"THE LEGEND UNMASKED"

CHAPTER TWO - "A CLOSE ENCOUNTER"

     Marco brought his head up, startled and furious that Jose would have the nerve to try and stop him.  His eyes grew wide with fear, however, when he saw it was the notorious outlaw, Zorro, standing there.  Under the black silk mask was a very murderous expression.

     "Zorro," Victoria whispered with relief and surprise.

     "This is no way to treat a lady, amigos," he drawled insolently.  He prodded Marco in the chest with his saber.  "Kindly let her go.  Now."

     "We will share the ransom with you, Zorro," bargained Jose cowardly.

     "There will be no ransom, Señor," the man in black declared unequivocally.

     Marco got off of Victoria and pulled his own sword from its scabbard.  He lunged at Zorro, hoping Jose had provided enough of a distraction.

     Zorro easily warded off the errant thrust.  Marco was spun around, but as soon as he recovered his bearings, he attacked again.  All of his moves were quickly defended.  Zorro soon was on the offensive, driving the man backwards.

     As the battle ensued, Jose drew a dagger from his waistband.  He circled around behind Zorro, intending to plunge the knife in the masked hero's broad back.

     "Zorro!  Behind you!" Victoria shouted out the warning when she saw what the other man was about to do.  She closed her eyes and prayed fervently.

     Zorro darted a quick glance over his shoulder as Jose raised his arm, ready to strike.  Victoria opened her eyes just in time to see Zorro swirl around and kick the weapon from Jose's grasp.  It went flying into the nearby bushes.  Then he clubbed Marco in the face with the fist that held his saber.  Marco fell unconsciously face first onto the ground.

     Jose picked up the sword his friend had dropped and tried to charge the masked man.  Zorro knocked him out cold with a left hook.  He joined his partner in crime on the forest floor.  The man in black sheathed his saber and rushed over to Victoria.  He knelt down to untie her feet, something she had not thought to do in all the confusion.

     It had been such a long time since she had last seen him, she had wondered what she would feel when she did see him again.  She needn't have worried.  A surge of love and longing shot through her body.  How could she ever had doubted it?

     "You are all right?" he asked anxiously.  "They did not. . ."

     Victoria shook her head as he helped her to her feet.  His concerned questions were cut off as she launched herself into his arms, kissing him hungrily.  Their passion flared as their tongues intertwined.  Zorro drew her even closer, bringing his gloved hand up her side and cupping the swell of her breast.  They both moaned softly.  A sound from one of the kidnappers snapped the masked outlaw back to his senses.

     He slowly broke the spell.  He could see the disappointment in her face as he pulled away.  "Forgive me, mi querida," he said huskily.  "We need to take care of these vermin before they wake up."  Zorro pointed to the men lying on the ground near their feet.

     Victoria shuddered as she remembered what had almost happened.  Between the two of them, they made short work of tying up the kidnappers and loading them onto the backs of their horses.  Zorro carved a Z' on the back of each of their jackets.  Then he swatted their mounts on the rump, sending them off in the direction of the pueblo.

     Dusk was falling as Victoria put out the fire.  A sharp whistle summoned Toronado, who emerged from the shadows and into the clearing.  Zorro assisted Victoria onto the Andalusian's broad back, then climbed aboard himself.  Giving the horse a gentle nudge with his heel, they were on their way back to Los Angeles.
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     Zorro and Victoria had traveled about five miles when Toronado stumbled into a gopher hole.  Immediately the masked man swung down from the saddle to inspect the injured front leg.

     "Only a sprain, I think,  nothing broken," he diagnosed to a concerned Victoria who still sat on the animal's back.  Zorro ran a soothing hand down the black stallion's neck.  "You'll be just fine, boy."

     The horse took a tentative step forward and pulled up in obvious pain.  He whinnied and snorted as Zorro helped Victoria down to the ground.  "It looks as though we will have to spend the night out here," he advised, making the quick decision.  "Walking back would take all night.  With no moonlight this evening to brighten the way, one of us might befall the same fate as poor Toronado here."

     Victoria nodded in agreement.  His eyes narrowed as he watched as the kidnappers' horses forged ahead down the trail.  He wasn't too worried about them, they would eventually make their way to the pueblo, he thought.

     The couple gathered up twigs and branches.  Zorro kept a flint in his saddle bags and soon they had a crackling fire burning.  He also had some beef pemmican in one of the pouches which they ate for their supper.

     After they had eaten, Zorro noticed that Victoria was shivering.  She wore only the thin cotton blouse and skirt in which she had been abducted.  The night was a little chilly despite it being late spring, but they were up at higher elevation.  He unfastened the black cape from around his shoulders.

     "Here, wear this," he offered, draping the heavy satin upon her.  He sat down next to her, putting his arms around her.  To keep her warm, he told himself, nothing more.

     "Victoria, are you sure you are all right?" he asked gently.  She was still trembling despite the cape. "You have been so quiet."

    "I'm fine," she said in a shaky voice, betraying her words.   She moved closer into his arms.  "It's just that this is the third time," she began to explain, "that someone has tried. . .tried to. . ."  She could not finish and buried her face into his chest.

     Dios mio, the masked man thought.  Three times someone had attempted to defile his querida.  He tried to remember. ..   There was today, of course and that man at the tavern several years ago.  He frowned, those were the only times he could recall.

     "Three times?"  She nodded as she wiped her tears.  She recounted the two times he knew of then added, ". . .and when I was fifteen.  Another man at the tavern.  He. . .  Another guest stopped him."  She shuddered at the memory.  Her would-be attacker had been interrupted just in time.

     Zorro saw the pain and fear in her lovely brown eyes.  It had been while he had been in Spain, at university; not that long after she had started operating the tavern on her own.

     "I didn't know, Victoria," he whispered softly.  She touched his face then lifted hers up to kiss his lips.  The kiss was gentle yet passionate and they melted into each other's arms.

     She decided she was not going allow him to be chivalrous any longer.  She wanted him to be her first lover; her only lover really; and now, before some other man had a chance to steal her virginity.  She boldly unbuttoned his shirt and began caressing the bare muscles she found underneath it.

     Dios mio, he thought again as he groaned.  A man could only resist so much temptation.  He left a trail of kisses down her neck to her shoulder, then onto the swell of her breast that her blouse did not cover.  He placed his gloved hand upon it, feeling the hardening bud even through the thick leather.  She whimpered as he slowly dragged his thumb across her nipple.

     Victoria sank backwards to the ground, pulling the masked man down with her.  They kissed again, stirring their ardor even more.  She had no doubt of his desire for her, the evidence was hard to ignore.

     Zorro had nearly reached his limit.  She was seducing him, he realized when he could think coherently at all.  Part of him said, go ahead, it was inevitable.  They were alone, no one around for miles.  No one would ever know. . .

     He would know.  And what if there were consequences?  The idea of Victoria growing big with his child both excited and frightened him.  No, he decided with a moan, he could not do this, not now, not like this.  He pushed up off of her, his face flushed and his breathing heavy.  Victoria looked up at him incriminatingly, the frustration evident on her beautiful face.

     "Victoria," he pleaded for understanding.  "I'm sorry.  Please don't cry, querida."  Tears were beginning to stream down her cheeks.  He lifted her chin and could see the mixture of anger, shame, and disappointment in her lovely brown eyes.  "What if there was a child?  We cannot take that chance."

     "I want a baby," she declared.  "I love you, Zorro.  Please."  She ran her hands back up his chest, then placed them on his face, drawing his mouth down to hers.   She was trying to bewitch him into throwing aside his gallantry, his code of morality.  And she was almost succeeding.  He had to put a halt to this before he did lose control.

     "No," he groaned hoarsely as he extricated himself from her embrace again.  "No, Victoria, not like this.  You deserve much better than the cold, dirty ground.  You should have a soft bed, candlelight. . .a husband."  He put his finger to her lips as she started to protest.  She saw in his eyes that she was not going to be able to persuade him to change his mind.  He was the man she wanted as a husband.  But evidentially he did not see himself in that role.  Where did that leave them then, she wondered miserably.

     "We need to get up early in the morning," he advised her.  "It's getting late.  You can sleep here, near the fire."

     "But where will you sleep?" she asked.  "It will be cold away from the fire.  I promise I will not. . ."

     "No."  Zorro shook his head.  "That would not be a good idea.  I'll be fine.  Buenos noches, querida."  He reached for her hand and brought it to his lips, not trusting himself to be able to taste her lovely lips then tear himself away.  He then slipped off into the shadows.

     Sighing disappointedly, she laid down near the flames, wrapping herself in the black cape.  His masculine scent filled her nose.  Victoria was sure she would lie awake for hours, but not too long after she closed her eyes, she fell asleep.

     Zorro watched the woman he loved from behind a tree only a few feet away.  He sat down, using the tall pine as a backrest.  It was going to be a long, uncomfortable night.
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     Victoria woke early the next morning as streaks of light were just beginning to fill the sky.  She sat up slowly, stretching her arms as she glanced around.  Where was Zorro, she thought, a bit in a panic as the masked man was nowhere in sight.

     "Buenos dias," he greeted her with a cheerfulness he did not feel.  He had slept poorly, his neck was sore and he had been unable to get certain thoughts out of his mind.  Twice during the night, he had almost surrendered to temptation.  He used every ounce of his willpower to hold himself back.  Finally giving up trying to sleep, he had been up and around for nearly two hours.

     He held out his overturned hat.  "Here, I found us some breakfast."  The hat was filled with wild berries.  Victoria helped herself to a handful of the fruit.

     "Delicious," she commented.  After they had eaten their fill of the berries, Zorro went over to where Toronado stood patiently.  The masked man ran an experienced hand over the animal's injured leg.

     "Ah, much better," he declared.  He looked at Victoria.  "We had best be on our way."

     She nodded.  Zorro assisted her into the saddle once again.  He led the stallion down into the valley toward the pueblo.

     Don Alejandro strode down the hallway that led to his son Diego's bedroom.  He knocked on the door and waited impatiently.  Felipe stuck his head out of his bedroom just as the elder de la Vega was going to enter Diego's room.  The young man rushed over and touched Don Alejandro on the arm.

     Felipe indicated that Diego was still asleep because he had been up late reading.  He himself had been up most of the night as well, wondering and worrying about his adopted father.  He prayed that nothing had gone awry with Victoria's rescue.

     The old caballero sighed wearily.  "The Alcalde is forming a search party," he explained.  "Apparently Victoria has been missing all night under suspicious circumstances.  I thought Diego would want to help look for her."  He glanced toward his son's room.  "Well, I cannot wait all day for him.  Come on, let's go," he added as he faced the anxious Felipe.

     The young man followed Don Alejandro down the hallway.  Glimpsing over his shoulder, he sighed with relief.  Inside Diego's room, the bed was empty and neatly made.

     The plaza was unusually crowded for such an early hour.  The de la Vegas maneuvered their way through the people and came to a halt  in front of the cuartel.  De Soto and his soldiers were mounted as were several citizens who were also joining the search.

     The Alcalde was separating the riders into groups, each one led by one of his lancers.  "Sergeant, you go to the north," he commanded.  "Sepulveda, take your men east.  And Perez, you head south."  He sat up taller in his saddle.  "I will lead my men westward.  The señorita disappeared early last evening.  If she had been kidnapped, as some suggest," he eyed the portly Mendoza, "she could be a good distance away by now.  Search until there is no hope."

     A loud murmur buzzed through the crowd gathered in the plaza.  De Soto irritatedly glanced around to see what was causing the disturbance.

     Victoria, sitting on Toronado's back, was being led into the pueblo by Zorro.  He had wished to sneak her back into town, but that was made impossible by the throng amassed in the plaza.  He brought the stallion and its passenger right up to where the commandante was glaring at him from the saddle of his horse.

     "As you can see, there is hope, Alcalde," announced Zorro a bit mockingly.  "Here is the señorita, safe and sound."  He assisted Victoria to the ground.  She still wore his cape around her shoulders, which she now removed and handed back to him.

     "So there was no emergency after all," sneered de Soto venomously.  He directed his subsequent remarks at Victoria but loud enough for everyone to hear.  "Next time, Señorita, let someone know when you go off to tryst with your lover.  Then we won't have to go to all the bother of organizing a posse to look for you."

     "That is not what happened at all," Victoria exclaimed indignantly.  "I was kidnapped.  Zorro rescued me from two pigs who were going to. . .going to. . ."  She could not finished the sentence as she remembered the ugly scene.  The smug expression on the Alcalde's face fired her anger again.  "How dare you. . .?"

     Her outrage was interrupted when Zorro unsheathed his saber and put it to de Soto's throat in one swift motion.  The other man's hand instinctive reached for his own weapon but the masked man pressed his point a little harder against the commandante's neck.

     "What Victoria said is the truth," Zorro growled lowly.  "Two men tied to their horses should have arrived here by now.  They are the ones who abducted the señorita."

     "I have not seen any such men," replied the Alcalde cautiously, conscious of the sharp blade poking his skin.  "Sergeant?"

     "No, Sir, mi Alcalde," answered Mendoza, shaking his head.  "I'm sorry, Zorro."

     The man in black shrugged then glared at de Soto.  "If you ever imply anything that questions Victoria's reputation again, I promise you will regret the day you were born, Alcalde."

     He lowered his sword from the commandante's throat, quickly slashing a Z' into the front of his jacket.  Zorro swirled around to Victoria, taking her hand in his.  "I must go," he whispered, raising the hand to his lips. "Adios, querida."

     "Adios," she replied somewhat forlornly, wondering when she would see him again.

     The masked man swung up into Toronado's saddle, then urged the black stallion out of the plaza.  Ana Maria and Leonora had been part of the assembly and made their way to Victoria, putting their arms around her as they led her to her tavern.  The innkeeper's back stiffened as she heard some of the murmurs that were circulating among the citizens

     "After him!" de Soto roared with rage.  His soldiers had difficulty turning their horses around as there were so many people in the way.   The man in black had already disappeared into the distance before they even reached the pueblo gate.  The Alcalde sputtered impotently as once again Zorro managed to escape capture.
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"THE LEGEND UNMASKED"  CHAPTER THREE - "A CURIOUS PROPOSAL"