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     Victoria heard her husband come to bed quite late.  She lay very still so he would think her asleep, but slumber had been far from her.  She had been lying awake, wondering why her husband had not come to bed, and why she had not been able to find him when she at last got up to search the dark house.  He had gone out.  She had bored him; that was it!  She was too clumsy, too naive for a man who preferred French gowns and Paris perfume!  He had never actually said that he loved her, after all.  Suddenly, it dawned on her:  Diego's advanced age for a bridegroom, his lack of interest in consummating his marriage, his late night disappearances, his skillful lovemaking!  Diego had a mistress!  She must have been blind not to have seen it before!  Who was the hussy?  Victoria rapidly scrolled down a mental list of the women in the pueblo, but none seemed the type to attract the scholarly de la Vega son.  She reviewed the women in the nearby haciendas.  Lola de Farral!  The sensuous widow!  Victoria's feminine instinct told her that the romance columnist looked with desire on Diego.
     The thought of any woman, especially that de Farral hussy, sharing with her husband what she had enjoyed that afternoon made Victoria's blood seethe.  She wanted to be the only one Diego kissed like that!  The only one he touched like that!  Victoria was a fighter at heart, and she resolved in the darkness that she would fight for her husband.  In the morning she would set Diego straight on a few things as well.

     "Diego, wake up."
     Victoria's stern voice penetrated the fragments of dreams in the caballero's mind, and the mists cleared.  He opened his eyes and saw his wife standing over him with a steaming cup of coffee.
     "Buenos dias," he yawned, accepting the cup from her hand.  "To what do I owe this nice surprise?"
     "We're going to have a little talk."  She sat down on her side of the bed and faced him squarely.
     "Mm, good.  I enjoyed our talk the other day."
     He smiled at her with blue eyes twinkling, and Victoria found it difficult to resist his cajoling humor.  Nevertheless, she pressed forward.  "We have talked some about my past before our marriage, but we have not discussed yours.  Now I want to know the truth, please."
     Has she found out about Zorro?  All right, then--I'll tell her the truth.
     "Is there another woman in your life?
     He stared blankly.  "Another woman?"
     "Yes!" she snapped.  "Do you have a mistress?"
     "No.  No!  Of course not!  What gave you such an idea?"
     "Where were you last night?  I got up to look for you, and you weren't in the house."
     "Oh."  He paused before answering.  "This is a big ranch, Victoria, and I share with my father the responsibility of the people on it.  In addition, my family is perceived as a leader in the community.  We try to help the people of the town if we can.  Sometimes that involves late night visits."
     "You were helping someone last night?" she asked skeptically.  "A man or a woman?"
     "I visited one of the neighbors.  A man.  Forgive my curiosity, but are you just a tiny bit jealous?"
     She sniffed, "That's absurd.  I simply think that husbands and wives ought to be faithful to each other even if they don't marry for love."
     "So do I.  I didn't mean for you to be in the dark over my romantic past; I would be happy to tell you anything you want to know."
     "Well, there must have been a lot of women in your life," she hedged, feeling self-conscious, "because you play me better than the piano.  That takes practice."
     Her metaphor drew a spontaneous laugh from him.  "No, my precious!  You're the first and only woman with whom I've shared myself.  The techniques I'm using--which you're kind enough to flatter!--come from a book."
     "A book?"  She looked skeptical.
     "You can learn a lot from books," he grinned.  He reached across her to open the night stand drawer beside his bed.  After withdrawing a volume, he placed it in her hands.  The title was written in a foreign language and so were the pages.
     "French?" she guessed.
     "Yes.  The title says 'A Husband's Techniques for the Bedroom.'  It's very explicit.  Would you like me to translate some for you?"
     "No!" she protested in horror.  "My face would be redder than your curtains!  I might have guessed that a Frenchman would write such an indecent book!  I can't believe that a publisher would print it!"
     "Luckily one did; I had a hard time finding this, but someone directed me to the right shop when I was in France last year."
     "Shame on you!  You weren't even married then!"
     He returned the book to the drawer.  "I expected to be, though," he replied, "and this seemed the better route for pleasing my bride rather than what you assumed."
     "All right, then if you don't have a lurid past, tell me about the women in your life."
     He propped up a pillow and leaned back; he took a thoughtful sip of coffee.  "I suppose I should start with my infatuation with Don Esteban's daughter, Lucia.  Since she was two years older than I, that unattainable woman kept me harmlessly enthralled until she married at seventeen."
     "Teenage boys tend to be attracted to older women.  Why is that?"
     He shrugged.  "We're attracted to the maturity, I suppose."
     "And a few other things?  You probably don't even remember me from those days, since I was so much younger."
     A nostalgic smile lit his face.  "I remember a skinny little girl with huge dark eyes and a feisty attitude.  Your spirit hasn't changed, neither have your eyes, but I really like the way you--blossomed."
     Her lashes fluttered downward.  "Uh, and after Lucia?"
     "There wasn't a favorite girl in my life again until I went to the university.  During my sophomore year, I became friends with Ricardo Molina.  He was from Madrid, so I visited his home.  I got to know his sister Safíra through my visits, and asked permission of her father to court her."
     "And did you love Safíra very much?"
     So Victoria remembered the revolutionary's wife and that lady's declaration of love!  "Yes, at the time I did."  He smiled wryly.  "It turned out to be a young man's first love--very sweet but temporary."
     "I can see why you loved her.  She was beautiful, and you had things in common."
     "Such as?"
     "You both knew Madrid:  places, people.  You shared a lot."
    "You and I share much more.  We're basically alike; we see life from the same perspective."
    "Are we more alike than the next woman you loved?"
     "What woman?"
     "The one you told Safíra about."
     Then he remembered; he had told Safíra that there was another woman in his life, and later Victoria had inquired more precisely into who that other woman might be.
     She persisted, "The woman who was in love with another man.  What happened to her?"
     Now was as good a time as any to tell her the truth.  Part of it, anyway.  "I married her," he said quietly.  His eyes raised unflinchingly to hers and watched comprehension transform her face.
     "Me?"
     He nodded.  Silence fell over the room.  Diego held his breath; Victoria's chest rose and fell in rapid succession, betraying her agitation.
     "Are your feelings still the same?" she asked in a low voice.
     "No.  They've grown stronger."
     "How long?"
     "How long have I loved you?"  There--he had said it plainly.  "Since the day I returned from Madrid and saw you in the tavern eight years ago."
     "Why didn't you tell me?" she demanded, visibly shaken.
     He could not claim she loved someone else; he was the other man.  "It wasn't the right time," was all he could think of.
     "What about when you proposed?  Or the day before the wedding?  Or when we got married?  Wasn't that the right time?"
     "I thought it would scare you off," he confessed.
     She swallowed her rising ire; there was some truth in his assessment.  "Maybe it would have, but every woman wants to be loved by her husband."
     "Even you?"
     His direct question pointed a finger right at her divided heart.  She had given him every indication--except one--that marriage to him was a monumentally difficult task.  He knew it, and she knew it, but they never discussed it.  Now suddenly she realized how her attitude and actions had hurt Diego, who had been so generous and kind to her!  Her eyes stung with tears of shame.
     "I've been so absorbed in my own pain that I didn't see yours," she mumbled to the sheet.  "I'm sorry."
     He did not know what to say, was not even sure that she would let him touch her, but he took the chance.  Diego covered her hand with his own, and when she did not shrink away he gathered her close.  Her warm body was not stiff in his arms but supple; she seemed to melt against him.  He felt Victoria's back shake and knew she was weeping noiselessly; a lump swelled in his own throat.  Something about a woman crying touched him deeply; he needed to comfort and did not know how.  So he held her, this woman who was both strong-minded and utterly feminine.  He had not known his love could grow so large that it infused everything he did.  Victoria was not merely part of his life any longer; his heart had cleaved so completely with hers that he could not distinguish where one ended and the other began.  He hoped sometime to hear her say to him "I love you" and mean it, but if she never did he would still love her and do his poor best to meet her needs.
     She sniffed and gulped.  "Did you mean those things you said when we had relations?"
     "I'm sure I meant what I said then; what things specifically?"
     "You called me 'precious girl' and 'darling' and said I was beautiful.  Don't you remember?"
     "Not individually.  I said many things as an outpouring of my love.  I thought afterwards you would surely know how I felt."
     "I didn't think you meant any of those things."
     "Why not?"
     "Th-The other ladies.  They say that the only time their husbands call them sweet names is when they want to--"
     "Make love?"
     She nodded in the burrow of his arms.
     "It isn't as hypocritical as it sounds.  We men often have trouble saying what we feel.  Maybe it's easier when we make love; our emotions are involved as much as our bodies.  I'd like to say loving things to you all the time; I just didn't want to make you uncomfortable by it."
     "I have been so lonely!" she sobbed.  "I didn't think I was very important to anybody anymore."
     "Not even me?"
     "I thought you married me out of chivalry or because I was convenient, but not for love."
     He kissed the top of her head and again marveled at the floral fragrance of her hair.  "I didn't think you'd want to know the extent of my feelings.  But now that you do know, I'd like to express them more often if you don't mind."
     "I don't mind," she gulped.  "I hope you do."
     Diego decided he would both tell her and show her, right then, and this time so gently that she would know how much he cared.  He moved his mouth across her wet cheek toward her lips.
     "Diego!"  His father's voice called at the door, and polite taps sounded on the wood panel.  "Are you awake?"
     "Yes, Father," he responded with a sigh.  "What is it?"
     "Antonio Costilla is here to see you!"
     Antonio!  Then perhaps the businessman had not left town!  At least Antonio might have more information.  "Tell him I'll be with him in a few minutes!" Diego called, and looked into the dewy eyes of his wife.  "I'm sorry; I have to see this man, but I'd much rather stay here with you!"
     His lips joined hers then in the softest, sweetest kiss he had ever shared.  Reluctantly, he tore himself from the bed.

     When Diego entered the sala, his schoolmate turned from studying an oil landscape of Madrid and greeted him with a concerned face.
     "I must apologize for such an early visit, my friend," said the well-dressed gentleman, clasping the caballero's hand.  "I was wondering if I could speak with you in your capacity as newspaper editor."
     "Of course," smiled de la Vega and gestured for Antonio to be seated.  His own questions regarding the Costillas could wait a few more minutes.
     "Gracias," the guest replied as he chose the brocaded armchair.  "You have lived here many years and are familiar with the people and the neighborhood.  You probably know better than most the financial condition of the territory, and the attitudes of the locals."
     The tall scholar's senses were instantly alert.  "I don't follow local gossip much," he disclaimed.
     "Not gossip, but simply knowledge.  You, as a member of a prominent family, would hear things and see things that others might not.  And as an editor and reporter for the newspaper, you find stories about people's good fortune and misfortune."
     "What can I do for you, Antonio?"  An edge of impatience creased his brows as Diego cut through the preamble.  The hope that Victoria would wait for him in bed was rapidly fading as he deduced that Costilla's visit was not likely to be short.
     The guest's smile fixed.  "Have you heard of any property for sale?  Or perhaps know of some owner who might be willing to sell for cash?"
     "Some poor soul like Señor Cuernavaca, perhaps?  But then, I believe your family already bought that shop."
     Antonio caught the note of contempt.  "Why should that upset you, amigo?  The man would have starved to death trying to operate a mercantile in a seldom-used port."
     "So it was an act of kindness?"
     "Of course.  What else could it be?"
     Self-seeking avarice!  "Just what is your father's business, Antonio?"
     "He buys property."
     "Why?  For whom?"
     "Well, for his sons, I presume.  My father made his fortune by making wise investments in Spain.  He now sees the Americas as a land of opportunity for a shrewd businessman such as himself."
     "Then he's expecting some kind of return on the land he buys.  He's not quite the philanthropist that you make him out to be."
     "But hardly suspect.  You seem to be implying that that he's doing something underhanded."
     De la Vega swallowed the retort that sat on his lips.  Had Armando Costilla truly used brute force to obtain Pablo's waterfront shack?  But some of those facts were known only to Zorro, so the caballero feigned ignorance.  "Why should he, if he's as wealthy as you indicate?"
     "Exactly so!" exclaimed his school friend.  "Now, Diego, do you know of any property, especially in the pueblo, that is for sale?"
     "No."  The answer was bluntly spoken.
     "What of your wife's property?  I could make her an offer on the tavern that would far exceed anything her brother could pay."
     "She would never consider it.  She doesn't intend to sell the tavern to Ramón anyway."
     "Oh, I see," the visitor said slowly.  "It's a family arrangement."
     "Precisely," confirmed de la Vega with a touch of irony.
     "Will you at least apprise her of my interest?  She may feel differently about it than you think."
     The suggestion that Diego might not know his bride's mind on the matter rankled, but he could not withhold the information from Victoria with a good conscience.  "Yes, I'll tell her.  Don't expect a reply, though."
     "You wouldn't prevent her from selling for personal reasons, would you?  I mean, you don't seem pleased about my offer."
     "Money has never been the driving interest in my wife's life.  I simply think your errand here has been a waste of your time."  He stood.  "I'm sorry, Antonio."
     Reluctantly Costilla stood also.  "I trust you'll have no objections to posting this advertisement in today's paper.  Those that can read will know of my family's interest, and word of mouth may spread the news to the rest."
     He handed Diego a folded note.  Written on the inside was a short, neatly worded message promising cash for the sale of property, both in San Pedro and Los Angeles.  Interested sellers were to contact the Costillas at the home of Don Bernardo la Cruz.
     The caballero closed the note.  "Yes, I'll post it; the charge is one peso.  Is your father still at the la Cruz hacienda?"
     "Not at the moment; he had some business up the coast," replied Antonio, handing his schoolmate the fee.  "But he should return in a few days.  Don Bernardo is hosting a dinner next Friday night and would like you and your father and wife to join us."
     The gracious smile which curled Diego's mouth did not quite reach his eyes.  "We would be delighted."

     The carriage that conveyed the de la Vegas to the la Cruz home rumbled south on the worn Royal Road.  Alejandro had anticipated doing bookkeeping chores that evening, and was feeling vexed with his son for accepting a dinner invitation.  He and Diego had chosen to wear formal trousers and short jackets.  The doña had attired herself in a deep blue dress fashioned from the San Diego gowns.  Complementing the frock were a sapphire necklace and ear bobs presented to her by her father-in-law from his wife's jewel box.
     The de la Vega son rested his gaze on Victoria and felt a sense of awe.  He loved the way she smelled so sweet and fresh.  He loved the sound of her skirts as she moved about a room. He loved the saucy smile she would throw at him when no one was looking, as if they shared a secret.  And they did now!  Finally he had a secret with Victoria rather than from her.
     "You are even more beautiful tonight than usual," declared her husband, squeezing her hand.
     She gave him a wry but affectionate smile.  "Just all dressed up."
     Diego glanced at his father, who was watching them contentedly.  Alejandro's fears about the probability of the marriage's success were being put to rest, just as his own were.  But prodded by his conscience, the young caballero cleared his throat.
     "I do have something to ask you, Querida," he began.  "I was approached by Antonio Costilla with an offer to buy the tavern."
     "Antonio Costilla?  The brother of that horrid Carlos Costilla?  I wouldn't have anything to do with them--not if they were the last buyers on earth!"  A terrifying thought seized her.  "Diego, you didn't agree to sell, did you?"
     "How could I do that?  The tavern belongs to you."
     "Yes, but--communal property and all that--"
     "I would never, never do that to you!" he declared vehemently.  "I gave my word that the tavern would be yours alone, and so it is.  I told Antonio that you wouldn't sell, but he badgered me to ask you.  I know you plan to sign the tavern over to Ramón."
     "I certainly do.  And I should make arrangements with the alcalde for the paperwork."
     "Er, tell me:  what did Carlos Costilla do to earn your disapproval?"  The younger de la Vega had his own reasons for disliking Antonio's brother, and wondered if his wife's evaluation could bolster his judgment.
     The doña's head dropped, and she spoke to the fan she clutched in her left hand.  "He made an offer to buy the tavern before the king's deadline."
     "What?  You never mentioned it."
     "No.  It wasn't worth considering; the sum he offered was ridiculously low."
     The offer would be quite low, thought her husband, knowing more of how the Costillas operated their real estate ventures.  Carlos had tried to buy Victoria's property when she was desperate straits.  More ruthless taking advantage of unfortunate people!  Diego's mouth tightened.  "I hope you threw him out on his ear."  He did not notice his bride's sudden reticence.
     "No, not quite," she murmured.  What would Diego do if he heard the foul things that Carlos Costilla had said to her?  Honorable men protected their mates, and judging from the way he was clasping her hand, Diego would certainly try to avenge the insults in some way.  Better not to mention them to him at all.
     "Then I'm very glad you chose marriage to my son rather than selling to the Costillas," interjected Don Alejandro.  "Antonio seems nice enough, but Armando is--very smooth.  I don't know what to make of him."
     Diego noted thoughtfully, "And they're after a lot of property in this area.  My research has uncovered several purchases they've already made.  Now they renew an offer on the tavern.  Why?  They certainly can't hope to get it at the bargain price they offered Victoria before.  May I ask how much that was, my dear?"
     "A thousand pesos," she confessed.
     "Hm!  I can see why you found that insulting!  With your permission, may I indulge my curiosity a bit this evening?  I'd like to know how much the Costillas would pay for the tavern."
     "Don't give them any assurance that I'll sell."
     "I won't.  But I wonder how much it's worth to them, and why they are so interested in owning it."
     "It's the most prosperous business in town."
     "Yes, but I can't picture that family as taverners.  So what is the objective?"
     His wife and father could offer no plausible theories, and the carriage arrived at their host's hacienda.  Don Bernardo greeted them as they alighted.
     "Don Alejandro!" he declared, embracing his peer.  "My home is honored, sir, truly honored!  And Doña Victoria!  How lovely you look this evening.  May I?"  He bowed over her hand.  "Don Diego!  Marriage suits you, my boy; it certainly does!"
     The young caballero smiled politely and murmured, "It certainly does!"
     "Well, come in, come in!  You know everyone, of course--Señor Heceta, Don Andrés, Don León, Señor Lopez, the Costillas, Señor Acaba, and the ladies, of course."
     "Doña Victoria!" gushed Raquel la Cruz, coming forward to greet her.  "How perfectly charming you look tonight!  You know Mercedes, I believe, and Carmen, and Lola, and Anabel Gaona--Don Andrés' eldest daughter."
     The ladies exchanged greetings as did the men.  Dinner was announced, and married couples were seated across the table from each other as custom dictated.  Diego frowned when he saw Carlos Costilla take the seat next to Victoria.  His wife stiffened perceptibly as his schoolmate's brother approached; Carlos made some comment to her that she pointedly ignored.  As the meal was served, the caballero kept a watchful eye on his bride.  She was extremely ill-at-ease and never turned to look at Costilla; instead she made a few remarks to Don León, who was seated on her left.  When the meal concluded Doña Raquel led the women to a secluded parlor, and offered Señora de la Vega a comfortable chair next to Lola de Farral.
     Victoria groaned inwardly and wished she had never come to such a horrid party!  First seated by that hateful Carlos Costilla, and then the de Farral woman.  Lola, expensively but tastefully gowned and elaborately coiffured, had all the poise and worldly sophistication needed to make the young doña feel very insecure.  But etiquette demanded the two women to make conversation with each other.  She glanced down at her wedding ring and envisioned the tall, lean form of her husband.  Whatever else, Diego loved her.  Her chin raised a little higher as she turned to the voluptuous widow, and a devilish thought seized her.
     "You have a great admirer, ma'am," she said to de Farral.
     "Oh, really?" the older woman purred, suddenly interested.  "And who might that be?"
     "Someone who has read your romance column and badgered my husband to reveal your name."
     A smile widened Lola's mouth, putting Victoria forcibly in mind of a satisfied cat.  "Tell me more.  Is this gentleman--available?"
     In the main room, Don Bernardo served Madeira and cigars to his male guests.  Antonio Costilla sought out the de la Vega father and son.
     "Pardon my interest, Diego, but did you get an opportunity to talk to your wife about the tavern?"
     "Yes, I did."  He glanced at his father.  "We have permission to inquire what you are offering."
     Something gleamed in the back of the dark eyes.  "She is interested, then?  Excellent.  I'm sure we can come to terms."
     "That depends very much on your offer.  You are certainly aware that she has no need to sell at all and is content to sign over the property to her brother for a nominal fee.  The price would have to reflect the value of the property, which is high."
     "Of course!  But the price needs to reflect also our potential return from the investment, and the higher the price, the lower our return.  The lower the return, the less interest we have in the property."
     "And what would you consider a reasonable offer?"
     "Something in the neighborhood of three thousand."  When Diego chuckled, Antonio added quickly, "She will not get five thousand for it.  For that we could build our own and drive her out of business."
     So Victoria had valued her business at five thousand, which was probably a reasonable estimate of its value.  "And who would be your customers?  The Escalantes are an old and respected family in the pueblo; the clientele would remain faithful."
     "I wouldn't dream of taking your wife's customers.  I'd provide my own, naturally."
     "You'd--"  Alejandro broke off with an uncertain laugh.  "Señor, I admire your optimism, but I must tell you that there aren't enough people in the area to support two inns."
     Intruding into their conversation was the loud voice of Carlos Costilla from across the room.  "Everything can be measured in terms of money.  Nothing exists that cannot be bought or sold."
     "Surely, Señor," protested Guillermo Heceta, who was one of the men in Carlos' circle, "not everything.  Some things are beyond price:  honesty, loyalty, love--"
     "All for sale," dismissed the youngest Costilla condescendingly.  "Why do men join a revolution if not for the promise of more money?  You see, loyalty is for sale, and it's right beside patriotism.  Honesty?  Every man has a price; it's just a matter of finding out what he wants.  Love is the most sellable of all.  Could a certain caballero among us have won a bride without his father's money?"
     Shocked and embarrassed gasps escaped Carlos's listeners.  The implication was obvious, and though de la Vega son was known to have disappointed his father in the matter of interests and career, Diego was well-liked in the community.  Alejandro caught the last remark and broke off his sentence to Antonio, a frown gathering between his brows.
     "And not just any bride, amigos, but the Vixen!"  Carlos threw back his head and laughed coarsely.
     Alejandro started to rise from his seat, but a warning hand from his son stopped him. "Allow me," gritted Diego.
     He strode across the room and tapped Costilla on the shoulder.  The younger man turned with a smirk, completely underestimating the speed of the granite fist which flew at his face.  The blow staggered him against the wall; a candlestick toppled over from the sideboard, and the painting adorning the wall clattered before coming to a lopsided rest.  Carlos put a hand to his nose to confirm that it was indeed blood which was flowing copiously onto his upper lip.  His face darkened with fury, and he lunged toward the tall caballero.  Diego was spared the trouble of a fist fight when Señor Costilla and Don Bernardo forcibly restrained the furious man.  For their trouble they received a torrent of abusive language.
     "Let go of me, you old goats!  I'll kill him!"
     "Calm yourself, Carlos!  This is not the way a gentleman handles an insult."
     "Please!" begged his host.  "Not with the ladies in the next room!  I'm sure Don Diego will apologize."
     "I will do no such thing. Let him apologize for his slanders about my wife."
     "Like cuernos!  You'll meet me for this, de la Vega!"
     Diego executed a frosty  bow.  "I am at your service.  Send your seconds to my father."
     Stepping beside his son, Alejandro said, "We'll be going now,  Bernardo.  Thank you for your--hospitality."
     "So sorry--unfortunate incident," babbled their host.
     Diego strode to the parlor door and opened it.  "Excuse me, ladies; we must leave now.  Victoria?"  He held his hand out to his wife commandingly.
     She rose with only a small hesitation.  "Thank you for a lovely evening, Doña Raquel."
     "You must visit again soon, Victoria," the matronly woman invited, "and stay longer next time."
     Señora de la Vega was swept out the door to the carriage, and Juan was told to drive home straight away.  The gently rolling landscape passed by in darkness.
     "Why did we leave so early?" Victoria asked.  "Is one of you ill?"
     Diego sat silently, but his father answered, "The conversation was getting a little too heated.  A prompt exit seemed like a wise idea."
     "Yes, I know about those heated discussions.  There were lots of them at the tavern, but there I just ordered those involved to leave.  It's a little different as someone's guest."
     "Speaking of the tavern, you haven't had a visit with your brother and his wife for quite a while," noted Diego.  "Why don't you spend the day in town with them tomorrow?  I'll meet you there in the evening"
     "I can't--not all day.  I have the children's reading lesson tomorrow."
     "Cancel it.  Cancel it and go."
     "Not for my own pleasure; the children are counting on it."
     "There is plenty of time for Victoria to visit town after the reading session, Diego," advised Alejandro with a warning tone in his voice which his son understood.
     For the remainder of the ride home, Diego was preoccupied.  The rancher did his best to cover the fact by engaging his daughter-in-law in conversation.  At the house, she excused herself for bed--a circumstance which relieved both men.  Alejandro poured himself a glass of wine and offered one to his son.
     "It will help you sleep better," advised his father, but the offer was brushed off.  "The choice of weapons is yours; you were challenged."
     "Pistols."
     His father nodded heavily and unlocked a desk drawer.  He lifted out a wooden case.  Nestled within on red velvet was a pair of handsome walnut and brass dueling pistols.
     "You may use these."
     "Thank you.  You do see the necessity for this duel?"
     "Of course.  You wouldn't be a man if you had swallowed that insult to Victoria."
     "But?"
     "Tomorrow I could lose you," the rancher sighed.  "What will all the work I've done be worth if I have no heir?"
     Diego rested his hand on his father's shoulder and gave him a reassuring squeeze.  "You are not going to lose me.  Just pray that my own anger cools before I meet young Carlos, otherwise I'll kill him.  I surely would have tonight if I'd had a pistol in my hand."  On his way from the room, Diego turned.  "Arrange for the duel at six tomorrow night.  Let it be in a place far from the pueblo.  I don't want Victoria getting any word of this."
     "You care for her, don't you?" the older man asked curiously.
     "I always have," his son murmured.  He entered his bedroom and found his wife sitting up in bed waiting for him.
     "What's wrong, Diego?" she asked in her sweet voice.
     "Nothing, Dearest," he denied, hanging up his jacket and unbuttoning his shirt.
     A smile played around her luscious mouth.  "I think I know you a little better than that!"
     He jacked off his boots and shed his trousers.  "Since you're so wise, you'll know what I want now!"
     Diego ripped back the covers and reached for her with determination.  As she was pulled beneath him, a kaleidoscope of sensations impressed Victoria:  the lamplight gliding over his muscled arm, the lingering taste of wine in his mouth, the sudden chill as he pulled her nightdress over her head, and the warmth as he covered her again.  She did not understand that he needed her as much as he wanted her.  All she knew was that her husband had never been so intense, so unrestrained.  Diego demanded and got the response he wanted, and his own burst of passion followed immediately after hers.  Panting, he forced her to look him in the face.
     "Tell me!" he growled.  "If you feel anything at all, tell me now!"
     She knew what he wanted, what he had wanted during the years of her ignorance.  Pressing a kiss into the shoulder above her, she murmured, "Surely you must know."
     "Say it!"
     Taking a deep breath, Victoria uttered the words that a few months before her mind could not have conceived.  "I love you."
     He did not know whether or not to believe her; perhaps she had just parroted the declaration out of kindness.  He regretted then having tried to force an admission.  Maybe his opportunity had run out.  God willing, tomorrow night he would still be able to hold her, but if this was the last, the very last time--
     Even when he had fallen into a tortured sleep, he still clutched her.
 

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