Carriages arrived at the de la Vega hacienda
for the next two hours, and other guests made their way on horseback or
foot. A wedding gave the inhabitants of Los Angeles a welcome opportunity
to escape the day's ordinary duties and routines. Food would be in
abundant supply, particularly when the host was one of the most notable
wealthy men in the territory, and music, dancing, wine, and laughter completed
the appealing picture. That short notice had been given the guests
concerning the nuptials was of little importance; the spontaneity and the
interesting couple involved only added to the party's fascination.
The short preparation time for food was, fortunately, a problem that many neighbors understood. Don Esteban's wife, Guadalupe, offered to bring all the enchiladas that she and her cook could make in the time remaining before the ceremony. Others asked if they could help with the food too, so Maria's valiant efforts were supplemented by not only the steer being slowly pit-roasted, but by the many sumptuous courses brought by friends. As fast as the platters on the dining table emptied, they were replenished by the hard-working housekeeper.
Don Alejandro stood by the door with his son and the bride to greet the guests as they arrived. Between handshakes and warm words of welcome, he cast a surreptitious glance at Victoria. The young woman who had just married into his family seemed to be holding up well, and only from his long association with her knew that her smile was frozen in place. Well, she was a brave girl and trying to make the best of things for his sake.
"I think that's about everyone who is going to show," he announced. "Why don't we mingle?"
"Let me get you something to eat," Diego said to his wife.
She nodded wearily and looked around at the guests when he left her side. Many of the people were from the noble class like the de la Vegas, and therefore her association with them had been limited. The wives never came into the tavern since it was largely regarded as a male domain, and the men she knew primarily as customers. A few of her own business acquaintances were there as well: Rubén from the smithy, Pedro from the bank. The courtyard hummed with conversation from a myriad of small groups, but with relief she spotted Sergeant Mendoza across the yard and weaved her way to his side.
"Señorita--Señora, I mean!" he greeted grandiloquently, with a rather elaborate bow over her hand--an effect that was spoiled by the chalupa between his fingers. "May I say how pretty you look?"
"Your eyesight is failing, Mendoza. I look like a hag, and I know it."
"No, no--not like a hag," he protested. "Just not in the best of spirits. You don't look very happy."
Her eyes dropped. "I must be very ungrateful."
"I-I'm sorry, Señora," he mumbled. "About Zorro and all. But Don Diego will treat you well; you have been like family to the de la Vegas for years. I mean, is it really that bad?"
I'll let you know when my heart stops breaking. "No, I don't suppose so." She summoned up a smile. "I guess life doesn't always turn out the way we hope. Please--enjoy the food, and stay as late as you like." After he had thanked her heartily, she moved on.
Josefina Ruiz approached as her host. "Well, Alejandro, I would never have guessed this was in the wind when Juan rode into my yard this morning! Diego certainly kept his own counsel in the matter."
"The matter wasn't even settled until this morning," her friend confided. "I was quite astonished by it myself. I knew that Diego had proposed, of course, but I never thought Victoria would accept."
"Yes," she nodded sagely. "That's the surprising part. We all knew where her hopes lay."
"That's what worries me," he murmured. "I'm sure she's still in love with Zorro, and if so, how can either she or Diego be happy married to each other?"
"I don't know," the lady rancher answered softly. "What of Zorro? I don't understand why he didn't help his señorita somehow."
"No one has seen him since the edict was posted, so it's hard to say. According to Victoria, he broke up with her when the law came out."
"Perhaps his freedom is more important to him than his love."
Alejandro shook his head disconsolately. "I would have thought better of him, but perhaps we've expected too much. He is just a man, after all."
"A man with a price on his head. I personally owe him a great debt of gratitude, as do you. Let us not judge too harshly. Perhaps he needs to be unencumbered to continue to serve the pueblo as he has."
"More treasonous sentiments?" he whispered. "Don't sing Zorro's praises around the alcalde!"
"I shan't!" she promised. "Ah, I see Don Esteban approaching, so I'll leave you two dons to your male conversation!"
Diego experienced some difficulty returning to his bride with a plate of food; guests slowed his progress by offering repeated congratulatory remarks and handshakes. When he arrived at the front door again, Victoria was nowhere to be seen. He descended the steps to search the crowd in the courtyard. No one could have guessed that his relaxed and cheerful manner was hiding a barely suppressed elation. Victoria's first words when arousing from her faint had been of Zorro. She had been hoping even to the last minute that he would come for her somehow; she still believed in him, still loved him! In only a few hours he would tell her the truth, and she would be as giddy with joy as he was! Their future was in their grasp at last, and he would see that tender light in her eyes for him that she had previously reserved for Zorro alone. Then he would reach for her; her rosy lips would part slightly-- From a small group, Ignacio DeSoto was approaching--a cacophonous interruption to an extremely pleasant daydream.
"I apologize for the disturbance after the ceremony, Diego. Private Flores got a little overexcited."
"And almost shot someone," finished the groom dryly. "It was the kind of dramatics I was hoping to avoid. My father was right in wanting to exclude the military."
"Flores will be reprimanded, but the chance to apprehend Zorro was too great to pass up. I wonder where he was tonight; I would have bet my pension that he'd be there."
"Perhaps he is busy looking after his other concerns, like Pablo Silva."
The alcalde brushed off the suggestion with an impatient gesture. "My men have lain in wait every night in San Pedro, but after the last disastrous encounter with him there, Zorro hasn't returned."
"And the gang?"
"There has been no sign of them, either. The presence of my men has scared them off. Whatever they were after, they apparently have given up."
"How has Señor Silva been enjoying the garrison's company every night?"
DeSoto grunted. "With his whining, you would think that the military was the enemy instead of those thugs and Zorro! And my men have protected him from both! There is no need anymore, though; the danger has passed."
"You are pulling out your men?"
"I need them for more important duties than guarding an old fisherman! I have been warned by officials high in the government at Mexico City that revolution is fomenting again. I'm putting the men on alert at the garrison."
The caballero gave an astonished chuckle. "Look around, Alcalde. These are simple, honest people trying to make a living at the very edge of the frontier. This is hardly a hotbed of intrigue and rebellion."
"Sparks of discord are everywhere, Diego! Only a little fuel, and we could have a full conflagration on our hands! And Los Angeles is the most unruly town in the New World, thanks to Zorro!"
"I was wondering when we were going to get around to him again," remarked Diego in a mildly amused tone.
"You may think it's funny," said the officer, jabbing his finger into the younger man's chest, "but I will have the last laugh over Zorro; mark my words."
"Enjoy the party," Diego called after him as the commandant stalked away. Hm! The reprieve he had been granted from watching over old Pablo was at an end. The talk about rebellion he took less seriously. He too had noticed some increase in anti-government sentiment, but there was always such talk. Victoria was still not in sight.
His bride was in fact outside the yard talking privately to Padre Benitez. The usually genial priest faced her with a solemn countenance.
"I will return now to the church," he said, "as soon as I have said my thanks to Don Alejandro. But I feel compelled to speak to you about your marriage." He paused, and the struggle to find words was evident in his compressed lips and downcast eyes. "I know this is not what you envisioned for your future happiness. Nevertheless, you have chosen this route, and now you are bound by your choice."
"What choice did I have?" she murmured in defeated tones. "I feel like a trapped animal."
"Marriage is not meant to be a trap. It's meant to be a place of succor, of comfort. There is safety for you here, Daughter."
"But no joy."
"And you think you would have been happy with Zorro? Perhaps. I told you once that Zorro is a man with a higher calling. Whether he could ever settle down and make a woman a good husband is something we don't know."
"If he loved me, why didn't he try? Why did he abandon me?" The pathos in her quavering voice touched the padre's tender heart.
"He must have had good reason. We know he is a man of honor, and he would not promise what he couldn't do."
"But he did," she said slowly. "He promised we would have a future together. I guess I know now what his promise was worth!"
"You sound bitter, and bitterness will rob you of your spiritual health. You must forgive Zorro his failings."
"I can't," she whispered, tears hovering on her lashes.
The priest gave a sad sigh. "Perhaps it's just as well, since you must transfer allegiance to your husband. Do your best to show your gratitude to Diego." When Victoria made no response, he said, "Let me pray for you. No, don't kneel--your dress. Bow your head."
He made several simple requests in Victoria's behalf, and when his benediction concluded, he walked her back to the gathering in the courtyard. A few minutes later when her attention was claimed by another guest, she glanced to the gate and saw the padre departing the hacienda. A pang struck her; he was the only one with whom she could come close to complete honesty in expressing the turmoil within her. Now she must adopt a masquerade.
Diego turned at the sound of his name and saw Antonio Costilla approaching him. The schoolmate gave him a hearty handshake and again expressed his congratulations.
"Thank you very much. Is your father here with you?"
"He had some business to attend to and sends his regrets. But I know he would say that you are a lucky man; your wife is quite a beauty. How long have you known her?"
"Almost all my life, though not very well until I returned from the university. Her father and mine were friends, but Alfonso Escalante died as a result of the rebellion."
"A loyalist or revolutionary?"
"He supported the revolution. Victoria's whole family did, and she was left alone for a number of years. Her brothers are still alive, though, and Francisco now wears the king's uniform."
"How unusual! And your wife's sentiments?"
Diego smiled ruefully. "I suspect she takes after her parents."
"That will make for some interesting discussions around the dinner table, eh? What does your father think of your choice?"
"He has always been fond of Victoria, but he has his doubts, particularly in regard to the way in which this all came about."
"The old maid law, yes. I had heard she was single, but I was astonished to hear that you were going to marry her today! Er, will she be able to adjust to her new station in life?"
Antonio was asking delicately if Victoria was suited to be joined to a noble family. Diego wondered how many of the other guests thought the match to be unequal, and realized that more than a few probably did. He himself had never given the matter much thought; he and Victoria were equal in spirit and viewed life from the same angle. That was all a couple really needed, and besides, he and the exquisite woman he had married loved each other, deeply and truly.
"She is from a good family and is a lady in every sense of the word, but I expect she will find some difficulties with her new life. Victoria is an extremely independent woman."
"Is she? I would have never guessed. She looks so meek and demure." His gaze drifted off to the courtyard and managed to pinpoint the bride. It was the first time since the receiving line dissolved that Diego had been able to spot her.
"Sometimes," he responded hastily. "Excuse me, Antonio; I have been trying to locate Victoria for the better part of an hour. This plate is for her."
His friend graciously allowed him to leave, and Diego twisted a tortuous path through the crowd. His wife was ending a rather stilted conversation with Doña Guadalupe when he came beside her.
"Pardon me, ladies. Victoria, I'm sorry it took so long to return with the food I promised. Everyone between here and there wanted a word with me, and then I couldn't find you. I'm afraid everything is cold now. I'll bring some more."
"No, don't. I'm not very hungry anyway." She took a cautious bite of tamale and chewed. The cook had been heavy-handed with the sage, and as Diego had said, the tamale was no warmer than the air temperature. But what did that matter? "Gracias," she remembered to say belatedly.
"I think Father has managed to recruit a few local guitarists to provide some dancing music. Are you up to a few reels?"
"If I can change into my old shoes--oh! I left my luggage at the tavern! My--my personal things are in there!"
"I'll send Felipe for it as soon as I can locate him. Do you have the key?"
"Yes." She reached into a deep skirt pocket and put the key in his hand. "I left the suitcase near the front door."
"I'll tell him. Wait inside for me, and I'll join you in a few minutes."
He escorted her to the front door of the lighted house and then scoured the grounds for Felipe. Like the servants, his personal companion had been drafted to do whatever was necessary to sustain the vigor of the celebration. Felipe was lugging a crate of wine from the cellar when Diego found him.
"Felipe," he said, drawing the boy aside so that no one could tell the youth was listening rather than reading his master's lips, "Victoria left a piece of luggage in the tavern's taproom. Will you go and fetch it for her, please? Here is the key."
The boy nodded and took the iron key. Diego heard a pleasing tune from the house and left his young friend to carry out the task alone. Cheers and jests greeted him as he entered the salon; he was evidently late for the first dance with the bride. He grinned depreciatingly and strode toward his wife across the room. She placed her slim fingers in his palm and allowed him to lead her to the room's center. The crowd cleared a small circle for them, but the tender waltz strummed by the guitars changed abruptly to a spirited jig. The watchers laughed at the bridal couple's momentary consternation, but began to clap in rhythm when Diego gamely snatched his bride around the waist and twirled her around the floor. The music's tempo increased; so did the speed of the groom's steps until the bulk of the guests were watching the spectacle. Could he continue to keep pace? No. After the fourth time through the song, a glance at Victoria's face told him that her endurance was at its limit. He stopped to the merry laughter and applause of their spectators and bowed over his wife's hand.
"Welcome to married life, Diego!" shouted Don Esteban to the appreciative roar of the audience. "Your easy days are gone!"
"Something a little more sedate for us older men!" called Alejandro to the musicians and claimed his panting daughter-in-law for the next number. Other couples, still laughing, joined in the dance.
"I see you are without a partner, Don Diego," smiled Josefina Ruiz, tapping his arm with her fan. "You may dance with me."
He obligingly swept the lady rancher into the waltz. "That's what I most appreciate about you, Señorita--no nonsense."
"And that's what I most appreciate about you--that you can value a woman without all that silly flirting and posturing. Your bride is a no-nonsense kind of woman, too."
"Yes, for the most part. Victoria has a strong romantic side she doesn't show to most people."
"Pshaw! Diego, everyone in town knows about her romance with Zorro! You have a real problem on your hands!"
He smiled inwardly. "Señorita, my problems are almost over."
"They are just beginning! But there, now! A wedding is no place for pessimistic thoughts, so I will say no more on that subject!"
"I'm much obliged!"
She caught the twinkle in his eye and knew she had not offended. "Tell me when you are going to address the independence issue in the newspaper. I've been expecting a thought-provoking editorial for several weeks."
"'The independence issue'? Loyalists usually refer to those sentiments in less complimentary terms. I think you've just given me your viewpoint."
The browned lady rancher was not put out of countenance. "Exactly so! And I'm not alone. You have probably been too absorbed in your unorthodox courtship to notice, but questions about independence have been the main topic of conversation everywhere in town. Even here, people are discussing it in each corner--after they have dissected your surprise marriage from all possible angles."
The tall caballero glance around the room. Guests were indeed clustered around the periphery of the central hall in small groups, and those who were not watching the dancers were certainly talking about something of interest. Talk of himself and Victoria he had anticipated, but the ranching talk he had expected to fill the rest of the void was evidently not all that was in progress.
"You have me at a disadvantage, Señorita," he admitted. "The alcalde told me this evening that he thinks Los Angeles is a hotbed of insurrection. Was he right?"
She shrugged. "Who can say?" she answered evasively. "I'm certainly not in anyone's confidence; I'm almost as much a social outcast as your Victoria. No offense--I only mean that both being successful businesswomen, we are oddities regarded with suspicion."
The music ended with a flourish, and the dancing partners bowed to each other. His conversation with Josefina left him uneasy, and the groom turned a quick glance to his bride. Victoria was accepting Marcos Lopez's invitation to dance; since she was a beautiful woman, partners for the next few numbers would keep her fully occupied. Diego decided to put his investigative powers to work. He quietly joined a circle which included Don Esteban, Don Andrés, and Don León. They were talking the price of cattle, a typical discussion that the younger man found reassuring. When they noticed him, he endured with a pleasant smile more questions and comments about his marriage.
"Excuse me for interrupting your conversation; Don León, what makes you think that the price of beef is going to drop even lower?"
"Economics, of course! We all know that Spain is near bankruptcy; how can the Crown continue to subsidize our cattle operations at this price?"
"The price has dropped forty centavos a pound over the last three months, and I don't think we've hit bottom yet," warned Alejandro's best friend, Esteban.
"Can you survive another drop?"
Don Esteban stroked his grizzled beard. "Ranches can always survive; as long as cattle run the range, our estates will eat. But I am not in this business to merely scrape by."
"It's the restricted market that's killing us," complained Don Andrés. "The British and Russian ships would gladly pay whatever we ask--the United States, too!"
"Independence would certainly bring some advantages to the ranches," Diego murmured.
There was a fleeting awkward pause. "Speculatively speaking, perhaps," Don León said. "No doubt some disadvantages as well."
"The movement will probably come to nothing, anyway," said Esteban. "Don't you think so, Diego?"
The groom cocked his head thoughtfully. "I don't know yet. To have the peasants supporting the movement is predictable; they believe they have the most to gain. But if the movement can appeal to a broader spectrum of the people--landowners, for instance--then independence has a good chance of succeeding."
Don Andrés edged forward. "And do you support the rebellion, Don Diego?"
It seemed to the younger man that the three ranchers were holding their breaths waiting for his answer. He smiled, "Like you, I was speaking speculatively--merely contemplating the possibilities from a distance."
Don Andrés blinked. "Of course. Aren't we all?"
The night wore on. Dancing continued into the wee hours, with Victoria standing up for every number. Diego allowed her to accept any partner she wished and noticed among the number of men were several of her rejected suitors. She bore them no ill will, nor they to her, apparently. He longed to approach her himself for a slow, romantic waltz, but to single her out in such a way would indicate to the guests that this could be more than a marriage of convenience. Patience! Soon he would be alone with her and could tell her everything in his heart. In the meantime he would play his part as the polite but passionless groom.
He circulated around the room, using guileless subterfuge to probe caballeros and businessmen about the rebellion. Don Mateo, a staunch royalist, had been outraged at the mention of independence; Guillermo Heceta had changed the subject, and Pedro Chavez had said tentatively that the bank's assets might increase if the pueblo weren't taxed to support the garrison. For the most part, Diego's inquiries were rebuffed outright or evasively. People knew of his father's decorated military service, so expected him to be in agreement with royalist sympathies or offended by the opposite sentiments. His brows lowered in concentration; perhaps there was something simmering in the background of which he needed to be aware. In the meantime, the problems of Pablo Silva still had not been satisfactorily put to rest. Sergeant Mendoza could probably supply him with some needed information, and by the look of the lancer, information would not be very difficult to obtain.
"Sergeant, my good friend! Have some more wine." Diego poured a rich sangria into the raised glass.
"Gracias, Don Diego! I shouldn't, but as long as the alcalde is still here, he can't get mad in the morning, can he?" The lancer gave a distinctly less-than-sober giggle. "I love the way you throw a party! Lots of food, lots to drink. Things won't be the same without Señorita Escalante at the tavern." He gave a maudlin sigh.
"Oh, she'll open up again in a day or two."
"You're going to let her work?" Mendoza stared up at the caballero's face blearily. "Why?"
"Why not? That's why she married me, you know."
"Diego," said the sergeant sternly, "you have to be firm. You are the man; you are the leader of the house! The padre said so," he concluded with authority.
"My father is the leader of this house," Diego corrected.
"Oh, you know what I mean! You cannot let Señorita--I mean the new señora--run things! She certainly has opinions and tells you what they are! You think it's funny? People are saying that you'll be henpecked in two weeks!"
"I don't think so. Let's get some air, Sergeant. It's too warm in here." He escorted the soldier into the garden, where the dry spring air cooled the perspiring men. "I'm glad the alcalde allowed you to come tonight. The tavern has been quiet with the garrison in San Pedro."
"At least that's over! What a waste of time! But you know how the alcalde feels about Zorro!"
"Zorro came the first night we were there, but he never came again as far as we know."
"And neither did the bullies?"
"No. My men scared them off. We did find out one thing, though. They are not from San Pedro."
"How do you know?"
"We questioned the barkeep, of course! That's where you go to find out information, Don Diego! I'm surprised you haven't learned that already."
"What did he tell you?" Diego did not want the sergeant to digress into irrelevancies.
"He said that there hadn't been anybody new in the bar except the sailors, and nobody else is having trouble with the gang. Mark my word; that old man must be sitting on something valuable. Or those rogues are after some kind of dark revenge," he added as a safeguard. "Whew! I better go back to the barracks while I can still ride!" He blinked groggily and wished his host good-night.
Diego's head was weary as well, but the night air was bracing. He inhaled deeply and slowly. Soldiers get a truthful answer from a barkeep? Not likely--most merchants were extremely reluctant confidants when questioned by a man in uniform. He doubted he could do better; a wealthy, educated man would be regarded almost with equal suspicion. He could send Felipe--no, Felipe could listen but could not inquire about the gang. Diego would have to go himself, and there was little he could do to hide his natural carriage and breeding. Inside the music stopped at last, and he returned indoors.
Victoria was unutterably grateful that the musicians were putting away their instruments. Her comfortable slippers, left at the tavern, could have better supported the hours of dancing than the dress heels she wore for her wedding day. She spied an empty space on the salon sofa and sank wearily onto its brocaded cushion. Her respite, however, was observed by several women of the caballero community whose curiosity about the newcomer to their ranks had been postponed by the bride's dancing. Don León Vermuda's wife was sitting beside her on the sofa chatting with Lola de Farral when she turned to Victoria.
"There you are, my dear! We wondered if you would ever stop dancing."
"I was beginning to wonder, too," the younger woman confessed.
"Working at the tavern must build stamina," observed Lola.
"Sí, Señora. I spend most of my time on my feet."
"That must be what keeps you so skinny!" Carmen Vermuda exclaimed. "I was almost that thin when I married Don León, and he told me, 'Put on some weight! There's not enough of you to hold on to!'" She giggled behind her black lace fan. Victoria noted that the middle-aged matron had taken her husband's orders to heart, because Señora Vermuda stretched her amply constructed dress at every seam.
"I don't think Don Diego has any complaints about my figure, ma'am--at least, none that I know of."
"Oh, you always find out those things after marriage, my dear. Expectations! Most of them unrealistic."
"Like finding out that men are really interested in only one thing," Señora de Farral added. "How many of us married thinking that our husbands married for love?" She smirked with a worldly gleam in her eye that Victoria found unnerving. "The wedding supper is hardly cold before that illusion vanishes. We thought they were interested in love or business or horses or whatever. Only in their leftover time do they think about anything so mundane. The rest of the time it's--!" The implication was plain enough, though the widow left her sentence unfinished.
"And Señora, the only time that husbands give pretty compliments to their wives is when they're in the mood!" warned Doña Carmen.
"Which is all the time, for a man!" finished her friend.
"Diego is not like that," Victoria declared to the two ladies and to the other women who had gravitated close enough to hear. "He is so consumed with his reading and art and music and . . . and science that I doubt such things have ever crossed his mind!" Her defense was greeted with amused laughter, and she felt her cheeks grow warm.
"Surely after working in the tavern all those years you know exactly what men are and what motivates them," said de Farral. "Don Diego is no different, I assure you. God does not give a face and physique like that to a monk!" She was elbowed by her giggling friend, Carmen.
Discomposed yet again, the bride ignored the observation about her husband and attacked the former statement. "I have seen a lot of human nature at the tavern, Señora, and it is not all one way. Men are motivated by the same things we are: they like to celebrate and be with friends, they like discussing the latest news, they want to care for and protect their families, they want to succeed at their enterprises and are terrified of failure. Most men have some good and some bad in them. They are not finished creations, as the padre has said many times. Neither are we, and I dread how men might categorize our follies as we do theirs!" Victoria's rebuttal, though wisely spoken, lost its impact in the strain of her voice.
"There, there, my dear--we didn't mean to upset you." Señora Vermuda patted the bride's hand.
Señora Quintero, Don Mateo's wife, smiled. "Men have a brave champion in you, Señora de la Vega. I thought that being so outspoken, you would have a lower opinion of men."
"I hope I don't think too high or too low of anyone, Señora."
"Let's ask her in a few months her opinion of men once more," slyly suggested Lola. "Maybe she'll also tell us if her husband has the passion that his figure promises!"
Amid the pleasurable shock of innuendo which rippled through the ladies' circle, Victoria glanced at the baroque clock on Don Alejandro's desk. Three-forty in the morning, and the party showed no signs of abating. When Doña Anita Quintero complimented Raquel la Cruz on her gown, the subject was diverted much to the young doña's relief. The day had already seemed interminably long to the bride, and she felt ill-prepared for a discussion of Diego's personal attributes. Where was Diego, anyway? How like him to think that one dance was all the attention required to give his bride! This was not her world, her social set! Her mind wandered further as she gave distant attention to the discussion of Venetian lace and Paris satin. Would she in time also think fashion so important? She tried to visualize herself in a few years as plump as Carmen Vermuda or Raquel la Cruz, with her children about her knees and no more conversation than gossip about husbands and children! Would this evening never end?
Diego had managed a thorough circulation among the male guests and with his innate, non-threatening investigative style, had unearthed a surprising amount of anti-government sentiment that ran much deeper than distrust of the local garrison. Still, it was a situation that merely bore watching. Pablo Silva's danger was much more pertinent, and with his respite from sentinel duty over, the caballero intended to resume his protection of the fisherman the following evening. Victoria would know the truth about Zorro by then, and he felt certain that she would under the circumstances approve of his untimely absence.
The cock had crowed the coming dawn when the de la Vega patrón approached his son.
Alejandro murmured to him aside, "Victoria looks a little tired." His tone was full of suggestion.
Glancing up, Diego's blue eyes quickly located and scrutinized his bride. She was trapped in a circle of older women: Lola de Farral, Don Salvador's wife, Carmen Vermuda, and Señora Quintero. Victoria was smiling bravely, enduring the chatter and gossip which was probably laced with sexual innuendo about marital duties, but her fine eyes had lost their luster. Her hair which had been styled so carefully in a prim bun at the base of her neck had become fuzzier throughout the evening as stray strands escaped her coiffure.
"I'll take care of it," he replied. He threaded his way through the partying guests who had grown noisier with the approach of dawn. No less than three times was his progress interrupted by well-wishers who had enjoyed the wine a little too freely.
"Excuse me, ladies," he said to his neighbors, "but I must borrow my wife for a moment." A coy titter of laughter followed his interruption.
"Of course, dear Diego," rippled Lola de Farral. "We wouldn't dream of keeping her when her husband is calling!"
He ignored the other women; his focus was reserved for the woman he had persuaded to marry him. Diego smiled encouragingly and stretched out his hand toward hers when she glanced at him with troubled eyes. The hand presented a command, gently put, but with authority nonetheless. Victoria placed her cold fingers in his warm grasp and allowed herself to be led to the relative privacy of the back hallway.
Diego gripped her shoulder comfortingly. "You're very tired, aren't you? It's not necessary for you to stay up any longer."
She whispered, "I can't leave! The guests! What will they think?"
"I rather doubt that many of them will notice your departure," he whispered back dryly. "In fact, I suspect several of them will pass out on the floor. I'll make your excuses should anyone ask." More persuasion was needed evidently, for Victoria's brows had creased in a troubled frown. "This has been a difficult ordeal for you. I'm sure you have lost sleep worrying. Please go to bed."
She did not think she had given any sign of consent, but she found herself being propelled toward the paneled wood door at the far end of the hallway which she knew led into Diego's bedchamber. Conjugal obligations--they must be faced sooner or later. God help her keep him from guessing how much the thought of intimacies with Diego repulsed her! And grant that her fatigue and fear would not give way to tears!
The heavy door squawked on its hinges as he opened it. Guiding her inside, Diego said, "Good--Felipe has brought your luggage. There's water in the pitcher, and fresh towels are in the top drawer. The chamber pot is under the bed. Can you think of anything else you need?"
Stepping into the room from the clamorous reception had been a step into an oasis of calm. The lamp by the bed was lit, and its soft glow cast long shadows over the red damask bed curtains and spread. The carved walnut furnishings gleamed warmly in the lamplight, polished by meticulous servants of the de la Vega household throughout the years. A brazier with hot coals had been placed in the room to take off the night chill. With the door shut behind him, Diego had placed them in a quiet world of two people. Surprisingly, Victoria found the room a haven from the curious staring eyes and whispers that had surrounded her from her walk up the church aisle to this moment.
"No, this is fine." She wondered if she should start undressing. Did he expect that? He must, because he was still standing there. She reached for her mantilla and tried to disentangle the lace from the prongs of her comb.
"Allow me; I can see this a little better."
"Be careful," she cautioned as his fingers displaced hers. "This mantilla belonged to my grandmother."
"It's lovely," he replied sincerely. She felt the tiny tugs in her scalp as he freed the old lace from the tortoiseshell comb. He handed her the heirloom and lifted the comb from the back of her head.
"Thank you," she murmured and then felt his fingers loosening her hairpins. "That's all right," Victoria babbled hastily. "I can get the rest."
Diego accepted the rebuff. "Will you be obliged to wear your hair in this style now?"
"All señoras do."
"Ah. That's a shame when a woman has such glorious hair."
The compliment flustered Victoria; she was unused to such obvious gallantry from Diego. Didn't one of the women tonight insinuate that men used flattery before a bedroom approach?
"It's not glorious now; it's just a mess," she refuted, stepping back to put some space between his arms and herself.
He stepped toward her. "Do you need help with your dress?"
"No!" she cried, alarmed, then realized her frayed nerves were betraying her. "I mean, no thank you. I have never needed help dressing."
A slight smile lit Diego's solemn face briefly. "Not even as a little girl?"
She noted his eyes looked weary. Perhaps the day's events were pulling on him also.
"Well, maybe then," the bride conceded, and the tension she had felt since he had led her to his bedroom eased.
She stood there looking at him. The next move was his, and he knew that Victoria was waiting for his choice. He held out his hand, this time as an invitation. Diego felt her fingers tremble as they touched his palm. He brought them to his lips and brushed them with a light kiss.
"I've never seen you more beautiful than you were today," he whispered. "Thank you for marrying me. Sleep well." He squeezed her fingers before releasing them and striding to the door.
"You're going back to the party?" she questioned, confused.
"There are still many guests, and I can't leave my father to play host to them alone. Besides, you'll get more rest if I'm not here." He smiled in farewell and slipped from the room.
Torn between relief at his departure and an odd sense of disappointment which she could not explain, Victoria stared at the door a long moment before reaching for the small buttons at the back of her dress.