Hidden Agendas

by Linda Bindner

Diego de la Vega sat, unmoving on a chair in the hacienda's sumptuous library, lost in thought. He recalled quite clearly what he had claimed to his father earlier that day, and the memory made him inwardly wince.

"What had Gilberto been about to say right before he died?" his father had asked, and Diego had tried to explain his secret, he really had, but at the last moment had once again been compelled to make up some ridiculous excuse about his sword fighting skills. He had said that he had more expertise than he had led others to believe, that fighting for his life had brought back what he'd learned in his sword lessons, but he had seen the afternoon sun shining across the hurt in Alejandro's eyes. His father had known that his son had once again not told him the truth. It was amazing, really, that he hadn't pressed Diego to explain deeper than the lies had indicated. But he couldn't put his father off much longer, nor could he put off telling Victoria...

Diego groaned in frustration and dropped his head into his hands. He had tried to tell Victoria of his secret love and his identity at the same time he'd tried to tell his father, and the result had left him sweating. He simply couldn't do it.

However he also knew that he couldn't play the fool for his love much longer before she realized who he secretly was. He preferred telling her the secret and appealing to her kind heart instead of...

An insistent knocking in the hacienda's front door thankfully interrupted his meditations. Promising himself that he would return to his irritating and elusive ideas at his first opportunity, he rose and crossed the room to answer the door.

The surprising form of Victoria greeted him as he stared into the front courtyard. Victoria! he exclaimed, delighted to see her so soon after seeing her in town. What can I do for you?

She pointed back at her wagon that she had pulled up to the gate. I brought some food for you and your father for supper, but I'm afraid that I'll spill it all over the place if I try to lift it by myself...

That was as far in her explanation as she got before Diego interrupted her, a true look of expectation at getting more of her excellent cooking on his handsome face. Supper! Honestly, Victoria, you didn't have to do that. He left the door open behind him as he joined her on the top step of the entryway. But allow me, he said and hurried over to the wagon to lift down the heavy pot sitting in the wagon bed.

Victoria hefted what was clearly a loaf of bread wrapped in an old towel down as well. The dining room, I think, she directed, and Diego led the way to the room she had indicated and placed the big, silver pot on the polished wood table. An aromatic odor of stew floated up to him.

Thank you, Diego. Victoria directed the young de la Vega heir in leaving the pot of food the she had brought for the afflicted family the day of the death of Gilberto Risendo.

But it was Victoria who should be thanked. Diego said as much the instant he released the stew pot onto the table. No, we should be thanking you for bringing all this food, Victoria. There was no need, really.

Victoria set the loaf of bread she was carrying beside the pot of stew. It was no trouble, you know, Diego, and of course I would bring something to comfort the family of my best friend; you've been so good to me in the past that...

Nonsense, Diego interrupted congenially. We have done nothing that...

Victoria did some interrupting of her own. Diego, she said, suddenly serious and far less congenial, and she stared intently at the tabletop instead of at the man standing beside her, do you mind if I ask you a personal question?

Diego blanched as the blood slowly drained from his cheeks. Could she have possibly figured out his secret identity at long last? He regarded her carefully. Her look of childish innocence reassured him. Feel free, he invited, and his tone of voice was lighter than his heart. With some trepidation, he waited for her to speak.

Victoria paused now that she had been encouraged to vent her mind. She stared at the top of the table, then snuck a glance at Diego, then hurried to return her gaze to the safety represented by the table's wooden top.

What is it? Diego finally prompted when she didn't say anything.

Still hesitant, Victoria shyly inquired, You don't have to answer if you don't wish to, Diego, but I was wondering... how did you know about the Emissary? About him... being related to you?

Was that all? Diego gave a mental sigh of relief, and smiled warmly at the tavern owner standing gravely before him. Besides the fact that he claimed a family relationship, there was the testimony of Señora Risendo as well as the certain evidence of a birthmark that was irrefutable at the time. He shrugged. We seemed to have little choice but to accept the truth.

She placed a palm on his arm, and Diego had to work very hard to suppress the shiver that coursed down his spine. Oblivious to the effect she had on him, Victoria continued, Are you all right with this? I mean, he was not the most popular of men in Los Angeles.

The smile at her anxiety blossomed once again. We're fine. There's no need to worry about us, though it is nice to have good friends bring us such wonderful gifts. And he hefted the loaf of bread into the air to indicate her recent favor of food.

Victoria smiled. Oh, it was nothing, Diego. She flipped her hair over her shoulder, unconscious of the effect that such a simple move would have on him.

Diego's smile wavered, but held. Of course it is. And we fully appreciate all your hard work. He felt collected enough to put his own hand on her shoulder. The least we can do as repayment is offer a loan of one of our books. He tried to look encouragingly at her.

I would appreciate a new book to read, she admitted, then gave a look of deprecation. If it weren't for you and Don Alejandro, I wouldn't be nearly as cultured as I am.

Diego grinned down at her. We can't have you getting bored, he teased, then his eyes lit up. Would you like to borrow our newest book? It's poetry. I know that you aren't really interested in that sort of thing...

It puts me to sleep, I admit, she said.

He went on as if she hadn't interrupted, It's quite good, actually. Guaranteed not to put any reader to sleep. His grin grew.

So he had been listening. She tilted her head, considering, I can't promise you anything...

Diego placed a hand mockingly to his own chest and rolled his eyes. After today's events, nothing will surprise me again, even if you claim to have fallen in love with poetry.

I like poetry just fine, she protested, secretly marveling at the cavalier way he was able to treat the events of the day. It's just that I often fall asleep with a volume open on my bed.

Diego wished she would mention any other image than her bed. He blinked rapidly. Sometimes that's what poetry is good for. But this is a rousing adventure story in a simple rhythm, easy to read. whether poetry is or is not your favorite thing. I think you'll like it.

Victoria capitulated. Then I'll try it. She smiled. Though I won't promise you anything, she cautioned again as she followed him to the darker recesses of the library at twilight where a built-in set of shelves housed Diego's collection of poetry books.

Diego smiled again and pulled a volume from the third shelf. I hope it won't put you to sleep.

Victoria grinned back a bit sheepishly. Thank you, Diego. I'll be very careful with your book and get it back to you when I'm finished. She reached out a hand for the thin volume.

And that's when the last mysterious event of the day occurred. With Diego's fingers still wrapped around the plain, cloth volume, the tips of those fingers touched the ends of Victoria's outstretched hand, and unmistakable sparks flew through the air, causing both of them to sharply draw in their breaths and their hearts to thunder inside their chests.

Bewildered, but definitely looking like she half expected this reaction from herself, Victoria froze, and looked up into Diego's blue eyes, letting the evening dusk gather gently around them while they stood, suddenly enraptured in each other, in the ever-darkening corner of the library.

Very deliberately, Diego laid the poetry book back onto the shelf beside him, but he never took his startled gaze from Victoria. In a loaded moment filled with transformation, the expression in Diego's eyes went from the benign expression of a friend to a much darker one of love and desire, a look that Victoria had seen before, but not one directed to her from Diego. A haze filled each blue eye, yet the look he sent towards her was the most tender she had ever experienced, so tender it made her throb with returning emotion.

It didn't take much of a pull to encourage what happened next. With only a slight tug, Diego drew slowly closer until she could feel his breath stir against the skin of her cheek. Almost like a man possessed by somebody else, he lightly placed a hand along her other cheek to brush against the soft skin. With a strange light burning in his flaming eyes, Diego silently closed the distance between them and gently tilted her head up with one finger under her chin, then bent to kiss her.

Victoria had hoped he would kiss her, had wanted to experience the love that she had seen burning in his eyes at the last minute. There was barely time to sense her own returning feelings before his lips brushed softly up against hers, and then even those feelings sent her insides into a tumble and a spin as the most wonderful sensation of peace enveloped Victoria, highlighting the rightness of this act as she couldn't help but respond to his gentle probe and to kiss him back.

Then her tongue innocently darted out between her lips to touch the corner of his mouth in a tender probe of her own, and Diego gave a carnal groan, a sound that erupted from the back of his throat, and before either of them knew it, Victoria had raised her arms in a tight embrace around his back and had deepened the kiss until neither of them could help but shiver in delight at the new sensations caused by the endearment.

Fingers splayed lazily along her shoulders, Diego couldn't refuse the insistence of his churning emotions when her tongue reached out a second time to tickle his mustache in a promising and scalding flirtation. He gave in to the wild yearning surrounding his heart and easily kept up with her display of love and desire as he...

Abruptly, a voice penetrated those insistent emotions to put a stop to them practically before they even got started. What's going on here? inquired the curious voice of Alejandro as he came to a sudden halt at the point where the dining room bled into the hacienda's entryway, lending a full view to the library and sitting rooms.

The sound of that inquisitive, gentle voice forced Diego back to his senses. He drew away, feeling the colder air of the darkened library sweep between himself and Victoria. The incredible sensations of a moment before lingered in his eyes for just a second, then even those disappeared as he covered them instinctively and looked once at his father standing in puzzlement before the front door, and then once at the beautiful woman in his arms.

How could he possibly talk his way out of such a condemning situation as the one he suddenly found himself in? What could he say that would convince them both that he harbored no feelings for Victoria when in reality he loved her so deeply that she had penetrated all aspects of his life?

Still, he had to try to offset the damage he'd done. Diego smiled fleetingly at Victoria before he whispered, I'm sorry. Please excuse me. The polite refrain fell hard on her ears as he then patted her once on the back in an attempt to re-establish the friendly relationship they had always enjoyed, then pulled his arms away from her, the fingers of one hand raised to rub in misery at his temple. Without another word of explanation or apology, he strode passed his gaping father and disappeared into the bowels of the hacienda.

Z Z Z

The second Diego's bedroom door closed out any prying eyes that wished to peer in at him, he collapsed against his wall and moaned, both in desire at what he and Victoria had shared for a brief moment, and with disgust aimed at himself for letting that moment happen in the first place. The sound was tempestuous in the dim room, and accompanied by a light blow of frustration on the adobe behind him. With a supreme effort, he concentrated on his racing heartbeat until he had brought it under control, but his raging emotions were proving a much more difficult challenge.

Where was his head today? Had he gone loco from the knowledge that his twin brother, whom he hadn't even known existed this morning, had lived to reveal himself, only to die a few moments later? Was he insane to exhibit the true state of his feelings to Victoria, who would just as soon throw something at him as kiss him?

And how badly had he compromised his secret identity with his obvious craving for the soothing feel of her lips under his, her creamy skin making his fingers tingle from just one pass over the naked skin? Even now, he could imagine the sensation of her in his hands, his embrace, yet he knew those sensations should never exist. Only through a strict effort on his part was he able to bring his speeding heartbeat under control once more. Yet, still overwhelmed with self-condemnation, he groaned again.

What was wrong with him? He knew better than to kiss Victoria and try to compete for her affections with the hero of Los Angeles, even if he was that hero. He was sure to come out on the losing side of such a battle, and besides, he doubted his psyche could take the beating such a battle promised. He was sure that Victoria would be angry and ultimately reject him if she knew of his secret identity.

One thing was certain, though; he had to apologize to Victoria as soon as possible and pretend that his feelings weren't engaged for her at present. That was the only way things could go back to the way they had always been and his secret identity would be safe. However, such a scene did nothing but fill him with a strong sense of despair.

A light knock on his bedroom door broke through the sensation of sadness currently accosting his mind. Yes? he called, though he was in no shape to be entertaining visitors.

May I come in? The polite request filtered through the door, reaching him in his father's strained tones.

Diego couldn't put off the curious intervention of others forever. Slowly, he pulled open the door.

The confused image of Alejandro's features greeted Diego as the open door revealed his features. Diego? he asked, the light sound of his voice washing over his grown son in a wave of comfort that almost brought the tears of agony that Diego was fighting to the surface of his blue eyes.

But Diego was still in control of his emotions, no matter how shaky that control was. I'm sorry you had to witness that, he said blandly, hoping to put off his father with an uninterested tone.

But his father was no longer fooled by such a tone of voice. Don't you pretend with me, threatened Alejandro, shaking his finger at his son. It won't work. I know that something is going on between you and Victoria, and I want to know what that something is.

Diego sighed and tried again. Nothing is...

That was as far as he got before Alejandro interrupted him. Diego, he began, the gentle sound of his voice bringing more despair to his son's emotions than he knew. You have to tell me. Today of all days, I have the right to know the truth. Are you in love with Victoria?

With that tenderly asked question, Diego's will crumbled into fine dust. The tenderness that he hadn't anticipated instead of the censure that he had always expected was his undoing. Unaccompanied by the evidence of the tears that came through in his voice, Diego was so intent on fighting his emotions that he could only whisper, Yes.

The despondency was only too clear in his son's eyes, so much so that Alejandro carefully prompted, What are you going to do about it?

Do? barked Diego on a laugh of pain. What can I do?

Alejandro replied instantly. You can tell her how you feel.

Diego barked another laugh that had no humor in it. And compete with the legend of the pueblo for her affections, only to lose out in the end? No, thank you. I'd rather remain a bachelor forever than submit to that humiliation.

Alejandro quietly regarded his son for a moment, then said, You're assuming an awful lot in that scenario.

Diego wildly shook his head back and forth. If anyone knew how Victoria felt about Zorro, it was him. I'm not assuming anything.

Again Alejandro remained silent for a moment. You give yourself far too little credit, he warned next in a soft voice full of comfort.

Diego wished he heard the sound of the reproach he was slinging at himself instead of the comfort his father was offering. No, I don't.

Yes, you do, and unless you wish to brand me a liar, you'll agree with my opinion.

Diego gave a small smile at that comment. His father had always been brash and strong in his ideals. It doesn't make any difference anyway. Victoria is in love with someone else, and I have no chance of winning her favor away from her masked hero.

Have you tried? Alejandro asked.

The strength of his father's determination put Diego off for a moment. Well, no, besides what you witnessed today, he admitted.

Why not? You might be surprised by the outcome, Alejandro replied.

Diego sighed. No, I won't be.

Suddenly his father thoughtfully wrinkled his nose in surprise and curiosity. Astonished, quiet, amazed, he inquired, Where does this sense of pessimism come from? He was wondering aloud almost to himself. You must have inherited it from your mother, because it's certainly foreign to me, he said with a questioning shake of his head. Then he reached out to quietly clap Diego on his left shoulder. You have to believe me when I say that Victoria may think she's in love with Zorro, but she's actually in love with you. I saw her eyes when she left the hacienda just now. I know.

But Diego had to protest. Father...

Don't you 'Father' me. I know what I saw, Alejandro insisted. Humor me, he said next. I suffered a great loss today with the death of a son I never even knew existed. His hand tightened on Diego's arm even as he shamelessly used the excuse to his benefit. But my grief is not so great that I can't see how my other son is trying to make himself believe a convenient, safe, lie. He met Diego's eyes. She loves you, he said. I know she does. And all you have to do is accept that. When Diego didn't respond to his plea, he continued, At least, think about expressing your feelings.

Diego couldn't see the harm in promising that. I will, he said softly.

Alejandro released his son's arm. That's all I ask, he said before he turned and walked away down the empty corridor outside the hacienda's multitude of guest rooms.

Thinking already, remembering the sense of elation when he had given in to his emotions and kissed Victoria, Diego slowly shut the door on his father's retreating form.

And thus began the longest night in Diego's living memory.

Z Z Z

Diego thought. He paced. He thought some more. He groomed Toronado until the horse fairly shone with the extra care, but he never undressed, never went to bed, and never went to sleep. Only when the sun was expected to rise and bathe the land in light and warmth the next morning had he battled enough with his own conscience to finally accept several undeniable truths; it was time to reveal his secret to Victoria, and in order to do that while making certain that no one was eavesdropping on his startling revelation, he would have to tell her in his secret cave. As much as he preferred other, more romantic locations, what he had to tell her was best told in a place where privacy was guaranteed, and he could think of no other spot in which he felt as comfortable or as confident in than the cave.

The cave, however, also symbolized the hidden fears of rejection that he had always suffered under. He had hinted about his fear of her potential rejection when he had proposed marriage in that same cave, but he wasn't sure that he had fully impressed on her how frightened he was of it.

Simultaneously, he was growing fairly tired of being so afraid all the time, of fearing 'The Moment' so much that he found himself willing to face her and her possible rejection just to get the threat of that rejection over with. Not knowing how she might react to the news that he was not the man she thought she had known for years had to be worse than living under the constant threat of her denial. She might not react to his deception the way he had always envisioned her reacting, after all. She might not get angry. Then again, perhaps she might. The 'not knowing' of how she would react to the truth was finally becoming too heavy of a burden for him to bear.

He wrote out his ideas and fears on paper in the dark of night in the secret cave, a note for Victoria asking for her presence at his father's hacienda as soon as she could potentially get away from the tavern, just to talk, and as soon as it was light out, saddled Esperanza and a second horse for her, then rode quietly into town, alone, but heading fairy optimistically for the tavern.

After the long night spent entirely by himself, he was surprised to see the few people up and about in the usually busy pueblo plaza. He had ridiculously expected to see everybody wide awake, as he was, but the quiet that greeted him was eerie in its completeness. Only the tavern and the cuartel were open for business in the still sleepy town, so he kept going, tying his two horses at the tavern's hitching rail before entering the almost empty establishment. It was clear that Victoria'd had a wakeful night, too.

Thinking of his long night led Diego's thoughts to Victoria, which encouraged him to ponder his reasoning for being at the tavern so early. Unwaveringly, he walked past the few customers to the red and blue curtain sectioning off the tavern's typically warm kitchen. He knocked without hesitation or embarrassment, then continues through the material when he wasn't immediately invited in.

A stunned, surprised Victoria met his gaze, seated unmovingly at the fire in front of the fireplace. Before she had the chance to rise, r even brush the dirt off her long, cream colored skirt, he said in a quiet, resigned voice, Please, Señorita, don't say anything. He handed the letter to her in an only slightly quaking hand. Please read this note. That's all I ask of you. I hope to see you later in the day. Then he was gone, disappearing through the curtain before her shadowed and bruised eyes could appeal to his natural compassion and halt him before had the chance to escape. He felt bad enough for her obvious lack of composure as it was. Then, he rode home surrounded by just as much quiet, leaving the second horse behind for her to use.

When he arrived back at the hacienda, the vaqueros were only beginning to stir to life at their work in the da la Vega stables, so he quickly untacked Esperanza and headed again for the secret cave while no one saw him or knew what he had in mind. The mystery was useful, as he certainly didn't want to attract any attention.

Once in the cave again, he dashed off a short letter for Felipe telling him that he promised to take care of 'the horse' for the day, meaning Toronado, hence ensuring that the young man would not disturb what he hoped to be a revolutionary conversation between himself and Victoria in the secret cavern behind the library's fireplace. Then, equally as determined, yet frightened half to death at what he planned to do, he waited rather nervously on the front steps of the hacienda for her to appear over the horizon from the pueblo.

Yet Diego still couldn't relax. He both welcomed and feared Victoria's hoped-for arrival at the hacienda, because of his need to 'get it over with' and to tell her of his secret identity, at last, as well as of his desire to give in to his fear and let the status quo continue indefinitely. Despite how seductive such a thought might be, however, he had already convinced himself in the early hours of the long night that it was time to reveal his secret to her. Now that his decision had been made, he wanted to do his revealing as soon as possible.

And while just seeing the cave where he had proposed marriage promised to startle the young señorita into a stupor, he really didn't know what else to do. He couldn't go back to living life the way they had been, with him pretending to be nothing more than her best friend while declaring his love for her only as Zorro. The kiss he'd given to her the day before as Diego had pretty much sure of that. Which meant that he couldn't go forwards, and he didn't want to go backwards, not any longer now that he had tasted the freedom of giving in to his persistent longings concerning Victoria. He was trapped by his need for her on one side and his need to continue his deception on the other. It all depended on her reaction to his unmasking and he wouldn't know about that unless he told her his secret, talked to her, and basically put his future into her hands. It was an unpleasantly uncontrollable prospect, but after the kiss the day before that promised an entirely new existence, he didn't see that he had any other choice in the matter.

So he had written Victoria's note in the dark of night to invite her to the hacienda for what was probably a long overdue discussion, folded it many times with an indication that he wished to keep its contents private for as long as possible, saddled the second horse for her to ride, and delivered the letter in as much privacy as it had been written. Their predicted and subsequent conversation was the only thing he could think of to do that would help explain the current mess he found himself in, so such a reserved delivery as his forwarding of his letter to her was only to be expected.

The second horse, the one he purposefully left at the tavern for her, was a brown gelding with white markings, an innocuous mount at best in California, and he hoped she appeared riding the clandestine gift so she wouldn't arrive in her wagon, which would make a great deal of noise and hence warn anybody paying attention that something was afoot and he and she were involved with it. He could never keep such an arrival as hers a secret if she broadcasted her presence by knocking on the front door, a knock which a servant was sure to answer, or see her if Diego answered the door himself and let her in. In any case, a servant was certain to be aware of her presence in the hacienda, see the two of them trying to have a private conversation, come to his or her own conclusions, be sure to tell his father the news, who would then be unable to keep his nose out of his son's business, and the ensuing scene would devolve into a mess with Alejandro being the encouraging though overbearing parent, leaving Diego to be the tongue-tied only son. It was sure to go just as Diego imagined, a scene highly not conducive to revealing the hidden affection he felt for Victoria. The secret cave offered his only certain escape from such a scene, and therefore promised to be the only place he could take her that would ensure the privacy his secret demanded.

It all worked out just as Diego wished. Felipe and his father were still in his father's bedroom prior to eating breakfast when Victoria arrived at the hacienda. After first placing a hand to his lips to enforce the need for quiet, she dismounted, and the horse was then taken back to the stables and untacked. Quietly, with his hand wrapped around hers, he led her to the cave's rear entrance, soundlessly working the switch imbedded in ground, and, not giving her time to gape or react to that part of the revelation of the secret, pulled her into the confines of the cave.

Now we can talk without being overheard! Diego exclaimed in his much lower, stronger voice once the door shut and the cavern revealed itself.

Victoria stood, transfixed beside him, with her mouth hanging open into a silent, perfectly round 'Oh' of amazement. Even with her face frozen in a mask of surprise, he could see that she recognized the cave as the place where she had promised her hand in marriage, as well as the sound of his voice, right away.

Diego held up his hand as she turned to glance at him. Please, don't say anything yet. There are certain things I must tell you, things that you should know, that you need to understand, before I plan on throwing myself at your mercy.

But, Diego, how did you even find out about this place to..? she looked around as she began to ask.

Diego cut her off. Please, Victoria, I promise to answer all your questions with my confession, as long as you give me the time to speak, and in here I know we won't be discovered or overheard.

Diego could see the fear that shot instantly through her eyes when he said that. To be what was potentially trapped inside a cave, with him, with no known escape should she need one...

He immediately addressed those fears. Know that you're perfectly safe with me in here, and that I have no wish to harm you in any way, that I just want to talk. Besides, I could never harm you, because... He paused in his hurried speech, then forced himself to hold off on his divulgence until he had seated her in the rattan and oak chair behind his desk and had pulled up a stool for his own sitting comfort, so that they were facing each other with only a few feet of empty air separating them.

What is this? she asked, still suspiciously looking around the cave and then staring at him. What's going on?

Victoria, Diego began, feeling her hands tremble in his own when he took them in his larger ones, I know this will be a shock to you, probably already is, but I think it's time for you to know... This was going to be harder than he had thought. After kissing you yesterday... He had to shift on his stool, then close his eyes and swallow before opening them again so that he could continue.

But Victoria spoke, refusing to let him go on with his confession. Diego, there's no need to tell me that you have certain feelings for me, or that you...

Diego also interrupted. Stop, please, Victoria, he said, and gazed at her, I need to tell you... Damn. I do have certain feelings for you... How to tell her? It would probably be best if he just came out and admitted his news to her. With a sigh born of frustration as well as the hidden longing he felt for her, in a hushed voice he said, I'm the masked man who has been visiting you in your kitchen for years, has been pretending to dislike violence because it made an excellent cover for me so that I could go about any business I liked without drawing suspicion, I have openly loved you as Zorro and secretly loved you as Don Diego since the very beginning of this deception, and I'm so sorry if I hurt you in any way. That was never my intention when I began this disguise four years ago. He halted to take a much-needed breath of air as his heart ignored his attempts to remain calm and raced inside his chest.

Victoria looked flabbergasted, an expression which slowly turned to general disorientation, which made her look as if it was a good thing she was already sitting down or she would have collapsed in surprise. I.., she gasped. I never.... I would never have guessed this... She stared in the other direction, at the smooth stone wall, her mouth gaping open, the cave's colder air washing over her as she sat, too stunned to even jump up at his disclosure. Diego, do you mean that I... that you..?

He rescued her. Victoria, you have to know that I can't keep this inside any longer, but I don't want you to suffer through any guilt or negative feelings on account of me giving in to such a wild, impulsive need to kiss you like I did yesterday. He shook his head. I don't know how such a thing happened, can't explain it... maybe I was tired from all the events of the day...

The events of the day? she asked quietly, hardly able to even make her mouth form the proper words.

The ride to Diablo Canyon for the promised truce, the verbal fight with my brother, whom I didn't even know was my brother yet, to being buried under rocks, to an eventual escape...

Victoria gave a startled jerk. Buried? I don't know anything about Zorro being buried. She still couldn't put a voice to his hidden identity, as if she couldn't quite bring herself to fully believe it yet.

In the truce, Diego gamely explained. He caused a landslide meant to kill me, or at the very least meant to get keep me occupied while...

Kill you?! she exclaimed in a stunned and questioning tone of voice. The shock of his news caused her to be less guarded in her previous assumptions, thus finally accepting him for who he was without even realizing she was doing it.

Diego sighed in regret at having to cause her worry over his activities, but went on, This is before the Emissary uncovered my identity, before he was shot and killed by the Alcalde, before...

Wait, Victoria commanded dispiritedly, one hand pulled from his to rub at her temple. Too much information, I think. Let me sit for a moment...

They sat, quiet, her in the desk chair and him on his stool, completely unmoving. Inside, Victoria's brain whirled with all the new things he had told her before she eventually settled down, ready for him to continue his explanations; he could see what she was thinking just by reading the expressions that passed across her face. All right, she presently said, start over, and tell me everything you know from hearing about the truce and onward from there.

Diego took a deep inhalation of air, then began his explanations much more slowly in deference to her confusion. Father rode home and told me about a truce offered to Zorro. We discussed the possibility of it being a trap, yet I really had no choice but to ride out and see if it was a trap or if it was indeed the truce Risendo promised...

She interjected, The landslide?

Diego shifted to a more comfortable position on the stool again. It wasn't a truce. It was a ruse to get me to the canyon, where Risendo had set up a way to trap me under a landslide of rocks, meant to kill me, only the landslide didn't work, thanks to Toronado's help. He pushed the rocks aside and freed me enough to crawl out... He shook his head. The Emissary's plan would have been flawless if it weren't for Toronado...

Victoria gulped. What next? she squeaked after clearing her throat.

The tracks led me back to the hacienda, and you know about the sword fight, about how I acted so uncharacteristically knowledgeable of such a weapon, about hearing the truth at last, about the birthmark, the shooting, the acknowledgment of Risendo being a de la Vega, the excuse I gave my father about my display of such fighting skills, about me kissing you in the library...

She interrupted him once more. You went through all that? She paused again, looking even more surprised. And I thought...

What? he gently asked. Thought what?

I thought... She seemed to collect emotions that were involved with her previous opinion of her friend. She cleared her throat again. I thought, she quietly repeated, that you were so uncoordinated, that you were so timid...

Diego slid off his stool to his knees on the floor in front of her. Sh! Please listen. I did always appear ineffectual, timid, clumsy even, but I want you to know that it was part of the disguise I used to fool everybody... Just a cover of my real self...

All that time, you..?

I loved you, Victoria, Diego stated vehemently. I still love you, will always love you... Yesterday, in the library, I couldn't keep hold of my feelings any longer... He shook his head again in an agony of the truth being told at last.

Victoria looked at him slightly accusingly and a silent moment passed before she finally asked, So you're Zorro? All this time, he's been you?

Without saying a word, bleakly, Diego nodded.

She breathed a great sigh of relief. And here I thought I was going crazy all night long, having feelings for two different men! I agonized and felt so guilty that I could be so easily disloyal...

Her reaction of relief was not one he had anticipated at all. Still, he gathered himself to ardently interrupt, Not you, Victoria. He shook his head in conjunction with his words. Never you. You're the most loyal person I've ever encountered. And he impetuously kissed her hand. Without the hope you have always given me, without that promise of your loyalty, I could never have faced...

Some hope! she denied, sounding loud now in the previously quiet cave. The first time I'm given the opportunity to show my loyalty to Zorro, I give in to my own emotions and kiss you in front of Don Alejandro!

Diego sighed, and this time his sigh sounded regretful. Victoria, you don't have to...

But there were witnesses, Diego! she protested. Don Alejandro saw the whole thing!

Victoria, preciosa, please, don't condemn yourself for what was my lack of control...

For the first time since she'd entered the cave with him, she smiled. It was a bit of a rueful gesture. Is that what it was? she asked quietly, a touch sarcastic.

Diego closed his eyes, swallowing painfully. No, he admitted. It was a hint of what I truly feel for you. If it's all unleashed...

A hint? she asked. Not a total..?

Diego regarded her. Dios, Victoria, I'm afraid to even think about truly giving in to the strong emotions I have for you, he whispered. I've restrained them for so long... He stopped himself when he fully comprehended the expression of indecision on her face.

She stared hard at him. She stared, and thought, and stared again. Then she bravely blurted, Do you want to find out?

Diego stopped for a moment, confused. Find out? Find out what?

Victoria sighed. Find out if you're telling the truth or not. She seemed irritated at his lack of comprehension. Okay, you say you're Zorro. I see all the right weapons and the right horse stored in this cave, but I don't really know where it actually is located on your grounds...

It's in the library. Remind me to show you the view out the peephole before we leave today, Diego informed.

Victoria nodded and went on with her argument, But the only real way to prove your claim without a doubt is for you to kiss me again, to show me your true feelings...

Diego was shaking his head before she even finished articulating what she was suggesting. Victoria, you don't seem to understand; I can't show you how I truly feel, can't risk it...

Victoria sighed once more, once more in slight exasperation. The emotion was extremely indicative of her. Diego, if you want me to know, once and for all, if you are who you claim to be or not, then you'll have to show me, and the best way to make me believe what you say is true is to kiss me again. It's as simple as that, not as hard as you're making it out to be.

Again came the head shake. But what about rejection? he asked in an agony of indecision. You know that I fear rejection and your anger above everything else...

Her grin was the answer she gave. Always afraid. Zorro said something about such a fear when he proposed to me. When you proposed, she corrected herself.

He admitted, And it has always made me so frightened that...

But she stopped him right in the middle of his excuses by gingerly touching his face, one hand on each cheek, cradling his familiar features even as he tried to put a stop to any movement from either of them. She ignored his inelegant attempts to dissuade her, leaned forward and met his lips with hers for a brief moment before giving in completely to the yearning she felt in her soul that the slight brush across his lips had awoke in her and fully kissed him.

Diego's heart flipped over, then settled into an erratic rhythm as he clutched at her arms, first in surprise at her spontaneous action, then in longing at the bombardment his emotions sent coiling around his phsyche, his heart, his entire soul, that sent him spinning helplessly out of control. She moved so fast that there was no hope of possibly restraining his emotions this time as he had always been forced to do in the past. His body was instantly aroused at the contact that her touch represented, and he was swept away by love and passion as quickly as if he had courted this same type of relinquishment many times before. He slid one hand up to bury itself in her curls, and rubbed the other across her back, glorying in the feel of her in his arms, holding her tightly, too afraid that kissing her inside the secret cave wasn't real; he'd dreamt about such a scene so often, only to have reality set in soon enough and wipe those dreams away.

But nothing intervened this time. He released his powerful emotions for Victoria the instant he felt her skin touch his. He couldn't help it. He'd never before given in to that incredible draw towards her that he felt, never let loose on the firm hold he kept on his love in the past. He'd always held back, suffered quietly, alone, bereft, a tiny sense of incompleteness to his life. Now, he was taken unawares, led to be unguarded by the sense of surprise he felt at her actions. It was like an emotional flood, an overload of feeling, the first time he had ever given in to such a persistent draw. But now he welcomed the onslaught of emotion that swirled in his soul and consumed him. He was never so impetuous as she had been, never so unburdened before, and hence, never so free. He always contemplated every angle to the utmost, but now...

Now he didn't think at all, only felt, and sensed his dreams coming true in his arms. His craving to stop being the gentleman he'd been brought up to be and to give in to the wild pounding of his heart, the base longing in his soul, only increased. The pull to belong to her and claim her as his, even secretly, was thrillingly undeniable.

His lips slid off hers to glide in possession across her cheek, down her neck, daringly across her delicate chest, along the thudding from her heart that he felt in the base of her smooth throat, up her neck again and on to her cheek and ear and forehead until there was no sleek skin left that hadn't felt the enticing pass of his caressing kiss.

Both were hungering for more when they finally parted, heaving in air. He'd somehow ended up sitting on the cold, stone floor with Victoria cradled firmly but tenderly in his lap where the irrefutable evidence of his desire pressed against her hip. His blue eyes were clouded with that desire, mirroring the expression found in her darkened gaze.

Dios, she whispered in a hiss of escaped air, It really is you, the real you, not the shadow of either Diego or Zorro that I've known from the past.

No, he whispered, it's me, with all my love and longing and the secrets I bring with me...

Shyly, she passed a light touch over his ear, down to his cheek, and delicately fingered his mustache before caressing him across his lips. He gave a light endearment to each of her fingers, loving their every touch. He knew that a kiss to a finger should not be so seductive, but he couldn't help it; it was. His love glowed almost beseechingly through his eyes as his kisses wore dreamily on.

Bashful, yet pleasantly earnest, her hands slowly lowered to the buttons hidden in the ruffles on his shirt, undoing them one by one as she leaned in to kiss his throat.

Diego tried to control his errant heart beat when she leaned forward, but it was extremely difficult, especially when she felt so good! Victoria, I think we should... But he never finished what he was going to say as she succeeded in unbuttoning his shirt and gliding her hands lightly across his uncovered chest. He sucked in a breath, and she moaned with pleasure as she cuddled up to his alluring, though admittedly disrobed, muscles.

I've always wanted to do that, she subconsciously confessed, and rubbed her cheek on the overstimulated skin.

His head was spinning out of his control every time she touched him. Victoria, he whispered, his voice barely loud enough in the wide cavern to be heard over his bubbling science experiments. You can't... we can't...

To answer, she took his hand and calmly rested it directly on her left breast, and the feel of it was almost more than he could take. He bravely fought a losing battle against his pounding emotions, but knew the thread of his control was snapping when she gazed at him in clouded abandon and kissed him again. That was it; he lost every sense of himself and who he was as he kissed her back, letting his hands slide up from her waist to her breasts and back down again.

His emotions were thrashing through him by then, unmerciful, encouraging, demanding him to give in to his cravings and longing. How I want to, he whispered aloud, though she wouldn't know what he was talking about. His hand once again encountered her breast and he paused with that hand gently stroking over the unfamiliar territory of her brown blouse with the feel of her corset underneath. The surrender that piece of material represented made him groan with barely repressed passion. As Zorro, he had always known just how many liberties he could take with her, but now, with her discernment of his secret, and the two of them alone, hidden in the secret cave, his emotions were much harder to resist. Her fingers on the skin of his chest weren't helping that control, either, as fire, thick and hot, began to flow through his veins.

She felt so good, so right in his arms! Her curves conformed to his muscles, and the compelling need for him to touch her skin with his own seared straight through him.

Diego, I need to be with you, she muttered, and it took every last ounce of his will to resist her entreaty. If she were to have a child, either legitimately or out of wedlock, the Alcalde would stop at nothing to somehow use the child in order to get to him. She would only lose the baby in a future that might be more foreboding than most people's futures, but was also a very real possibility of upcoming events.

Used to considering all angles of any situation, he realized he would never be able to forgive himself for inadvertently causing her the pain of having to protect an unprotectable child. With that in mind, he carefully began to disengage himself from her encircling embrace, though it was the hardest thing he'd ever done. Fighting banditos was like eating candy compared to this.

We shouldn't... he began, and was just as resolved to conform to the instructions they had undergone all through their lives and wait his general unmasking to make love to her as she was intent on encouraging their misbehavior. Then she ran her fingers once across his smooth breast, followed by the enticing allure of her featherlight kiss. In an instant, his resolve was lost and before he knew it, he was drowning in the soft scent of her body. Threats of the Alcalde's possible retribution seemed dim and ridiculous next to the fire burning inexorably hot through his insides.

He pulled off his shirt with little encouragement from Victoria, dropping it behind him, and her blouse was unceremoniously yanked from her skirt, ready to be lifted over her head and off, but... Victoria, he groaned, half in despair and half in protest, we can't. If you become pregnant, if the baby is used to get me in some way... I'll never forgive myself.

It's all right, she answered in a soothing whisper. Leave your trousers on.

As soon as her idea made sense in his fuzzy mind, he continued with no further encouragement. He had pulled her blouse off and threw it behind him to join his shirt, then tugged off her corset to free her stomach and breasts. She gasped, then writhed when he pressed his muscular chest against her bare skin. Before he knew how he had gotten there, he was lying on his back on the cold, stone floor, Victoria atop him, welcoming the wild throbbing of the blood in his veins. His hands were everywhere, then, touching, kneading, cajoling, on her breasts, her hips, her arms. He kissed her so heatedly that he thought for sure he would explode, then when he accepted one of her nipples into his waiting mouth and brushed his tongue languorously across the tip, she gasped in splendor, and he thought sure she would explode. The only thing he was conscious enough not to do was to make sure his head didn't impact on the hard, cold, stone of the floor.

He pushed into her, giving in to his instincts, thinking of nothing but how badly he wished to become a part of her. The delectable feeling of his need was growing inside him, demanding for release.

Diego, she whispered, her eyes closed, her head thrown back in total enthusiasm, I want... I need... She didn't finish. Instead she gave one more hard shove into him with her delicate, generous hips, and suddenly they both exploded.

Waves of pure, white-hot, pleasure pulsated through him, making him grit his teeth as he moaned without guilt into the sweet surrounds of the hair that fell over her shoulder. Goose pimples erupted on his skin, and his body jerked uncontrollably against her. She gulped one last time, then a look of painful pleasure marred her beautiful features. She began shivering against him, clutching his neck as he kissed her and swallowed the cry of his name that she would have given in the ecstatic spasm of release that coursed straight through her. She undulated for several seconds more as she held on to him in a fierce grip.

It was over just as quickly, as silently as it had come. The only sounds in the cave were Toronado contedly chewing his hay, the constant bubbling of liquid, and the two heaving for air before Victoria's lethargic whisper of, I love you, filtered through the more common sounds. The ignominity of their position suddenly didn't seem so ludicrous when she whispered those words. Though I had imagined making love to you for the first time on a bed, she admitted with a soft rumble of laughter.

Diego joined in with her mirth as his arms tightened about her in an unbreakable embrace. I admit that I never envisioned lying on a stone floor, he said, then softly pushed her hair back from one temple. And I love you, too, he whispered as she softly lay her head down on his chest and heaved one last sigh of complete relaxation.

Only a few moments had passed in the silence of afterglow when he was forced to nudge her, interrupting the sleep that had almost overtaken her pleasantly exhausted body. Hey, mi preciosa, wake up. I hate to have to interrupt something as delightful as watching you fall asleep, but this stone floor is positively freezing. I may not be able to ever give you a repeat performance of the last few moments if I don't get up as soon as I can.

Victoria grinned, kissed his chest one final time, then rose, allowing him to lift his back from the stones that made up the floor of the cave.

Diego sat up gratefully, and rubbed at his cold shoulders, then dabbed ruefully at the wet spot at the front of his trousers. Her skirt, which she still wore, was only slightly dryer than his pants when he lifted both garments in an attempt to hurry the evaporation process. However, he knew right away that it was a hopeless endeavor and that he would be doing some laundry that afternoon. But, feeling unapologetic at the thought of the work being with her required, not caring if he spent the rest of his life washing trousers, he took her in his arms for an unprecedented embrace against his bare skin and drew her backwards between his outstretched legs as he leaned into the side of his desk. He smiled lovingly at her and ran a free finger down her cheek, a smooth caress, showing off his gentle feelings of ownership as much as of his love. Where did you learn the idea about leaving trousers on? I've never come across such a suggestion in my readings before now, he said as his arms tightened instinctively and the back of her head tickled his naked chest.

She laughed, then blushed profusely, giving a reaction that he had never anticipated. He could see her reddening skin along the back of her neck and deduced the rest of her response. She hung her head down so long that he thought she was going to let her propriety take prevalence over the truth and not answer at all, but she finally confessed, One day when I was fourteen, I followed Ramón and his current sweetheart, Isabella. If you remember, Ramón is one year older than I am, and when we were younger, he was very... She paused, and blushed again. ... active.., she settled on at last, for his age. I watched from some nearby bushes and learned far more than I bargained for.

Diego couldn't help his response; he laughed in appreciation. You sly, underhanded, devious, little thing. You make a perfect partner for the fox of the night.

She shrugged. I can't help what I've learned, she said unapologetically. And you've been slightly underhanded in the past, too, you know.

He looked at her. I do know. That's why I don't want Father to ever find out. The truth would probably crush him, he insisted, thinking about the many times when he had taken the law, a law his father had always highly respected, into his own hands to get the outcome he desired.

This time Victoria's shrug was more thoughtful. I'm not so sure. Maybe his sense of pride would overshadow his sense of need to follow the law to the letter.

Diego snorted. Then you don't know my father very well, he accused, but the quick kiss he added to his words softened them considerably. Desire bloomed once again.

Victoria wasn't fooled by his covert behavior, however. Or maybe you don't, she responded on a whisper as her passion threatened to return full force, only encouraged by his endearment.

Diego wrapped his arms more tightly around her. No, he said on a sigh of resignation, Father would never understand. Therefore he must never know. You, however, and as he turned her around in his arms and nuzzled her neck in response to the emotion he saw in her uplifted eyes, should know everything. You deserve to know everything. Then he gave in to the demand of his emotions and kissed her, a simple caress that wasn't simple at all. He slowly drew back to gaze at her. He sighed helplessly. I know I've said it before, but I do love you, so much.

Victoria grinned again at his abject need to show the idolatry he was feeling. There's no need to hide anymore. I can't live without you in my life.

Diego's answering sigh was a mix of regret and the pull of his emotions. There will always be a need to hide, I'm afraid, if only to protect you from the Alcalde's certain anger. If anything were to happen to you... He shuddered.

Nothing will happen, she promised as she faced him. And I don't agree about not telling your father, but it's your decision, not mine. You should act as you see fit, she suggested on a whisper. Then he kissed her passionately enough to make her head spin.

Diego stared down at her through a haze of his own. He shook his head, amazed, after a moment of silent contemplation. So passionate, so beautiful, he whispered back in astonishment and awe, as if he couldn't believe his luck in the matter of winning her hand.

As far as she was concerned, there had been no doubt about winning her hand in ultimate favor. And I'm all yours, she responded, then leaned in to answer his kiss with one of her own.

No, he refuted immediately on a returning whisper, I'm all yours. His hands slid into her hair, then, and he was unable, or unwilling, to fight the insistence of his emotions. He pulled her close and kissed her hotly, cravingly, slowly, showing her all his feelings of love.

It was hours later that a disheveled Diego showed a much more enlightened Victoria the peephole into the library prior to leading her out of the secret cave and onto the de la Vega grounds before their furtive trip back to the tavern.

Z Z Z

Such subterfuge would have worked, too, if not for the waiting form of a mounted Alcalde sitting astutely astride his mare at the back of the tavern. The cadre of six lancers he had with him made him look far more menacing then even the steely expression on his face did. Diego and Victoria didn't see him until it was too late, as he hid beside the tavern, and they were distracted by the wind that had finished drying their wet clothing. But by then they were surrounded in a sea of blue and red lancer uniforms.

It all happened so fast, that there wasn't time for any response. There was barely time for Diego and Victoria to draw a breath. Immediately, another six lancers appeared behind them from their hiding place on the other side of the tavern, and they all aimed their rifles unwaveringly at Victoria. The soldiers, and their rifles, were convincing enough for Diego to throw his arm towards Victoria in a warding gesture even as his heart leapt to his throat.

You? DeSoto inquired incredulously as soon as the couple came to a stop. The yards separating the group of men from Diego and Victoria seemed to shrink by the second as DeSoto and the six lancers in front of him took in the sight of someone appearing who they had never anticipated. Suddenly, DeSoto started to laugh a bit hysterically.

Diego's upraised hand added more fuel to fire the imagination of each man present as to his hidden identity, even though he first tried to play the silly, inadequate, fool that they had always considered him to be. What? he asked in a disbelieving voice. He glanced at the woman riding beside him, trying to look confused, then astonished enough to lead the lancers in their doubt. He succeeded as he laughed, further stoking the hesitation that at even this distance he could see waging in their eyes. Now, when the disguise of the inept Don Diego was the most important, he had proof in the lancers' eyes that the disguise had not been in vain. Surely you don't think..? For good measure, he laughed again.

DeSoto was the only one not fooled by the display of mirth. It stands to reason, he started to explain slowly, lazily, confidently, then he stared straight at Victoria. Señorita, you should take more care than to leave your personal mail on the tavern's kitchen fireplace mantel. We found it almost immediately. Then his eyes flicked back to Don Diego. It was your note that brought the señorita out so unusually early in the morning that gave you away, he said, and when Diego sent him an expression of incomprehension, DeSoto went on, I have spies too, you see. He leveled the pistol he had laid across his saddle straight at Diego. Spies in the tavern, who are instructed to watch for Zorro, certainly, but barring a sighting of that masked fiend, to watch and report the moves of a certain señorita. He looked pointedly straight at Victoria.

She quickly blanched,but even her reaction to DeSoto's apparent spying efforts didn't cause the disruption of the disguise that Diego had chosen to perform. If he stopped now, he knew he would be jailed or worse. So he went on with his laughter, even as his brain whirled with the possibilities of escape from the trap that his emotions and recent events had lulled him into. Otherwise he would never have been so negligent as to be caught in such an innocuous deed as riding back to the safety of the tavern with Victoria.

It all depended on convincing the Alcalde of his innocence, Diego knew. With his most charming expression, he denied the claim of DeSoto's words. I don't have any spies, Alcalde, he argued. I simply told a few secrets about the feelings I've been harboring for years to Victoria.

But the Alcalde was resolute in his convictions. He only took better aim as Diego spoke. I know what those secrets were about, too, he insisted right back. No one will believe such a lie as the one you're telling, he predicted.

Diego snorted his own disbelief. What lie? he called back. That I've always been in love with Victoria? He flung out his other arm, as if to force the men to disown the truth of what they were seeing. I admit it; you caught me on that one, he announced. The death of my brother encouraged me of life's delicacy enough to finally tell the truth. The embarrassment the lancers were now feeling at such a personal declaration was also clear in the lancers' eyes. The rifles wavered. Diego went on as confidence sprang anew in his breast that he and Victoria might actually escape this new mess with their lives intact. Simultaneously, he found himself hoping against hope that the Alcalde was buying his story even while he also hoped that Victoria would understand the need for such a lie in the first place. You can ask Felipe if you don't believe me, he continued as he also found himself hoping that Felipe was quick enough to corroborate such a fib if he were ever asked about it.

But the Alcalde was unmoved by the story he was being told. He clapped his gloved hands together. Oh, very good, he said. Very inventive. Just enough of the truth to cloud the issue. He dismounted as he spoke, then made certain to re-aim the pistol he was holding in his hand. As you've been doing for years, he claimed next. And I knew your emotions for this tavern owner, here, and his voice grew harder yet, derisive as he spoke, would finally lead me to your capture if I just waited long enough.

Diego inwardly winced, but outwardly continued with his chosen story. He laughed again. What do I have to tell you, Alcalde? he asked so convincingly that even Victoria would have been fooled into believing his version of the morning's events if she didn't already know differently.

Victoria chimed into the conversation, then, her support as subtle as she was. It's true. As much as it pains me to admit it, everything Diego has said is true.True to a certain degree, anyway.

Yet the Alcalde remained unshaken. Nice try, Señorita, but I don't believe anything coming from you. And his voice was condemnatory now. You would lie, cheat, or do anything for that man of yours, in or out of his mask, he concluded decisively. His pistol cocked, rending the air all the way to the plaza with its disruptive noise.

That was the moment that Diego knew all was lost. The men surrounding him and Victoria hadn't flinched, hadn't lowered their rifles, even though those rifles had wavered for a moment. The lancers tried to look like they didn't believe a word he said. They appeared loyal to their Alcalde, and if that wasn't enough to convince him to give himself up, then the rifle bullet that one of the lancers fired that went right behind him and Victoria was convincing enough. All right, all right, he said with irrefutable panic in his voice, no more shooting, please, though I'm not who you think I am.

Of course you're not, interrupted the Alcalde in gleeful disbelief.

Diego continued, ... but I'll give you what you want and come quietly if you lancers promise not to shoot her.

Victoria turned to look at him, aghast. Diego, no! she yelled. But the twelve men who circled them nodded as Diego carefully watched.

Making a fast decision, attempting to buy time now that the Alcalde refused to give in to his story, Diego dismounted, heard his mare, Esperanza, blow air from her nose, wondered if he would ever hear such an innocent sound again, then held out his arms crossed at the wrists.

Victoria gasped audibly beside him, and DeSoto laughed maniacally. I finally have you, Zorro! he crowed, still laughing as two of the twelve lancers efficiently wrapped a rope tightly around Diego's wrists and roughly pulled him back. Oh, the joke is stupendous! DeSoto said next with an appreciative shake of his head. Won't Don Alejandro be surprised? Then his jocular sounding tones turned hard. Surprised and crushed for the years wasted on the son he thought he had. Again came the head shake, this time accompanied by an ecstatic smile. To think, he lost a son he never knew, then lost the son he did know, only to find out that he didn't really know that son at all. The irony of that situation is incredible! He laughed once more.

Diego struggled to rush forward in an attempt to silence the gloating official, but the arms of the soldiers held him back.

And you, DeSoto spat to Victoria as he came forward, and motioned to a nearby lancer to pull her off her horse. It took six lancers to restrain Diego this time, and DeSoto gave him a wide birth as he sauntered around his prize to confront Victoria, his pistol still before him, To find out your true love's identity, only to have that love ripped right out of your grasp. Cruelly he rubbed at his chin, a place that Zorro... no Diego... had struck him many times in the past, and pretended to look thoughtful as he approached Victoria's position.

Stay away from her! Diego growled, and a man would have been worried at that commanding tone of voice... if that man the lancers were holding was free.

As Diego wasn't free, and was surrounded by an ever shrinking posse of soldiers under his enemy's command, the Alcalde just laughed at him. Or you'll what? he asked disdainfully. Hit me again? He looked keenly at the ropes currently binding Diego's hands, effectively making him helpless. Not while those are on your wrists, he noted, then smiled as he turned back to face a subdued Victoria. What do you think? he asked, pretending to consider. A hanging, or a firing squad? At sunset or sunrise? Which would be more dramatic? he continued to look pensive. A firing squad, do you think? He looked pointedly at Victoria.

Her mother had been killed by a governmental firing squad, as he well knew. Victoria pushed forward against the arms of the lancers holding her back. No! she yelled, and thought Not again, in horror.

Her battle to extricate herself only made the Alcalde chuckle harder. A firing squad at sunset it is, then. Thank you for deciding for me, Señorita.

I never said that! Victoria loudly negated.

DeSoto grinned. You didn't have to! he jeered.

No! bellowed the laboring tavern owner, and she surged against the arms of the lancers, but they held her in check as their leader came even closer.

DeSoto stroked her cheek. The action made Diego wriggle and writhe, but his captors held him as well. How could something as simple as an escort back to the tavern have gone so wrong so quickly?

But DeSoto was speaking again. Oh yes, I think so, he whispered menacingly, sarcastically. First a mother, then a lover, and he laughed at the look of utter aversion that crossed her face. Then he motioned with his head towards the jail, and his lancers turned at the command, dragging a highly resistant Diego with them.

Diego! she yelled, and the soldiers holding her shoved her down. She tripped, her long skirt flowing for a moment in the wind. Then she hit the dust with her hind end, effectively stopping her as she took the time to climb to her feet.

Victoria! cried Diego in response, but to his regret, he could do nothing for her as the departing lancers pulled him unceremoniously away. DeSoto's cackle carried back to her on the wind.

A minute later, Victoria was left alone behind her tavern.

This is awful, she moaned to herself, watching the men as they shrank into the distance across the plaza and disappeared into the Alcalde's office. She stood, unmoving, in the California dust, then suddenly jumped around. Don Alejandro, she thought in alarm. He must be told. Hardly touching the stirrups of her horse, she tried to ignore the bereft feeling that had invaded her heart as she gathered together the reins in her hand and urged him into a gallop, abandoning Esperanza, who started eating flowers from pots hanging from the eaves of the tavern.

Sun and late morning wind washed over Victoria as the horse ran back the way it had come, faster than before, because it knew of the grain that awaited it in its stall. She mercilessly yanked the gelding to a halt at the hacienda's front gate, and was off the horse before it had even stopped moving, letting it free to find its own way back to the stables alone. By now, she was crying in great, racking sobs of agony and grief. Dios, she thought, Diego's in jail and will be killed by firing squad! The words killed by firing squad kept echoing inside her mind as she pounded on the hacienda's elegant front door with all her might. A servant answered the door a moment later, but it seemed to Victoria that an eternity had gone by. She surged into the house without an invitation as the servant stood aside and gaped at her rude behavior.

Then Alejandro was there, with Felipe following more slowly. Victoria! the older gentleman said in delight. Felipe and I were just playing a game of chess while we wait for lunch... My dear, why aren't you at the tavern? he asked curiously.

Victoria grabbed Don Alejandro's arm and practically jerked him towards the front door. It's Diego! she sobbed, relieved at finding them so easily, but her sense of haste had not diminished. The Alcalde's got him! He's in jail! We have to hurry!

But Alejandro held up his hands. Whoa, slow down, Victoria! He placed a calming hand on the distraught woman's arm and told the servant that he could leave the room before he turned back to Victoria. Now, what's this about Diego?

Victoria was too hurried to be calmed. He's in jail and the Alcalde plans to execute him by firing squad tonight if we don't...

But Alejandro interrupted. Execute! Firing squad! What is this?

Felipe's face fell in horror.

Victoria latched on to the teenager's expression. You know, don't you, Felipe?

Know what? asked an irritated Alejandro. Diego was in jail, according to the señorita, and she and his servant had stopped to converse in riddles?

Felipe nodded just as Victoria brokenly explained in desperation, He's Zorro! Her sobs started afresh, rendering her mute to further words.

What? yelled an uncomprehending Don Alejandro.

But Victoria couldn't talk, she could only cry.

Felipe made several wriggling signs with his hands, but neither Victoria nor Alejandro could understand what he was saying.

Just when Diego is needed! Victoria thought in despair, and spent a second to appreciate the irony of wishing that Diego were available, not Zorro. Then she tried her best to stem the rain of tears down her cheeks with the deep, calming breath she forced herself to take. We have to do something, now!

It was unfortunate that just at that moment when Victoria was urging the two to follow her through the door and Alejandro was frozen to his spot in sudden astonishment at her startling revelation that a group of lancers arrived to surround the house. They took firm positions around the still open front door.

We have orders, one of the uniformed men explained, to make certain you stay right where you are in this hacienda.

No! Victoria yelled and vaulted towards the gaping door. She had gone only two steps when three lancers stopped her.

We have our orders! stated a corporal. No one is to leave!

You must be joking! Alejandro blustered immediately. To be held as prisoners in our own home!?

No one leaves, repeated the corporal who had spoken before. He was a new officer, and unknown to Alejandro.

Take your hands off her! Alejandro ordered next.

The man pushed at the wriggling form of Victoria. Just following orders. he said resolutely.

But that's no reason to manhandle her! Alejandro objected even as he caught the stunned Victoria before she struck the floor.

No one leaves, or attempts to leave, said the corporal. Our orders are straight from the Alcalde.

The Alcalde? the don inquired in confusion, but the door had slammed shut in his face.

Victoria launched herself out of the older man's arms, but wasn't fast enough to stop the door from closing under her outstretched hand. Instead, she stood and pounded on it in frustration. No!

Alejandro was again moved out of his surprise to place a calming hand on her arm. Come, my dear, before you break your fingers.

I hope I do! sobbed a wretched Victoria, leaning against the door.

I hope you don't, countered Alejandro. Now, come. We can't help Diego like this. We have to think and stall for time. He didn't sound as desperate as he felt. Diego was Zorro? It was certainly a better explanation for Diego's behavior the day before, but just thinking the concept made his mind spin with the implications of that revelation mixed with Victoria's news.

Time won't do any good! insisted Victoria. I have to get to the pueblo and convince the Alcalde that..!

Alejandro wrinkled his brow in puzzlement. The Alcalde? he asked. Surely you don't expect him to change his mind?

Victoria hurried in irritation into the library just in time to see the soldier who took up position beside the window. She wailed in abject misery and plopped onto the corner of the love seat, We have to do something!

Alejandro took her hands in his, trying to comfort, but being abstract and vague instead. I need to think, Victoria! he softly exclaimed.

Felipe looked regretful as he helped his patrón to a chair facing her.

We can't let him die, Victoria tried to say, but her words were cut off by the fingers spread out over her face where she cried into them in complete sorrow.

Alejandro reached his hand across the carpet to her. You must calm yourself, Victoria. Diego would never forgive me if his best friend grew sick from her tears.

She interrupted on a note of gloom, We're more than best friends, she quietly confessed.

That's obvious! retorted Don Alejandro.

No, you don't understand, Victoria insisted between her sobs. We're engaged.

You're what? Alejandro asked, reeling back into the comforting embrace of his seat.

We're engaged to be married, Victoria repeated as she calmed down and stopped crying, although an errant hiccup still occasionally stymied her best efforts. I've been waiting for him to finish his work of insuring justice for the pueblo, and now we'll never get married!

It was Felipe who held out his hand in calm and warning this time. He motioned for them to remain seated, then crossed to Alejandro's desk in one corner of the sitting room and began writing furiously on a piece if paper that he drew close to him.

Felipe, said Alejandro, this isn't the time to play charades...

But Felipe had thrown down the white quill and given the paper he held to an agitated Don Alejandro.

Alejandro looked at the paper in his hands. A note, he told Victoria, Since we can't follow his sign language particularly well. Let me read... 'It's true,' he read. 'Just sit still for an hour at most until I show you a secret way out that Diego has used for years. The lancers will never know we're gone. But we must first lull them into a false sense of security and confidence.' He looked up.

The cave! Victoria whispered on a thrilled sound of excitement. It was the first time since Diego had been led away that she hadn't been consumed by tears. Good thinking, Felipe!

What cave? Alejandro was asking at the same time.

In the fireplace, I think, Victoria whispered, in case the lancers were listening to their captors' hurried conversation. She didn't dare point in its direction, hoping to avoid suspicion.

Alejandro's head turned in the fireplace's direction.

Don't look! hissed Victoria. and rose to head distractingly towards the piano instead. Once there, she banged her emotions out on the keys, hoping the noise would fill the hacienda both inside and out. The keys clanged with her nervous energy.

There's a cave? asked Alejandro in a much quieter voice.

Felipe nodded, then sauntered to the chess table that held the game that Victoria's arrival had interrupted. Cool as could be, he stood to one side of the board, then moved one of the black bishops and removed the white chess piece that had been in its place on the board. He calmly set the piece to the side, but his white face gave away the terror he was feeling.

Madre de Dios, Alejandro whispered. Diego is Zorro? He sat back with a thunk in his chair. Thank goodness I'm not going crazy! There were so many times that I wondered when I came into this room to find it empty, and only seconds later would look again to find Diego, sitting comfortably in one of the chairs, reading a book. He glanced surreptitiously towards the fireplace. A cave! So that's how he always got in here, he ended on a note of wonder.

Forty minutes later, Victoria pulled impatiently at her hair, all the while acting bored while Alejandro tried not to notice. Yet, he gave a start when she grunted. Oh, this has to be the longest hour in history!

A ghost of a smile flitted across Felipe's face, amused at her nervous dramatics. But he didn't beckon for them to stroll into the library until ten more minutes had gone by.

First, Alejandro appeared at Felipe's shoulder by the bookcase near the window, then Victoria joined him a moment later to look at the book the caballero had pulled from the shelf at his elbow.

Victoria glanced at the blurred words held out before her. Had it been only yesterday that she had reached out for a book held in Diego's fingers? Now he faced a firing squad in just a few short hours. She shivered as she remembered the direness of the situation she now found herself in. She glanced once to the window, but didn't see a splash of red to indicate the presence of a lancer. Felipe had been right; the government men had been lulled into boredom by a false sense of security in their prisoners.

In a stealthy action that would have made Diego proud, Felipe calmly, though covertly, moved towards the corner of the fireplace, a pretend look of interest on his face as he stared at Alejandro and the book in his patróns' hands. He turned slowly, almost imperceptibly, and pushed on one of the decorations on the mantel while shielding the action from view of the window with his body.

In one split second, Alejandro had slipped through the opening in the back of the fireplace and disappeared. An eye blink later, Victoria joined him, and a second after that, Felipe followed her. The door to the secret room closed behind him.

Alejandro grinned, looking like a wolf in the dim light that filtered into the anteroom from the big cavern behind him. I have a plan! Let's go! he said, using a loud tone for the first time in an hour.

Felipe stopped Alejandro's forward descent. One hand rested beside a candle sconce attached to the wall, and he twisted it in an absurd manner. Then, he pointed towards the panel they had just walked through.

The message behind Felipe's odd motion was clear. He was showing them the way out of the cave.

Alejandro lifted a finger to point at the low ceiling. In case of capture. Good idea, Felipe.

But Victoria had pushed the two men forward, and they stumbled down the steps. We have to hurry! she insisted.

But we need a plan! Alejandro said. If you'll just wait for one more moment...

We don't have one more moment! Victoria asserted rashly.

But Felipe was moving with a speed neither knew he possessed, running to the work table, where he plucked up a rag and a vial full of a clear liquid. He showed it proudly to his two cohorts.

Ether? Victoria wrinkled her nose. What's that?

Felipe made a motion with his hand to indicate that they needed to dump the liquid on the rag, then pretended to feel sleepy.

Knocking out the guards! Alejandro guessed with smiling alacrity. That's good! But how do we get into the jail to knock them out?

Felipe next held his hands up like they were curled around bars.

Victoria snapped her fingers. The side window of the Alcalde's office!

And to get Diego out? Alejandro asked.

Felipe held out a hand to make them halt, then pointed to the ceiling.

The skylight! Alejandro grinned again. He's so tall, it should be a much easier fit for him than the window.

But what about DeSoto? asked Victoria, determined not to leave anything to chance.

The three thought for a second, then Victoria cut through the air with her hand to get the others' attention. Lunch! I can bring over bowls of the stew I made this morning before coming to the hacienda.

You can smear some of this ether on the edge of the bowl you give to him and he can be asleep the entire time! Alejandro suggested, then appeared perplexed. But will ether stick to the porcelain of the bowl?

Felipe shrugged again to show that he and Diego hadn't tried it on glass, and he would rather not depend on that now.

Victoria exclaimed, A napkin! I can put it on a napkin.

Good, Alejandro showed his support of the idea, and Felipe nodded vigorously.

It will surely stick to that. Good, finished Alejandro as he looked around. All we need now is another rag in case there are several guards in the jail...

It was Felipe again who stopped them by going to the coatrack and pulling off something black. He held up the material, and revealed the black mask usually worn by Zorro.

Victoria giggled at his offering. That's appropriate, she commented.

Alejandro, however, refused to get so easily carried away. But what happens when DeSoto wakes up? Even ether can't keep him out forever, and besides, Diego would not want to live the life of the fugitive he would have to become.

Victoria answered quickly, as if she had thought a great deal about what she was about to suggest. We can hide Diego in the mission until everything's over. As to the Alcalde, and she smiled conspiratorially, perhaps it's time to declare that revolution Diego's always talking about.

Felipe and Alejandro looked at each other, then at Victoria.

We won't tell him about that part of the plan, Alejandro slowly said. He won't like it, anyway.

Victoria nodded in acquiescence. What he doesn't know won't kill him. What he does know might kill him someday, if DeSoto doesn't kill him first.

Alejandro nodded. I'm sure the citizens of the pueblo agree with that assessment, and I think today's that day they'll get to show their agreement. But we'll need help, people free enough to assist us, and we must convince them. He turned to look at his servant and Victoria. We'll need our neighbors. Now, how to get there? Next he sent a look at an oblivious Toronado. Can he carry the three of us?

Felipe held out two fingers, then nodded. He held out three fingers and shrugged.

Alejandro moved forward. Let's find out, he said, his voice sounding far more confident than he was.

Within moments, they had decided that all three of them would ride out on Toronado to the neighboring hacienda and ask for help. It was better not to be split up at this point. Only together could they be a force to be reckoned with, and besides, Diego would never forgive any one of them if someone were to be hurt while trying to rescue him.

Toronado's the fastest horse in the Territory, Alejandro argued. And anyway, you two are probably the only people except for Diego who can ride him. I need that insurance if we're ever to get to the Cortez hacienda alive and unharmed. We won't be any help to Diego otherwise.

Felipe nodded, acquiescing to the scheme even as he pulled the black, tooled, leather saddle towards him and proceeded to tack the huge stallion as he had done many times in the past.

Alejandro continued in a hushed voice now that he knew that anyone passing by the fireplace could potentially hear his louder tones. Did you two notice the obvious absence of Sergeant Mendoza?

Victoria's mouth flew open. That's right! He was missing from the group that took Diego away, too, she informed.

Alejandro went on, And he's not here, as well. It's my guess that he doesn't know about these proceedings yet because of his obvious friendship towards Zorro in the past. He was still having trouble thinking of his quiet, studious son as the masked legend. We could have an ally there, an insider who could be the Alcalde's undoing. At the very least, it's an interesting bit of information to know.

Victoria looked at him in doubt as Felipe bridled Toronado. I don't know. Would the Alcalde do that? she said. To Mendoza?

Alejandro pointed at the ceiling again. Just to remember, Victoria, he warned. I wouldn't put anything passed DeSoto at this point!

True, Victoria had to concede the many times that the Alcalde had resorted to underhanded schemes in the hopes of catching his adversary. Then Felipe grabbed the ether and the mask and rag, which he had set down as he tended to Toronado, and stuffed them unceremoniously into the brown sash at his waist and mounted the great, black stallion in one swift move. The horse didn't respond to the young man's presence on his back at all. Felipe next held out his hand to her, cutting into her thoughts. Victoria rose up into the air, one foot on the high stirrup for balance. Then she was yanked into the saddle to sit in front of Felipe. She couldn't help thinking of the many times she had sat on this very saddle in front of Zorro. Diego, she reminded herself.

Here's wishing us luck! Alejandro called and grasped the hand next to sit behind Felipe and Victoria. He shifted once as the stallion pranced in his stall.

Toronado snorted at the extra weight and the almost correct smell, but at Felipe's prodding, he moved patiently towards the cave's back door. Then the horse had stepped on the trigger that moved the covering bush aside. Felipe gripped the beaded reins tightly in his hands as Alejandro looked back, still admiring the cleverness of the pulley system his son had devised. Then the horse was out of the cave and off like the wind, leaving nothing behind but the dust of his passing.

Alejandro silently prayed that his neighbors were in the right mood for a fight and his son never found out about what they planned.

Z Z Z

After spending some moments talking to the Cortezes and their vaqueros, who, it turned out, were more than in the right mood for a fight, the three rode on and the pueblo rose into view just as they reached the nearby bluffs on the south end of town where they planned to hide Toronado. It wouldn't do for him to be seen. From there, Felipe, Alejandro, and Victoria would walk until they reached the outside adobe wall surrounding the garrison and the Alcalde's office.

At the cliffs, Felipe left Zorro's well-trained stallion to munch on some convenient grape leaves hanging from the trees and bushes near those dangerous bluffs. He pulled the black mask and the bottle of ether out of his sash as he crept with Victoria and his patrón up to the office window. Silently, he soaked his mask, then covered Alejandro's rag with the liquid, and cautioned the other two not to sniff the contents.

Alejandro nodded in understanding, then motioned for Victoria to take the rest of the ether. With a settling pat to her stomach to indicate that her nerves were jumping around inside, she tucked the ether away inside her covering sash of yellow material, then glanced around the side of the building. When she was certain the coast was clear, she pushed off from the wall and casually headed for the tavern.

Ten minutes later, when Alejandro and Felipe both were beginning to feel the sweat from the heat of noon trickle down their backs, they heard Victoria call cheerfully to the guard that it was lunchtime, she had stew for the Alcalde and Diego, and would he please open the door for her as both her hands were full?

The door squealed open, Victoria explained her mission as she entered, the Alcalde tried the stew, doing nothing to hide the suspicious look on his face, wiped his mouth when it tasted fine to him, and the next thing they all knew, DeSoto was slumped on the floor, unconscious, among the broken bits of bowl he had struck with his hand as he went down, and Victoria had stew all over the front of her blouse and skirt.

Leave it! hissed Alejandro as he climbed through the window and joined Felipe as Victoria tried to set the reminder of the bowl in her hands onto the Alcalde's pine desk. He grabbed the Alcalde's keys off his pristine office desk as she grabbed the first thing that came to hand, the ether-covered napkin, and used a corner to clean stew off her hands. Good work! he hissed in Victoria's ear, But the guards may have heard the bowl break. We have to hurry!

Victoria picked up the remaining bowl of stew, followed Felipe to the door leading to the jail calls, then pulled open the door before her nerves could get the better of her. Lunchtime! she cried, fighting for a cheerful tone of voice.

As the two soldiers who stood guarding the cells and their one prisoner turned to Victoria and the odor of food wafting over to them from as she proceeded to the door of Diego's cell.

Calm as could be, Victoria called out to them, I don't suppose you two men can let me into this cell, or should I take this stew back to the kitchen where it came from?

The men being men and refusing to believe that a beguiling woman was as devious as any man had ever been, both guards moved forward to help Victoria with her bowl of stew and to open the cell door for her. Felipe and Alejandro crept in behind them all, reached up, and smothered the mouths of the two lancers on guard duty with the cloths. Victoria carefully caught the remaining bowl of stew from the unconscious guards hands. Quietly, the two sleeping guards were lowered to the ground.

Victoria! Diego whispered, and grabbed the bars beside the door as she motioned for quiet and set the remaining bowl of stew aside on the ground.

Diego remained silent as his father slowly eased the key into the lock, turned it, and pulled open the door. Then Victoria was in Diego's arms, cradled in the only completely silent hug he'd ever delivered.

Alejandro put a finger to his lips to caution a need for secrecy, then he beckoned them to follow him up the steps and into the outer office. The rest crowded right him. He pointed at the skylight, Diego nodded, and jumped to the rafters without making a sound as the three rescuers noiselessly climbed through the smaller, open window. They left the Alcalde beside his desk, slumped on his office floor, knowing that they didn't have much time as the ether he had whiffed would wear off soon, leaving DeSoto fuzzy, but awake. They preferred not to be trapped in the office with him when that moment arrived.

Still depending on the quiet of stealth to carry them around the back side of the town, Felipe crept slowly to the mission's rear door, holding the wooden portico aside as the other three slipped through in front of him. Then he joined them and shut the door.

They crept into the sanctuary, and didn't relax until they were sanding in the candlelit, echoing chamber beside one of the straight-backed, wooden pews.

Whew! Alejandro said and grinned. I don't think I want to do that again! I've never been so nervous in my life!

Diego glanced at each one of them in turn, incredulous. Father, Felipe, Victoria, what's going on?

It's a rescue, Victoria answered as she brushed at the stew on her blouse, then wiped her hand disparagingly with the edge of her skirt.

Diego gaped. But you... but I...

It's all right, Diego, soothed Alejandro, we know everything. Then he spread his arm around a surprised Felipe's shoulder. And I just want to say that this young man concocted it all. You must have trained him well, because I've never seen anybody be that calm in the face of such extreme danger before!

Reminded soundly of the secret identity that wasn't so secret any more, the discovery suddenly didn't seem so important when compared to facing the promised firing squad and the praise to a worthy Felipe. Still, Diego had questions. But how..?

Diego didn't finish as Padre Benitez appeared without warning from the back of the mission. He paused, then looked horrified, and dropped the Bible in his hand. I was just coming to see you and to... Hastily understanding that he was witnessing a rescue right before his eyes from the Alcalde's jail, he shoved the string of Rosary beads he was carrying into the sleeve of his priest's robe and bent to retrieve his Bible. Diego! he exclaimed. The Alcalde was gloating about capturing Zorro in the tavern over lunch, but here you are! What are you doing here?

Diego could only stare at the form of the man as he stood, still too much in shock. I'm getting liberated! Diego stated in incredulity, and smiled at the three people who still surrounded him. He drew in a deep breath of sandalwood incense and beef stew. Victoria, I don't think you've ever smelled so good!

Just as suddenly, the padre's brown eyes comprehended everything. He blinked at the four people standing in front of him. Madre de Dios! he softly exclaimed. The four just looked at him until Victoria moved first.

Ugh! she grunted and held her skirt away from her body. She would certainly also have to wash her clothes later in her room. Then she pushed her hair out of her face. Don't touch me or you'll be covered, too!

I'm not sure I care! Diego exclaimed, but was wholly unprepared for what happened next.

Standing right beside him, Victoria suddenly crumpled in slow motion towards the floor.

Victoria! Diego quietly said in surprise and concern, and caught her before her head could strike a hard pew, his strong arms wrapping gently around her. I want to get you into my arms, Señorita, he admitted on a muttered breath, but this isn't what I had in mind.

She must have some ether still on her hands from the Alcalde's napkin, Alejandro explained, helping his son lay the still form of Victoria onto a pew bench. We should all probably wash our hands, he suggested ruefully and carefully lowered her head to the hard surface.

Diego turned to Benitez. Padre?

Benitez jumped at the sound of that low, resonant voice, but said, Say no more. Felipe, help me carry the water you'll be needing.

They left, and in only a minute, were back, carrying water pitchers, water bowls, soap, and towels for everybody. No need to be careful, said the priest. We picked up enough for all of you.

Thank you, Diego said in a distracted tone before aiming all his attention at Victoria. Even Felipe noticed the gentleness with which his mentor washed his lady's hands, and the boy smiled in the hope that he, too, would someday find someone so special to him.

Diego's obvious regard reminded them all of who he really was. I'm sorry, Father, he suddenly said into the quiet of the sanctuary. You weren't supposed to find out this way.

But Alejandro only pushed his son's concerns aside. Don't worry about it, he said and dried his hands on the offered towel.

But all these years..! protested Diego.

Alejandro interrupted him. Think nothing of it, though we'll talk for days once this is all over. Then he turned his eyes to Victoria, and he smiled. While we're at it; babies, Diego, what about my grandbabies?

Father! Diego scoffed. Some other time, perhaps.

The sound of shooting drew his father's attention the way Diego never could. Ah, the revolution! Alejandro breathed. It's started!

Diego looked confused. The what?

But Alejandro ignored his son as he opened the front door a crack and peered out, cautious to the end.

Just then, Victoria stirred.

Diego dipped a towel into the water that hadn't washed off any ether and gently bathed her face with it. Deep breaths, mi preciosa, take deep breaths. Her eyelids fluttered, then, as if she were fighting a great battle with the allure of sleep, and woke the rest of the way. Diego leaned in close. How do you feel?

Victoria groaned and raised a hand to rub despondently at her head. Awful! she answered wholeheartedly.

You'll feel better and breathe easier if you sit up, Diego said. With his helpful arms supporting her shoulders, she slowly sat up on the pew, then reeled with the unpredictability of her new position. Dizzy, she muttered.

Diego seemed unconcerned with her symptoms. That's normal. Just take deep breaths.

Felipe had joined Alejandro by the door, and now he was gesturing excitedly.

Guns. Citizens. Soldiers! Diego interpreted, but Victoria had grabbed on to his supportive arm when he moved to leave. Diego glanced towards the front door, an apologetic expression on his face. But, despite the noise of yelling, he didn't really want to leave Victoria in the priest's care while he looked out the door.

That's all right, Alejandro said immediately. Your place is with her.

But what's going on out there? Diego had to ask. Victoria closed her eyes, groaned again, and slowly leaned forward. That's right, Diego told her with a sympathetic pat on her back, his voice instantly adopting a much softer tone. Lean forward and put your head between your knees. He glanced once at Felipe and shared a tiny smile.

Is she going to be all right? Padre Benitez asked, and the concern he felt was evident in his voice.

Diego grinned again. Besides a headache the size of her tavern, she'll be fine.

Benitez nodded and smiled in return. Good.

Alejandro jerked back suddenly as someone was slammed into the mission's door.

Diego noted the expression of excitement covered by a hearty, but fake, concern on his father's face. Go on, you two. I can see by the looks on your faces that you're dying to join in the fun. Then he considered what he'd just said, and added, Just be careful. I'll stay with Victoria. Then he grinned as the two men left and softly said, I'm the man whom this fight is all about, and here I am, kneeling inside a church!

Weakly, Victoria pushed at him with her hand. Go on. I'm all right.

No, Diego answered with a shake of his head. You're far more important to me than any old fight. But I think I'll avoid looking out the door, or I might become interested in what's going on outside in spite of myself!

Padre Benitez settled down beside Victoria on the pew. So, what do we do now?

We wait, Diego answered.

Victoria lifted her head in her first show of interest since arriving at the mission. I have a better idea, she announced.

Z Z Z

Diego threw the wet towel he was carrying down onto a close pew and helped Victoria to her feet. Can you stand?

Oh, yes, she responded, then promptly lost her balance and would have fallen against the pew in front of her if not for the presence of his supportive hands. I'll be just fine in an hour or two.

Just as long as you can walk, Diego said, cautiously taking his hands away so he could follow her to the front of the sanctuary, where the air was cooler and the yells weren't so raucous. Victoria took a breath, and spiritedly but carefully continued on fairly unsteady legs.

Don't let go, she cautioned.

Diego grinned at her and her words' double meaning. I won't, he promised.

Victoria rolled her eyes. That's not what I mean, she said, the irritation loud in her voice.

Diego laughed. I know. But you're steadier when you're angry.

Victoria blew a breath of air filled with the smell of stew out her mouth. I'll be sure to be angry a lot, she threatened, but had to admit that she felt more balanced already. Boy, she groused to herself, I hate it when he's right!

Padre Benitez gripped his Bible. This promises to be the strangest wedding I've ever performed. He pointed to a spot directly in front of him. Diego, you stand there, and, he pointed to his right, Victoria, you stand there. He fingered the ribbon meant to act as a ring laying on his open Bible, since Diego and Victoria couldn't get to the tavern for her real ring, then began the ceremony with words so ancient, he had them memorized. Dearly Beloved, (all three of us)...

Four, Diego corrected, and indicated Carlos, who was acting as witness, with a polite nod of his head.

Four, Benitez corrected without missing a beat. We four are gathered here on this day, with the smell of stew in the air... Here, both Diego and Victoria chuckled at the priest's chosen words. ...to unite this man, Here he glanced at Diego. ... to this woman, and he glanced at Victoria. She bobbed her her head, then wavered unsteadily. ... in holy matrimony, finished the priest.

Carlos crossed his legs and tried to pay better attention to the ceremony he had agreed to witness.

Diego, Benitez was saying later, repeat after me: with this ring, I thee wed.

Diego swallowed noisily, then dutifully recited the words as he slid the circle of ribbon onto Victoria's finger. She bent that finger lest the ribbon slip off and fall to the floor.

Five minutes later, the strange wedding ceremony drew to its end. I pronounce you husband and wife, Padre Benitez said with a smile. You can now kiss the bride. But he halted Diego with a hand on his shoulder. Preferably on her lips, not her hand, he whispered encouragingly.

Diego turned to look at the padre. I know, he said back before returning his gaze to Victoria. He pushed aside a strand of her black hair and tenderly caressed her cheek.

She grinned up at him. Don't get stew all over you, she said with a smile in her voice.

Diego grinned back. I love stew, he said quietly, then promptly enveloped her in his arms and kissed her lazily on her mouth. Even with the promise of a total mess, she melted into the endearment.

They parted slowly, and Diego smiled at his new wife, Shall we see what's going on in the fight outside now? he whispered to a smiling Victoria.

A fight on my wedding day? Victoria pretended to consider. I thought you'd never ask.

I knew you had a temper, Diego whispered back, lazily, smiling as well. But I never knew you could be so amusing.

Victoria grinned, ready to feed his sense of amusement. Maybe DeSoto has chosen to leave the pueblo already.

Diego grinned back. Perhaps. Shall we? Hand in hand, a gesture they'd never been able to perform before, they traversed to the front doors together.

Well, Padre Benitez said as the couple walked away, that's the first wedding I've ever performed using a piece of ribbon out of my Bible for a ring.

Carlos rose as well and joined him at the altar. He draped an arm around the priest's wide shoulders to say, And you never will again. He softly promised, and smiled.


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