Second Chances

by Linda Bindner

Chapter 5 - Victoria

Days later, Victoria found herself staring at the Los Angeles plaza for the first time since she had been injured. Her hair was pulled back into a neat clip in a hairdo that hid the shortened, dark, shaved section from view. She didn't much mind staring at short, dark, slightly curly hair, but she was conscious that others might mind the lack of uniformity very much.

She looked carefully around the pueblo, her eyes lighting first on the Alcalde's office with its green door, the wooden door to the cuartel, the blacksmith's shop, the mission with its tiny grape arbor, a plethora of houses, the tavern, The Guardian's office building, and the cuartel stables.

Well, Seņorita, does any of it look familiar? Alejandro asked.

Victoria stared at everything again, then studiously searched her memory for anything that wasn't foggy. Unfortunately, while the hacienda had been familiar to her, the pueblo was not. No, not a thing, Victoria candidly replied.

Alejandro growled low in his throat, and Diego put a calming hand on his arm. It's all right, Father; Victoria's memory might come back in time.

And it might not come back at all! Alejandro growled again. Then, he conceded, Well, I guess a lot of extremely emotional things happened in this plaza - the firing squad that killed her mother, the many visits paid by Zorro, the Alcalde trying to kill the declared love of her life...

Diego and Victoria shared a glance. They had discussed the subject of Zorro several times in the past week after their initial conversation about the masked bandit, trying to figure out what was best to do about the outlaw concerning his relationship with Victoria, but they had hit a blank wall as far as the two adults were concerned. Even Felipe, who was holding the reins of the horse that was harnessed to the carriage they had all driven into the pueblo, was out of ideas. It seemed that no matter how they looked at the relationship between Zorro and Victoria, they always come up with plans that ended with Victoria at Zorro's side when she truly wished to be at Diego's side. It was maddening.

Um... yes, we get the picture, Diego said to his father, who had purposefully and simultaneously brought up all the severely uncomfortable moments in Victoria's life in the hope of shocking her into remembering something. He had been doing the same thing the entire week, and both Diego and Victoria were becoming inured to his pointed comments. But Diego would soon have to mention to his father that the senior de la Vega's strategy wasn't working, and was causing Victoria's memories to grow more vague instead of clearer every time he mentioned something emotional that had happened in her relatively short life.

Diego quickly changed the subject to something that was safer for all involved. Well, I have several things to do for The Guardian before it comes out next week while the three of you visit the tavern... I'll see you in an hour... He smiled at his father and winked at Victoria before wandering away towards the newspaper office.

Well, shall we? Alejandro invited when Victoria made no move towards the tavern.

This will be an interesting afternoon, Victoria predicted under her breath as Alejandro led her to the porch that bled into the business establishment that she owned, but didn't remember. The inside was as bustling as it had been on the day of her accident. If only she could recall anything about that day...

Far stronger in her mind was the morning she had first tried to walk, with Diego's assistance. He had held both her hands lightly in his own as she had eagerly swung out of her bed. Amid stumblings, words of encouragement from Diego, and laughter from Victoria every time she did so much as lurch and lose her balance, she had managed to make it to the library, where she chose a book from the bookcase before turning back in the direction of her room. It was immaterial whether she read the book or not... What mattered was practicing to walk across the floor in bare feet. However, she was extremely glad when she was able to catch sight of her own bed again, and even though she enjoyed Diego's affectionate touch, she had never been so glad to sit down once more in her life! It was truly amazing how much muscle coordination such a simple thing as walking took, or how much muscle strength she had lost after only a few days in bed.

The tavern was full of patrons who instantly surrounded Victoria the second she walked in, asking her when she was going to return to work. She smiled and said she planned to try work that very day, news that made Sergeant Mendoza, at least, beam at her and bring her serving tray from the bar when she asked for it. In truth, Victoria only asked for the tray because she could see it, and it made sense that she would use one on a daily basis because she saw another woman, who turned out to work for her, carrying one just like it.

Tray in hand, Victoria wondered what she was supposed to do next, when she was approached by a gray-haired man who glowered at her as he cleared his throat.

Seņorita Escalante...? he inquired, though his voice came out in a far less inquisitive tone, and seemed to be much more demanding. Instantly, Victoria felt a natural sense of outrage grow inside her at his commanding tone, but she smiled politely, turned away from the table where Alejandro had chosen to sit, and regarded this unknown individual. Yes? she politely asked, then went on to inquire, Do I know you?

The man with the gray hair seemed taken by surprise for a moment, then recovered his former air of superiority. Um... yes, Ignacio DeSoto, at your service...

Ahh! Victoria drawled out. You're the Alcalde!

Um... yes, DeSoto repeated uncomfortably now that Victoria had made it clear that she didn't remember him. He plunged into his business with her anyway. Seņorita, perhaps you know about the new law that requires marriage or...

Victoria cut him off, not caring how rude she was being. Yes, Diego mentioned something about it.

DeSoto appeared a bit ruffled, but he went as as smoothly as he could under the circumstances. Yes, well, I know that your case is doubly strange, now...

Why do you say that? she asked, genuinely puzzled.

DeSoto shrugged. Well, because of your past relationship with Zorro and...

Again, she interrupted him. I don't even remember Zorro, Alcalde. So what's your point? To herself, Victoria wondered why she felt such animosity towards this particular individual, and she endeavored to once again push the feeling down deep inside herself. You do have a point, don't you? she asked, not in an unkind tone of voice.

For a moment, the Alcalde could do nothing but stare at her in open astonishment. Then, he visibly gathered himself together and continued, I just wanted to warn you that, in spite of your individual situation, you should not expect to be exempt from the new marriage law...

Oh, I don't expect to be, Alcalde, Victoria said brightly as she hurried to inform him, cutting him off once more in her haste. Though I don't know who I plan to marry at this point... who would take a woman who can't remember simple things like the people she loves, for example..? I do plan to comply with your law, however. I wouldn't want to find myself in a fight against the government, after all.

Again, DeSoto regarded Victoria with barely disguised amazement. Uhhh... he said, and eventually had to shake his head. Did I hear you right? he asked next in obvious incredulity. Did you say that you don't wish to fight the government?

Well, Victoria thoughtfully added, I may not always agree with everything that government does, but the men in the government seem to have our best interests at heart; I would certainly not wish to oppose that best interest.

This statement did more than surprise DeSoto; he was nothing less than stunned! Finally, he asked, Seņorita, are you sure you're feeling all right?

Victoria brightened again; this, at least, was a question that she understood how to answer. Oh, yes, Dr. Hernandez took my stitches out just yesterday. Diego said that I've recovered faster than even he expected!

DeSoto stared at Victoria for another moment, clearly flummoxed. His look was followed by an expression of irritation on his otherwise handsome face; it was well-known that he didn't like surprises, and Victoria was surprising him every time she said something that day. That's the second time you've mentioned Diego with such familiarity... I don't wish to pry, but... What's Diego to such a fiery woman as yourself? Doesn't he seem to be a bit... boring... to you? DeSoto inquired.

Victoria laughed, something else that the Alcalde hadn't been anticipating. Diego? she asked, amused. Boring? Of course I don't find him boring! What a funny thing to ask!

DeSoto openly gaped at her, now. Uhh...

Alejandro spoke up, then, smiling quietly in enjoyment at witnessing the Alcalde's obvious discomfort. Strange, isn't it, Alcalde?

Still confused, the Alcalde turned from Victoria to stare at Alejandro. What's strange? he asked in a deadpan tone of voice.

Alejandro nodded towards the seņorita. She is, that someone could change so much at the loss of so few memories...

DeSoto turned back to Victoria. Indeed, he said noncommittally. He continued to gaze at Victoria. Well, Seņorita, whatever the case, please see that you comply with the law in two weeks... I would hate to have to see you go to my jail, he ended.

Alejandro passed a hand across his face, hiding his expression of disbelief. That would be a change, he muttered aside to Felipe, who sat across from him at the table. Felipe grinned in amusement, but didn't gesture anything at the Alcalde.

Unaware of Don Alejandro's remark, the Alcalde straightened his military coat. Just know that you only have two more weeks to comply with the King's new law, or I will be forced to do my duty and arrest you, and I doubt Zorro would take that in particularly good humor! He chuckled at his own joke. No one laughed with him, but everyone in the tavern had their eyes stuck to the scene unfolding between the Alcalde and the tavern owner.

Victoria smiled back, charming him with her grin. As you say, Alcalde, but I doubt that Zorro, whoever he is, will be nearly as upset about that as Diego would be.

DeSoto stared again. Pardon me, Seņorita, but you said that you don't even remember Zorro? he asked in puzzlement.

Victoria smiled and shrugged. I'm sorry, but not a bit.

DeSoto stared even more, his mouth hanging open now. At last, he became aware that he was gaping, and asked, So, you have no idea who he is?

Victoria seemed palpably surprised, herself, this time. Why? Should I?

Uh... the Alcalde stammered. Uhhh... no! No, he said again. As far as I know, he never revealed his identity to you.

Alejandro couldn't remain silent after that comment, and said, Isn't that a shame? You'll have to look for someone else to tell you who he is the next time he's in town.

Without even turning around, the Alcalde appeared decidedly un-amused as he said, Don Alejandro, you may be one of this pueblo's leading citizens and be held in great esteem by most of the populace, but I'm warning you that I...

I meant nothing by my comment, Alejandro said next, clearly lying even as he spoke. I only meant that now you'll have to rely on someone besides Seņorita Escalante to discover Zorro's identity next time, that's all. Why, did I insult you or your office? Oh, I merely meant to speak nothing but the truth, he smoothly said.

According to his dazed expression, the Alcalde could find nothing outwardly wrong with this speech. Something felt awry to him, clearly, but he didn't quite know why. Unable to fault such a statement without further thought, he ended, I merely wish to inform the Seņorita of the conditions of the law.

Oh, she's well aware of the law's conditions, thanks to Diego, who kept Victoria highly apprised of this new situation, though, thank you for your concern, Alcalde, Alejandro said.

Not at all, added DeSoto for good measure, though he wasn't entirely certain what he was agreeing to so politely. In any event, he bowed and returned to his table, where his food must have grown cold during his conversation with the seņorita, though he chose not to complain.

Victoria wandered over to Alejandro's table, but didn't take her eyes off the Alcalde. She warned in a whisper, If you are not careful, Don Alejandro, you will be hung right next to Zorro as a traitor.

Traitor's have to betray something first, Victoria, Alejandro reminded her. And I simply made an error in judgment, he answered her.

She grimaced in an affectionate manner. Is that what that was... an error?

Absolutely, Alejandro replied, but winked sidelong at Felipe. Now, he said next, and turned back to Victoria, what do you have to offer for lunch today?

Victoria wrinkled her nose. I don't know... what would you like? she asked in return.

Alejandro paused for a moment. Why don't you step into the kitchen and ask? he suggested.

That would probably be a good idea, giggled Victoria. I'll be right back. She turned, but had to inquire, gesturing at the kitchen curtains, That's the kitchen, right?

Right, Alejandro whispered back to her, but when she disappeared through the curtain separating the kitchen from the tavern's tap room, he looked at Felipe in consternation. Did she actually giggle? he asked.

Ten minutes later, Alejandro and Felipe had lunch... or, at least, they had something to eat set in front of them. Alejandro had ordered an enchilada, and gotten a burrito, while Felipe had indicated that he would take the stew, and ended up with the other entreé of the day, chicken con queso. Neither had utensils to eat with until they asked for them, neither had a drink until they asked for that, as well, and they chose to ignore the fact that they apparently had to do without bread that day.

Ten minutes later, a very flustered Victoria joined them at their table. Clearly upset, she confided, I can't do this!

Do what? Alejandro asked.

Serve! Victoria wailed, as if that explained all her problems.

Alejandro tried to be patient and understanding, as Diego had suggested, when he wasn't naturally a very patient or understanding man. Give it some time, Victoria! he advised. Of course it's not going to be easy, but you'll get the hang of it... you've been working at the tavern your entire life, after all... you'll remember... eventually, he ended, aware of the hopelessness in his tone.

Victoria sighed. I don't think so, but if you do...

I do, Alejandro said with finality. Give it another chance.

Victoria stared at him with a petulant, dark look on her face. She never would have dared show her feelings so openly before the accident. Diego wouldn't make me do it, she predicted.

Well, I'm not Diego, Alejandro noted, his eyes cold now.

That's obvious, Victoria muttered, then covered her whisperings with another bright smile. As you say, I'll give it another try.

That's the spirit! Alejandro enthused, attempting to go along with her change of mind. I'm sure serving is like anything else... it will get easier with practice. But even he sounded doubtful at the end of his statement.

Victoria covered her growl of dispute, but obligingly disappeared again into the crowd.

Fifteen minutes later, Diego walked in to the busy establishment. He slid into the seat next to Felipe. Hola! he said. I'm starving after all that work!

Oh, I'm sorry, Alejandro said immediately. Perhaps you should eat at home?

This comment stopped Diego from saying anything more. Instead, he revised what he was going to ask, and inquired, Why? Are things not going well?

Alejandro shrugged. Felipe shrugged. Next, Alejandro sighed, You could say that...

Without preamble, Victoria slid into the empty seat next to Alejandro and buried her face on her arms. I quit! she stated with finality. I'm not going back, and you can't make me!

Alejandro softly commented, Well, at least that's a bit of the old Victoria's spirit. His shrug made his comment into the remark of lost hope that it was.

Diego looked concerned as he reached across the table and comfortingly touched Victoria on her elbow. Is everything all right? he asked solicitously.

No, everything is not all right! Victoria spoke in aggravation and into her arms. Then she lifted her head to reveal her red face, and the straggly hair stuck to her sweaty forehead. I can't remember orders, I don't know what all the drinks are called, and I dropped two full plates in the kitchen just now... what a mess!

Perhaps if you just give it some time... Diego implied, hoping to smooth away her troubled expression.

Victoria glared at him. Not you, too! she exclaimed in skepticism. No! she said decisively. No! Even you can't make me go back!

Diego was surprised at the vehemence of her vow. She hadn't been this emotionally engaged since the day of the fight over the new law. Calm down, Victoria, we'll work this out...

No, Victoria declared. You can 'work this out' all you want, but I am not becoming a serving wench again...

Diego's face clouded over. Serving wench..? Who called you that?

Victoria pointed into the corner. He did, that man you say is the Alcalde... I may own this tavern, but I sure won't put myself through this kind of... humiliation... every day just to service the people in the tavern! she decisively said.

Without another word, Diego stood up and disappeared into the crowd. A moment later, he reappeared at the Alcalde's table, clearly had a conversation with him couched in low tones, whereupon his face went from cloudy to thunderous. His voice echoed throughout the room, then. No, she isn't, and if you call her that again, expect to also be saying it to me as well! We're not in Madrid, Alcalde, and you would do well to remember that! Then he stood, returned to the table and gestured at the three people sitting, staring up at him in stunned silence. I think we'd better leave the pueblo, now, he said quietly. Or else Zorro may not be the only man who counts himself as an enemy of the Alcalde.

Alejandro rose, and so did Felipe and Victoria, who abandoned her tray where she had set it on the table top. Diego just barely touched her elbow again, but no one watching could mistake the sense of ownership that was emanating from him.

You won't get any argument from me, Victoria said, looking relieved to be allowed to leave. Except the Alcalde was blocking their way out the front door. He looked as if he wasn't through with his conversation with Diego.

I'll call anybody by the proper name describing what they are! he said to Diego as he pointed a finger at the caballero's chest. And don't think that I could ever confuse this measly little mudhole for Madrid... I can't!

But it was Victoria who responded by stepping in front of Diego in a move that was clearly of protection and intimidation. And how will your superiors like it if they know their high and mighty alcalde from Los Angeles is terrorizing a citizen with obvious memory loss, Alcalde? she asked loudly, not at all afraid for herself in her challenge of the governmental man. I'm sure they would much appreciate being informed of that, wouldn't they? She had to adjust the balance of her feet, then, or she would have gone on in the same vein as she had already established. Now, please, move aside before I have you thrown out of my tavern... I may no be able to serve in it particularly well anymore, as you so kindly pointed out a few minutes ago, but I still own the place!

DeSoto heaved in an angry inhalation of air. You just make sure you comply with that new law, Seņorita, or we'll be seeing more of each other than either of us wants! You have two weeks! With that statement, he left the tavern in a swirl of fury.

Go on to Chapter 6


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