His father's impatient voice broke through Diego's morose musings.  The constant litany of regrets and doubts that paraded through his mind nearly every minute of every day.

    "What?"  Diego looked up from the plate of eggs and bacon that he had been pushing about instead of eating.  "I'm sorry."

    Don Alejandro's gaze softened and Diego winced inwardly.  The elder de la Vega had been more than understanding about his need to be alone, thinking that his son was spending his time grieving the loss of his wife.

     Nothing could be further from the truth, thought Diego.  He instead was wracked with guilt and worry.  Guilt over how Zafira had died.  Every time he closed his eyes, he could see her stepping in front of him and the bullet hitting her instead of him.  And guilt that he wasn't sorry that she was gone.

   The worry was caused by Isabella.  In reality, she was an orphan now.  Joaquin Correna and his band of revolutionaries, including Ricardo, had been executed by firing squad in Monterey about a month after Zafira's death.  Diego couldn't help but be anxious though, that someone would find out he wasn't Isabella's real father and take her away from him.  The thought frightened him more than anything else he had ever had to face.

    The fact that she never asked for Zafira was troubling as well.  Granted, his departed wife had spared little time for her child.  But Isabella had still been aware of her presence, had known Zafira was her mother.  Diego had tried to speak of her to the toddler on several occasions but stopped when he realized that he was only confusing the little girl.

     "I'm going into town," his father stated, once again chasing away Diego's line of thinking.  "I'm going to make some inquiries about our missing mare.  Do you want to come with me?"

    "Si, I'll go," he said.  "Let me check on Isabella first."

    "Right," said the old don.  "I'll get our horses saddled."

     It was a short while later that they were on the road to the pueblo.  Don Alejandro kept up a steady stream of chatter.  Diego would nod or grunt whenever necessary, which thankfully, wasn't too often.

     Diego was also grateful when they met up with another caballero, Don Jose.  He rode on ahead to Los Angeles while his father questioned the other man about the prized mare.

    His thoughts drifted to what was waiting ahead for him in town.  Victoria.  He was afraid of the temptation that she represented now that he was no longer bound to a woman he didn't love. He had tried to avoid her for the three months since Zafira's passing.  Propriety demanded that he mourn his wife for nine more months.  He glanced down at the black armband that he wore around the left sleeve of his dark blue jacket.

    Diego rode beneath the pueblo gate, bestirring himself from his troublesome contemplations.  In a matter of minutes, he was ducking his head slightly as he passed through the tavern's front doors.

     The first person he spotted was Victoria.  She was behind the bar, wiping its top with a white cloth.  She looked as beautiful to him as she had since the day he arrived back home from Spain.   His resolve weakened even further when she slowly lifted her gaze and smiled at him.

     "Hola, Don Diego," she said brightly.  Not trusting himself to speak, he acknowledged her with a nod.

     "How is Isabella?" she asked, her voice full of concern.

     "She's fine," he replied truthfully.

     Victoria bit her lip agitatedly.  "She doesn't remember anything about. . ."  She hesitated before continuing in a whisper.  "About what happened, does she?"

     Diego shook his head.  It was true, Isabella seem untouched by the fact that she had witnessed her mother's horrific death.

     I've been so worried about her," Victoria stated earnestly.  It occurred then to Diego that she, too, had witnessed the death of her own mother.  Señora Escalante had been executed by a firing squad for aiding a wounded man who just happened to be a rebel.  Diego could only guess at the painful memories that the lovely innkeeper kept buried deep within her heart.

     Their eyes met in the dim light of the smoky tavern.  Diego could have sworn he saw sparks flare up between them.  He was, however, unable to read the look on her face and hoped that his own expression was shuttered as well.  He didn't want her to see the naked desire for her that filled his soul.

      "Don Diego!" Sergeant Mendoza's hearty greeting broke the intense interlude, especially when the portly soldier slapped Diego enthusiastically on the back.  "Come join us," he invited, waving his other hand at the group of lancers who were noisily seating themselves at a nearby table.

    "Gracias, Sergeant."  Diego glanced at Victoria and saw the knowing smile on her lips.  With a tense laugh, he accompanied Mendoza over to the table before ordering a round of drinks for them all.

     For the next half hour, he listened with one ear to the soldiers' conversation while watching Victoria as she wended her way about the tavern, attending to her customers.   His mood sank a little when she carried a tray filled with glasses of wine to one of the tables outside on the tavern's porch.  Diego noted absently that a stagecoach had pulled up in front of the building.  Must be the San Diego stage, he mused idly before taking a sip of his lemonade.

     Loud voices in the plaza caught the attention of everyone in the tavern.  Diego looked toward the opened front doors as Victoria rushed inside, instantly seeking him out.
     "Diego," she beckoned wildly.  "It's your father.  Come quick!"

     Fearing the worst, Diego jumped out of his chair and ran outside after her.  The sight of de Soto aiming a pistol at his father's chest.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a brown mare, one that looked exactly like the one that was missing from the de la Vega stables.

     Diego immediately stepped in between the two men, forcing his old schoolmate to lower his weapon.  After deciding that Padre Benitez would take custody of the animal in question until a magistrate could decide ownership, Diego led the elder de la Vega back over to the tavern.  But unfortunately not before the old don accused the Alcalde of stealing the horse.  Diego didn't like the expression on de Soto's face.  His father had raised the other man's ire.

     The de la Vegas reached the wooden planked porch of the tavern then started to go inside.

     "Excuse me," a woman's voice said.  "Alejandro?"

     Catching the attention of both men, they turned around to view the woman standing on the porch, a valise near her feet.  Obviously just off the stage, Diego surmised, wondering how she knew his father's name.  He had never before seen the woman, who appeared to be only a few years younger than the old don.  Her age had done nothing to diminish her beauty though.

     "Si," Don Alejandro replied.  Diego watched as the elder de la Vega assessed the woman.  "Excuse me. . .uh," his father said with a nervousness that surprised Diego.  "Have we met before?"

    The woman smiled, and even Diego was a bit dazzled by it.  "It's been a long time, Alejandro," she stated in a wistful voice.

     The old don seemed to drift off for a few moments, causing Diego to be concerned about his mental state.  His father, not counting Correna and Ricardo, was the only person to grieve Zafira's death and he had taken it hard.

    Finally Don Alejandro laughed and said, "Mercedes Sanchez."   Then he stunned Diego by embracing the woman then twirled her around the porch as they both laughed.

    The elder de la Vega set the woman back onto her feet.  "You came back!" he cried out happily.

     "I said I would."

     "But I never believed you!"

     It was as if they were lost in their own little world, Diego mused, brimming with curiosity.  Who was this woman?  And what had she been to his father?  He coughed discreetly into his fist.

     The old don turned and seemed shocked for a second or two to find his son standing there beside him.  "Oh, forgive me," he addressed the woman.  He proudly placed his left hand on Diego's right shoulder.  "This is my son, Diego."  Then his right hand disappeared behind the woman's back.  "Diego, this is la señorita Mercedes Sanchez."

     Diego bowed politely as he said, "How do you do?"  The introduction still told him nothing about her.  But the elder de la Vega's next words nearly floored him.

          "Long before I ever met your mother," his father declared with an expression that Diego hadn't seen since his mother had died, "this lady was the love of my life."
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     Diego learned over the course of the next several days, that Mercedes had lived on a neighboring rancho and that she and his father had been childhood sweethearts.  Don Alejandro's parents had not approved of the match, saying they were both to young to know their own minds.

     Smiling, Diego could well imagine the old don as a strong-willed and rebellious sixteen year-old, mainly since he wasn't so different now.  The fourteen year-old Mercedes must have been just as fiery as her parents had also opposed any marriage between the young couple, wanting them to wait as well.

     The Sanchezes had shipped off their daughter to relatives near Mexico City; his father had enlisted in the army and was promptly sent to Spain where he had met Diego's mother.  Mercedes had married as well, but  she had been a widow for nearly a year.  She had come back to Los Angeles to sell her family's land because, she told them bluntly, her husband had left her nearly destitute because of his propensity for gambling.

    Diego sensed her marriage had been an unhappy one, and like himself, she didn't mourn the loss of her spouse.  She no longer wore mourning, even though society dictated that she should for at least a twelve month period.  Maybe she couldn't afford it, Diego thought with a shrug, if this Antonio Villero she had wed had left her as bad off as she claimed.

     Don Alejandro had insisted that she stay with them and she finally acquiesced when she realized that he wouldn't take no for an answer.  Diego found that he didn't mind having the señora around.  She had made a fuss over Isabella, telling his father that she envied him because of his son and granddaughter.

    "Antonio and I," she said sadly, "we. . .never had children."  But there was a sadness in her eyes as she spoke, leaving Diego to wonder if there had been a baby or the hope of one once.

[parts of the following scene taken from "A Love Remembered" written by Gary Stephen Rieck & Joe Gunn]

     She had been there less than a week, but Diego could see the positive impact she was having on his father.  He watched them as they sat at the dining room table where, like every night, they reminisced about people and events long past.

     "I must have been around fifteen or seventeen at the time," the elder de la Vega said as his eyes had a faraway look to them.  He smiled over at Mercedes.  "I practiced night and day.  I wanted to be the best swordsman in the whole world with both hands."

     Diego, sprawled carelessly in his chair at the opposite end of the table, toyed listlessly with his meal.  Idly, he wondered what his father would say if he knew his son was a master swordsman no matter which hand held his blade?  The old don had disparaged him and his fencing ability for so long, Diego doubted that the elder de la Vega would even believe him, even if he saw the proof of it before his very eyes.

    Mercedes's low chuckle drew him back to the current conversation.  "As I recall," she purred smugly, "you had other things on your mind that night."

     Diego was surprised to see his father's lined cheeks turn red.  Rationally, he knew that it was unlikely that the elder de la Vega had been a virgin when he married Diego's mother.  Had Mercedes Sanchez been his first lover and he hers?  An irrational pain filled his chest.  He sat up in his chair.

    "Ah, Father," he said in what he hoped was a teasing tone, "you never told me about that part of your youth."

     If anything, the blush on his father's face grew darker.  "Well," the old don said before bringing his napkin to his lips.  "Let's just say I didn't want to spend the best years of my life cooped up with books, Diego," he replied.

     Holding up his hands as a gesture of surrender, Diego glanced over at the señora, who was unsuccessfully trying to suppress a smile.  Don Alejandro got to his feet.  "I'll get some more coffee," he announced before bowing toward Mercedes.  "Con permiso."

     The older woman turned to him as soon as the elder de la Vega left the room.  "You love your father, don't you?" she asked seriously.

     "Yes," came his immediate reply.  Despite the disdain Don Alejandro held for his only son and his ‘artistic pursuits', Diego couldn't imagine what his life would be like without his father in it.  He shook his head then smiled wryly.  "Although there are times when he does his best to make it difficult."

    Don Alejandro returned then with a tray of coffee.  Feeling a bit like a third wheel, Diego yawn and started to rise from his chair.

    "Well, if you'll forgive me," he said, "I have to be up early in the morning."

     His father glanced at him appreciatively.  "You're forgiven.  Buenas noches, Diego," he said brusquely, giving Diego the impression that he, too, thought of his presence as superfluous.

     "Are you coming with me to Santa Paula tomorrow?" Diego asked.  It was a trip that had been planned for well over a month.

     "Oh, I forgot," replied the old don.  "The cattle auction."

    Diego decided to give the elder de la Vega a break, knowing that he would rather spend the day with Mercedes than with a bunch of smelly cows.  "Well, why don't you show Mercedes around her rancho and, uh, I'll take care of the auction myself, hmm?" he suggested.

     "Thank you."  The relief in his father's voice was almost tangible.

     Diego said his goodnights and headed down the hallway to the nursery to check on Isabella before going to his own room.

     He awoke a little after sunrise and dressed quickly.  Figuring to grab a bite of breakfast before he left, he was surprised to see that his father wasn't already in the dining room.  The elder de la Vega was always up at dawn.  A interrogation of the servants turned up no clue as to the old don's whereabouts.

    Praying that his father wasn't ill, Diego strode toward Don Alejandro's bedroom.  He couldn't leave now, not without knowing and not without saying goodbye.

     He pushed open the door to his father's room and stepped inside.  "Fa. . ."  The word died on his lips as he stared at the sight in front of him.

    Don Alejandro and Mercedes were nestled together like spoons in his father's bed.  The elder de la Vega's bare arm curled possessively around the señora told him all he needed to know.

     It seemed that Diego was going to acquire a new mother.  Whether he liked it or not.
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