"HEARTS ABLAZE"

PART ONE:  "FANNING THE FLAMES"

CHAPTER FIVE

     The fiesta was in full swing by the time the de la Vegas arrived in Los Angeles.  It seemed as though the entire pueblo had turned out, despite the fury caused by de Soto's new tax.  Everyone was very curious to meet the young lady who had stolen their alcalde's heart.

     Señorita Margarita appeared to be quite charming. De Soto squired her about, making sure to introduce her to all the caballeros and their wives.  He wisely steered clear of the merchants.  The young lady was very interested in hearing everyone's tales of Zorro, so much so it was beginning to annoy the Alcalde.

     Diego immediately sought out Victoria.  He found her quickly, looking breathtakingly beautiful in a blouse showing off her smooth shoulders and a skirt that almost matched the color of his suit.  She smiled happily  when she saw him, a smile that left him a little weak in the knees.  It was one that she usually reserved for Zorro, but this time it was for him, Diego de la Vega.

     The band had just struck up a lively tune as he walked over to her.  "May I have this dance, Señorita?" he asked her formally but with a teasing grin on his face.  She took his offered hand and they swept out to join the other dancers.

     Felipe watched them with narrowed eyes.  Then a fist of pain hit him directly in the stomach.  Ana Maria was dancing with Alonzo Montoya.  She was laughing gaily at something the other man was saying.  Felipe closed his eyes.

     How could she act so happy, he wondered in despair.  He was in agony.  Had she ever really loved him?  She had tossed him aside so easily.

     He checked his jacket pocket to make sure the letter he had written to her was still there.  Now he just needed a chance to give it to her.

     Out of the corner of her eye, Ana Maria saw Felipe standing at the edge of the crowd.  She closed her eyes as the sight of him caused her heart to ache.  At least he wasn't with that Marta.  She was beginning to question if her friends had been wrong after all.

     Ana Maria had spoken with Victoria earlier that day when she went to pick up lunch for her mother and herself.  The older woman had told her that she knew that Felipe was not interested in Marta at all.  In fact, Victoria indicated the young de la Vega had tried to avoid the girl whenever possible.  She had watched her employee pursue the young man shamelessly and had not approved of her behavior.

     She glanced at Felipe again as Alonzo spun her around.  Her breath caught in her throat as she saw he was gesturing something to Marta, who now stood beside him, a possessive hand on one of his arms.

     The young woman had sneaked up on Felipe, grabbing his arm before he knew she was there.  He tried to tell her via sign language to go away and leave him alone, but she did not understand.

     Oh how he longed to shout at her.  To let her know that she had ruined his hope for a future with the woman he loved.  That he was not attracted to her and never would be.  Why couldn't she just leave him be?

     Felipe realized that Marta was interested in him mainly because he was now officially a de la Vega.  Obviously she saw him as a way out of her life of drudgery to one of wealth and ease.

      She was still clinging to his arm.  "Let's dance, Felipe," she suggested, smiling up at him suggestively.

     Felipe pushed her away, shook his head vehemently and stalked away.  Marta stood there pouting.  What was wrong with him, she pondered sulkily.

     Diego and Victoria separated as they had moved on to other dance partners.  The lovely innkeeper was now dancing with Don Alejandro, who was heatedly discussing the Alcalde's new tax scheme.

     Victoria was not listening though.  Her attention was captured by the sight of Diego talking with the very pregnant Catalina Delgado Trujillo.  Irrational jealousy surged through her body as she glared at him.  If he had married that girl, that would be his child she was now carrying.  That thought caused her to stumble and step on the elder de la Vega's foot.  She smiled up at him in apology.

     She had to admit to herself that the idea of Diego married to another woman was something she would find hard to bear.  Was it because he would no longer be able to be her friend or was it because of the way she was starting to feel about him?  She glanced his way again.  He had his hand on Catalina's shoulder.  Then the other woman reached up and kissed him on the cheek.  Victoria tripped again, this time stomping hard on Don Alejandro's poor foot.

     Gratefully the dance was finally over.  She apologized to the old don, then made her way to Diego.  Catalina had left with her husband Benito, so the tall caballero was standing by himself.  The grin he wore to greet her changed to a frown as he noted her angry expression.

    "Victoria, what's wrong?" he asked curiously.

     "You are supposed to be my novio," she stated cattily.  "Now that you have torn yourself away from your old girlfriend, maybe you can dance with me."

     She was jealous, he thought, a little stunned by her reaction.  She must have witnessed Catalina's innocent kiss and misinterpreted it.

     "She was hardly my girlfriend, Victoria," he said defensively.  "I am just concerned about her health.  Her father is dying if you recall.  It must be hard for her, especially in her condition."

     Contrition hit the lovely señorita then.  Diego's mother had died in childbirth.  He must be worried that Catalina might do the same.  Victoria had noticed how pale and drawn the other woman looked.

     Victoria had been only six years old when Doña Felicidad died but she still remembered how upset her mother had been.  Señora Escalante would often help the doctor when the pueblo women gave birth.  She had come home in tears that day almost twenty years ago.

     "Poor Alejandro," she had said.  "First the niña, now his Felicidad.  And Diego."  Elena had shook her head sadly.  "The poor lad is devastated."

     Victoria knew the loss of his mother when he was twelve had been as traumatic as her own mother's death when she was fourteen.  "I'm sorry, Diego," she apologized contritely.  "I didn't realize. . ."

     "Can we go somewhere to talk?" he cut in. "Somewhere a little more private?"

     She nodded her head though puzzled by his request.  Victoria hesitantly took his gallantly offered arm and he escorted her away from the fiesta.

     Don Alejandro was dancing with Señora Valverdes when he noticed his son and Victoria disappearing into the darkness.  Where were they going, he wondered.  He suspected there was much more going on between the two of them than they were willing to admit.  He shook his head then smiled at his companion.

     Diego and Victoria were not the only couple to slip away from the festivities.   It seemed everywhere they looked, there were young lovers embracing.  Victoria could sense Diego's discomfort.  She was a little unnerved as well.

     Finally they found an unoccupied spot close to the river.  She gasped as she recognized the place.  Zorro had brought her here once, one of the only times one of his unexpected visits had not been interrupted.  The masked man had stayed about an hour and they actually had a conversation, albeit disrupted by several toe curling kisses.  It had been a long time ago, she sighed, about a couple months after he had proposed to her.

     Victoria glanced up at Diego.  His face had a grim, determined expression, one that made her worry.  What was wrong, she wondered.

     They both sat down on a fallen log.  Diego turned so he faced her.  "Victoria," he began nervously, "just what exactly are your feelings toward me?"
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     Ana Maria and Alonzo were once again dancing.  The tempo of the music had slowed and most couples took advantage of it by dancing closer together.  Alonzo tried to do the same but Ana Maria kept him at arm's length.

     Broodingly, Felipe watched the pair.  It was getting close to midnight, the fiesta wouldn't last more than an hour after that.  So far he had not had an opportunity to get near Ana Maria.  She either had been with Alonzo or surrounded by her friends.

     He removed the letter from his pocket.  For a second, he was tempted to tear it up and walk away, not only from the fiesta but Ana Maria as well.  Felipe groaned as he closed his eyes.  He loved her too much to do that.  He must do this.  Taking a deep breath, he marched through the other couples straight toward Ana Maria and her partner.

     He tapped the other man on the shoulder, indicating he wished to cut in.  Alonzo was at least well-mannered enough to step back and allow Felipe access to Ana Maria.

     The two of them stared at each other for an eternity it seemed but really only a few seconds.  Then Felipe gestured pleadingly, silently asking her to come with him so they could ‘talk'.

     "Where's Marta?" she asked bitterly.  "Why don't you go bother her?"

     She had hoped to hurt him and she could see in his eyes that she had succeeded.  But instead of feeling triumphant, it felt as though her heart was breaking in two.  Ana Maria grabbed Alonzo's arm.  "Let's go," she requested anxiously, turning away before she changed her mind.

     "Gladly," he replied.  "There is something I wish to ask you.  Privately," he added, throwing a glance Felipe's way.  He led Ana Maria away from the other dancers, leaving the young de la Vega there in the midst of the crowd.

     Felipe took out the letter, the hand holding it tightening into a fist, crumpling the paper.  He almost flung it at Alonzo's back but checked himself.  Smoothing out the envelope, he put it back into his jacket.  This isn't over yet, he thought.  He had seen the look in her beautiful brown eyes.  This was hurting her as much as it did him.  He followed the couple out of the plaza, trailing them at distance.
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     Victoria's eyes grew big and her mouth dropped open at Diego's question.  "You are my friend, Diego," she responded once the shock had worn off.  "You know I love. . ."

     "Zorro, yes," he replied, not quite keeping the anger from his voice.  "Then why do you react so jealously whenever another woman so much as looks at me?"

     "I do not," she retorted, knowing in her heart she was lying.  She decided to give him the explanation she had been telling herself for years, even though she knew it wasn't true either.  "It's just that I am looking out for you, Diego.  Most of the women who try to gain your attention are not worthy of you.  I don't want to see you make a mistake, that is all."

     He laughed derisively.  "Victoria, I think it is much more than that.  Given the chance, you would have slapped poor Catalina.  All she did was thank me for my concern.  There was never anything between us.  Our engagement was just a sham to appease our fathers."

     "I know," she conceded, thinking sadly now he was falsely engaged to her.  Poor Diego.  She took a deep breath.  "You are my best friend," she reiterated.  "It would truly hurt me if anything were to happen to our friendship."

    "You are worried when I marry, it would end?" he inquired thoughtfully.  "That will never happen, Victoria."  He smiled wryly.  "You will always be able to count on me as a friend."

     "Gracias, Diego," she replied.  Then, impulsively, she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.

     Diego immediately got to his feet, not wanting her to see the effect the small gesture had on him.  "Shall we head back?" he asked.

     She nodded as she also stood.

     Ana Maria and Alonzo had walked down the well-worn path that led to the river.  Although it could hardly be called that now.  The recent hot, dry weather had reduced it to a mere trickle of brown water.

     Alonzo led her to the secluded spot just vacated by Diego and Victoria.  Ana Maria held back a gasp.  It was her and Felipe's secret meeting place.  She closed her eyes as memories came rushing back.  The feel of Felipe's lips on hers, his gentle hands caressing her. . .  She sighed softly.

     "You are the most beautiful girl I have ever met, Ana Maria," her companion said smoothly, breaking into her musings.

     "Gracias, Don Alonzo," she replied, blushing demurely.  "What is it that you wish to ask me?"

     "If I might kiss you," he stated as he moved closer and took her hand.

     Ana Maria tried to back up but he gripped her hand tightly.  "I don't think so, Señor," she remarked indignantly.  It had been two weeks before Felipe had kissed her after they had first met.  She only knew this arrogant don two days and already he expected to take liberties?  She would have to disabuse him of those ideas.

     "I am sorry, Don Alonzo," she said as she attempted to get to her feet.  "Take me back to the fiesta, por favor."

     "Why would I want to do that?" the young man queried, grinning wickedly.  "I want to kiss you and that is what I am going to do."  He roughly grabbed her, forcing his mouth on hers.  She pounded him with her fists as he thrust his tongue between her lips.

     "Let go of me," she cried, struggling to get away.  Alonzo just laughed and kissed her again.  He grasped her wrists so she couldn't hit him.

     Ana Maria made the mistake of leaning backward in her effort to get away from him.  He pushed her onto her back, pressing his body on top of hers.  She knew then he was not going to stop at just kisses.

     Suddenly Montoya was pulled from her.  Felipe spun the other man around and punched him in the stomach.

     "This is none of your concern," Alonzo declared as soon as he could speak again.  He seized Ana Maria again.  "We wish not to be disturbed."

     "No, Felipe, he lies!" she exclaimed as she pulled herself free.  Montoya made a move toward her but was hit in the face by Felipe.

     He swung at the young de la Vega but only connected with air.  Felipe jabbed him again in the belly, causing Alonzo to stagger backward.  When he had recovered, he charged Felipe, knocking him to the ground.

     "Fight!  Fight!"  Other couples near the river noticed the commotion and hurried over to see what was going on.

     Diego and Victoria were nearly at the outskirts of the pueblo when they too heard the shouts.  They stopped and looked at each other.  Diego knew in the pit of his stomach that it was Felipe and the younger Montoya.

    "Excuse me," he apologized as he rushed off to where the altercation was taking place.  Victoria followed after him as he knew she would.

     Alonzo had landed one good blow to Felipe's nose, causing blood to stream from it.  But otherwise it was no contest.  Felipe was obviously the stronger and tougher of the two and was thrashing his opponent unmercifully.

      Diego plowed his way through the gathered onlookers and hauled his son to his feet.  Montoya lingered on the ground, moaning painfully as he endeavored to move.  His face was bloodied and bruised and his left eye was beginning to swell shut.

     "That's enough," Diego declared forcefully as Felipe tried to free himself from his father's grasp.  The young man cringed at the disapproval he found in the older man's eyes.

     "Don Diego," Ana Maria said tearfully as she came forward.  "Don Alonzo, he tried to force me. . ."  She broke off as she could not bear to think of what might have happened.  "Felipe, he rescued me."  She placed her hand on the younger de la Vega's arm.  "Gracias, Felipe."

     He shook off her touch, glaring angrily at everyone.  He removed the letter once again from his jacket and proffered it to Ana Maria.  She accepted it, the bewilderment evident on her lovely face.

     Felipe wiped the blood from his nose with his sleeve and then stalked off into the darkness.  Ana Maria went to chase after him but Diego detained her.

     "Read the letter, Señorita," he suggested a little coldly.  "He may not be my son by blood, but he has inherited the de la Vega temper and pride.  Let him be until you make up your mind about the two of you."

     Ana Maria nodded sadly as Victoria put her arm around the young woman's shoulders and began leading her back to the pueblo.  Diego checked on Don Alonzo, who was now sitting up, groaning and rubbing his aching face.

     These Montoyas had caused nothing but trouble since their arrival in Los Angeles, Diego judged harshly.  Maybe this would encourage them to move on to another town.

     He hurried to catch up with Victoria and Ana Maria.
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     The next morning, Diego was extremely concerned.  Last night, he had searched the pueblo for Felipe before he headed home. A thorough investigation of the hacienda, including the cave, did not yield his son either.  He had scoured the house again this morning. Where had the young man disappeared to, he wondered anxiously.

     A loud rap on the front door garnered his attention.  He was joined by his father as they both went to answer it.

     "Buenos dias, Alcalde," Don Alejandro greeted de Soto, who stood on the doorstep.  He was backed by six of his lancers, including Mendoza.  "What can we do for you?"

     "I have the unpleasant duty of informing you that Don Alonza Montoya was found dead this morning," the commandante stated dispassionately.  "His father was worried since he never returned to the tavern last night.  We found him stabbed to death down by the river."

     "That is truly terrible," replied the elder de la Vega sincerely.  He was blissfully unaware of the fight between Felipe and the dead man.  "What has that got to do with us?"

      Diego closed his eyes as he realized what was coming.

     "I have a warrant," declared the Alcalde, "for the arrest of Felipe de la Vega for the murder of Alonzo Montoya."
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END OF PART ONE

        "HEARTS ABLAZE"  PART TWO:  "TRIAL BY FIRE"-CHAPTER ONE

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