by Linda Bindner

Chapter 5

The week crept by in a blur of boring activity and cloudy days. The darkness and damp invaded every building in the small town, and the tavern was no exception. The empty days left Victoria open to a crowd of random thoughts about the tall, studious, yet suddenly alluring man she had married. Even the threat of the distraction of cooking something had not deterred her treacherous mind for long. After the first flurry of measuring and chopping was over, Victoria settled down in front of the fire and stirred the soup before her, waiting to add the proper spices at the appropriate times while her brain remained stubbornly fixed on the one person she wanted least to spend time pondering.

But Victoria couldn't help herself: she thought about Diego de la Vega whether she wanted to or not. More to the point, her ideas seemed consumed by what she was going to do to him when next she saw him. The concept of slowly seducing him during a pounding rainstorm while they remained warm and dry in front of a roaring fire suddenly seemed very compelling, which was ridiculous, she scoffed, since she was hardly known to be in love with her own husband! Was she?

Unbidden came the image of how soft and inviting he looked just before she had kissed him in the library and gone to bed. Why had she changed her mind at the last minute and kissed him on the lips instead of the cheek as she had originally intended? Had she gone crazy with her lack of sleep and the headache she had suffered? Were her later ruminations really true, that she had fallen in love with Diego almost against her will?

Victoria tried to distance herself from such an outrageous idea, but the more she thought about it in the cold, hard light of the logic of the following afternoon, the more she had to admit to herself, however reluctantly, that her ramblings from the night before were right. She was in love with Diego, a confirmed scholar and the man who had declared not long after his arrival from Spain that he abhorred the violence of useless bloodshed and planned a nice, quiet life instead of one filled with the action of bringing justice to the tiny hamlet along the coast of California. He was, in fact, so different from the type of man she usually favored that she instantly had to suspect the strange and new leanings of her heart, simply for the sake of disbelieving her own thoughts.

However, once the week was over and Diego had returned and Victoria had seen him with her own eyes as he sauntered with seeming unconcern into her tavern the next Monday morning, she had to admit to the leap of her heart and the racing of its beat as she surreptitiously stared at him from behind the safety of her green bar. Never had he looked so striking, so handsome in his familiar way of strolling into her business establishment, and never had he appeared so masculine to her before. She instantly recognized the fluttering feeling in her stomach for the desire it was, as well as the sense of longing deep in her soul to wrap her arms around him and kiss him as an unexpected, though extremely nice, welcome home. With only one quick glance at him, she knew that all the time in the last week that she had spent convincing herself that the kiss that had landed so sweetly on his lips had meant something far less revolutionary than her covert feelings, was gest forgotten. She could deny the craving and yearning of her body and heart no longer: she was in love with her own husband.

Yet there was very little that she could do to change her situation, Victoria knew. The fact that he had left for a week in San Diego confirmed her worries: Diego was so not in love with her that he could spend a week away from her company without even a thought. It was as clear as if he had spoken out loud that he did not return her affections, and that she should behave as if something so incredible as falling in love with him had not happened to her. There was no kiss, no call to throw herself into his soft, inviting arms and yell, Welcome home! just like they were the same as other married couples in the pueblo. No, such a show of affection would make the academic Don Diego very uncomfortable instead, and she had no wish to do that.

So Victoria pretended that nothing had changed between them, that their friendship had gone unaltered by her kiss and his precipitous trip to San Diego to sell and buy cattle. She went on treating him as if simply being near him didn't send her heart flip-flopping inside her chest and her body into the throes of a passion so strong that she had thought such feelings were unattainable after Zorro's dissappearance from her life eight months prior. Diego acted glad to see her on his return home, but he didn't act like a man consumed by love.

Except, that as Victoria carefully watched him, several times she thought she caught him watching her just as carefully as she was watching him from behind his long, dark lashes, and she wondered to herself.

Days slipped by and became weeks, which became months, until suddenly one day Victoria paused in her mad rush from the tavern's busy main room to her kitchen one autumn lunch hour with the surprising realization that the following week was October 10th, her wedding anniversary. Without any fanfare or fuss, a year had gone by since her hasty proposal of marriage to Don Diego. The fact simultaneously left her flustered, depressed, flushed, and filled with soft, delectable thoughts of love and seduction. She felt flustered because her indecent thoughts were determined to cling to those ideas of the merits of throwing herself at Diego, who currently sat in her tavern, reading an old book on the benefits of nutrition, and depressed because of the inherent uselessness of such thoughts, which left her flushed all around. It was a fruitless case no matter how she looked at it. It all came down to the fact that Diego did not love her as she loved him, or at least had not made any declarations to the contrary in their year long marriage of companionship. Their marriage worked, but remained empty of the softer yearnings of the heart.

After taking a calming breath full of the odors of cooked food that slipped into the main room from the tavern's kitchen, Victoria steeled herself against a further such vacuum of emotion, and even succeeded rather well, until the following Thursday, the very day that filled her mind with thoughts of love and eventual, dreamed-of seduction, when Diego called her quietly into the library after the supper they had enjoyed meant to celebrate the earlier anniversary of the original hurried nuptials of the son of the house. Although, Victoria felt, there was little to celebrate on this cold, rainy night.

Victoria, can I see you for a moment in the library? Diego beckoned after they had finished consuming the delicious tasting chocolate mouse they'd had for dessert. Please. I promise that it will only take a moment.

Victoria hesitated. I certainly don't mind, Diego, but I had planned on visiting Maria and asking if she'd share the recipe for that wonderful dessert we just had. I'd like to try it out at the tavern...

Diego comprehended her reluctance with an expression of understanding that almost covered up his disappointment at not being able to see her alone for a brief moment even on this day, when his father rescued him. Felipe and I will get the recipe for you, Victoria. I want to talk to Maria about this delicious dinner, anyway. You go along with Diego. He rose from his chair, then tossed his white, linen napkin negligently among the refuse of his empty dessert bowl.

Victoria hesitated. Well, if you don't mind...

Not at all! boomed Alejandro as he crooked a finger in Felipe's direction. Come along, Felipe, I can talk to you about dusting my bedroom tomorrow while we walk to the kitchen. Maria's certainly still there, and the furniture in my bedroom needs a good airing out that we can plan for on the morrow. Only you'll need help, I think, and we must ask that from any vaqueros we find stealing a snack from the culinarily talented Maria. To the kitchens, my friend! he called, as if to battle, and bounded through the hallway door that led to the back part of the house.

Diego smiled in embarrassment. Sorry for my father's rather transparent excuse to try to force us to have a few moments alone; he's single-minded if he's anything.

Victoria cleared her throat of the slightly amused though nervous wobble in her voice. The idea of being alone with Diego was almost too dangerous to consider. That's all right, Diego, I don't mind your father at all. In fact, we've become very good friends over the years.

Diego's smile remained on his face. I'm glad to hear that, he said warmly, yet noncommittally.

Victoria continued. But what did you want to see me about? Something more to celebrate this momentous day? she teased.

Diego looked uncomfortable, but only gestured towards the library. Please. After you.

Puzzled, Victoria pushed her chair back and made her way into the library. What is it, Diego? she asked with lowered brows.

The second they were alone and surrounded by the patter of the rain on the tile roof and the smell of books that accompanied the strange odor of chemicals that always invaded the library, Diego stopped Victoria with a hand on her arm. Do you know that exactly one year ago today, you asked me to marry you on a night very like this one? He shook his head in wonder. I can't believe it's been a whole year!

Victoria grinned, and was proud of such a nonchalant gesture. Though it was perhaps a bit dryer on that night, she commented ruefully, obviously remembering.

Diego chuckled a response to her comment. Thank goodness! One thing we didn't need added to that evening was a steady downpour like tonight.

Yes, Victoria said in agreement. That night was already difficult enough in its clandestine activities. I hardly think such rain would have helped the situation any.

Quite. Diego smiled in a seemingly soft recollection of that frightening, tense night. Then he pulled her down beside him on the love seat. But while we remember that evening long ago, I wondered if you would also like to wear this to help you remember, and he handed her a long, slender box that had been hidden in the dusty recesses under the love seat. Just for you, because it's our anniversary. Though I'm sorry that we had a rather strained wedding.

Victoria looked surprised even as she fought her emotions of love at the same time. She managed to hide such longings from him as she took the box in her right hand. Diego! Thank you!

Open it, and you may not wish to thank me so quickly, Diego bantered a bit self-deprecatingly.

I'm sure I'll love it, Victoria contradicted his tone, certain that she would love everything he might happen to give her.

Diego didn't look so sure. Perhaps, was all he said.

Though neither of us has ever felt moved to give presents before, she shamelessly baited even as she enjoyed the feel of the box in her hands in a purely feminine way that enjoyed receiving gifts. Few individuals in the pueblo had ever been induced to give her something before now, and the sensation left her with a feeling of anticipation.

Even as Victoria attempted to control her emotions that she would adore anything he chose to give her, and finding it humorous that she would have such inclinations for him at all, he smiled at her not-so hidden reaction. At the wedding she would have laughed at just the thought of liking him in the typical way of a wife towards a husband, and he knew it. If anyone comprehended her rather well broadcasted love for another man, it was him.

However, she couldn't quite hide the grin of pleasure that lit her face at the prospect, any prospect, of a gift. Victoria pulled at the tie binding the brown wrapping paper from the box and laid it all respectfully on a side table. She knew how expensive wrapping paper could be, even for a family as wealthy as her in-laws. Under the paper lay a plain, gray box with a lid securely held in place, and which Victoria now gently tugged aside. There, nestled in a shelter of tissue paper, rested an emerald and gold bracelet that winked innocently at her in the yellow firelight, as if it knew that it perfectly matched the ring that Zorro had given her all those years before.

For a second, she wondered how Diego knew about the ring, then realized that he had gifted this particular piece of jewelry to her as separate from the secret engagement ring that she still kept hidden in her desk in her room more as a sentimental reminder of the past than of anything serious. Then Victoria's mouth dropped into a perfect circle of surprise. Oh, Diego, she whispered with an air of incredulity, it's beautiful.

One beauty for another, Diego said, being uncharacteristically romantic.

Victoria had to laugh at his statement. I'm not beautiful, Diego. I'm too old! she exclaimed as she made the next expected move and took the obviously expensive gift from its box.

Nonsense, Diego softly negated. You're not old, and many people know your beauty has no contest in the pueblo. He carefully removed the box from her grasp. All my mother's jewelry was given to me in her will, he explained, but it will look much better on you than stuffed in my dresser drawer. He reached out to take the bracelet from her fingers with the inentention of clasping it around her wrist.

Victoria was going to say something about such an expensive gift being wasted in such a provincial town as Los Angeles when the heat from the touch of his fingers suddenly brought her to a screeching halt. Her head snapped up so she could look at him in a confusion of emotion.

Diego looked in consternation at Victoria, and she looked back at him, equally as disturbed. The tingle that had sparked from the unexpected contact of their hands was unmistakable. An inexplicable shiver tore through her.

Victoria..? Diego spoke, his voice suddenly nothing more than a tentative, questioning whisper. The bracelet dangled, quite forgotten, from the tips of his fingers.

Victoria's heart beat frantically in the back of her throat. The moment of truth had come at last, and she knew it, despite all her efforts at hiding her feelings from him. She swallowed, but knew that further deception was pointless. She could never control the emotion evident even now in her traitorous eyes. So, throwing away all the expectations she had taken for granted in the past year, she bravely wrapped a hand around his fingers, bracelet and all. Yes, Diego? she whispered back.

I wonder if... Diego stared at her helplessly. But he clutched at her hand as tightly as she clung to his. Are you..? What I mean is...

Diego, Victoria whispered, wishing she felt as bold as her words sounded, please... um... kiss me.

His answering whisper was expelled on a thin breath of air. Dios, Victoria, I've thought of nothing else for months.

For months? Then... But she was much more interested in the here and now. She placed her free hand on his cheek and brushed at the dark hair that fell in profusion over his forehead, then leaned in closer towards him. She could feel the heat radiating off him in gentle, pulsing waves. Please, she whispered again.

Victoria, don't say 'please,' when you know that I can't deny you anything, Diego uttered back before he buried his hand in her hair and they met in a hesitant, quiet, probing kiss that solidified more of their future than they could know.

The kiss was at first far more chaste than what she recalled from her encounters with Zorro, but she couldn't help melting against him as he drew her up to stand before the roaring fire in the fireplace. As his mouth opened and his tongue brushed questioningly across her lips, she lazily noted that the situation of an empty room filled with a smoldering fire was exactly what she had always dreamed about. Which would have made her laugh if not for the unforeseen change of events in her life. In all her wildest daydreams of this moment, she had never truly expected this to happen.

Victoria thrilled at the small, though charged, contact and moaned while being sent into a spin of tumbling emotions as she relinquished control of the situation to this unexpectedly passionate man who also happened to be her husband. Thoughts of comparing this rendezvous to Zorro's, as natural as such a comparison might be, flew from her mind as she slid her hands in a tempting, sensual swirl across his back.

He released her only to burrow his face in the hidden recesses of her hair-covered neck. Dios, Victoria, I want to do nothing but spend my life making you happy...

I am happy, Diego, she couldn't help but reply. I want to do nothing but spend my life making you happy...

His almost frantic kisses traveled innocently up her cheek and back to her lips where his breath momentarily mixed enticingly with hers. I've waited so long for this moment... Victoria, I love you, and have loved you for years.

There it was again, that affirmation of so many long years, wasted in obliviousness... Her skin reddened now in overwrought sensitivity. Diego, please.., she begged, though she didn't know what she was begging for.

Apparently, Diego did. He groaned again. Anything for you, mi preciosa, he said back in a voice so low that she would have missed it if she hadn't been standing right before him. Without ceremony, he dropped his hold on her bracelet so he could wrap his other hand in her the ends of her luscious hair.

But the low sound of his voice made her shudder in the sudden recognition that slapped like cold water through her entire system. She reeled back, forced to take a step or lose her balance and fall to the carpet at her feet, and in stepping back, she drew away from his hands. He dropped both his arms to his sides as she stared, wide-eyed, up at him, frozen in the moment of knowing. Oh, Dios, she whispered, her voice as low as his, only hers was much more creaky and breathy. It's you.

He had an expression of horror on his face, then he quickly lost the look as one of giving in, of acceptance, replaced it. His expression now was one more of wariness mixed with caution, mixed once again with the love and passion that he couldn't quite hide. So now you know, mi preciosa. He slowly repeated his slip, whispering the words that floated out into the library.

Oh, Dios, Victoria said again, too stunned to say much else. You? It was at that tense moment when a twinkle from the floor caught her eye and the bracelet winked up at them from directly in between their feet. It reminded her of her ring, Zorro's proposal of marriage, the way Diego had been treating her since her marriage to him, the love she'd always experienced when in Zorro's arms, the time she'd spent waiting for Zorro's... Diego's... fight for justice to be over... She couldn't say anything, only gasp for breath in the otherwise quiet library.

Please, Victoria, Diego said, the sound of begging so clear now in his low voice, I stayed silent all these years for you, to keep you out of danger...

Victoria still could only pant, You..? You..?

Please, Victoria, don't be angry with me. When you came to me with an offer of marriage meant to save the tavern, I...

Alejandro's boisterous voice interrupted his son as he unwittingly entered the library and cheerfully called, Here you are, Victoria. Here's your re... Then he caught sight of the bracelet lying on the floor between them and the looks of frozen astonishment on their faces. I'm sorry, am I interrupting something?

I'll say! exploded Victoria, then she turned her horrified eyes on her father-in-law. Thank you for the dinner tonight. It was wonderful, as always. Then she yanked her hands away from Diego's grasp and rushed to the front door, where she tore open the portal and dissappeared into the night, making certain to bang the door shut behind her.

Was it something I said? queried a confused Alejandro as he watched in equal astonishment as his son followed his daughter-in-law to the door and out into the night.

Victoria! Diego yelled, then the hideously wet night dampened his voice into nothingness.

The rain fell like a steadfast sheet onto the sidewalk and the front steps of the hacienda, but that didn't stop Diego. He ran with a speed he rarely showed through the still open front gate and grabbed at the harness of the sodden horse hitched to Victoria's wagon. She was already in the driver's seat, reins in hand, but he refused to let her go forward an inch.

Just listen to me! he called over the claps of thunder and the sound of the constant rain on the sidewalks and walls around the hacienda. Victoria!

No! she yelled back, even though he already had his hand firmly around her waist, prepared to bodily pull her from the wagon seat if he had to. You liar! How can I trust anything you might say? Now, let go of me!

No, not until you listen to me... replied Diego, and he roughly hauled her down from her seat on the wagon and wrapped his arms around her. I did this for you, to keep you alive, to...

You did this because it gave you a sense of power! Victoria negated, struggling against his tender but steely embrace. Like all your time in the pueblo! To think that I let myself fall in love with you again, kiss you...

I've never felt power, never, and I've always been in love with you! You have to believe that! Since the first moment I laid eyes on you in your tavern, I've loved you like nothing else. If you take nothing more from this conversation, take that! The rain water streaming from the sky had soaked through his hair and clothes by now, but he seemed not to notice as he kept his arms ensconced about Victoria.

How can I believe that? she spat, still struggling against him, though it was a losing battle: his strength, honed by years of fencing and the exploits of Zorro, had become almost like muscles of iron. How can I believe anything you say ever again?

You have to believe what you felt when you kissed me just now! There was nothing deceptive in that! Diego wrapped his arms even tighter around her writhing form.

But being reminded of the endearment only fueled Victoria's anger. I can't believe how many times I let you kiss me! And this marriage; no wonder why you so readily agreed to marry me that night! It was no sacrifice for you, it was...

What should I have done that night, Victoria? asked Diego, his voice fighting to rise against the sound of the storm. Say no? Of course I married you! There was nothing that I wanted more!

Finally growing too tired to struggle, Victoria gave one last wriggle, and yelled, You could have told me the truth!

No! Diego hollered back. If word somehow got to the Alcalde... He would hang you, Victoria! I would lose you! He ended on a much quieter note, his arms more of an embrace than a grip of steel like it had been before as her anger played itself out and she quieted while it slowly drained away. I can't stand the thought of losing you. I can't stand it.

For a moment, they stood, quiet as the storm raged around them. Lightning split the sky and its answering thunder rocked the hacienda, rolling across the heavens, while the two breathed harshly in the dark night air. Even the yellow glow cast by the lamps on either side of the hacienda's front doors hardly touched them through the clinging darkness.

Then, like the peaceful hiss of a dying fire, Diego's voice coiled out into the night. Please, Victoria, I'm begging you, don't leave me. Please don't leave me alone without your love. The hope of finally winning your affections is the only thing that has kept me going for a whole year. Please, Victoria, I love you. Let me love you.

Victoria's panting nearly covered up the sound of his voice, it was so subdued, but nothing could hide the sound of his tears or his imploring. The arms tightened across her back, changing from a hold into a caress as he laid his cheek tentatively on the top of her head. The feel of his lips brushing against her wet hair broke through the exhaustion she was feeling. Tears started coursing down her cheeks. Oh, Diego why didn't you tell me before now? she hiccuped.

His own tears mixed on his cheeks with the rain. I'm so sorry, mi preciosa. I couldn't. I was frightened, too frightened to say anything.

She wiped her teary cheeks against the ruffles of his shirt, and only got wetter for her pains. To think of all that time, wasted.

He shook his head, a motion that wasn't lost on her even though she couldn't see his face. Not wasted. We weren't together, but loving you was never a waste.

His sobs shuddered through his body as he held her close, the only indication that he was even alive. A stark, vacant moment passed, then she raised her arms to circle his back in an equally tight grip. I'm so sorry, Diego. I knew what you feared the most, and still I...

It's in your nature, you can't help it. Diego softly kissed her hair, and the sensation shot straight through to her toes. It made her tingle as he continued to hold her as if he'd never let her go. I love your temper, even when it's turned on me.

The admittance only made her cry harder. Dios, Diego, I'm sorry I reacted that way... I'm so sorry!

I know. His next kiss landed on her hairline, soft, caressing her head and her face at the same time. Please, you must, please let me love you. For real.

Dios, Diego, Victoria cried upward. I'm not worth it.

You're worth so much, Victoria, he argued passionately. Please...

She couldn't bear the sound of his pleading any longer, or the cry of forgivness in her own heart. Don't say another word. I can't bear it, either. No begging when I love you so... She got no further as her lips and the words she wanted to say were swallowed up in a kiss that pierced through the surrounding downpour straight to her soul and one that stirred her pounding desires to life in spite of the weather.

Por favor, don't go. Don't go, he added on a softer, lilting voice.

How could she possibly turn her back on that sound? He must think her either extremely harsh or extremely coldhearted to withstand the sound of his beseeching tones. Instead of turning away from him, climbing back onto the soaked boards of her wagon, she kissed him again, rising to stand on tiptoe and clinging to his slippery, yet totally enrapturing, form. Even in the rain, she couldn't deny the stirrings of passion that she was feeling for the man in her arms.

Diego's embrace slid to encompass all of her and he suddenly prayed, Please don't take her away from me. Please...

Then the front door of the hacienda opened and the highlighted form of Alejandro filled the doorway. Victoria! Diego! What are you two doing out in this weather? You'll both catch your deaths in colds from this rain. Come in before you float away!

Victoria pulled back from his embrace only to grab his hand in a grip as strong as his sword. With that firm grasp, she led Diego up the steps of the hacienda and a bit sheepishly towards her father-in-law.

You're soaked! declared Alejandro as he shut the door behind them. Stay right there: no use dragging your puddles around the house. I'll get some towels for you. Befuddled, he shook the piece of paper holding the recipe on it in his hands before slapping it in slight irritation onto a convenient table. Oh! He disappeared down the hallway to the bathing room where they kept the stack of clean towels.

Victoria turned with a shy smile towards Diego and a statement about rising Don Alejandro's ire on the tip of her tongue, but Diego pulled her dripping form into his and kissed her as hotly as if they were both dry and standing alone in her kitchen. The feel of his wet clothes pressed wantonly against her chest was almost too enticing for her to resist. Only the sound of Don Alejandro's returning footsteps promising an audience broke them apart. But Diego nipped at her lips as he drew away, leaving her feeling less bereft at the abrupt ending of his endearment as he stepped back. Then his father was there, yelling instructions like an army general. The look of longing in Diego's eyes went unnoticed by Alejandro as he and Victoria dutifully toweled their saturated hair.

Alejandro remained oblivious of what he had interrupted. Into warm baths, you two, and I don't want to hear any arguments. He paused to take in their soaked clothing. And then bed, he went on. If either of you catch a cold from this, I'll never forgive myself. You'll be staying the night, I think, Victoria, he said with barely a glance at her face hidden behind the towel. I don't think this rain will let up all night, and I won't have you riding back to town and getting drenched. Now go! And I don't want to see hide nor hair of either of you all night!

Perhaps Alejandro wasn't so oblivious after all. With the demand still ringing in their ears, and amazed at how lucky they had been at being commanded to be alone, which was exactly what they wanted, Diego and Victoria left their shoes beside the front door and padded in the direction of the bedrooms. The slap of Victoria's bare feet on the cold tiles barely covered the squishing sound of Diego's socks, and did nothing to hide the shiver of anticipation that shot through her when he ran a finger seductively down her arm from behind the second they were out of sight in the hallway.

After their baths, they were both clean and dry and warm in a nightshirt and a borrowed nightgown. The heat from the fire in Diego's bedroom where he had dragged her when she tried to enter the guest room just to one side of his sitting room permeated them both to their already heated cores. Victoria gave a yelp, but bit off the sound when she was certain it was Diego's hand on her arm.

I've been waiting all year to do this, Diego whispered thickly against her still-wet hair. His hands cupped her cheeks in a fragile hold, as if he were afraid that he might break her. I can't endure being apart from you for one more minute.

Victoria would have teased him about his final statement, but he chose that second to kiss her in a gesture so searingly hot that she completely relaxed into languid lines, leaning against his body.

Stay the night? Diego whispered, and almost as if she weren't in control of her own movements by this point, Victoria nodded as soon as he was done speaking.

With me? he clarified, as if there could be any doubt.

Victoria grinned and held on to him all the tighter as she allowed him to lead her further into his bedroom where the red coverlet on the bed was lit by the yellows and oranges of a warming blaze. I thought you'd never ask, she said with a slight smile on her face.

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