Victoria burst through the hacienda’s front door without even knocking the minute siesta began that day. “Diego!” she called from the entryway.
“Victoria!” Diego began in delight, standing from the library chair where he’d spent the last hour reading. ”What a pleasant surprise.”
But when Victoria confronted Diego in the library, the expression on her face was more accusatory than pleasant. “This morning, in the plaza, Zorro’s eyes were a different color.”
This wasn’t at all what he’d expected her to say. Diego could only stare as numbness crept over his body. “What?”
“You had to have noticed; he looked straight at you. His eyes were brown, not blue.”
That was true. Felipe’s eyes were brown, Diego’s were blue, and Zorro… Trust Victoria to have noticed.
But his numbness had receded a bit by now as he realized that Victoria had also just given him a perfect reason to explain all this away. “Actually, I was busy trying not to get hung this morning. I didn’t notice much of anything else. Sorry.” And he gave an apologetic shrug. “Maybe it was a trick of the light. The sun was awfully bright this morning.”
Victoria growled, but didn’t argue with him.
“Have you heard if the Alcalde’s going to be all right?” Diego asked, willing to say anything to distract her from the subject of Zorro.
Victoria either distracted quite easily, or chose to let the subject of Zorro’s eye color drop for the time being. “Mendoza told me the Alcalde’s leg will heal, eventually. He has to stay in bed for two weeks, then is restricted to light duty for the next month. He’s to do pueblo paperwork and not much else.”
Diego smiled. “Maybe he’ll be in so much pain as he recuperates, he won’t have any energy left over to think up ridiculous taxes.”
“Or to make risky deals with wanted criminals.” Victoria’s voice was full of sarcasm.
The smile immediately left Diego’s face. “Did anybody...take care of Bishop?”
Victoria heaved a sigh. “I know that you don’t like to hear any unpleasant opinions about people, Diego, but I can’t help disliking Bishop, and I have to say that I don’t care what happened to him.”
Diego’s expression softened, and he came forward to take her left hand. “I’m sure you feel great antipathy for him, Victoria, and I don’t blame you. It must be agony for you to even be in the same pueblo as he is.”
“Even if he is dead.”
Diego would have squeezed her hand in sympathy, but he didn’t want to hurt her. “I’d be surprised if you felt any other way.”
Victoria looked at him in astonishment. “I can’t believe you said that.” She glanced hastily around the room, as if looking for someone, twisting her hand away from Diego in order to see behind her. “Has Diego de la Vega suddenly developed a new personality to agree with more violent leanings?”
Diego grinned at her teasing. “Of course I haven’t, much to my father’s regret.” Victoria laughed in agreement as he casually shrugged. “I just hate to see you get hurt, and would do anything to stop it.”
Victoria abruptly took on an expectant look. “Then why don’t you?”
Diego’s expression grew puzzled. “Sorry, I don’t know what you mean.”
“You said you’d do anything.” Her expectant look increased even as his puzzlement deepened. After another silent minute, she artfully reminded, “I’m waiting.”
Diego shifted his book to his other hand. Was he supposed to do something? “Waiting for what?”
“Diego,” Victoria gently admonished, no longer teasing. “How can we ever be together if you still keep things from me?”
He frowned once more. “I’m not--”
“Of course you are,” she said in exasperation. “Your promise? I can’t trust you if you can’t trust me.”
“Promise?” he asked, playing for time while all along knowing what she referred to; Zorro’s promise to reveal his love for her when he permanently removed his mask. Which could mean only one thing: the secret of my identity… she knows! His insides promptly froze.
Then in the next second, the full impact of her knowledge hit him: if she knew about Zorro’s identity, then she’d also known exactly who she was proclaiming love to when she’d talked to Diego the day before in the jail. Her later confessions to Zorro about Diego also carried a sense of purpose to them. The good-bye she’d then given to Zorro had been just as purposeful for her even as it had been painful for him. She’d let him think that she had chosen to leave Zorro for Diego… when all the time she’d known that she wasn’t leaving him at all. She’d planned it all.
Anger surged in Diego as soon as he’d completed this thought… then it vanished with his next breath. It had occurred to him even through his anger that he was being completely unfair to Victoria; she’d done nothing to him over the last day that he hadn’t spent years doing to her. And if she had chosen Diego over Zorro, it was because he had told her to, on multiple occasions.
Diego didn’t waste time trying to fathom how she’d uncovered the truth, or even how much she’d uncovered, but was doing his best not to hyperventilate. It hadn’t occurred to him that this might still be an issue for him now that he’d been forced to pass on the mantle of Zorro.
When it appeared that Diego would refuse to answer, Victoria seemed to wilt. “Please don’t make me beg.”
Diego closed his eyes for a brief second. This isn’t happening. When he opened his eyes again, Victoria was still there, a beseeching expression on her face in spite of what she’d just said. “Victoria, I don’t--”
Her gushing sigh of disappointment cut him off as well as completely ended any sense of prevarication between them. “I know that my safety isn’t an issue any longer, and it doesn’t matter now if I can keep your secret or not, in case that was worrying you. The Alcalde can’t do anything to either of us even if he suspects. Nobody would ever believe him if he said anything, anyway.” Desperation overtook her. “Is it because you really don’t trust me?”
Diego sighed sadly, resigned, no longer bothering to pretend he didn’t know what she was talking about. “It was never an issue of trust, Victoria,” he softly imparted.
“Then what is it?”
Diego stalled for one blissful minute, then screwed up his courage to blurt, “It’s fear. My fear.” He softened this admission with a tiny smile, “I’ve always been afraid.”
Much to Diego’s surprise, Victoria wasn’t remotely sympathetic in spite of being a very sympathetic person. “Yes, I know, you’ve said that before. But that was over a year ago.”
“A year is not nearly enough time to--”
“Diego.” Victoria’s voice had taken on a hard edge. “You love me or you don’t. Either way, if you don’t tell me now, I’m going to walk out that door and--”
“I’m Zorro,” he confessed in a rush to keep her there. “I mean I... was… Zorro.”
“Finally!” A smile crept over Victoria’s face. “Was that so hard?”
“You have no idea.” Dizziness accosted Diego, and he fell into the chair he’d just vacated. “I think I’m going to be sick. Felipe!” he called in a panic.
His panic increased when Victoria took on a look of unbridled delight. At the same moment, he realized the mistake he’d just made; he’d called for Felipe as if Felipe could hear… which he shouldn’t be able to, and she knew that Felipe was close to Diego, and hence close to Zorro… she thought she’d just stumbled on a clue as to how Zorro had always known when something was wrong in the pueblo, that Felipe had been a spy for Zorro.
To put at end to such mental wanderings, Diego explained between the short breaths he managed to take, “This is such... a large house, someone will hear me, and... let Felipe know... that I want… er, need him.”
Victoria clearly reasoned that Felipe was deaf after all, and her delight vanished as her expression became annoyed upon hearing such a logical explanation. “Felipe’s not your servant anymore, he’s your son.” Her tone of admonishment was back. “Don’t expect him to look after you like he used to.”
When Felipe bound into the room, as white as a ghost, eyes darting around as if looking for armed bandits, Victoria instantly held out a placating hand towards him. “Don Diego isn’t feeling well. Maybe you can inform a servant for him? I don’t want to leave him like this.”
Felipe obviously had no trouble understanding her, though he was much less experienced in reading her lips than those of the people he lived with. Wide-eyed, he nodded and ran from the room.
Victoria’s solicitous mein vanished the second he left. “Maybe you should put your head between your knees,” she sarcastically suggested to Diego. “I hear that helps.”
Diego shot her a dirty look even as he fought to slow his breathing. “You’re enjoying this far too much.”
“Of course I am,” Victoria shot back. “I’ve been waiting for you to tell me for years. Did you think I wouldn’t enjoy this?”
“I thought you’d be so angry that you’d hit me with a frying pan.”
“I would, but I don’t know where your cook keeps her pans.” She suddenly took on a look of fake inspiration. “I could use your book! Let me borrow it.”
Diego instantly thrust his book on his chair and sat on it. “No. Books are for bandits.”
“Then yours should feel right at home.”
Diego’s face reddened. “I mean gamblers. Books are for gamblers.”
“But you used lots of books these last few years,” she argued. Her look now turned to one of feigned perplexity. “Do you mean to say that you aren’t a bandit?”
“Of course I’m a bandit,” Diego admitted at last, “and a rogue, and a fiend, and an outlaw, and… whatever else the Alcalde has called me over the years. And you are a devil for how you behaved yesterday. I believed every word you said!”
A satisfied smile tilted Victoria’s lips. “Every word I said was true: I do love you… both of you… or all of you, I mean.”
“Well... stop being such a good actor!” Diego grumped, aware as soon as he spoke how foolish he was being.
Victoria’s lips twitched with another satisfied smile, but all she said was, “At least you don’t have to ride like a crazy man through the plaza anymore.”
Soothed from his grumping, Diego’s expression turned wry, then slightly abashed. “I liked riding like a crazy man. Besides, going so fast was Toronado’s idea.”
Victoria nodded knowingly. “Yes, he was the boss, after all.”
Suddenly, Diego burst out laughing at the absurdity of this situation. He grabbed Victoria and pulled her down on his lap.
She gave a squeal of indignation, but couldn’t do much more than wriggle with her hands bandaged the way the were. “Let me go!”
He noted that her voice sounded more teasing than angry. “I like you where you are,” he said, pulling her tightly against him, calming her movements. “You never told me what happened with Señorita Caldone. Did you talk to her?”
Victoria stilled with the question. “Yes, right after we showed Bishop’s bullet to the Alcalde. He wouldn’t believe us, and still wanted to hang you. I got so upset that Mendoza rode with me to the Caldone hacienda in order to distract me.”
“The look on your face tells me that it wasn’t a good distraction.”
Victoria’s eyes gave a sardonic roll. “No, it wasn’t. I woke the entire household, then asked Tansy right off if she and Bishop were working together. She just gave me this look like she wasn’t sorry at all and said that she’d hooked up with Bishop because I’d made it seem that being in a relationship with an outlaw was so romantic. I yelled that there was as much resemblance between Bishop and Zorro as there was between the Alcalde and Padre Benitez, and threw a carafe of wine at her. There was wine and glass everywhere, particularly on her, I’m glad to say. That’s when Mendoza grabbed me from behind and hauled me outside. He said we’d go for the doctor, and I was just getting back from telling Dr. Hernandez to see to her when your almost-hanging happened.”
Before Diego could react to her story, Felipe rushed back in, followed by Maria the cook and Juan the head house man.
Diego pulled Victoria against his chest, liking her on his lap. “I feel much better now,” he assured the minute they all slowed down to look at him quizzically, especially the way Victoria was now sitting on Diego’s lap. Only once he’d said the words did he realize the double meaning to them. “It was just a moment of bad memories,” he added to distract them.
“Yes,” Victoria added, her voice sarcastic again. “His own personal nightmare.”
Diego sent her a quelling look, but spoke to the others. “I apologize for causing a fuss.”
Maria and Juan slowly went back to the duties Diego had interrupted, but Felipe remained to solicitously hover.
“Truly, Felipe,” Diego persuaded. “You can stop looking at me like I’m going to combust at any moment. I’m fine.”
Felipe’s arms waved in rapid gestures.
Diego’s face darkened. “That is not what I always say. But this time I really am fine. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Felipe shot a last look of reproach at Diego, then reluctantly departed.
Victoria swiftly returned her gaze to Diego. “Felipe has brown eyes. He could be the new Zorro.”
“Felipe is also a deaf-mute,” Diego patiently pointed out.
“So the rumor goes. He could hear just fine, but not tell anyone. How would we know if he can hear, especially if he pretends?”
Diego heaved a sigh filled with just the right amount of forced patience that it would have fooled anyone. “Felipe has no reason to pretend. Besides, you know that he can’t speak, and Zorro spoke perfectly well this morning in the plaza. We all heard him.”
Victoria mulled that point over, then a moment later argued, “Felipe could have learned to speak but still make his signs, so no one would ever know that either. If he kept that a secret, too…”
Diego chuckled in disbelief, but inwardly cringed, amazed at how astute she’d grown over the last years. “If what you’re saying is true, then Felipe is pretending all the time, and that just isn’t like him. He has nothing to hide.”
Victoria smiled innocently, but leaned forward to whisper in his ear, “Like father, like son.”