Crack Shot

by Linda Bindner

Chapter One

Ignacio DeSoto stared at his bed in relief.

The softness, the warmth, were all his again, his after the death of the Emissary.

Gilberto Risendo. Actually Gilberto de la Vega, DeSoto corrected himself. Bent on revenge, he'd received a bullet in the back instead, saving the life of Diego de la Vega. One de la Vega or the other, it made very little difference to him. He had a far more worthy opponent than a de la Vega to catch.

And now that he was back in his office, once again the Alcalde of Los Angeles, he intended to show no mercy. He intended to finally capture that outlaw known as Zorro if it was the last thing he did.

Mendoza! he bellowed, deciding not to wait for things to settle down before setting up his next trap.

The sergeant hurried from the back to the office. Sí, mí Alcalde, he said with a sharp salute to his superior. He was only slightly out of breath.

DeSoto slapped his desk, causing a cloud of dust to rise into the air. Cleaning the office was the next order of business, DeSoto decided. The King's Emissary had been extremely dirty during his stay in Los Angeles.

On to our current business. What do we know about that outlaw, Zorro?

Mendoza practically fell off his chair, he was so surprised. Zorro? he stuttered. It was Zorro who had saved them from the Emissary. They owed him a great debt. But the Alcalde was waiting for an answer. Why nothing, mí Alcalde.

That's not entirely true, Sergeant, DeSoto said, rising from his seat to pace beside the desk. We know a few things.

He always wears black, Mendoza offered with a smile.

The Alcalde paused, seeing that he would have to lead the sergeant by his protruding nose. Yes, Sergeant. Anything else?

He rides a big, black horse, and always fights for the people of the pueblo. Oh, and he's in love with Señorita Escalante. Mendoza rubbed his stomach, as if just the mention of the señorita made him aware of her cooking, which made him think about food. It was time for dinner.

Yes, the Alcalde said slowly. He's in love with the señorita. Only he can't be around to protect her all the time. It was curious how the former Emissary had been so disliked, yet he had given DeSoto his current idea. Amazing.

Everyone's afraid of what Zorro will do if the señorita is injured, Mendoza said, and his words rang true enough.

If a man has no protection. Luckily that wasn't the case here. Sergeant, I want you to get ten of the best marksmen together. I have a job for them to do, and he smiled as he spoke.

The smile should have tipped off the sergeant, but he was busy thinking about his dinner. Right away, mí Alcalde. He saluted and was gone, through the door to the barracks and the men. DeSoto slapped his dirty gloves together, and laughed.

The target of DeSoto stood beside her bar, watching the happiness of her customers, always aware of the Emissary's death by the joviality of those customers. Even the de la Vegas had smiles on their faces, and that was rare enough on most nights. With intent, and with nothing to currently do for her tavern's patrons, Victoria studied the young de la Vega, surreptitiously, of course. People might get the impression that she liked the young caballero if she was caught staring, and everybody knew she was in love with Zorro. She had the engagement ring hidden upstairs to prove it. Victoria glowed for a minute, thinking about that ring.

This was my mother's, he'd said when he presented it, and Victoria wondered if that mother was sitting in her tavern right now, being served carne asada and wine. She couldn't help but wonder, even though the picture her wonderings left was a little silly. It never occurred to her that the woman she was looking for was dead. That in and of itself was a clue to her masked man's identity.

But she was supposed to be thinking about Diego de la Vega, she reminded herself. He had done quite well for himself in his sword fight against the Emissary, she'd heard, but he was still taking the death of his brother pretty hard. Sure, he smiled now, but he was just as often lost in thought, then those haunted eyes would turn to her. She wished she could give him the comfort he seemed to need.

But she couldn't, and so the haunted look continued, and Victoria went on cleaning the bar, wiping up hard liquor spills as the de la Vegas mourned and everybody else threw a party. The Emissary had not been well liked, despite being Don Alejandro's son.

Victoria sighed, catching the look of... something... on Diego's face when he glanced her way, and went into her kitchen to begin the cleanup from supper. She did the dishes, wiped the glasses, and threw out the water. It was full dark by the time she finished, and as per usual at this time of the day, her thoughts turned to Zorro.

As if he could read those thoughts, her back door opened and he slipped in on a breath of cool autumn air.

Zorro! she exclaimed in surprise, dropping the clean dish she had been about to put away.

Zorro caught it neatly in his gloved hand, and gave it back to her. I just wanted to see you tonight, he explained.

See her tonight? What was wrong with him? He had never 'just wanted to see her' before. Still, he had been very busy this last week warding off the Emissary's guards. They had not gotten to see each other beyond his occasional ride into town. Now he looked as lost as the Emissary was to the real world.

He said nothing more, only held out his arms, and she rushed into them, the clean plate forgotten on the chopping block.

A moment later, her worries over everything were forgotten as well as his lips descended on hers in a lingering kiss that promised more and stole her breath away. His gloved hand came up to rove through her hair. Preciosa, he murmured, his hand still in her tangled hair. We've been apart far too long this week.

You've been busy with the Emissary, she whispered back. I understand.

For a moment, Zorro's eyes darkened, but it was only a moment, then he said, I know. Don Diego was quite upset when he told me about the Emissary's death.

Don Diego is upset often these days. I can see it in his eyes every time he walks into my tavern, Victoria commented, her arms reluctantly leaving his neck, only to rest against his chest. They were as unhappy about ending the endearment as she was.

Suddenly he cradled her in his arms in an unprecedented hug.

What was that for? she asked as soon as his arms allowed her to breath again.

Just thinking, he replied, giving her a kiss to her hair, too.

What about? asked Victoria, hoping to glean another hint as to his identity. She was always trying to figure him out, but had so far been unsuccessful.

Unpleasant thoughts, he answered, then hugged her again. If anything happened to you, I don't know what I would do, he said in sudden despair. He kissed her then, passionately enough to make her head spin.

Victoria answered the desire with her own, and forgot all about nasty thoughts with his action. She felt his desperation, knowing that he should not be alone on such a night.

Again, as if he could read her mind, he said the dreaded words, I should go.

Stay, she entreated, a longing expression on her lovely face.

He sighed. I wish I could. There's nothing I'd like more than to wake up to your beautiful face every morning.

It was the first time he'd referred to his marriage proposal, even if it was in a round about way. She leaned in expectantly, and wasn't disappointed by the kiss that greeted her. The sense of desperation was even stronger.

I must go, he said, tearing himself away from her arms, knowing that if he didn't leave soon, he might stay. It was getting harder and harder for him to leave, she noted dispassionately even while the other half of her heart wanted him to stay. One more quick kiss, and he reached for the door. I love you, he said on the breath of wind that hurled through the opening. Then he was gone, swallowed up by the night.

Victoria leaned blissfully against the chopping block in the kitchen. He had never said those words before, and she was already reliving them now. In fact, she was reliving every moment with him that night lest she forget something, and her memory had grown sharper over the years, she had noticed.

But memories were all she had, she ruminated as she closed the tavern. Of course her mind would be almost as sharp as steel. For example, she remembered how his arms had felt when he held her, how warm his kisses were, and the sense that they were truly alone for the first time had come over her. Being alone made her wonder where the Alcalde had been that night, but she wasn't overly concerned about his absence. It was no great loss on her part.

The empty tavern was at odds with her full thoughts as she climbed the stairs before heading off to bed. She didn't feel tired after that encounter with Zorro, but old habits took over, and she found herself outside the door to her room without any knowledge of how she had gotten there. The silence of an empty tavern greeted her, and she sighed. There weren't even any boarders to break up the solitude of the night. With another sigh just to make some noise, she let herself wonder what it would be like to be truly married to Zorro, meaning married intimacies, when she opened her bedroom door.

Victoria was met with the sound of slapping gloves. Very good, whispered Alcalde DeSoto from his place by the door. Ten lancers were spread out around her bed. Victoria blinked in surprise. Right on time, though a bit preoccupied by the looks of things, so I can only assume that you've seen that masked bandit of yours tonight. His shortcomings, and he chuckled, will point us to his capture. And he laughed again, gesturing for the señorita to join them in her room. As the lancers suddenly had ten rifles pointing in her direction, she had little choice.

Victoria entered the room, her mind suddenly numb and too horrified to think.

Chapter Two

The Alcalde held out a pistol as Victoria numbly entered the room. Shut the door, he commanded softly. She did with a look at the aimed rifles.

What's this for? she asked, taking the pistol gingerly in her fingers.

Patience, requested the Alcalde. All will be explained in time. The muskets remained trained on her even with the door closed. There was no escape.

How did you get in here? Victoria asked next, recalling that she hadn't locked her door against intruders. She'd never considered the Alcalde would be that intruder.

We just walked in while everyone was enjoying themselves, said DeSoto, and Victoria wished that Zorro was still here. He always had an idea how to get out of impossible situations, and this one was nearly as impossible as they come. But the Alcalde continued, It wasn't hard. You should lock your door, though that would have made little difference in this case. He held up a lock picking kit for her to see.

What do you want? she asked next, keeping him talking while her numbed mind whirled quickly, looking for an escape.

The Alcalde rose from her bed, hands on his hips as he paced. Only a small thing, he announced in a casual tone. You'll never even notice it.

Notice what?

The bullet wound, he answered, still casual.

But I don't have a bullet wound, she informed in confusion.

You will, he replied with a marked look at the pistol. Unless you tell me what you know about Zorro.

Zorro? she asked, taken completely off guard, her voice rising in fear at the mere mention of his name. He must not be caught at any cost. I don't know anything about him that you don't.

That would be very little then.

Victoria looked at the lancers spread in her room. Some of them were treacherously close to the ring nestled in her desk. She moved in their direction when she blurted, We're engaged, but that shouldn't make a difference to you.

Engaged? said the Alcalde thoughtfully, and Victoria wished she had come up with something else to keep him talking and distracted. I didn't know that.

No, nobody does, explained a suddenly panicky Victoria. That was supposed to be a secret, and she had disclosed it at her first opportunity. What kind of fiancée was she?

Engaged, said DeSoto again, his voice even more quiet and thoughtful.

Now Victoria was really wishing she hadn't told him.

This could work to my advantage, mumbled the Alcalde, ignoring her. Then he seemed to remember her presence and his reason for being there so late in the first place. You're probably wondering why we're here.

At last. The thought has crossed my mind, Victoria stated.

I want you to shoot yourself, muttered the Alcalde, and Victoria had to ask him to repeat his last statement.

Excuse me?

He repeated himself, seeming unworried at the repetition. I want you to shoot yourself.

That's what I thought you said, Victoria stated, backing up to the door. Immediately ten muskets cocked and Victoria stopped. You really are insane.

On the contrary, said DeSoto, I'm as sane as they come. He paused in his arguments to turn around. It was a small movement considering the many men inside Victoria's personal bedroom. The room had not been designed to hold so many. You shoot yourself, and that, here he laughed mirthlessly, fiancé of yours will surely show himself, and we'll be waiting.

Victoria's blood boiled in anger, but she could see no way out of the situation. She knew Zorro wouldn't come to her rescue; he'd never come twice on the same night. She wasn't sure she wanted him to come, either, as it might just lead to his being killed. No, she had to think of something else to buy some time.

No, she stated. I won't shoot myself just to bring him. I won't be used as bait. She felt proud of her declaration, but her pride was short-lived.

No? That's too bad, because a wound where you can choose is better than being shot who-knows-where. Maybe even in the head, or the heart. I'm sure Zorro would not like a dead fiancée. But then, better wounded than dead, he ended casually, as if they were talking about the weather.

Horrified, Victoria could just look at him. You want me to shoot myself so Zorro will be captured?

That about sums it up, DeSoto said, wondering gleefully why he hadn't thought of this before. It was so simple. That was the brilliance of it, and soon he would be back in Madrid, a hero.

You're loco, said a horrified Victoria, while looking at the lancers. There were too many of them to vault out the window or into the hall. She would surely be shot, as the Alcalde claimed. With nothing else to do, she bluffed. This crazy scheme will not bring him out. He's smarter than that.

Ah, but it will, said the Alcalde, one finger in the air. With the Emissary's death and the pueblo reeling from that, his betrayal won't even be noticed. It will be brief and short-lived. For a change, I'll be the hero, and Zorro will be dead.

That's what you think, Victoria said, but knew her words were bald bravado. But what else could she do?

Think, my pretty señorita, DeSoto said encouragingly. Think hard, and choose.

What would it be? An arm? A leg? Left or right? Victoria couldn't believe she was thinking this way, but what choice did she have? The rifles were still aimed at her, and she still held the pistol carefully in her hands. What kind of an Alcalde makes sure his own citizens shoot themselves?

A desperate one, but no court will fault that. And if you say one word, I'll make certain that bandit has the same wound.

That was more incentive to keep quiet than she cared to admit; DeSoto still hadn't hit Zorro, and the lancers hadn't come close, but the Alcalde was as sure to try, and even Zorro couldn't afford to bo shot.

The threat to Zorro had actually made her decision easier. Zorro could not fight with a bullet wound, so the right arm and torso were out. Also he would need both legs, so they were out, too. That left only the face, head, and left arm. Victoria had an aversion to being shot in the face, and a head wound could be very dangerous.

The only part of him that remained as a choice was the left arm. Hoping that neither of them would need that arm overmuch, Victoria came to a decision and suddenly pushed the pistol into her skin.

Not so close, or you'll have powder burns, DeSoto warned.

Gulping, Victoria moved the pistol back, very aware of the rifles still pointed at her. She took aim again on the lower part of her arm, above her hand but below her elbow. This will hurt, she thought, and closed her eyes. With a firm image of Zorro in her mind, she pulled the trigger.

Chapter Three

The tavern was closed the next day due to illness, the sign on the front door read, and Señorita Escalante refused to answer any questions. She said she didn't want to expose anybody, and who could argue with that?

Victoria must have been feeling better, for the next day the tavern was open for business. The breakfast crowd was big, and the lunch crowd was bigger yet. Even the de la Vegas had chosen to shake off their exile and come into the pueblo. Everybody noticed this and agreed that the two men needed to get out more. As for Victoria, she looked peaked, but not on death's door, like everybody feared.

She carefully carried the two plates holding the de la Vegas' lunches out to the main room, amazed at how much she used her left arm and didn't think about it. She made it to the de la Vega table without dropping anything, and sat down to rest.

You do look white, Victoria, commented Don Alejandro when she had sat down next to Diego on the bench.

She tried to smile. Oh, it's nothing. Just some leftover flu.

Diego spoke up next. Well, don't overdo it. Getting back to work is not worth ruining your health over.

She raised both arms on the tabletop to cross her hands. Oh, you don't have to worry. I'll take it easy. She patted Diego on the arm and smiled again, then rose to go.

Suddenly Diego held her left arm in a gentle but firm grip. Victoria, what did you do to your arm?

She laughed lightly, trying to blow off the injury, knowing that the de la Vegas were friends with Zorro and he was sure to hear of her injury. Victoria planned to discuss the scratch she'd told people about all morning, and found that she simply couldn't do it anymore.

Victoria sank back onto the bench, her laughter dying out. She looked at Don Alejandro, then to Diego. Can you keep a secret? she asked quietly.

Yes, answered Alejandro immediately.

You know I can, said Diego with concern in his blue eyes.

I've told others that it's just a scratch, but in reality it's because of the Alcalde....

DeSoto? questioned Diego in a hushed voice, as if he knew the need for quiet.

Victoria nodded. He met me in my room the other night with armed lancers. He.... This was going to be harder to do than she had thought. She swallowed, and went on. He threatened to... harm... Zorro if I didn't shoot myself first.

What! The blustering question was naturally from the incredulous Alejandro. Diego was, of course, silent.

Don Alejandro, please! whispered the frantic Victoria, looking around the tavern. I know it sounds silly, but I don't want anybody to hear about this, or word might get back to Zorro! He'll ride into town, all determined and full of vengeance, and DeSoto will surely shoot him then.

Anger flared for a second in Diego's blue eyes. No, I don't think so, he said, a strange tightness to his jaw.

But you're all right? asked Don Alejandro of Victoria, leaning forward on the table to be better heard.

Victoria shifted uncomfortably under their intense gazes. Oh, yes, I'm fine now, though Dr. Hernandez says it will take some time for this to heal.

You've seen the doctor? asked Diego, his face blank, his voice bland, but with a tight edge as an undertone.

Of course. I wouldn't have it any other way, much to the Alcalde's distress, informed Victoria as she reached to gather their lunch plates. But she was distracted when Don Diego suddenly rose from the bench. He smoothed her hair once, and touched her on the cheek, very close to her mouth. His hand was warm and sincere, though it was an odd place to touch her in friendliness. The only one to ever touch her like that, like the caress it had been, was Zorro.

Diego... Where are you going? Alejandro asked just as quickly, but Diego either didn't hear him or completely ignored him. He walked determinedly right out the front double doors.

Victoria's brow puckered. To get up enough courage to tell Diego her secret and then to have him leave like that! Don Alejandro, where is Diego going? She hoped it wasn't to confront the Alcalde. Diego might have done very well against the Emissary, but for him to confront the Alcalde would be the same as committing suicide! She hoped he had better sense than that.

Alejandro watched his son leave the tavern, so intent on his mysterious destination that he almost mowed down three people who didn't get out of his way fast enough. Alejandro shook his head, making his silver hair dance. He's probably going to see the doctor to make sure you're getting the proper care. You know how Diego is.

True, and Victoria looked at her arm, thinking; she wasn't convinced. What I can't believe is our Alcalde. Imagine, forcing one of his own citizens to harm themselves just to capture Zorro.

Alejandro shook his head too. He's as obsessed with Zorro's capture as Zorro is with justice, he observed as they waited for Diego's return.

They didn't have to wait long.

Diego arrived in the tavern, hauling a confused DeSoto by his military coat collar. Even as far into the room as the de la Vega table was, Victoria could see the anger on Diego's face when they came through the door, his expression contorted and scary. She didn't think she had ever seen Diego that angry before.

The second the Alcalde and Diego came close to the de la Vega table, Victoria flinched. She couldn't help herself.

That flinch acted like a catalyst for Diego. Look! he hissed in a low voice, indicating Victoria's arm, though everyone in the tavern heard him with no trouble. The Alcalde reached out, and Victoria flinched again.

There's your legacy, Ignacio. The King will be very pleased! Diego went on, his voice still low and menacing. Victoria didn't think she had ever heard Diego sound that way.

DeSoto reached out once more, and Victoria unconsciously drew back. I.... he tried to say, but was unable to complete any more due to the stranglehold Diego had on his collar.

Don't you touch her! Diego ordered, his voice somewhere between a whisper and a hiss. No lancers, no guards; we're all alone. You wanted me, now you've got me!

And the next thing Diego did, Victoria wouldn't believe if she hadn't seen it with her own eyes. Diego's fist plowed straight into the Alcalde's jaw.

The Alcalde jerked back, but he had nowhere to go. The hold on his coat was too tight. Wait, I can explain! DeSoto said.

But Diego wasn't waiting to listen to any explanation. No lancers. No swords. No guns. Just you and me, he said, repeating the concept. The naked fist struck again, this time right below DeSoto's eye, and Diego let go in time for the Alcalde to fall over his own two feet. Looking like retribution itself, Diego picked him back up to hit him in the face again.

You will never willfully harm one of your citizens again just to capture me! Diego said, and punched the Alcalde in the stomach. DeSoto was too wrapped up in protecting himself from Diego's unexpected wrath to do anything to save himself.

The two combatants suddenly narrowed down to the end of a slim tunnel to Victoria. They both stood out in stark relief, but their voices seemed to come from far away. She drew in a sharp breath, and suddenly held what the Alcalde had sought after for years.

Zorro's identity.

Diego? she asked herself. But he was so studious, nothing like Zorro. As she calmly watched Diego beat the Alcalde, she watched an unmasked Zorro do the same. A moment later, she thought, Of course Diego is nothing like Zorro. It was unbelievable. In fact, DeSoto roused himself enough to finally ask the same question plaguing Victoria's mind.

You're Zorro?

But Diego was so intent on his target that he apparently didn't hear him. The Alcalde had to repeat his question for Diego to hear.

You're Zorro? DeSoto asked, his voice already slurred and in only a half conscious state.

Yes! Diego admitted as that fist struck again like lightening, shooting out faster than Victoria could follow with her eyes. He drew back his arm once more, ready to strike again, ready to abandon his own edict of not finish the beating he had started, of not to kill, when her quiet voice pierced the air like an arrow and stopped him.

Diego, please don't. He's not worth it. Victoria sounded tired, as if it was she who had been doing the fighting, not Diego.

But Diego must have heard her, for he stopped what he was about to do, his fist still poised in the air, ready to strike. Then he dropped the now unconscious Alcalde where they stood near the bar. Diego stepped back, tall and terrible in the sudden quiet, and the Alcalde crumpled to lay like a blue puddle at his feet.

Diego still didn't look at Victoria, but, panting from exertion, said, Father, please see that he gets on the earliest ship bound for Spain.

Done! Alejandro sounded proud suddenly, as if he had never expected his quiet son to be such a good fighter, as if that was the only important thing happening. The other caballeros stood up in support now that they knew where their leader's loyalties laid.

But Victoria felt too stunned to do anything except sit. Diego turned towards her finally, aghast at what he had almost done, mouthed a silent, I'm sorry, to her, then left through the front door. The noon sunshine soaked him up.

Chapter Four

Silence greeted Diego's departure. Silence so profound that any newcomer would know that something momentous had just happened.

The Alcalde still lay crumpled up next to the bar where Diego had dropped him. Victoria's arm hurt. Birds sang. A horse knickered somewhere outside.

What's going on? came Mendoza's voice suddenly. Why is it so quiet in here? He stood in the front door, looking around in confusion.

But Victoria found that she didn't have the strength to answer him. She glanced at the Alcalde, then without a word turned to the stairs and her room.

But her room was no longer the sanctuary it had been. She didn't feel safe there anymore. Still, she could be alone, and right now she needed to be alone in order to think. The other stunned customers answered the sergeant, leaving her free to pursue the solitude of her room. It beckoned like the tears that abruptly wanted to fall, but she refused to cry in front of anybody. The tears waited until she got to her room and shut the door.

Then they came, hot and merciless, marking her cheeks with scalding tracks as easily as DeSoto had marked her with a bullet wound. How have I gotten into this situation? she wondered as she sank on to the bed. She was betrayed by friendship as well as love. How could I not have known? Victoria held her head in her hands and cried.

Diego. Her first reaction was admittedly the rejection he said he feared. How could she have kissed Diego? Kissing him ust have been like kissing her own brother.

Then she realized it hadn't been like kissing her brother at all. In fact, it had never been like that. Over the years, the kisses had grown more passionate, and the emotion had been from her as much as from him. Love and desire were hard things to pretend, and they had been real enough on her part. And real on his. Diego wasn't the spineless man everybody thought he was. His escapades as Zorro attested to that. Even she could attest to that.

But he wasn't a natural killer, either. His vow not to harm, only to humiliate, proved that. He was somewhere in between, uknown to the people. Unknown to her?

No, not unknown to her. She had been drawn to him when he came home from Spain, and she felt that pull again. What was it about him that attracted her the most? His eyes, she decided, and they were the one thing that went unchanged, no matter what he was wearing and who he was at any given time.

So what attracted her to Zorro? The special attention, the draw of being singled out in the crowd, and his feelings for all oppressed people everywhere. His fire, his passion for the cause of others. His genuineness.

All Diego. It had to be, since Diego was clearly Zorro.

But he should have told her, she argued to herself. Her, at least. She felt betrayed because he apparently hadn't trusted her enough to tell her.

Then came some remembered conversations, buried under the more heroic maneuvers. He had tried to tell her, through badly quoted poetry and lines only half remembered. Only she'd refused to let him. She hadn't wanted to hear his confession, thus she had always been too busy in too much of a hurry to get things done to listen. He had about given up, and she didn't blame him; he was probably as tired of the wait as she was.

If she judged by Zorro's deeds, he could be incredibly romantic, despite public opinion, but he had never told her. In all the years they had been together, he hadn't said a word. She knew it took more courage to remain silent than it did to blurt out the truth. Today had taught her that, at least.

Thinking about truth and silence made her take the engagement ring from the secret compartment in her desk and look at it in a way she hadn't looked at it in a year. It was the same green emerald and white diamonds it had always been, only now her new knowledge marked it for her. It had been Doña Elena's ring, Alejandro's wife's, Diego's mother's, now hers. And she loved it, she suddenly realized.

Victoria gave a start, but couldn't deny the truth from herself. She always had been a rotten liar, ever since she was very small. She felt the truth now, as much as she had originally felt the anger. She was in love with Diego de la Vega. In the image she had always carried of him, he might not be as dashing and debonair as his alter ego, but she doubted he could pretend to have passion for her, and she had absolutely felt his passion when he kissed her.

And she wanted to feel that passion again, right now. Making a hasty decision, she threw a shawl quickly over her shoulders, and slipping the ring on her finger, yanked open her bedroom door, daring anybody to stop her.

Chapter Five

Resolute, Victoria didn't even know what kind of reception she was going to get, but she felt determined to reach the hacienda at all costs. Bearing that in mind, she saddled a horse in the stables, wondering where Diego kept Toronado, and recalled the scene in the tavern where she had mentioned to Maria, her help, that she was going to the de la Vega hacienda and planned to be gone the rest of the day.

Maria had agreed to watch the tavern, and Victoria noticed that Don Alejandro and the Alcalde were both gone. One look at her arm told her she didn't feel one bit of guilt for the Alcalde, and her affection for Don Alejandro lay somewhere between surrogate father and mentor, the same as it always had. So, her new knowledge hadn't changed her whole life, like the Alcalde had probably hoped it would. In fact, it hadn't changed much of anything, except that she wanted to get to the hacienda as quickly as possible. So she galloped out of the pueblo, sounding like the devil himself was at her heals.

When Victoria reached the hacienda, the joy apparent in her smile, she pounded on the doors, not caring who heard as long as one of the the de la Vegas opened that door.

It was Don Alejandro who opened the doors at last, though it was probably only a few minutes that had gone by.

Well, this isn't a surprise, he said as she pushed her way in without an invitation. At any other time, she would have been appalled at her behavior, but she didn't have time for politeness now. Diego, we have a visitor. It's Señorita Escalante, Alejandro called. Then, in a much softer voice meant for her ears alone, he said, He's in the library. Of course.

Of course, indeed. The library, as he well knew, was the most secure room in the house. It was also Diego's favorite place to be. Victoria could have guessed at his location and been right, even without Alejandro's help. As it was, she would take all the help she could get, and turned right immediately. Then Diego was there.

Victoria! Diego exclaimed, surprised to see her so soon, and surprised to see her so soon, he admitted to himself. Then she was in his arms, and for once, he shut up and just held her.

Gracias a Dios, he whispered then, and his arms tightened. I thought for sure I'd lost you. Then his lips were on her hair in a chaste reminder of where they were. But Victoria hadn't ridden two miles at a bonejarring gallop to have her hair fondled.

Just as she had initiated their first kiss, now she pulled back her head and found his lips more than ready to be kissed. She tried to express all the love that she was feeling, and failed, but his desire was unmistakable in their first unmasked and highly public kiss.

When he rubbed her cheek with a hand, she had to say, I love you, too, though it sounded silly even to her ears.

Stay for dinner? he whispered, looking at her face out of familiar, clear blue eyes.

I'll stay for anything, she answered, suddenly content and happy to be where she currently was, with her feet held high off the floor and her bones being crushed by his obvious strength.

What if I say you don't have to cook?

I wouldn't care if I did have to cook. I'm not going anywhere, she promised.

Her reward for that promise was another kiss, and this one was full of passion, too.

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