This is a sequel to the story The Courtier, and that should be read first.

New Arrangements

by Linda Bindner


Victoria squinched her eyes shut against the light and rolled a little bit onto her back. Then she stared at the ceiling. It didn't look anything like the ceiling in her room at the tavern. That was strange. In fact, it didn't even look like adobe at all.

Alarmed, unable to remember where she was with the sleep still crowding her mind, Victoria sat up with a start. She saw long, dark curtains hanging from the posts of the bed, a red and gold coverlet, pictures that she didn't recognize neatly hanging on the wall.

She turned her head, and saw a man, dark hair, tall by the way his feet were curled up to avoid the end of the bed. One pale shoulder lay outside the blanket, cool in the early autumn air, as he clearly slumbered on. That shoulder was naked. She was naked, too.

Naked! Devoid of any cover but what was on the bed, she sat there, unmoving, afraid that even a second jiggle might wake him.

In a rush, Victoria remembered everything then. The wedding the day before. The party immediately following. The dark hours spent here, in the bedroom, where she had touched the infinite, where she had been touched, tenderly stroked, as she had made love with wild enthusiasm. She must have made love. Clothes lay strewn all about the floor, making jumbled piles where they had landed.

Just as suddenly, she didn't want to get up yet. She wanted to snuggle up close to him, enjoy the half-light filtering through his window, stretch slowly and relish the lazy sensation of sleeping late, even though it was still early by many people's standards. Running a tavern for most of her adult life had trained her reflexes to rise early. Those habits would be hard to break.

Aware of the gentle rise and fall of his chest, his soft breathing that barely ruffled the sheet, Victoria carefully laid back down and leaned towards the warmth that his body emanated. The feel was intoxicating. Her husband was intoxicating.

That phrase sounded strange in her mind, but she supposed she would get used to thinking it, just as she would get used to the other changes in her life: more money, the need not to work for a living, more food than she could ever eat, horses, rich furnishings, like his bed. Nervousness took over her initial curiosity, then a sleepiness banished the nerves. Cautiously, she lightly kissed the pale shoulder, but even that light endearment made Diego de la Vega stir, stretch tiredly, then turn his head to stare straight at her.

At first he didn't say anything, only continued to stare. Then he whispered, Hi.

Hi, Victoria whispered back, her head on the pillow in such a way that it muffled even her whisper. She kissed his shoulder again, almost overcome by the sudden surge of love that flooded her. As something to do with the extra energy that accompanied her feelings, she looked at the ring on her left hand, holding the fingers up to the light, watching the sun glint off the gold, then grabbed his fingers and pulled his hand into the light, too, watching the glow off his simple gold wedding band.

Do you like it? he asked, his voice still hushed in the early morning. He spoke softly, unwilling to wake the servants, who would be the first to rise.

Victoria grinned wryly. She was hushed, too. I like it, but I'm not used to it yet.

He grinned back at her. There will be a lot of new things for you to get used to. It's nice that the padre advised both of us to take this week off from life; it was a good idea. We'll probably both need it.

She slid a finger down his face from his dark hair to his chin in a simple yet potent caress. What do you have to get used to?

He had the decency to blush. Having you around all the time, sleeping with someone, being married. There's a lot to get accustomed to.

Not to mention having your identity known by everyone. Still, there's probably more for me to learn than for you. Her finger now lightly stroked across the exposed part of his chest.

Yes, the arrival of the Mexican Revolution put a whole new twist on our lives, didn't it?

She giggled. That's putting it mildly. Though it was more revolutionary for DeSoto, who had to leave at the last minute. I think he was hoping that you would show up for a duel.

Diego smiled. I'm too busy to duel right now, he said, and leaned in to kiss the end of her nose.

Victoria couldn't quite suppress the shiver that coursed through her. In response to her obvious shaking, she decided to address that new part of her life, and whispered, giving in to the feeling of wonder that came with the shivering, I can't believe you're here, with me, in the morning; I dreamt so long about this.

It's no dream, he promised, suddenly serious. And I'm right here. I don't plan to leave you anytime soon. In an instant, moving much faster than she thought such a large man could move, he was nearer to her, his arm wrapped around her, his lips lowered on hers, kissing her in passionate, loving, demanding splendor. His hands roved across her bare stomach, making her shiver even more.

In a fast haze of desire, Victoria managed to keep enough control of her brain to consider a little about the church ceremony, the fact that they were now married, and how that information affected their lovemaking. It was easier to get swept away now, with everyone, even the church, expecting it. She remembered the first time they had made love in her hot little bed, after his confession that he had loved her for many years, when he had finally divulged his secret life of being Zorro, and how a small part of him still seemed restrained. It had been the same way the two other times they had given in to their emotions before the wedding and made love. But afterwards, now, there was no sense of holding back, and the love and desire poured out of him in an exhilarating sense of eager anticipation for the fulfillment for which they had waited so long. Then, as his amazing hands slowly roamed upwards, she couldn't think of anything at all and gave herself entirely to the sweet emotions barraging her mind.

Several hours later, after an enjoyable and unexpected morning spent exploring her new husband in the light of day, another treat to get accustomed to, they rested and fell asleep with their arms around each other and their legs softly entwined. Sleeping late was also a new thing for her to get used to, and when she woke, she expected that it wouldn't take her long to get used to it at all.

She felt wonderful. Victoria stretched, her arms over her head, sliding her wrists across the panel of his headboard. She had no trouble recalling where she was this time, or how drastically her life had changed in the past five weeks. She had been truly courted, made love to the man who had chosen her, only to discover that he was the masked man she had been in love with for years. It was little wonder, then, that she had developed such intense feelings for him. Then came the decision to marry, the revolution, the unmasking, demonstrating her feelings in public, more love than she had ever dreamed of, the wedding, the wedding night.

The wedding morning. All perfect and beautiful. Victoria stretched again and smiled, content and feeling special. She found herself desiring to make love again, as if she wanted to make up for the almost five years worth of denial, but squashed those sensations. It was time to rise. It was already ten o'clock!

It was then that it occurred to her she had nothing to wear except the wedding dress. This was a problem that she hadn't anticipated at all.

Diego stirred next to her. His blue eyes opened, and once again he looked at her first thing, as if she would disappear if he didn't keep her in his sights.

I have nothing to wear, she blurted, her voice sounding slightly amazed in the quiet room, not critical at all that he hadn't thought of this recent debacle.

He rose up on one elbow, and Victoria received a good view of the chest that she had been denied seeing for years. Even the look made a shudder of delight race up her spine. That's right, he said in wonder. Then he glanced at her with a mischievous smile. You can go around like that all day for all I care. He kissed her, a slow, loving gesture of endearment.

As soon as she could talk, she said, No doubt. She was imagining what a sensation that sight would be in the pueblo.

He grinned saucily. I suppose you could wear some of Mother's clothes while I go to the tavern and retrieve your things. Or I could send Felipe. Or you could go with me.

Why don't I go with you? The sooner we make the transition to 'married' for the pueblo, the better.

Diego grinned again. All right, but nothing can compare to the shock they felt at me being Zorro.

Victoria rolled her eyes. That's an understatement.

Diego kissed her lips one more time, lightly, as if he couldn't resist now that everyone in Los Angeles knew about their shared affection. And we can be as happy as we want to be at the tavern. No more holding back.

No, no more. She reached out to touch her palm with his, the contact of skin on skin somehow necessary. I don't know how you stood the denial of your feelings for so many years anyway. I would have gone loco!

Diego laughed. It wasn't easy, that's for certain. That's why I finally courted you, though that decision was probably the hardest I've made in my entire life. I was so frightened! I wanted you to love me.

The look in her eyes grew abruptly serious. I do love you, so much I'm sometimes overwhelmed. She curled her fingers around his hand and squeezed.

He squeezed back. And I love you. She wondered if he planned on making love to her yet again, but he pulled away. He leaned down and kissed her instead, his lips barely brushing hers. But if we want to ever eat today, we have to get going. Clothes first. He climbed out of bed, rearranging the covers for her as he left. She moved to follow. He held out his hand, stopping her. No, you stay there, where it's warm. I'll dress first, then find something appropriate for you to wear on your first day as a doņa.

Victoria was astonished at his seeming disregard for his exposure to the world as he crossed the room to his wardrobe and began pulling out clothes and drawers. His nakedness before her didn't appear to bother him at all. Victoria was glad, as she looked to her heart's content. She found that she wanted to look a lot!

He caught her at it. What are you doing? Diego asked with a small smile.

Looking, she replied.

The smile grew larger. Well, you do have about five years to make up for.

And I plan to make up the lost time with a vengeance, she promised as she stretched yet again.

You look like a cat who just won a much contested piece of cheese, he said, still smiling. He pulled a shirt on then, white, but simpler than he usually wore, with no ruffles down the front. Next, he pulled on his brown trousers.

Slightly disappointed at the more conventional use of clothing, Victoria noted, What? No ruffled shirt?

He grinned at her pout and pulled on a boot. I figured since you're wearing something different, so should I. He pulled on his other boot, ignoring a strong desire to kiss her again.

Victoria saw the look of longing cross his eyes, and was again amazed by the depth of his feelings for her. They matched hers for him, and she didn't think that was possible in another human being.

He headed for the door. Be right back.

Victoria said nothing, and thought about her new life while he was away. He wasn't gone long, though it seemed like a long time to her. She managed to think of several things that needed to be discussed while he was gone, the most pressing being the tavern.

Victoria broached the subject the second he returned. The tavern. What am I going to do with it? We haven't really talked about it before.

Diego sighed and bundled up the dress he was holding in his hands. He sat next to her on her side of the bed. I'll be honest with you, Victoria.

She cut him off. Have you ever been anything else?

His grim expression cleared a little. He had lied to her for years as Zorro, and she knew it. Let's not get into that, he said, a glint of mischief in his eyes. He went on. I want you here, with me, all the time, but to not see you in the tavern is impossible to consider. I don't know, Victoria. I guess it's up to you. He shrugged.

She was glad that he wasn't going to be a dictatorial husband, always telling his wife what to do in life, like some of the men she knew, or at least it didn't appear that he was going to be that way. One never knew. But his attitude would preclude a lot of disagreements between the two in later years, since she was so independent, and had been doing things her way all this time. For that she was glad. But that thought didn't tell her what to do about the tavern. She shrugged, too. I don't know, either.

Well, we have the whole week off. Why don't you think about it, and decide later? he suggested.

Victoria determined that was an adequate idea. Sounds like good advice to me. Have you been talking to the padre? she teased, knowing full well that he had talked to Padre Benitez before the wedding almost as much as he had talked to her. He had felt supreme guilt about their lovemaking without the sanctity of marriage. She never had felt guilty, on the other hand, wishing to experience his body with a great fervor that had pushed their courtship along much faster than most people thought was decent. But his old name and family history had kept the gossips quiet. Not to mention respect for his family's wealth.

That reminded her. What dress did you find?

Diego pulled the dress from his lap where he had let it fall and held it up. What do you think?

The dress was beautiful, high neckline, long sleeves, flounced with lace. Stunning, she breathed, fingering it.

He smiled again. I thought so, too. But more importantly, it was on the top of the clothes Father had packed away in the trunk. I just grabbed it.

She smiled at his honesty, and climbed from under the covers to retrieve her undergarments and corset.

He sighed again, this time in appreciation as he openly admired her. Stunning, he said softly, echoing her.

More embarrassed by his open admiration of her nakedness than she had felt guilty over a decision she had secretly supported for years, she playfully swatted at him.

Maybe I'll make you go into the pueblo like that, so I can continue to 'appreciate' you, he said, a mock look of indecision on his face.

Victoria reached for the dress. Oh, give me that! You will do no such thing, Diego de la Vega! I make my own decisions.

Don't I know it, he pretended to grouse and complain.

She had the dress on by then, and tugged at the sleeves. His mother had been a small woman. Small and demure. You wouldn't want me any other way, she reminded him.

He gazed at her figure in continuing admiration, his eyes shining, though he seemed disapproving a little at her tugging. Disapproving because her actions attempted to cover up what he liked to look at.

Does it fit? he asked, and pulled her into his lap, then into his arms for a quick, though hard, embrace.

She rested her head on his shoulder. Yes, she whispered.

Diego's arms tightened, then, and his voice lost the teasing it had displayed, adopting a much more serious tone. I'm sorry, Victoria, but I just have to hold you. Dios, I love you so much!

Overwhelmed by emotion herself, Victoria understood. She squeezed back. I love you, too.

He leaned his head back, his mouth searching for hers, kissing her almost desperately, his hand on the back of her head.

Victoria was reminded of his bold kisses before the first time they had made love, right after half his confession. Though the movement bruised her lips and seemed almost out of place now, considering the wedding bands each wore on their finger, she would never break it off, enjoying the feeling of intensity and abandonment of rules that his kisses seemed to stand for. She pushed on the back of his head, too, almost as desperate as he was.

When they parted, their difficult breathing sounded loud in the quiet room. Diego rested his forehead on hers and said in a low voice that was almost a whisper, If we didn't have to finally get out of bed, I would happily pull that dress off you again and make love to you, right now, no matter how sore we would be tomorrow. I need you, Victoria. I don't know how I ignored that need for so long.

He sounded so lost, so despondent, that Victoria was hard-pressed not to fulfill his every desire. But they really did need to be going if they planned to be in Los Angeles by noon. With that in mind, Victoria embraced him one last time. It's going to be so hard to leave you every day.

You don't have to, Diego said hopefully, shamelessly trying to influence his wife's decision about returning to work, trying to forget his previously inflamed emotions. It was a familiar battle, but he found it harder to push those feelings down now that he had given in to them several times.

Shamelessly influenced, Victoria said, I'll keep that in mind. She kissed him on the forehead one last time before getting to her feet and pulling him towards the door.

It was a good thing Victoria hurried them along, because by the time they had found some empty crates that were large enough, loaded the wagon, hitched up the horses, found Felipe, who was always happy to have lunch in town in return for free labor, and driven to Los Angeles, it was past noon and time for lunch. Victoria was glad for the timing, as she was very hungry by then. Making love obviously worked up her appetite. She smiled at her private thoughts.

The first thing they were aware of upon entering the tavern were the stares. There were stares of curiosity, support, censure, and downright hostility from those who thought Victoria had encouraged a suit from the young don simply to get his money. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, but those people believed what they wanted to believe.

The three chose a table well back from the others, out of the direct line of sight, so they wouldn't have to endure the stares. Victoria had always known that this first visit would be unpleasant, but she hadn't expected it to be this bad. Still, she was surprised when Diego leaned over to her ear and whispered, Don't worry - they're staring at me.

How do you... Then she stopped herself, remembering to whom she was talking to. Not only was he her husband now, he had also been Zorro for four, almost five, years. He was used to noticing everything that went on around him, so of course, he noticed the stares. With a calm demeanor that was misleading, she sat down at their chosen table and ordered an enchilada for lunch when Maria came around to leave drinks and take their orders. She watched as Diego picked up his glass, took a deep drink, and then started to laugh.

She smiled, the stares forgotten. What? What's so funny?

Diego glanced once at Felipe, and broke into a grin again. Finally, he was able to ask, You remember that day I told you my secret?

The day you told me you had loved me for a long time? She didn't say out loud what had happened next. I remember.

The night before, I got drunk. I was so scared.

This astonished Victoria. You? Drunk? And scared? Why?

Diego shrugged, trying to blow the incident off. You were you. I was so frightened that you would be angry with me. I thought you would eventually find out that I was Zorro and never forgive me for not telling you sooner, that you would abhor me forever. Especially after that breakup scene I made you live through.

Yes, well. Victoria was still a little rankled by that scene, if she was completely honest with herself, but she didn't want to tell Diego about her feelings. She could see the logic behind the choice to do it, and she had requested her freedom, but it had hurt, and still did, especially once she discovered that it really hadn't been necessary. What happened? she asked as a distraction to him as well as to her.

Diego continued with his story, Felipe found me in the library, glass in hand. What was it, my third glass? I had to drink water all the next day to counter the effect of the alcohol. He laughed again, joined by Felipe's silent laughter. When she just looked at him, astonished by his lack of judgment, he defensively added, What? It seemed like a good idea at the time, and I needed to relax. Once I got started, though, I couldn't stop.

Victoria shook her head. Now I know better than to offer you anything alcoholic to drink.

That's why I always drink water, he said, holding up his glass.

Or juice.

He agreed. Or juice. I can't handle any alcohol, and I know I can't handle it. I'd much rather have my wits about me with a glass of water in hand than be drunk on wine or tequila.

Victoria chuckled with them. And the wonder, the curiosity about you not drinking? That doesn't bother you?

Diego sighed. Victoria, I don't think you understand. I can't just not handle it. I get inebriated, completely vomiting, drunk. It's just that I was so afraid that vomiting seemed better than thinking about such a disclosure anymore.

You were afraid - of me? Victoria had no idea she'd had that kind of power over him.

Seems ridiculous now, doesn't it? But I can't see a glass without thinking about it, and laughing. He shook his own head. Although I wasn't laughing at the time. It's a good thing Felipe stopped me when he did, or I would have had a terrible headache in the morning, and I needed to have my brain working, or else. Who knew what you were going to do? Throw something at me, or worse.

Never. Victoria pictured throwing the bowls of flan that she had brought over to his office, and she leaned down on the table, laughing. What a mess that would have been!

But any more secrets were saved from being disclosed as lunch arrived, and Victoria had to dig in to her enchilada to appease her grumbling stomach.

By the time they arrived at the hacienda, it was the dinner hour, then an evening spent listening to Don Alejandro read aloud an old newspaper, the only one he could get his hands on. And there was no doubt in the pueblo anymore that their marriage was anything but a love match, as Padre Benitez and Sergeant Mendoza had witnessed the tail end of a passionate kiss on the balcony when the tavern was supposed to be closed for siesta. Used to running after Mendoza saw him kiss Victoria, she'd felt Diego tense, then relax as he recalled the Mexican Revolution where California had been sold out from under them, but had given him his freedom.

Diego had mixed emotions about the Revolution as a whole. He hated anything to do with killing. Victoria, on the other hand, had very clear feelings about it; one landlord was much like another, and it had allowed her to marry the man who was an outlaw as well as Diego de la Vega, the man who had been courting her. The Revolution had caused no bloodshed in Los Angeles, and it had ousted DeSoto from a position of authority, a position he had abused for years. It was good for the people of the pueblo, in that they no longer had to worry about unfair taxation, and it was good for her, as the marrying woman no longer had to worry about anything. It felt like she had been buried in worries for years.

But she would also never tell Diego about her previous fears, just like she wouldn't discourage him from pulling off the dress and her corset the minute they reached the privacy of his room, devouring each other hungrily, still amazed that they could even do that and it was legal. The crates of mementos and clothes they had collected from her room remained unpacked as they were busy with other things. There was always tomorrow.

But tomorrow came, and in the morning, Diego showed Victoria around the rancho de la Vega from horseback, stopping to make love to her in the farthest meadow from the hacienda and prying eyes. The sunshine was warm, the grass was cool, and a stream bubbled over some rapids nearby. The place couldn't get any more perfect than that, and Diego took one coherent moment to stamp its location on his mind before he let his desire fog over the issue forever. But now that he was around Victoria all the time, he couldn't seem to get enough of her, and she wasn't complaining. So there was no unpacking done that morning. They were both otherwise occupied.

As Victoria wanted to read and rest in the afternoon, Diego and Felipe obligingly slipped into the once-secret cave that Diego had already shown his father, and worked on experiments and cleaning it out of Zorro's unneeded things. Toronado's empty stall already looked forlorn and forsaken as it stood silently in its corner. There was no need to fill it again. The horse was in a de la Vega pasture with their mares, retired but ready for another ride if it became necessary.

When they emerged, it was almost time for supper, Don Alejandro was just waiting in the dining room, and Victoria was spread out on the love seat, a book on her stomach, a pillow behind her head, sound asleep.

You go on and tell Father we'll be there in a moment, Diego told Felipe, who fairly flew towards the dining room, just happy to be around food. He was a growing boy with an equally growing appetite. Diego smiled wryly.

Then he turned his attention to Victoria. His wife, he marveled. His beautiful, tiny wife. Love immersed him, coming out of nowhere to bombard his frame with ever-growing sensations and emotions. He'd felt the same way ever since he'd told her of his feelings that fateful Wednesday, the first time they'd ever made love, that magical day.

But he couldn't remain there, kneeling on one knee on the rug, remembering, forever. He had to wake her, no matter how seductive she looked, asleep and alluring. Victoria? he whispered, stroking her cheek with one finger. Mi preciosa? It's time for you to wake up. He stroked her cheek again, then kissed her forehead, her nose, her lips.

She stirred and answered his ardor with equally strong affections, if he could judge by the fingers laced through his hair. She smiled languidly. You can wake me up like that every day, she suggested.

I plan to. Now you have to wake up. As much as I want to take you to our room and shut the door, it's time for supper. Despite his words, or because of the calling othe meal, he lowered his mouth to hers and probed the lips that opened to him readily, their tongues wrapping around each other as his hand fanned out around her head.

Diego! You coming? The food's here! interrupted his father's voice, one that in even his adult state he couldn't ignore.

Diego kissed her cheek, her hair, her lips, her neck. That's a promise for later, he whispered, and pulled her up to stand beside him.

Later? Not now? she asked, her mind and body already half consumed by passion.

Diego could smell her muskiness. Right now we need to eat. If we don't, we'll be missed.

I don't have to cook it?

Diego laughed softly. It's already on the table, Doņa de la Vega, and no, you don't have to cook the meal.

Victoria stood on tiptoe. Her whisper filled the room. That enchilada I had for lunch? I make them better.

Diego laughed in spite of his feelings of trepidation; he would have to let her work at the tavern or else she would go through life comparing meals and dishes to her abilities. And as she was an excellent cook, the meals were doomed to fail. Have patience with your staff, Victoria. With you out of the picture, they're bound to get better.

You mean with me out of the way, Victoria corrected him.

Yes, with you here with me, your husband. He kissed her again, all the longing of an afternoon spent apart coming to the foreground, making his head spin. He was ready for her instantly.

Diego! His father's voice once more. Do I have to come get you?

Coming, Father! Diego called, giving Victoria a defeated wince, then a shrug. Later, he whispered, then forced himself to turn away, knowing that if he didn't go into the dining room now, he would go straight to his bedroom, and drag her along. The entire scene would be too obvious. He winced again.

Smiling, she clung to his hand as he led her into supper.

What are you smiling at, my dear? Don Alejandro asked her immediately after their arrival at the oval table.

A joke. A very private one, she said enigmatically.

Don Alejandro apparently ignored her innuendo towards Diego. Looking at his son, he asked, And where were you all afternoon? I looked for you once, but couldn't find you.

Diego pulled out a chair for Victoria, letting his fingers run enticingly across her neck where the others couldn't see, before he sat down himself. In the secret cave with Felipe, cleaning out Zorro's things.

With Felipe? asked the older don, clearly confused. Not with Victoria? It was, after all, only the third day of their marriage. Your mother and I spent every minute we could together, he said, somewhat disapprovingly, forgetting to whom he was speaking.

Diego answered, sticking up for himself in a more and more common practice of response, Father, please, Victoria and I aren't you and Mother. She wanted to read, and I needed to clean out the cave. End of discussion. Now please pass the potatoes.

Don Alejandro's face reddened, but he was getting better used to a son who answered back rather than the weak-willed boy he'd come to know since Diego had arrived home from Spain. I stand corrected. Here's the potatoes you asked for, Son.

Thank you. Diego spread some on his plate, then passed the potato platter to Victoria, who took some and passed them on to Felipe sitting beside her. Diego wasn't like those more controlling husbands who fixed plates of food for their wives. She was glad about that. He could have been like anything under the pressure of tradition, but he was certainly more liberal-minded than his father, she was discovering.

Don Alejandro and Don Diego were alike, yet different, Victoria mused as she ate. Both wanted to be in charge, yet Don Alejandro was doomed to failure next to the man who'd been known as Zorro. Victoria had never met another man so in control as Diego, and she had met a lot of men at the tavern! So many that Diego would have been jealous if he knew about them, but Victoria wasn't dumb enough to tell him. Her marriage was too new to court a fight based on jealousy.

And Diego was very aware of the attention that Victoria always received. As the prettiest girl in the pueblo, she'd been bound to be on the other end of looks, gossip, and proposals, and she'd had plenty of them all. As Zorro, Diego had to chase real bandits some of the time, and couldn't watch over her in the tavern every minute. Which had worked out just fine, Victoria ruminated. Her temper and sharp wit were well-known for a reason. She'd taken care of all the unwanted attention herself. She didn't need a man to take care of her, like some simpering women did who were only on the lookout for a husband. She didn't need anything like that.

Diego himself was the center of plenty of looks, but the wedding ring on his finger should take care of anyone who didn't know of the recent marriage. He was always chivalrous, and often nice to a fault to women. She knew that, but he was hers, and she'd affectionately claimed him each time he came into the tavern during the weeks in between the courtship and the wedding. Now it was up to her to continue that sense of ownership. And it was only a fool who would attempt to cross Victoria Escalante, now Victoria de la Vega. It took a new person in the pueblo only minutes to figure that out.

Still, it happened every now and then. Victoria found she had to fight for the man who held her affections at each encounter with a rival. Fortunately, her romance had been so public that few people turned out to be rivals, but very little got her ire up faster than competition.

What are you thinking, Victoria? asked Diego, gently bringing her back to Earth. You had a suspiciously thoughtful look on your face for a minute. I know that look, and it makes me worried, he confided in a rare public confession.

I wasn't thinking anything, lied Victoria, thinking now that a good wife should not lie to her husband, even to protect him from himself. She just had to accept the fact that she would not be a good wife, then, she thought to herself with a smile. And if anybody knew the Escalante temper she held simmering just under her surface, it would be Diego. He was no fool, himself. He knew there was no one in charge in their relationship, only an equality of souls that nothing could divide.

Once the meal was over and everybody, even Felipe was full, Diego disappeared into their bedroom, claiming he wanted to read for awhile, and Don Alejandro answered the call of his desk and the paperwork he had there waiting for him. Victoria knew she was expected to follow Diego, but resisted for once, trailing after Don Alejandro instead. She found him, already seated at his desk, his hands surrounded by papers and scrolls.

Victoria! he exclaimed when he caught sight of her. Why aren't you with Diego? Did you two have a fight already?

She shook her head vehemently. No, of course not. I've never been happier in my entire life.

Alejandro smiled. You love my son, don't you?

Victoria smiled back. Very much. More every day. Even if that much affection isn't good for him.

What do you mean? Don Alejandro now wore a puzzled expression on his face.

I mean that Diego could become too aggressive, too bold, too confident in his new role if he grows used to it too fast. Victoria pulled another chair from the corner and sat down next to him.

He'll have too much energy otherwise? asked Alejandro, concerned.

Victoria shrugged. He was Zorro; that strength has to go somewhere. She smiled enigmatically when she thought of just where all that extra energy of his was going right now. It's my guess that he will be out, chasing banditos, as soon as I return to the tavern. Without the mask, of course.

Alejandro looked surprised. You're returning to work at the tavern?

Victoria nodded. I decided just today.

Today? Does Diego know?

Victoria considered his words. I haven't told him yet, but I think he knows.

Alejandro shook his head in admonition. In my day, a wife stayed home to raise the family...

Don Alejandro, Victoria stated gently, this isn't your day, this is your son's. Things are done differently now, as different as Diego is from the man you thought you knew.

Alejandro put down the quill in his fingers. True, he is different. I have to remember that. The difference doesn't bother you, does it?

Victoria shook her head in the negative. No. I fell in love with the real him, not the one he showed to the pueblo.

Don Alejandro smiled, thinking of the trysts between his son and the woman he had married. He was wise to show his real personality to you as well as the side he showed in public.

I loved them both, Victoria protested. His courtship was... splendid.

Alejandro chuckled. Yes, I was quite surprised when he said that he planned to go after you. I thought he didn't have a chance.

It's a good thing he did, Victoria responded, the relief evident in her voice.

Yes, he had more courage than I ever gave him credit for.

He always did. Even if he had to get drunk before letting it show.

Drunk! By the incredulity in the older de la Vega's tone, he had clearly not heard this story.

He hasn't told you? asked Victoria in some surprise. Even looking at an alcoholic beverage makes him lose his most recent meal. However, he got drunk the night before he told me of his feelings. He was afraid, so it seems.

Don Alejandro was amazed. Afraid? Of you? Why?

That's what I asked. But who knows.

Your emotions were one thing he could count on.

Ah, he could count on them as Zorro. But as Diego, he wasn't nearly as certain.

That's true. I keep forgetting that my son is basically two different people.

Victoria negated him again. He isn't two different people. He's just a lot more like you than you ever imagined. She rounded out her knowledge with a kiss to his hairline, glad that she could finally show the affection she naturally felt.

Alejandro blushed. It's been a long time since anybody has shown such affection for this old man.

Well, get used to it, because this young daughter plans to show it often.

As often as you show it for Diego? asked Alejandro hesitantly.

Victoria considered with a smile and a tilt to her head. Well, maybe not that often...

Alejandro laughed. You know, it's all right that you're a part of this family at last. Maybe now I can finally use that good head of yours for business by teaching you the ropes of the ranch.

You would be better off teaching your son.

Perhaps. Alejandro suddenly sighed, a sound full of affection. When did you get to be so wise?

Victoria laughed self-consciously. I don't know, but don't tell Diego; he'll reveal all my negative secrets, she warned before turning away, back to the dining room, ready to search out her new husband.

Alejandro laughed with her. Enjoy your week off, Victoria. I'll see you tomorrow.

For a moment, she considered shocking her new father-in-law by saying that she intended to enjoy every minute of her break from the tavern, but decided he wasn't ready for that kind of divulgence just yet. Instead, she smiled enigmatically again, and went thoughtfully to Diego's room. He was sitting on the side of the bed he had taken for himself, quietly reading a book of poetry. But he placed a ribbon that matched the cover in color into his page and set the book on his side table, then held out his arms to encourage her to step over. She obliged him happily enough by sidling over next to him. Where were you? he asked.

Sorry. I was talking to your father for a moment, smoothing things over. She sat down on his lap, feeling his hardness under her, yet withstanding the obvious a little longer as she noted the author of his book. Realto. Never heard of him.

You'll have to become very familiar with him. Diego was seductively nibbling on her ear. He writes romantic poetry. Very romantic, if you take my meaning.

Victoria threw her head back as he started kissing the side of her neck. You mean erotic poetry? she asked, not so innocently. Just last week she would never have dreamed that she could ask about erotic poetry. She didn't even know that such a thing existed.

Very erotic, answered Diego.

Victoria couldn't withstand her pounding heart any longer. She had to meet his lips in a seething, soul-stirring kiss. Make love to me? she requested, though she suspected that was where they were headed according to the hunger in his endearments.

Diego was already breathing hard. I've thought of little else since the meadow this morning.

Her fingers stole to the buttons on his shirt. I thought you would never make the invitation.

I was just waiting for you, he whispered, feeling her hair curl around the ends of his fingers. Diego was plainly intent on the new sensation as he first lifted her hair up to rub against his cheek, then tugged her shirt from the confines of the skirt they had packed the day before, and lifted.

Victoria had never suspected that such an innocent display of her hair could be so suggestive. Her hand followed the dark strands to caress his jaw. His skin was so warm! It practically sizzled as he loosened her corset prior to removing it. The minute it was gone, he lowered his lips to her soft flesh. I've been dreaming about this all day. His lips closed in on the hot skin along her throat and chest.

Enjoying the sensation of the feel of his lips on her skin, she was cognitive enough to whisper back, I still can't believe we can do this.

Get used to it, he advised. I plan to accost you as often as possible.

She moaned. Good. His lips had reached the center of her left breast by now.

His hands rubbing her flesh in soft circles, he confided, Dios, Victoria, I love you more than anything!

She could barely string two coherent words together. And you feel too good for my own sake. I'm in danger of falling even more in love with you. The heat between her legs had become a throbbing pain of pleasure by now.

Shall we court danger, then? he asked, moving his lips across her stomach.

Yes! she answered enthusiastically, then there was no more time for words, only time for action as he lowered them both back onto the bed and filled his hands with her soft breasts, rubbing the nipples with his thumbs. She groaned in excitement.

I don't know how I resisted you for so long, Diego told her several moments later as he pulled down the waistband of her skirt.

Victoria played her fingers over the yielding skin on his chest. You were crazy? she guessed.

Diego moaned this time. Crazy for you, he whispered as he deliberately moved his hands ever so slowly to the spot between her legs. Victoria didn't oppose him at all, but melted into the confines of his arms and chest, wanting to feel his skin on hers. She then went to work on the buttons of his trousers, slowly easing the two apart as he shivered with passion. In the meantime, she kissed every inch of him that she could reach.

Diego had long since closed his eyes to better feel the waves of desire that poured through him at her every touch. Bolts of lightening seemed to travel up his spine when she finally released his trousers and pressed seductive fingers around his hard length. She felt so good! Diego was mindful enough to thank the heavens for having such an adventurous wife before she lowered her soft breasts to cradle him in gentle mounds of flesh. Diego thought then that he had died and gone to heaven.

He drew her up his body and entered her, pushing in his haste to feel her wrapped around him. Victoria hissed out her delight at the sensation, and squeezed her legs together, sweat beading on her face, but ignored it in the magic intensity of the moment. She tossed her head back in enjoyment, then shuddered against him as the pleasure exploded inside. She gasped into his neck, writhing and wriggling as the waves ripped through her. Then she lay exhausted against his chest.

Victoria's eruption of desire brought on Diego's as he surged inside her, groaning into her hair and clenching his teeth when the waves hit him, cleaning his soul of the compelling need to make love to her. Dios, how he loved her! It was almost a physical force as his emotions mixed with the outpouring of his eruption to her insides. Then the powerful swell was over, leaving him shivering and longing for more.

Diego wrapped his long arms around the woman almost asleep on top of him. He whispered, I didn't think I could love you any more, then you proved me wrong, mi preciosa.

She smiled into his shoulder at his use of the pet name, satisfied beyond even her cravings. That was incredible. You were incredible. I love you, too.

Diego kissed her on the ear, where all this had started. You feel so luscious, I can hardly wait until next time.

She lifted her head to gaze at him, her eyes sleepily half shut, then determined to make her announcement anyway. I decided today; I need to continue working at the tavern, at least for awhile. If that's all right with you, she added hesitantly.

He kissed the tip of her nose. I suspected so. It's perfectly all right with me, as long as you know that you'll be ravished the minute you get home.

Victoria lifted her head even higher so she could tilt it in inquiry. It doesn't bother you that other people will wonder at a wife who feels the need to work?

He shook his head as much as he could, trapped against the red flowered coverlet like it was. Not as long as it doesn't bother you.

She smiled again. It doesn't bother me.

He sighed in complete relaxation then. You're free to do anything you want.

An answering sigh echoed his. I want to redecorate your room and make it more our room instead of yours, she said immediately.

Diego just shrugged. Try to leave the walls intact, he suggested.

In response, she tickled him until he laughed aloud. He tickled her back, and her peels of laughter rang through the halls of the hacienda.

Don Alejandro smiled at his desk in the corner of the sitting room. It had been a long time since the sound of something so feminine had permeated the halls of the hacienda. Such a happy sound was a good thing to hear.

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