER FORTY-NINE