The first place they looked was the livery stable.  Si, the young man there had told them, a beautiful young lady had bought a horse there that morning.  His patron had sold her a chestnut mare probably about nine o'clock.

     Felipe glanced at Diego in dismay.  That meant she had quite a head start, nearly twelve hours.  The stable hand had no idea which direction she had taken.  They would never find her, Felipe despaired with a groan.

    "Don't give up," Diego advised, reading the other man's thoughts.  "I think she probably headed north."  When his son stared at him, the doubt plain on his face, he continued, "Well, she couldn't go much farther west.  There's not much to the east.   I don't think she would go toward Los Angeles.  That leaves only northward."

     The young man nodded.  He was extremely grateful Diego had shown up.  He would have been totally lost without him.

     Diego shook his head.  "Let's get some sleep, then start searching in the morning," he suggested as they walked back to the cottage.

     "All right," agreed Felipe.  He had the air of a much older, defeated man that had his father deeply concerned.

    Would life ever become easy for Felipe, wondered Diego.  One would think that the struggles he had already overcome would have been enough for a person to endure in one lifetime.  It seemed as soon as the young man cleared one obstacle, another quickly appeared in its place.

     It was after midnight and the younger de la Vega still could not fall asleep.  The events of the past few days kept replaying through his head.  He had so many questions.  Did Ana Maria find out about Sofia?  And if she didn't know, why did she run away?  Why had she not let him touch her for nearly two months, then allow him to make love to her the previous evening?  Had she been planning to leave all along?

     Checking to make sure he hadn't disturbed Diego, who was asleep in the spare room, he went outside and lit up a cigar.  Even though Ana Maria wasn't there to scold him for what she called his ‘nasty habit', he still respected her wishes that he didn't smoke in the house.

     Damn, he missed her.  It had only been a few hours since he learned she was gone, but in truth, she had left him two months ago.  Ever since they had lost the baby, she had pushed him away and had retreated into herself.  Unbidden tears formed in his dark brown eyes.  He wished she had shared her pain with him.  They both had been crushed by the loss of their child but he knew she bore the grief even harder than he.

     What he had feared had to be true, that she had become mentally imbalanced.  That was the only explanation that made any sense of her behavior.  He inhaled deeply on his cheroot, then exhaled.

     "Do you have another one of those?"

     Felipe was startled by both the sound of Diego's voice and his request.  He reached into his shirt pocket and handed a cigar to his father as the other man sat down next to him on the bench.

     He stared incredulously as Diego expertly lit the cheroot.  The older man glanced over at him and smiled.  "Don't tell Victoria," he said with a laugh.  "I only sneak one once in awhile."

     "Your secret is safe with me."  As soon as the words left his mouth, Felipe felt their impact.  Looking at Diego, he could see that they had affected him as well.

     "I know, hijo," his father said after a few moments.  "I've always been able to trust you.  You never betrayed me all those years."

     "Y-You were my hero," declared Felipe.  "I wanted to be just like you."  He dropped his head into his hands.  "I've made such a mess of my life, Diego.  I-I'm sorry."

     "You don't have to apologize to me."

     "Yes, I do.  You told me to wait, that I didn't know her that well.  That we were both too young."  He raised his head.  "You were right."

     "Do you still love her?"

     "Si," he said as tears once again filled his eyes.  "I don't how I can live without her."

     Diego nodded, knowing he felt the same way about Victoria and now Alfonso.  He had been right, Felipe needed a father's guidance right now.  Knowing how despondent his son could get, he was glad he was here to offer him a life line.

     "We'll find her," stated Diego with a little more optimism than he felt.  "Don't lose hope, Felipe."

     The young man sighed as he crushed out his cigar.  He nodded, but he knew deep down in his heart he already had.
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     Reluctant to take off more time from his apprenticeship, Felipe was forced to do so once again.  He told Don Ernesto the truth.  The older man was quite understanding although somewhat unhappy about the situation.  Diego sensed the lawyer's frustration as well.

     Father and son spent the next three days traveling as far northward as they could before doubling back to Santa Paula.  Felipe had drawn a small sketch of Ana Maria that they showed to nearly everyone they could in every pueblo they visited.

     No one had seen the young woman.  It was as though she had disappeared from the face of the earth.  This only increased Felipe's despair.  Had something horrendous befallen her?  He tried to push those kind of thoughts from his mind to no avail.

     It was very late on Sunday evening Diego and Felipe rode back into Santa Paula.  The elder de la Vega felt as dispirited as his son looked.  But he had done all he could and now he needed to get back to Victoria and Alfonso.

     "I-I'll be all right," Felipe had tried to reassure him next morning as he prepared to leave for Los Angeles.

     "Very well," Diego agreed to the obvious lie.  He patted the young man on the shoulder.  "Come and visit when you can," he added.  "We all miss you."

     "I miss all of you too."

     "Oh, before I forget," Diego reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a piece of paper.  "Father said you wanted this."

     The lease, his son thought forlornly.  Somehow it didn't seem so important anymore.  But then very little did.  "Gracias," Felipe replied as he accepted the document.  "Give everyone my love.  Adios."

     "Adios," Diego returned as he swung up into the saddle on Toronado's back.  Felipe watched as his adopted father rode out of town toward Los Angeles.  Taking a deep breath, he himself headed back to the little cottage where he now lived alone.

     Ana Maria was all he could think about day and night.  He had so many questions that only she could answer.   And the likelihood that he would ever receive those answers grew dimmer with each passing day.
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     It had been nearly two months since Ana Maria had disappeared.  Felipe discovered that life went on whether he wanted it to or not.  He couldn't help though but dwell on what might have happened to his wife.

     He buried himself in his work, hoping it would take his mind off Ana Maria and stave off the black depression he knew into which he could easily fall.   He went to Santa Barbara to arrange for surveyors to check the property lines between the two dons and the freeholders' holdings.  It was discovered that the land had never been formally measured before and that the fence lines were off only a few meters, sometimes in the dons' favor, sometimes in the peasants'.

     Felipe had called a meeting between the freeholders, Don Vicente and Don Lorenzo and told them of the findings.  Everyone seemed to be satisfied by the results but Salazar had given him a glance that shot daggers as he had left the lawyer's office.   Was it because of the land dispute or had Sofia told him of their trysts?

     Don Lorenzo was an important man in Santa Paula.  To make an enemy of him would not be a good idea, Felipe mused.   The lease for the house was straightforward, no hidden clauses or conditions.  Maybe Salazar dealt honestly with those of his own class while tromping upon the backs of the peasants.  Felipe was like Diego, such men made him extremely angry.

     He was surprised to receive an invitation to a birthday party for Sofia Salazar.  He had not seen her since Ana Maria had run away.  Should he go?  He pondered it over before deciding that he should, mostly to keep in his landlord's good graces.  He only wished that Juan had been invited too.  He would feel more sure of himself if his amigo was there to keep him out to trouble.

     The celebration was in full swing as he arrived at the Salazar hacienda on the appointed evening.  Servants attended to his horse and showed him to a large veranda.  Lanterns and candles were everywhere as were flowers and food.

     Felipe did not know most of the people there.  A few of the women he recognized as some of the friends Ana Maria had made when she first came to Santa Paula.  When they saw him, they whispered to each other then threw him sly glances.  He ignored them.  These were the same women who had deserted his wife after the miscarriage.

     He never knew if Ana Maria had ever heard the remarks that had been made about her at the time.  Doctor Gomez had a big mouth, it seemed.  Thanks to him, the gossips found out that she had already been with child when they had wed.  Juan had told him some of what had been bandied around the pueblo.  He had wondered why she received all the censure.  He had been to blame just as much as she.

     Felipe was lost deep in his thoughts when a small hand grabbed his forearm and pulled him toward an dark, secluded alcove.  Groaning with chagrin, he saw that it was Sofia.  She was ravishingly gorgeous in a white silk dress, trimmed with flowers and lace, her ample breasts decorously covered.  He had to hide a smile.  Was she trying to pass herself off as an innocent virgin?  He and probably most of the men present knew that was a lie.  She probably hadn't been one for a long time.

     "Feliz Cumpleaños," he said politely.

     "Gracias," she replied carelessly.  She stepped closer to him.  "I heard your wife left you.  Was it because of me?"  The look on her beautiful face told him that she hoped it was true.  She was truly a twisted person, Felipe thought.

     "No, Sofia, believe it or not, it had nothing to do with you."  He retreated backward.

     The young woman pouted prettily.  "Oh Felipe, you can tell me," she said.  She came toward him again.  He tried to back away but bumped up against a wall.  Seeing her prey was trapped, Sofia smiled wickedly.  She pressed her body to his.

     "I love you, Felipe," she declared, casting her eyes down demurely.  "I can't stop thinking about you."  She then looked up at him boldly.  "Please, I want you and I know you want me."

     He tried to squirm away but that only made matters worse.  Did she really love him?  He sincerely doubted it.  He was one of probably very few men who had resisted her wiles, which had to wound her vanity.  She would say anything if she thought it would seduce him into her bed.

     Words were not necessary however.  His desire was growing just from the feel of her against him. Felipe took a deep breath. It felt like forever since he had held in his arms a woman who wanted him.

     But it didn't matter, he refused to give in to her charms.  He gazed down at Sofia's face.  "Why do you do this to yourself?" he inquired.  "You are a beautiful woman.  You shouldn't throw yourself at every man who comes along, especially ones who are married."

     "Why do you care?"  Tears began to form in her green eyes.

     "I don't know," he answered honestly.  "I just think it is a shame.  You should have more respect for yourself."

     "You don't know anything about me," she hissed.  "My father hates me and I hate him."

     Felipe said nothing.  She reminded him of Marta Bautista, the young woman who had caused so much distress for him and Ana Maria last year.  Marta had also been a troubled girl.  Fortunately she had not become pregnant as a result of her rape by Alonzo Montoya.  Even so, she had gone to live with an aunt and uncle in San Clemente.  The last Felipe had heard, about six months ago she had married a farmer who lived next door to her relatives.

     "He wanted me to marry one of his friends when I was sixteen," Sofia broke the silence.  "He was a horrible old man.  I gave my virginity to our stable boy and became pregnant.  My novio wanted nothing to do with me after that. Papa made arrangements for the baby to be adopted by friends of my aunt's in Monterey."  She stopped to wipe the tears from her face.  "My father tried to marry me off to another of his widowed friends.  I seduced both of the man's sons and made sure he found out about it.  My father was livid.  He beat me."

     She looked at Felipe again.  "He told me I was a whore.  I started seducing his married friends, making sure he knew about every affair.  I got pregnant again last year.  I had to give her away too."  Sofia had to pause again as she tried not to cry  "She's six months old now.  I got to see her just for a moment.  She was so beautiful."

     Felipe held her in his arms as she finally started sobbing.  He felt sorry for this poor confused child.  Don Lorenzo is the one who should be beaten, he thought angrily.  The more he learned about the man, the less he wanted to know.

     "My father doesn't know I've tried to sleep with you.  I didn't want him to hurt you," Sofia said.  She glanced up at him through her tears.  "I'm sorry if I have caused you any trouble with your wife."

     "My wife and I lost our baby," he said quietly.  "She would have been born in about a month.  Ana Maria was devastated.  So was I."

    "Is that why she left you?  If you were mine, I'd never let you go," she stated fiercely.   Felipe was surprised by her fervor.  Perhaps she did have real feelings for him after all.  Maybe if. . .

     Oh Dios, how could he even think such a thing?  Ana Maria was not dead.  He had to breathe deeply to calm himself.  "I don't know why she left," he replied honestly once he could speak again.  "Sofia, I'm sorry, but there can never be anything between us.  I shouldn't have become involved with you at all.  It was wrong.  Very wrong."

     She lowered her gaze.  "I know," she agreed.  "I'm sorry too.  I. . .  I. . ."  She placed her hand upon his cheek.

     Felipe smiled as he grasped her wrist and moved it away.  "I know.  If we had met at another time, under different circumstances. . .  Who knows?"  He could not deny they were physically attracted to each other.  But Felipe's heart belonged to Ana Maria and always would.

     "Gracias," she murmured softly.  She reached up and kissed him firmly on the lips.  He gently returned the gesture.

    The sound of someone angrily clearing their throat drew both Felipe and Sofia's attention.  Felipe was stunned to see Don Lorenzo standing there, a furious expression on his round face.

     "Well, well, well," he drawled, "what do we have here?"
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