"Papa, it's not what you think," said Sofia defiantly.  "Felipe and I. . .  We were just. . ."  She glanced at Felipe shyly.  "We are just friends."

    "You expect me to believe that, you little harlot?" her father asked, barely keeping his temper in check.  "You sicken me, you whore. . ."  He began to raise his fist.

     "Sir, I must ask you to apologize to your daughter," Felipe declared hotly.  He had to keep the older man from striking Sofia.  "What she says is the truth."  He looked over at her and smiled.  "We are just friends."

     "There is only one way she know how to be ‘friends' with a man," stated Salazar.  "She'll lure you into her bed if she hasn't already.  It is disgusting how many lovers she has had."

     "I am not one of them," Felipe declared, "nor will I ever be.  I must ask you again to apologize to Sofia, Don Lorenzo."

     "It will be a cold day in hell before I beg forgiveness from this little trollop," vowed her father.  He shook his head.  "I thought you would have more sense, de la Vega.  You had a beautiful wife.  Did she leave you because of my daughter?"

     "No, Sofia had nothing to do with it," Felipe ground out, now just as furious as Salazar.   He despised the arrogant don.  That he would beat and berate his daughter, no matter what the reason, sickened the young man.

     "I sincerely hope, Señor," he said threateningly, "that you do not ever strike your daughter again.  She has been through enough without you making her even more miserable."

     "What I do to Sofia is none of your business, de la Vega," retorted the older man.

     Felipe contradicted him.  "I'm making it my business.  A gentleman never hits a woman, even if she is his daughter.  Especially if she is his daughter.  You should realize how lucky you are, Don Lorenzo.  I would do anything to be able to hold my child in my arms.  But unfortunately I will never get that chance.

     I'm sorry, Sofia," Felipe said, turning to face the young woman.  "I have to go."  He took her hand and gallantly brought it to his lips.  "Think over what we talked about," he added.  She nodded.  Felipe turned and left the two Salazars standing in the alcove, staring at each other, wondering if they could pick up the pieces of their damaged relationship and become a family again.
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     He went home to his empty house.  He laid on the bed where he and Ana Maria had shared so much happiness.  Dios, he missed her.  He had known the first time he ever saw her that they were destined to be together.  He would never annul the marriage.  He intended to be her husband for the rest of his life.

     That they had lost their child was still painful.  He had never blamed her even though she had blamed herself.  But why, he asked himself.  She had done nothing wrong; these things often happened for no reason.  It was nature's way of taking care of its mistakes.  Diego had explained that to him a long time ago as part of a biology lesson.

     Damn, his anger with her began to rise.  What gave her the right to leave and not tell him why?  And it wasn't only him she was hurting.  Both Leonora and Victoria were frantic with worry about her.  Her mother and Mendoza were putting their wedding plans on hold until she was found.  How could she be so thoughtless of everyone else's feelings?

     He got out one of his cigars and lit it.  He no longer cared anymore about her no smoking in the house rule .  It didn't make much sense to go outside since he was the only one living here.

    He wondered if he should give up the cottage and go back to the boarding house he had first lived in when he came to Santa Paula.  Or should he stay here in the unlikely chance she would return?

    Putting his free hand over his eyes, he moaned then took one last drag from the cheroot before crushing it out in a dish he had placed on the night table for that purpose.  Tomorrow, he thought wearily, I'll worry about all this tomorrow.

     Felipe awoke late the next morning and had to hurry to make it to work on time.  Don Ernesto and Juan were waiting for him in the little nook that was his and the other apprentice's office.

     "Felipe," their patron said a little gruffly.  "I have an assignment for you."

     "Si, sir."  He hoped he didn't bungle it as he did the first case he had been given.

     "I need you to go to Monterey," stated Calderon.  "The magistrate there wants us to give him a summary of all the land disputes we have worked on since last year."  He paused somewhat wearily.  "It seems that the Spanish laws we have been using are no longer valid and there are new Mexican ones that must be applied instead.

     I cannot go, I have that trial next week," he continued.  Felipe nodded, recalling the case dealing with a woman who killed her husband.  She claimed it was in self-defense but the alcalde had arrested her anyway.  Don Ernesto broke into his thoughts.  "And since Juan is assisting me, it leaves only you to take care of this matter."  He gave Felipe a look which the young man grasped the significance of immediately.  He was being given permission to search for Ana Maria while on the way to Monterey and back.

     "You can count on me, sir," declared Felipe.  "When do I leave?"  He was quite eager to commence this journey.

     "Tomorrow," replied Calderon.  "We'll get the cases you need to take with you ready today."

     "Gracias," said Felipe gratefully.

     He left the next morning at daybreak.  The trip to Monterey was a long one and Don Ernesto had given him three weeks before he needed to return.  Felipe didn't want to waste a minute of that allotted time.

    The journey there was uneventful.  The magistrate had quickly reviewed the cases Felipe had brought with him and only a few minor changes were made.  It seemed that Mexican law wasn't all that different from Spanish law after all.

     The young man intended to leave again early the next morning to begin his search in earnest.  On the way north, he had made inquiries at all the lodgings and garrisons in each pueblo in which he stopped.  No one had seen her.

     It was late afternoon the next day and Felipe had ridden a fair distance.  He was beginning to wonder if he should return to the small village he had passed through a few miles back.  He didn't like the look of the dark clouds that were suddenly gathering along the western horizon.  His suspicions were confirmed when he saw a bolt of lightening in the distance, followed by a loud clap of thunder.

     As he rounded a bend in the road, he saw a large hacienda up on a hillside off the main road.  Maybe he could seek shelter there instead of riding back to the village.  He hadn't noticed an inn in the little town anyway.

     Rain was pouring heavily by the time he reached the gates of the hacienda.  The wind has also picked up as the lightening flashed and the thunder boomed.  Viento was beginning to act up, frightened by the storm.

    "Hold on, boy," Felipe reassured him.  "I'll see what I can do about getting us a place to stay for the night."

     He walked the horse up to the front door of the building and dismounted.  There was a roofed portico that he left the stallion under to shelter him from the rain.  Then he knocked loudly on the door.

     The sky lit up as the door was opened. Madre de Dios, thought Felipe.  "Buenas tardes," he greeted the woman standing there.  "I wonder if my horse and I might find shelter here for the night?"

      "All are welcome here, mi hijo," she said.  She was dressed in a loose black gown and her head was covering by a large hood which framed her wrinkled face.  "Welcome to the Convent of the Holy Mother."

     "Gracias, Hermana," said the grateful young man as she motioned him inside.  He glanced back outside.  "My horse?"

     "Julio, our handyman, will take care of him," the nun replied.  "This way, Señor. . ."

     "De la Vega," he supplied his name.  "Felipe de la Vega."

     It must have been his imagination but it sounded like the sister gave a little gasp at the mention of his name.  How would she know who he was unless. . .  She probably thought he was Zorro, he mused wearily.  Even nuns living in a secluded convent had heard of the masked hero.  He shook his head in amazement.

     The woman led him to a large kitchen where a fire was blazing.  She instructed him to stand near it to dry himself.  "I'll go find Julio," the nun stated.  "Supper will be in two hours unless you are hungry now?"

     "No, I can wait," Felipe responded.  He didn't want to be too much of a burden.  Although the house was neat and clean, it was also decidedly shabby as was the sister's habit.  They were obviously an order that took their vow of poverty very seriously, he thought.

     He stood facing the fire, using its warmth to unthaw his hands.  Felipe spun around as he heard someone walk into the room, thinking it was the nun who had ushered him here a few minutes earlier.

    It was not her.  It was his wife.
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     Ana Maria did not noticed the man standing near the fireplace until he turned around and faced her.  Unable to scream, she dropped the basket of apples she had been carrying.  The fruit rolled onto the floor, one apple stopping at Felipe's feet.

     "Felipe?" she whispered, bringing her hands to her face.

     "Ana?"  He kept his voice low as well.

     "What are you doing here?"

     "I could ask the same of you," he replied, gazing at the black garment she wore.  "You haven't become a. . .?"

     "No," Ana Maria interrupted.  "I cannot, I am still your. . ."

     "Wife," Felipe finished for her.  He stepped toward her, encircled her in his arms and kissed her on the lips.

      "Felipe, por favor," she pleaded, pushing him away before the kiss grew too passionate.

      "Dios, Ana, do you know what torment I've been through?" he asked, his voice full of pain.  "I've looked everywhere for you.  I imagined all sorts of horrible things happening to you.  Why did you leave me?"  He removed his hands from her.  "What did I do that made you hate me so much you had to run away from me?"

     "Oh, Felipe, I don't hate you," she answered.  "I love you.  That's why I had to leave."  Her eyes were full of tears.

     He shook his head.  "That doesn't make sense.  If you love me, why would you have to go away?"

     Ana Maria collapsed onto a long wooden bench.  "I just had to.  You would never understand."

     "Please, Ana," he pleaded as he sat next to her.  "I need to know."  The anguish in his voice tore at her heart.

     She looked down at the spotlessly clean floor and took a deep breath.  "I am a bad person.   It was all my fault I had the miscarriage.  I killed our baby."

     "What the hell are you talking about?" he growled out angrily.  He couldn't believe what he was hearing.  She couldn't mean that the way it sounded.

     "Shh. . ." she cautioned then scolded, "and don't curse."

     "Sorry," he apologized, forgetting where he was for a moment.  Continuing in a whisper, he asked, "What do you mean, you killed the baby?"

     "By being a harlot," she stated.  "I am a terrible person, Felipe.  I-I have sinned and I led you astray as well.  That's why the baby died, because it was conceived in sin."  She looked away from his shocked brown eyes.

     "That's nonsense," he uttered once he could speak again.  This is what had been troubling her all this time?  Just because they had been intimate before they were married, she thought that was why they had lost their child?  Who put such foolishness into her head?

     "Dios, Ana Maria, that is not true," he declared fervently.  "You are definitely not a harlot.  Nothing could be further from the truth."  He reached over and grasped her hand.  "We should have waited until we were married, that's true, but we didn't.  You didn't lead me astray.  I knew what I was doing was wrong but that didn't stop me from making love to you anyway.  It was just as much my fault as yours.

     And our child," he continued, "we didn't lose her because our ‘sin'."  He paused to take a deep breath.  "Ana, she just wasn't meant to be.  There was something wrong with her development.  I never told you this before," he said, gazing at her solemnly, "because you were pregnant and I didn't want to frighten you then afterwards, I couldn't bear to.  Diego's mother, Doña Felicidad; she had four miscarriages."

     "Four?" she gasped.  She closed her eyes.  The poor woman.  She had heard of how good and kind Señora de la Vega had been and how devastated everyone had been when she had died.

     Felipe knew what was going through his wife's mind.  It didn't make sense that she, Ana Maria, was being punished for being a bad woman by losing her baby.  Why would such a saint as Diego's mother have had the same thing happen to her?

     "Where did you get these ridiculous notions anyway?" he demanded to know.  "Why didn't you come to me, querida?  I had no idea you were thinking such things."

     "Padre Flores told me it was my fault" she admitted.  "He said that women like me should never be mothers, that we would pass our sinfulness down to our daughters.  Felipe, I-I enjoy. . .what we do together. . .you know. . .in bed.  I know I am not supposed to, but I can't help it."  She hung down her head.   "That's when I knew I had to leave you.  I couldn't let you touch me or else you would be tainted too.  I didn't want to lead you into hell just because I was a fallen woman.

     "Dios mio, Ana," whispered Felipe as he gathered her into his arms.  "That is not true."  It was a good thing they were so far away from home.  Otherwise he would have strangled the misogynistic priest with his bare hands .  "What we do in bed is. . ."

     He paused to inhale as images of them together flashed through his mind.  "Your enjoying it is not wrong, querida.  How could our loving each other possibly be evil?  If it wasn't pleasurable, for both men and women,  no one would want to do it and there wouldn't be anymore babies.  The human race would die out." He understood now why she chose to run away to a convent.  She had been trying to atone for her alleged ‘sins of the flesh'.

     He kissed her again.  She resisted a little at first but eventually surrendered to the passion that always burned between them.  When he pulled away he saw the tears sliding down her cheeks.

     "Oh, Felipe, I am so sorry," she said contritely.  "I've been such a fool.  Between what the padre said and everything Mama had told me when I was growing up, I thought I was doing the right thing by setting you free."  She hugged him tightly.  "Can you ever forgive me?"  She started sobbing as he brought her face up so he could look into her eyes.

     "Promise me one thing," he declared.  She nodded.


     "You have to stop thinking you harmed our child just by being its mother," he stated.  "Ana, you are going to be the best mother in the world.  I wouldn't want anyone else to bear my children.  I love you, querida."

     Ana Maria wiped at her tears.  "I promise," she vowed in a shaky voice.  "Felipe, I love you too.  I'm so sorry."

     He showed her he forgave her by kissing her senseless.   After they drew apart, she brought her hand to her mouth.  "I'm supposed to help make supper.  Hermana Maria and Hermana Teresa are supposed to be here by now."

    Felipe smiled.  "I think they are giving us a little privacy," he said, remembering the old nun's reaction to his name.   She must have figured out he was Ana Maria's husband and it wouldn't surprise him if she was making sure they weren't being disturbed.

     She intended to start on her chores, when she stopped and looked at him.  "How did you find me?"

     He told her everything, including his almost affair with Sofia.  "I nearly slept with her," he confessed, unable to look her in the eye.

     "What stopped you?"  Although she was seething with rage and jealousy, she still wanted to know what had kept him from breaking their marriage vows.

     "You, Ana," he declared.  "I thought of you and nothing else seemed important.  I could never hurt you like that.

      I'm truly sorry, querida," Felipe murmured as he saw the anger and pain in her eyes.  "It will never happen again."

     A wicked little grin appeared on her beautiful face.  "You can count on that," she stated as she drew him in her arms.  "I intend to keep you chained to my side from now on.  I love you, querido."

     "I love you so much, Ana," he whispered then kissed her waiting lips.
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