"HEARTS ABLAZE"

PART ONE:  "FANNING THE FLAMES"
 

CHAPTER TWO

     The next day once again found Felipe in the pueblo de Los Angeles.  He was always quick to volunteer to do any errands that anyone at the hacienda needed done there.  Everyone knew the reason for his eagerness of course.

     Felipe like to spend as much time with Ana Maria as possible.  Not even Diego realize how serious their relationship had become.  They had a special place where they met as often as they could.  The warnings Felipe and Ana Maria had received from Diego and Victoria respectively, almost went unheeded on more than one occasion.

      Felipe desperately wished to ask Ana Maria to marry him, but everyone seemed so opposed to the idea.  They were too young, they had not known each other very long and what about Felipe's dream of becoming a lawyer?  These reasons they had heard not only from Diego but Leonora Ortega as well.

     It was none of those opinions that held the young de la Vega back from his heart's desire though.  He refused to propose to Ana Maria via sign language.  The fact that she did not know he could speak plus his stuttering also influenced his decision to wait.

     Felipe was so absorbed in his thoughts, he did not notice Marta Bautista heading in his direction.  He had been at the blacksmith's and now intended to go to the dressmaking shop.

     Unfortunately Felipe walked right into Marta, almost knocking her to the ground.  He instinctively caught her in his arms before she could fall.  The opportunistic young lady wound her arms up around Felipe's neck and pressed herself close against him.

     "Gracias, Felipe," she said seductively.  Then she kissed him on the lips.

     The young man's misfortune grew as just at that moment, Ana Maria walked past the alley on her way  to the tavern.  She stopped in her tracks, not quite believing what she was seeing.

     "Felipe!" she cried out.  Marta reacted first, turning to look at Ana Maria, a possessive smile on her face.

     Felipe closed his eyes and roughly pushed Marta from him.  Ana Maria had stomped her foot, pivoting around with an angry swirl of her skirts.  He hurriedly ran to catch up with her.

     "Let go of me," she said as she tried to throw off his hand from her arm.  He held on though and forced her to face him.  His hands gestured frantically, telling her that what she saw was not what it appeared to be.

     "Don't lie to me, Felipe," the young woman said crossly.  "I know what I saw.  You were kissing that little hussy."

     Felipe vehemently shook his head.  He attempted again to explain what had happened but Ana Maria turned her head away.

     Some of her friends had told her a couple of days earlier about Marta's relentless pursuit of her sweetheart.  She had not credited their warnings.  What a fool she had been!  It appeared they were right and Felipe had fallen under the other girl's spell.

     Ana Maria extricated herself from Felipe's grasp and ran across the plaza back to her and her mother's shop.  The young man watched her go, throwing his hands up in despair.  How was he ever going to convince her of the truth, he wondered hopelessly.

      He turned to see Marta standing behind him, a concerned expression on her pretty face.  "I'm so sorry, Felipe," she said contritely.  " I just wanted to thank you for catching me.  I didn't mean for this to happen."

     Secretly she was quite pleased.  Maybe now she had a chance with the young de la Vega with that Ortega girl out of the picture.  Imagine, living in that fine hacienda, being waited on by servants instead of always being the one serving someone else.  That Felipe was a very handsome fellow was just an added bonus in her mind.

     He looked at her with a mixture of disgust and puzzlement in his eyes.  She really did look to be remorseful about his situation.  But Felipe was not sure if he should trust her.

     He smiled weakly at Marta then turned to go to the tavern to finish his errands.
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     Much later that afternoon, Don Miguel and his son entered the tavern after a futile day of negotiations.  They had spoken to nearly everyone in town and no one was interesting in selling their business to them.  It wasn't as if the people were going to be forced out.  No, they would still run their operations on a day to day basis.  The Montoyas would be the landlords and the profits would be split seventy-thirty, with the seventy percent going to Don Miguel of course.  The merchants would not have to pay rent or worry about the taxes.

     Deals like this were made everyday in Spain.  Don Miguel could not understand why these rustics were so suspicious of him and his offer.  One man had even run him off with a musket, shouting curses at him and Alonzo.

     The elder Montoya just shook his head in disgust.  Perhaps their search tomorrow for a hacienda and acreage would fare better.

     Don Miguel had to brace himself for the wave of desire that came over him every time he laid eyes on the beautiful innkeeper.  Her bewitching smile was enough to make him shake with want.  So far, Alonzo had not noticed his father's loss of control where Señorita Escalante was concerned.  He was much too busy whining about the deplorable conditions he was being forced to endure.

     Victoria was the first person Don Miguel saw as he walked through the tavern's door.  She was behind the bar, pouring glasses of wine and laughing at something a portly sergeant was telling her.  The irrational jealousy that coursed through his body made him want to challenge the poor soldier to a duel.  How dare he make her laugh?  Her smiles should only be for him.

     Don Miguel narrowed his eyes as he watched Mendoza leave the tavern, carrying a bottle of wine and humming happily to himself.  He tried to clear these insane thoughts from his head with little success.  Don Miguel decided he needed to speak to her.

     Victoria's smile faded as she noted the Montoyas coming into her inn.  The son was nothing but an overgrown spoiled child.  And the father. . .   Well, Victoria did not appreciate the gazes he kept sending her way, like she was something delicious he wanted to eat. . .very slowly.

     She was startled when Don Miguel came up to the counter directly in front of her.  "Señorita, may I have a private word with you, por favor?" he asked gallantly.

     "I'm sorry, Señor Montoya," replied Victoria.  "I am very busy right now.   It is almost suppertime and I have much to prepare."

     "Perhaps later this evening then, Señorita," he suggested.  He looked deeply into her eyes.  "Please, I wish to explain my behavior yesterday."

     Victoria stared at the gentleman, wondering what his real motive was.  He appeared to be sincere but. . .  Well maybe she would find out if she did speak with him.  "Very well," she acquiesced.  "How about eight o'clock?"

     "I will be looking forward to it, dear lady," Don Miguel answered.  He had to restrain himself once more from seizing her and raining kisses upon her luscious lips.  "Until eight."

     He gave her a formal bow then left to join his son who had gone ahead upstairs.  Victoria watched as the elegant don mounted the stairs, her eyes full of mistrust.  Sighing, she placed the last of the wine glasses onto her tray and went to deliver them to her thirsty customers.

     It was a little before eight o'clock when Don Alejandro and Diego strode into the tavern.  The weather had still been hot and dry, with little rain at all.  Diego noticed his father was having trouble sleeping when the evenings were too warm.  Don Alejandro refused to go to the doctor, telling his son to stop fussing like an old mother hen.  Diego prayed there was nothing seriously wrong with the old don.  After last year's incident with his father's heart, Diego could not help but worry about the elder de la Vega's health.

     Well perhaps some interesting conversation with his old amigos and a glass or two of Victoria's refreshing lemonade would help his father relax.

     Marta watched as the de la Vegas sat down at one of the tables already occupied by several old caballeros.  She strained to see if Felipe was with them, which almost caused her to drop a plate of food into a customer's lap.  This earned her a disapproving look from Victoria, who was getting more and more anxious about her meeting with Don Miguel.

     Diego also noted the Bautista girl's interest in them.  Felipe had not wanted to come with them, which he thought very odd.  The young man usually leapt at the chance to visit the pueblo.  Judging by Felipe's agitated state when he had returned from Los Angeles earlier in the day, Diego surmised something must have occurred between him and Ana Maria.

     His son shrugged off all of his inquires into the matter.  Oh well, Felipe would tell him when he was ready, Diego supposed.

     Everyone in the tavern's attention was drawn to the staircase as Don Miguel descended it, carrying a large bouquet of flowers.  Speculation as to whom their recipient might be buzzed from table to table.

     A hush came over the room as the Spaniard walked straight over to Victoria who was once again working behind the bar.  He offered the flowers to her and she very reluctantly took them from him.  She slipped through the kitchen draperies followed by the finely dressed don.

     The caballeros at Diego's table all looked at each other with bemused expressions on their faces.  Everyone that is, except for Diego.  His was a worried countenance.

     "Who is Victoria's new suitor?" asked Don Alejandro curiously.

     "Haven't you heard, Alejandro?" replied Don Esteban Estevez.  "That is Don Miguel Montoya, recently arrived from Spain."  Don Esteban's reputation as a gossip was well-earned.  "He and his son were all over the pueblo today, trying to purchase all the shops."

     "Montoya."  The elder de la Vega mulled over the name in his mind.  "Montoya.  I think I knew his father, Don Pablo Montoya.  He was a good man."

     The others all nodded and their discussion turned to other matters.  Diego, however, did not join in.  His thoughts were centered on what could possibly be going on behind those closed curtains.
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     Victoria busied herself by fiddling with the beautiful blossoms Señor Montoya had presented to her.  She reached for a vase so she could put them in water.  But Don Miguel stilled her hand by touching her on the arm.  She jerked away as if he had burned her.

     "Please, Señorita," he appealed to her.  "These are merely a token of apology.  I am sorry for being so forward yesterday.  It isn't everyday when one meets a woman as beautiful as you."

     "What is it that you want, Señor?" Victoria asked boldly.  She wished for this to be over with quickly.

     Don Miguel had to check himself from blurting out, ‘You, mi querida bonita'.  Drawing from his reserve of confidence, he replied.  "I have a business proposition for you."

     "What kind of proposition?" inquired Victoria.  She too had heard the rumors that he and his son were trying to buy up all the businesses in the pueblo.

     "I wish to buy this tavern, Señorita," he declared.  "Wait until you hear my offer, my dear," he interrupted as she started to decline.  "I am prepared to pay you thirty thousand pesos plus settle any remaining mortgage you have."

     "I own this tavern free and clear," she stated proudly.  "I have no desire to sell out to you or anyone, for any price."

     "You would still be in charge," Don Miguel said, trying to persuade her.  "You would not be responsible for any of the taxes.  You would keep all of your share of the operation for yourself."

     "My share?" Victoria echoed with disbelief.  "My answer is still no, Señor.  My grandparents built this tavern.  They and my parents worked hard all their lives to make it what it is today.  This is my legacy.  I would not disgrace their memories by giving in to your greedy scheme."

     Montoya perceived he was not going to change the head-strong young lady's mind.  Another proposal, one that he had been contemplating in the back of his brain, came to the forefront.

     "I have another deal for you, Señorita," he began, "one that would benefit us both."

     "And what would that be?" Victoria was skeptical she would profit from any arrangement this arrogant don had to offer.

     "Marriage.   I would own half of the tavern then.  You would have a rich husband so you would not have to work so hard anymore.  You are much too beautiful to be toiling away in this kitchen everyday."

     Victoria's mouth dropped open in shock. He must be mad, she thought in amazement.  There was no way she would ever marry him.  How could he even suggest such an idea?  They had barely known each other twenty-four hours.

     However when she glanced up at him, she saw that he was waiting calmly for her reply.  She tried to think of some way to turn him down without his being offended.  Peering at him again, she noticed a look in his blue eyes, one that frightened her, one of lust and violence.

     "I am sorry, Señor Montoya," she finally replied.  "I am already engaged to be married."  Well, it was true.  Zorro had asked her to marry him and she had agreed.  He had even given her his mother's ring.  Even though she did not know his true identity, it still counted in her mind.

     "To whom?" he demanded to know.  He watched as the secretive smile touched her lips.  "I don't believe you.  You are just saying this to keep me at bay."  Don Miguel was extremely angry now.  He had been thwarted all day by these ignorant peasants and this was the final straw.  He took a step toward her.  Someone needed to pay for his frustration.

     Victoria quickly backed up.  This man alarmed her greatly.  One minute he was utterly charming, the next he seemed like he would strangle anyone in his path.  She could hardly tell him her novio was Zorro, a wanted outlaw with a price on his head.   That she would prefer such a man over him would shatter his already wounded pride.  She doubted he experienced rejection very often.  Probably she should be flattered he even offered marriage.

     "My husband-to-be is. . ." she started to say as she was still thinking of whom she could choose.  One handsome face popped up suddenly.  She smiled wryly.  "I am to marry Don Diego de la Vega.  He is my fiancé," Victoria declared a bit haughtily, hoping to impress him.  She crossed her fingers behind her back, hoping Diego would not be too upset with her for involving him in this farce.

     "De la Vega?" repeated Don Miguel.  "I know of them.  They are the wealthiest caballeros in this territory.  I have yet to meet them though."  He eyed her speculatively, wondering if she was telling the truth.

     She smiled insincerely.  "Well that can be remedied.  They are here this evening."

     Either she was being honest or she was quite a bold little piece, mused Don Miguel as he trailed her out of the kitchen.  She led him to the table where the de la Vegas were sitting.  Don Alejandro glanced sharply at his son, who still looked troubled.  It seemed the pair were going to make some sort of announcement.  Diego braced himself for the worst.

     "Don Alejandro, Diego, I want you to meet Don Miguel Montoya," Victoria introduced them to her guest.  Both men rose and shook Montoya's hand.  "This is Don Alejandro de la Vega," she indicated the elder de la Vega.  She threw Diego a nervous glance.  "And this is his son, Diego."  She reached over and grasped his hand.

"My novio."
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"HEARTS ABLAZE"  PART ONE:  "FANNING THE FLAMES"-CHAPTER THREE