Second Chances

by Linda Bindner

Chapter 9 - Victoria

The hectic ride to the pueblo helped to clear Victoria's foggy mind, shaking and jarring out the last of the cobwebs shrouding her memories. With startling clarity, those recollections, both old and new, went tearing through her mind even as she slid from the borrowed horse to the dirt outside the kitchen door of her tavern. The haven that the building had become beckoned to her, promising safety from... Victoria didn't quite know what it promised safety from, but she welcomed that feeling like it was a natural balm to the guilt that washed over her every time she did so much as catalog her actions of the morning thus far. So she studiously avoided thinking of the hacienda, of the engagement ring lying, neglected, on a tiny side table in a darkened bedroom, of the man who even now must be sitting on the side of the bed, completely confused by her abrupt change of heart...

No! She couldn't think about that! Wouldn't think about Diego, her seemingly haphazard deviation from previously professed affections, her departure from his own father's ranch... The problem was that the second Victoria began thinking along the vein of what she had done and how she had behaved towards Diego, the sadness she felt at her transgression was already worming through her to turn her into a mass of jumbled and jerked nerve endings, hot and cold...

No! Victoria reminded herself, carefully removing her thoughts from sinking into the miasma of reflection and self-condemnation that she knew was waiting for her if she allowed her thoughts to follow the path that they seemed determined to travel down...

Perhaps going up to her room and changing to more suitable attire would help to distract her mind... Victoria didn't consider that the way she was thinking was eminently logical, thoroughly analytical, and very much like Diego's accepted personality... She was already beginning to think like him, even as she instinctively ran from him...

So as to avoid the threat of any second thoughts, she hurried through the familiar shadows of the kitchen and into the main room of the tavern. This, too, was a room that had the comfort of the familiar and well-loved... Victoria hadn't realized how much she had missed that sensation until she felt it again. But now was not the time to indulge in reminiscences... She hurried passed the empty tables just waiting for customers to crowd around them, sprinted up the steps to the tavern's second floor, pushed open the door to her own room, and then stopped on the threshold in surprise.

Maria! she exclaimed almost before she realized that the cry had left her throat. What are you doing here?

A tousled, sleepy head poked out from under the covers on Victoria's old bed, as Maria, Victoria's one employee, peered at her. Oh! Victoria, slurred her tired voice. You're back! It's odd that I heard nothing about you returning today...

Quickly, Victoria said the first thing that came to her mind to act as a distraction to the questions Maria was asking. No one knew, it... it was all rather... rather sudden...

I'll say it was sudden, since you didn't say a word about it when you were in the pueblo yesterday...

Victoria smiled, even as she interrupted, That was before I recovered all my memory... I'm back to take over again, Maria. I know it's a bit sudden and unexpected, but I couldn't wait another minute to jump into my old life once more...

Maria grinned as well from the bed. You'll be able to wait as long as possible the minute you start baking the day's bread.., she playfully warned.

But Victoria pretended not to understand. What an excellent place to begin the day! she said, her face schooled into a mask of fake brightness. Why don't I change into my clothes as I make the dough that we'll need... No, there's no point in you getting up, yet. I'll take care of everything... She was chattering aimlessly, talking just to make noise, she knew. She also knew that she had to stop, for in this state she was likely to say something that might cause herself or Diego trouble, and that would lead to awkward questions and inquisitions... Though she was still automatically running from Diego and his not-unanticipated proposal of marriage, not to mention the perplexing way that very proposal made her feel, she didn't wish to see him come to harm, either, and she closed her mouth, grabbed a skirt and blouse and underclothes from the closet, a brush and hair clip from her dresser top, and left the room in a rush. Silently, she slid down to the shadowy recesses of the kitchen and the anonymity of being alone.

It was amazing how quickly it all came back to her... Light a candle, measure out flour, sugar, salt... Knead the dough... Before Victoria knew it, ten loaves of bread sat, baking nicely, in her oven as she then hurried to dress more appropriately for the day, and the hour was even earlier than it usually was when she tumbled out of bed... But even as she dressed, arranged her hair to cover the short area in the back of her head, she did her best to think of anything other than the de la Vega ranch not two miles away...

The running, rushing pace she had set stayed with her as the morning continued. She served breakfast to guests who had opted to remain in Los Angeles overnight, as well as to Mendoza, who had hurried over from the garrison to the tavern the minute that Maria could tell him of the cook's arrival after she had left Victoria's bedroom and gone home. Thus, it was only a matter of hours before Victoria found herself facing the Alcalde.

I see Mendoza didn't waste any time in telling his superior of my coming back to the pueblo, Victoria thought gruffly to herself; Mendoza was lovable and overly friendly, and the pueblo of Los Angeles wouldn't be the same without his cry for more tamales on a Friday night, but even Victoria admitted that he enjoyed a good gossip a bit more than she would like. The Alcalde remained informed of many personal happenings in the pueblo because Mendoza told him about them first...

Seņorita, the Alcalde said when he walked into the tavern instead of uttering a more formal greeting to her.

Victoria wrinkled her nose in response, but that reminded her of how she had wrinkled her nose for Diego, and she hastily unwrinkled it... Can I help you, Alcalde? she asked just as politely as he had greeted her.

He gazed at her in abject curiosity. I'm just seeing if you're real, or a figment of the sergeant's imagination, caused by his propensity to eat too many tamales... But, you're truly here in Los Angeles...

Yes, I've come back and I've regained all my memories.., she said. Why don't you post a sign on your office door detailing my return so you don't have to tell about it to everyone in the pueblo who asks? she sweetly said, but her voice was coated with an undercurrent of venom.

Good idea, thoughtfully noted the Alcalde, completely missing her tone. Then I won't be so bothered this afternoon...

I was joking... Victoria stated.

But your return is not a joke, the Alcalde went on. What happened... Did Diego propose to you? No, he wouldn't have done that... Or perhaps you wanted him to propose and he didn't... That man couldn't work up the gumption necessary to propose...

Victoria wanted to gasp and ask how he knew about such an occurrence as Diego's proposal, but she swallowed her ability to marvel at the Alcalde's astuteness, and instead only said, Diego and I shared a... a moment of... highly emotional...

You got angry at him, the Alcalde guessed.

Victoria didn't see any harm in misleading him a little. Yes, you can say that I was angry. You could also say that I was confused, she thought, and Diego was greatly incensed at my ending of our engagement after I had declared that I loved him...

But Victoria refused to think about Diego!

The Alcalde was busy distracting her from her thoughts with his chuckle of enjoyment at Diego's supposed downfall, whether he knew it or not. Well, that's what he gets for falling in love with a woman who's in love with another man, the Alcalde said with a shake of his head, as if he had known all along that Diego's tender feelings towards her were hopeless in the extreme.

Victoria was incensed, herself, at the Alcalde's comment. Diego was only concerned about me! she emphatically stated. That's all!

The Alcalde snorted. He called you his precious girl, the Alcalde reported. I hardly call that proof of him showing his 'concern' for you, Seņorita!

Victoria sighed, suddenly feeling like she didn't want to fight any longer. Is there something I can get for you, Alcalde? she asked. Because if there isn't, I have to inquire what your purpose is here at the tavern?

The Alcalde bristled at her tone if not at her words. I see that you haven't changed after all, he commented with anger coloring his voice. I can only assume that Diego irritated you with a mention of his readings or something...

Victoria rolled her eyes, but had a harder time banishing the image of Diego that had opened up in her mind when the Alcalde had mentioned his name. Alcalde.., she warned.

I'm going, he promised, and actually turned towards the door, but then whirled back towards her. Do you have the money for the fee in fulfillment of the new marriage law, Seņorita?

Victoria was instantly on her guard. Do you? she demanded.

The Alcalde laughed his light chuckle again. See you in my jail, he said, then left the tavern.

For some reason, it galled Victoria that he had discounted the fact that Diego might have proposed to her... That oversight on his part made her angry now...

Yet, she had an even harder time banishing the image of Diego that had flown to her mind the second the Alcalde had muttered anything about the marriage law... Her sense of guilt at how she had treated Diego at the hacienda that morning increased, as did her sense of confusion about how she felt towards him. No matter what she finally decided to do, Diego was not as easy to disregard as simply taking off his engagement ring had been... He was not a ring, and the feelings she had harbored for him, unclaimed, even by her, but which had become an undeniable part of who she had always been as an adult, were much more difficult to contend with.

Z Z Z

Three days later, Victoria was beginning to think that she was capable of being driven crazy, even if she had all her memories intact, and, thus, had no obvious reason for losing her sanity... But, Diego had not come into the pueblo since the morning she had abandoned him, and she had not set eyes on him once in all that time. True, Alejandro and Felipe had come into the tavern for lunch, but Diego had remained stubbornly absent, though she had inquired of his father as to the state of his ongoing health. As to how she, personally, felt about him, healthy or not, was a great deal more ambiguous, though even she had to finally admit it to herself... Three days had given her a lot of time to reflect, and right next to a thriving sense of increasing affection for him was her equally flourishing sense of blame for the entire, unfortunate affair. She was uncertain of anything except her feelings for him, and the culpability she harbored for forcing him to go through the same agony that she was currently pray to was severe at this point in time. Beside that was an uncommonly large sense of anxiety that she was destined to never see him again...

Yet, she still dreaded that first inevitable meeting with him. And though that meeting was certainly unavoidable, her disquiet increased the longer she didn't see him, and she knew it would only grow larger the longer they waited to say what they needed to say to each other. She did keep in mind what she would like most to say to him, notably, an apology for her behavior, but she didn't have the opportunity to say anything at all, for he refused to appear in the pueblo.

As Victoria waited for Diego to even pay a visit to Padre Benitez for something as normal and necessary as Confession, she did little but think of the strange relationship she had always shared with him: for four years, they had met and made promises in the dark of night, and even when she lost all that she might have remembered about that relationship, she had been pulled to Diego until he had proposed marriage and displayed his love by an act of supreme passion. Only that choice was capable of stirring the same desire within her as soon as her guilt had played itself out at discovering her ability to show the same amount of feeling that he had shown. To see that she was capable of such a disregard for all the rules that had governed her life so far was an interesting discovery about herself. To finally comprehend that she was far more concerned about Diego's opinion of her after the fact that she had spent the night with him, that she was capable of that kind of passion, was nothing short of miraculous. She would never have been able to do that for just anybody... It was him, or nobody, as far as she was concerned.

That sense of guilt and wonder forced her to consider something else that made her feel equal discomfort; she had to admit to herself at last that such an act was a genuine display of love for him, that her feelings for him were far less circumspect than she wished them to be. She couldn't hide everything from him forever... she was as much in love with him now as she ever had been before, or at least it had been her emotions that had encouraged her to accept both him and his proposal of marriage. It had to be love that she felt for him, both then and now, whether she knew of whom he secretly was or not.

The fact that she knew of his duplicity only enhanced her emotions for him rather than dampened them. And the fact that it was him hiding behind the mask that had protected him against governmental wrath pleased her more than she wanted to admit to herself, but had to admit to herself in the end, anyway. She had secretly hoped that the legend would turn out to be the boring-on-the-outside friend to her that Diego had always been, and as a direct result of that hope, she had always pretended to be harsher to him than to anyone else in order to help cement his disguise in the eyes of the pueblo's other citizens. She understood how powerful her regard had been considered in the past to those other citizens in the pueblo, including the Alcalde, and she had appeared to ridicule Diego in public even while she had more than accepted his suit in private. But it appeared that she would never get the opportunity to explain to him about her own disguise, as he continued to remain absent from Los Angeles.

That night, three days after her return to the pueblo, Victoria did her best to avoid such unhelpful worry about Diego, and wearily climbed the stairs to her second-floor bedroom after she had shown everyone the door to the tavern. The dishes and cleaning she left to take care of until the next day, as she was more than sufficiently tired to sleep through the night and into the following work shift... Exhausted, she pushed open the door to her bedroom...

With no warning, an arm circled her waist and a hand clamped down hard on her mouth... Tiredness fled.

Go on to Chapter 10


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