Second Chances

by Linda Bindner

Chapter 13 - Victoria

I know what we should do... Victoria interrupted him.

Yes? Diego asked politely. You have a better idea?

One thing that I do know is what a man wants, what he's after...

Diego rolled his eyes, and his irritation seeped out in the tone of his voice. And, prey tell, what do these outlaws want?

Give me some credit, Diego, Victoria stoutly said. I do run a tavern.

All right, all right, Diego conceded. I'll give you that undeniable fact. But what does that have to do with these bandits?

Give me a moment.., Victoria commanded, then she thought, hard, about how small the pantry closet must be where they were being detained. But then she turned towards the direction of Diego's voice. Do you think you can you lay back down?

There was a pause, then from the floor, Diego whispered, I can lay down, but I can't stretch out without hitting a wall or the shelves.

But that was all Victoria needed to hear. And I know that you can punch somebody out with your left hand...

That's all well and good, Victoria, but how are we going to lure the bandits in here? Diego asked, slightly exasperated again. It won't do us any good if we're in here and they're out there, and they have all the guns and we have none.

Oh, ye of little faith, Victoria quoted at him. I can lure them in here, and then after you knock them unconscious, you can grab their guns, and we'll be free to leave. They'll never know what hit them. At the sound of his sigh of disbelief, added, Trust me. This will work.

The aggravation left in Diego's second sigh. I do trust you, he said, But...

Victoria took a seat on the dirt ground, directly across from the door. Are you sure? she asked facetiously.

Diego's voice held aggravation this time. I do, with my life, and you know that. I just didn't trust myself enough to tell you about this one little thing called my identity because I couldn't....

That was hardly a little thing, she retorted, being serious now.

Diego's sigh once more cut the room's air in two. Are you ever going to let me forget that? he inquired, sounding hopeless even as he asked his question.

Victoria had to smile at the lost little boy quality to his voice. No! she whispered firmly, knowing that if she ever indicated that she had already done more than forgive him his transgression, she would lose the small, mental edge she held over him, and then she would be nothing but putty in his grasp, doing whatever he wished... Although, she admitted, being putty in his hands wouldn't be all that bad... Focus! she mentally ordered, and seated herself more firmly on the floor across from the door, the shelves at her back. She positioned her hands behind her, and asked, Ready?

As ready as I'll ever be. I just wish I knew what you had in mind.

Don't concern yourself about that, Victoria advised. Just be ready to knock the outlaw who comes in unconscious, and we'll be set. Ready?

Yes, Diego answered, sounding aggrieved now, but it was clear that Victoria was in charge of this little operation. I'm lying down with my head facing towards the door and my eyes closed. Now what?

Victoria didn't answer, but did pound on the door with her foot. When no one responded immediately, she heard Diego give a rather desperate sigh.

I've handled situations worse than this a hundred times, Victoria... why don't you let me try? he asked.

He thinks he has everything solved, Victoria thought sourly. Just like a man... She didn't finish her thought, only pounded on the door again with her foot. This time, she got more results as the door was yanked open and Luis stood just inside the square of light that poured through the opening he had created. Victoria squinted up at him.

Yeah, what ya want? Luis asked brusquely.

Victoria smiled, though her eyes were watering at trying to adjust to the light too quickly. She smiled until her cheeks hurt with the strain... She smiled until she felt her dimples pierce her skin... Then she turned her smile to become more charming yet. Can you please bring me some water? she asked, the sweetness dripping from her voice.

Victoria wanted to wretch at the sugary sound of her request, but it was clear that Luis found her actions and tone completely appealing. Why? he asked, suspicious anyway, yet completely missing the fact that she was supposed to have been gagged. She smiled even more, hoping to confuse him so much that he would never notice that tiny detail.

Men, Victoria thought as she smiled. They're always thinking, but not with their brains. Aloud she said, I think my companion is unconscious again, but I don't want him to die, and I'm not sure if he's dead or not as it is. He threw up once, then... She let her statement hang in the air, unfinished. But she did add even more music to her voice until it was positively mellifluous.

Luis glared at her in distrust, but he turned to stare at Diego, who was lying prone as much he could on the floor with his eyes closed. Victoria wasn't sure if he had made a slit out of one eye so that he could see what was going on, or not.

Irritated, Luis wandered over in Diego's direction. He doesn't look too bad to me, lady, he contradicted, then knelt and felt for a pulse.

Now! thought Victoria, but when Diego didn't react, said, I know how you don't want him to die and be charged with murder as well as kidnapping helpless prisoners...

Luis turned towards her, grinning, and said, Well, we can do something about that 'prisoner' part if you're willing, lady...

She is not your lady, Diego said quite clearly from his position on the floor. Don't call her that. And then he struck out, fast, and caught a surprised Luis hard in his temple with his left fist. Luis instantly fell to the side, his eyes rolling into the back of his head.

Victoria sprang up and captured the outlaw before he fell to the floor with a very audible thud. I thought you were never going to hit him! she whispered.

Diego stared at her, appreciation all over his dimly lit features. Remind me never to allow you to charm me at any time, he said back. You're lethal when you want to be.

Victoria smiled, sensing the power that went along with her particular brand of deadliness. I'll remember that, she promised.

Diego dragged Luis into the corner and tied his hands with the rope bonds that had once incapacitated him. Only he tied the rope much more securely, using a bind that twisted it in a far more intricate way than a square knot would have done. There, that should hold you, he said to the outlaw on the floor beside him.

Hurry! commanded Victoria, still in a whisper. Someone's coming to investigate the noise!

Quickly, Diego pulled the unconscious outlaw's gun from his holster and unloaded it, dumping the pistol ball to the dirt floor, right in front of the door. Maybe we'll be lucky and someone will step on it, he explained to a puzzled Victoria. We don't need someone to step on it and fall, but it can't hurt. Then, he took his position beside the door, holding the gun by its sleek barrel.

Alsergio was the next to poke his head through the opening. Whut's goin' on in here? he asked, right before Diego brought the pistol handle down onto his temple. He slid to the floor so quickly that Diego couldn't catch him, but the thud the bandit made brought a curious Jose to investigate the noise.

Alsergio? he called. I thought you were...

Whack went the pistol, and Jose followed his fellow thief to the floor of the pantry closet.

Well done! chimed in Victoria as she stood. Pins and needles were already beginning to travel up and down her legs, and she was glad to move around.

Diego took the pistols from the two most recently struck bandits. Let me hold these for you.., he said to them, not expecting the unconscious men to answer. Then he tied them both up with their arms behind their backs, and moved the men into the corner with their friend. The tiny cupboard was almost overflowing with occupants when he was finished. So he beckoned for Victoria to join him in the big room, and shut the door behind her. I hope they enjoy the dark as much as we did, he quipped.

Hurry! Victoria already had the outside door open. Diego ran across the room to join her, then they slipped out into the night.

Good thing I found the ropes that they had used to tie our hands together, Diego muttered as they crossed the yard, if a dirt patch could be called a yard. Or we would have had nothing with which to tie their hands together.

I would have ripped off strips from my underwear, Victoria said to him. We wouldn't have been helpless, she added.

Diego grabbed the reins of one of the horses, still tacked but tied to a tree. Do you know how hard it is to rip material with your bare hands? he asked a bit incredulously.

Do you have a knife with you? she asked in answer to his question as she reached for the reins belonging to a second mount.

Yes, in my boot, Diego replied. but what's that got to do with it?

Victoria sighed dramatically. To cut my petticoat with, if it proved to be necessary. But thanks to your quick thinking and habit of saving everything, we didn't have to.

Diego grabbed the reins of the third horse, and handed them to Victoria to hold after she had mounted and was sitting straight in the saddle.

Hold those? she asked.

Please, he said, then jumped into the saddle in a very Zorro-like manner. I guess there's no one not too tied up to see me, he commented.

Victoria grinned. I guess it's true what they say about men and little boys...

Diego took the reins of both horses in his hands and turned their heads in a southwesterly direction, heading towards Los Angeles. And what do they say?

That men are little boys at heart, even you. Victoria paused to gaze at him. My little boy, she added softly, almost to herself.

A little boy who prefers to be treated as an adult, if you know what I mean, Diego said with a pointed look towards Victoria. According to her returning expression that lilted towards flirtatious enchantment, she comprehended him very well. I see you understand my meaning, he said.

When she reached across the space that separated them to take a closer look at the dried blood on the cut on his temple, she couldn't hide her smile from him. He let her feel his cut, but then hauled her from her horse over to his while she was leaning and off balance.

Diego, what are you doing? Victoria screeched. Those men...

Those men will be unconscious or well occupied with their own ropes for the better part of the night, Diego said. We'll ride back to town and have Sergeant Mendoza move them to more comfortable accommodations in the jail when we get there. In the meantime... He smiled and ran a hand softly down her smooth cheek. I haven't seen you for three days.

Victoria grinned back at him and kissed his hand. You saw me all night in the pantry closet.

It was dark; I didn't see anything, Diego negated swiftly. His finger made another caressing pass over her cheek.

Victoria caught his fingers in her own and brought them all to her mouth, where she kissed them, one by one. You didn't miss anything, she told him.

Diego's appreciative smile grew larger. On the contrary, I think I missed quite a bit, he said, then held her in his saddle with his arms tightly wrapped around her waist, and leaned in and kissed her with the light of a full moon to wash over them in all its dim glory.

Victoria felt his desire to cherish her the second his lips touched hers, and she answered in kind. Diego's hands were cradling her cheeks, rubbing lovingly through her hair, and he kissed her on her forehead in a longing display of affection that wasn't as hurried as it had always been in the past.

I'm so glad they didn't hurt you while I was unconscious, he whispered, then twisted his arms around her back in a cuddling embrace.

Victoria hugged him back, hard, clung to him in desperation, and whispered, Even unconscious, you would never have let that happen.

Her faith in his abilities to protect her in spite of his mistake in not telling her of the entire truth years before heartened him. He kissed her, hugged her, caressed her, one last time, then returned her to her own mount.

Victoria pouted, looking pretty, but her face was schooled into an expression that he had never thought to see on her. It was far too full of feminine wiles. Instead of responding to it, he shut his eyes on her, swallowed, and said, Shall we? He indicated the direction towards Los Angeles.

Yes, but I miss you already, she said, referring to the fact that he would have to become more like the Diego everyone in the pueblo, including the Alcalde, expected to see in just a few moments, and she would miss the real Diego, a person whom she was getting more and more used to being with.

Diego sighed, but deceiving everyone by playing the part of a fool or someone who thought Diego de la Vega was a fool was the price they both had to pay in order to continue keeping the deception of Zorro alive. Without a word, but fondly grazing her cheek one final time with the tips of his fingers, he wheeled his horse around and kicked her into a trot that would take them both swiftly back to town.

Z Z Z

I tell you, this is as real as the papers on your desk, and these guns are complete evidence, Diego was saying an hour later to a thunderstruck Alcalde who was annoyed for being hauled out of bed in the middle of the night for what he believed was nothing but a tall tale.

If you don't trust our word, Victoria added, you can take a look at the empty cash box sitting in my kitchen.

The Alcalde sleepily glared at her. Not another word out of you, Seņorita, he said.

Diego instantly bristled at the older man's commanding tone. I don't care if you believe us or not, he said in a dangerously low tone of voice, But, I tell you, you'll find three outlaws in a pantry closet in a cabin about four miles from here, and please don't talk to my fianceé like that.

Your fianceé, sneered the Alcalde. I thought she was waiting for that fiend, Zorro, and do you know how unusual it is to have a cabin with a pantry cupboard in it? he asked all in one breath.

Victoria ignored the first half of the Alcalde's question, hoping that he would forget he had ever asked about Zorro. My kitchen would have one, she firmly said in order to deter the Alcalde. It just means that whoever lived in that cabin was married to a woman who likes to cook.

The Alcalde growled at her, but held his tongue on the retort he wanted to make. And you say there are three outlaws with their hands tied behind their backs, unconscious, lying on the dirt floor of this... this pantry cupboard?

It's more of a closet, actually, Diego corrected, disclosing the fact in his higher, lighter tone.

The deception was remarkably useful; the Alcalde never knew he was talking to his number-one enemy. And you want me to wake the sergeant out of a sound slumber to tell him this news and ask him to retrieve men who probably only exist in your imaginations in the middle of the night? DeSoto asked, still a little disbelieving.

Victoria had heard enough. Is this our 'imagination?' she asked angrily, indicating Diego's cut temple as well as the dried blood that had oozed down his head and into his hair right after being struck. I suppose we didn't experience that, either.

The Alcalde sneered again. So he hit his own head while helping his father in the barn - it doesn't prove anything!

And these, Diego said, pulling the guns from his waistband. These aren't real, either, and we just lifted them from your own armory, I suppose.

The Alcalde picked up one of the guns that Diego had laid on his desk. Now these are unlike anything I've seen before.

You'll find that they're much newer than the army issue pistols that you use, Alcalde, and they're often found as the firearm of choice for bandits. Diego paused a moment, letting his sarcastic voice hang heavy in the room. He picked up one of the pistols and carefully looked at it. They're easy to acquire, cheap, and more accurate than your average firearm. My guess is they're stolen property from somewhere nearby.

The Alcalde had to grudgingly admit, Well, Seņors Delgado, Alvarado, and Jimenez have reported stolen firearms lately...

There, you see, stated Victoria. We're not making this up... Would we be all covered in dirt if we were?

You could roll around in dirt and claim anything you wanted, Seņorita, the Alcalde said.

And this stain? Victoria asked, pointing to a spot on Diego's shirt front. If you smell it, you'll see that it's undeniably... um... and that can't be faked!

The Alcalde smelled Diego's shirt, then passed a hand in front of his face. What did you do, de la Vega, decide to wear your lunch?

Um... said Diego uncomfortably. That's supper, actually.

Whatever! the Alcalde snarled. Then he sighed in defeat. Well, I suppose I should wake that lazy excuse for a sergeant that I have and get him to gather the men and take a look...

We would appreciate that, Alcalde, Diego said in a monotone sounding voice.

Victoria couldn't hold herself back as she continued for Diego. And we would also appreciate the fact that you prove to us that all those taxes we pay are actually being used for our protection!

Seņorita Escalante, warned the Alcalde, I am taking your story seriously; don't push it!

Victoria growled low in her throat, and the Alcalde echoed her sentiment. But Diego pushed her out the office door before anything more could be said by either of them.

What did you do that for? she whispered accusingly. I was just about to tell him what I truly think of him and his... garrison!

Diego took a deep breath. That's what I was afraid of. Come on, why don't we get you home before you end up spending the rest of the night in jail.

The tavern loomed ever closer across the dark plaza. They climbed wearily up the porch step, and entered the darkened tap room when Victoria unlocked the front door with a key she kept hidden under a flower pot on the porch. Then she lit one candle always left on the bar. Its light only spread dim shadows across the large room.

Will you be all right here by yourself for the rest of the night? Diego ascertained.

You're not staying? Victoria asked, instantly worried about being left alone, but trying not to look worried.

Diego seemed a bit uncomfortable. I would like to stay, admittedly, but I need to take a bath...

So do I, Victoria reminded, So I can wash all this dirt off. She gazed assessingly at him. Do you want to help? she mischievously asked.

Diego smiled, both at her show of spirit, and at himself for considering her offer in the first place. He raised appreciative eyebrows at her. I would like that, I admit... he started to say.

She interrupted him. What's stopping you?

Diego snorted. I think my father would keel over if he ever found out...

It's not like we haven't done worse before now, Victoria reminded.

Yes, I know that, Diego wryly answered. But that doesn't mean that we should... um.... do the same again.

Suddenly Victoria looked serious. We never did discuss the new marriage law, either... Then added, I think I need to remind you of that... It's rather... important.

That's what I had originally come here to talk to you about, he told her.

That's a start towards creating something positive out of this mess, Victoria thought to herself. Aloud, she said, And what were you going to say? she asked as she absently grabbed a cloth left on the bar during the day and twirled it in her hands.

Diego blew out a breath of air in an explosive exhalation. Well, it's rather personal.

And we haven't gotten personal so far tonight? she asked him.

Diego grew even more uncomfortable. Well, yes, but...

Diego, Victoria interrupted. What were you going to say? She sounded exasperated, irritated, and generally shoved out of joint. Though she tried to be more understanding than incensed, it was more in her nature to be slightly outraged at his reticence.

All right, he admitted finally. I'll just say it and get it over with. He shuffled his feet uncomfortably against the worn tile floor. Victoria, I admit that you're in something of a bind right now.

Victoria shrugged and rolled her eyes somewhat self-deprecatingly. I know I am.

The truth of the matter is that in a little over a week, you'll have to marry someone, go to jail, or pay 500 Pesos to the government.

And I don't have 500 Pesos, Victoria reminded him.

And since you won't borrow the money from us, Diego went on, you need to marry somebody...

Anybody? Victoria asked.

YYYYYeeess, Diego slowly said. When she didn't reply, he continued again. And I have to say that the idea of you married to someone besides me makes me nauseous and only will encourage me to turn myself in. Not, he hastily added, that I want to put pressure on you or your decision in any way, but it seems that I'm not quite able to stop myself from forcibly becoming part of your deliberations.

Victoria looked at him, quietly assessing. Okaaaayy, she said, encouraging him too go on. Then she interrupted him before he could start speaking, I guess that would play a part in any decision I make about what to do.

Yes, Diego said again and roughly cleared his throat. The truth is that I've just about come to the end of my rope, so to speak, and if you marry someone else... I might just... He paused. I might... I might go a little insane, actually, he finally admitted. That's such a horrible thought, he said. I'm not sure I can stand it if you were married to someone else...

Probably I would feel the same way if you were to marry another girl from...

Diego held up his hands. Not that I want to force you to decide one way or another..., he said, his eyes closed in sincerity.

Victoria crossed her arms and put all her weight on one foot. But that's exactly what you're doing, she said, exasperated.

Well... yes, Diego finally said. I'm sorry that it has to end up that way, and I didn't mean for it to happen, but...

Do you want to get married? Victoria burst out suddenly.

To each other? Diego ascertained a little hesitantly.

Victoria's heart pounded so loud in her ears, she could barely hear him. Um... yes, that was the idea, she said with unusually downcast eyes. That is, if you want to... to marry me... if you can stand it.

Diego breathed out a great sigh of relief. Yes! That is, if you...

Yes! Victoria emphatically replied before he even finished saying what he was going to say. I thought you would never ask, she told him in unequivocal terms.

I... didn't, he said, a bit hesitant again, a bit too puzzled to go on.

She took one step forward, eating up the distance that separated them, and took his dirty hand in her own. Even through all the grunge, his hand felt comforting and completely soft and thrilled her down to her toes. I think.., she began to say, then started again with a growing smile, I think that this is a very good idea.

Do you think so? Diego asked, again sounding unsure of himself. I have to admit that I had hoped you would think so, but...

Diego, Victoria cut him off in a whisper, shut up. But she had a smile on her face as she soundly kissed him, and she didn't care who saw or who gossiped... she only cared about the way kissing him always made her toes curl in on themselves... And her toes were definitely curling right now as he kissed her in a way that made her feel more treasured that ever before. I can't believe I'm getting married, she thought to herself. And to him. Then, she added, Finally.

Go on to Chapter 14


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