After the Secret

by Linda Bindner

At least, courting Victoria was the plan. However, not everything works out as expected.

* * *

Victoria Escalante stood behind her green bar and remembered, a tiny smile lighting her face. Though she endeavored to show her usual appearance to the pueblo and especially before the Alcalde, she couldn't help but reserve a small, private smile, just for her as she recalled the day before, the day she had found out his secret.

It had been a typical day, a boring day, until around noon or one o'clock when the de la Vegas had ridden into town, Alejandro on the wagon accompanied by a woman and the body of Emissary Risendo, the body of the son he never knew, and Diego on a white horse she had never seen him ride before. She had already heard the rumors about a sword fight and pistols and family histories that had plagued the de la Vegas, and now the sight of the Alcalde seemed to confirm the rumors, that he had shot Risendo in order to save Don Diego. For there sat Diego, alive and fairly unharmed on his white Andalusian, and there was the Alcalde on Dulcinea, bold as brass, resuming command of the town, and there rode Don Alejandro on the wagon, carrying the body. Emissary Risendo was quite obviously laid out in the back of the wagon, and he was also quite obviously dead.

Then began the time that nobody knew about, the time of confession, the time to end the secrets. It had come as a complete surprise to Victoria, as the participants in such secrets are often surprised. Diego had disclosed the most amazing news, first to his father and then to her, that his disdain for violence, his lack of caring for justice, was all an act, that he really did care, very much, so much that he had become the legendary masked man, Zorro, four and a half years earlier. That he had been playing the buffoon for his father, the Alcalde, the entire pueblo, to avoid suspicion. And that he was secretly very much in love with the tavern owner, only he had been too frightened to demonstrate such love in his guise as Diego, had been content with being her best friend, instead. Thus she had been romanced by a man who didn't exist, befriended by a man who did, and loved by both from near and far, always left to wonder about the identity of her masked bandit, always left to find whatever comfort she could in an empty bed and a cold engagement ring. Until the day before.

Victoria smiled again, knowing that it was dangerous, but also knowing that she couldn't help herself, happy to simply be loved and to know it. For Don Diego loved her, there was no doubt about that, and yesterday proved his love beyond that doubt. He had done the unspeakable, the unimaginable, by taking her in his arms after the confession and making sweet love to her in her bedroom, culminating the vows made in his secret cave that their love would find a time to be acknowledged, would be shouted about from the rooftops of the town, would be burned into her brain by his lips gone soft and inviting. For even though the mask was still needed, the disguise was still useful in the fight for justice and freedom, Diego was just a man with a man's passions that couldn't be denied any longer. And after the shock of the death and the confession had worn off, they had both endeavored to make a memorable afternoon.

Memorable it was, as Victoria relived every touch, every kiss, every twinge, the loud and soft explosion of their love at the end of the lovemaking that even now made her shake and shiver, as she stood unblushingly behind the bar, daydreaming about Diego's secret and his incredible hands, those hands which had made her feel special, loved, desirable, and fulfilled in the one act that she had wanted more than anything to have happen, for years. A culmination of their love and promise of a future together, any future, even one filled with worry and more waiting as he rode to confront the Alcalde and she was left behind, tending her tavern like always, and not like always, because now she had his love.

Six weeks later, still in a daze at how drastically her life had changed, the worry she felt had mutated and grown until she could deny the truth no longer; she was pregnant, with his child, with the baby the Alcalde would kidnap to find the father, until that father was irrevocably dead from the hangman's noose and she was...

She was what? Gone? Disgraced? Made helpless? Victoria would never be made helpless, and she would never begrudge herself the joy and sensations that lovemaking had woken in her, no matter her marital state, or lack of. She may have disappointed Padre Benitez and Don Alejandro, but she loved Diego fiercely, ravenously, and she was not about to give him up just because her tummy was doomed to get huge. The citizens of the pueblo could look down on her all they wanted and call her disgraced, dirty, soiled because she wasn't married yet and having a baby. They were just jealous, wishing that such incredible love could be theirs as well as hers. But a baby did present a problem that even she could not push aside.

She had to tell him, for his sake, for the baby's, for hers. Victoria didn't want Diego discovering her secret when she had to loosen her skirt waists, finding out from just anybody. But such a disclosure had to be in private, away from prying ears and eyes, away from the Alcalde. Or else Diego's secret life would be uncovered, unmasked, and her baby would only have stories instead of a father. That was unacceptable.

And so she found herself standing beside her bedroom window that night, peering out into the darkness, waiting for him to arrive as he had promised her under cover of one of Sergeant Mendoza's loud, raucous stories in the tavern that day. He appeared like a black ghost from her tavern's roof tiles, below her window and to the side. He rose up from the tiles and kissed her cheek. You wanted to see me? he asked, his tone jocular, but behind it Victoria could hear the love.

Yes. Come in, was all Victoria said, but the invitation was heartfelt and sincere.

Diego, dressed as Zorro, accepted the summons immediately, and crawled soundlessly through her window.

It always amazed her, how such a big man could be so quiet. But before she knew it, he was standing in front of her, in her bedroom, not at all ashamed or embarrassed, and leaning down for a breathless kiss.

Victoria answered the endearment, even deepening it, until he started to lead her towards the bed. That was not at all conducive to explaining her news! Reeling in her spinning mind, she fought for control and won, able to pull back after a second. I have something to talk about, she whispered in the quiet room. Only the sigh of the fire was softer.

Zorro disengaged from the kiss, but he clearly wanted to go further by the look in his masked eyes. The look changed to one of fear. You want to give my engagement ring back, he announced.

Victoria laughed softly. No! Nothing could be further from the truth. I love you as much if not more tonight as I did when I accepted that ring. That's not it at all, she soothed, running her hand over his cheek.

Then what is it? His eyes lit up at her mention of wanting to keep his mother's ring, of wanting to stay engaged. He turned his head to kiss her palm with lips already gone soft as velvet.

Victoria gestured at the end of her bed, the only seat in the room. You'd better sit.

This is serious. Tell me the truth, Victoria, if it's not the ring, and it's not me, what is it?

There was no way to blunt this news, to soften the blow. Victoria took a deep breath, then plunged on, I'm going to have a baby.

Time froze for a moment, then the smile faded from Zorro's face, replaced by lines of worry. A moment later he was able to say, No wonder you've been looking under the weather lately, he said slowly.

Victoria was surprised. I have?

Zorro nodded, but didn't enlighten her as to just how green she had looked. Instead, he twisted his head to gaze at her fire, enraptured, it seemed, by the yellow flames. We always knew this might happen, we just didn't think it would happen to us.

Making love practically every night for weeks? It had to be the result sooner or later, she said in a whisper, and now that she could smell his skin, was moved to kiss his smooth cheek and cradle his chin in her hand. Are you happy, angry, mortified, ashamed, astonished, what? You have to keep talking to me.

At first he couldn't say anything. Surprised, I guess. Then delighted. There's no one else I'd want to be the mother of my child. His gloved hands squeezed her waist in preface to another encouraging kiss.

She stopped his gesture. But what are we going to do? I can't hide this, and I can't stop tending the tavern.

It would be too suspicious, he agreed.

This will not be solved like one of your experiments. What are we going to do? she repeated, then sank to the rug on her bedroom floor, too tired to stand any longer.

Zorro held up a gloved finger. This is too like one of my experiments, he argued. It has a solution, like anything else. We only have to discover what it is. He rose and took a turn around the room. We have to think about this logically.

Logically? Victoria looked at him in the dim light. This is a baby. There's nothing logical about it.

He winced when she said the word 'baby,' but gamely continued on. First of all, you're sure you're... um, indisposed?

Victoria nodded, mutely terrified.

All right. And nobody else knows yet?

She finally found her voice. No, and if you're thinking of the Alcalde, he doesn't know yet, either.

Zorro smiled a little sadly at her. I was thinking of our good friend, the Alcalde. But the minute you start... uh, showing... you're sure to be arrested. So we have to have you safe by then. How far along...?

Victoria smiled, then turned puce as her stomach twinged and nausea hit her. She grimaced, but was determined not to throw up her dinner on him. I don't know for sure. A month?

A month, six weeks at the most...

We can be certain of that, Victoria quipped. He shot her a look that told her she wasn't helping matters any.

He started to pace, black boots brushing against the rug on her floor. You've seen Dr. Hernandez...

She interrupted him. No, I haven't.

His eyes grew wide, and he knelt beside her, taking her hands into his black gloves. Victoria, you have to see him. There may be something wrong that we don't know about yet.

Victoria wrinkled her forehead. I thought the only dangerous time of pregnancy was right at the end.

He sighed, thinking of his mother, knowing that she had died from complications of childbirth, and so had the baby. The thought of losing Victoria in a similar fashion sent waves of fear through him. I admit that I don't know much about such things.

It's more than I know, which is nothing, Victoria admitted, looking afraid for the first time since telling him.

The look, while short-lived, didn't pass by Zorro's notice. He reached out with both hands to touch her shoulders in a comforting embrace. Victoria, we'll think of something. You won't have to go through this on your own. I promise.

Victoria weakly laughed through her nose. You've said something like that before.

The comment, while innocent, made the masked individual's face fall. I know, and I'm sorry. He sat on her floor, looking miserable, his feet curled under him, and didn't move while his mind raced. Finally, he said, Let me think on it for a night. There has to be a way out of this.

Victoria offered comfort immediately. She gently stroked his chin, feeling the rough skin pass smoothly under her hand. Hey, I didn't tell you just to worry you. It's not the end of the world. And I have faith in you; you'll think of something.

He laughed, bitterly and ironically. I better. I have eight?... nine?... seven?... months to come up with an answer? That's assuming the Alcalde doesn't find out and kill you on the spot. He shuddered.

Victoria sat on her rug on the floor, feeling and looking like she felt, small.

That expression didn't slip passed him, either. He smiled encouragingly. Don't worry, I'll think of something.

Who's worried? I just don't feel well at the moment.

Zorro instantly became concerned. I thought you were supposed to feel sick in the mornings.

She shrugged. I don't know. Nothing's working out the way I thought it would.

Are you concerned?

A little, she admitted, then complained, There's so much I don't know, and there's no one I can ask.

He gave her a quick kiss on her cheek. I guess the night will be devoted to thinking and reading. Fast. But at least Father will be happy about this. He's always wanted grandchildren.

Victoria thought of telling Don Alejandro about their recent behavior, and shivered. Not this way.

He didn't pretend differently. Grim, he said, No. You're right. But you're not alone, remember that.

Contrite, Victoria nodded.

He stood, drawing her up with him. I'll hopefully have something for you soon. Until then...

Victoria laughed, a real sound that came up from her belly. ... I won't think about food!

He smiled again. That's my girl. Full of spirit. That's what I love about you. He took a precious moment to kiss her lips, and he felt his desire stir to life instantly. Chastising, reminding himself that was how he got into this trouble in the first place, he squashed the feeling. But he did pull Victoria into his arms. She felt so good next to him that he didn't want to let her go. I'll think of something, he said again, his voice full of hope.

Good, because I'm all thought out, Victoria admitted, and also thought how nice it was to relinquish this worry onto someone else's shoulders for a change. She just wished it didn't have to be his. I want you to know that I don't enjoy worrying you...

Hush, Victoria. I'm glad you told me. This is going to be one very well loved baby, he predicted, thinking of how his father would dote on the child once he got over his first shock. It will work out fine.

I wish I had your confidence.

He could be confident. You'll see. Years from now, you'll laugh about all this.

I'm not laughing, she reminded him.

But you will be, he promised. Then he disappeared like smoke through her window. Victoria watched him go, calmed by his words, but still feeling like the world was resting on her shoulders.

* * *

Things were much calmer the next morning, only Diego didn't feel calmer. True, he had spent half the night reading medical books and journals, all that he could lay his hands on, and planned to read more during the day, but he also planned to tell Don Alejandro before he heard the news as it came from a gossip column some week. That meant before they went to the pueblo, which meant during breakfast. It was one meal Diego wished he could skip.

Steaming dishes were set out around the table, and Diego could smell a mix of coffee and bacon, a delicacy in this far-sprung beef outpost, but one that often graced the de la Vega breakfast table because of Don Alejandro's fondness for it. More accustomed to the habits kept in Spain and Europe than Diego, many foods graced the table at breakfast that didn't grace the tables belonging to other caballeros. It was a known honor to be invited to the de la Vega hacienda for breakfast.

But today Alejandro and his son were the only ones in attendance, for which Diego was grateful. It would make telling of his most recent mess much easier if he didn't have other distractions to compete against. Explaining such news was going to be hard enough. He didn't want to have to pull his father away from guests, too.

Father, there's something I have to tell you, Diego said the minute they sat down at the oval table covered in food.

Alejandro took some of the warm bacon and laid it on his empty plate. Go ahead, I'm listening, Alejandro invited.

Diego hesitated now that the confession was at hand. You probably won't like what I'm going to tell you.

Alejandro chewed on the bacon, pushing aside the tamale he'd taken. Nothing could be as astonishing as learning that I had a son I never knew and his brother was secretly the savior of the pueblo.

Diego smiled a little smile at that statement. True. Although this comes as a close second.

Alejandro suddenly stopped chewing. He swallowed noisily, even though he liked bacon. All right, out with it. What have you done now?

Diego played uncomfortably with his linen napkin. He couldn't actually protest that he hadn't done anything, because he had. A child took two people to make. At the same time, he wouldn't have chosen to do anything differently; he loved Victoria, with all his heart, and being allowed to finally express that love was liberating, to say the least.

Diego pushed aside the napkin with determination. You know how you encouraged me to tell Victoria my secret? He was always protecting Zorro.

Alejandro hesitated, too, hoping not to hear what he thought he was going to hear. Yes.

Diego felt small, like a young boy caught stealing the snacks, and he wondered if this was how Victoria had felt the night before while telling him her news. He would have to ask her the first chance he got. We... um... did other things when I told her the secret, too.

Alejandro's eyes widened. There was still enough of the old school in him that he was shocked as well as surprised. You didn't. It was a statement, a final effort to ward off the blow that he knew was coming.

Diego did feel like he could defend that decision. Besides, he wasn't sure he cared enough to have done anything differently. We were a bit overwhelmed. And you know how you've always complained about wanting grandchildren?

Alejandro lowered his face into his hands. Oh, Diego, you didn't... she's not... He was so horrified that he couldn't finish a statement.

Diego finished for him. We did. And she is.

Pregnant? Alejandro asked.

Diego didn't smile now. Yes.

I just wanted to make sure, Alejandro said into his hands. He didn't say anything more, being too shocked to speak.

It's not the end of the world, Father, Diego said, borrowing words he'd heard from Victoria the night before.

Oh, yes it is, assured Alejandro, who knew more about such scandals.

No, it's not, protested Diego. I wanted to marry her, anyway. Here's my chance.

Alejandro didn't smile at the prospect of getting Victoria for a daughter-in-law. Diego, didn't you think..?

Diego had to smile at that. I didn't think much at all, actually.

That much is obvious.

Father!

An anguished Alejandro stared at his grown son through his slit fingers. You couldn't have waited?

Diego snorted inelegantly. We've waited for over four years.

A few more years was too long?

Well, yes, if you want to know the truth.

I don't.

Frustrated with what Diego saw as his father's clinging to the old ways for the sake of propriety, Diego explained, Father, all you need to know is that I love Victoria, I love this child, and I'm going to love being a father myself. Now, if you don't want to accept this and plan to treat this child like it has leprosy...

Alejandro lowered his hands. I never said that.

The interruption made Diego pause in his sudden tirade, knowing that while he was used to having a temper, his father wasn't nearly as used to seeing it. I plan to own up to my responsibilities, Diego responded a lot more quietly.

Alejandro sat up straighter in his chair. He looked around the room, and allowed his eyes to wander to the other parts of the hacienda that he could see. Well, things are going to change around here, he noted. Do you and Victoria have a plan?

That was one question Diego could easily answer. I've thought of something, but we haven't had time to talk yet. She just told me the news last night.

Alejandro asked curiously while he played with his spoon. Then she isn't very far along?

About a month, Diego responded.

Alejandro sighed. Well, I don't know much about... this. He couldn't say the word 'pregnancy' this time. In fact, he had as much trouble as Diego had the night before. As you know, I was in the army when your mother was... heavy with you and Gilberto. And the second time was... awful.

Diego decided to take pity on his stumbling father. I know, he said on a sad sigh. That's why I've been reading furiously all night.

Alejandro chuckled, an oddly light sound considering the topic under discussion. That's so like something you'd say. But books won't solve your problems this time, Diego.

Diego had to smile at that comment. But it doesn't hurt, he argued mildly. Knowledge is always power.

Alejandro's face suddenly appeared thoughtful as he considered something for the first time. Have you considered how the Alcalde is going to take this news?

Diego gave a strangled sound, halfway between a groan and a sigh. I have, and I can't see how we can hide this from him. I don't even see how I can save Victoria's reputation, so he's the least of my worries right now.

Shouldn't he figure more prominently into your worries?

If I had about a year, he would, Diego promised. But I don't. I guess we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Later that same day, Diego wished he'd considered his old enemy more carefully. Unfortunately, in the end, there just wasn't time.

* * *

At exactly eleven o'clock, the de la Vegas and Felipe wandered into her tavern the next day. Victoria's heart leapt upon first seeing Diego, and she had to force it to remain calm. Diego sauntered up to her immediately as she paused in her rush to bring food to a hungry customer. Alejandro scanned the place for a free table.

Meet me out back in ten minutes, Diego ordered quietly, then went to join his father as if he didn't have a care in the world.

Victoria wished she could project such peace. But she figured that he'd had more practice than she had, and it was hard to look peaceful when her stomach went rolling at the mere sight of food. Determined. she gave a tiny nod, then calmed her heaving stomach.

Nine minutes later, Diego declared that he had forgotten something in The Guardian office, and went to retrieve it. A minute after that, Victoria said she had to dump her dishwater out and wanted to look at the California weather.

To that, Teresa, Victoria's helper for the day, laughed lightly and said, It's hot! What more do you need to know? but shrugged her shoulders as she bought Victoria's story without further comment. As calmly as she could, Victoria picked up the bucket from the corner and carried it out the back door.

Diego was standing, waiting for her behind the tavern.

He looked up, and when he saw it was her, he smiled. Victoria! You're looking much better today.

She smiled back. Gracias, I'm feeling much better, too, she said as she dumped the water.

The innocent exchange over, he imparted in a much softer voice, I did some reading in my medical books last night. It seems we don't have to worry if you're not feeling well in the evenings. It's quite common to feel that way at any time, not just the mornings.

Relief hit her like a heat wave. She hadn't realized she had been so worried about it. That's good to know. Trust me to be strange even in this. Did you come up with a plan?

He nodded, not looking at her lest he do something he would regret later, like kiss her. Yes, of a sort.

Again, relief washed over her.

You wait until the... um, pregnancy is discovered, and then I marry you in an apparently chivalrous act, or I start courting you right now and you fall in love with me during an extremely short courtship, and I marry you, and then the... um, pregnancy is discovered, all the while pretending that the baby's mine. Either way, you and Zorro look bad, and I look good. I'm sorry you have to suffer at all because of me.

Or... and he hated to give this option, but he felt she had to know every possible solution, the Alcalde arrests you on the spot for knowing Zorro's identity and hangs you as soon as he conveniently can.

Or we can tell the truth, she reminded him, knowing that it wasn't really a possibility, but wanting to hear all the options available.

Diego nodded. Or we tell the truth, he repeated, but shivered at the very thought of it. Knowing full well that revealing his identity had to be saved for a last conceivable effort, he gave a defeated gesture with his arms. Perhaps if I had more time, like, say, a year or two...

That's all right, Diego, and Victoria risked placing a hand on his shoulder. We should choose one of the first two options; my reputation is the least of my concerns right now.

He sighed sadly. But not mine. I'm sorry I can't think of a way to save it without revealing my identity, but I can't.

Victoria was forgiving. I know. And you tried your best. She thought hard, and at last she nodded. I think the first way should be what we choose. No one would believe that I can fall in love with you. No offense.

Diego smiled, amazed that either of them could find humor in the situation at this point. Good. At least you get to see Dr. Hernandez this way.

And I think I should claim that Zorro and I got married...

Horrified, he couldn't help but turn his eyes on her. No! You'll be thought to know who he is and be arrested!

Mildly she continued, No, I won't. I didn't say we should tell the Alcalde. Let me finish. To protect the padre, we can say Zorro and I got married in Santa Barbara or one of the other pueblos that are far away. After one night of glorious passion, I get pregnant, but we can't stay married for obvious reasons. Victoria intimated the Alcalde, but didn't speak her thoughts aloud.

That's fair, Diego conceded, agreeing with her unspoken as well as spoken comments. But it's an awful risk for you.

It's an even bigger risk for you. People will believe it, as they tend to believe the worst about others, sad to say. But at least we get to be together openly, and you still get to be Zorro. Not bad for a night's work.

Diego acknowledged that what she said had a grain of truth in it. But your reputation will be ruined, he proclaimed, still shaking his head in a sad way.

That didn't bother her overly much. It probably already is because of what I am and my very public emotions for Zorro.

I'm sorry it has to be that way.

Don't be. I'd do it all over again if given the chance.

Astonished by her willingness to sacrifice for him, Diego could only gaze at her in undisclosed love and admiration. Voicing, 'I love you,' was too risky, out in the open like they were, but he squeezed her hand before disappearing to the front of the tavern, and she tried to build up her courage for the storm ahead.

And there was a storm. The minute she visited Dr. Hernandez the next morning, news of Victoria's pregnancy swept through the pueblo, as did the news of her marriage to Zorro, and both were the favored topic of conversation at the tavern that entire morning. Things grew quiet as Victoria neared a table, but gossip reigned when she wasn't standing right there. She couldn't be everywhere at once, however. To let the storm blow over and so she wouldn't have to listen to her customer's stories as well as endure some patrons' censure, she spent as much time as she could in her kitchen.

Seemingly aware but unaffected by the raging storm, the de la Vegas composedly walked into the tavern and chose a table for lunch. Next, the Alcalde entered, then sauntered over to their table, and Alejandro was forced to politely ask him to sit, which he did. Don Diego, what are you reading? DeSoto asked as he took a seat next to Alejandro, then ordered chicken burritos from the kitchen.

Diego marked the page with a finger, then explained, Victoria told us about her symptoms, and since I don't know if they're normal or not, I'm doing a little reading up on the subject. Besides, I'm... curious.

DeSoto's brows drew together. Symptoms? Is she sick?

Alejandro looked amazed. You mean you haven't heard? Why, it's all over the pueblo, ever since her visit to Dr. Hernandez this morning. Alejandro loudly proclaimed this news, as Diego and Victoria had instructed him to do. However, he seemed to be enjoying himself too much.

Diego cautioned, Father, at the same time DeSoto spoke.

I've been stuck in my office, doing paperwork all day. I haven't been out before now, haven't heard a thing. Suddenly DeSoto laughed, a light, heartless chuckle that Diego knew meant trouble. What did she do, marry that bandit of hers and get in the family way?

DeSoto was joking, of course, but Don Alejandro wasn't as adept at picking up on such things as Diego was. His father spoke before Diego could distract the Alcalde by bringing up something else. That's exactly what she did, Alejandro declared.

For one heartstopping moment, the Alcalde froze with his red-checked napkin halfway from his mouth to the table. In that instant, Alejandro realized the import of what he had said, but couldn't take a breath of air fast enough to undo the damage he'd done. Simultaneously, Diego wished he'd come up with more options for himself and Victoria, and that Los Angeles would finally have a fair and just alcalde so he wouldn't have to worry about such things. Then the moment was over and no one had any more time for words, distracting or otherwise.

DeSoto rose, and Diego stood directly afterwards, saying a calming, Alcalde, wait...

At the same time, Victoria entered the large main room with another full plate in her hands. Oblivious, she paused when she saw Diego standing and the Alcalde drawing closer to her. Eyebrows raised in wonder, she was a helpless victim as she watched the scene unfold,

So, you married that man, Zorro, and are carrying his baby? DeSoto rudely asked.

Caught completely off guard, Victoria stumbled around in her mind for something intelligent and distracting to say. I...

His voice deceptively soft, DeSoto next demanded, Do you know who he is?

Victoria couldn't glance at Diego. She wouldn't dare. That would be enough to give him away. She couldn't expect help from that avenue, no matter how much she wanted it. DeSoto was waiting for an answer, though she had none to give. I.., she repeated timidly.

Aahh! DeSoto shouted in vocal annoyance, suddenly impatient, abandoning any pretense. You know who he is, Seņorita, you have to. And since you won't tell me, I'll have to arrest you for consorting with a known criminal! He pushed the plate out of the way. It broke on the floor and food spattered the wall. Victoria jumped.

Alcalde.., began Diego warningly, sounding calm while his heart was racing, but he was interrupted.

Stay out of this, Diego! DeSoto ordered as he wrapped one hand around Victoria's upper arm and said angrily to her, Maybe a liaison with my gallows will jog your memory.

Diego tried again. Alcalde...

But DeSoto ignored him as he dragged an abruptly struggling Victoria out of the tavern and into the noon sunshine, fear displayed on her face, a bigger admission than anything else she could have done.

It looked like DeSoto was aiming to put Victoria in jail again, prior to the dawn executions he was so fond of, in the hopes of capturing Zorro. However, Zorro had broken her free from jail for lesser offenses many times in the past. And it looked like he would have to do so again.

But DeSoto turned in the dusty plaza and didn't head for his office and the jail. Instead, he pulled Victoria along behind him to the side of the plaza where a gallows had been left after hanging several criminals the day before. Other, more pressing concerns, had prevented the lancers from dismantling it as quickly as they had executed those criminals. The rope even still hung, swinging in the breeze. Diego had given it a distasteful glance on his way to collect ink and a quill from The Guardian office, everyone knowing how he liked to mark up the margins of his books, while he allayed suspicion from his earlier talk with Victoria.

Now DeSoto headed for the steps while the lunch crowd streamed out of the tavern to watch. For the first time since the scene began, Diego started to worry as a cold rock lodged in the pit of his stomach.

The only good thing about this scene was that the lancers had not had time to load their muskets, though there were plenty of lancers called outside by the noise of the crowd, wanting to see what was happening. When they deduced everything, they rushed to hold back the crowd and to dutifully help their Alcalde, some with loaded guns, some without.

Don Alejandro and Diego were instantly separated by the surging crowd, and Diego easily understood how such a crowd might trample an unwary person. He grabbed Felipe's print shirt and held on tight, even while he kept his eyes trained on Victoria.

Alcalde! yelled Don Alejandro, instantly enraged at the proceedings. You can't do this! When's her trial? Where's the jury? What about due process?

The Alcalde laughed, a sickening, wheezy sound in the noisy plaza. As the appointed law in this territory, I can do anything I want. Victoria Escalante is clearly suffering from a memory lapse; she has to know the identity of Zorro. No one could marry the man and not know all about it. No, she's pretending, simply to evade justice.

Victoria spoke out then, beginning to get desperate in her struggles. He kept the mask on the entire time! I don't know who he is!

DeSoto sent her a withering look. Do you truly expect any one to believe that, Seņorita? Or should I say Seņora? Lying won't help you now. He finished pulling Victoria up the steps as Diego wondered what to do. The crowd broke out into loud yells and catcalls, making it even harder for Diego to think. How had they gotten themselves into such horrible situation? Well, Diego knew how, but...

Sergeant Mendoza was right beside his superior officer, arguing for calmer musings in his own nervous way. He'll be awfully angry when he finds out that we tried to harm the seņorita; don't you think we should wait, mi Alcalde?

Wait? Whatever for, Sergeant? Besides, if we wait, that will only give Zorro a chance to humiliate us again when he rescues her, said DeSoto as he tightly bound Victoria's hands behind her and grabbed for the gallow's rope. No, if the seņora wants to live, she'll have to tell us who Zorro really is.

Diego's racing heart practically stopped beating altogether.

Even more horrified, Victoria spoke up vehemently. I told you, I don't know who he is! How many times do I have to tell you that? She pulled her bound hands away from the Alcalde and would have run for the stairs, but he just used his superior strength to seize them again and finish lowering the roped noose around her neck while she fought brutally the entire time.

DeSoto appeared almost gleeful in what he was doing. Of course you know who he is! You're simply not telling us. Now, I'll give you one more chance to display your knowledge, or you'll find out the hard way how good these gallows work, DeSoto threatened.

I don't know anything, Victoria stubbornly remarked, and would have pulled the rope away from her neck if her hands weren't bound behind her. She was beginning to get worried, but what could she do, bound and watched like she was? Instead, she turned suddenly pleading eyes on the sergeant.

Mendoza hated to see the pain in her eyes. Mi Alcalde, he said, trying again to convince his superior to see reason, though DeSoto rarely saw reason when Zorro was concerned. I don't think this is a very good idea...

Nonsense, Sergeant! DeSoto bellowed. This is an excellent idea, especially if it makes Zorro angry. An angry man will eventually make a mistake in a sword fight, and we can take advantage of that mistake, explained DeSoto. Now, if you won't do your duty, I will!

But that's Seņorita Escalante! Mendoza protested.

Don't think of her as the tavern owner you've known for years, but as an accessory to a criminal, DeSoto suggested, his sneer and disrespect in place. It was obvious what he thought of both her and Zorro.

Desperate now, Don Alejandro tried to surge forward, but the lancers effortlessly held him back with their muskets and swords. Instead of storming up the steps, he had to content himself with yelling angrily, Alcalde, you can't do this to an innocent woman...

Innocent is she? DeSoto interrupted to ask. We'll see about that. His hand moved to the lever that would release the wooden platform under Victoria's feet. It appeared that he truly intended to hang her.

Through all of this, Diego had watched, too horrified to do anything. But frozen as he was, his mind worked just fine, and he saw life without Victoria begin to unfold. It was empty and awful, as he predicted it would be. His hazy, horrified mind could think of nothing useful but protesting, 'No!' over and over again. However, he was slowly realizing things, details that surrounded him, and noticed that he and Felipe were not nearly as heavily guarded as his more vocal father. Grabbing a sword from a stunned lancer should be fairly simple. Throwing the hidden knife that he always kept in his boot should be easier yet.

DeSoto put his shoulder into moving the lever under his hand, intent on pushing it aside and moving the trap door under Victoria that would put an end to all her struggles forever.

Mendoza tried one last time to dissuade him. Alcalde, hanging her is not such a good idea. He was more blunt under the pressure that the lever represented.

Alcalde, the people will not stand for this, warned Alejandro, loud and threatening.

The Alcalde replied, Then let them revolt! My lancers will only suppress their traitorous ways! He seemed to have forgotten that it was Victoria who had come to his defense only a few weeks prior when he found himself in much the same situation with Emissary Risendo. He turned his attention once again to the lever.

Even more desperate now, Victoria tried to spread her feet wider than the trap door in the gallows, but the door was wider then she could stand.

A chant from the crowd began, started by his otherwise helpless father, Innocent! Innocent! Innocent! DeSoto ignored them and snidely saluted Victoria before he turned yet again, prepared to throw aside the lever.

What else could Diego do? He would give up anything for Victoria, even the truth.

Stop! called a commanding voice then, a voice that everyone in the plaza recognized, even if no one knew from which direction it came. Everyone became suddenly quiet. The chanting ceased. Birdcalls from outside the pueblo were the only sound. Then a knife firmly embedded itself in the leaver that controlled Victoria's life, quivering in the wind that blew through the small town.

The Alcalde did what he was told to do by pausing, his shoulder thrown back and pulling him off balance, but there was that pleased expression on his face again. He looked over the crowd, at the rooftops, not sure where the voice had issued from, but certain it belonged to Zorro. So you came. Why don't you show yourself first, you coward?

Because I'm not stupid, Alcalde, cried the voice again. Now, let the seņorita go, and you might come out of this alive. Fury reverberated in that voice.

DeSoto called back, I'll think about it, Zorro.

No! You'll do more than think, for a change. You'll do. That tone held not a request, but a command, angry and biting.

DeSoto dared to ask, And if I don't?

Then the next thing I throw will be aimed for your throat, Alcalde, and I feel I should warn you that I rarely miss.

It was the first time that cocky voice had issued a challenge, a threat, and a self-compliment all at the same time. But not even the closest lancers could deduce where it was coming from. They all still looked to the rooftops, expecting Zorro to show himself there. They definitely didn't think to gaze for the owner of that voice in the crowd of onlookers.

But it was growing more and more obvious that the figure was not going to show itself on the rooftops, and people's attentions turned to look over the crowd in the plaza, everyone expecting now to see the black clad hero among them. But there had been no time to think of changing to the black uniform of Zorro, barely time to think at all. The onlookers forgot to consider that, as did the Alcalde, and they were all extremely surprised when they began to deduce that the voice they'd all heard, the voice that rang so effortlessly across the plaza, could belong to one of them.

But Diego chose that moment to slowly step forward, past the lancers who were guarding the people closest to him, a sword taken from one of those very lancers without his knowledge or consent firmly in hand, fire in his every step. A brave or idiotic lancer tried to earn a promotion by rushing Diego, who felled the hapless military officer with one blow from his left hand. He'd never taken his eyes off Victoria and the Alcalde. In all the time he had played the hero to the common people, the same people now staring at him in open astonishment, so much anger had never blazed from his blue eyes before.

Diego made DeSoto his target, and the lancers didn't know who to watch, their Alcalde or his people, so they were little help, waiting for orders. And Diego didn't intend to let DeSoto issue those orders. He was at the bottom of the steps now, still going slow, and he methodically climbed them, one at a time, the Alcalde and Victoria his goal the entire ascent.

Madre de Dios! Mendoza blinked, seeming to clear his eyes, the first to speak. Don Diego? he asked incredulously. You?

Diego gazed at DeSoto, but spoke to the sergeant. Mendoza. You tried to dissuade this swine from unjustly enforcing the law. I won't soon forget that. Then he reached the Alcalde, and let the fury burn in his eyes. His voice now low and menacing, he held the sword up threateningly, and said, You may have saved my life a few weeks ago, but you have tried to end the life of the woman I love and my child; I won't forget that, either.

The Alcalde stared at him in quiet, open-mouthed astonishment, not quite believing what he was seeing with his own eyes, but never taking his stare off Diego. Thus he didn't see the fist that suddenly sprang out of nowhere and connected with his jaw, that sent him flying over the gallow's wooden support railing. Mendoza hurried down the steps to be with his beaten superior officer, helping where he could. But he wasn't much help to the stunned Alcalde.

Quietly, still furious but doing his best not to let it show, Diego gently lifted the noose from Victoria's neck, and carefully untied the rope bonds holding her hands behind her back. She had been so scared that she was trembling, but she put on a brave front, refusing to fall apart in front of him or the crowd watching their every move.

Diego quietly, deceptively, asked, Are you all right?

Victoria nodded. Her arm hurt, and she had rope burn around her neck, but she would never tell him that. Instead of listing her complaints, she hugged him fiercely, tightly, the instant her arms were free, burying her face in the ruffles of his shirt. She shook her head back and forth and whispered, Diego, I'm sorry that you were forced to give up your identity for me. I thought DeSoto was really going to go through with it. I've truly never been so scared in all my life.

Diego sighed and cradled her, rocking soothingly back and forth, but making sure not to drop the sword he carried, either. I thought I was going to lose you; my identity is worth a thousand of you. He kissed her on the forehead, then, in a light endearment and in plain view of everybody watching. You're sure you're all right?

Victoria nodded. I'm all right. Let's just get out of here. Equally as slowly, they turned and went down the steps, one by one, until they reached the ground, and Diego transferred a still shaking Victoria over to the comforting arms of his father, pushing lancers away to get to him. Watch her, please? Alejandro nodded. Make sure all of you stay safe.

What are you going to do, Diego? Alejandro asked quietly, though his voice easily carried to everybody in the stunned crowd.

Do? Diego's eyes blazed with fury. I'm going to make sure this doesn't happen again.

Don't do... anything you might regret later, said Don Alejandro, meaning that he didn't want Diego to kill the Alcalde. He suspected his son would show remorse over his actions later, at a more composed time, yet suspected, too, that Diego was angry enough to give in to his anger and kill him as well. He didn't want such a sorrow to overshadow his family in the future; taking even a life deserving of it wasn't worth it.

Diego nodded, indicating that he understood both the spoken and the unspoken meanings, then he effortlessly pushed the lancers aside and made his way over to where the Alcalde was lying in the dust, trying to catch his breath.

Diego hauled with his left hand on the Alcalde's military jacket front, pulling him up, no longer pretending anything for him, the crowd, for Victoria and his father, no longer caring about holding back. You, he began, his voice low and deadly, get up. He was terse, commanding, yet perfectly coherent. If you think you're going to get out of this without a fight, think again, and he kept DeSoto between him and the loaded rifles.

DeSoto sneered as best he could with a bruise already forming on his lower jaw. So, you're the masked man, the one whose been terrorizing the pueblo for years?

The one whose been defending these good people from your tyranny and overtaxation, don't you mean? Diego asked softly, dangerously. Yes, it was me, and I plan one last defense of my family, old and new, Victoria, all oppressed people everywhere... After this, you'll wish you'd never come to Los Angeles, Seņor. Now, draw your sword.

Diego... tried the Alcalde.

Draw it!

DeSoto slowly drew his sword as the citizens were even more amazed that this peace-loving de la Vega actually had a temper that they'd never before seen displayed.

As a final effort, DeSoto attempted to make Diego angrier than he already was. Diego, you're a peaceful man; don't kill me. Let me return to Madrid.

It worked. Diego seethed, but remained in control, much to DeSoto's chagrin. I don't plan to kill you, Ignacio, Diego promised, all the while circling the Alcalde warily. Zorro never kills, but you'll still be glad to return to Madrid.

Suddenly, the Alcalde called, Mendoza, take him!

But Diego wasn't up for interference. He raised his voice slightly, still angry, still terse and short. If anybody takes a step to interfere, I'll kill him. That goes for the good sergeant, too.

DeSoto pushed back his hair, which the wind had blown askew and into his eyes. I thought you said you don't plan to kill anyone, he pointed out mockingly.

Diego halted for a moment and raised the sword to a salute. I lied.

DeSoto chose that moment to attack, bringing his sword around in an arc while Diego saluted, hoping to catch his master opponent off guard, but Diego parried smoothly, catching the next lunge and pushing it aside with his blade.

Nice try, Alcalde, but I'm afraid that tactic won't work, Diego informed as he blocked yet another swing. Anger still snapped with his every step. He backpedaled, drawing DeSoto and the madly crashing blades away from the gathered citizens. It looked as though DeSoto was winning, as he approached teasingly, lunged, then withdrew, time and again. Women would have tensely gasped if they hadn't already been too amazed to make a sound. But the second Diego had pulled the fight away from the crowd to his satisfaction, he stopped his retreat, bringing his sword down to crash on DeSoto's again and again.

A lunge, a riposte, a shove, a parry, and then DeSoto found himself suddenly disarmed as Diego towered over him like an avenging angel. DeSoto backed into a post supporting his office roof, then had nowhere else to go. He trembled at the fury cast down onto him, afraid for the first time all day, afraid that he might have gone too far. Diego held the tip of his borrowed sword at DeSoto's throat.

Get on a ship, Diego ordered shortly, breathing hard in his effort to contain his fury. Go back to Spain. He drew in air like he'd been in the grips of a fire and hadn't seen oxygen for days. And if I ever see you in the Los Angeles area again, I promise to kill you. The quiet sincerity of that vow made it easily heard, made it tremble in the air, made it as unbreakable as the strongest metal. For what you almost did to Victoria, for what you've done to these good people, get out, now, while you can walk. Because even if I don't kill anybody, I didn't say a thing about maiming, and you'll be the first victim, he promised. Now, go.

DeSoto tried to dissuade him. Diego, don't you think a ship..?

But Diego wasn't going to be dissuaded. Go. Before I change my mind.

DeSoto finally understood. All right, all right, I'm going. He headed for the cuartel and a horse, angry now himself, but far angrier at not counting on his enemy's strength.

Diego stopped him, No. Go, now.

No horse? asked DeSoto.

No horse. You deserve a few blisters. The crowd laughed, nervously, though Diego was completely serious.

DeSoto was unapologetic as he headed out of the pueblo. I'll be back, he promised, a poor loser, intent on his promise. You'll have to constantly look over your shoulder for me, for the death I'll bring.

Diego walked over to the nearest lancer and before the man even thought to react, grabbed his rifle. He turned back to DeSoto. That's why I intend to go with you. Make one wrong move, and I promise to kill you. It was a simple vow, one that decreed little work, but a lot of time.

How do you know that's one of the loaded rifles? DeSoto forced himself to ask.

How do you know it isn't? asked Diego, still so angry that he showed little sympathy for the man's fears. Instead he slipped the sword in his sash and grabbed hold of his horse's reins. Lead on. The port of San Pedro awaits.

DeSoto balked just outside of Los Angeles. You're not serious?

Diego lowered the rifle until it pointed straight at DeSoto's heart. Try me.

* * *

It was the next morning, long past the hour when most of the citizens arose to start their day, when Diego slowly trotted back through the gates of Los Angeles. He steered his mount to the hitching rail at the tavern and tied her to the post, then sauntered to the kitchen door when nobody was looking. He opened the door and went in.

Victoria wasn't in the hot room, but Teresa was there, stirring the fire under a kettle full of stew. Her mouth fell open as large as the kettle opening when he walked in unannounced and motioned for her to be quiet. As calmly as she could, she grabbed a new pitcher of lemonade and parted the curtains prior to walking sedately into the main room. Once there, she sidled up to a hardworking Victoria.

She stopped the tavern owner on her way to the bar and whispered, There's someone you would like to see in the kitchen.

Brows furrowed, but making the movement appear as natural as possible, Victoria didn't look at her customers, but instead slipped backwards through her curtains. It was a well-tested fact that people only looked at her if she looked at them first. With that in mind, she ignored everything but the room that Teresa had just vacated.

Once catching sight of Diego, Victoria dropped the empty pitcher of orange juice in her hands.

Diego caught it before it could hit the floor and shatter. He smiled, tired, and whispered, Yours, I believe.

She threw herself at him. When did you get back? How did it go? We've all been so worried about you!

Diego laughed. One question at a time, Seņorita, he said, prior to answering everything. When did I get here? Just now. How did it go? Fine. You won't have to worry about DeSoto anymore; he's gone. And I'm sorry you've all been worried about me. How's that for answering questions? He held her even more tightly. I'm on my way to see Father at the hacienda before I go to bed and sleep for a hundred years. But I had to see you first. How are you feeling?

I'm fine. Teresa suggested that cooking smells, not cooked food, is making me sick. Other than that, Seņor Benaldo lost his pet chicken yesterday at the market, and for a few moments, there was pandemonium. Otherwise, things have been status quo. Now let me look at you.

I'd rather have a kiss, Diego replied honestly.

Don't worry; you'll get one. Victoria raised herself on tiptoe and tilted her head. The kiss she received was scratchy from his beard and a little late for her taste, but wonderful nontheless.

I wish I had more time, Diego admitted. But if I don't go to sleep soon, I'll fall over. Even something as beautiful as your lips won't stop that. He smiled apologetically at her.

I'm just glad you paused here first. Victoria pushed him towards the back door. Now go home; see your father; get some sleep. I'll be here when you come back to town.

He was amazed that he had found someone so understanding. Have I told you lately how much I love you?

Not lately. You can make it up to me tonight. Now go.

But just as Diego pulled the door shut behind him, he heard her whisper. I love you, too. It was enough, and Diego ambled back to the front of the tavern to untie his horse. Yes, he thought, it was good to finally be free.


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