Blood splattered the front of Diego's white linen shirt. Isabella screamed in terror as Zafira seem suspended in mid-air for a moment before she started crumpling toward the floor. Diego instinctively reached out and caught her before she could hit the hard tile. He grabbed her wrist and was stunned to feel her pulse still beating. He looked down at her pale face with the streaks of crimson pouring from the hole on the left side of her forehead.
"Don't. . . Don't. . ." she whispered as he felt her life flowing out of her as he held her in his arms. "Don't let him. . . take her. Don't let him. . ." A trickle of blood appeared at the corner of her mouth. "I want. . . I want. . ."
What she wanted was to forever remain a mystery as she died, her lips parted as if she was still going to speak. Diego closed his eyes and said a prayer for the repose of her soul.
"Dios mio! Dios mio!" yelled an anguished Correna. "Zafira! Zafira!" He knelt down beside Diego and picked up her other arm. "Is she dead?" he asked, not giving Diego a chance to answer before adding, "I didn't mean to shoot her." His head snapped up and he glared at Diego. "I meant to kill you, you bastard," he snarled. He waved his hand at his men. "Give me a pistol."
The front door of the hacienda banged open at that moment, distracting the bereaved bandit. Victoria ran in to the foyer, turning first to the library before looking in the direction of the parlor.
"I heard a gunshot," she announced. "What's going. . ." She paused, her eyes growing round with horror as she saw the tragic tableau before her.
"Come on, Joaquin, we need to get out of here," one of the other men insisted nervously.
"That's what I came to tell you," Victoria declared urgently. "The soldiers know you're here. They're right behind me." She stared again at Zafira's limp body as Diego still cradled her. "I came to warn you," she added awkwardly.
The sound of hoof beats then the loud whinnies of horses told them all that her alert had come too late. The hacienda began filling with lancers, their muskets targeted at the men in the de la Vega parlor. Mendoza marched past his men, his sword drawn.
"Joaquin Correna," he announced, "you and your men are under arrest by order of King Ferdinand." He waved his blade at the outlaws. "Take them." He looked askance at Victoria and she stared back at him mutinously. Then the sergeant glanced downward.
"Madre de Dios!" he gasped. His eyes met Diego's as Correna was yanked to his feet by one of the lancers. "Is she. . .?"
Diego nodded. "Victoria," he said in a choked voice. "Could you. . ." He jerked his head at Ricardo who still held the softly sobbing Isabella as one of the lancers advanced his way.
Victoria went over and took the little girl from her uncle's arms. "It's all right, princesa," she murmured soothingly, running her hand over the little girl's curls. "It's all right."
"Papa?" the now snuffling toddler asked. "Papa?"
"I'm here, Isabella." Diego grabbed a pillow off the settee and placed it on the floor before gently lowering Zafira's head onto it. He stood up and Victoria moved toward him, immediately relinquishing the child to him. He embraced her tightly.
"Did she see?" inquired Victoria quietly. All around them, the lancers were handcuffing the rebels and leading them away. Diego saw out of the corner of his eye Felipe standing at the entrance of the parlor, along with Señora Batido and several of the other servants.
He wondered how much they had seen and heard. He knew it was selfish but he hoped it had been the gunshot that had summoned them and they hadn't been there when Correna had revealed that Isabella wasn't his. He looked at the retainers' faces, white with shock. Only Felipe's countenance bore evidence that he had been present for most of the encounter. Inwardly he sighed with relief, knowing the secret would be safe with the young man.
"Yes," he finally said in response to the innkeeper's query. "She saw everything."
"Poor little thing," cooed Victoria. "Let's pray that she's too young to remember any of this."
"Yes," Diego agreed wholeheartedly. He spun around and went over to the ashen faced nanny. "Put Isabella to bed, por favor," he instructed. He kissed his daughter's cheek before turning her over to the señora.
"Of course, Patron," the plump little nurse said. She carried Isabella away, fussing over the fretful child.
The other servants took the niñera's departure as a sign that they should all go too. The lancers were leading the last of Correna's followers out of the hacienda. Only Mendoza remained behind. "I'll notify the undertaker," he said to Diego as he looked down at his boots.
"Gracias, Sergeant." Diego watched remotely as the stout soldier walked out the front door.
"Diego, I'm so sorry." Victoria's sincere tones came from behind him. "If there's anything I can do. . ."
"Gracias, Victoria," he said automatically. He turned around to gaze at her. He was a widower, he suddenly realized as he noticed the innkeeper's sad expression. Just as she had been widowed only a few months earlier. And Zafira's death had been every bit as unexpected and violent as Juan Ortiz's had been.
He took a step toward her then checked himself, clenching his hands into tight fists. Dios, he meant to sweep her up into his arms, wanting to comfort her as much as he wanted her to comfort him. His dead wife was lying only a few feet away and he could only think about how he was now free. That he could be with Victoria, the woman he truly loved, as he should have been for all these years.
Disgusted with himself, he pivoted away and went back over to crouch next to Zafira. He took out a handkerchief from his waistband and tried to clean away the blood that was drying on her face. "Felipe," he said as he looked up and met the young man's gaze. "Please see that Victoria gets home safely."
With a servile nod, Felipe reached out and took her arm. She went with him willingly, but not before throwing one last concerned glance in Diego's direction. He lowered his head, unable to met her pitying gaze.
He waited for the sorrow to overtake him, the grief of knowing that the woman he had been married to for over five years was dead. A wife he once cared for, even if he hadn't truly loved her. A woman he had been intimate with; with whom he had thought they had a child together.
But it didn't come. He wondered if it was numbness caused from learning how she had betrayed him for so long; since the beginning of their relationship it seemed. He realized that the incident in the marketplace in Madrid when she had bumped into him had been staged, that it had been no accident. And that she had lured him into proposing that night after the opera, deliberating leading him on, acting like an outraged virgin. And now he finally had his answer as to why she had insisted they marry straightaway. She had been pregnant with Correna's child and she had wanted to pass it off as his.
He couldn't help but wonder if they had planned on using the child, which he would have obliviously thought was his, just as he assumed Isabella to be, to gain his cooperation in their plot against King Ferdinand. Probably, as his wife and her lover appeared to have no moral boundaries they wouldn't cross.
So many things made sense now. The fit she had had when he informed her they were leaving for California. Her behavior on the voyage across the Atlantic. The separate bedrooms. Her mercurial moods. Her hatred of him.
He was sickened by the thought that she had planned his seduction by her best friend. All this time, he had fought against his baser urges, vowing to remain faithful to her while she had been committing adultery with Correna and laughing at him behind his back.
Diego gazed down at Zafira and the memory of her final moments crowded his mind. Maybe she had thought that her lover wouldn't fire if she stood in his way. She hadn't realized that it had been too late, that Correna had already pulled the trigger. It was of no consequence, however, as the outcome couldn't be altered. She was dead.
Dios mio. No matter how miserable their marriage had been, he had never wished for his wife's death. He might have chafed at the ties that held her to him from time to time, but he had been determined to see it through, through sickness and health, for good times and bad; the latter of which there had been plenty.
He stroked her hair away from her face then lifted her lifeless hand to his lips. "I promise you I will raise Isabella the best that I can. That she will grow up knowing only the good things about her mother," he swore solemnly.
He was still hunched down beside her when
the undertaker finally showed up just before dawn.
Z Z Z
It was mid-afternoon the next day before Diego woke up in his own bed with no knowledge of how he had ended up there. He rose immediately and hastily dressed in a clean shirt and a pair of trousers. Running his fingers through his hair, he exited the room, wondering what had gone on while he had slept.
He first went to the parlor. For some reason, he was surprised to see that Zafira was no longer lying on the floor. The blood-stained carpet had also disappeared, either to be cleaned or destroyed, he surmised uncaringly.
Next he went to the nursery. Isabella and her nurse weren't there and he panicked. He ran out of the room and down the hallway. "Maria!" he called out for the de la Vega housekeeper.
He stopped when he reached the foyer. Maria calmly walked out of the dining room. "Si, Patron?" she asked in her usual unflappable manner.
"Where's Isabella?" he demanded harshly. "She's not in the nur. . ."
"I believe Señora Batido took her out for a walk," the housekeeper replied. "She said something about the fresh air doing the child some good."
Diego breathed a sigh of relief. The nanny was probably right. In fact, he felt like escaping the confines of the hacienda right then as well.
Hearing the hesitant note in her question, Diego looked up at her. "What is it, Maria?"
"I just want to let you know on behalf of myself and all the staff," she began stiffly, "how sorry we are about Doña Zafira's passing."
He eyed her curiously. It was no secret that his wife had not been a favorite amongst the hacienda's servants. Diego saw that the housekeeper was truly sincere in her offering of sympathy but that it was more about how he had been affected than by any sorrow that Zafira was gone.
Feeling that he was going to be barraged with similar expressions of grief, he quickly murmured his thanks and headed toward the library. He tapped the mantle and the back panel of the fireplace swung open.
Diego heard the sound of a broom being moved across the stone floor and knew that Felipe was in the cave, just where he expected the lad would be.
"Felipe," he said as he walked under the archway and down the small set of steps. The sweeping noise ceased instantly and Diego easily spotted the youth over by Toronado's stall. Felipe set the broom aside and hesitantly moved forward.
"Felipe," he repeated. "You heard, didn't you?" The young man nodded, not bothering to pretend he didn't know to what Diego was referring. "It has to remain a secret between us," he stated. "If anyone else found out," he continued, "it could be devastating for Isabella and my father. They must never know."
Acknowledging Diego's words with another nod, Felipe gestured briefly with his hands. "Yes," Diego agreed passionately. "She must never know what kind of woman her mother truly was."
He turned to his laboratory table and picked up a test tube. "She is my daughter," he said more to himself than to the youth who came over and stood beside him. "I don't think I could love her anymore even if she were really mine." He glanced at Felipe. "And as I love you, even though you're not my natural son."
He realized that he could now adopt Felipe, that he no longer needed Zafira's approval to do so. As soon as things had quieted down, he told himself, he would see about getting the proceedings started. He smiled crookedly as the lad looked up at him embarrassedly before signing that the feeling was mutual.
Sighing deeply, he put his arm around Felipe's shoulders. "Well, I suppose I should go and face the music, hmm," he said. There were so many arrangements to make, none of which he was looking forward to doing. But the worst thing to deal with was going to be breaking the news to his father, who was due home that evening. The old don was going to be devastated to learn of his daughter-in-law's death. His affection for Zafira had hardly wavered since the moment Diego had brought her home.
Diego wished he could put it - along with
everything else - off indefinitely.
Z Z Z
Standing at the foot of the casket, Diego tried to listen as Padre Benitez recited words in Latin, but the priest's voice became a droning buzz in his ears. His thoughts drifted away, as he wanted to be any where but where he was, attending his wife's funeral. Pretending to be the bereaved husband, pretending to care about a wife whose infidelity had nearly gotten him killed.
He impassively scanned the faces of the people standing around the open grave. He knew that most of them were there out of respect for himself and his father, and not because of the woman being buried that day. Zafira had never fit in; had never tried; with the good people of Los Angeles. Even after living among them for five years, she had remained a stranger, an outsider.
He knew that the story of his wife's heroic sacrifice had spread through the pueblo like wildfire, that she had taken a bullet meant for him. That Correna and his men had attempted to take her and Isabella as hostages and that he had tried to stop them. Diego didn't care what the rumors were, just as long as no one found out the truth of Isabella's parentage.
It was the one thing that penetrated his numbness, uncomfortably needling his being. Learning of the depth of Zafira's betrayal had devastated him. Diego berated himself over and over again in the days since her death for not noticing the obvious signs that his wife was leading a secret life unbeknownst to him.
Although, he reminded himself with a touch of irony, he had been doing the same thing with his masquerade as Zorro. He was almost one hundred percent certain that Zafira had never found out about his alter ego. She wouldn't have been able to keep such knowledge to herself. Oh, he doubted she would have turned him over to the authorities; no, instead she would have been more subtle, blackmailing him into doing what she wanted. Perhaps even forcing him to join her subversive little band of rebels.
His gaze finally rested upon Victoria, who was dressed in her widow's weeds, standing between his father and Felipe along the right side of coffin. As always, whenever he saw her, a thrill of longing coursed through him. He averted his eyes, appalled with himself that he could lust after another woman while standing beside his wife's grave. It didn't matter that Victoria was the woman he should have married. That she was the one that he truly loved.
She, too, had once taken a bullet meant for him. She, too, had once saved his life. It was something he would never forget. He closed his eyes as a staggering thought sprang into his mind, causing guilt to slice through him like a knife.
Zafira had saved his life at the cost of her own. Whatever else she had done in her short life, to him and to others, she had redeemed herself in that one noble action. And he was surprised that he found within himself the capability to forgive her for all her transgressions.
". . . Dei requiéscant in pace."
Padre Benitez's words were answered by a subdued amen, signally the end of the service. Diego turned and saw a large spray of red roses that had stood behind him. He impulsively pulled one of the flowers out of the display and tossed it down upon Zafira's coffin.
"Rest in peace," he murmured sincerely before
turning around and walking away.
Z Z Z
"CADENAS DE AMOR" - CHAPTER FIFTY