Second Chances

by Linda Bindner

Chapter 10 - Diego

Not a sound, Seņorita, or I'll be forced to put a gag on your beautiful mouth - I don't want to do that, but I will, if you give me no choice. And if you scream, you should know that it will do nothing more than bring everyone running to arrest me, and then you will never learn of what I rode all the way into Los Angeles to say to you... It won't benefit you to scream.

Victoria froze at the sound of the command. Then she grew puzzled, a posture that was evident through her more relaxed stance; she was clearly wondering if it was really him... Diego... in her bedroom.

But, before she could say anything that would ascertain for certain his presence, she had more pressing concerns to deal with. I won't say a thing, she assured in a whisper of a strangled cough, lest she choke on her words.

You're certain? came his immediate reply.

Yes, she obviously realized who he was according to her even more relaxed stance; She nodded. She must not trust her own voice enough to speak, for he had never known her to be the silent type. It was much more like her to yell in protest at his actions than to behave obediently, as she was doing. Diego knew how she felt, as his own heart was pounding so hard, it hurt inside his chest.

Victoria cleared her throat and settled more firmly against his chest; the position would have been intimate except for the words he was saying. She cleared her throat once again, then croaked, What do you want?

To talk, just to talk, he assured her back. Will you come to the kitchen with me? It's safe to light a candle there, and I want to see your face when you tell me what's going on.

Victoria struggled to put words to her thoughts. Still finding herself having trouble with her speech, she attempted to voice her desires. Diego...

He hastily cut her off . Sh, he ordered. Not here, where I can't see you in such a dark place... In the kitchen. His hand slowly slid away from her mouth as he spoke, and then wrapped in soft steel around her arm. He had never used his strength to subdue an innocent person before, but he supposed that there was a first time for everything. It was purely ironic that Victoria was the first target of that strength. After you, he invited.

Diego... Victoria tried again.

Not here, where any little noise could wake anyone staying in the tavern! he insisted. In the kitchen.

At first, she had jerked at his sudden appearance in her room. But now, it was obvious that Victoria was engaged in a fight to calm her rushing heartbeat. She swallowed loudly, and Diego took that as a sign that he, too, should try to calm his pounding heart. Instead, his heart quickened with that knowledge that he needed to slow its beats before she misunderstood the significance of a quickened heartbeat. Which was ridiculous, he admitted to himself; she would never think a furiously beating heart could possibly mean that he was aware of her presence in his arms. Victoria's company beside him didn't mean that she had forgiven his impetuous behavior for the night he had made love to her. It only meant that she wished him to explain that behavior to her and to finally tell him why she had stayed away from the hacienda all this time. It might have nothing to do with her current emotional state concerning him.

Together, they stumbled out of her room onto the landing, and tried to step in tandem after that. Neither of them wished to flounder against the balcony railing and alert their presence at this time of night to the tavern's other sleeping customers... Discovery now would never be conducive to either of them learning of the other's reasoning or feelings.

So, they walked down a step, paused, then walked down another. He relaxed his arm wrapped around her waist a bit, but the only thing that action did was encourage him to realize that it was Victoria and her soft curves that he was currently holding pressed against his chest. Though he tried to ignore her smell, the feel of her skin against his, he couldn't completely discount the invitation of touching her arms left bare by her shirt. So, with his own heart in his throat, thudding hard enough to move his white shirt against his chest in a telling way, he steered her to the bottom of the stairs and towards the kitchen.

But that's strange, Diego thought to himself as he and Victoria paused at the bottom of the stairs. There was a tiny sliver of light drifting through the curtains from the kitchen. Had Victoria inadvertently left a candle burning in the small room? But even as the thought entered his mind, he rejected it as being too impossible to be a real possibility; Victoria was far too careful to be so negligent as to leave a candle burning in an empty room. No, something was going on in the kitchen, and he and Victoria would never have any idea what that something was as long as they stood at the bottom of the stairs, rooted where they were in the tap room at the tavern.

Without conscious thought, Victoria gripped his arm just below the elbow. Very carefully, she leaned into him and whispered, Diego, did you bring anyone with you? Felipe, perhaps?

Diego shook his head, though he knew that in the darkness of the main room, Victoria had no hope of seeing the behavior, so he said, No, no one even knows I'm here.

The grip of her hand grew even tighter on his arm. It was ironic that she clung to him so fiercely now when she hadn't been able to leave his presence soon enough three days before. Still, the lessons Diego had learned in his adventures as Zorro came in good stead right now as he remembered to make a bid for silence by placing his hand lightly over Victoria's lips again. He had no idea how she had to resist an urge to kiss his fingers at the action, even in such a potentially dangerous situation.

Once he had communicated the continued need for silence to his charge, he stealthily led the way across the tavern's scuffed, wooden floor. He did his best to muffle the sounds of his boots on the wooden planks, but he couldn't disguise every noise he made. With his hand wrapped more firmly around Victoria's fingers, he proceeded with great caution to the curtain separating the kitchen from the main room.

Victoria again tightened the grip she had on his fingers, then peered through the crack of the two curtains and into her kitchen. Diego was so tall that he could do the same just above her own head.

Inside the small room, protected from discovery by those asleep just up the tavern's stairs, two men in dirty shirts and worn bandannas and hats stood at the chopping block in the very center of the kitchen with their backs to the curtains, yet clearly rifling through the money she had recently stored in the cash box she kept behind the bar. They had evidently carried it to the kitchen where they could light a candle and peruse its contents at their leisure.

Diego heard Victoria's indrawn breath the moment they both set eyes on the two intruders, and he knew she was utterly furious that her hard work was possibly being stolen from her right before those very eyes... He tightened his own hand around her fingers, then pushed her back a step, hoping to convey the idea that this was a job that he best handle alone. He couldn't surprise the two men if he had to worry about Victoria's safety at the same time. When the two thieves had been apprehended, he and Victoria could talk all they wanted in the privacy of the kitchen... Until then, he had work to do...

Confident in his powers of secrecy, Diego stealthily put his hands on the break in the curtains, prepared to quietly peel them aside and enter the room, surprising the two men. It was at this point when he suddenly felt the powerful blow strike the back of his head and the darkness of unconsciousness shiver at the edge of his vision. His sight of the men swam, but it was Victoria and her safety that was most prominently on his mind. But he could do nothing for her, now, as his last thought before unconsciousness enclosed him was that he must protect her at all cost; he couldn't bear it if anything happened to her, even in his confused state after her behavior at his father's hacienda. But his limbs lost all their strength even as he weakly struggled against that darkness that was beckoning, and with no ability left on his part to resist, unconsciousness slid over him.

Go on to Chapter 11

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