Title: Secret's Price, part 5
Author: Jennifer Campbell

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Daylight revealed a two-tone world: A snowy white landscape and an icy blue sky. The California sun was bright and warm above it all, causing large hunks of snow to loosen and slide off the hacienda roof. By day's end, Marta knew, it would all be melted away. Outside Tessa's bedroom, she could hear the laughter of children -- and some adults -- playing in the snow. But Marta had experienced her fill of it last night. Besides, she was needed here.

Tessa looked better now that her fever had broken, but she still had not awakened. Marta sat by her bedside, sometimes holding her hand, and rising only to rekindle the fire. She worried, mostly because she knew the longer it took for Tessa to regain consciousness, the less likely it was she would fully heal. Doctor Helm had assured her, before he left, that Tessa would recover, but Marta's imagination wouldn't allow her such confidence. What if there was permanent damage? What if her injury stopped her from ever again riding as the Queen?

Her concerns faded, though, just as one of the serving girls brought her some lunch. Tessa stirred, slowly opened her eyes and squinted against the bright light in the room. Marta quickly shut the curtains and returned to the bedside. Tessa looked over at her, and a slow, tired smile crossed her face.

"Marta?"

"I'm here," she said. "How are you feeling?"

"Like I've been shot in the back."

Marta chuckled. "You can joke about it. That's a good sign."

"I'm thirsty."

Marta handed over her own water glass as Tessa slowly sat up, wincing only a little. She quickly emptied the glass, then asked, "How long has it been?"

"You were shot the night before last. Doctor Helm said you weren't to get out of bed today."

Tessa suddenly looked interested. "The doctor was here?"

"All last night."

Tessa smiled ruefully. "Too bad I missed that."

Marta smiled a bit, knowing Tessa's attraction to Helm. It was good that she was showing interest in a man, instead of being solely obsessed with her work as the Queen. A woman of her age and stature was expected to marry and have children, if only to assure that the family would go on. It made what Marta had to say next all the more difficult. Would Tessa still show interest in Doctor Helm after knowing he knew the secret, or would she distance herself to protect him?

Marta sat on the bedside and licked her lips nervously. "Tessa, there's something you need to know about Doctor Helm." She took a deep breath and steeled herself for the reaction. "He knows about the Queen."

Tessa stared at her in alarm. "You told him?"

"He figured it out on his own," she answered quickly. "He found your wound, and it's a good thing he did. If he hadn't treated it, you would be dead now."

"I have to talk to him," Tessa said. She pushed back her covers and pulled herself up to get out bed, but Marta gently pushed her back down.

"You will talk to him, but not now. He left strict orders that you were to rest for the next several days. No sword fights or chases on horseback. But I told him that was unlikely considering that farmer is still scheduled for execution."

Tessa looked dejected, and worried. "He's mad at me, isn't he? I've blown my chance before we've even started."

"Actually," Marta said with a reassuring smile, "he was mostly frightened that you might die. If he was mad at anyone, it was me for not telling him about the gunshot when he first arrived." She paused. "You should know that Capitan Grisham was here last night, as well."

"Oh God. Don't tell me he knows, too."

Marta chuckled. "Of course not. We, um, drugged Grisham to keep him out of the way, and we allowed him to see you early this morning before he returned to town. He was groggy and probably won't remember much."

Tessa sighed and relaxed back into her pillow. Her eyes were feeling awfully heavy. "It seems I have some messes to clean up," she muttered in a tired voice.

"Yes. But right now, you need to take care of yourself and get some rest."

Tessa nodded, closed her eyes and was asleep in moments. Sweet dreams, Marta thought as she brushed back a few strands of hair from Tessa's forehead. She was such a determined young woman -- too much for her own good sometimes, and this time it had cost her dearly. But she wouldn't give up, that Marta knew. It wouldn't be long before she and Helm would have a certain conversation that was a long time in coming. Marta only hoped that having the secret in the open would bring them together, not push them apart.

With that, Marta stood and stretched her arms. She couldn't afford to spend the rest of the day in here. There were clothes to wash, meals to prepare and chores to be done. Her list of things to do had piled up over the past couple of days, and it was high time she got started on it. She adjusted the blankets one last time so that they adequately covered Tessa, and then, for the first time in two days, she walked out of the bedroom confident that Tessa would be fine until she returned.

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The first day after waking, Tessa spent in bed. By the second morning, she felt well enough to venture out of her bedroom, into the living area where she could work on the paperwork that came with operating a large household. She detested the task, but it was all she could do while still recovering. In late afternoon, Colonel Montoya and Captain Grisham paid a visit -- hoping to find her on her deathbed, no doubt, and ready to pounce on her land. Tessa did her best to smile and act flattered by the attention but feigned exhaustion soon enough, giving Marta an excuse to usher them from the house.

Vera also stopped by, bringing with her a basket of fruits. She fussed over Tessa as any friend should, telling her she should not be out of bed after such an illness. She shared the gossip from town, which mostly involved the snowstorm. No one Vera had spoken to could remember such a storm ever before, but of course the snow was melted by now, and it was too bad that Tessa hadn't gotten to enjoy it. Tessa managed to distract Vera from her chatting long enough to ask, as casually as she could, whether that poor farmer locked up in the jail had been executed.

"I'm sorry, but I don't know," Vera replied. "Hangings are so awful. I make a point of not concerning myself with such things, and neither should you, Tessa. You should be focused on recovering as quickly as possible."

"Of course, you're right," Tessa said, and pressed the subject no more.

After Vera left, Tessa spent the remainder of the afternoon waiting on one more visitor, the only one she truly wanted to see. But Doctor Helm did not come, and Tessa lay awake in bed that night wondering whether her discovered deceit had ruined his trust in her forever. The thought left a sick feeling in her stomach.

So it was on the third night after her ordeal, Tessa guided her horse down the deserted nighttime road. She could feel his muscles tensing below her thighs, ready to burst into a gallop at her command, but she kept his gait slow to spare her back. Even at this speed, each movement sent a small, sharp stab through her shoulder, but she pursed her lips and tried to ignore it. The Queen would not slump in the saddle or double over in pain. The Queen needed to seem strong. Invincible. So she endured and rode slowly toward town.

Marta had made it quite clear that it was too early for Tessa to be leaving the hacienda at all, let alone donning the Queen's mask for some nighttime adventure. Tessa had assured her that she had only one purpose in mind, one place to go, and that she wouldn't physically strain herself. She hoped that she would encounter none of Montoya's men, allowing her to hold to that promise. She had put Marta through enough in the past few days and had no wish to add to the ordeal.

She arrived at Doctor Helm's residence without incident and carefully made her way to his window. It had been left cracked open despite the chill evening, and she could see drapes billowing gently against the flickering light inside. She smiled a bit and dared to hope that he had left the window open as an invitation to her. Perhaps this meeting would not go so badly after all.

Tessa made her way up and pushed the window open, even that small action sending a shooting pain down her back. She winced a bit as she pulled herself up and swung first one leg, then the other, through the opening. Helm sat at his table, scribbling away at some paper; his back was to her, but she had a feeling he knew she was there.

"Good evening, Doctor," she said, and stepped into the room.

"I thought you might come sooner," he said without turning around.

"And I thought you might come to check on your patient. I guess we were both disappointed."

At that, he set down his pen and turned to look at her, his eyes meeting hers in a way they never had before, more bold and assured. She fervently wished she knew what he was thinking. With no hesitation but also no hurry, he stood, walked to her and reached out to do what no one ever had before. Both his hands slid around to the back of her head, under her hair, and gently worked at the knot that held her mask in place. She hardly was able to breathe as he loosened the scrap of black fabric and lifted it from her face.

"You don't need that with me," he said quietly, and pressed the mask into her hand.

"You're not angry, then?"

"Not anymore." He beckoned her into the room. "Sit down. Let me look at your back."

She did as he asked, not knowing what else to do. She suddenly felt strangely defenseless, as though he had stripped away not only her mask but also whatever it was that gave the Queen her brazenness, her authority. Now she was only Tessa. The feeling both scared and thrilled her. Always with Helm, she had either played the part of the Queen or the Senorita. Never before had she interacted with him as simply herself. With one small act, he had disarmed her more deftly than any opponent -- something she certainly hadn't anticipated.

She sat in the chair he had so recently vacated, unlaced her top, her fingers trembling, and dropped the material down far enough for him to do his work. His touch was cool as he gently lifted the bandages and skimmed his fingers over her wound. It throbbed in protest.

"It's looking much better," he said. "Marta has done a good job of taking care of you. I'll clean it and put on a new dressing."

As he gathered his supplies, she said, "Why did you not come to the hacienda? I thought you would."

"There was no need. I knew Marta could handle your recovery and that if any complications arose, she would send for me." He paused. "I also have been otherwise occupied for the past few days."

"Occupied?"

"Yes. As a matter of fact, I've been out saving your poor jailed farmer, seeing as you could not." At her confused look, he flashed a small smile. He dipped a cotton cloth in a foul-smelling liquid and dabbed at her wound. "I spoke to Pedro's wife, who told me about some bandits who had been stealing from Senor Perez for months. Her son had seen them take some cattle, and when Pedro went out to investigate, he was caught by Grisham's men and arrested as the thief. Others who work at the Perez ranch backed up her story. They gave me a general idea of which directions the bandits ride from, so I went hunting."

"You, Doctor?" Tessa couldn't hide the surprise in her voice.

He chuckled. "Remember, I wasn't always a doctor. I have other skills, tracking being only one of them." He placed a clean bandage over her shoulder. "There. You can pull up your shirt now. Anyway, I found the cattle and had them returned to the ranch. Montoya was forced to release Pedro, and he's back with his family. The bandits, however, have not been caught. I suspect the Queen of Swords might be useful in bringing them to justice before they strike again."

"I'm grateful, Doctor. You saved that man's life."

He sat beside her, on the table. "Consider it a reminder that not every problem is best solved with a prison break and a shootout."

Tessa's voice turned a little dangerous. "Point taken."

"Now I'm sure you didn't come to talk about cows and bandits."

"No, I didn't." She took a deep breath. "I came to find out where we stand, now that you know. And to apologize."

"You've lied all this time, about who you are," he said quietly, but with an edge anger in his tone. "When I found out, at first I was shocked. Then I was livid because you didn't trust me enough to tell me the truth."

Her words rushed out. "I wanted to tell you, so many times, but I was afraid you would never speak to me again. And I was afraid of what Montoya and Grisham would do if they found out you knew."

"I know," he said. "After thinking about it for a while – and I've thought of little else for several days -- I came to realize that."

She dared to reach out, take his hand, and relaxed when he didn't pull away. "I was afraid of losing you."

His fingers tightened around hers. "You haven't lost me."

"Good." They sat in silence for a few moments before she spoke again. "What happens now?"

"I think that would be obvious. I continue on as the town's doctor. You continue on as the people's hero. Only now you have another person you know you can trust with whatever you need." He half-smiled. "Unless you do something stupid, and then I'll try to stop you and yell a lot. And you'll yell back."

"So just like old times," Tessa said, chuckling. "Thank you, Doctor. For everything."

As he nodded his response, she regretfully reclaimed her hand, fitted her mask back in place and went back to the window. No guards were in sight, so she swung one leg over the ledge.

"Tessa," Helm said behind her, and she turned. "Be careful."

"You, too, Doctor." She paused, then gave a small smile. "Robert."

With one last long look, she was out the window and gone. Helm heard pounding hoof beats a few moments later, with no one raising an alarm. She had slipped away once again, same as always -- and yet, things would never again be the same between them. He smiled at that thought before settling back into his chair. Things won't ever be the same. No, they'll be better.

The end

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