"HEARTS ABLAZE"

PART ONE: "FANNING THE FLAMES"

CHAPTER ONE

     Don Alejandro de la Vega was sitting with his son, Diego in the Taverna Victoria, eating their midday meal.  At least Diego was eating while his father was talking.

     "There was not one thing wrong with that horse, Diego," stated the elder de la Vega irritatedly.

     "It was not what I am looking for," replied his son coolly.  He lifted a spoonful of his albondigas soup to his mouth.

     "We've seen five horses already," said the old don, "and so far none of them are what you are ‘looking for'.  Just what do you want anyway?"

     "I'll know when I see it," declared Diego enigmatically.

     Don Alejandro shook his head in vexation.   "That is what you say about choosing a wife as well.  You've turned up your nose at every eligible woman in the territory.  You know I'm not getting any younger.  I want more grandchildren."

     Diego was saved from having to respond to his father's remarks by the arrival of Victoria Escalante at their table.  The innkeeper was looking as fetching as ever, in a white lace-trimmed blouse and green skirt.

     "You two are certainly having a lively conversation," she said as she refilled their juice glasses.

     "Diego is being very picky in selecting a horse for Felipe," commented the elder de la Vega.  "We want to surprise him with a new mount for his birthday next week.  But my son here finds something wrong with every animal we've seen so far."

     "Oh, that's right," Victoria replied.  "Felipe is going to be twenty-one, isn't he?"

    "Si," answered Diego as he remembered the small frightened boy his son had once been.  "It's hard to believe he has been with us for fifteen years now."

     "It's also hard to believe either of you hasn't married yet," stated Don Alejandro.  He put up his hand to stymie their protests.  "Victoria, I know you're waiting for Zorro.  But Diego, I think he is waiting for the perfect woman.  One who doesn't exist."

     Diego closed his eyes and sighed.   He did not like it when his father brought of the subject of marriage, especially in front of Victoria.  It only made him feel more frustrated.  She was his perfect woman.

     He reopened his eyes, unprepared for the anger he saw blazing in Victoria's dark brown eyes.  Why was she so upset?

     "If you will excuse me," she said tersely, then swirled away to wait on another table of customers.

     Don Alejandro looked questioningly at his son, who just shrugged.  He could never understand her jealousy of him and other women.  It was all right for her to flaunt her relationship with Zorro in his face but if a young woman barely glanced his way, she became very displeased.  Diego couldn't very well tell this to his matrimonial thinking parent though.

     "I hear Jose Macias has a horse for sale," he said, changing the subject.  "Perhaps we should go look at it this afternoon."

     His father chuckled as he shook his gray haired head.  "Very well."  Both men returned their attention to their soup.
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     Ignacio de Soto, the alcalde of the pueblo de Los Angeles, paced idly in front of his desk inside his office.  He was thinking how dissatisfied he was with his life.

     He was creeping ever so closely to his fortieth birthday.  He should be back in Madrid, a decorated hero, married to the daughter of some high ranking official or perhaps even to a woman of noble birth.

    But alas no, he was stuck in this God-forsaken outpost, wasting his time chasing after that elusive masked renegade Zorro.  A common outlaw who should have been brought to justice long ago.

     De Soto sat down at his desk, a feeling of hopelessness washing over him.  Even the thought of his latest conquest, Margarita de la Roca, coming to visit Los Angeles along with her father, the alcalde of Santa Barbara, did little to lift his spirits.  Sighing wearily, he began to straighten up the mess of papers Sergeant Mendoza always seemed to leave behind whenever he was placed in charge.

     A rap on the office door made the Alcalde glance up.  "Come in," he called out peevishly.

     The door opened to reveal two well dressed gentleman whom de Soto had never laid eyes on before.  One of the men looked to be in his forties and the other was young, possibly in his early twenties.  Their similar features told the Alcalde the two were father and son.  He could also tell by the cut of their jackets that they were quite wealthy as well.  He rose from his chair to greet the pair.

     "I am Ignacio de Soto, alcalde of Los Angeles," he introduced himself.  "How may I help you, Señores?"

     "I am Don Miguel Montoya," the older caballero announced.  "My son and I have recently arrived from Spain."

     "Ah, yes, Spain," de Soto said wistfully, thinking of his beloved homeland.

     "We have heard that California is a land of great opportunity," declared Don Miguel.

     "And you are hoping to find this ‘opportunity' here in Los Angeles?" queried the Alcalde, trying to keep the disbelief from his tone.  It wouldn't do to insult such well-to-do gentlemen, especially ones looking to relieve themselves of some of their money.

     "What we have seen of this pueblo is utterly charming, Señor Alcalde," commented Montoya.  "So beautiful and quaint.  Quite a refreshing change from the crowded streets and pretentiousness of Madrid."

     De Soto was astonished that someone would prefer this arid wasteland over the civilization and grandeur of Spain.  He forced himself to smile politely as the man continued speaking.

     "We are seeking to make a major investment," asserted Don Miguel.  "Property, business ventures and the like.  Perhaps you know of some promising prospects?"

     "There is the old tailor's shop," the Alcalde began reflectively, "no, wait, that was sold."  He stroked his beard as he pondered the question further.  "I cannot think of any possibilities at the moment.  I am sorry, Señor."

     "That charming little tavern we noticed on our reconnaissance of this town," Montoya remarked.  "Is it the only inn in Los Angeles?  If so, I imagine it makes a tidy profit."

     De Soto chuckled.  "Si, it is our only inn.  But you can forget about the owner ever selling it.  Señorita Escalante fancies herself quite the businesswoman."

     "A woman owns the tavern?" asked Don Miguel.  "Is it a bordello as well?"  In his experience, only a madam would run such an establishment.

     "No, Señor Montoya," the Alcalde answered again with a laugh.  "No, far from it."

     "What a pity," drawled the younger Montoya under his breath.  De Soto glanced at him sharply as he spoke for the first time.

     "This is my son, Alonzo," announced Don Miguel with fatherly pride.

     The young caballero appeared to be an arrogant popinjay in the Alcalde's opinion.  From the bored sneer on his handsome young face down to the highly polished boots on his feet, it was clear he did not agree with his father's assessment of the pueblo.

     Ignacio had met many such wastrels at university, sons of wealthy men who lived off the fruits of their fathers' labors.  He had neither the time nor patience for such men, then or now.

     Don Miguel misinterpreted de Soto's thoughts.   "We will leave you to your duties, Alcalde.  I am sure you are a very busy man."

     "Indeed," de Soto replied, "extremely busy."  He nodded graciously as the pair departed his office.  Following them to the door, he watched as they strolled about the plaza, the older man pointing out things of interest to his son.

     The Alcalde shook his head and chuckled.  The old adage, ‘a fool and his money are soon parted', popped into his head as he sat back down at his desk to resume his paperwork.
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      Felipe noticed the two strangers as he crossed the plaza from the Ortega's shop; where he had been having his lunch with Ana Maria and her mother; to the tavern.  He had wanted to take his sweetheart out for an afternoon stroll, but Leonora had shooed him away, saying she and her daughter had much work to do.

     The young man was smiling as he entered the tavern, thinking of the clandestine kiss he had stolen from Ana Maria before he left the shop.  He easily found his adopted father and grandfather and made his way over to their table.

     "Hola, Felipe."  His progress was impeded by Marta Bautista, Victoria's new serving girl.  She stood in front of him, batting her long eyelashes at him.

      His smile faded.  The young lady had been flirting with him for the past two weeks and it was starting to get out of hand.  She was a pretty girl but he was just not interested in her.   Marta, at seventeen, was the eldest daughter of the twelve boisterous Bautista children.  Her older brother Mateo was a nice enough fellow who had been drafted at the same time as Felipe.

     She was still smiling at him as he nodded then walked past her to join Diego and Don Alejandro.  The elder de la Vega noticed her fascination with Felipe and decided to tease the young man.

     "Ah, Felipe," he said, "another filly to add to your stables, eh?"  Diego grimaced at the bad analogy, made doubly so considering the gift they were going to present to his adopted son.

     The younger de la Vega's face flushed with embarrassment.  He shook his head as Marta sauntered up to their table.

     "I was wondering if Felipe could walk me home when my shift is over at two o'clock?" she asked boldly.  The Bautistas lived about two miles south of the pueblo.  "Usually my brother Martin does, but he cannot today.  Mama worries about me going on my own."  She turned on the charm, smiling and batting her lashes once more.

     Felipe glanced over at his adopted father, a look of desperation in his eyes.  Diego came to his son's rescue.

     "Sorry, Señorita," he began, rapidly searching his mind for an excuse.  "We need Felipe to. . ."

     "Help us mend fences," interjected Don Alejandro as he noted Diego's hesitation.

     "Oh, maybe some other time," the girl said brightly.  She glanced adoringly at Felipe one more time then headed toward the kitchen.

     Don Alejandro looked from her to the young man then over to Diego, who just shrugged.  Exhaling heavily, he removed his napkin from his shirt.  "Well, we really do need to fix the fences in the north pasture," he stated, eliciting groans from both Diego and Felipe.  "We'd better get going."  He looked at Diego.  "You can take care of that other business," he commented with a wink.  "You don't need my help anyway."  His son pretended to wince at the good natured jab.  Felipe eyed them with confusion.

     The younger de la Vegas followed the old don out of the tavern.  Diego glanced over his shoulder to catch Victoria staring at him.  She quickly ducked into the kitchen when she saw him looking her way.

     Smiling mischievously, he turned around in time to avoid bumping into the two elegantly dressed newcomers who were about to enter the inn.

     "Excuse me," he said, eyeing them curiously.  The men nodded as they continued on their way.
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     "They call this dingy hovel an inn?" asked Alonzo Montoya querulously after he and his father barely had crossed the tavern's threshold.  "I have seen nicer pig sties."

     "Now, s, remember we are in the colonies," Don Miguel chided.  "It is a little rougher out here."  He inspected the large smoke filled room.  "I think it is quite delightful," he added.

     Victoria emerged from the kitchen carrying a plate of food in each hand.  She gracefully wended her way to her waiting customers, chatting with them as she set the plates on their table.

     Don Miguel was struck instantly by her beauty.  His heart began to pound and his stomach felt like it was tied in knots.  No other woman had affected him this way since his lovely wife Catarina had passed on seven years ago.  Closing his eyes and shaking his head, he ambled up to her, hoping he would be able to speak to her without revealing his interest.  Don Miguel Montoya did not cavort with tavern wenches, no matter how beautiful they might be.

     "Buenos dias, Señorita," he greeted her.  "I am seeking the owner of this fine establishment."

     "I am the innkeeper, Señor," Victoria replied.  "How may I help you?"  She noticed he seemed ill at ease and wondered why.  Perhaps he was not feeling well, she thought.

     Don Miguel was even more stunned.  He had pictured a much older woman, someone nearer to his own age of forty-five.  This beauty before him was a mere slip of a girl.  How could she possibly run this business by herself?  He once again had to clear his head before he addressed her.

     "My son and I need accommodations, Señorita," he stated.  "We plan to make Los Angeles our new home but until we find a suitable hacienda, we will need somewhere to stay."

     "Well, my two best rooms are available," declared Victoria.  She walked over behind the bar and extracted two keys from the rack that hung there.  Handing them to Don Miguel, she smiled politely.  "Here you go, Señor."

     He stared at her, her smile causing his heart to skip a beat.  Dios mio, she was young enough to be his daughter.  That reality did not stop him from having lascivious thoughts about her.

     He took the proffered keys, giving one to his son.  Victoria step out from behind the counter.  "This way, Señores."  She led the father and son over to the staircase.

     The elder Montoya waited until Alonzo entered his room, a scornful expression marring his handsome features.  Don Miguel was sure he would be hearing his son's complaints about their lodgings, soon and often.

      "Gracias, Señorita," he said as Victoria indicated his room.  She wore her dazzling smile once again, causing the don to lose his head.  He reached for her hand, bringing it to his lips.

     She was so shocked by the unexpected gesture, she allowed him to linger over her hand before she came to her senses.  Snatching it away, she took a step backward, her smile disappearing.

     "Señor," she said somewhat indignantly.  "Enjoy your stay," she added, remembering he was still a guest.  Victoria turned to go down the stairs.  When she reached the bottom, she glanced upward and saw that he was still gazing down at her.

     Feeling unnerved, Victoria hurried through the kitchen curtains.   He was old enough to be her father, she thought with a shudder.   He also appeared to be a man who was used to getting what he wanted, whenever he wanted it, doing whatever it took to obtain it.  She would have to be on her guard around this caballero.
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"HEARTS ABLAZE"  PART ONE:  "FANNING THE FLAMES"-CHAPTER TWO