"HEARTS ABLAZE"

PART ONE:  "FANNING THE FLAMES"

CHAPTER THREE

     Victoria gazed pleadingly at Diego, silently praying he would not deny her outrageous claim.  Fortunately Don Esteban had left the group only moments before, grumbling that his wife would have his hide if he stayed late again at the tavern.  She gave Diego's large hand a quick squeeze.

     He understood then what she had done.  Evidentially, the elegant don was pursuing her and she needed an escape.  Diego noted that the man was watching them closely, obviously suspicious of her statement.  He smiled reassuredly at Victoria and brought her hand to his lips.

     "Victoria, my dear, how lovely you look tonight," he said gallantly.  He could see that along with the relief on her beautiful face, there was the slightest bit of confusion as well.

     "It is true, then?" queried Don Miguel.  "You two are to be married?"

     Don Alejandro was still reeling from the shock of Victoria's announcement.  What was going on here?  He stared at his son and the woman he considered a daughter in bewilderment.  If it was true, why would they keep such a important thing from him?

     He started to join in on the conversation, but paused as Diego shook his head.  The look in the young man's eyes made him realize he would get a full explanation later.

     "Yes, indeed," Diego answered Montoya's question.  "We've been engaged for quite a while now."  Well, it was true.  He had asked her to marry him and she had agreed.  He had even given her his mother's ring.  Albeit he had been disguised as Zorro but still it counted in his mind.

     This time Don Alejandro glared at his son before he spoke.  He wasn't a fool.  He could tell there was some kind of subterfuge afoot.   "Don Miguel, I believe I once knew your father, Pablo Montoya?"

     "Si, he was my father," the other man replied.  "I am sorry to say he died five years ago, Don Alejandro."

     "My condolences, Don Miguel," offered the elder de la Vega sincerely.  Diego realized his father was diverting attention from Victoria's stunning claim.  He decided to seize the opportunity.

     "If you both will excuse us, I need to speak with my ‘fiancée'," he declared as he looked her in the eye, "privately."  Victoria smiled a bit nervously as he led her way, taking her into the kitchen.

     The beautiful innkeeper gratefully collapsed into the nearest chair.  "Oh, gracias, Diego," she said earnestly.  "I know I shouldn't have involved you in this, but I didn't know what else to do."

     "Victoria, are you all right?" he inquired solicitously.  She was trembling and he could see the tears threatening to spill down her smooth cheeks.  "Tell me what happened.  Did he try to. . .?"

     "Oh, Diego," she began in a shaky voice, "he offered to buy the tavern.  When I told him no, he proposed marriage.  I. . .I told him I was already engaged.  He didn't believe me."  She bit her lip worriedly and turned away.  "The look in his eyes terrified me, Diego.  I thought he was going to hurt me."

     She looked into his reassuring green eyes.  "I don't understand.  Why would he want to marry me yet act like he wanted to harm me as well?"

     Diego crouched down before her and took her hands.  He was sorry she had to discover the ugliness that lurked in the hearts of some men.  He had known of such persons in Spain, ones who like to mix their pleasures with a little pain.  One unfortunate incident he had inadvertently witnessed while in Madrid had turned his stomach.  The thought of someone doing such things to his Victoria caused the same reaction.  He gazed upon her lovely innocent face.

     "I don't know why, Victoria," he answered.  "Perhaps he was just angry you turned him down."  He smiled wryly.  "Why did you chose me to be your ‘novio'?"

     "Because I knew you would help me," she stated confidentially.  "I wanted to impress him.  I couldn't tell him who my real fiancé is.  He would have gone crazy."

     "Your real fiancé?" Diego echoed.  "So you really are engaged?"  He was certain he knew who she meant, but there was still the small nagging doubt he could be wrong.

     Victoria clapped her hand over her mouth when she realized what she had revealed.  She glanced at the man in front of her.  He was her best friend, she thought warmly.  If she could not trust him, who could she trust?

     "Diego, I want your promise that you will tell no one," she began.  He nodded his agreement.  "It's Zorro.  A couple of years ago he asked me to marry him.   He even gave me his mother's ring."

     "A ring?" he repeated, trying to sound surprised and suppressing a relieved grin.  He lifted her hands so he could see her fingers.  "You don't wear it?"

     "Oh, no," she smiled secretively.  "I keep it in a very safe place."  She glanced at him pleadingly then.  "This will be for just a little while, Diego.  I have the feeling this Montoya will not be staying long in Los Angeles."

     "I hope you're right," he concurred wholeheartedly.  A troublesome thought crossed his mind.  "What are people going to think though, Victoria?  I mean you and I. . .   Surely there will be gossip about us that could possibly reach Don Miguel's ears."

     She had not considered any of that.  Hopefully everyone else disliked the man as much as she did that no one would inform him she and Diego were just friends.  "I don't know," she replied.  "I guess we will just worry about that if it happens."

     He gave her hands a gentle squeeze then got to his feet.  "You know you can always count on me to help you.  It's getting late," he declared.  "Father and I have a busy day tomorrow. Buenos noches, Victoria."

     "Good night, Diego," she said in returned.  "Thank you again."  She watched as he walked through the draperies.  Sighing heavily, she frowned at the disturbing thoughts that filled her mind.  Was it possible to love two men at the same time?  She shook her head.  She must be loca for even thinking such a thing.

     She loved Zorro with all her heart and soul.  But Diego, he stirred certain feelings in her as well.  He was very protective of her, almost like an older brother.  But what she was beginning to feel towards him was not at all sisterly.

     Victoria suddenly remembered something her mother had told her not too long before she had been executed.  ‘Choose wisely, daughter, the man you give yourself to in marriage,' Elena Escalante had advised.  ‘A passionate lover is one thing.  But a man who is your best friend, he is the one who will stay by your side through thick and thin.'  Her mother had glanced over at her father and smiled fondly.

     She had always wanted a relationship like the one her parents had.  It would be perfect if Zorro's passion could be combined with Diego's friendship.  The result would be exactly what she desired in a husband.  Sighing again, she turned her attention to the mounds of dirty dishes that needed washing.
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     After a short conversation with Don Alejandro, Don Miguel wearily climbed the stairs to his room. Upon opening his door, he found Alonzo lounging on his bed, his booted feet on the coverlet and smoking one of his cigars.  As always, a contemptuous sneer marred his features.

     "Really, Father," he drawled then exhaled a flume of smoke.  "Making a fool of yourself over a barmaid."  He took another drag off the cigar.  "You are such a hypocrite.  Always lecturing me on the evils of mixing with peasant wenches and here you are, offering marriage to one."

     "She is not a peasant," his father answered tersely.  He swatted at his son's feet.  "Get off my bed."

     "What a pity she's engaged to that de la Vega fellow," remarked Alonzo, swinging his legs off the mattress.   "That really waylaid your plans, didn't it?"

     "Stay out of my business," Don Miguel said threateningly.

     "But Father dear," the young man replied, his voice dripping with sarcasm, "shouldn't I have a say in the choice of my new ‘mama'?    You know, she really is quite beautiful.  I rather fancied a go at her myself."

     "Silencio, you insolent pup," the elder Montoya ground out.  "I am beginning to think we should move on.  I don't think we will find what we are looking for here."

     "And just exactly are we looking for, Father?' asked Alonzo as he stood.  "You never did tell me."  The angry glare on his father's face told him he wasn't going to receive an answer now either.  The young man blew another plume of cigar smoke into the air and headed for the door. "Buenos noches, Father.  Sweet dreams." he said with a chuckle just before he closed the door.
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     The Alcalde was driving Mendoza crazy.  The sergeant had never seen his commandante in such a state of nervous excitement before, not even when he had devised some diabolical scheme to capture Zorro.

     The list of tasks he had yet to complete seemed a mile long.  De Soto's bedroom had to be scrubbed from top to bottom because Alcalde de la Roca was to stay there during his visit.  Mendoza's own quarters also had to be spotless since de Soto was commandeering them for the duration of his guests' stay.  The stout sergeant was to bunk with the other lancers.

     Of course, Señorita de la Roca was to room at the tavern.  It would not be proper for such a lady to lodge at the cuartel.

     All this extra duty put a snag in Mendoza's courtship of Señora Ortega.  Much to his dismay, he had to turn down several dinner invitations in the past week.  He worried that Leonora was going to start thinking he was no longer interested in her.

     Maybe things would settle down after the father and daughter arrived later this afternoon.  Tomorrow evening the Alcalde was holding a fiesta in honor of the important visitors.  The sergeant hoped to make up to the señora then for his recent neglect.

     Actually Leonora barely noticed Mendoza's absence the last few days, she had been so burdened with her own worries.  She was being overwhelmed with orders for new dresses.  It seemed all the ladies in the pueblo wanted a new gown for the Alcalde's fiesta.  It did not help matters that Ana Maria had come home yesterday afternoon in tears, saying it was over between her and Felipe.  She had been inconsolable the rest of the day, making frequent mistakes in her sewing that had to be ripped out and redone.

     Señora Ortega sighed as she looked out the window of her shop and saw her daughter behind the counter of their market booth out in the plaza.  The girl's doleful countenance was surely keeping away any customers they might have had.  Leonora had the feeling that it was far from over between her daughter and the young de la Vega.

     Felipe rode into the pueblo with his father and grandfather just before noon.  He tried to resist coming but Don Alejandro insisted he needed the young man's opinion on a new bull he was thinking about buying at the cattle auction.  Diego had agreed with his father's ruse to roust Felipe from the hacienda.  He was quite worried about his adopted son.  Felipe still would not discuss what was upsetting him.

     In fact he was hardly interested in Diego's explanation to his father the reason for the false engagement.  Normally he would have teased Diego unmercifully about it.  But Felipe just shrugged his shoulders and wandered off to half-heartedly complete his chores.

      The de la Vegas dismounted in front of the tavern.  It didn't take long for Diego to find Victoria.  She was sweeping the front porch, acting as though she had been anxiously waiting for his arrival.

     She had been, as a matter of fact.  Don Miguel's stares at breakfast had unnerved her that morning.  His leering really repulsed her now that she knew what kind of man he was.  And now he and his obnoxious son were here again for their lunch.

      "Diego, buenos dias," she greeted him with a welcoming smile.  She was unsure if she should touch him, especially in front of so many people.  It was her fault they were in this awkward situation and she didn't want him to feel uncomfortable.

     He reached for her hand and patted it reassuredly.  "Hola, Victoria," he said.  Diego looked past her shoulder and saw the Montoyas heading toward them.  He raised her hand to his lips.  "You are quite beautiful today," he added in a loud voice.

     Victoria turned as Don Miguel and his son walked past them.  The elder Montoya glared at them, his blue eyes full of hostility.  Alonzo wore an amused expression and winked suggestively at Victoria as he passed.  The couple on the porch watched them make their way around the plaza.

     "Gracias, Diego," Victoria said in a low voice.

     He led her into the tavern.  "He hasn't bothered you again?" he inquired.

    "No," she replied.  "Diego, he still scares me though.  I don't think he likes being bested."

     Diego nodded.  Powerful men such as Don Miguel loved to be the one in control.  When they didn't get what they wanted, they became very dangerous men.  He would have to keep eye on the arrogant don.

     Felipe and Don Alejandro had gone on ahead to the cattle pen to look over likely prospects for El Diablo's replacement.  The younger de la Vega's attention kept straying to the stall where Ana Maria was chatting with one of her girlfriends.  The friend, whose name was Silvia, pointed in his direction.  Ana Maria's eyes met his across the dusty plaza.  He could see hers were filled with anger, pain and tears.

     A gentle touch on his arm drew his interest away from Ana Maria.  Felipe groaned inwardly when he saw it was Marta smiling up at him.

     "Hola, Felipe," she said.  "I wanted to say again I am sorry about yesterday.  I hope you're not too mad at me."  She gazed at him adoringly, fluttering her eyelashes.

     Felipe quickly glanced over at Ana Maria, who looked infuriated.  He stared at her pleadingly but she turned her head away.  She then said something to Silvia.  The other girl started coming his way.

     He shook his head at Marta and made several gestures with his hands.  When she looked at him in bewilderment, Don Alejandro had to interpret.

     "He says he's not mad, Señorita.  But he wishes you would. . ."  The elder de la Vega was interrupted by the arrival of Silvia.

     She held out her hand to Felipe.  "Ana Maria said to give you this."  The silver braided ring dropped into his palm.  Silvia then pivoted around and headed back.

     He stared again in Ana Maria's direction, his face full of pain and sorrow.  The ring had been a promise of their future together.  One she no longer envisioned evidentially.  Felipe closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

     Ana Maria was torn away from glaring at Felipe by the arrival of Alonzo Montoya at her booth.  "I was wondering if you have any linen handkerchiefs?" he asked as he glanced over the array of goods for sale.  He then looked up at her face.

     Dios mio, he thought, she is beautiful.  His father might not have found what he was looking for in Los Angeles but he just had.

     Ana Maria had selected several handkerchiefs to show the young man when she noticed he was staring at her.  She smiled wryly, used to this reaction from men.  "Si, Señor, I have ones with or without lace."

      "Without," he requested.  Alonzo grinned suggestively at her. "Please tell me Señorita, that you don't have a husband and a houseful of children to take care of."

      She giggled at the silly statement.  "Of course not, Señor.  I don't even have a boyfriend."  Anymore, she added to herself.  Ana Maria had to restrain from peeking in Felipe's direction again.  This caballero was quite handsome and appeared to be a fun fellow.  Maybe he would be able to cheer her up a little and make Felipe jealous as well.

     "I don't believe that," Alonzo replied.  "I hear that there is to be a fiesta tomorrow night.  Perhaps I could beg a dance with you then."  He smiled charmingly at her.

     "You wouldn't have to beg, Señor," she said, returning the smile.

     "Alonzo Montoya, at your service, lovely lady," he finally introduced himself.

     "Ana Maria Ortega," she replied.

     He reached for her hand and brought it to his lips.  "I am very glad to make your acquaintance, Ana Maria," he declared.  "Perhaps you could join my father and myself for dinner tonight?"

     "I would love to," she agreed.  This time she did glance Felipe's way and saw that the young man was furious.  Well now he knew what she had felt seeing him in Marta's arms.  She ignored the pang of pain she felt as she smiled at Alonzo as she wrapped up several of the handkerchiefs for him.

     Felipe's fists were clenched together tightly.  It was taking all of his self-control to not go over there and beat Montoya to a pulp.

     He loved Ana Maria with all his heart.  He vowed to himself he would do whatever it took to win her back.
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"HEARTS ABLAZE"  PART ONE:  "FANNING THE FLAMES"-CHAPTER FOUR