No, that was impossible. Baquero was
dead. She had seen his body with her own eyes. Why was
he dressed as Zorro? Where was Diego? She wildly searched the
crowd but could not see the tall caballero.
Strong hands seized her from behind and began pulling her backward. "No!" she shouted as she struggled to free herself. "Let me go!"
Victoria craned her head this way and that, trying to see who was dragging her away from the middle of the plaza. People stared at her as she passed them by. "Please help!" she pleaded. But they just averted their eyes, ignoring her plight.
Suddenly she was tossed to the ground, the breath knocked from her body. Her captor fell atop her, pinning her down. "Victoria, stop," said a voice that sounded as though it came from far away.
"No!" She flailed her hands and felt one of her fists strike something solid. Whoever was holding her released his grip on her and his weight was lifted off her. Warily, Victoria opened her eyes and saw Diego kneeling on the floor next to her, blood dripping from his nose.
"You pack quite a punch," he stated dryly before pinching the bridge of his nose.
"Where am. . ." She broke off the question as she noticed she was still in Zorro's cave. "What happened?"
"You were having a nightmare, I believe," replied Diego somewhat nasally.
Madre de Dios, a nightmare. It all had been just a nightmare. She sighed with relief. Then she realized she was on the cold stone floor. "How. . .?"
"You were thrashing about and fell off the cot," Diego interrupted, answering her unfinished question. "I was afraid you were going to hurt yourself, so I. . .um. . ." His face turned a bright shade of red.
"Jumped on top of me?" she asked suspiciously. "I thought you told Alicia that you wouldn't touch me?" She eyed his still bleeding nose. Served him right, she thought smugly.
"I said nothing of the sort," denied Diego. "I told her nothing untoward would happen. Keeping you from harming yourself is an entirely different matter. If you had rolled just a few more feet, you would have tipped over that table." He pointed toward the one closest to her. "If those chemicals had spilled and then mixed, it would have resulted in dire consequences for us both."
Victoria sat up, surprised she did not feel dizzy. But then it had been quite awhile since she had any wine.
"So, what was it about?" asked Diego, startling her from her thoughts.
"What was what about?" Dios, she was really going to need something to drink if he kept talking in riddles.
"The nightmare," he replied.
"Oh, nothing," she lied with a shrug.
"You were screaming, Victoria," stated Diego. "And crying and thrashing about. It was not ‘nothing'."
"I want to go back to the tavern now, " she demanded. Yes, she wanted to go back to the tavern. She had wine there. Lots of it.
Diego shook his head then winced at the pain the slight movement caused. "I don't think that is a good idea." He pressed a handkerchief to his still bleeding nose. "The nightmare," he asked again. "What was it about?"
She glanced up at him, the words telling him to go to hell poised on her lips, until she saw that he wasn't going to drop the subject until he was satisfied with her answer.
Once again, the image of her attacker shimmered in her mind. Victoria shut her eyes, trying to block out the horrifying picture. Then with a deep breath, she raised her chin. "I was dreaming that Zorro was going to hang, only it turned out not to be your father or you, but. . . Baquero," she whispered his name, an irrational fear gripping her that if she said his name aloud, he would reappear, just like in her dream.
"I'm sorry, Victoria, I didn't kn. . ." Diego began.
"You weren't supposed to know," Victoria retorted. "No one was ever supposed to know."
"But I do." Diego crouched down on the floor beside her. "Please, Victoria, I want to help you. But I need you to want to help yourself first."
Victoria turned away from his tender gaze. "I don't know if I can," she said, trying to keep her tears from flowing. She dropped her face into her hands. "It was all my fault," she declared, her words muffled.
"Of course it wasn't," Diego countered. "Why would you even think. . ."
"It was my fault," she cut in. Victoria raised her head, wiping at her eyes. "I knew his request for an extra blanket was just an excuse to lure me up to his room. But I went anyway. Because I wanted to show him he couldn't intimidate me. But he could and he did. . .and he. . .and he. . ."
Strong arms encircled her and she relaxed into Diego's embrace. "It was not your fault," he reiterated, stroking her hair with one hand. Diego sighed. "If anyone is to blame, it would be me."
Pulling away, Victoria stared at him in disbelief. "How was it your fault?" she asked.
Diego exhaled heavily, knowing he was about to break the vow to himself and possibly add to his beloved's misery. "I was coming to the pueblo to protect you. I had seen the way Ba. . .he was leering at you." He refrained from saying her attacker's name when he felt her stiffen in his arms.
"But I failed you. I thought I could deal easily with the lancers. But I was wrong. And you paid a terrible price for my arrogance."
"How could you have possibly known when or even if anything would have happened?" she asked. "I might have trusted my instincts and locked myself in my room instead of getting that stupid blanket."
Her words took Diego by surprise. Other than the gut feeling that had told him that Baquero was not to be trusted, he had no reason to believe that anything untoward would have occurred. Despite that logic, the burden of guilt he felt weighed heavily on his shoulders. He should have been there to protect her, not playing hide and seek with the garrison soldiers.
"Si, you might have," he conceded, "but he was an evil man with evil intentions. He would have just found another way."
Victoria frowned contemplatively. Diego gazed into her eyes and saw her demons still lurking in their dark depths. He wanted, no, he needed to dispel them. He just didn't know how.
"Victoria, I know what happened to you was. . .violent and ugly," he acknowledged softly. "I can only imagine how terrifying it must have been. But you cannot let it control how you live your life. You are never going to find solace in the bottom of a wine bottle, no matter how many you empty."
Her expression changed from confusion to anger in an instant. "That's not. . .that's not why. . ." she sputtered crossly. She took a deep breath, obviously trying to compose herself. "Just because you are such a stick in the mud and never touch alcohol," she sneered, "that doesn't mean the rest of us cannot have a drink now and then."
"It's a lot more than ‘a drink now and then'," Diego snapped, a trifle offended by her remark. He didn't abstain because he was a prude, but because he needed to keep a clear head in order to successfully maintain his masquerade..
But that was all beside the point. "You are well on your way to becoming the town drunk," he stated harshly. "What happens if the tavern fails? What are you going to do then? Have you even given that any thought? Or are you too busy drowning yourself in alco. . ."
"Callarse!" Victoria put her hands over her ears.
"No, I will not be quiet." Diego moved closer and gently lifted her fingers away from her head. "I cannot let you do this to yourself. I love you, Victoria. And you need to know I would do anything to help you."
"Well. . .you can't," declared Victoria bitterly. "I don't want nor need your help." She raised her chin to scowl at him. "I will. . .I'll just cut back. One glass of wine with my supper, like I used to do. Then you can stop your preaching at me."
"You know that's not going to happen," Diego said wearily. "That one drink will turn into two then three, then more, then before you know it, the bottle is empty and you have no notion how it happened."
Victoria gasped indignantly, but underneath her outrage, Diego detected shame in her eyes and realized that was exactly how she had begun her dependence on alcohol to cope with being raped.
"So what happens now?" she asked, glaring at him angrily. "Are you going to drug me again?"
"No," he replied. "You needed to rest. And you were too stubborn to admit it. Just like my father."
Victoria felt all the defiance leave her body in an instant. She had been so wrapped up in her own problems, she had forgotten the elder de la Vega had almost been hanged. "How is Don Alejandro?" she queried.
"Oh, he is just fine," Diego said airily as he set his bloody handkerchief on his desk. "All he can remember is sitting in the library two days ago reading Don Quixote and bumping his head. He has no idea he was almost hanged."
She picked up on the sarcastic edge to his words. And the dark shadows under his eyes, the rumpled clothing he was wearing, and his unusually mussed hair. Diego looked like he hadn't been to bed in days.
"What time is it?" she asked, realizing she had no idea if it were day or night .
Diego pulled out his pocketwatch and consulted it. "A little after two in the morning."
"When was the last time you slept?"
He shrugged in reply, "That's not important." Moving out from behind his desk, he came forward. "What about you? Do you need anything? Food. . ."
"I am a little hungry," Victoria admitted as she nervously brushed off her skirts. She must look a fright, she mused, feeling as rumpled and mussed as Diego looked. Plus she felt a sudden urge to be clean. "And would it be possible to have a bath?"
"Si, señorita," Diego said with a little bow. He immediately set to work. Victoria watched as he dashed across the cave and pulled a tin washtub from out of the shadows. He then disappeared again and she heard clanging and splashing.
Soon, he had several buckets of water hanging from a pole that was bracketed across the cave's fireplace. "This is how we heat water to do the laundry," Diego explained. "Much more efficient than heating only one bucket at a time."
"Laundry?" Victoria was puzzled. Then it dawned on her what he meant. Zorro's laundry. He could hardly hand it over for Maria, the de la Vega's housekeeper, to wash, she thought with a giggle.
When he had poured the last bucket in the tub, Diego set it aside, then handed her some towels and a bar of soap. She sniffed it when he turned his back and instantly recognized its simple scent. It smelled like Diego. And Zorro. Why hadn't she ever noticed that before? Perhaps because it was a plain and commonplace soap, used by hundreds of people? She stared at him as he fussed with the bath water, realizing again how clever he truly was.
"I'm going get us something to eat now," he announced, breaking into her thoughts. "Do you have everything you need?"
"Yes, Diego," she said, blushing a little that he was leaving the cave so she could undress. It wasn't like he hadn't seen her naked before, but it was still very chivalrous of him. "Gracias."
"Yes, well, take your time," he replied, and she noticed his cheeks were a little pink as well. It was a rather awkward situation to be sure. "I'll go now." He indicated the archway to his left.
"Gracias," she repeated. He nodded, then took the small set of stairs in one bound and disappeared down a small hallway. Victoria wondered where the passage ended. She'd have to ask Diego when he came back.
She set about the business of removing her
clothing, shaking her skirt and blouse out as best she could. Dipping
a toe into the tub, she smiled as the water was at the perfect temperature.
Soon she was submerged up to her neck and finally began to relax.
Z Z Z
Half an hour later, Victoria was rinsing the soap from her hair. The water was growing tepid and she worried that Diego might be back at any moment with the promised food. Giving her hair a final squeeze, she placed her hands on the side of the tub and pushed herself upward. Victoria reached for one of the towels, placing it on the stone ground before stepping out onto it.
Just as she was grasping for another of the cloths, something clattered to the floor a few feet away. Glancing that direction, she saw Diego standing there, clutching a full tray with both hands. A fork rested an inch or two from his foot.
"Oh," she squeaked.
Diego was afraid that the platter he was holding was going to break in half. Dios mio, he had dawdled as long as he could, hoping she would be done with her bathing and fully dressed by the time he reentered the cave. Not standing there like a statute of a Roman goddess, beautiful and glorious and oh so very, very tempting.
Her hand, arrested in its quest for a towel, fell to her side. Her expression was unreadable, she seemed to be warring with herself just as he was. Or at least he hoped she was. He could just be projecting his unruly lust, wanting her to feel the same way.
A rattling sound drug him from his stupor and he saw that the tray he held was shaking violently. He thrust it onto the nearest table, knocking a couple of physics books to the ground. "I. . .I'll. . .just. . .uh. . ."
He stopped stuttering as she took a step toward him, a move Diego copied in her direction. Victoria then took another pace forward, which he matched. It continued until they stood less than a foot away from each other. Biting her lip, something that had always driven him crazy, Victoria gazed up at him uncertainly. But behind that hesitation, Diego saw the same spark of desire that was coursing through him.
His fingers flew to the buttons of his shirt, clumsily releasing only half of them before impatiently dragging the crumpled white linen over his head then flinging it aside. Before he had the chance to move his trembling hands to the falls of his trousers, Victoria pushed them aside and she undid them herself, fumbling nearly as badly as he would have done.
A few moments later, they both stood there, not wearing a stitch of clothing, and staring at each other self-consciously. Victoria twisted her lip between her teeth again, and that was more than Diego could take. He drew her into his arms and lowered his mouth to hers. Victoria returned his kiss eagerly, placing her hands on his chest before entwining them around his neck.
Before either of them could regain their senses, Diego swept Victoria off her feet and carried her over to the small cot, praying that it was sturdy enough to bear them both.
Z Z Z