"A PERFECT MATCH"

CHAPTER ONE

     Don Alejandro de la Vega was an extremely wealthy man.  His ranchero spread out over nearly fifty thousand acres.  His herds of cattle and sheep were the best that money could buy.  The hacienda where he lived was the grandest home for miles around.

     But Don Alejandro was also an old man.  He unhappily faced the fact of his age every day when he looked into the mirror.  He now peered into one a little closer as he tied his neck tie.  Yes, he thought, his hair was getting greyer, the lines in his face were more pronounced.  And still he had no grandchildren.  No hardy muchachos or bashful little niñas to dangle upon his knee.

     And if such matters were going to be left up to his son, there would not be any grandchildren for a long time yet.

     Don Alejandro had been discussing that very problem with his old friend, Don Eduardo Delgado that very morning at the tavern. Don Alejandro had come in for an early lunch and had found Don Eduardo there, sipping a glass of wine.

     The two exchanged pleasantries, then Don Alejandro sat down with his friend.  Don Eduardo had told him he was waiting for the arrival of the coach from Mexico City.  For it was bringing his eighteen year old daughter, Catalina, home after spending the last six years with his late wife's sister in Mexico City.

     "It would be a perfect match," Don Eduardo had said.  "Your son, Diego and my daughter."

     "Yes, it would," Don Alejandro had agreed, mulling it over in his mind while taking a sip of his wine.

     Don Eduardo did the same, then leaned a little closer across the table toward his friend.

     "I must confess that I was at a loss as to what to do with Catalina.  Marriage would be an ideal solution to both our problems," he said. He stopped as a coughing spasm hit him.

     "Are you all right?" inquired Don Alejandro

     "It's nothing," Don Eduardo wheezed, catching his breath.  "Just all this dust."  He waved his hand in the air.  Then he straightened back up before adding, "You and Diego must dine with us tonight, Don Alejandro."

     The scheming caballeros quickly arranged a dinner party for that evening.  Don Alejandro had stayed with his friend until the coach finally arrived in the plaza.

      Señorita Catalina Delgado turned out to be a very lovely, delicate young lady, with dark blue eyes and fashionably styled dark auburn hair.

     "She looks even more like her dear departed mother," Don Eduardo whispered, tears welling up in his eyes.

     He went over and helped his daughter from the coach.  The pair embraced while Don Alejandro watched with interest.  A trifle young maybe, he thought, but then that might make her easier for Diego to handle.  Besides, a little high-spiritedness would not come amiss.  It just might shake his stuffy son up a bit.

     Don Alejandro finished fiddling with his tie, finally satisfied with his appearance.  He left his bedroom in order to go in search of his unsuspecting son.
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     His son, Don Diego de la Vega, at that moment, was in the secret cave buried underneath the lavish hacienda.  He was working on a new project and was so caught up in it, he had completely forgotten all about the dinner invitation his father had informed him of earlier that afternoon.

     Strewn across the laboratory table were almost a hundred different species of plants.  Diego and Felipe had spent most of the morning collecting their specimens.  And now, Diego was attempting to match each plant with pictures in a large book of Spanish botany. So far he had found only a few that were similar and only two that matched exactly, purslane and salsify.

     Felipe, still recovering from his concussion, was sitting quietly on a stool, merely observing his adopted father leafing through the book..

     Diego picked up yet another specimen.  He was flipping through the botany book when the sound of his father's voice interrupted him.

     "Diego!" Don Alejandro called as he walked into the library. Seeing that his son was not there, he turned and left the room, calling again, "Diego!"

     "Drat," said the object of his search, throwing down the plant he was holding.  He glanced about disparagingly at the mess on the laboratory table.  "I had better go see what he wants."

     Diego paused to peer through the viewing hole, then continued on his way out of the cave, ducking under the archway.  Emerging into the library, he quickly grabbed his guitar then he plopped himself down onto the settee.  Diego began to strum  it just as his father reappeared.

     "Diego, there you are," Don Alejandro said in exasperated.  "Haven't you heard me calling you?"

     Diego looked up slowly from his instrument.  "Oh, hello, Father," he remarked innocently.

     "Is that what you are wearing?" his father asked, noticing his son's somewhat rumpled white shirt and dusty blue trousers.

     Diego glanced down at his clothes and shrugged.  "It appears so," he answered.

     Don Alejandro took out his pocket watch and looked at the time. "Well, come on then, at least put on a tie and jacket.  We are going to be late."

     "Late?" queried his son, a little perplexed.  "Late for what?"

     "Dinner at the Delgado's."  Don Alejandro was getting a little perturbed.  "Please do not tell me have you forgotten all about it."

     Diego grinned sheepishly.  "I guess I did," he admitted.  He stood up, setting the guitar aside.  "I will go get ready."

     "Hurry up," his father called after him as he left the room.

      Half an hour later, the de la Vegas were admitted into the Delgado hacienda.  Its style was similar to that of the de la Vega's, but not quite as grand.  Don Eduardo, resplendent in a new suit, stepped forward eagerly to greet his guests.

     "Don Alejandro, Diego," he said enthusiastically.  "This way, por favor.  Dinner is almost ready."

     He led them to the dining room, where the long mahogany table was prepared with fine china, crystal and linens.  Diego looked over at his father, questioning the unexpected formality.  Most dinners with Don Eduardo were quite informal.  Don Alejandro caught Diego's glance and shrugged his shoulders innocently.  They all  turned when a lovely young woman glided into the room.  Don Eduardo immediately escorted her over to where the de la Vega men were standing.

     "Alejandro, Diego, you remember my daughter, Catalina?" asked Don Eduardo as he presented her.

     "Indeed," replied Don Alejandro, acting as though he had not met her earlier that day.  "But she is all grown up now and quite beautiful, is she not, Diego?"  Catalina blushed demurely at the compliment.

     "Si," was Diego's terse answer.

     "She has just returned from Mexico City," explained Don Eduardo, "where she has been living with her aunt.  Catalina attended the ladies' academy there, Diego.  The two of you should have much in common since you are both so highly educated"

     Diego nodded his acknowledgment, grimacing slightly as he realized that the two older gentlemen were not so subtly matchmaking.  He smiled politely at Catalina, who was gazing up at him shyly.

     Don Alejandro nudged Diego with his elbow.  "Help her to her chair," he whispered.

     Diego had no choice but to escort the lovely young señorita to the table.  The glare he gave his father was heavy with displeasure and muttered under his breath,  "Oh, Father."

     Catalina glanced up quickly at him and he plastered the polite smile back on his face.  A frown marred his handsome face though as he took his seat beside her.

     Dinner was quite awkward,  with the two scheming fathers trying hard to draw their two children together into the conversation.  Diego found Catalina a pleasant enough girl, but she lacked the independence and passion that Victoria had. A servant began clearing the plates from the table.  Don Alejandro brought his napkin to his lips as his empty plate was removed.  "Absolutely delicious as always, Eduardo," he said.

     "Gracias," replied his host.  He looked over at Diego, whose dinner had hardly been touched.  "Is something wrong your meal, Diego?"

     Diego put his napkin on his dish as a servant took it away.  "No, Don Eduardo," he answered.  "I just seem to have no appetite tonight."

     He shot his father a disgusted look.  Don Alejandro would not meet Diego's angry green eyes.

     "Catalina, my dear," Eduardo said, oblivious to the tension between the de la Vegas, "Why don't you show Diego our courtyard garden.  It is very beautiful in the moonlight."

     "Si, Papa," she agreed obediently.  Diego rolled his eyes as he stood up and  helped the señorita from her chair.

     "This way, Don Diego," she said and went through a curtained archway.  Having no other choice, Diego followed after her.

      The two plotting caballeros waited until the young couple were gone, then raised their wine glasses.

     "To Diego and Catalina," Don Eduardo offered as a toast.

     They both took a drink.  Don Alejandro leaned forward and said, "They do make a handsome couple, don't they?"

     "Si," replied Don Eduardo.  "Just imagine, the de la Vega and the Delgado lands joined together.  Our grandsons will be the richest men in all of California."

     "Es la verdad," Don Alejandro agreed.  "I just hope Diego will be able to handle the responsibility of it all."  When he saw his co-conspirator's raised eyebrows, he added, "Not that Diego is irresponsible, it is just that he fancies himself a scientist and poet, not a rancher."

     "We will have to stick around to make sure all goes well then," suggested Don Eduardo with a small chuckle.  He raised his glass again.

     Don Alejandro did the same and the two touched their goblets together in a silent toast.

     Diego and Catalina did not linger long in the Delgado courtyard, running out small talk quite quickly. They returned to the hacienda and so were forced to endure more of their paternal parents' matchmaking.  The evening mercifully came to an end and the de la Vegas arrived back at their hacienda a little after midnight.  Felipe was in the library, asleep in a chair with a law book opened and draped across his lap.

     "He must have tried to wait up for us," Don Alejandro remarked. He turned to look at Diego.  "Tell me, Diego, isn't Catalina the most charming señorita?"

     Diego tried to contain his anger as he answered his father, but a bit slipped through in his reply.

     "I know you mean well, Father," he said.  "But I am quite capable of finding a wife on my own."

     "When?" his father demanded to know.  "I am an old man, Diego. I want to see my grandchildren before I die.  If I wait for you. . ."

     He broke off as Diego felt his anger dissipate and contrition set in.  "Don't worry, Father," he said, patting his father on the shoulder.  "I wish that too."

     Don Alejandro sighed heavily.  "I am going to bed now," he announced.  "You might want to wake Felipe.  His neck will be sore in the morning if he sleeps there all night."

     He took his leave.  Diego watched him go as the events of the evening raced through his mind..  He reached down and shook Felipe's shoulder to wake him from his uncomfortable slumbers.
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      The next morning, the Alcalde was up early and working at his desk.  He glanced up sharply when a private entered his office.  The young soldier saluted, then held out his hand to the Alcalde.  It contained several letters.

     "The mail, Alcalde sir," the private said, placing the envelopes on the desk.  Then he turned on his heel and left the office.

     De Soto picked up the letters, sorting through them without much interest. An envelope bearing the King's royal seal seized his attention.  He promptly opened it and scanned its contents.

     That morning happened to be market day in the pueblo.  Don Alejandro, Diego and Felipe all came into town, riding in their carriage.  Diego was immediately deserted by both his father and son; Don Alejandro went off with some of his friends to watch the cattle auction and Felipe went in search of Ana Maria.  Diego wandered aimlessly around the stalls until he quite literally bumped into Victoria, knocking her basket from her hand.

     "Oh, I am so sorry, Victoria," he apologized at once.

     "It's all right, Diego," Victoria said as she knelt down to pick up the spilled contents of her basket.

     Diego crouched down to help her.  When everything had been dusted off and put back, he lifted the basket as he stood up.  Then he took Victoria's hand and assisted her to her feet.

     "Gracias, Diego," she said as he did not relinquish her hand immediately.  Something about the way his hand felt in hers seemed oddly familiar.  She gave him a strange look.

     Diego, realizing what was going through her mind, allowed her hand to fall.  "Allow me to carry your basket," he offered graciously.

     Victoria nodded her agreement.  They were ready to resume their shopping when Catalina Delgado strolled up to them.  She was dressed in the height of fashion in a peach silk dress. Shading her face from the harsh effects of the sun was a matching parasol.  She was accompanied by her maid, who was carrying her many purchases.  Victoria looked down at her own outfit, a new blue cotton skirt and ivory lace trimmed blouse.  She had felt so stylish this morning when she had put them on, but now beside the other woman, she felt dowdy.

     "Don Diego, how lovely to see you again," Catalina greeted him in a girlish voice. She had been prompted by her father to seek out Don Diego, and she, being an obedient daughter, did as he asked.  She said nothing to Victoria.  This infuriated the other woman.

     "Victoria, you remember Catalina Delgado?" Diego intervened before her temper fully developed..  "She has just arrived home from Mexico City."

     "How nice," Victoria replied a little sarcastically.

     The two women smiled grudgingly at each other.  Then Catalina laid a perfectly manicured hand on Diego's arm.

     "Diego, you must know all the best merchants," she said.  "You must show me around."

     "I am sorry, Señorita, but..."  He started to apologize but he was interrupted by a loud commotion.

     They all turned to see what was happened.  The Alcalde, dressed in his best uniform, was followed by a procession of soldiers who marched to the center of the plaza.  He stepped onto the rim of the fountain.

     "Atencion! Atencion!"  called Sergeant Mendoza to the assembled crowd.

     When the Alcalde had everyone's attention, he began.  "I have just received an edict from the territorial governor."

     Many people groaned and shook their heads.  De Soto ignored them as he continued.

     "As you are all well aware, Spain is at present at war with France.  Many resources are needed to succeed in beating the French.  Food, money and..." he paused a second, "and people.  The governor, by direct order of King Ferdinand, is calling for the enlistment of all young unmarried men, between the ages of sixteen and thirty, to serve their country in this time of conflict."

     The gathered assembly soon became an angry mob.  People shouted and some women were weeping.  Don Alejandro strode over from the stockyard to confront the Alcalde.

     Felipe had heard the announcement but had to pretend he did not. Ana Maria had a stricken look on her face when she turned to look at him.  He put his arm around the young lady to comfort her.  Through the crowd he made eye contact with Diego, who shook his head.  They both turned their attention to the argument that was occurring between Don Alejandro and the Alcalde.

     "This is insane, Alcalde," Don Alejandro asserted quite loudly. "First they take our money and now they want our sons.  Well, I for one, say enough is enough."

      The people cheered in agreement.  Don Alejandro, encouraged by their support, continued his argument.

     "What about men who are supporting elderly parents?" he questioned. "What about the single farmers?  What will happen to their land if they are not there to work it?"

     The Alcalde lifted his hands.  "People, people, calm down," he instructed authoritatively.  "Don Alejandro does raise some valid questions, I agree.  But the edict was quite definite."

     He glanced down at the paper he held in his gloved hand.  "Yes," he stated, reading from it, "All unmarried men, aged sixteen to thirty are to be inducted.  They must report to their local garrison by the end of the month."

     "That is preposterous," Don Alejandro said vigorously.  "Are there no provisions for special situations?  I cannot believe. . ."  Suddenly he stopped his tirade and clutched at his chest.  Then he crumpled to the ground.
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"A PERFECT MATCH"-CHAPTER TWO