LATE AUGUST 1826
Don Alejandro stood outside on the porch of his office, waiting for the Santa Barbara stage to arrive. It was a habit he had fallen into the past two months. Ever since his granddaughter-in-law, Ana Maria, had disappeared.
He sighed wearily, shaking his head. It was futile, the old don knew deep down, but he just couldn't help himself. There had been one terse note from Felipe about six weeks ago. But since then, they had not heard anything from him.
The elder de la Vega remembered how he had felt when his Felicidad had died. Even though over twenty years had passed, the pain was still fresh. Suicide had been an option he had considered for only a split second. She wouldn't have wanted that, he had realized. And then there had been Diego. The poor boy had been heart-broken as it was, to have lost his father at the same would have totally devastated the twelve-year old lad.
Don Alejandro only hoped Felipe would not contemplate taking the coward's way out. Every night he prayed that he and Diego had not failed his adopted grandson, that they had instilled in him what it meant to be an honorable man.
He was about to give up his vigil and return to the desk piled with papers that awaited him. He started to turn when the lumbering coach came into view, passing through the pueblo's gate. It shuddered to a stop in front of the tavern before Don Alejandro walked over to see what it had brought.
A couple of passengers alit from the vehicle but several more remained seated inside. The driver tossed down pieces of luggage and the sack that contained the mail. The old don watched as the owner of the general store, who doubled as the pueblo's postmaster, opened the pouch and retrieved the post for Los Angeles. The outgoing mail was tossed into the bag, then it was handed back to the driver.
The storekeeper, Señor Chavez, sorted through the envelopes. As always, a number of people were gathered around, waiting to see if there was something for them. If the postman found anything, he handed it over.
Don Alejandro stood back, his arms folded across his chest. Usually, Chavez, knowing the elder de la Vega was looking for a letter from his grandson, would glance up at him and shake his head. But today, he held up an envelope and stepped toward the old don.
"Alcalde, one for you and Don Diego," the shopkeeper announced as he handed to the surprised caballero.
A quick peek at the handwriting told him it was from Felipe. He tore it open eagerly and swiftly scanned its contents. Then he let out of whoop of happiness.
"He found her!" Don Alejandro re-read the missive again to make sure he wasn't mistaken. He put his hand on Chavez' arm. "Wait. Is there one for Señora Ortega?"
The other man shuffled the letters again and withdrew another envelope from their midst. He gave it to the elder de la Vega.
The old don hurried across the plaza to the dressmaker's shop. "Señora!" he shouted as he entered the building. "He found her! Felipe found Ana Maria!"
Don Alejandro's proclamation was greeted by the sound of breaking glass. He rushed back to the living quarters and saw Leonora standing there. She wore a stunned expression on her face and there was a broken tea cup at her feet.
He handed her the letter. "It's wonderful news," he said, a bit uncomfortably. Even though the woman's daughter was married to his grandson and she was about to marry his good friend Mendoza, he felt very awkward around her. Señora Ortega was a hard person to know, he had thought on more than one occasion.
Leonora accepted the missive with a shaky hand. Her fingers fumbled with it and it took her several minutes to open the envelope "Sh-She's all right," murmured the seamstress. She then glanced up at Don alejandro. "Felipe found her at a convent south of Monterey? What on earth was she doing there?"
"I don't know," the old don replied. "He didn't say." He glimpsed at the missive in her hands. It appeared to be identical to his own except for a few sentences at the bottom of hers. ‘I am so sorry, Mama. Please forgive me. I love you. - Ana Maria'
Don Alejandro perused his missive again. "It does say they will be here the end of next month for the wedding," he commented.
Leonora gasped. The wedding. There were so many things to do that she had been putting off because of Ana Maria's disappearance. She sighed as she thought of all the hard work she would have to do to get everything done on time. And the first thing she needed to do was to let the groom know the nuptials were back on.
Don Alejandro seemingly read her mind as he suggested, "I'll go find Mendoza. He's going to be over the moon at this news."
Leonora nodded. "Gracias, Don Alejandro," she offered. "For everything."
He patted her hand. "De nada."
The old don then departed to go in search of the capitan, who no doubt
was at the tavern for his mid-afternoon snack.
Z Z Z
LATE SEPTEMBER 1826
The morning of the wedding was overcast, gray clouds threatening rain before the day was over. "I do hope the weather holds until after the ceremony," Ana Maria commented to Felipe as she glanced out the window of her old bedroom. "You know what they say about rain on a wedding day."
Felipe just chuckled at his wife's superstitious notion as he came up behind, circling his arms around her. He kissed her on the neck then let one hand slid down to rest on her stomach. They had just figured out she was pregnant again and for now were keeping it their secret. Not just because they didn't want to upstage her mother and Mendoza's wedding but because they both were terrified. They had confessed to each other that they were worried about getting too attached to this child because of losing the first one.
Felipe grinned wickedly as his hand then traveled upward, finding the soft flesh of her breast. Ana Maria pulled away from him.
"Querido, not now," she scolded but she was smiling as well. "I have to go help Mama get ready. Besides," she leaned toward him and whispered in his ear. "I thought you would be tired from last night."
"Never," he moaned as she nibbled on his neck. He groaned in protest when she suddenly moved away again.
"Why don't you go see how Jaime is holding up?" suggested Ana Maria. "I'm sure he could use a helping hand today."
Felipe nodded, remembering how tipsy his future father-in-law had been the previous evening. His own experiences in intemperance had him sympathizing with Mendoza. He gave Ana Maria one more kiss before exiting the dressmaking shop and making his way across the plaza to the cuartel
Madre de Dios, thought Jaime. He was getting married in just two hours. He felt slightly panicked, which was not helped by his aching head and queasy stomach. It had been a bad idea to drink as much as he had the night before. But at the time, the alcohol had relaxed him, causing him to feel he was not about to make the biggest mistake of his life.
Leonora was a fine woman, he chastised himself for thinking otherwise. He loved her and she loved him. At least that is what he desperately wanted to believe.
Their feelings for each other were the least of his worries at the moment though. It was the thought of the wedding night that lay ahead that had him tied up in knots. It had been over fifteen years since the last time he had been with a woman. And that final experience had left him with such self-revulsion, it was not something he had wanted to repeat for a long time.
Mendoza had been stationed then in Mexico City, where he had been awaiting word of his transfer to Los Angeles. The young lancer had left his hometown ten years earlier when he had joined the army at the age of fifteen.
The priests at the orphanage had been opposed to his enlistment into the military. Jaime had overheard a conversation between the padre and one of the local caballeros who wanted him as a vaquero on his rancho. Mendoza had run away that very night. He didn't wish to become a farmer or rancher. He wanted to be a soldier.
In the intervening ten years, he had been stationed all over the Spanish territories, not just Mexico but Guatemala, Venezuela, and Panama as well. Mendoza had wanted to see some of the world and he had done so. But now his assignment back to California was something he had looked forward to for several years.
Then finally, his transfer papers came through. He was very excited to be going home. Jaime and several of his fellow lancers went out to celebrate his good fortune. The bordello they chose as the site of their revelry was one the men frequented quite often.
The wine had been freely flowing and in a short while, the soldiers were feeling no pain. There had been a new girl there that night and they were all vying for her attentions. Mendoza was as surprised as anyone that she picked him to take her upstairs.
The young lancer barely remembered what happened the rest of that night. He vaguely recalled them having relations but after that it was very fuzzy. It wasn't until much later that he realized the woman had put something into his wine. When he had awakened the next afternoon, he was lying in the filthy alleyway behind the bordello. All his money was gone, a whole month's pay. And for several days afterwards, his head had felt as though a marching band were playing inside of it.
The unfortunate incident had made him swear off prostitutes forever. Which was just as well, since Mendoza was returning to his hometown. The dream he had of finding a nice girl, getting married and raising a family would finally become a reality. Or so he thought.
Jaime had not been back in Los Angeles for very long before he realized the eligible women in the pueblo weren't interested in a stocky, homely sergeant. Especially one whom they remembered as a poor orphan boy. He did court a few young ladies, only to see them marry handsomer and wealthier suitors.
Then Luis Ramón became the alcalde of Los Angeles. The lancers stationed at the cuartel were already eyed with suspicion; mainly for their part in the execution of the beloved Señora Escalante. After Ramón's arrival, the attitude of the pueblo's citizens had become downright hostile toward the soldiers, who were just following their commandante's orders.
Mendoza had nearly given up on every finding a wife. The pain caused by the beautiful but perfidious Amanda Herrera's acceptance, then refusal of his marriage proposal still hurt. Ramón's cousin, the domineering Hermalinda had scared him to death. He decided he was never going to find someone who would love him and accept him for who he was, a never-going-to-be-rich soldier.
Leonora Ortega had lived in the pueblo for almost six months before the sergeant really noticed her. Mendoza learned she was widow, she had her own business and she had raised her daughter by herself. She was not a beautiful woman but she had a pleasant countenance. Jaime had found to his sorrow that the beautiful women were often shallow, deceitful creatures. The sergeant and the seamstress had started spending time together; dinners at the tavern, dancing at fiestas, etc.
Their courtship had been a amiable one. The only thing that bothered Jaime was Leonora's lack of physical affection. Her confession of Ana Maria's conception explained a lot but also worried him . Evidently it had been over twenty years since she had been with a man and that last experience with her husband had been an disagreeable one.
Jaime was shaking with trepidation. What if he too made Leonora unhappy? The pressure the soldier was feeling made him nearly jump out of his boots when there was a rap on his door.
"Who. . . Who is it?" he called out nervously.
Mendoza immediately open the door, inviting the young man into his quarters. The two men looked at each other then looked away, both recalling the only other time Felipe had visited the older man's room. The remembered events of the previous year brought a smile to Felipe's handsome face.
Jaime, on the other hand, was thinking about how anxious he had been. Madre de Dios! He had been so worried that Alcalde de Soto would discover that he had released Felipe from his cell to rendezvous with his sweetheart.
Ana Maria had been so insistent, she would not take no for an answer. Mendoza tried to let her know he did not approved of what would happen, but the young woman had persisted. Memories of the incident reminded him that Leonora still didn't know what had occurred that night. But hopefully it was all water under the bridge as the young couple had married six months earlier.
Jaime looked over at Felipe with a inspired thought. Maybe the young man could give him some pointers on how to.. to please a woman. After all, he was newly wed. Mendoza had caught glimpses of Felipe and Ana Maria kissing, embracing and generally being unable to keep their hands off of each other.
"Uh, Felipe," the nervous bridegroom began, "I was wondering if you could.. you know, give me some. . .uh. . .advice."
Felipe winced as he realized just what Mendoza wanted advice about, tips on how to make love to Ana Maria's mother. Dios mio, he thought, closing his eyes, which he quickly opened again as he got a mental picture that made him shudder. Glancing at his future father-in-law, he saw the older man was desperate. Felipe decided to take pity on the poor soldier.
With a heavy sigh, the young man asked Jaime
what he wished to know, praying silently that the other man at least knew
Z Z Z
The wedding ceremony went on without a hitch. The threatened rain stayed away until later that evening, much to Ana Maria's satisfaction.
It was the happiest moment of Jaime's life when he saw Leonora being escorted up the aisle by her son-in-law Felipe. She looked quite lovely to him in her pale blue dress with white flowers decorating her dark brown hair. He had become concerned for a moment as he was placing the gold ring on her finger when he noticed tears in her eyes. But then she smiled and he knew they were tears of joy.
The rest of the afternoon passed by in a blur. The wedding reception was held at the tavern, with Victoria making sure all of Mendoza's favorite foods were present. But the capitan had been too unsettled though to eat much of anything. Dwelling on the evening ahead still filled him with dread. Even the advice that Felipe had given him did nothing to ease it.
Jaime was extremely grateful that the dancing gave him something else to do and think about. He could forget about his fears as he danced with Victoria, Ana Maria, and other female guests. But his qualms had rushed to the forefront of his mind as he waltzed his bride across the dance floor.
As it grew later and later into the evening, the wedding guests began departing. Soon all that were left were the de la Vega contingent and the newlyweds. Once again, Victoria insisted her old quarters at the tavern be used as a honeymoon suite. Mendoza was eventually going to move into the dressmaking shop with Leonora, turning over his room at the garrison to Sergeant Sepulveda.
Little Alfonso was asleep in his grandfather's arms as they headed out to the carriage, followed by Victoria and Diego. Felipe and Ana Maria were the last to leave. Ana Maria kissed her mother's cheek one more time as Felipe patted Mendoza on the back.
"Remember, take it slow," he whispered to his new father-in-law. Ana Maria gave her husband a mystified look. Felipe just grinned mischievously at his wife as he led her across the plaza to the dressmaking shop.
Jaime turned to gaze at Leonora. He could see that she was a nervous as he, possibly even more so. He gallantly offered his arm. "Sh-Shall we?" he asked.
"Si," she replied as she placed her hand on his proffered arm. She smiled at him, a smile he could see was full of trepidation. They made their way to Victoria's old bedroom.
Again, the former innkeeper had specially prepared the ‘honeymoon suite'. An oil lamp was turned down low. A bottle of white wine and two long stemmed glasses graced the bedside table. A dressing screen was set up in the corner opposite the bed upon which laid the couple's nightclothes.
"Oh my," murmured Leonora, bringing her hand to her mouth. She was very apprehensive about the night ahead. Victoria and Ana Maria had tried to calm her fears by giving her bits of advice. Only it had been liberally sprinkled with giggling and silliness, managing to make Leonora more uneasy.
It had been such a long time since she had been with a man. And it had only been twice. And it had been quite unpleasant and painful.
She glanced over at her new husband. Her mood softened as she saw that he was as scared as she was. "Jaime," she said quietly, placing her hand on his.
"Would you like a glass of wine?" he asked nervously, thinking perhaps a little alcohol might help them both relax.
Leonora nodded. Jaime opened the bottle of wine, then filled the two glasses. He handed one to his new wife.
"To us," he toasted and they touched their glasses together. "Let's promise to never hurt each other,"
"I promise," vowed Leonora. They each took a sip of the wine.
"We have the rest of our lives together," Jaime said before taking another drink. "We can go as slowly as you want."
She set her glass down on the table. "Gracias," she said before kissing his cheek. He put his wine down then embraced her tightly.
"I do love you, Leonora."
She closed her eyes and smiled. "I love you too, Jaime."
Mendoza gazed at her, with a happy grin
on his face. It was the first time she had declared her love to him.
His fears were all for naught, he thought cheerfully. He kissed his
bride, a kiss she shyly returned.
Z Z Z
"NOT TO BE" - CHAPTER THREE