INVITATION
 
16
 
 
 
 
 

     So Costilla's secretive enterprise had something to do with large amounts of land around the port!  Zorro still could not reason the purpose, but the fact that the Monterey businessman was Pablo's benefactor made the masked man suspicious rather than grateful.  After paying the desperate man a pittance for his home facing the harbor, Armando Costilla also threw into the deal a few more pesos to get the fisherman on a coach for San Diego with enough money to purchase a new boat.  It had not been enough merely to obtain the land; he had wanted Silva gone from the area.  The hero frowned.  He did not like that Ana Alvarado and others had been taken advantage of by the shrewd and ethically questionable methods of the businessman, and decided to pay Costilla a visit.  That rendezvous would have to wait until tomorrow, he decided.  The hour was far advanced, and he needed to return to his wife.
     The week-long trip to San Diego had done much to promote the caballero's suit with Victoria.  Surrounded by strangers, she had identified more closely with the de la Vega family than ever before.  She had allowed him to spend a considerable sum of money on her--an unexpected and hopeful compromise by the independent beauty.  They had conversed about serious issues and had been close to completely frank with each other.  Best of all, when he had returned late from the garrison she had been worried and allowed him to sleep with his arms around her.
     Diego's mouth twisted in an ironic smile.  And to think his striking alter-ego was a man of action!  True enough when dealing with men, but Victoria's regard had always been something to coddle and nurture.  Hadn't she initiated their first kiss?  As much as he had longed to touch her lips, he had been afraid of stepping over the boundary that separates an honorable man from a cad.  No, not even Zorro would force this delicate relationship.
     But the morning was a profitable one for the news editor.  Ramón helped him by bringing over a thoughtfully written column for the paper, and with only one minor change which the tavern manager accepted the article was print-ready.  Diego finished a biography of Padre Benitez and wrote up several advertisements which local merchants had requested.  Sergeant Mendoza submitted a recipe for strawberry flan which completed the food column.  The weekly newspaper was shaping up, and the caballero decided to take the afternoon off.
     Victoria's class was concluding when her husband arrived at the hacienda.  Diego watched her a moment, longing to pull her into his arms even in front of the children.  He would have made the audacious move if he could only be sure she would return his kiss.  Maybe he needed to monopolize more of her time as he had during their short journey to San Diego.  If she still had thoughts of Zorro, he would crowd them out with his own personality!  With an inspiration, he ducked out to the kitchen to enlist the housekeeper's help.
     When he returned to the main rooms, Victoria's students had gone back to their homes for lunch.  His wife was sitting on the library sofa with a book in her lap.  The window was open, and she had lifted her face to the breeze.  A contemplative expression rested on her lovely features.  He wished he knew what she was thinking; no, perhaps he would rather not know.
     He sat down quietly beside her.  "Spring is almost over, and we haven't been on a picnic.  Maria has packed us a delicious lunch, and I know a beautiful meadow where we can go."
     She closed her book.  "Is your meadow shady?  It's very warm today."
     "Shady and complete with a babbling brook.  Shall I have Juan saddle the horses for us?"
     She agreed, and soon they were galloping across the plain to the San Gabriel mountains.  Victoria rode Cielo sidesaddle in deference to the expectations set by Doña Elena.  She had tried in the early days of her marriage to ride to town astride in her skirts, but Juan had always given her a disapproving frown.  It was another circumstance where she had chosen to give way rather than resist the restrictive policy.  Certain behavior was expected of a great man's wife, and she had married the heir to such an estate.
     Her husband led the way through some foothills to a secluded spot he had seen several times as Zorro, but had never been at leisure to stop.  The air at the higher altitude was cooler than the semi-arid basin in which Los Angeles sat.  Piñons and junipers dotted the hills, but the meadow, nourished by a mountain stream, had cottonwoods growing along its banks.  Grasses and wildflowers grew nearly knee high.
     "How about there?"  Diego pointed under the shady boughs of a gnarled cottonwood by the brook's edge.  "Grass and water for the horses, and a cool spot for us."
     "Fine," she consented, dismounting.  "I'm going to take off my boots and put my feet in the stream!"  She loosened the strings of her hat and threw it on the blanket her husband was spreading in the shade.  After stripping off her gloves she pulled off her riding boots.
     "Let your hair down, too," he advised.  "No one is here to see that you look like a proper señora, and your curls are pretty."
     She smiled and worked out the hair pins.  "Bring the food over here," she said, sitting down on a boulder by the stream's edge and dangling her feet in the water.  "Oh!  It's almost too cold!"
     Diego joined her, and she laughed when she saw that he had also removed his boots and rolled up his pant legs.  "Don't we look like two children playing hooky?" he smiled.  "Let's see what's in this satchel.  Cheese?  Raisins?  How about a tamale?"
     They hungrily devoured every crumb that Maria had prepared, Diego commenting that he wished his wife would prepare some meals at the hacienda occasionally.  "Maybe we could give Maria a night off."
     "I'm surprised you don't already, but I guess cooking for the house is a full-time job.  Besides, I like Maria's cooking," she twinkled.
     "Even though you know your own is better!" he retorted.  "I suppose that you're enjoying your holiday too much to ever want to cook again!"
     Victoria giggled.  "I am enjoying this time more than I ever thought I would.  It's fun teaching the children to read; I feel like I'm doing something really important."
     "You are.  Would you like to teach our own children?  Between the two of us, we'd hardly need to hire a tutor."
     "With you alone, we wouldn't need a tutor!  What is there that you couldn't teach?"
     "Cooking," he responded promptly, "and sewing.  Managing a business.  Father doesn't let me get my hands on the books very often."
     "Does that bother you?  That sometimes he treats you, well, like you're not very good at practical things?"
     "Yes," he sighed honestly.  "One day I may surprise him, though."
     "He needs to teach you in case--"  She floundered.
     "I know, but he'll probably teach you before he teaches me.  He respects your business sense."
     They waded upstream for a few yards, then returned to the blanket Diego had spread under the cottonwood.  He suggested they take a siesta before returning to the house, and she readily agreed; the spring air was warm.  He fell asleep beside her, content to have her nearby.
     He awoke first and turned his head to study his wife.  Victoria lay beside him, peacefully reposed, her long black lashes lying against her cheeks.  Her flawless skin looked to his admiring eyes like creamy alabaster, and her mouth, he decided, had been made to be kissed.  Maybe he would kiss her; he had not really done so for months--since the last time she had kissed Zorro.  He could just lean over and touch her lips, just once, and then he would be a perfect gentleman again.
     With the inexplicable sense which alerts sleepers that they are being watched, her eyes fluttered open.  She smiled drowsily at him, and his heart somersaulted.
     "It's so pleasant here.  Must we return now?"
     He dropped his gaze so that she could not read the longing in his eyes.  "No, not yet, though it gets too cool to stay here after dark."
     She sat up and tucked her skirt around her bare legs.  "We won't stay that long.  I was wondering if we could talk."
     Talk!  He had never felt less like talking and more like action in his life.  But he forced a smile to his mouth.  "Certainly!  Was there anything in particular you wanted to discuss?"
     Her head dropped, and she became intent on twisting her wedding ring around her finger.
     "Is it too big?"
     "What?  Oh, no--the ring is fine."  She sternly ceased her fidgeting.  "Did it belong to your mother?"
     "No, I bought it in France last year.  I hope it pleases you."
     "It's beautiful."
     Conversation died.  Diego waited patiently.  "Victoria?"
     "I've been wanting to tell you something," she prefaced.  "It's about, um, intimate relations between us."  Diego made no comment, and she hurried on to cover her nervousness.  "You know how you've left that for me to decide when.  Well, I've been thinking that I don't want that responsibility.  I want to give that back to you."  Victoria's eyes, which could not meet his while she spoke, glanced up to his solemn expression.  She could not gauge his reaction.  "Say something.  Are you happy?  Mad?  Sad?  Or don't you care one way or the other?"
     Her husband exhaled a long breath.  "I'm confused, I guess.  And surprised.  What prompted this decision?"
     "The other ladies at the San Martíns' dinner party.  Besides husbands and children, it's all they seem to talk about.  I've gleaned enough to know that delaying intimacies as long as we have is not normal or natural.  Anyway, I know in my heart that I've been wrong to put it off indefinitely.  I should have given myself to you right after the wedding."
     He shook his head.  "I don't agree.  And I thought we'd decided to leave 'should haves' and 'ought tos' out of our vocabulary."
     "Oh, Diego!  That's impossible!  There are obligations in a marriage.  Husbands and wives do owe certain things to each other whether they feel loving or not."
     "Such as?"
     "The husband should contribute to the financial support of his wife.  He also should protect her and be faithful to her.  A wife is to obey her husband and meet his needs--take care of him, his house, and his children.  And I think both owe each other loyalty, and should help each other in good times and bad."
     "Those are noble aspirations, but what might be a pleasure when two people marry for love could easily become an onerous burden under other circumstances."
     His words, gently phrased, served as a brutal reminder that theirs had been a business-like agreement--one friend helping out another.  She was in Diego's debt--not a comfortable situation, but rather than raising her spirit she felt humbled.
     "Has marriage been an onerous burden for you?" she asked in a small voice.
     "No!" he refuted quickly.  "Of course not.  I meant that fulfilling marital duties from a sense of obligation might become an unbearable strain on you.  That's why I'd rather let affection ripen gradually between us."
     "I do like you, Diego, even though we haven't always agreed on things.  You have many good qualities.  You've been patient and understanding about--everything."  She felt a blush staining her cheeks as she framed a query.  "Do you like me, too?"
     Her eyes, wide with a touching pathos, pulled at his heartstrings.  The Victoria with whom he had fallen in love long ago would never have begged for a scrap of notice from Diego!  The knowledge that he had been largely responsible for her misery had become a guilty secret.  Three words--"I am Zorro"--could bridge the gulf between them, yet he could not bring himself to speak.  The confession could just as easily widen the abyss.  He must reassure her convincingly.  Reaching for her hand, he covered it with his own.
     "Very, very much."  He smiled into her troubled eyes.
     "Then why--I mean, haven't you wanted to, um, consummate the marriage?  Or don't you find me attractive in that way?"
     Astonishment brought an uncertain chuckle to his throat.  "And I've tried so hard to be a gentleman!  Victoria, I won't force myself on an unwilling bride no matter how beautiful I think she is.  I have been hoping," he admitted, "that there might come a time when you'd invite me."
     Her head dropped, and she became intent on examining the folds of her skirt.  "I guess that's what I'm trying to do.  By holding you off, I'm not in one life or the other.  I'm no place at all--like a boat drifting on the sea.  I can't go back to where I was before the king's decree, but I haven't done what I've needed to commit myself to being your wife."
     "There you go again," he teased lightly.  "Talking about duty.  Relations between a husband and a wife are supposed to be pleasurable."
     "For the man?
     "For both."
     "That's not the way the other ladies talk."
     He sighed.  "I won't deny that I also have heard reports of marital strife in the bedroom.  But not all couples are like that.  Some enjoy warm, exciting relationships."
     "Marrying the way we did, do you think we could?"
     The question quickened his pulse.  Did she seek a normalization of their marriage?  Was she reconciling to a future at his side?  He stretched his fingers to her cool neck and stroked the creamy skin down to her throat.
     "Why don't we find out?"
     Genuine alarm replaced the shy expression.  "H-Here?  Outside?  During the day?"
     "A truly lovely setting for a lovely act."
     She did not know how a large man could move so swiftly and gracefully, but in an instant he was kneeling beside her on the blanket, his caressing fingers lifting her chin.  "S-Someone might see us," she whispered desperately.
      "There is no one around for miles; we're more alone here than at the hacienda.  We have all the privacy we need."
 His mouth covered her soft, ripe lips, forcing them open wider. Her sweet breath mingled with his own, and the rigid self-control with which he had steeled himself since that morning he had first slipped between the sheets next to her warm, curved body was dissolving rapidly.  As quickly as the barriers lowered in Diego, so the stiffness was melting away from Victoria's kiss.  His tongue gently requested entrance into her mouth, touching her tongue in a sensuous prelude to the mating dance.
     Her experience was not very wide, but he had heard that women could recognize a man by his kiss.  Of course Zorro had never dared kiss her like this!  If she did realized the circumstances under which she had kissed Diego before, he would confess everything.  He knew at that moment with her yielded to his embrace that there was nothing he could deny her.
     As his palm caressed her bare shoulder, his lips reluctantly left her mouth to brush along her jaw to her ear.  Strange shivers prickled her arm and leg as his warm breath touched her skin, and she trembled at his touch.
     "I'm a little scared," Victoria confessed.
     He briefly searched her pleading eyes; they held no recognition of Zorro's kiss.  "I know.  Trust me; I can get us through this."  His lips sought hers again, coaxing her participation before yielding to the exhilarating desire consuming him.  The arm around her back tightened with surprising strength, and his cajoling kiss turned hard and insistent.  Diego's head reeled under the intoxicating fragrance of her hair, the taste of her skin!  And a miracle!--the faster his heart raced the more Victoria seemed to be caught up in the tide of his passion.  He could see the pulse throbbing in her throat as he eased her back onto the blanket.  Stripping off his jacket, he rolled it into a pillow for her head and lay down beside her.  He slipped an arm under her shoulders and turned her toward his searching mouth.
     She had not expected any response from her body; this was Diego, after all!  But somehow it was difficult to reconcile her image of the soft-spoken, indolent artist with the passionate man who was kissing her so masterfully.  This was how she had always dreamed she would respond to Zorro--this aching, arching need--had they ever enjoyed the freedom to express their love.  Maybe if she closed her eyes and imagined that she was with Zorro--  No, that would be wrong, and she did not want to confess such a sin to Padre Benitez.  But she had imagined unbuttoning Zorro's black shirt and touching the strong muscles of his chest--a daringly wicked thought!
     With shaking hands, Victoria reached for the top button on Diego's snowy shirt front.  It slipped through the hole at the prodding of her fingers, and she reached for the next button.  Diego sucked in his breath and watched with darkened eyes her progress.
     "My precious girl, yes!" he groaned.
     The last button above his sash separated from its hole, and Victoria slipped her hand inside.  His skin was warm and firm, and her fingers explored the contours of his chest.  Muscular, lean, hard--not what she had expected to discover, and the dichotomy vaguely puzzled her while her conscious mind reveled in the masculinity of her husband.  That he enjoyed her rubbing was evident; Diego closed his eyes, a slight smile curving his well-cut mouth.
     After a pleasurable minute he reached for her, and her lips opened to him.  In the long months since he had last kissed her as Zorro, he had forgotten how soft her mouth was, how good she felt in his arms!  A surge of adrenaline throbbed through his veins.  Had he waited longer than necessary?  Would she have been willing before this moment?  At the San Martíns'?  After reading in the evenings?  He rubbed his cheek against the velvet skin of her face and whispered in her ear, "You're trembling like a leaf in the wind."
     "S-Sorry," she stammered.  "It's just that--you know--"
     "It's only I," he tried to reassure.  "You've known me for years."
     "Have I?"  Victoria sounded troubled.  "You seem so different than you used to be."
     "Better or worse?"
     "Well, not worse.  Just different."
     Different!  But different was good; different was progress.  Further insights he might have gained were cut abruptly short when his wife threaded her fingers through his hair and traced his ear with a soft fingertip.  He abandoned the effort of analysis and sought her mouth once more.

     With regret Diego watched the sun sink lower.  It was time to go, yet he wished he could stay in the meadow with Victoria nestled in his arms.  To his surprise most of their clothes were still intact, though disheveled.  His shirt tails fluttered in the breeze while his wife rested her face against his exposed chest.  He held one of her thighs across his hip; his other hand caressed her back through her blouse.  Of the hundreds of scenarios he had imagined for their first experience together, the reality had been so much more vivid and thrilling.
     He dropped a kiss on her hair and murmured,  "Tell me your opinion now, Señora de la Vega:  do you think--marrying the way we did--that we could have a warm, exciting relationship?"
     His teasing tone prompted a smile from her and also a blush as she recalled the abandoned way she had responded to Diego's lovemaking.  "I guess so.  I don't understand, though.  I thought people had to love each other to enjoy intimacies."
     He kissed her parted lips softly.  "And we do."
     Puzzled, her brows drew together.  He wasn't in love with her any more than she was with him, and she was almost certain that being in love and being lovers were two different things.  Had he misinterpreted her efforts to adjust to her new life as indicative of a growing affection?  Or was he merely expressing an optimistic hope?  Perhaps he wanted to change her mind.  I wish he could, she thought fervently.  I wish I could love good, kind Diego the way I loved--  The treacherous sentiment made her skin crawl.  After so many years of loving one man, her foolish heart was bent ever in that direction!  Fruitless, useless, base longings!
     "Sometimes I just don't understand you, Diego," she grumbled wearily.

     He was jubilant; Victoria had made love to him.  Him, not Zorro, for she had kept her eyes open and cried out his own name.  She was beginning to love him whether or not she acknowledged it, and the thought made his hopes soar.  He had believed that she would be difficult to arouse because of her lack of feelings for him, but such was not the case.  Her passions had sprung to life with an intensity that overwhelmed and delighted him.  Diego glanced at the woman riding sidesaddle next to him.
     "You are a miracle," he told her.  "Marrying you is the best thing I ever did."
     She grimaced and made no answer.
     "What's the matter?"
     "Riding is a little uncomfortable," she answered with reserve.
     Diego reached across the space that separated them and pulled up on her reins.  Both horses stopped.
     "I wish I could take the pain away.  Will it help to go slower?"
     Victoria shook her heard.  "Let's just get home."
     At her request, they rode another mile.  She had done it--given away her virginity to her husband, and Victoria felt a great sense of sorrow.  She had compromised.  All the years she had kept herself pure for the man she loved, and now she had given herself to the man she married.  Diego was elated, she could tell, despite his efforts to hide the fact.  Is that what relations were between a husband and wife?  He takes what she gives?  Where was the balance in that?
     She broke the silence unexpectedly.  "This changes things between us, doesn't it?"
     He did not pretend to misunderstand.  "Yes.  We have moved closer to a complete marriage.  God grant that we continue to move forward."
     Dinner at the hacienda was a subdued affair; Victoria contributed nothing at all unless she was directly addressed.  Worried, Diego watched her surreptitiously.  She declined his invitation to read together after dinner and retired early.
     "Victoria was quiet tonight," observed Alejandro.  "Is something bothering her?"
     "One thing I've learned, Father:  Victoria doesn't tell me what she doesn't want to."
     "Sometimes women appreciate it if you make the effort," the rancher advised, trying to be helpful.
     "It's probably nothing more than an overdose of my company," his son responded lightly.  "I think she just wants some time alone.  Since that's the case, I'll spend some time with Felipe."
     He found the teen in the back of the house, and since Don Alejandro was still occupying the main rooms, they entered the cave through the concealed door in the hillside.
     "Saddle Toronado," he ordered the boy, reaching for his black shirt but not before seeing Felipe's smirk.  "What?" he demanded.
     The teen indicated Victoria.
     "I don't have to spend every minute with her," the caballero growled testily.  "Married people need time apart, too.  Besides, this would be a good time to pay Armando Costilla a visit."
     Having donned his dark disguise and mounted the stallion, he exited the cave.  The circuitous route he took to the pueblo was intended to hide his origin, but the long ride in the sliver of moonlight only gave rise to disturbing thoughts.  Victoria did not like making love--at least, not with him!  He should have taken it slower, should have been gentler.  He should have waited until nightfall so she would not have been embarrassed about revealing her body.  He had shocked her; hadn't she told him she was an innocent?  Maybe his body disgusted her--lean and muscular, yes, but with a few noteworthy scars.  The chance he had longed for to draw them closer together seemed only to have driven them further apart.  Now what could be done?
     The masked man's well-disciplined mind pushed aside the gnawing reflections.  Perhaps he was failing as a husband, but he could still do Zorro's work effectively.  The Costillas were again the guests of Don Bernardo and his wife.  Circling around the hacienda, the outlaw was drawn to windows from which streamed a wealth of candlelight.  He dismounted and peered inside.  The middle-aged caballero, laughing and holding a glass of wine, was seated in an armchair.  Armando Costilla was saying something in a genial voice that the don found witty.  Leaning against the bookcase and looking disgruntled was the rude young man Diego had met at the tavern.
     The hero sprang lightly through the open window.  "May I know the joke, gentlemen?"
     Don Bernardo sat bolt upright.  "Zorro!" he choked.  Carlos started violently forward.  Armando Costilla's smile fixed in place though his eyebrows raised slightly.
     "Ah, Los Angeles' famous masked bandit!  Welcome, Señor!  May we offer you some wine?"
     The man in black stepped toward the businessman grimly.  "You may offer me an explanation.  You are acquiring land around the harbor for a fraction of its value.  I want to know why."
     "It is my business to find bargains and buy them."
     "At the expense of the poor people who lived there?"
     "No one forced them to sell."  Costilla spoke gently, pityingly, as if to an inferior intellect.
     "I understand economics perfectly well, Señor," gritted the Fox.  "I also understand that taking advantage of the misery of others is the act of a scoundrel!"
     La Cruz gasped at the accusation; the outlaw was advancing toward his guest in a menacing way.  To his credit, Costilla seemed entirely at ease, even amused, at Zorro's approach.
     "The poor and defenseless of this pueblo are under my protection.  If I find that you have made another land deal in Los Angeles or San Pedro, I will run you out of town on the end of my sword!"
     The businessman raised his glass in an ironic challenge.  "You are welcome to try.  Remember, I have the law on my side, and you--"  His smile widened.  "--you, sir, are vastly outnumbered."
     "I have been a victorious army of one for many years.  I do what I promise."  Zorro's sword hissed from the scabbard and sliced his signature letter in the superfine of Costilla's coat.  "My calling card.  Gentlemen," he saluted the occupants of the room and started to leave by the window.
     "Nobody threatens my father!" exclaimed Carlos and snatched up a dress sword from the stand by the fireplace.  "Especially not a bandit!"
     The caped figure spun around and easily diverted the attacking blade with a parry in prime.  "The only thing I will steal is a little of your pride," retorted the outlaw.
     Young Costilla recovered and retreated, circling for his next attack.  The masked man's blade was in perfect en garde; no target area was available by default.  Don Bernardo scrambled from his overturned chair with a yelp when the two combatants surrounded him on either side.  The blades clashed again three times in quick succession as Zorro deftly parried the anger-driven  attacks.
     "You cannot win, bandit!  I have been trained by Pedro Diamante of Mexico City!"
     "Really?  When are you going to start fencing like Diamante?" baited the man in black as he ducked beneath a wide swing.  "If you were close to the maestro's skill, we could have an interesting fight!"
     "Does this wake you up?" snarled Carlos, hurling a marble paperweight at his opponent.  He followed with a feint to quarte and disengage to octave.
     The paperweight was caught by a gloved left hand while the Toledo steel quickly picked up the second intention.  Zorro's guard bound the opposing blade in seconde and closed the distance.  "Too predictable," he commented, bringing the piece of marble sharply across the younger man's jaw.
     Young Costilla staggered back and nearly dropped his sword.  He touched his reddening jaw; the stone would leave a painful bruise, but the skin had not broken.  His fury compounded; he launched a series of blistering attacks.  Each was met calmly, and though he was forced to give ground, the dark apparition seemed to be holding back a laugh.  Above all else, Carlos despised being the object of anyone's humor.  He pictured himself as a dangerous man to cross, and used his quick temper to intimidate his business contacts.  Here was a devil in black who dared to laugh at him!
     He would normally have hurled epithets at his opponent, but at the speed with which his attacks were being deflected and renewed, the businessman's son found his lungs burning.  His arm ached; a last desperate slash to the black-clad forearm missed.  The masked man blocked the blade outside in tierce; a huge boot snapped forward into Costilla's mid-section.  Propelled backwards, the younger man tripped over the chair which Don Bernardo had abandoned.  The Fox's sabre point at his chest prohibited him from rising.
     "That is where you belong, my young popinjay."  The hooded eyes glittered behind the mask.  "As I watch your father, I'll be watching you, too."  The gloved fingers twitched, and defeated man glared at the letter sliced through his coat.  The elegant outlaw saluted and sheathed his sword.  He turned abruptly to la Cruz, who cowered against the wall.
     "As for you, Señor, be more careful in your selection of house guests."
     Don Bernardo merely blinked, speechless.  Armando Costilla gave the dark hero a salute.  The half-smile that curled the mouth of the businessman plagued Zorro's uneasy ride home.
 

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