Diego shouted the word with more force than he realized he could muster. "No," he repeated a little more gently, shaking his head. "You can't be. It's impossible."
Victoria gazed up at him with troubled brown eyes. "It's quite possible," she contradicted quietly. "The baby is due about the first part of May."
He collapsed onto a bench and put his head in his hands. His lapse in control had resulted in consequences after all. Dios, he had been living in a fool's paradise these past few weeks.
"Diego, what's wrong?" asked Victoria, her voice full of concern. She touched her hand to his shoulder. "I thought you would be happy about this."
"Happy?" growled Diego fiercely, raising up his head to glare at her. "Why would I be happy my wife is going to kill herself by having another child?"
Victoria withdrew her hand and took several steps backward, frightened by his reaction to her news. Curiosity over his angry response won out over her fear, however.
"What are you talking about?" she questioned him, taking a step forward. "I'm not going to die, Diego. Why on earth would you think that?"
"Oh, I don't know," he replied sarcastically. "Maybe because you almost did seven months ago." He got to his feet, then kicked the chair he had been sitting on, causing it to tipped over with a loud crash to the floor.
Victoria moved away from him again. "That doesn't mean I will this time," she stated with more calmness than she felt. Diego's rage was a rare thing and it scared her. She knew he would never hurt her physically. But that wasn't the only way one could inflict injuries.
Diego glanced at his wife then and saw the terror and tears in her eyes. "Oh, Dios, I'm sorry, querida," he apologized. He came toward her, meaning to take her into his arms, but stopped in his tracks as she flinched away from him.
"Victoria," he choked out. Holding out his arms to her, he said, "Please, I won't hurt you. I would never harm you."
"But you have," she replied sorrowfully. "No," she added hurriedly, seeing that he misunderstood her. "Not that way."
Victoria sighed. "You hurt me every time you kissed my cheek instead of my lips. Every night I went to bed by myself, it was as if you slapped me. Every time you could have just held me and didn't. . ." She broke off to wipe the tears that were spilling down her face.
"I know you don't have a mistress, Diego," she continued, "not a human one anyway. Your damn grapes and your damn wine, that's what you've replaced me with. They've received all your time and attention so all I was left with was the one night I had to. . ."
She stopped herself this time by covering her mouth with her hand. Diego stared at her, the wheels churning in his mind.
"One night you had to what?" he asked in a rough voice. Then he knew the answer. "You planned it. You seduced me into. . ." Oh dear God, he thought. He hadn't stood a chance against her wiles, had he?
"And I'm not sorry I did," Victoria retorted defiantly. Then her expression softened. "I was so lonely, Diego. I might as well have been a statue for all the notice you took of me. I had to do something."
"So the fan, the pillar, the dress? It was all planned?" Diego closed his eyes. What had happened that night had seemed so spontaneous. Now it felt tainted and tarnished.
"No" replied Victoria. "I didn't realize it until I saw it in your eyes. That night was special to me, Diego, the night when we first kissed. I would never. . .ever. . ." She shook her head. "No, I just hoped you would be concerned enough to go looking for me and I kept my fingers crossed that the moonlight and my powers of seduction could do the rest."
She smiled up at him warily, unable to tell if he still furious with her. His expression was unreadable.
Diego's mind was reeling. One question kept popping up again and again and he had to ask it.
"Did you plan to get pregnant too?"
Victoria lowered her gaze. "No, I didn't," she answered. "I would be lying if I said I wasn't thinking about it in the back of my mind. But I didn't deliberately set out. . ."
She paused, seeing that he didn't believe her. Victoria closed the space between them and placed her hands on his arms. "It's true, Diego. I just wanted you to make love to me," she declared, lifting her head to look him in the eyes. "I didn't know we would make a baby as well."
Diego took a deep breath. He could tell she was being sincere. But still. . . "What's done is done, I supposed," he said dully. "I can't pretend I'm happy about this. I'm not. If anything happens to you. . ."
"It won't," she vowed.
"You don't know that."
"I'll do whatever you want me to do," she volunteered. "I'll rest when you tell me to. I'll let you handle all the decisions." She gazes up at him, tears threatening to spill from her eyes again. "I promise, Diego, I'll do whatever you say," she pleaded. "Anything to get you to stop looking at me like that." And it was true. She would do anything to get him to cease staring at her like she was already dead.
Diego knew how hard it had be for her to capitulate like this. She was a proud, independent woman. It tore his heart to see her so cowed. But what could he do? He felt like her death certificate had already been written. Then he saw the tears streaming down her cheeks, and his heart melted.
"Oh, Dios, Victoria," he whispered before wrapping his arms around her. "I love you so much, querida. I just can't bear to lose you. Not like this. . . Not like my mother."
"Oh, Diego," she said. "You'll never lose me, just like you have never really lost your mother." She placed her hand on his chest. "You'll always have us right here, in your heart. Just like you are in mine." Standing on tiptoes, she reached up and kissed him tentatively on the lips at first, then melded her mouth to his when he did not resist her.
Several minutes passed before they moved apart, both gasping for air. Diego gazed down at Victoria's flushed face before placing a hand on her stomach. There was a barely noticeable bump, something someone who didn't know her so intimately or who had not been paying attention would have missed.
"You're sure?" he asked, still unable to take it all in.
Victoria nodded. "I haven't seen Doctor Hernandez yet. But I'm sure."
"I'm not sure if going to the doctor would be a good idea," said Diego, grimacing. When Victoria stared at him questioningly, he added, "He told me after. . . after what happened, that you shouldn't get pregnant again. That it would probably kill you to have another baby. That's why I. . . that's why I. . ."
"Wouldn't touch me?" she finished for him. "Diego, what nonsense. Just because this happened once doesn't mean it will again." She looked up at him, a slightly guilty expression on her face. "I have a confession to make."
Madre de Dios, what now, he thought in trepidation.
"I knew something was wrong almost from the beginning when I was carrying Mercedes," Victoria said. "I had a feeling that the baby wasn't right, that she wouldn't make it."
She placed her hand on Diego's face. "I don't feel the same way this time," she stated confidently. "I know this baby will be all right. And so will I."
He shook his head. He usually never questioned her intuition. But how could she be so sure? It was true that her last pregnancy had been different than her other ones. But how could she know everything would turn out all right this time? He just didn't have her confidence.
"You have to trust me, Diego," said Victoria. "If you won't, I don't know how we'll make it through this." She gazed up at him with eyes begging for forgiveness.
"I do trust you," he replied. "It's just that. . .that I can't help but worry."
"I know," she said sagely before placing her head on his broad chest. "I promise I won't give you any cause to worry."
"Seven months is a long time, querida," he declared, embracing her tightly. "So much could happen in the meantime."
"You have to have faith, Diego," she said. "You have to believe. This baby will be fine. She'll survive."
Victoria just smiled at him mysteriously. He shook his head before lowering his lips to hers. He was going to be a nervous wreck for the next several months. He just wouldn't be able to help himself.
Diego and Victoria both jumped as the sound of someone clearing their throat came from the curtained kitchen doorway. They were startled to see Don Alejandro standing there, with the rest of their remaining guests peering over his shoulder.
"Well, I guess you two haven't killed each other," he said with a grin. "You had us all concerned when it grew so quiet in here."
Glancing at each other with mortified eyes, they realized that their ‘little discussion' must have been overheard by everyone left in the tavern.
"I gather there's another reason for celebration?" asked the old don, suddenly solemn.
Diego and Victoria both nodded their heads.
Z Z Z
"They're here!" shouted Alfonso, who was looking out the library window. He hopped down off the settee and bolted for the front door.
"Alfonso!" called out an exasperated Diego. He got up from his chair and followed after his excited son. One would believe that the lad hadn't seen his cousins in two years, not two weeks.
By the time Diego reached the foyer, Alfonso had already opened the door and had run outside to greet his cousin Digo. The two older boys each took one of little Jaime's hands and led him to the hacienda. Felipe was assisting Ana Maria out of the carriage, very mindful of the blanketed bundle she held in her arms.
"You didn't have to come," said Diego as he met the couple at the gateway. "You just had a. . ."
"I'm fine," said Ana Maria. "I want to be here for Victoria, like she always has been for me."
Felipe just shrugged at Diego before he took his daughter from his wife. Rosa Leonora Maria de la Vega had been born just two weeks earlier and had rarely been out of her father's arms since then.
They walked inside the hacienda where Victoria stood waiting for them. "Oh, let me see," she said. Felipe reluctantly handed over the baby to the very pregnant Victoria.
"Oh, she's so adorable," she cooed. She smiled up at Felipe and Ana Maria. "How could she get even more beautiful in just a few weeks?" She passed little Rosa back to her adopted son and then placed one of her hands to her bulging stomach. "You got here just in time. I've been in labor for about two hours."
"What?" Diego rushed to her side. "Why didn't you tell me?" he asked sternly. "I thought you agreed to. . . "
"I wasn't even sure until about an half an hour ago," said Victoria. "It's all right, Diego." She moved her hand to his face and drew him toward her so she could kiss his lips.
Felipe kissed Ana Maria and handed the baby back to her. The two women walked down the hallway to the bedroom where Victoria would give birth.
"I'll go get the doctor," offered Felipe who was already heading for the door..
"Good. Whatever," said a stunned Diego. Well, this was it, he thought fatalistically. Probably before the night was over, he would know whether or not his Victoria would be lost to him forever. He had to take a deep breath as he felt a bit dizzy.
At least old Doctor Hernandez had semi-retired and had taken on a partner. Doctor Salvador was a round balding man in his early forties who had been traveling north from Mexico City six months ago and had taken a liking to the pueblo of Los Angeles. He had a more modern approach to medicine that Diego found somewhat reassuring.
In less than an hour, Salvador had arrived and was ushered to the bedroom. Don Alejandro and Felipe entertained the children while Diego sat brooding in a chair in the library. The two men glanced at him then at each other from time to time and tried to keep the five active boys from disturbing him.
Just as the children were being seated at the table to eat their supper, Ana Maria emerged from the bedroom, carrying Rosa.
"Here," she said, thrusting the sleeping infant at her husband. "I've just fed and changed her." She then spun around and hurried back toward the room.
"Wait! Ana!" Felipe called out after her retreating back. "What's going on?"
Ana Maria stopped and turned to smile at him. "It's all right, querido," she said. "I didn't want her new cousin to disturb her from her nap."
A loud wail emanated from the birthing room. Diego jumped to his feet and ran down the hallway. Ana Maria sidestepped out his way not a moment too soon.
He came to a halt inside the doorway and took in the scene before him. The doctor and Maria were tidying up a small, crying baby at the end of the bed. He looked at it in wonder as it flailed its arms and legs before Maria could wrap it tightly in a blanket. Slowly, Diego's gaze traveled up the length of the bed and the woman resting upon it. Victoria was smiling a tired smile, but her face was radiant as the housekeeper handed her the still mewling child.
Victoria stroked the infant's face and kissed its forehead before lowering it down to her breast where it latched on greedily. Then she looked up and saw her husband standing there, the relief obvious in his green eyes.
"Come and meet your daughter," she invited, patting the mattress beside her. Diego walked over as if in a daze.
"Daughter?" he managed to say, his voice rough with emotion.
"Si, Felicidad Elena de la Vega," announced Victoria. Neither she nor Diego noticed as the doctor and the other women slipped silently from the room. "For two of the bravest and finest mothers the world has known."
Diego sat down on the bed and stared as his newborn daughter suckled. He reached out and touched one of her tiny hands. She grabbed onto his index finger with a grip so tight it surprised him.
"Felicidad Elena Victoria de la Vega," he corrected once he could speak again. "For three of the bravest and most beautiful mothers in the world." He leaned down and kissed the baby on the forehead.
How could he have not wanted this child, he asked himself. She was so perfect, so beautiful, so full of spirit just like her mother. Guilt washed over him and he had to look away. He felt like a selfish bastard for having felt nothing but resentment for this baby the past seven months. Victoria was right. He should have had more faith.
Diego felt Victoria's hand on his arm and turned to face her. He could see the forgiveness in her eyes and knew then she had known of his attitude toward their daughter.
"I'm so sorry," he whispered.
"Shh," Victoria cautioned. She glanced down at little Felicidad, who was now sleeping peacefully against her bosom. She looked up at Diego questioningly.
He gently slid his hands under his daughter's tiny body and lifted her up against his chest, cradling her head. As he gazed upon her, the little girl opened her eyes and seemingly stared back at her father.
And that was when he fell in love with her.
Z Z Z
"THE DEATH OF INNOCENCE" - EPILOGUE