Victoria took another sip of wine before setting down the glass on her worktable. With a heavy sigh, she began chopping up a rather pitiful tomato which represented the quality of produce she had been reduced to purchasing in recent weeks.
Not that anyone cared, especially not Sergeant Mendoza who would never let a little detail like a woman's apparent immoral behavior stop him from eating at her establishment. She smiled wistfully, grateful that the portly soldier had remained one of her few steadfast customers. In fact he would probably show up expecting his evening meal of tamales along with a tankard or two of ale about the same time as the Monterey coach was due to arrive.
So she was somewhat surprised when she heard the front door open, then footsteps march across the planked floor. A voice called out her name, startling her so much that she nearly sliced her finger.
What was he doing here? Shouldn't he be keeping his father from ending up on the gallows? Victoria swiftly nabbed the wine bottle and glass, stashing them in their usual hiding place behind the large clay pot.
"Victoria." Whirling around as the kitchen curtains were shoved aside, she watched Diego stride into the room. He looked angry; very angry. Well, so was she.
"Can I help you, Don Diego?" she asked, a tinge of sarcasm creeping into her tone. "I'm very busy at the moment."
She suppressed a smirk as she saw that her words had only infuriated him even more. "We both know that's not true, don't we?" he retorted. He threw a glance over his shoulder toward the deserted room on the other side of the partition. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Tell you what?" So the gossip had finally reached his big stupid ears. Good.
"That I was seen leaving here that night. That your reputation has been maligned and your. . .."
"Oh, that." Victoria cut in, shrugging as carelessly as she could.
"Yes, that." Diego took a step toward
her and she saw his fury soften to pity. "Why didn't you tell me?"
She didn't want his pity. She wanted an explanation why he had deceived her for so long. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Tell you what?" The look of confusion on Diego's face made her want to scream. This conversation was going around in circles and getting them nowhere. She decided to get straight to the point.
"Your little secret," she said contemptuously. "You know, the one where you wear a mask and a cape, and ride a big black horse named Toronado and. . ."
Diego's nervous laughter interrupted the rest of her description of Zorro's qualities. "I have no idea what you are talking about," he declared flatly, crossing his arms over his broad chest. His very muscular chest that she vividly remembered caressing and. . .
"Oh, please," she said, rolling her eyes as she pushed away the vivid thoughts of their night together. It was one of the reasons they were in this predicament in the first place.
"Don Alejandro rides into town, wearing Zorro's clothes, waving Zorro's sword, riding Zorro's horse, and you expect me to believe you have no idea where he got them? You weren't surprised at all when the alcalde unmasked your father earlier. I'm not an idiot, Diego. You. Are. Zorro." She punctuated her last three words by jabbing toward him with her knife.
Ha, deny that, she challenged him silently as she resumed cutting up the tomato, a little more viciously than before.
"I am not Zorro." Diego stated the falsehood boldly before adding sardonically, "You've said so yourself on numerous occasions. Quite vehemently, I might add."
"That was before I knew the truth," she countered. She gestured at him with her hands. "Everything about you, your height, your mustache. . .your eyes. They are exactly the same as Zorro's. I cannot believe I never saw it before this. So you can just stop lying to me, Diego. Why won't you just admit it?"
He could see by the livid gleam in Victoria's eyes that she was not going to be easily dissuaded. She knew and she wasn't go to be satisfied unless he revealed Zorro's true identity to her. Tell her the truth, a little voice in his head whispered. She already knows. By not telling her, it argued, you are only making things worse.
With a shake of his head, Diego silenced his conscience. It was for her own safety, her own protection, that she never know that he was the man under the mask. Cobarde! his inner voice screamed at him. Diego sighed, knowing it was true. He was being a coward by not confirming what she had already guessed.
But first, he wanted her to answer a question, the one that had plagued him for the past month. "All right," he bargained, "if you tell me why you lured me to your bed?"
He had the perverse pleasure of seeing her face turn beet red. "That is. . .that is none of your business!"
"I would say it was definitely my business," Diego declared wryly. "After all, I was the one you let. . ."
"It was a mistake, all right?" Victoria cut in heatedly. "The biggest mistake of my life." She whirled around, unable to face him, not willing to let him see that she was the one who was lying now.
He took two paces toward her then halted abruptly. Then, oddly, he leaned in and inhaled deeply. "You've been drinking," Diego stated accusingly.
"Don't be silly," retorted Victoria defensively, spinning back around to face him. "I do not dri. . ."
Her denial trailed off as he moved past her and extracted the virtually empty bottle of wine and the half-filled glass that she thought she had carefully concealed behind the clay pot.
"Don't tell me these belong to Alicia or Pilar," he said as he taunted her with the betraying objects.
Victoria grew even more furious with him. How was it his business what she did to cope? She grabbed the glass from his hand, and drained its contents in one gulp. "So what if it is mine?" she asked defiantly, slamming the now empty cup down on the table. "Why do you care?"
"Dios, Victoria." She flinched at the disappointment she heard in his voice as he set down the bottle. He looked askance at the knife in her hand. "You are lucky you haven't cut off one of your fingers. And it cannot be good for the baby."
"I haven't had that much. . ." she began to protest falsely. Then it dawned on her what he had said and she gasped. She carefully placed the knife down onto the tabletop. "You think. . . You think I'm going to. . . That I'm pregnant?"
"No, of course not," Victoria replied tersely as she saw the mixture of doubt and relief on his face. She took a deep breath then glared at him. "Zorro is the only person alive who knows what happened that night," she said, trying to keep her emotions under control. "He would be the only one who would guess I might have fallen pregnant by that cerdo who attacked me. And you expect me to believe that your concern is just a coincidence?"
She held up her hand as he started to open his mouth, presumably to bring up the night they had spent together. "You would not be so sure of a baby otherwise. Well, I'm not having anyone's child, not. . .not his, and certainly not yours."
Diego was stunned beyond words. Not only had she had uncovered his secret identity, she had also lifted off his shoulders the huge burden he had not wanted to admit he had been carrying, that he would have to pretend her rapist's child was his. And she had developed a drinking problem, no doubt to deal with everything that had happened to her in the past two months.
"Then why?" he pleaded. "I have to know, Victoria. If it wasn't because you were with child, then why?" He stepped toward her, resting his hands lightly on her shoulders. "It was the most glorious night of my life," he declared sincerely. "I thought. . . Well, I hoped you felt the same way.
"I love you." He then raised her right hand to his mouth, leaving lingering kisses on each of her fingers.
Each touch of his lips sent bolts of desire through her body where they swirled low in her belly. She closed her eyes, letting the sensations fill her. Sensations that before only Zorro had ever stirred in her. Zorro and Diego, who were one in the same. . .
She wrenched her hand away and slapped his face. "You cannot love me," she hissed bitterly. "I. . .I lured you to my room, because I did think I was pregnant. I was going to trick you into marrying me, Diego. I was going to lie and tell you the baby was yours. I hoped you were naive enough to not figure out I was not a virgin and that you would think you were my first lover and. . ."
Diego interrupted her venomous words by pulling her up against him then kissing her soundly. "I am your first lover," he protested fervently after releasing her. "I am the one who truly took your innocence. What Baquero did to you. . .it doesn't count."
With a cry, she spun away from him again, pressing her hands to her face. The anguish he had glimpsed in her eyes and the knowledge she was reliving her brutal nightmare, were like bullets to Diego's heart.
"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm so sorry." When she didn't reply, he placed his hands once again on her shoulders. Victoria flinched slightly but he kept his hold on her. "It has been eating me up inside, knowing that you were suffering alone, knowing I could have done more to prevent it."
He decided that she need never learn of his bungled efforts that night. It would only add to her torment, making it a thousand times worse if she were aware that the whole situation could have been avoided if he had not been bored enough to challenge the Alcalde's lancers and so arrogant that he thought he could easily elude them.
"I should have done more to protect you. But don't you see?" he pleaded, hoping to make her understand why he had hid behind his mask for so long. "That is why I could never tell you the truth. Knowing would put you into even more danger."
Victoria glared at him angrily. "How dangerous could it be if we were married," she said resentfully. "I would have been much safer as your wife. I certainly would never have been ra. . ."
Once again Diego cut off what she was saying by kissing her. This time he lingered a bit longer, running his tongue along the tight seam of her lips until they parted slightly. Then, and with much difficulty, he took a step back, letting her go from his embrace.
"I am an outlaw," he declared after regaining his composure, "with a price on my head. You would never be safe." Diego shook his head before going on. "Remember that day when those bandits tracked us to Zorro's cave?" Victoria nodded, a puzzled expression on her face. "The reason I changed my mind about revealing myself to you then was because they thought you already knew Zorro's identity. They were going to kidnap you and force you to tell them so they could collect the bounty on my head.
"Torture, Victoria," he stated bluntly. "They would have tortured you, doing God knows. . ."
Her mouth on his drove out any coherent thoughts he might have had. She wound her arms around his neck and pressed her soft body against his hardening one. With a groan, he slid his hands down her back, cupping her bottom and drawing her closer as their kiss deepened.
Victoria wriggled out from under Diego's grasp several minutes later, putting some much needed space between them. They were both panting heavily. She recovered first, putting her hands on her hips and gazing up at him, her chocolate eyes full of uncertainty.
"When does it end, Diego?" she asked plaintively. "How does it end? Can we ever be married? Have children?"
"I honestly don't know," he admitted before choosing his next words carefully. "Sometimes it feels as though I've trapped myself in a prison of my own making and the only way out is swinging on the Alcalde's gallows. Or in front of his firing. . ."
Diego smiled as Victoria stopped his dire predictions by putting her lips on his. The kiss intensified as swiftly as a wild fire. Slowly, he glided his hands up her back, then cupped her breasts. Her moans of pleasure delighted him. . .until he recalled de Soto's vile comments and his desire was doused as if a bucket of icy water had been poured over his head. Malditas!
With a little more vigor than he intended, Diego pushed Victoria away. He winced at the mix of hurt and confusion on her lovely face. "I'm sorry," he murmured contritely. "I shouldn't. . . I mean we probably shou. . ."
Again his words were interrupted by her pulling him toward her then kissing him. He stumbled forward, encircling his arms around her when she bumped up against the worktable in the center of the room. Victoria entwined her arms around his neck, tugging him closer. The combination of his weight and forward momentum drove her downward, toward the table's cluttered surface. With a quick swipe of his hand, Diego swept away a bowl of tomatoes just seconds before Victoria's head would have landed in the middle of it. The bowl crashed to the floor, shattering to pieces and the overripe tomatoes splattering everywhere.
Gasping, they broke apart, gazing at each other in awe. Then their mouths met again. Victoria wrapped her legs around Diego's waist so that he could feel her moist heat against his groin. His lips left hers, trailing down her neck as he dragged her blouse down to expose one breast. Closing his hand over it, he gently squeezed as he rubbed his thumb over its pebbled nipple. De Soto be damned, he thought as she made little contented whimpers in her throat. She was his. No other man would ever touch her again.
Diego felt her hands on his chest then was jolted with surprise as she yanked his shirt open, buttons flying off in every direction. Grinning, he pulled at her bodice, baring her to his gaze. His mouth moved to a rosy peak, flicking it with his tongue. Victoria arched upward, grinding herself against him. As one hand glided its way up her soft thigh, the other tore at the fastenings of his trousers, fumbling with them until he finally freed his swollen erection.
The sound of a man's voice froze Diego in his tracks. He looked down at Victoria, whose eyes were wide with panic.
"Madre de Dios," she whispered in horror. "The Monterey stage."
"Hola? Is anyone here?" the voice called out again. "Señorita Escalante?"
"Si!" Victoria replied breathlessly as she struggled to sit up. "Un momento, por favor." She began readjusting her clothing to some semblance of modesty. "Diego," she hissed as he just stood there, with his shirt hanging open and holding his shaft in his hand.
"Diego," she reiterated as she slid off the table, "do something." She waved her hand in his general direction, keeping her eyes averted upward.
Diego shook himself out of his stupor and clumsily did up his trousers before tucking in his shirt, a task made more difficult due to the fact that half the buttons were missing. "This isn't over," he stated a bit testily.
Victoria shot him an embarrassed glance. "What? Our discussion or. . .this." Her expression then sobered. "Don't you need to do something about your father?" she asked fretfully.
"I have a plan," Diego said as he fussed with his shirt, attempting to decently cover his bare chest. When he was finally satisfied with the result, he announced, "And it's the discussion that is not quite finished. This. . . this was. . ." He gestured at the table, unable to explain what had nearly occurred there. He was still slightly befuddled that their argument had rapidly escalated to the point he nearly ravished her in her own kitchen.
"Does he know?"
Diego hung his head. "No," he answered. "No, he doesn't." He lifted his gaze to her. "And I'd like to keep it that way for now." He was relieved that she didn't argue the point and just nodded her head.
They stared at each other for several awkward moments. "Well, I'd better be going," Diego said at last.
Victoria nervously twitched her skirts into place. "Adios, Diego."
Knowing the front door was not an option, Diego
headed for the kitchen's side door. As he was about to close it,
he heard Victoria exclaim, "Oh, Dios mio, what am I going to feed
all these people?"
Z Z Z
"IN A SINGLE MOMENT" - CHAPTER TEN