"Where have you been?" inquired Juan Morales as soon as Felipe walked into Don Ernesto's office just before eight o'clock.  "How did it go?  Did your plan. . .?"

     Felipe held up his hand to silence his friend's barrage of questions and shook his head.  "It didn't go well, amigo," he answered.

     Juan shook his head.  "You didn't. . .?"  The other man's meaning was clear even though he did not finish his question.

      "No," answered Felipe.  "I didn't.  But I have ruined any chance of proving her father is stealing the freeholders' land."

      "I told you it was a bad idea," Juan stated.  He nodded over at their patron's office door.  "He's not too happy with either of us.  I don't think he believe the explanation I made up to cover your absence yesterday afternoon."

     The young de la Vega hung his head.  "I'm sorry, Juan," he apologized.  "I didn't mean to get you embroiled in all my problems."

     "De nada," replied the other man.  "Isn't that what friends are for?"  He slapped Felipe on the back, causing him to wince.  He had forgotten how the previous evening their ardor became so intense at one point, Ana Maria had dug her fingernails into his shoulder blades.

     "What did you tell him?"  Felipe was curious to know.  It was probably a good idea to keep their stories straight.

     "That Ana Maria wasn't feeling well," replied Juan.  "I couldn't think of anything else. . ."

     They both came to attention at that moment when Don Ernesto opened his door.  "Señor de la Vega, I wish to speak with you," he announced.  Felipe realized he was in serious trouble.

      "Sit down."  The lawyer indicated the chair in front of his desk as he sat down in his own.  "Felipe, your family have been good clients and good friends of mine for many years," he began.  "When your grandfather asked if I would take you on as an apprentice, I did so without any qualms.  I. . ."

      "Don Ernesto, I-I am truly sorry," Felipe interrupted to apologize.  "Wh-What happened yesterday will never occur again, I c-can assure you."   He winced as he stammered in front of the other man.  Damn, he thought he was over this stuttering business.  Maybe it had returned because of all the pressure he was feeling.

      "Felipe, I sincerely hope that is true," his patron replied.  "I cannot accept such behavior from a trainee and people will not tolerate it from an attorney either.   It also wasn't fair to Juan.  He had to do your work as well as his own."  He leaned forward.  "I know your wife has been through a trying time, Felipe.  But you cannot let your personal life affect your career.  You must learn how to separate the two."

      The young man understood then that Calderon did not know about his meetings with Sofia.  He exhaled with relief.  The fewer people who knew about his stupidity concerning her, the better, he thought.

     "How is your case with the freeholders' coming along?" the older man switched subjects.  He looked up at Felipe expectantly.

     "N-Not very well, sir," was his reply.  "I-I cannot find any evidence of any wrongdoing."

     "Has the land been surveyed?"

     "No."  Felipe mentally kicked himself.  Drat, he should have come up with that solution.  He did need to clear his head and start focusing on his job.  "I-I'll get that done."

     "Bueno," said Don Ernesto.  He began sorting through a pile of papers on his desk.  "Now back to work, eh?"

     "Si, sir."  So dismissed, Felipe returned to the office he shared with Juan, who was busily thumbing through a very large book.
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     The only respite they had all day was a quick lunch at the tavern, where they ate tamales and smoked their cigars.  It was also the only chance they had to discuss Felipe's dilemma.

     "So what are you going to do now?" asked Juan, who then took a puff off his cheroot.

      "Get the land surveyed," Felipe replied.  "After that, I'm not sure."  He sighed, running his hand through his hair as he leaned back.  "Juan, what do you know about the Salazars?  I mean, you grew up here in Santa Paula. . ."

     Juan shrugged his shoulders.  "Everyone knows of them.  Don Lorenzo's father came here before the pueblo was established, he was one of its leading early citizens.  Doña Emilia, she was Sofia's mother, she died nearly ten years ago.  Sofia was about ten, I think.  I hadn't seen her for about five years until the other night."  The young man paused, concentrating deeply.  "She goes to Monterey to her aunt's quite often, every couple of years or so and stays for a long time."

     He mulled over the information that Juan had imparted as he smoked his cigar.  Why did Sofia go to her aunt's so often?  Was it because her father wanted her to have a woman's influence in her life or was there another reason?  He puzzled over it for a moment.

     "She was going to betray her father to me," Felipe declared.  "I wonder why she would want to do that."

     Juan shook his head.  "I don't know.  I imagine she wasn't too happy you turned her down.  She always was a spoiled little girl as I recall, getting everything she wanted."

     Felipe nodded.  "That hasn't changed as far as I can tell."  He took a drag of his cheroot then blew out a flume of smoke.  "It also doesn't help those freeholders who are being cheated by her father."

     His friend shrugged again.  "Once the land is surveyed, there should be no problem.  It will be obvious he is encroaching on their land."

     They soon headed back to work, where they found that Don Ernesto had taken on yet another case he needed them to research.

     It was very late before the two apprentices were able to head for their respective homes.  Juan still roomed at the boarding house Felipe had stayed when he had first come to Santa Paula. Those two months had been some of the most carefree of his life.  True, he had missed Ana Maria immensely.  But it had also been the first time he had been on his own as an adult. It seemed like such a long time ago, he thought

     He was lost deep in his memories when a figure emerged from the shadows of the alleyway next to the law office.  Felipe was startled to see it was Sofia Salazar.

     "Felipe, I need to speak with you," she began, beckoning him toward the darkness.

     "I have nothing to say to you," he retorted disdainfully.  "Please, Señorita. . ."

     "I want to give you a second chance," she stated, smiling charmingly at him.  "My father is a bad man.  I want to help you stop him."

     "I don't believe you, Señorita."  Felipe strained to look into the alley.  There was no one else there as far as he could tell.  But he still didn't trust her.

     She came up to him and placed her hands on his arms.  "Por favor, Felipe," she murmured seductively.  "I can't get you out of my head.  I've dreamt of you every night since we met.  And I know you think of me too.  You can't deny it."

     "I can and I will," Felipe replied somewhat dishonestly.  Last night with Ana Maria had driven the buxom young siren from his mind for most of the day.  Only the occasional shiver of revulsion at the close call he had had with her had crossed his thoughts.

     "Oh, Felipe, we both know that's not true," she purred.  She moved her hands to his chest then down to his stomach.  When they advanced lower, she glanced up at him, a mixture of disappointment and anger in her green eyes.

     "Now we both know that it is," he said mockingly.  He felt nothing for her but pity.  Taking a step backward, he also took a deep breath.  "I must be getting home, Señorita."  He smiled wickedly at her.  "My wife is waiting for me."

     It was with a great deal of satisfaction he walked away, hearing Sofia's sharp intake of air.  His meaning had been crystal clear.   He glimpsed over his shoulder to see the young woman stomp her foot and flounce away.  He grinned.

     His good mood followed him to the cottage.  Light pouring through the windows told him that Ana Maria was home, indeed waiting for him.

     The first thing that alerted him that something wasn't right was the lack of aroma from cooking food.  The second clue was that Ana Maria was nowhere to be found, even after he had searched every room of the small house.

      Was she at one of the neighbors?  He thought she had said something this morning about a dress she had finished for the Romeros' daughter.  She had mentioned something about a fitting.  Maybe she was still there.

     He intended to go next door, when he noticed an envelope propped up in the middle of the kitchen table.  His name was written in his wife's handwriting on its front.

     Felipe stared at it for a long minute.  Dread filled his soul.  Finding it hard to swallow, he grabbed the missive and tore it open.


                                                 I am leaving and going far away.  Please don't try to find me.
                                                 I am so very sorry I have to do this.  But it is something I must do.

                                                It is not your fault, Felipe.  You have done nothing wrong.  The
                                                blame is all on me.

                                                I know that we cannot divorce.  But maybe there is some way you
                                               can get our marriage annulled.  I want you to be happy and find a wife
                                               who is truly worthy of you.

                                                I know this will hurt you very much.  It hurts me too.  But I cannot be
                                                your wife any longer.  I am really very sorry, Felipe.  I just hope someday
                                                you will find it in your heart to forgive me and understand that this was
                                               for the best.

                                               Ana Maria

     When he had finished reading it, he collapsed into the nearest chair and shut his eyes.

     Ana Maria had left him.
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     No matter how many times he read her note, Felipe still could not believe it.  There was that damn phrase again, ‘for the best'.  How could anyone think the love of his life leaving him and wanting to annul their marriage was ‘for the best'?

     He began to tear the letter into pieces.  When he had thrown them up into the air, he glanced around the room.  Standing, he grabbed the chair he had been sitting in and threw it.  It crashed into the table and splintered into pieces.

     Felipe didn't care.  He was angry.  He was devastated.  It was either vent his feelings by being destructive or collapse into tears.  He picked up more items of furniture and tossed them around the room.

     He was making so much noise, he didn't hear the knock on the front door.  Nor did he detect someone entering the house until a hand was placed on his shoulder.  Felipe spun around so fast he nearly fell down.

     "D-Diego," he gasped, catching his breath.  "Wh-What are you doing here?"

     His adopted father looked at the damaged furnishings.  "I could ask the same question, hijo."

     Felipe's self control returned and he stared in horror at what he had done.  Then he remembered why he had done it.

     "Ana Maria," was all he could manage to get out before crumbling to the floor, burying his face in his hands and trying valiantly not to dissolve into tears in front of Diego.

     "Where is she?" questioned the older man.  Whatever was wrong had to be extremely bad for Felipe to act this way.

     "She's g-gone," his son replied, his voice muffled by his hands.

     "Gone?"  Dios mio, was she dead?  He knew that for awhile Felipe had been concerned about her health but he thought she was better.

     "She left me."

     Diego was stunned.  He knew that Felipe had been infatuated with Ana Maria since the first time he had seen her.  And that infatuation had grown into a deep and strong love for the young woman.   He had also always felt that her love for his son had been even more fervent.  Finally finding speech, he asked, "Are you sure?"

     Felipe looked up at his father.  Unshed tears glimmered in his eyes.   "She wrote me a letter."  He indicated the scraps of it strewn on the floor.

     Sitting down on the floor next to the young man, Diego put a sympathetic arm around his shoulders.  Finding strength in that reassuring touch, Felipe related everything that had happened since the miscarriage, even telling the older man about Sofia.

     "Did you tell Ana Maria about her?" Diego inquired.

     Felipe shook his head.

     "Did someone else?"

     All the blood drained from Felipe's face. Madre de Dios, he never considered that possibility.  Had that little hussy told Ana Maria what had occurred between them?  Probably not,  judging by her reaction of his rejection of her earlier this evening.

     "I don't think so," he replied.   "Only three people know, four counting you.  Sofia's the only one I wouldn't trust."

     Felipe went over the note his wife had penned in his mind.  He wished now he had not destroyed it.  ‘You have done nothing wrong', he recalled her writing.  Did that mean she didn't know about Sofia and there was another reason she had disappeared?

     He hid his face in his hands again.  Diego, sensing his despair, patted him on the back.  Once again, the contact caused Felipe to flinch then remember why.  Is that what last night had been, he wondered.  A farewell?

     "I have to find her," he declared forcefully, removing his hands from his head.  "I have to find out why. . ."  He couldn't finish his thought as he fought to hold back his tears.

     "I am truly sorry, Felipe," stated Diego.  "You know you can count on me to help."

     The young man got to his feet as did Diego.  "Gracias."

     Father and son embraced for a moment then began cleaning up the broken furniture.
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