It was late afternoon by the time Felipe and Ana Maria arrived in the pueblo de Santa Paula.  They spied Viento tied up in front of a tavern and surmised that Don Alejandro was inside, waiting for them.

    "Ah, Felipe, Ana Maria, over here," the old don greeted them as they entered the establishment.  The young couple made their way to the table where he sat along with another caballero.  The other man was perhaps in his late forties or early fifties with graying hair and a considerable paunch.

     "Don Lorenzo, this is my grandson, Felipe," the elder de la Vega said as the man stood.  "And my new granddaughter, Ana Maria.  This is Don Lorenzo Salazar.  He owns a house I think you two will like."

     Everyone shook hands and after they sat down, Don Lorenzo called for more refreshments.  Ana Maria was grateful for the juice and the rest.  She didn't want Felipe to worry but she was feeling very tired.  So she smiled politely as she listened to the two older men describe the cottage they found for them to rent.

     And it was just as she had pictured it would be.  It was a small one story adobe structure, with a little flower garden in the front yard.

     "Oh, it's beautiful," she whispered to Felipe as they walked through its rooms.  There was a sitting room, a kitchen and dining area in the front of the house.  Two bedrooms and a tiny washroom were in the back.  In the small yard behind the cottage was a large oak tree, which would provide plenty of shade in the summer.

     The house came equipped with furniture so they didn't have to worry about buying any.  Don Alejandro and Felipe moved the couple's belongings into the building.  Ana Maria unpacked the boxes, spreading their contents throughout the cottage.  Victoria had thoughtfully contributed two crates of kitchen items; dishes, glasses, pot and pans.

     It was nearly dark when they returned to the tavern for supper.  Don Alejandro was going to spend the night there and then go back to Los Angeles in the morning.  He had left Sergeant Mendoza in charge as acting Alcalde.  But like his predecessors; and he hated to admit it; he didn't like to leave the soldier in charge for too long.  Mendoza was just too kind hearted for his own good and tried to be too helpful.

     The old caballero shook his head as he remembered the chaos he had inherited from de Soto.   The man had clearly been insane.  He pushed aside those memories and offered a toast to his grandchildren's new home.

     He walked back with them to the little cottage.  He and Felipe sat outside, smoking, as Ana Maria was inside, putting away some more of their things.

     "Abuelo, you haven't said much about all this," the young man commented.

     "No, hijo, I haven't," agreed Don Alejandro.  He took a drag off his cigar, then blew the smoke into the air.  "You know what you did was wrong.  You've made things right by marrying her.  There's not much to say."

     Felipe bowed his head as he put his cheroot to his lips.  Inhaling then exhaling, he looked over at the old don.  "Gracias."

     The elder de la Vega grinned.  "I imagine you got an earful from Diego anyway.  Sometimes I have a hard time remembering he's not the same son I've known for the last eight, no nine years."  He took another puff.  "Then I see him with Victoria and I know he's not the same man."  He shook his head.

     "I still have trouble believing Diego is, was Zorro," he stated.  "Right under my nose all that time.  And the things I thought and said about him."  He glanced over at his adopted grandson.  "You're not the only one who messed things up."

     "He's forgiven you."  It came out as a statement, not a question.

     "Si, and he'll forgive you too," Don Alejandro replied.  "Dios, any man worth his salt wants to bed the woman he loves and is going to marry.  Diego wouldn't want to hear this, but I had a very hard time not kidnapping his mother away from all her duennas and showing her how I felt about her before we were married."  He smiled wickedly.  "And she wouldn't have stopped me either."

     "He definitely wouldn't want to hear that," agreed Felipe with a laugh.  He knew his father had put Doña Felicidad up on a pedestal, thinking of her in almost saintlike terms.  Learning she was a woman who enjoyed intimacy, well, he would have a difficult time dealing with that.  He drew on his cigar again.

     "You know, Felipe," the old don broke the silence after several minutes.  "If someone had told me a year ago, that I would be sitting here with you, smoking cigars, you married with a child on the way and talking about sex. . .  Dios, even talking at all, I would have thought they were the most loco person in the world."

     "Me, too," the young man admitted.  Their lives had certainly been turned upside down and inside out during the past year.

     "Well, you have better things to do than sit out here and humor an old man," declared Don Alejandro, getting to his feet.  "I'll stop by in the morning before I leave."

     "Gracias, Abuelo," Felipe said, putting out his cigar.  "Buenos noches."

     "Buenos noches, hijo."  The elder de la Vega patted the young man on the back then headed toward the tavern.  Felipe watched the glowing tip of his cheroot as it grew smaller as he walked further away.  Smiling wryly, he stepped into his new home, where he was greeted by his new wife in a way he would never forget as long as he lived.
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     They settled into their new life together quite quickly.  Ana Maria made friends effortlessly.    Even though her beauty intimidated people at first, her warm and open personality soon had them at ease.  She had swapped life stories with both their neighbors, the Romeros on the right and the Guevaras on the left.  She had met several young wives about the same age as she as she shopped at the weekly mercado.  Several were impressed that her husband was one of the de la Vegas.  They were well-known throughout the territory.

     One thing she did not share with all her newfound friends was her pregnancy.  It seemed everyone in town knew when they had married.  To announce they were having a baby as well would have earned everyone's censure.

     Felipe had been teased unmercifully by Juan when it was learned he had returned from Los Angeles with a wife.  Don Ernesto had been very surprised to find out his newest apprentice was now a married man.  The reason for the hasty nuptials was unspoken but understood between the two gentlemen.

     The newlyweds spent their evenings quietly, Felipe reading about or working on cases and Ana Maria sewing little clothes for their niño.   They usually did this for an hour or two until the surreptitious glances they had been giving each other grew bolder.  Ana Maria would put away her needle, announce she was going to bed and then headed for their bedroom.  Felipe waited about five minutes, set his work down and went to join her.  They rarely went right to sleep.

     They were lying in bed one night, their passion slaked and drowsily sharing kisses.  "I'm glad to know everything you learned from the vaqueros last summer wasn't all nonsense," Ana Maria murmured then kissed his ear.  Felipe grinned impishly.

     The de la Vega ranch hands had been a wealth of information when he had spent most of the previous summer out working with them.  He had been trying to give his father and Victoria some space after they had married and also to avoid the tension between Diego and Don Alejandro who had spent almost two months at each other's throats.

     Of course if the men had known he could hear what they were saying and was absorbing every word, they wouldn't have been so forthcoming with their bits of knowledge.  They considered him a caballero now, even though he had toiled as hard as they had.

     His smile disappeared though as he remember the one thing he had implemented that hadn't been so successful.  Then he chuckled as he recalled from whom he had heard it.  Miguel and Tadeo must have about fifteen children between them, he thought.  Obviously that method hadn't worked well for them either.

    He placed his hand on the growing bulge of her stomach.  Soon she wouldn't be able to hide it.  And her breasts. . .  They had been magnificent before, but now they defied description. She wasn't so queasy in the mornings anymore and didn't seem so tired.

     How could he ever regret what had happened?  Because of it, he was married to the only woman he would ever love and they were having a baby.  A very loved and wanted baby.  He kissed her gently on the lips.

     "I love you, querida."

     "I love you, querido," she murmured sleepily.  She snuggled up against him and he cradled her in his arms.
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     "Felipe, did you hear that?"  Ana Maria pushed on his arm, trying to wake him up.  But he was already awake.

     "Si," he replied then groaned and brought his pillow over his head.  He and Don Alejandro had stayed up late, playing chess and drinking wine.  He and Ana Maria had been at the de la Vega hacienda for five days  and everyone was impatiently awaiting the birth of Diego and Victoria's child.

    The sound of more slamming doors drew their attention.  What was going on, he wondered, pulling the pillow off his face.

     "Let's go see," suggested his wife.  She sat up and searched for her robe as he did the same. Glancing out the window, he could tell it was nearly dawn.

     Felipe had to stifle a yawn as he and Ana Maria walked out into the hallway.  A very agitated Diego was pacing back and forth in front of his and Victoria's bedroom door.

     "What's wrong?" Ana Maria queried, placing her hand on his arm.  "Is it the baby?"

     Diego stared at them for a moment, not really seeing them.  Then he realized his daughter-in-law had asked him a question and nodded.

     Don Alejandro came bustling down the corridor.  "I've sent Paco to go fetch the doctor."  Noticing his son's panicked state, he put a firm hand on his shoulder.  "Diego, she'll be fine.  You've said yourself she's the bravest, most courageous woman you've ever known.  She's a fighter.  Both she and baby will come through this just fine, you'll see."

     His father's words did nothing to calm Diego's racing heart and churning stomach.  "She's never done this before."  He looked at all of them with haunted eyes.  "I can't lose her.  Not like this."

     Felipe and the elder de la Vega realized that Diego was reliving his mother's death.  She had died of complications from childbirth and his little sister had died as well.  Some of the things that his adopted father had mentioned to him the last few days had the young man thinking that Diego was more traumatized by it than he was letting on.

     Dios, if something did happen to Victoria or the baby, the man would go totally mad.  Felipe reached for Ana Maria's hand and gave it a squeeze, knowing if anything happened to her or their niño, he probably would too.  He shut his eyes and prayed.

     "Why can't I be with her?" Diego demanded to know.  "Maria has no right to keep me out.  I'm the father. . .  That's my child too."

     His father gripped Diego's shoulder.  "This is why you can't be in there.  You're hysterical."  He turned to Felipe.  "See if you can calm him down."

     The young man nodded.  "Come on."  He pulled on his father's arm.

     "I can check on Victoria," Ana Maria suggested helpfully.  "Maria will surely let me in."  She patted her own rounded abdomen.  She knocked on the bedroom door.  "It's Ana Maria, may I come in?"

     The de la Vega housekeeper opened the door a crack and peered out.  "Only you," she said in a voice that brooked no argument.  The young woman slipped in and the door was firmly shut behind her.  The men could hear the lock being turned on the other side.

     The latch turned again and Ana Maria peeked out.  "Everything's fine," she informed them.  "The pains are four minutes apart.  It will be awhile yet, Maria says."  She glanced at her husband and mouthed, "I love you."

     He soundlessly said the same to her.  Then he grabbed Diego's arm again.  "Come on, let's go outside."

     Don Alejandro aided Felipe in dragging the worried father-to-be out into the courtyard.  The old don produced three cigars and he and his grandson quickly lit theirs.  Diego looked at his like he expected it to bite him.

    "Here, light it," his father offered, holding out a match.  "It will help calm your nerves."  He put the flame to the end of the cheroot as Diego tentatively brought it to his lips and inhaled, causing it to ignite.

     He exhaled quickly, sputtering and choking.  "Dios mio, how can you stand it?" he inquired as he watched his father and son smoking theirs without any trouble.

     The other two men just looked at each other and shrugged.  At least it was taking his mind off what going on inside the hacienda.  Diego stared at his cigar for several minutes before trying it again.  This time he didn't draw on it as strongly, but he still hacked and gagged.

     "Her pains started last night at dinner," he commented suddenly.  "She didn't say a word to me.  Told me this morning she wanted everyone to get a good night's sleep.  Some other rubbish about first babies taking a long time.  She probably still wouldn't have told me if her water hadn't broke half an hour ago."  He leaned down and held his head in his hands.  Then he unconsciously took another drag off his cigar, barely coughing as he blew out the smoke.

     "She knew you would react like this," Don Alejandro stated.  "She's not stupid, son.  She knows what happened with your mother."

     Diego glanced sharply at his father.  How could he speak of it so casually?  His mother's death had been the most devastating occurrence of his life.  Then he noticed the glimmer of tears in the old don's eyes.

     "Diego, Victoria is not Felicidad," he declared.  "Your mother had been affected by your birth.  Of course we didn't know then it was because she had had twins."  He had to suppress the white-hot rage that burned in his soul every time he thought of Ynez Risendo and the unforgivable crime she had committed against his family.  Snatching their son and filling his head with lies, damaging him so badly that all he could feel was vengeance and hate.

     Sighing wearily, he continued.  "It was a long time before she could conceive again."  He looked his son in the eye.  "You never knew about the miscarriages.  She would be so happy for a few months then she'd lose the baby."  It had been hard on both of them.  She had wanted another child so badly.  And it nearly killed him every time she had been disappointed.  Her sadness had been almost too much to bear.

    "And then she finally carried a baby for nine months.  It was difficult for her but she was so determined.  You know the rest of the story."  Ah, but he doesn't, a little voice in the back of his head reminded him.  And he hopefully never will, thought Don Alejandro, fiercely squelching his tormented conscience.

     "How many niños did she. . .?"


     "Four?"  Diego forced himself to breath.  To think he could have had so many brothers and sisters. He remembered the tiny niña who had been buried with his mother.  In their grief and despair, the little girl had never been named.

     Felipe sat silently, absently smoking his cigar.  He wasn't sure if he should be hearing all this.  Then he remembered he was a part of this family, a de la Vega.  The two older men knew whatever they said in confidence would stay that way when he was listening as well.  Some things might be mentioned to their wives, but never to anyone outside the family. It was part of their code of honor.

     The sound of a horse and carriage drawing up in front of the hacienda gained all the men's attention.  Doctor Hernandez had arrived.
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