The Promise

by

 

Gail Manfre

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY

 

ENGAGED.

 

“Amontildar, I did not realize until today Diego had actually fallen in love with me,” Selena said. All my life I tried to explain to my dear deceased father that I neither could nor would marry a man simply for convenience’s sake.”

Mais chère, one cannot have everything! Why in Louisiana on de plantations, all de white masters have darkies for der mistresses. The ladies in those big houses, dey do not marry for love, dey marry for security. And dem femmes des grandes maisons [wives of the plantation owners] they know ‘bout their men’s pillow girls! Speak ze truth, me.”

“Different culture, Amontildar. How do they live with men of such low morals? Mon Dieu! Selena exclaimed.

Amontildar shrugged. Do all the time, les Grands blancs [the big and important white men]. They have de power and they make de rules, my mistress.” Her personal maid touched her arm. “Mais, chère, you have a head on your shoulders and besides Monsieur Diego, he love you. You be fine, you see!”

Selena unclasped her hands which she was unaware had been clinched so tightly that her knuckles were white. “You really think so?”

As sure as Le Bon Dieu [the good Lord] made the sunshine ma petite [my little one]! Now you hush and make yourself look pretty for your amour, eh?” Amontildar chided her.

As she changed into a pale blue silk and cotton dress and added an onyx and sandalwood comb to her dark tresses, Selena worried that she might accidentally reveal to Diego about Don Alejandro’s discovery of his secret identity. She wondered how long his father could maintain this fiction and continue to act as if Diego were still a “spineless cobarde [coward].“ Her heart ached for her betrothed but she knew that when Diego sensed the time was right, El Zorro would do the proper thing.

When Selena entered the sala, she thought that her handsome fiance looked absolutely stunning. She absolutely adored the ornately decorated chaqueta wore and its navy blue color nicely complimented his slightly olive skin and dark hair. His chaqueta was festooned with pale gray embroidery and tiny seed pearls. Bernardo had selected one of his fancier pale blue cambios, shot through with silver thread, which in her opinion accentuated his masculinity. A lock of Diego’s thick curly hair rested in the middle of his forehead. Selena’s heart fluttered nervously at the thought of running her hands through his hair ...

Don Alejandro and his son stood up to greet her. Don Diego's eyes sparkled with joy and something else that was burning in her fiancé's eyes, something private, which existed only between lovers.

"Buenos tardes, gentlemen. It is very good to see you again Don Alejandro. Diego, you are certainly looking much better than when you first arrived ay my hacienda.” she impishly added. both men chuckled at her small joke.

Amontildar and the entire household staff took great pains to create a formal yet charming setting for Selena’s special guests. The long mahogany dinner table was covered in ivory-laced damask material. Her great-grandmother's favorite bone china, pale yellow in color, together with leaded crystal goblets and wineglasses, reflected her family's good taste. The silver utensils, which Selena had always loved, had been brought over by her great-great-grandmother from Spain in 1695 when she settled in Mexico City. Don Alejandro was seated to her right in the place of honor, and Diego sat across from him.

Selena had carefully chosen the luncheon wines as well as the menu itself. Her head servant had prepared something totally unexpected for Señorita de Rojas's guests. Rather than serve typical Spanish cuisine, Amontildar decided to introduce Creole items to Don Alejandro as Selena had informed her Diego was already very familiar with New Orleans cuisine. She had created a great pot of seafood gumbo, with white rice, French garlic bread, and asparagus salad with tomatoes. Don Alejandro looked curiously at the “brown gravy stew” that Juan Gomez ladled into his bowl.

"What, my dear, may I ask is this type of .. soup?" Don Alejandro inquired politely.

Don Diego decided to answer for her. "Father, it is known in New Orleans as gumbo. Gumbo is made with browned flour gravy, or roux, which is sauteed slowly in a cast iron pot. He swirled his spoon around in his bowl and commented how large the shrimp were.

Selena smiled. "Sí, we are indeed now fortunate that the Spanish government has allowed us to trade more freely with foreign powers. If an American ship had not pulled into San Pedro yesterday with a full cargo of seafood from a fishing trip in nearby waters, then we would not be eating this delicious gumbo."

Diego's father hesitantly tasted the gumbo. After he tried several teaspoons his eyebrows rose until they nearly reached his hairline. "It is rather spicy, isn't it? But I do like it indeed."

Don Diego was too busy eating his gumbo to comment further upon the wonderful meal Selena was serving. He was already starting his second bowl of gumbo when his father pushed himself away from the table stating that he was already full.

"Do not misunderstand me, Señorita, the food is absolutely wonderful. Ai, for an old man like myself, it is really too spicy," the elder de la Vega stated quietly.

"I understand perfectly, Don Alejandro, there is no need to apologize. I dare say that the people in New Orleans have cast-iron stomachs!" Señorita de Rojas gaily noted.

Diego caught the appreciative glance his father gave Selena. He mused wryly. Knowing my father as well as I do, I suspect that he has concocted something. We shall see when dessert is served. While Juan Gomez and two young Indian girls cleared the dinner table under Amontildar‘s watchful eyes, the young caballero could not help but stare at his fiancée. Diego much preferred this dress she was wearing as it accentuated her bosom but revealed only hint of cleavage. And pale blue was definitely her color, although when he recalled visiting Selena in her bedroom as Zorro, his senses were inflamed by the deep rose hue of her silk nightgown.

“Father, there is something that I must tell you,” Diego said as he lit a cigar for his father and then one for himself.

“Oh? Hopefully you are going to tell me that you will supervise the annual transactions with our broker in San Pedro.Don Alejandro said between puffs on his cigar.

“Father! This is a very important step for me, no us.” Diego thrust out his chin and gingerly placed his hands over hers. “Selena and I are engaged to be married.”

“W-hat?” Don Alejandro replied in what he hoped was genuine surprise. “That is marvelous, Diego!”

Diego rolled his eyes heavenward. “Father, you have that mischievous look on your face!“ Diego swept his gaze from Selena, who was blushing most charmingly, back to Don Alejandro, who was balancing himself on the balls of his feet and assiduously avoiding his son’s scrutiny by blowing circles of cigar into the air.

Ah, sí. I detect what has occurred while I was recuperating in bed. Diego chuckled to himself. “Now, father, I ask that I may please have a moment alone with my fiancée.” Diego crossed his arms over his chest and looked directly into his father ‘s dark eyes.

“Ay, yi, yi! I suppose so, Diego. But only for a couple of moments. And Diego?” Don Alejandro said before he departed the sala, “ do try to behave yourself!”

“But of course. Am I not my father’s son?” he retorted wickedly.

Don Alejandro sighed. “I was afraid you were going to say that. Five minutes, Diego, and five minutes only!”

After Alejandro left the dining room, Diego held Selena in his arms.

How long until we are united in marriage for all eternity. I never want to leave his arms again. She decided as she reveled in the tenderness of his touch.

“Selena,” Diego began, “Selena I sense that you are not being totally forthright with me.” he said firmly. He cupped her chin in one of his massive hands. “Look at me. Did my father ---”

She pondered what he was going to say. Here it comes. I am trapped ...he is going to ask me if Don Alejandro has learned that he is El Zorro. “Si, Diego”? she replied innocently

How much pressure did my father exert to have you accept our betrothal? I want the truth, querida... now,.” he added firmly, keeping her face turned up to him.

Selena exhaled in relief. Grace á Dieu, I do not think I can ever lie to Diego. she thought. How those hazel eyes pierce my soul!

“Don Alejandro said both of our reputations would eventually be tarnished since someone who has seen you here will undoubtedly gossip. I told him that my ‘reputation,’ my good name, was in doubt once I passed the age of twenty still unmarried.”

Diego rolled his hazel eyes which now appeared to adopt some of the blue color of his chaqueta. “I can guess the remainder of his lecture. He wanted to protect the de la Vega family’s honor, correct?” He relaxed his hands fractionally and Selena was finally able to move her head.

“Corazon, he could not believe that I would reject your proposal again if I thought you were going to marry me out of pity!”

Then her betrothed shifted Selena onto his lap and began kissing her in that tender, sensitive area below her right ear on her neck. “Wish I had been there to witness that conversation!” Diego murmured between kisses.

“Don Alejandro is all bark and no bite, at least regarding me. You are forgetting the effects my acerbic wit, my feminine charms, my adorable gray eyes have on men,” Selena dryly replied as returned his kisses with increased passion of her own.

“Por favor, I surrender!“ Diego laughed as her rocked her back and forth. “My love, when I think of how foolish I was not even to give you a chance!”

“That is in the past, Diego. “This is now--” Señorita de Rojas began, and ...”

But his lips obliterated the rest of her response. “I can barely wait until our wedding night, mi corazon. To Diego’s amused satisfaction Selena blushed at his bold statement.

She saw herself reflected in his vision. “Truly? I am so...”

“Let me prove it, Señorita.” he murmured against her cheek. He moved his left arm behind her back and he bent down to kiss her more deeply than he ever had before.

“Harrumph, Diego! Behave like a gentleman! I can see where you two will bear close watching. Ai!” Don Alejandro said in jest as he reentered the sala. “Of course, I do not blame you, Señorita de Rojas.“ Diego’s father chuckled at her vain attempt to convince him she was not avidly kissing Diego while his father was patiently allowing them some time alone together. Selena’s action of thrusting her arms behind her and adopting a well-practiced aura of innocence did not deceive Don Alejandro at all.

“Father you know of my opinion regarding long engagements?” Diego responded, while curling one of his arms around Selena’s waist as he ignored his father’s reproving look.

“Would December the first be so difficult for you, Diego?” Don Alejandro suggested as he quietly watched the beginning of the future of the de Vega line and this couple’s happiness.

Diego momentarily tore himself away from studying the smokiness of Selena’s gray eyes to answer his father. “Hmm. ... I suppose six weeks will pass quickly.”

“My son, some of the social proprieties have to be observed!“ There was that strange twinkle in his father’s eyes again. “Besides, I have already arranged for the banns to be read in church this Sunday!”

“I, for one, am not surprised, father!’ Diego responded as he threw back his head and laughed heartily.

“Gentlemen, shall I pour three glasses of jerez to celebrate the occasion?“ Selena asked as she went to the mahogany cabinet that displayed her mother’s crystal.

“Bueno,” Father and son responded as one.

Don Alejandro grasped Diego’s arm. “Diego there is one other matter that you need to tell your betrothed,” he gestured to Selena. “An important subject we were discussing while you were changing for luncheon, my dear.“

Diego hesitated before speaking. He wanted to choose his words carefully since he did not want to hurt Selena’s feelings. “Querida, I want you to move into our hacienda as soon as possible. I do not believe that you will be safe here.”

“Because of that couchon Glorioso?” She said between gritted teeth.

“He poses a real danger to you, Selena. You are an unmarried woman of considerable means and you have no living blood male relative. To Capitán Glorioso you would make an excellent wife for a member of the Grandee class. And father tells me you have granted the commandante permission to call upon you next week? Understand, Selena, I am not blaming you for what you did because you were trying to protect ...”

Diego paused. Almost slipped and said to protect me--Zorro --from being taken prisoner by the commandante. Madre de Dios ! Diego swallowed some Jerez before continuing; “you know what I mean,” he added quietly.

‘Ah, si,“ Don Alejandro seized the sudden lull in conversation, “Diego is correct, my dear. That violardo de mujeres is indeed insane,” his father added.

Selena de Rojas closed her eyes. Soon, despite her best efforts to restrain herself, tears marched silently down her cheeks.

Diego held her tightly. “Cry all you want, Selena, release all those pent up emotions now, rather than later.”

Except for those six years that she spent in Madrid with her mother’s sisters, she regarded this hacienda as her home. Although she had lived a rather lonely existence, her social isolation made worse by the fact her father always referred to Selena as “his homely daughter,” this casa was a place full of happy memories thanks to her dear mother, Señora Veronica Aulida Maria Cadiz y de Rojas Cabildo. Selena had lived most of her adolescent life here and both of her parents‘ graves were lying in the garden underneath a papper tree.

But that is now in the past, and as Señora Veronica de Rojas believed, life is for the living., and you make your destiny, she heard her mother ‘s voice echoing in her head. Embarrassed beyond words, Selena dried her tears.

Diego patiently waited for her to compose herself. “Sweetheart, I realize that this is an extremely difficult thing for me to ask of you. I regret I have to insist on a decision today.“

“But it is the right thing to do, Diego,” Selena said resolutely as she looked at Don Alejandro and then shifted her full attention back to her beloved Diego.

He held up her hands to his lips and kissed them. “I can not wait until you are truly mine, querida,” Diego whispered into her ear.

 

END OF CHAPTER 20

 

 

 

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