Diego didn’t have time to formulate any kind of response to the Alcalde’s disturbing accusation.
De Soto brusquely ordered, “Sergeant, show Don Alejandro and Señorita Escalante out. It’s time to interrogate this gambler.” And he waved dismissively at Bishop as if he didn’t believe a single one of his professional claims.
The Sergeant began to follow his orders, but Diego stopped him, begging, “Please, Ignacio, I’ve barely spoken to Victoria. Let her stay a minute.” He understood that such a plea would make him appear more like Zorro than ever, but he couldn’t stop himself from making it any more than he could stop himself from breathing.
De Soto merely sent another curt gesture towards Bishop’s cell, and Mendoza hurried to open it for the Alcalde while the governmental man raked over Diego with his gaze. “All right, de la Vega, I can be agreeable, despite public opinion. Of course,“ he smirked, “this just goes a bit further in proving that you’re who you say you are. So take your time.” He turned as the lancers tied Bishop’s hands tightly behind his back and pulled him out of his cell. With obvious malice, the Alcalde said, “Make one wrong move, Señor, and you’ll wish Diego really had killed you this afternoon.”
Diego briefly met Bishop’s gaze, as if to say ‘I told you he’s no pushover.’ But he couldn’t afford to give any more precious time to Bishop, and firmly moved his attention to Victoria.
Taking up where Sergeant Mendoza had left off, De Soto shoved, cajoled, and threatened everyone except the Señorita out of the tiny jail. Alejandro ardently protested, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. Mendoza threw a sorrowful glance at his incarcerated friend, then firmly closed the door leading to the Alcalde’s office.
The sudden silence felt smothering. Ignoring it, Diego pushed into the bars to get as close to Victoria as he could. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t do more to ensure your safety today.”
“Don’t talk like that,” she admonished. “You did more than anybody could have done.”
“But you were still hurt, and I’m sorry for that.”
“That wasn’t your doing! Now stop it. And stop making this insane claim that you’re Zorro.”
An apologetic look invaded his eyes. “I can’t do that, even if Ignacio lets me, and I doubt he will. He’s wanted to hang Zorro for so long that he’s ceased caring about who he hangs, just so long as he hangs someone.”
“But Diego, you can’t do this.” Victoria began to cry. “I can’t lose my best friend in the whole world.”
Diego didn’t give himself time to feel bad about the way she viewed him as only a friend. “Victoria, please.” He didn’t elaborate on what it was he wanted her to do, but simply gazed at her in agony.
Victoria softly wailed, “You can’t die. I won’t let you.”
Diego was a little taken aback by her show of such strong emotions. Here she was, crying, clearly upset, and it was all on behalf of Diego. He wouldn’t have been surprised at such an outburst from her if it was Zorro locked up in jail. But now he reached through the bars to tenderly brush her tears from her cheeks. “Victoria, I need you to listen.”
“No, you listen,” she tearfully insisted. “I’ve never told you how important you are to me, Diego.”
A small smile curved his lips. “I think you’re telling me now.”
Her face fell into lines of anguish. “Don’t joke at a time like this.”
“I’m not joking.”
“Neither am I.” She stared mournfully at him. “I can’t do this without you.”
This truly mistified him. “Do what?”
“I can’t… can’t wait, can’t live… not if you’re not there to talk to every day.” Her face crumpled again. “Don’t do this, Diego! Please take back what you said.”
“And let Bishop finish what he started today?” Diego gave his head a violent shake. “We both know how charming he can be. He’ll sweet talk Ignacio into letting him go, and then you won’t be safe anywhere. Bishop told me that he wants to get Zorro’s attention through you.”
Diego shrugged. “He said something about wanting to kill Zorro.”
Her barking laugh told him what she thought of that. “Zorro can take care of himself.”
“And I can’t?”
Victoria’s expression immediately grew pained. “He’s not the man behind bars right now.”
Yes he is. A breathless moment passed as Diego wildly considered saying it out loud. He’d wanted to tell Victoria the truth more than anything for years now, and here was his chance. All he had to do was take it. He drew a deep breath in preparation for telling her his secret at last, when what she said next stunned the breath right out of him.
“I love you, Diego.”
What? “Uh…” Diego gave a numbed blink, her words reverberating around his head so loudly that he was unable to concentrate.
Victoria’s sorrow increased tenfold. “I love you.” She shook her head back and forth as if trying to shake out the truth. “I know that sounds rehearsed, and unlikely, and…”
Dazed by fog shrouding his mind, he breathlessly whispered, “Are you serious?”
Her laugh of self-mockery grated in the jail’s emptiness. “I know what you’re thinking; how could I possibly love both Zorro and you, two such different men? I even wanted you to become more like Zorro so what I felt for you made sense.” She gave a disparaging shrug. “But now I can’t imagine you as anybody other than who you are.”
Another blink gave him a few more precious seconds to make sense of what she was saying. “You love me?” He’d waited for years to hear her say those words, yet he couldn’t believe them once she did.
Victoria was crying again. “You mean so much to me! If you die, I die.”
“I guess I won’t die then.”
“But how can you stop it?” she cried.
“I don’t know yet,” Diego confessed. “But I know I want to keep you safe, and I may be forced to harm Bishop in order to do that.”
Exasperated, she repeated, “I’ve already explained to you that I’m not worth it.”
“And I’ve already explained to you that you’re everything, so of course you’re worth it.” The admission, stated without thought, was more freeing to Diego than fearful, as if a huge weight had unexpectedly lifted from his shoulders.
“But how can you keep me safe when you’re inside a jail cell?”
It was as if she was purposely giving him another opportunity to tell her his secret in order to soothe her anxiety. It also occurred to him that a lancer must be posted just outside the window to his cell so that he could eavesdrop on his and Victoria’s every word. If that was the case, it cast her admittance of love into a whole new light.
He gripped the bars tighter. “Victoria, listen to me for a minute. Since my father’s hacienda is surrounded, I need you to get word of what’s happening here to our lawyer in Santa Paula. Tell my father to write a letter to him, giving all the particulars, but you must bring him here. Don’t leave Santa Paula without him. I only have a day, maybe two before…” He couldn’t finish, but it was clear what he meant.
Victoria gave a quiet wail. “Diego!
He hated to see such anguish clouding her eyes. “Sh! It’s going to be fine, Victoria, it has to be. But I don’t trust Bishop. Keep your eye on him at all times, and please stay safe.”
Silent tears coursed unchecked down Victoria’s cheeks, but she managed to nod. “I will, Diego.”
“The idea of sending you out again with him even in the same pueblo as you…” The thought gave him chills.
“I… I won’t go anywhere alone. I’ll stay at the mission.”
“Good idea. Let Mendoza help. And I love you too.” He rushed his last comment, afraid that he would lose the nerve to say it at the last moment. He doubted that he’d get another chance. “I don’t care if I am playing with fire. I want you to know, in case…”
“No,” she simply said. “Then I’ll die too.”
“That can’t happen!” Diego was upset himself now. “If it does, then I… then you…” He would be gone, and there would be no Zorro to save her. The bleakness of that reality took his breath away. “Victoria…” A beautiful, wonderful, painful sorrow blossomed. She loved him… him… the man behind the mask. It was more than he’d ever hoped for… now that there really was no hope.
At last, he choked, “Promise me, you’ll look after my father and Felipe.”
“Diego, it won’t come to--”
She nodded. “I promise.”
“I know Father will always be there for you if I… can’t.”
More silent tears streaked her face. She leaned her head into the bars, mirroring Diego’s stance. “Diego de la Vega, I…”
Diego couldn’t maintain his proud facade any longer, and a sob curled inside him. “All these years, I felt - I was helping - by making sure you were safe - though I always loved you.”
Abruptly the door to the Alcalde’s office flew open so hard that it cracked against the wall, making Diego and Victoria jump. Bishop sauntered in, looking maddeningly smug. “No bullet, no crime. I told you he wouldn’t hold me.” He purposely crowded Victoria, who automatically shrank against the cell bars lest she touch him.
Diego hated the way Bishop seemed to relish in making Victoria cringe. Anger instantly surged. The Alcalde’s twisted logic suddenly exhausted him as antipathy for Zorro swamped him. He reviled the way he’d had to play the lethargic caballero for years. But mostly he despised Bishop. “Don’t treat Victoria like that.” Grabbing Bishop’s vest in an iron fist, he yanked the gambler hard into the bars. With a sickening crack, Bishop’s head collided with them. Diego released him and Bishop slumped unconscious to the ground. “I warned you not to trifle with me, Señor.”
A smile hovered at the edges of Victoria’s lips at the same time that a flurry of activity erupted around Bishop’s prone form. Mendoza solicitously assisted another lancer in dragging him away from Diego’s cell prior to lifting him for an unexpected trip to Dr. Hernandez. De Soto unapologetically clubbed the area where Diego’s fingers still wrapped around the bars, but Diego was too fast for him. He released the bars a split second before De Soto’s pistol butt landed on the spot where Diego’s fingers had just been.
All the while, Diego refused to be so helpless, surreptitiously hissing to Victoria, “Find the bullet!”
By then, several lancers had thrust the butts of their muskets through the bars at Diego to make him back away. Victoria jumped at the noise, De Soto yelled, and the lancers continued to smash the bars with their rifles.
Grinning devilishly, Diego said, “If I’m going to be hung as Zorro anyway, I might as well act like him while I have the chance.”
More shouting met his brazen statement, harsh and grating. Anger hindering his every move, the Alcalde roughly pulled his keys out of his pocket and unlocked Diego’s cell door, striding in without waiting for any back-up from his lancers. It abruptly occurred to Diego that he might have to fight De Soto if he wanted to avoid a severe beating himself.
But De Soto only wished to lash his hands behind his back with a rope. Diego concentrated on forcing his wrists apart as De Soto’s knot mercilessly chafed his smooth skin raw in seconds.
The Alcalde whipped his prisoner back around and shoved him into the wall. “I never would have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.” Diego said nothing, but stared straight at the Alcalde. It was an unprecedented moment of defiance that further riled the man. “Stop staring like that! For a well-known pacifist, you’re looking more and more like that criminal Zorro with every passing second.”
“What difference does it make?” Diego asked in a voice that was calmly irritating. “You’ve promised many times to hang any man thought to be Zorro. What have I got to lose at this point if I act like him?” He paused to consider. “It’s rather liberating, actually. I’ve never known how good it feels to give in to your baser instincts.” He flashed a saucy grin at De Soto. “Perhaps I’ll hit you next.”
“Perhaps I’ll hang you even if you’re not Zorro!” De Soto bellowed, shoved Diego onto the cell’s single cot, and strode from the cell, slamming the door.
Diego sat back, satisfied at the scene he’d just created. All his theatrics had served the dual purpose of rattling De Soto and freeing Victoria, who had slowly backed away from the bars, forgotten in the ensuing confusion. She’d slipped unnoticed through the door to the Alcalde’s office, clearly intent on leaving the cuartel while everyone was otherwise engaged in dealing with the suddenly violent Diego. In the next second, she had disappeared like smoke.
Diego understood that he had just given her the necessary time to search for the missing bullet that he alone knew existed. Meanwhile, he could count on Felipe to outwit the lancers surrounding the de la Vega hacienda to join Victoria, maybe even to get a second message to their lawyer.
Diego’s smile broadened. Though he was incarcerated and bound and slated to hang, he’d just sent De Soto a stinging slap of defiance, hadn’t needed Zorro to do it, and Victoria loved him. Life was perfect.