Burning Hearts

By Linda Vogt Bindner

Zorro wheeled Toronado hard to the left, catching the outlaw neatly in the back with the heel of his boot. He jumped from the tooled leather saddle and drew his sword to slice the air while his adversary quickly climbed to his feet to pull his own sword from its sheath.

You will pay for this, Zorro! he sneered, crouching low and waving his badly bent sword in the space separating the two.

Zorro's cape rippled slowly in the wind, and he gave a cocky smile to Tadeo Valdez. I'm afraid it is you who will pay, Señor, he said calmly. That money you stole yesterday will be returned to the bank. And you... his smile grew. ...you will go to jail.


Valdez struck hard, his sword crashing on Zorro's blade of Toledo steel. Zorro parried smoothly, side stepped a sudden lunge, and whacked the man in the rear with the flat of his blade. Valdez's arms spread-eagled, and he floundered a few steps towards the Alcalde's office, then recovered in time to swivel and attack again with a vengeance.

Zorro backpedaled quickly, his sword a blur in the heat of the plaza. He continued to retreat, and it looked to the gathered crowd as if Valdez had the upper hand over the legendary man in black. Gasps from some women floated to the dueling pair, and men murmured among themselves and clenched their hands, trying to give Zorro an edge by their force of will alone. Victoria Escalante stood silently, her lower lip caught between her teeth, her eyes never leaving the battle.

Suddenly, without even a hint to Valdez or the crowd, Zorro parried a moderately well-aimed charge prior to catching his opponent's hilt with the tip of his sword and flinging it sideways with a hard flick of the wrist. The outlaw's sword flew across the plaza to impale on the Alcalde's office door, just missing DeSoto's nose as the official stepped from his office to witness the commotion in the plaza.

Here is your thief, Alcalde! Zorro called to DeSoto as he grabbed Valdez by his dirty shirt collar. I believe you'll find the stolen money in his room at the tavern.

Alcalde DeSoto glared insolently at Zorro and his catch. You expect me to believe you? For all I know, you planted that money in this poor peasant's room to avoid suspicion and eventual capture yourself.

Zorro laughed. What could I possibly want with money from the good people of Los Angeles?

Wait! Valdez suddenly shouted and pointed at the Alcalde. He put me up to it! This was his idea!

Zorro swung his sword up to the Alcalde's chest. Is this true, Alcalde? he asked, the humor gone from his voice, his eyes cold.

The Alcalde spluttered, That's the most preposterous thing I've ever heard! I would never rob the very bank I'm sworn to protect!

A noble sentiment, Señor Zorro said, his head cocked to the side and a disarming smile on his face. However, since I don't trust even the most sincerest tone from you.... He smashed the metal hilt of his sword straight into DeSoto's iron jaw. And as for you.... Zorro then twirled his prisoner around several times before pushing him into the nearest group of stunned lancers, simultaneously whistling for Toronado.

Sergeant! Zorro called over the grunts and groans of the men he'd just dealt with. If you check the man's room at the tavern, I'm sure you'll find what you've been looking for.

Mendoza quickly sent a lancer into the tavern and within moments, saddlebags laden with Los Angeles pesos were held aloft in his hand. Cheers and applause sounded in a roar over the tiny pueblo as Zorro pulled himself smoothly onto Toronado's waiting back.

Zorro guided his black stallion to the tavern's porch and stopped him beside the sergeant. See that this money is returned to the bank's vault.

Mendoza smiled broadly. Oh, you can count on me, Zorro.

Gracias. He turned to Victoria. I thank you for the tip you gave me.

Victoria smiled up at him, watching the morning sunlight shimmering on his silk mask. I only mentioned that Valdez was acting strangely. It was nothing.

But it was. He reached for her hands. You are very brave. Zorro leaned over in the saddle to close the distance between them, his gentle smile lighting his blue eyes. And very beautiful, he finished. He tenderly kissed both of her palms. We make quite a team, Señorita. Unfortunately, I must go before the Alcalde awakens.

Toronado stepped away from the porch and Zorro winked wickedly at Victoria. Until I'm needed again. He saluted her and the sergeant, letting Toronado take the bit between his teeth as the mighty horse reared, then galloped out of the pueblo, leaving a trail of dust in his wake.

Mendoza laughed heartily, weighing the saddlebags in his hand. That Zorro is quite a character! he exclaimed.

Victoria smiled at the retreating figure in black and replied, He certainly is, Sergeant.

The Alcalde broke up their laughter and celebration mood by swinging angrily onto the porch, rubbing his aching jaw, barely keeping himself from pushing the smiling señorita out of his way. Someday, he thought darkly to himself, he would see that smile wiped off her pretty face. He would see Zorro hang. Sergeant! he barked.

Mendoza jumped at DeSoto's angry tone. Sí, Alcalde?

I want a party formed to run that outlaw into the ground. Now!

Mendoza jumped again, a little skip that took him at least a few more inches away from his raging superior. But Alcalde, it is impossible to catch Zorro. You know how powerful his horse is!

Victoria nodded, a pleasantly gloating expression on her face. No horse can run like Toronado.

The Alcalde glared at them and growled.

The sergeant said, And we have the stolen money, Alcalde. It's all here, just as Zorro said. He hefted the bags into the Alcalde's waiting hands.

The Alcalde hesitated, still angry, finally giving a momentarily defeated sigh. Of course, Sergeant. See that the money is returned to the bank. He pointed at a struggling Valdez. Jail him, he ordered peremptorily.

But Alcalde! Valdez protested, renewing his efforts to free himself from the soldiers. It took four lancers to escort the criminal to the jail.

Victoria Escalante turned a cold eye on DeSoto. That accusation Valdez made about our Alcalde putting him up to robbing the bank...?

Is an outright lie! he interrupted, the anger returning as his jaw continued to ache.

Of course, she said politely with an unmistakably sarcastic undertone.

He pointed a finger at her face. Just mind your business, Señorita, and I will mind mine. He withdrew his finger and executed an exaggerated bow to her and the approaching figure of Don Alejandro de la Vega. Now I must see to my prisoner, he said before heading off towards his office.

Trouble, Victoria? Alejandro questioned, slapping his riding gloves in his hands.

She shook her head. Nothing Zorro couldn't handle.

Yes, he passed right by me on his ride out of town.

Heading for his hideout, no doubt, Mendoza agreed.

At the mention of a hideout, images of Zorro's cave slipped suddenly into Victoria's mind, and her thoughts inadvertently moved to the ring nestled safely among the other jewels in the chest in her room. Zorro had given her that engagement ring only a few weeks before, as a token of their love for each other and a symbol of their future together. She smiled thoughtfully. Wherever that hideout is, Sergeant, she said wistfully. Then she nodded to the two men and returned to the cool interior of her tavern.

Diego was contentedly practicing a Mozart piano sonata when Don Alejandro slammed the hacienda's front door, announcing his return from town. Diego stopped his fiddling to look up at his father. I take it you didn't have a pleasant time in town? he questioned, mildly amused at the elder gentleman's flair for expressing his emotions.

Alejandro snorted. Pleasant! Going to town is becoming less and less pleasant every day. Diego, the Alcalde is causing more problems for our pueblo than he can ever hope to solve!

You don't say. Diego let his fingers slowly pick out the melody he'd been playing on the polished ivory keys.

Alejandro scowled at his son. Do you know that he practically threatened Victoria today? Diego looked up, concerned, but his father cut off any reply when he said, Of course you don't know. How could you? You're too busy staying at home, playing the piano!

Diego's eyes widened as his concern fell away, replaced by a look of surprise, then a look of defense. You don't seem to mind my playing when I entertain guests at your parties, he said, his voice concealing all but a hint of the indignation he felt.

Oh! Alejandro growled. What I mean is that you need to stand by Victoria more than you do; give her the support she needs to challenge the Alcalde's authority.

Diego stared at his father, stunned. Father, I cannot sanction any defiance of the Alcalde's authority.


That would accomplish little more than incurring the Alcalde's wrath, something no one in Los Angeles needs right now. Especially not Victoria.

Alejandro sighed and leaned one hand on the piano, shaking his long, white hair. Calmer, he said. All I'm saying is that Victoria is extremely vulnerable in her position as the only tavern owner in the pueblo. Considering her relationship with Zorro, she is easily singled out for individual persecution. Zorro is not there all the time and we cannot allow the Alcalde to bully her into unwise declarations of rebellion.

Though Alejandro's words brought chills of fear to the pit of Diego's stomach, he managed to outwardly brush them away with a laugh. Victoria Escalante is perfectly capable of taking care of herself. He placed his fingers on the keys to begin the piece again, but said, However, if it would make you happier, I will go with you to the tavern this afternoon to protect Victoria from the infamous temper of our Alcalde.

Alejandro paused, ready for more of an argument from his typically passive son, and eventually he nodded in approval. I'm concerned only for Victoria's safety.

I know. Diego began playing the opening bars of the music in front of him.

Hmm. Alejandro shook his head again. If only we could have a fair and just Alcalde in Los Angeles. He gripped his gloves and wandered away to change for lunch.

Diego continued to play the Mozart, uninterrupted this time, but tiny lines of worry creased his forehead. He realized the danger Victoria lived in day to day, probably more acutely than anyone else. Hearing his father put his concerns into words only compounded the worry. It was hard to love a woman openly when he was a known bandit, he grimly admitted. At times like this he questioned the wiseness of ever declaring his feelings for Victoria, even as Zorro.

Quietly the song faded away as Diego placed his chin in his hands, pondering the decisions he'd made about Victoria, and bleakly turning his thoughts to the dangers he constantly placed on the one woman he loved more than anything else in the world. He wondered if his love was worth the price she might someday pay.

Ignacio DeSoto slouched in his high backed, intricately carved office chair and glowered at Zorro's wanted poster tacked on the bulletin board near the window. He'd had such high aspirations when he'd arrived in Los Angeles, such confidence in his ability to bring the famous outlaw to his knees. And look where it got me, he thought. Stuck for years in this backwater hell hole, all hope of returning to Madrid a hero growing dimmer and dimmer with each encounter with Zorro.

And was there nothing he could do to brighten his future?

The Alcalde gloomily surveyed the room, his gaze settling on the picture of Machiavelli hanging across from the barred window. He rose to wander in front of the picture of his hero. What would a man like Machiavelli do to a man like Zorro, a man he'd found impossible to kill, capture, or even to follow? A fox who disappeared into the ground when a man blinked an eye? What would he do?

Suddenly the Alcalde stopped his pacing to place a hand on his chin. He rubbed his rough goatee, careful to avoid the swelled bruise caused by the hilt of Zorro's sword, thinking hard. Then he smiled.

If he could not kill an enemy, or capture him, or even find him, he would look at the problem from a different angle.

He would hurt him.

How could he, the Alcalde, hurt Zorro?

Without a moment's hesitation, his gaze moved to focus on the small section of the tavern that he could see through the office's front window. He moved to the window for a better view and saw Señorita Escalante chatting amiably with several customers in the shaded overhang of her porch. The lunch crowd was unusually large today, probably due to Zorro's recent heroic appearance in the pueblo.

The Alcalde chewed on his lower lip, still thinking. He had openly threatened the señorita's safety many times, even going so far as to arrest her for consorting with a known criminal. But Zorro always rescued her from his carefully laid traps, turning the tables on him in the process, showing him to be a fool. How could he use the señorita without making it look like he was using her?

His eyebrows lifted as an idea exploded in his mind. Of course; by harming her through a seemingly innocent act of God.

All he really wanted to do was drop Zorro down a peg, take some of the confidence out of the man. It didn't even matter if Zorro discovered his planning behind the deed. Just as long as Zorro was shaken, he would be satisfied.

Now, how to do it? An act of God...an act of God.... He fumbled through his mind for ideas while he watched the tavern's white adobe walls send off heat waves to dance in the plaza.

Suddenly the idea lit his mind. Yes, that was it!

And he had just the right man for the job.

DeSoto laughed softly to himself as he pulled a ring of keys from his vest pocket and headed for the door leading to the pueblo's holding cells.

Sergeant Mendoza yawned widely, his chin propped on his hands, contemplating the arrangement of chess pieces on the board in front of him. A fly buzzed lazily near his face and he swatted it away with a languid swish of his hand. Heat waves shimmered in the plaza's warm air, but it was cool in the shade of the tavern's porch, and he had almost a full glass of Señorita Victoria's tangy juice before him. Even though siesta had already begun, he wanted to stay to watch the tail end of an intriguing battle of chess between Don Diego and the boy Felipe. That is, if he could keep his eyes open long enough to see the game's finish.

It's your move, Felipe, Don Alejandro prodded, gesturing at the game board spread out on the worn wooden table.

Felipe nodded, staring intently at the board. His hand hovered over his queen, but he withdrew it to scratch his chin and think some more about his possible moves.

Diego sighed and leaned back to stretch his long legs as best he could in the cramped space under the table. Victoria appeared beside him, a brown glazed jug in her hand. He smiled up at her as she reached for his glass to refill it with water.

Is he winning yet? she asked and looked at Felipe.

Diego shrugged. It's hard to tell. This will certainly be a close game. However, my confidence in my playing abilities has diminished considerably since I taught him the rules five years ago.

Felipe smiled at Diego's comment and promptly moved his one remaining bishop to put Diego's king in check. Diego groaned softly.

Alejandro laughed. Well, well, Diego. What now?

Victoria grinned. Don't get too frustrated, Diego, she said and patted him kindly on the shoulder before moving to fill Alejandro's glass as well. I'm closing for siesta, but you're welcome to stay as long as it takes for Felipe to beat Diego again. Felipe smiled his most charming smile.

Diego snorted. That probably won't be much longer. But thank you, Victoria. He took a drink of the cool water and stared at the chess board, totally absorbed in the repercussions of Felipe's excellent move.

Thank you, Señorita, Alejandro added. Have a good rest. Victoria disappeared into the tavern, closing and locking the carved double doors behind her.

She wandered to the bar to clear up a mess of bottles and dirty glasses strewn on the green counter top, then hesitated while deciding what to do next. She could wash some dishes or get a start on the stew she was preparing for dinner. Or she could go upstairs and actually lay down for awhile. Her head ached slightly from the heat and her busy morning.

Victoria rubbed the small of her back where it always hurt after a hectic work day, and curled her toes in her slippers. Yes, a brief rest was definitely appealing. She looked at the glasses sitting in a neat row on a tray and decided to leave everything until later. With a tired sigh, she headed for the stairs and her tiny bedroom at the end of the corridor.

She was completely oblivious to the muffled thud coming from her kitchen and the strange activity being carried out there.

Diego glared at the chess board, then relaxed as he saw a very elegant way out of his predicament. He freed his king from Felipe's check, succeeding in blocking any near future checks at the same time. He leaned back to wave at the new arrangement of the pieces. You're move.

The smile on Felipe's face slowly faded away.

The battle wore on through several more attacks and counterattacks, neither player gaining an advantage over his opponent. Mendoza's eyes fluttered open and shut several times, but he was determined to see the outcome of the game before retiring to his bed for a nice long snooze until dinner. Even Don Alejandro was nodding quietly on his bench beside Felipe. The entire pueblo was asleep except for the two combatants and their observers.

Diego once again thwarted Felipe's latest plan, putting the teenager on the defensive. He sat back to patiently wait for his next move, relaxing against the shaded adobe wall behind him.

The midafternoon sun beat down on the tiny town, baking the dirt of the main street to a hard glaze of clay and dust. Even the flies were too lethargic to do more than buzz from one resting spot on the wall to another. It was a lazy summer day. Diego took a deep breath of the warm July air, filling his lungs with the sweet, dirty smell of a California summer.

The air caught suddenly in his chest and he swiftly sat up, a puzzled expression on his face. Felipe looked up from the chess board, startled. Diego took another quick breath of air, turning his head as he wrinkled his forehead.

Sergeant, he said, shaking Mendoza's shoulder to fully awaken him. Do you smell smoke?

Mendoza jerked awake, sniffing the air. His eyes widened just a bit. Sí, Don Diego, I think I do.

Alejandro added, Perhaps Victoria started a fire in the fireplace.

In this heat? Diego questioned. Still puzzled, he stood, pushing the bench back to the wall, and looked around.

Everything about the pueblo appeared normal. The heat waves shimmered, the sky remained a bright, cloudless blue. All of California was taking its afternoon siesta.

Then Diego turned to glance at the tavern doors and noticed a curl of smoke sneaking through the crack under the green wood.

Alejandro noticed it at the same time and jumped up. The tavern! he yelled and rushed at the entrance, his stocky body hurling against the bolted doors. Sergeant Mendoza added his considerable bulk to the caballero's effort and the two managed to snap the inside bolt. The four men rushed into the room, almost tripping over each other's feet in their haste.

Smoke greeted them the minute they entered the tavern, and soon they were all coughing too hard to even speak. Flames hungrily ate across the tile floor and up the carved wooden bar. The curtain separating the kitchen and the main room was already a bundle of ashes on the scorched floor, and more flames were working their way across the stage used for rare performances and parties, rushing towards the wooden hand railing on the stairs.

Victoria suddenly materialized on the balcony and began beating at the yellow-orange flames with a blanket.

Victoria! Diego called up to her.

She paused long enough to yell, There's blankets. In the store room!

Felipe followed her pointing finger to a tiny room to the right of the bar, dodging past a burning table to get there.

I'll ring the mission bell and give the alarm! Mendoza ran out of the tavern to the mission faster than he'd ever run before.

Alejandro gestured at the tables and benches scattered across the floor and without a word uttered between the two, he and Diego began moving anything likely to burn as far away from the existing fire as possible until Felipe returned at their sides bearing an armload of blankets. Coughing, they started thrashing at anything that was burning, and managed to get control over the fire nearest the door.

Victoria hurried down the stairs, staying close to the wall and holding her skirts back from the burning banister. She had pounded on doors, rousing the tavern's guests from siesta, practically throwing them onto the balcony to rush them down the stairs while they could still use the stairs, and then aborted her attempt to save the banister or balcony and was hurrying to help Alejandro, Diego, and Felipe fight the flames in the main room.

By now the fire had consumed the bar and the shelves behind it. Pretty swaths of floral material hanging along the wall smoldered and smoked, then exploded in brief bursts of hot red fire. The flames crawled quickly up each piece of cloth to connect with the ceiling beams and rafters, charring the wood even as the citizens of Los Angels arrived at the tavern to offer their assistance.

Where the tavern had been empty when the de la Vegas, Felipe, and Sergeant Mendoza discovered the fire, now the burning building was full of volunteers with buckets of water, dripping blankets, and a strong determination to save their only public gathering place. Even the Alcalde had come to fight the flames. But the fire had a head start on the sleepy citizens, and Alejandro knew it was a losing battle as he watched the tongues swirl up the ceiling supports to attack the rafters and even the candle chandelier. When the rope holding the chandelier aloft burned in two, dropping the circular shape and its candles to the seared tile floor, the Alcalde called for everyone to get out of the building before someone was seriously hurt or killed.

He's right! Don Alejandro yelled in agreement. Everybody out! He coughed loudly from breathing the smoke, yanking on Diego's and Felipe's sleeves to hurry them towards the door.

Despite the Alcalde's and Don Alejandro's warnings, the people refused to be beaten so easily. A line of people straggled from the water fountain in the plaza into the tavern, each person doing his or her part in passing buckets full of water up the line and running back to the plaza with empty buckets ready to be refilled. But every support post was crawling with fire and the don could see that no amount of water was going to stop the ascent of the flames.

Alejandro yelled again into the melee of roaring flames and rushing people, Out! Everybody! and began physically pushing people out the door.

Victoria nodded at Diego, her dark hair straying into her eyes, clinging to her sweaty neck and dirty, soot-streaked cheeks. They turned to retreat out the front door with a crowd of others. In seconds the doorway was jammed with pushing, frightened peasants and merchants who only a few moments earlier had wanted to stay and fight the fire.

Out! Alejandro yelled again, coughed, and shoved the people who were moving too slowly. Felipe! Sergeant! Come on! He gestured at the two with his left arm, urging them to hurry. Victoria!

Victoria and Diego stood near the back of the crowd jostling towards the door, only a few other lancers and Alejandro behind them. Diego had his hand on her elbow, trying to get the people to move so everybody could get out, the heat from the fire feeling like pin pricks on the back of his neck. The smoke burned in his lungs and his throat, making his eyes water so that he had trouble seeing.

Suddenly Victoria lurched to a stop and grabbed her right hand. She glanced up at him in horror and shouted, My ring! over the noise of the volunteers and the popping fire surrounding her. She pulled away from Diego and ran for the stairs.

Oh God, Diego thought in horror equal to Victoria's. She's going after her engagement ring!

Victoria! Alejandro called after her, starting to follow, but Diego was faster.

He dodged past two burning posts and bounded up the stairs after her, carefully choosing where to step on the wooden stairs, cautious of the flames leaping from the banister at the same time. Victoria was on the balcony when he reached her, enveloped in white, clinging smoke and leaning into the wall, fighting for a breath of air.

He grabbed her waist. Leave it! he yelled in her ear, pulling her back to the stairs.

She resisted him and coughed out a reply, No!

It's just a ring! It's not that important!

Yes, it is! I'll never find it again if I leave it! Victoria besieged him with a pleading look and pulled away to throw herself against the closed door to her room. With single-minded intensity, she knew she had to get that ring.

Diego understood how much the ring Zorro had given her meant to Victoria. Yelling a curse, he yanked the black fringed sash from his waist and pressed it over Victoria's mouth and nose, telling her to hold it there. Together they forced the bedroom door open. Flames leaped through the opening, and Diego and Victoria jumped back, but Diego was able to push into the room as the fire receded from its initial attack. Victoria followed, pointing at a chest sitting on the floor at the foot of her brass bed. Luckily, the flames hadn't yet reached the chest, and only the brass latch was hot to the touch. Diego used the edge of his white shirt to pull the latch open and lift the trunk lid.

Where? he questioned, his eyes smarting and tearing as he looked at Victoria kneeling beside him.

In the jewelry box! She dropped the sash, reaching for a small, beautifully carved wooden box with a square, tight fitting lid.

Diego tore the lid off and instantly focused on the intricately designed gold and emerald band nestled with two other rings in one corner of the box. He threw the lid to the floor and plucked the ring Zorro had given Victoria from its place, then dropped the jewelry box back into the chest. Victoria thankfully took the ring from his hand and slid it onto her finger.

The gold of the ring sent glitters of reflected firelight across Victoria's skin and she reached for Diego's hand to haul him to his feet. They gained the balcony again, but had to fall hard against the wall as a beam crashed lazily down from the ceiling in a blaze of sparks and flying ash. Victoria flattened her back into Diego, pulling her swaying skirts away from the dancing flames. The beam landed with a loud crack on the banister railing and flew into a thousand glowing splinters. Another beam quickly joined the first, landing even harder on the railing before falling to the floor below, taking the flaming railing with it.

Heat rose up to them in surging waves that burned their throats and lungs. The fire raced along the balcony, creating a wall all around them and cutting off their only way down from the second floor.

Diego's mind was so numb from the searing heat that he found it hard to think. But he had to find a way out of the burning tavern before he and Victoria were roasted to death. They were already at the end of the balcony and had nowhere else to go but back into Victoria's room, the farthest from the encroaching flames.

Without prodding from Diego, Victoria wrapped the end of her skirt around the doorknob and they stumbled back into the empty room, coughing and gasping for a breath of fresh air. Victoria slammed the door shut as Diego vaulted over the single bed to reach the window. He pulled back the shutters and the glass panes, opening them as wide as they would go, sucking in the slightly less-smoky air from outside.

How...how are we going...to get down? Victoria asked, having to pause as coughing fits forced her to lean onto the window sill. Her throat ached when she spoke, and she felt dizzy if she looked out the window to the ground far below.

The bedspread, Diego said. He retrieved the white spread from the bed and she took one end in her hand. I'll lower you down and... Coughing and smoke prematurely halted his speech, but Victoria knew what to do. She climbed clumsily through the open window and, bracing himself against the adobe wall, he lowered the bedspread and Victoria as far down as the spread would take her. She dropped the last few feet to the ground, landing on her feet, then falling to her rear in the sunbaked dirt.

The fire was edging towards the window as Diego tied the spread to the bedpost and crawled through the window after Victoria. He had a more considerable drop to the ground than Victoria had, since much of the line's length was taken up by the knot securing it around the post, but the many skills Diego had learned as Zorro came in handy. He had the foresight to kick himself away from the hot, white wall before releasing the bedspread, and rolled into a tight ball the minute his feet struck the ground. He stopped his roll a few inches from Victoria's foot and immediately started coughing loudly. Now dirt stung his nostrils as he leaned his face into the ground, too tired to do any more than lay where he was and concentrate on breathing the sweet, clear air blowing over the pueblo from the south.

Diego. Victoria's voice shook with another eruption of choking. She crept closer to him on shaky knees and helped him to sit up. Are you all right?

He nodded, his head on her shoulder, his eyes closed. His white shirt was ripped where it had caught the latch of the trunk, and black soot and ash covered most of his shoulders and arms. The ruffles on either side of the buttons were singed black, as was the hem of Victoria's brown skirt.

He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, still gasping for air, but his eyes cleared enough for him to see her soot-blackened face and messy hair. She smiled tiredly at him and used her right hand to push his hair out of his eyes, the sun glinting off the gold on her finger.

Diego rubbed his eyes some more, fighting to keep them from watering. He held onto her hand, covering the ring from the sunlight and whispered almost to himself, I would have given you another ring, just as he began coughing again.

Victoria held Diego until he quieted, thinking he was a dear friend to have gone after her the way he did. Thank you for going after me, Diego, she said her thoughts aloud.

Diego took a deep breath and sat up the rest of the way, finally lifting his head from her shoulder, and began brushing the soot from his shirt and trousers. He spoke softly, his throat still raw from breathing so much smoke. At your service, as always.

Victoria blinked at him, thoughtful. Zorro often ended his visits to Los Angeles with a line similar to Diego's last statement. She looked at him questioningly, but before she could say anything, his eyes narrowed suddenly and he sat up alertly, gazing intently across the plaza.

He pointed at a familiar looking young man who was doing his best to stay hidden from view behind a watering trough while the tavern steadily burned. Despite the smoke in the plaza, Diego noted an oddly satisfied smile on the man's face. Isn't that the man who robbed the bank this morning? he asked.

Victoria looked, but only saw Don Alejandro and the Alcalde rushing around the corner of the tavern.

Victoria! Diego!

Diego lost sight of the suspicious man and let his father pull him to his feet. His head swam from lack of oxygen and he had to close his eyes and breath slowly and steadily to regain his balance.

How did you get out? the Alcalde asked, wiping sweat and dirt from his own eyes.

Diego lowered me out the window, Victoria answered breathlessly, pointing at the bedspread fluttering in the wind.

Thank God you're safe! Alejandro patted Diego's shoulder and put his arm protectively around Victoria.

Diego looked at the bedspread and said, We were lucky, Father.

Alejandro smiled. Well, what you both need is some water. Come on to the fountain. He supported Victoria with his arm, leading her to the pueblo's main water supply in the plaza's center.

The pueblo's citizens were still running crazily back and forth between the fountain and the tavern, carrying buckets of water to throw through the open doors onto the flames. Smoke rolled out over the crowd, occasionally pushing the fire fighters back a few paces, but they refused to give up the battle. Sergeant Mendoza was running with empty buckets from the line to the fountain, where children refilled the buckets to pass up the line again. He paused when he saw Diego and Victoria safely seated on the fountain's edge, both of them hungrily drinking the cool water.

Don Diego, Señorita Victoria, you're alive! he panted as he passed a bucket to waiting hands and fell against the brick reservoir. He heaved in the fresh air, mopping his sweating face with a soot-blackened handkerchief.

Thanks to Diego, Victoria told the sergeant between large swallows of water. The liquid tasted good on her tongue and she couldn't seem to drink fast enough to soothe her burning throat.

Mendoza shook his head sadly. I'm afraid it's a lost cause, Señorita. The fire is too hot for us to fight. I don't think there will be much left. He shook his head again.

Victoria turned distressed eyes on Diego. This can't be true, she thought dumbly. The tavern was her business, her life. Without it she would be homeless and destitute.

Diego saw the thoughts and pain work across her dirty face and he felt his chest tighten in sympathy. He reached out to her, taking a firm hold on her arm. I'm so sorry, Victoria.

She focused her eyes on his concerned face for a moment and managed a tired, grateful smile. Thank you, Diego, she said in a defeated tone. We did everything we could. Then she rose to follow Mendoza back to the front of the line to help in the vain attempt to control the blaze.

The Alcalde muttered to himself. It's a shame. A real shame.

What do you mean? Diego quizzically glanced up at DeSoto.

Well, the Alcalde explained, his hand rubbing thoughtfully on his chin, it's hardly a secret that Señorita Escalante and Zorro are...close to each other. His regretful tone held a hint of sarcasm now.

That tone touched off suspicions in Diego's tired, smoke-filled mind. What has Zorro got to do with Victoria's tavern? he asked, still coughing on the smoky air. He had inhaled entirely too much smoke for his own good, he decided as DeSoto waited for him to regain his composure before continuing his explanation.

Think, Diego, the Alcalde said with a wave at the tavern. I'm sure there are plenty of spiteful people who would love to get even with Zorro for one reason or another.

Diego's head came up with a jerk and he gave DeSoto a hard stare. You're saying that this fire was deliberately set as some type of revenge against Zorro?

The Alcalde shrugged. It's a...a possibility, he said, pursing his lips. Something to think on. He stood, then patted Diego on the shoulder. Take care of yourself, Don Diego. It's not often you get to play the hero in Los Angeles.

Diego paused his whirling thoughts long enough to give him a distracted smile, then cast his eyes to the spot he'd seen the morning's bank robber, Tadeo Valdez, only a few moments earlier. Or at least he thought he'd seen Valdez. Doubts rushed over Diego's mind like the sea at high tide. The plaza had been very smoky at the time. It was possible he had mistaken any common peasant for Valdez. But the Alcalde's words remained in his thoughts like a teasing cool breeze on a hot day.

With a shake of his head, Diego turned to regard the tavern again and the crowd standing near the door. The buckets were still now as the people retreated back to let the choking black smoke pour from the open doors. Victoria stood quietly, supported by his father and Sergeant Mendoza, a hand on her cheek as she helplessly watched her home turn to ashes. Whatever the cause, there was little anybody could do to change the fact that Los Angeles had lost its one public gathering place, and a very special young woman had lost everything.

His lips set into a grim line, Diego rose on shaky legs to offer her whatever support he could, though he knew there was nothing he, nor Zorro for that matter, could do.

Pueblo de Los Angeles was quiet under the kind glow of the full moon. No dogs barked, no horses snorted from the cuartel stables, and even the wild coyotes were silent. Only the tavern's gaping window holes seemed out of place on this warm summer night.

The deep shadow cast by the moon's light crawled smoothly across the cuartel wall, disappearing as its owner climbed noiselessly to the red-tiled roof of the Alcalde's office. The hinges of the skylight squealed harshly in the hushed air, but the caped man slid quickly through the rectangular opening and lowered himself into the office. His boots thudding on the polished floor was the only sound that carried up to the sleeping town.

Zorro crossed on cat's feet to the door leading to the jail and peered cautiously into the inky blackness shrouding the two cells. He pulled carefully on the thick door separating the cells from the office, opening a wider chink to look through. Then he let out a long sigh and threw the door open wide, abandoning his earlier caution. The jail, as he had hoped against but feared all along, was empty.

Tadeo Valdez had escaped.

Suddenly the door opposite the jail swung open, and Zorro whirled around, pulling his sword from its sheath in quick warning.

Sergeant Mendoza stopped in midstride, the glow of light trembling on the adobe walls as he tried to steady the lantern in his hands. He sucked in a breath through his open mouth, but was too terrified to even move a hand to the sword strapped at his side.

Zorro laid a gloved hand across Mendoza's mouth. Quiet, Sergeant, or you'll wake the Alcalde. He gently took the lantern from the soldier's shaking hand and set it on the Alcalde's pine desk. When he felt sure Mendoza would not call and rouse his lancers, he slowly removed his hand, freeing the sergeant to speak.

Zorro! Mendoza gasped in a whisper. What...?

But Zorro had no time to settle the sergeant's curiosity. The prisoner, Tadeo Valdez. Can you tell me where he is?

Mendoza gawked. He's in his cell. Where else would a criminal be?

Zorro was not paying attention. Instead he was thinking, muttering aloud to himself. Did he escape? Or was he mysteriously released as a revenge against me? Just as the Alcalde suggested.

Released? Mendoza laughed and corrected him, Valdez is in his cell, where he should be.

Zorro's attention trained again on Mendoza. With a resigned smile, he said, Check again, Sergeant. You may be surprised at what you find.

Puzzled, Mendoza passed around Zorro and peered into the jail. The emptiness of the cells surprised him as much as Zorro's appearance. He's gone! he exclaimed and shuddered at the thought of the Alcalde's reception of this new turn of events. Zorro, I don't understand how he escaped.

Mendoza turned, only to find the Alcalde's office as deserted as his jail. Zorro, like Valdez, had vanished. The sergeant's eyes delved into the corners of the office, searching for any clue to Zorro's disappearance. The Alcalde's not going to like this, he said under his breath, dreading the need to tell his superior of his night's discoveries.

A shaking Victoria stood quietly among the rubble that had once been the bar in her busy tavern. Morning sunshine blazed serenely across the mess of blackened timber and scorched tile, soot covered furniture and broken shards of liquor bottles. She clutched at the shawl around her shoulders, trying to shut out a persistent shiver that crawled up her spine every few minutes. Each time she turned to find a former treasure destroyed by the fire the day before, her stomach turned circles and she had to bite her bottom lip to keep from crying before the entire pueblo of Los Angeles. Many citizens were crawling through the ruins, and more than anything she didn't want to cry in front of so many people. Victoria drew a ragged breath of slightly smoky air, twisting the precious emerald ring around and around her third finger with her thumb, and looked at her home in stunned disbelief.

The bar was a flattened pile of wood, barrels, and shelves with half broken bottles scattered everywhere. The wall that had separated the bar and main room from the kitchen had burned away completely, leaving an unrestricted view to the kitchen fireplace and blackened walls. Victoria felt strangely naked to be staring so easily through to her usually private kitchen nook. The stage beside the kitchen was a lump of mangled boards, leading to the staircase and banister that were now twisted bits of charred panels and soot-streaked adobe.

Her gaze traveled from one spot of destruction to the next, her eyes watering from lack of sleep and the smoke still clinging to the air inside the tavern. She'd spent the night with Don Diego and his father, but not even their most luxurious guest room and softest bed could remove the vivid memories of fire and burning wood from her mind. Now she stood among the ashes and ruins of the building that had been the center of her life, unable to do more than gently dislodge a scorched board with the toe of her shoe and stand, numbly rooted to one spot in the wreckage.

Don Diego found her in the same place several minutes later when he finished an inspection of the outside and foundation of the tavern. The sudden warmth of his hand momentarily touching her forearm brought her out of her distracted pose and she managed to smile wanly up at him. So, what did you find? she asked, her voice sounding weak and thin to her ears. She cleared her throat and removed the shawl from her shoulders.

Diego crossed his arms on his chest, his own eyes moving steadily around the room. Well, the fire seems to have done little damage to the outer structure. There are some ruined windows that will need new shutters and trim, but the foundation and porch are in good condition. The inside definitely took the brunt of the destruction.

Victoria moved more boards with her toe. You can say that again, she said, her voice heavy with sarcasm.

Diego turned concerned eyes to her face. Do you have any idea how the blaze started? he questioned.

Victoria shook her head in bafflement. I have no idea, she stated. I keep going over and over in my mind everything I did before going upstairs for siesta yesterday. There was nothing even cooking in the fireplace. I hadn't started preparing supper yet. Honestly, Diego, it's a complete mystery! she finished in despair.

Diego smiled kindly at the dramatic pain in her eyes, wanting nothing more than to calm that very pain from her mind. Don't worry. We'll find the cause soon enough. What matters most is getting the tavern back in working order as fast as possible. You'll need to replace most of the ceiling beams and struts, lay a new floor, build a new bar and a banister for the stairway. I assume you also want to put up that wall to separate the kitchen again. He eyed her carefully before asking, Are you able to afford the needed repairs?

Victoria sighed and brought her right hand up to gently massage her forehead. You know I just paid off the mortgage last month. She closed her eyes for a quick calculation of her remaining funds and shrugged. I have two thousand pesos in the bank and maybe another fifty in the cash box. If I can find the cash box, anyway. She turned towards where the bar had stood, missing the odd look of horror that passed suddenly across Diego's eyes.

Diego stood for a moment, paralyzed by surprise. The ring! He watched a ray of summer sunshine play across the twin stones and gold setting on Victoria's finger, shocked at the unfamiliarity of seeing his mother's treasured ring on Victoria's hand. She had obviously forgotten to remove it before leaving the hacienda that morning. Which was not surprising, Diego conceded to himself. Victoria's mind was surely occupied with more pressing matters than the continued secrecy of her engagement to Zorro. However, all Don Alejandro needed was one look at that ring and Diego's own secret would be lost; Zorro's identity would be discovered in a matter of moments. It took all Diego's self restraint not to reach out a hand to cover the emeralds from the sunlight and curious eyes. Damn! It seems that I'm determined to inadvertently reveal my most protected secret, he thought sourly to himself and glanced hastily over his shoulder as his father approached.

Well, Victoria, Alejandro said as he entered the tavern and joined the two younger people. Has Diego been giving you the details of his inspection?

Diego instantly moved to Victoria's right side, hiding her hand from his father as best he could without looking like he was hiding something.

Yes. It appears that the building itself was unharmed? Victoria was asking.

So Diego says, Alejandro replied. And he's the architectural expert of the pueblo. He wouldn't allow you to set foot in here if it wasn't absolutely safe. He glanced at Diego, who smiled brightly and gave a vigorous nod of his head.

Absolutely, Diego echoed, still smiling innocently while moving another inch closer to Victoria.

Alejandro's attention quickly wandered to the blackened ruin of the tavern's main room and the people doing their best to clean up as much of the mess as they could. He watched Felipe help two lancers overturn a table and carry it to the door to add to a growing pile of wood and tiles in the plaza. Ah, Victoria, he said, taking hold of her left hand for a sympathetic squeeze. Your tavern! It's destroyed. He hissed a sad sigh through pursed lips. Can you rebuild?

Victoria took a step back from Diego before gesturing at him with her right hand. Diego and I were just talking about my....

Diego impetuously grabbed her hand to cover it with his large fingers and gave it a friendly pat.

Alejandro interrupted her. If you need any help, Victoria, just ask. He wagged a finger at her face before she had a chance to protest. I mean it. You are like a daughter to me. How could we not help in your time of need? He nodded, looking to Diego for support.

Diego, busily trying to keep his hand over the ring, gave another bright smile and a nod of encouragement.

Alejandro continued. You know, it's a miracle no one was injured yesterday. Though the two of you were nearly the death of me. What on earth was so important that you had to risk running upstairs to retrieve? You might both have been killed! he admonished severely.

Diego's heart skipped a beat as Victoria's eyes widened. Instinctively he twisted the ring until the stones faced her palm and he searched desperately for anything to distract his father.

Puzzled, Victoria pulled her hand from Diego's warm fingers and hesitantly said, Oh, it was just sentimental, really... but Diego cut her off.

Father, Felipe needs some help with that grating he's carrying. He unceremoniously pushed his father to intercept their young friend and his struggle with the iron fender from the main room's fireplace, leaving a perplexed Victoria still standing amidst the ruble.

Victoria didn't try to cover her confusion as she stared in surprise at Diego. Now what was that all about? she mused quietly, righting the ring on her finger to glance at the stones' shiny surfaces, berating herself for forgetting to remove it before leaving the de la Vega hacienda. Naturally she could tell no one about her ring, not even Diego, who had helped in retrieving it.

Victoria shook her head to clear it, dismissing her confusion as she turned her attention to the task of cleaning the tavern. Everything had to be cleared out before any repairs were started, and she set to work moving a pile of wood and tile to the plaza, determined to have the area near the bar clean by noon. She spoke very little, still feeling a bit stunned from the disastrous turn her business had taken, and her thoughts wandered aimlessly as her attention centered on different pieces of memorabilia she found scattered in the debris on the floor: waterlogged sombreros she'd bought at the Los Angeles market, shredded pieces of material that hung from the balcony. Even several of the candle sconces that were attached to the walls had to be replaced. Victoria sighed tiredly when she thought of all the work that needed to be done. How could she ever afford all these repairs? She doubted that two thousand pesos would be enough to get her tavern back to working condition, yet she had no other assets, nothing more saved for an emergency. She didn't even have anything left she could sell.

Her ring caught annoyingly on the side of a barrel, its sharp edge digging into her finger. Suddenly her mind jumped back to the harrowing moments she and Diego had spent braving the flames for that precious ring. The heat of the fire even burned in her memory. Diego had been uncharacteristically courageous as he plucked the ring from her jewelry box when she pointed it out to....

Then she blinked. Wait, she thought. I didn't point it out. I told him it was in the jewelry box in the trunk, but I never told him which ring to grab.

She wriggled her shoe off a small bunch of broken glass, still thinking. She went over the entire scene in her mind, replaying as much detail as she could recall. No, she was certain she had not mentioned which ring she was after. Yet he had unhesitantly pulled the right one from the tangle of her mother's wedding band and a turquoise that had belonged to her grandmother. And just now, what was the point of all that hand holding and turning the stones to her palm? How could he know she needed to hide her secret even from Don Alejandro?

She bit her lower lip and stood up long enough to watch Diego as he cheerfully helped his father and Felipe remove the remaining burned banister posts that still stood on the stairway. He laughed at something Alejandro said, and the rich sound of his laughter carried over to her.

With that laugh, a picture of Zorro presenting her with his mother's ring rose suddenly to her mind. It was the very ring Diego had recovered and which she now wore on her right hand. Though it was her engagement ring, it was a secret that must be kept for her own safety, even from her closest friends. Yet Diego somehow knew the need for that secrecy. It had belonged to Zorro's mother. Diego had certainly hidden it from his father - Did that mean Zorro was...?

Diego! she said aloud, her eyes wide, and dropped the broom with a thump to the floor.

Diego paused in helping Sergeant Mendoza move some fallen ceiling struts to turn in surprise at Victoria's sharp tone.

Victoria gazed at him across her destroyed tavern, strangely certain her suspicions were correct. Zorro's carefully guarded secret was at last revealed. She wore the ring Don Alejandro had given his beloved wife, Felicidad, and which had been passed to Victoria by their son, Diego, as a promise for a future with the outlaw Zorro...Diego and Zorro....

Victoria let the half-thoughts spin crazily in her mind, unaware of Diego's movement until he suddenly stood before her, his strong hands on her arms, supporting her when she swayed unsteadily from so much fast thinking. He helped her across the rubble to the relative privacy of the corner that was once her partitioned kitchen.

Victoria, what's wrong?

His voice penetrated the strange fog in her mind, and she could so effortlessly see Zorro in Diego's familiar face. The voice, the eyes, the cheeks, the jaw; they were the same, every feature she had memorized and imprinted in her mind. They had always been right before her, as close to her as he was now, all these years.

Diego looked at her glazed eyes and felt her shake under his hands. What was wrong with her? He knew Victoria could handle most any situation with an incredible amount of strength that he had always admired. But now it seemed she had accepted all she could. She didn't speak or move, only looked at him with an expression of horror marring her pale expression. Was she in shock? Diego gripped her shoulders tightly. Victoria, I'm sending Felipe for Doctor Hernandez. You don't look well at all. He turned, searching the crowd for his young friend, but Victoria shook her head suddenly, stopping him.

No, it's all right...Diego. I'm fine. She shook her head again, her hair tumbling over her shoulders. I just.... She looked up at the familiar high forehead and dark tousled hair, amazed that she had never realized so many things about him before. It was so obvious to her now. How could she not have known that Diego was Zorro? I'm fine now, she said, her voice a whisper.

Diego looked at her anxiously. Is there something wrong? He gently rubbed her shoulder with a warm hand.

Victoria looked at the hands on her arms, strongly aware of their warmth and softness, the foreigness of feeling his skin touch hers. Zorro's black gloves had always created a slight barrier between them. Now there was nothing to keep them apart, nothing to do except tell him what she knew, reach out and take his hand in hers, to accept him as Zorro, as the man she.... She blinked rapidly several times, struggling to sort out her jumbled thoughts and emotions.

It's all right, Victoria. You can trust me.

Victoria opened her eyes at the word 'trust.' Trust, she believed, was one of the most important characteristics in her odd relationship with Zorro. She trusted him with her life. He trusted her with his. The only thing he'd ever kept from her was his identity. Now she had even that. But only because of circumstances and the fire, not because he told her, not because he truly trusted her.

Without warning, Diego saw the veil of confusion fall away from her face. Anger took its place, quick and hot, burning in her eyes like the flames that had swept through her tavern. She threw his supporting hands away with a jerk of her arms, her teeth clenched tightly against her rage.

All these years, Diego, and you never told me! she accused furiously, her voice a strangled whisper in her throat.

Diego drew back, surprised at her scathing tone. What...?

She stopped his muddled protest with a curt wave of her hand. You never trusted me enough to tell me, did you?

Diego stared at her in bafflement. Victoria, I don't understand.

Why don't you admit it? I was a fool not to know the real reason long ago. I thought I was your friend, but now I see I was wrong. Victoria felt herself shaking with the strength of her anger. Inside, her anger was mixed with many tumbling emotions that were impossible to sort out; dread, fear, awe, and disbelief warred against an even stronger sense of betrayal. She was betrayed by friendship and love at the same time, and the force of such a discovery made it impossible to keep her knowledge to herself.

I trusted you! she began in a low voice. I trusted you with everything and you never confided in me! How could you, Diego? How could you not tell me for so many years? You don't even trust me enough to give me.... Victoria stopped, unable to stand the lack of understanding that showed in his blue eyes. Making a hasty decision, she tugged the emerald ring from her finger and put it into his palm. Here. Take it. I don't want it if you don't trust me enough to come with it.

In one shocking moment, Diego understood. She knows! he thought, and felt the blood drain from his face. He looked at the ring in panic. How had she known? What had he done to tell her his secret? He forced the questions down and lifted his eyes from the ring to Victoria's flushed face.

His confusion heightened her anger even more. And I thought you were being nice, offering to give me another ring! Hah! If I had only known then that Zorro couldn't even trust me with himself, I would....

Victoria. Diego managed to collect his scattered thoughts and place his hands soothingly on her shoulders, his voice low and full of dismay. You know the danger was too great for Zorro to reveal his identity to anyone, and especially to you.

Victoria moved back, out of his reach, and glared fiercely at him. She trembled before him in rage and balled her fists until her nails cut her palms. You are my friend! All this time, wasted! You never even....

Don't you know that I had no choice! Diego plead in a savage whisper. He stepped forward, closing the distance she'd put between them, leaning in close to her distorted features to take her hand in his own. Do you understand what the Alcalde will do to anybody knowing Zorro's secret? he said hoarsely. He will use that person as bait for Zorro until there is nothing left to use; torture, flogging, beating, even death as long as he has a hope of capturing the man he so desperately seeks.

I know when to keep a secret! He would never have found out.

Victoria, what if he had? he questioned through clenched teeth. I couldn't take that chance!

It was never your chance to take, Diego! It was mine!

I'm not willing to let you put your life in jeopardy like that! Not for me, not for Zorro, not for anybody!

She ripped her hand from his. It is my life! Victoria retorted, her words powerful and biting despite her low whisper. You don't always know what's best for everybody.

But you are different! he insisted.

Why? she challenged, her eyes smoldering dark fires in her pinched face. How much more waiting was Zorro's secret worth? My lifetime?

Diego took a deep, seething breath and said, How could I risk it? Your safety is more important to me than any amount of time!

Victoria accused, You had as much time as you wanted. There was no way for me to know that I saw Zorro every day. But each time you walked into my tavern, you knew I would be here, waiting like a...like a peon! You took my very freedom from me because of your secret!

And what about this ring! Diego brought his hand up, holding the ring with his thumb and index finger, gripping it tightly as his own anger and defensiveness grew at each of Victoria's accusations. What are you taking away from me? You made a promise of trust and acceptance as well when you chose this ring. You accepted the man then, no matter who he really was, and I trusted your word, Victoria.

You don't have even the smallest understanding of what it is to trust anybody's word!

And are your promises always given as easily as they are broken? he shot back heedlessly.

Victoria's cheek muscles tightened as her anger and unhappiness exploded in a quick burst of energy. Faster than Diego could follow with his eyes, her hand drew back and she slapped him as hard as she could on the cheek. She looked at him, breathing heavily. Get out of my tavern, she ordered quietly.

He stared at her with eyes full of anguish. The pain clutching around his heart begged him to ask her not to do this, to let him explain his reasoning, his love. But he only turned away, feeling too shocked to say anything more. Diego ignored a call from his father and stumbled blindly across the rubble littering the burned tile floor until he reached the double doors. He didn't even notice the Alcalde when his shoulder bumped roughly against him as he entered the tavern. He felt nothing except the edges of Victoria's ring cutting like a knife into the soft skin of his right palm.

Diego! Don Alejandro yelled into the empty entry hall before giving the front door a good, satisfying slam. Diego de la Vega! he called again, not bothering to disguise the obvious displeasure in his voice. I have a few words to say to you! He glanced around, then walked past the piano to look into the library. Diego!

I'm right here, Father. You don't need to shout.

Diego stood in front of the windows, staring out with glazed eyes that didn't see the perfect white clouds in the glorious blue sky. His arms crossed solidly on his chest, and his dark hair fell messily over his forehead.

Alejandro didn't waste any time revealing the reason for his fury. What on earth did you say to Victoria? he asked, his tone harsh. She's been half crazy with crying all morning, muttering things about you and Zorro.... I've never seen her so unhappy.

Pain and guilt snaked through Diego's mind. He hated for Victoria to be hurting so much. Knowing he was the cause of her despair made him feel worse than ever, and it took several breaths to loosen the knot that had formed in his stomach before he was able to ask, Is she all right?

Alejandro's disgust returned. Yes, no thanks to you. He slapped his riding gloves onto a tiny marble-topped table beside the windows. Honestly, Diego, I sometimes don't know what gets into you. Victoria Escalante is practically one of the family and you.... He had to pause to collect the wild accusations that wanted to come tumbling from his lips. When he had his thoughts under control, he continued, You choose today of all days to upset her with another of your ridiculous whims!

Diego's head lowered as his father went on with his tirade, biting his furious words off almost before he could say them. All the words began to blend together in Diego's mind, heaping themselves onto the enraged words Victoria had thrown at him that morning. He closed his eyes against them all, shutting out nothing with the action. Even the yellow of the sun burned past his eyelids into his tired mind. His hand came up to support his head, his fingers lacing through his hair, pushing against the thoughts and emotions overflowing inside his head.

The numbness he'd managed to uphold all morning weakened under the flood of words and suddenly the locked feelings began escaping his tight control. This is a nightmare, he thought miserably as a lump formed in his throat, working its way slowly into his eyes. He stood alone before the window, shaking with the force of his sudden tears.

Alejandro was completely exasperated now. Have you been listening to me, Diego? he asked, crossing to his son and pulling his hand away from his face. After everything Victoria has lost in the last two days, all you can do is.... He stopped his scornful words when he noticed the tears on his son's cheeks. Diego? he questioned in sharp concern.

Diego mutely regarded his father through the tears that hid only some of the hurt in his eyes. The older man's features were red with anger, and disgust emanated from him in palpable waves. How disappointed he must be, Diego thought bitterly, to see his grown son reduced to tears. The last of the de la Vegas, a weakly coward, a mild-mannered waste of time. In some ways Alejandro and Victoria were so much alike, he mused. They cared about him, but they could not give their respect to a man who had a passion only for his studies. And their perception could go no deeper than the surface they saw. Until today, he reminded himself morosely. Until Victoria....

The memory of Victoria's harsh rejection rushed upon him again and he clenched his jaw against the pain that accompanied it. His cheek burned where she'd slapped him, but the emptiness he felt ached far worse than any physical blow. With that impetuous action, Victoria had crushed his one desire for a future.

Alejandro watched in fascination as the emotions worked across Diego's tear-streaked face. He had never seen such anguish before, and he was reminded of the day his beloved wife had died quietly in his arms, leaving him alone and bereft, with no hope of comfort. He was not at heart an unsympathetic man, and he reached for his son's shoulder, his anger turning to compassion when he saw the pain displayed on Diego's ashen face. Diego. You're as upset as Victoria. What is it, son?

Diego stared sightlessly over his father's shoulder at the far wall. He took a shuddering breath, his mouth working determinedly to control the words he wanted to say. Finally, in a moment of horrible calm, he managed to whisper, I love her, Father.

Alejandro froze at that quietly sincere admission. He had expected excuses from Diego for his actions in the tavern that morning, not a strangely saddening decree of unrequited love. He was so surprised that he could only stupidly insist, But Zorro loves Victoria.

Diego crossed his arms and closed his eyes again, trying his best to retain as much composure as he could. He certainly did not wish to burden his father with his own problems, especially when they were so personal in nature, but he didn't think he could carry them alone any longer. His greatest fear had come true today, and more than anything he wanted comfort, someone to share his concerns; he wanted an end to all the secrecy. He took another shaky breath and in a voice slightly stronger, though still full of despair, said, I am Zorro.

At this statement, Alejandro's eyebrows rose to meet his graying hairline. He sank slowly down until he reached the edge of the loveseat, where he paused with wide open eyes. Oh, my, he breathed. Then he looked up, the doubt clearly etched in his wrinkled face. But that's impossible! he exclaimed. You're nothing like Zorro!

Diego stared mutely at him, none of the typical meekness in evidence now.

Alejandro understood. Of course you're not. He shook his head, still finding the entire concept difficult to believe. But surely you can't be serious!

Diego lowered himself beside his father, resting his forehead in his hands. I wish I weren't, he whispered. Without my.... He had to stop as panic and misery wrenched sobs through his chest, making it difficult to speak. He gained control of his emotions again and went on, Without my Victoria, there's...no desire to hide my identity any longer. His hands muffled his words as more tears streaked from his eyes. The...the mask is what kept her safe. My desires were never...they were never as important as her life, he blurted, his words sporadic and charged with emotion. I can not bear it if Zorro is ever the cause of her death!

Totally overwhelmed by the hidden problems that he now realized his son had always born, Alejandro slid an arm around Diego's shoulder and said, If you truly love each other, Diego, you will work this out and....

Diego interrupted choppily. But I should not have allowed our love...to grow so strong. He gazed despairingly at the calm Alejandro. I have reason to think that...the tavern fire was set by Valdez as punishment...for Zorro.

Alejandro drew back, shocked. What! he exclaimed.

Last night Zorro discovered that Valdez mysteriously escaped from the jail. The Alcalde said...something to me about revenge sought through Victoria.

His eyes blazing his indignity and outrage, Alejandro jumped up. We can't let him get away with that! I'll go to the Alcalde myself and tell him that you....

No! His father's wild decision jerked Diego out of his misery long enough to say, No. You can't...endanger yourself like that. It would be my fault if anything happened.

Alejandro stood stunned by such an outburst from his typically quiet son. Then he regarded Diego, his expression serious and thoughtful. Diego, he began quietly. You can't hold yourself responsible for my actions. Or for Victoria's, for that matter. She well knows the risks involved in her relationship with Zorro. Sometimes, the dangers seem small compared to seeking one's dreams.

Diego looked up. But how can I live with myself if she suffers because of Zorro, because of our love?

A long sigh whistled slowly as Alejandro answered a moment later. How does a man deal with the death of his wife during childbirth? Hmm? Or a little closer to home, how will I live if you are killed in your battle for justice, now that I know it is my son who is risking his own life for the pueblo? Alejandro shook his head. I couldn't not let you be Zorro any more than Victoria can learn to stop loving him. Or Felipe can stop growing up.

Diego smiled, a tiny lift at the corners of his frowning mouth. Or for the sergeant to go a whole day without eating.

Yes! Alejandro chuckled. He sobered when Diego frowned again. You must trust us, Diego, as much as we trust you. And Zorro, he added softly.

Slowly Diego pulled Victoria's ring from the pocket of his trousers. Trust, he said with an ironic laugh.

His father's eyebrows drew together. That's your mother's ring. He took the delicate golden piece from Diego's fingers. What are you doing with it?

Diego managed a bigger smile as he said, Señor Zorro... borrowed it one afternoon about three weeks ago. He asked Victoria to marry me.

To marry you? Alejandro smiled. You actually found enough courage to propose marriage? What a pleasant surprise! His smile widened as his amazement increased.

Diego nodded with a little half smile.

And she...? Alejandro prodded.

Unfortunately decided to give it back, Diego finished. His eyes were dry now, but the lonely ache inside remained. However, he felt stronger and able to explain, That's what we were arguing about this morning. Something I said or did must have suddenly solved the puzzle to Zorro's identity. She simply knew. I was quite surprised when she said I trusted her enough to ask for marriage, but not enough to give myself along with the proposal.

Ah, Alejandro grunted in understanding. Yes, Victoria Escalante is a stubborn, proud woman. She'll have only the best.

Even if it brings her such unhappiness? Diego questioned. Even if it destroys her tavern, her very home?

Alejandro placed a hand on Diego's shoulder. Remember her answer to Zorro's, he corrected himself, no, to your proposal. I guess that's answer enough.

Diego shook his head, still not convinced. But what price will she pay for that devotion? She is the victim in the Alcalde's game; she has no protection such as that offered by Zorro's mask. Only Zorro can battle the Alcalde and succeed. It is his fight and his alone, he insisted.

Glad to see that at least a hint of the heartache had disappeared from Diego's features, Alejandro grinned and slapped his son heavily on the back, surprising more of the depression away. Then Señor Zorro had better strap on his sword and fight for justice at last. The grin reduced to an affectionate smile as he gripped Diego's shoulders to remind him, And you must fight for the woman you love, Diego. She is more precious even than justice. With her love, you will never stand alone. His head bobbed once in emphasis and with a final pat on the arm, he turned to leave Diego alone. He stopped near the polished black piano, his fingertips running over the emerald ring he still held in his hands. Ah, what a woman his Felicidad had been! She'd worn that ring so....

Alejandro held the ring out for Diego, saying, This belongs to a pretty señorita now. Ask her to take it back, to let it make happiness again. His eyes glowed as he added. Your mother would have been proud to have Victoria as a daughter!

Diego watched the sunlight sparkle on the gold and emerald stones as his father retreated quietly from the room. He seriously doubted that Victoria would consent to take the ring back. He sighed tiredly in the deserted library and wiped at the salt tracks left by the tears on his cheeks. His skin was hot under his hands, feverish with too much emotion. But now determination began to overtake his misery, and his cheeks cooled, for his thoughts had turned to Tadeo Valdez. There was no way, he decided, that Diego de la Vega was going to let a common thief like Valdez come between himself and Victoria. Yes, his father was right: Zorro had work to do.

Still clutching the ring, Diego reached for the hidden spring to his cavern, disappearing with ease through the secret panel behind the library's fireplace.

Señorita Victoria, please, you must listen to me, Sergeant Mendoza insisted, doggedly following Victoria out the tavern's doors to the shaded porch. You've been working like one possessed since early this morning. You need to take a break. At least eat some lunch.

Victoria paused at the edge of the porch's board walk and lowered the barrel of trash she was carrying to the ground. Lunch? she asked rhetorically, regarding Mendoza with a sarcastic gleam. Lunch? My tavern was all but burned to the ground yesterday and you want me to eat some lunch?

Please, Señorita, Mendoza begged. Don't be angry.

Victoria jerked the trash barrel back into her arms. Oh, I'm not angry, Sergeant, she replied angrily. I'm destitute! I am now one of Los Angeles'poorest citizens! I don't even have a decent skillet to make lunch in, and I certainly don't have any food! She dumped her armload, barrel and all, onto the pile of burned boards and other debris from her destroyed tavern. Half the plaza is becoming a tavern junk pile, and all you care about is food?! she blazed at him, her hands balled on her hips, her hair flying into her angry eyes.

Mendoza fidgeted before her fury. Oh, no, I didn't mean that. I'm so sorry about your tavern. You have to believe me. It was like a second home to me. He squared his shoulders as he jogged beside her back to the porch. There is nothing I would like better than to catch the person responsible for setting fire to your tavern. Victoria eyed him doubtfully. I can't help it if the Alcalde thinks there are more important matters to attend to, the sergeant explained. But Tadeo Valdez will be caught and brought to justice, I assure you.

Victoria paused in mid stride, halted by the information the Spanish lancer had just told her. Tadeo Valdez? she repeated in confusion. I thought he was in jail. What does he have to do with this? and she gestured widely at the tavern's scorched outer shell.

Well, Zorro suspects that perhaps Valdez was trying to seek revenge for his capture yesterday.

After the bank robbery?

Yes. It's possible that....


Victoria looked up and Mendoza's voice trailed off at the approach of Alcalde DeSoto. The government official's heavy blue coat hung open to flap against his arms with each angry, jerky step he took. Wonderful, thought Victoria, what have I done now? Yes, Alcalde, she said as politely as she could despite the heat of the early afternoon sun and draining tiredness she felt from her argument with Diego and her problems with her tavern.

You're going to have to remove that pile of waste from the center of town. It's obstructing traffic and a safety menace besides!

Victoria placed her hands on her hips again to confront the Alcalde and his orders. If you would send over some of your men, we could burn it, then it would no longer obstruct traffic.

I'm sorry, Señorita, but I cannot allow official lancers to baby-sit a burning pile and...

Victoria overrode DeSoto's voice easily. The sooner I remove the 'waste' from my tavern, the sooner I can rebuild and the sooner you will eat something other than garrison food!

The Alcalde considered her statement for a moment, his fingers indecisively playing with one of his coat's shining buttons. He knew his love of more genteel etiquette was well known, and eating with the men in the garrison mess hall was not a favorite pastime. At last he reluctantly nodded his head. Perhaps I can spare a few men to help with your cleaning efforts. The tavern is, after all, a major public gathering place in Los Angeles.

It is the only public place, Alcalde, Mendoza supplied helpfully.

The Alcalde glared at the sergeant to quiet him. I'll take care of burning the trash pile this afternoon.

Victoria sighed quietly. Well, that was one thing that had finally gone right on this awful day. Thank you, she said, pushing her blowing hair out of her eyes. Now, please excuse me. There is much more cleaning to do. She turned to go back inside, but the Alcalde stopped her.

Señorita. His voice was uncharacteristically concerned. Do you have any idea how the blaze started?

Mendoza piped up, I was just telling her, Alcalde, that Zorro thinks Valdez set the tavern on fire as revenge against his capture. He did escape from jail yesterday, he reminded them.

Zorro! barked the Alcalde. Was he here? You fool, why didn't you arrest him?

Mendoza nervously jumped back a step. You know how hard he is to catch, Alcalde.

DeSoto sneered. Aahh, never mind, Sergeant. More than likely Zorro and Valdez were accomplices and their partnership turned sour, he suggested.

Hmpf! Victoria snorted at the mention of Zorro's name. Her expression grew dark and she unconsciously clenched her teeth as she again thought of her discovery that morning and the burning anger that had followed soon after. The betrayal, though less strong than it had been that morning, still clawed at her mind in silent bursts of unhappiness every time she paused long enough in her work to think about her discovery of Zorro's secret.

Always on the alert to any information about his chief adversary, DeSoto instantly picked up on Victoria's unfavorable reaction. He noted the coldness in the señorita's eyes and allowed a small grin to spread over his lips. If he had caused a rift between the señorita and Zorro, his plan had accomplished more than he had ever hoped! He couldn't resist prodding her a little. Trouble, Señorita?

She sent a scathing lock at the Alcalde and ignored his inquiry to do some prodding of her own. I thought Valdez was a confirmed criminal. What was happening in your garrison when he escaped? She watched the Alcalde squirm uncomfortably under her reproachful eye. Just try to keep track of your prisoners, Alcalde, and let me worry about my own business.

Effectively rebuffed, the Alcalde glanced once at each of them, then wheeled away to stalk across the plaza toward his office.

Mendoza noticed the angry set to Victoria's jaw and said in parting, I'm sure Valdez will be captured soon, Señorita.

Victoria looked at the sergeant as scornfully as she had glared at DeSoto. Not by the military, Sergeant. The Alcalde will probably wait until Valdez is long gone to start searching for him. Her expression grew even harder as she promised, But he will be caught, Mendoza, even if I have to go after him myself. She turned away and hurried into her tavern.

Mendoza still stood alone on the porch, contemplating his options for lunch, when she reappeared fifteen minutes later. She had changed to a riding skirt and was preparing a borrowed saddle bag of food, gun powder, and ammunition when the sergeant noticed her.

Señorita? he asked with a curious smile. Where are you going?

To catch a criminal, she answered shortly.

Mendoza started in consternation. Oh, no, Señorita Escalante, you can't!

She glared at him. I can't sit around waiting for the Alcalde to decide to take action. I have to do something! Nobody is going to set fire to my tavern and not be brought to justice. Victoria gave him a business-like nod and said, Adiós, Sergeant. Then she stepped into the afternoon sunshine, leaving the still hungry Mendoza alone on the porch.

Zorro leaned carefully in the saddle, studying the soft ground with a critical eye. The set of hoofprints he had followed for the past two hours was growing fainter every few feet, and now they merged with several other sets of prints, all leading away in different directions. He sat up in the saddle, eyeing each print one by one. The afternoon sun poured over him and Toronado in the barren land they were traveling through, and the heat seeped into his black costume, making sweat trickle down his back. He could also feel beads of sweat soaking into the mask covering his forehead, but he ignored the discomfort as he debated which set of tracks to follow.

Toronado shook his head impatiently, snorting loudly in the still air. The bit crunched in his teeth and the saddle creaked when Zorro reached over to affectionately rub the stallion behind the ears.

I know it's hot, Toronado. But we can't rest until Valdez is once again behind bars. I think we owe Victoria that, at least. Eh, boy? Come on, let's try the ridge. Maybe we'll catch up to him before nightfall. Choosing a set of tracks that led out of the valley onto a hilly ridge, Zorro urged Toronado on with his boots and they set off again in a slow pursuit of their prey.

Don Alejandro gaped at Sergeant Mendoza, doing his best to comprehend the lancer's recent explanation. You're telling me that Victoria just took off on a horse to capture this criminal, Valdez? asked Alejandro.

Sí, Don Alejandro.

Alejandro stood stiffly beside Felipe in the now cleared tavern. He glanced from the sergeant to Felipe and back again. You didn't see her go, Felipe? The boy soberly shook his head. And you didn't stop her, Sergeant?

Mendoza gestured helplessly with his hand. She is a very stubborn woman, Señor! I did my best.

Alejandro threw up his hands in resignation. Aye yi yi! I give up. He pointed a finger at Felipe and wisely warned, Never try to understand a woman, my friend. It's impossible!

Felipe cressed his arms, leaning his weight contentedly on one leg, and smiled. No, he thought, not even Don Diego always understood Señorita Victoria.

The wind blew the tails of his mask swirling around his neck as Zorro pulled Toronado to a stop. He took another look at the ground and sighed in disgust. The tracks peetered out in some rocks and small boulders as the trail wound back down the ridge in the direction of Los Angeles. Only a fool would head back to the scene of his crime. No, he thought, Valdez was smarter than that. He was simply tracking the wrong set of prints. He had no choice but to return to the valley where the prints converged and choose another set to follow. Not the most efficient way to catch a bandit, but effective nonetheless.

The clinking sound of hooves meeting rock jerked him out of his thoughts and he whirled Toronado quickly around, his right hand reaching instinctively for his sword. A horse and rider were just around the bend of the trail, approaching noisily in the silent afternoon.

As the white horse came in sight, Zorro relaxed his muscles, but was no less surprised by the horse's rider than he had been by the initial sound of the hooves. It was Victoria. In fact, his heart leapt in his chest, hoping ridiculously that she had been riding out to find him. The hope was at odds, however, with the despair that shot through his stommach in time with his quickening heartbeat. He wasn't at all sure that he wanted to deal with Victoria right now. Usually she was very pleased to see him, but now he detected only coldness in her large, dark eyes. He didn't think he could bear her looks of distrust and anger much more in one day.

Señorita! he exclaimed.

Zorro! she exclaimed back, equally as surprised, and dropped her hand from the pistol tucked snuggly in her belt.

What are you doing out here?

Victoria pulled her horse to a stop, confronting the masked man and his stallion. The same as you, she answered shortly. I'm looking for Tadeo Valdez.

He guided Toronado over the rocky trail to draw nearer her horse. How did you find me? His low, even voice barely covered his own unhappiness.

She glanced at the stallion's hooves. I don't know. I was following a trail that I thought belonged to Valdez. I must have picked up yours by mistake. She gave an irritated look at the ground. If it's your trail I've been following, then Toronado's right front shoe is missing a nail. It's been so dry lately, he left an easy trail to follow if you know what to look for. She looked at everything in their immediate surroundings so she wouldn't have to meet his eyes.

Toronado, sensitive even to his master's lightest touch, detected Zorro's mood and danced and shied uneasily. He rubbed noses with Victoria's mare, then pranced left and snorted, only to return a second later for another quick rub. Zorro patted his sweating neck with a gloved hand, and shortened the beaded reins a little more. Dearest God in Heaven, why did this whole thing have to happen? he thought bitterly, cursing himself and the need for his secret life.

Zorro swung off Toronado and steadied him while he lifted the right front hoof for a look at the shoe. Just as Victoria claimed, one nail was missing, leaving an easy trail for anybody, including the Alcalde.


It's as you said. One nail missing. Zorro dropped Toronado's hoof to the dirt and cast around in his mind for a quick solution. Perhaps he carried an extra nail in one of the saddle bags. He never could predict what Felipe might think to throw in for an emergency. Zorro unbuckled one and rummaged through its contents. He found three darts, some flint chips, twelve feet of line rope that he trusted to hold Victoria's weight and probably his own if circumstances required it, and even an extra horseshoe. But no nails. Sliding his hand across Toronado's velvety black hind quarters, Zorro moved to open the remaining saddlebag.

Victoria appeared beside him, one palm resting on the sun-warmed saddle, her eyes still cold and hard. All during the tedious ride tracking Toronado's prints, she had felt confident in her ability to cling to her anger long enough to confront Zorro and find Valdez. But now that she was standing next to him in the sunny afternoon air, he became much more alive, much stronger and bigger, much harder to brush aside than she had originally thought. So she clung to her anger like a life line, struggling to keep herself distanced from the pain that twisted her heart and was also evident in his own eyes.

Zorro paused in his scrambling search through the saddlebag and glanced at her. He took a deep breath, his jaw tightening with the increasing tension he felt radiating from her, and his unhappiness increased. Are you alright? he finally asked.

She gave a curt nod of her head.

She still blames me, Zorro thought miserably. He looked away, over Toronado's smoothly rippling muscles to the large, craggy boulders beside the trail, out across the valley filled with muggy summer haze and on to the fuzzy purple horizon. He sighed deeply, one gloved hand still paused uselessly inside the stallion's saddlebag. He withdrew it, feeling equally as useless. Nervously he removed his hat to run his fingers through his hair, only to be hindered by the silk mask covering his head. With an explosive groan of resentment, he ripped the mask from his head. The wind ruffled through his hair, cooling his sweaty forehead as he disdainfully tucked the black mask into his sash.

Victoria was so startled by his actions that she stepped back, her anger giving way to complete astonishment. What are you doing? she blurted, thinking only of his safety now. What if somebody sees you?

His own burst of anger played out as well, Diego thoughtfully hung his hat by its strings from the saddlehorn. He smiled gently at her and wryly commented, You're angry with me, not with some hero hiding behind a mask. Then he was surprised to hear himself add, Besides, I'm not sure I'd care if anyone does see me at this point. That at least was true enough, he thought bitterly. One accusatory look from Victoria and he wasn't sure if he cared about anything at all any longer.

Her surprise grew. She meant that much to him? Flabbergasted by the depth of his devotion, she was unable to do anything but stare at him.

He pushed his hair out of his eyes, and looking away from her again, he quietly declared, I wanted to tell you, Victoria. You have to believe that.

Victoria caught her breath and spluttered, But...but you....

Finally he was calm enough to face her as he continued. I've given up many things too, for Zorro. I know you feel angry that I couldn't share Zorro's secret with you, and betrayed that a friend would not trust you. But keeping this secret to myself has never been easy, never been what I wanted.

What you wanted? she managed to ask in a strangled voice barely above a whisper. I always thought that you wanted justice and...well--

Justice? Diego laughed cynically. It's Zorro who burns for justice. I'm just Diego Vega, a humble student with a talent for fencing. But his expression softened as he managed an apologetic smile and a humorous lift of his eyebrow. I would much rather have been concentrating on things other than our tyrranical Alcalde these last few years, he explained. I'm so sorry, Victoria, Diego whispered, sadly shaking his head.

To her surprise, Victoria found herself blushing at his words and their hidden meaning. She opened her mouth to speak, only to close it without uttering a word. With Diego's explanation, her morning's dilemma had suddenly taken on an entirely new dimension. She could only stare up at him in growing confusion.

Toronado suddenly snorted and moved several steps to the right, putting an end to the quiet, suspended moment. The big stallion's head swung from side to side, his ears nervously twitching back and forth. Victoria drew a sharp breath, filled with unexpected fear. When the stallion pranced nervously against Victoria's mare, Diego knew that something was very wrong. He yanked the mask free from his sash, muttering a hushed, Damn, under his breath.

Victoria's apprehensive glances at the bend in the trail unnerved the horses even more. What is it? she asked in a hushed whisper.

Zorro answered her question with a hurried glance in all directions, taking in the dirt, sparse grass, rocks, and heat waves that surrounded him and Victoria at the top of the ridge. He unconsciously laid a calming hand on Victoria's shoulder, then patted the stallion's flanks. Perhaps we had better fix Toronado's shoe and finish our discussion at a less dangerous time. Still uneasy, Zorro gave her a distracted half smile and quickly divulged the saddlebag of the rest of its contents. There was one slightly rusty nail resting at the bottom of the bag. Zorro sent a silent, grateful thanks to Felipe.

Victoria held Toronado's bridle as Zorro quickly replaced the nail, using a small rock as a hammer. It's not the best job, Toronado, but it will have to do for now. He rose and scratched Toronado's ears. The horse snorted and shied nervously again, bumping Victoria. Easy, boy! Zorro looked around, searching for anything out of the ordinary. Well, something has him spooked. He'll be happier when we're moving again. He turned wary eyes to Victoria. You should return to Los Angeles, Victoria. Valdez is a....

I'm coming with you, she said stubbornly. Then she remounted her horse, dismissing any argument with her short words. Without waiting for him, she started her mare down the narrow path, and with a sigh Zorro followed.

They saw the smoke almost at the same instant. The trail led along the ridgeline for a quarter of a mile on a sloping descent through sparse trees and groups of rocks. Toronado flicked his ears back and Victoria pointed at the thin wisp of smoke rising into the searing blue sky. Zorro silently held her back, his hand again resting firmly on her arm. She raised an eyebrow and in answer pulled her pistol out of her brown leather belt. He gave a violent shake of his head, but she stubbornly glared an him and hoarsely whispered, It was my tavern!

Reluctantly he pointed at the trail and whispered, Follow the trail around the hill until you see the fire. If it is Valdez, get his attention, but try to stay out of pistol range. I'll work up and take him from behind. She nodded and prepared to urge her horse forward when he leaned in close and whispered, Please be careful, in her ear. Then he disappeared over the ridge top.

Victoria hid the pistol securely across the saddle and started her mare forward, her heart pounding in her temples, sweat dripping down her cheek. She felt suddenly vulnerable without Zorro's confident presence beside her, but she told herself not to be silly and firmly pushed back her hesitation. She rounded the ridge at a trot and found herself practically on top of the campfire before she knew it.

A startled Tadeo Valdez jumped up at her sudden appearance, then settled back on his booted heals, a slow, leering smile creeping over his lips. Well, he said, the hot wind slapping against his unbuttoned vest and ratty hat. If it isn't the tavern owner. He grinned mockingly. Where's your outlaw friend?

A low chuckle preceded the words, Right behind you.

Valdez whirled around, drawing his aging pistol from a tattered belt at the same time to confront the masked man. His eyes took in the uncoiled whip hanging nonchallantly from Zorro's gloved hand. Señor Zorro.

Zorro allowed himself a cocky half smile. Señor Valdez. Just the man I was looking for. He advanced a slow step, the whip snaking seductively across the ground between them with a warning snap.

Valdez laughed. What protection is a whip against a bullet? He leveled the gun directly at Zorro's approaching heart. I wouldn't move if I were you.

The smile grew. Ah, but you're not me. Zorro advanced two more steps. You can harm me all you want, but justice will prevail in the end. With, and he shrugged his caped shoulders, or without my help.

Valdez snorted an appreciative laugh, his own unshaven cheeks lifting in a grin as he jauntily turned the pistol on Victoria. I think I'll risk it, he quipped.

Zorro shook his head in disappointment. First the Alcalde, now Señorita Escalante.... Really, are you ever going to stop hiding and fight your own battles? He took another step.

Careful! Valdez warned, his smile fading. Another step and she'll be as deformed as her tavern.

Shame! Zorro exclaimed mockingly while his mind toyed with possible escapes from the sudden turn of the situation. The tavern can never be compared to such beauty as the señorita's, he continued. The whip suddenly curled out to wrap around the criminal's foot, preparing to pull him aside, hopefully ruining the man's balance in the process.

Just as quickly Valdez steadied his pistol and squeezed the trigger, still aiming for Victoria.

But Victoria reacted a fraction faster than either man. Zorro's distraction was all she needed. She pulled her hidden pistol up and fired, aiming for the gun in the outlaw's dirty hand.

Valdez's bullet ricocheted of a boulder over her left shoulder, but Victoria's shot was a bit truer to her aim. The lead ball hit the pistol butt, ripping the gun out of the outlaw's hand to spin crazily into the dust.

Zorro smoothly pulled the stunned Valdez to the ground with his whip, sending him sprawling in the same direction as his pistol. The point of the famous Toledo blade at his throat convinced Valdez to be as still as the dust he was lying on.

Victoria quickly reloaded her pistol, then hurried to Zorro's side, the rope from Toronado's saddlebag in hand. She watched Valdez over the barrel of her weapon until Zorro had the man neatly trussed, hand and foot, with short lengths cut from the sturdy rope. He smiled down at Valdez and patted his bound hands. Perhaps I should retire and let the señorita take over. Zorro smiled appreciatively at her, then returned his attention to Valdez. Come on, amigo; you have a few things to explain and it's a long ride to Los Angeles. He pulled the man to his feet and onto his own shoulders in one move, finally depositing him in the saddle of a horse that stood sleeping cozily in the sun.

Valdez struggled vainly as the blood rushing to his head slowly turned his face a light purple. You can't do this! I have my rights!

You lost those rights the minute you escaped from jail.

The Alcalde released me! He said he would drop the charges if I took care of some business for him! was the desperate reply.

Zorro paused in his task of securing Valdez to his horse. Indeed, he said flatly. What business?

Valdez hesitated only a moment. To take care of her tavern. His had bobbed in Victoria's direction.

Victoria's brow furrowed. Why would the Alcalde want to burn down my tavern?

Valdez grunted in his uncomfortable position. If you promise me protection from that Alcalde of yours, I'll tell you what you want to know.

Zorro gave Victoria a tiny, uncomprehending shake of his head. I'm listening, he prompted.

Ignacio DeSoto pensively pulled on the grey hairs of his beard, letting the yellow flames of the burning trash pile mesmerize him for a brief moment. Lancers stood watch over the fire, buckets of water and sand at each soldiers' feet in case the blaze burned out of control. The Alcalde glanced across the dancing flames to Don Alejandro and Sergeant Mendoza speaking quietly on the tavern's unscathed porch. Mendoza was gesturing at the tavern's walls, his face unusually serious, a piece of wood firmly gripped in his hand as Alejandro thoroughly inspected it. Diego, as usual, was absent. Probably sunning himself at home, DeSoto thought, grunting a smile and curling his lip. What a waste that man was, a pitiful, useless citizen. A problem causer, not a problem solver.

The Alcalde recalled the spat between Diego and Señorita Escalante that the sergeant had told him about during lunch. To think that the señorita had slapped that insufferably scholastic...! He laughed aloud, and wondered how de la Vega had even found the energy to make the señorita so angry. What had he said to her? It must have been something very personal for the tavern owner to react so heatedly. Perhaps some truth about that fiend, Zorro, he mused, his smooth, uncalloused hand returning to stroke his manicured beard. Hmpf. Well, he had more important things to do than mull over the personal disputes between his citizens.

Carry on, lancers, he ordered crisply before turning from the fire towards his office, anticipating a nice quiet afternoon of reviewing the garrison's records and the taxes collected throughout the week.


DeSoto wheeled, his bootheels biting into the dust, his eyes darting to Mendoza still standing on the porch. What is it, Sergeant? he called in irritation.

Don Alejandro pointed and the Alcalde followed the caballero's finger to the pueblo's gates where a brown horse was slowly meandering its way into town. The escaped criminal, Tadeo Valdez, hung over the saddle, his hands and feet firmly tied, his long hair hanging down to almost scrape the ground he passed over. The Alcalde's eyes widened for a moment, then narrowed to calculating slits as he realized that Victoria Escalante was right behind Valdez, a pistol clutched in her hand and trained resolutely on the outlaw.

The Alcalde motioned two lancers to take the free horse's reins and help Valdez to the ground. He confronted Victoria, one hand slapping his leg uneasily. What is this?

Victoria dismounted, keeping her pistol aimed at Valdez until the lancers had him under their watchful eyes. This man burned my tavern, she stated coldly.

His eyebrows rose to his hairline. That's quite an accusation. Do you have any evidence to prove it? he asked just as coldly.

She pushed her pistol back into her belt and grabbed her mare's dangling reins. I have his complete confession, offered freely and willingly. She looked into the Alcalde's cloud-grey eyes. And some information that you might find quite interesting.

The Alcalde rested his hand on his sword hilt, his irritation growing. Really, Señorita, I'm very happy that you decided to play bounty hunter for a day, but I don't have the time to waste on your mysterious and, most likely, unimportant revelations. With a jerky point of his finger, he ordered the lancers to release Valdez from his rope bonds and take him to the jail, then wheeled towards his office again. Victoria's loud voice stopped him in mid stride.

He claims that you released him from jail on the condition that he set fire to my tavern.

DeSoto paused, his eyes staring straight ahead of him to the garrison's sun washed gate. Then he slowly turned around, his eyes now fixed in a steely glare on Victoria. What did you say? he asked, his voice low, each word enunciated clearly in the quiet afternoon.

It's true! Valdez yelled, stalling the lancers who were in the process of dragging him across the plaza to the jail. Every word she says is true! I made a deal with Zorro that I would tell my story to the Alcalde in Santa Paula if he would guarantee my safety from you. He would have pointed at DeSoto, but the lancers held his arms rigidly at his sides. Valdez straightened his shoulders against the two lancers and grinned lopsidedly at the Alcalde. It seems that your plans have come full circle, Señor.

The hot sun poured over the plaza as silence settled over the crowd. Farmers and passersby paused to watch the long-haired, unkempt prisoner grin confidently at their Alcalde and wondered what the government official would do about the accusation. Victoria's horse crunched on the bit in her mouth, and the flap of a dove's wings echoed against the gutted tavern's walls. Everyone else was still.

Then the Alcalde's unexpected laughter exploded over the plaza. He applauded, too, the slap of his gloves falling flat on the hushed crowd. Wonderful! he called out. That was the most entertaining story I've heard all year! He laughed again, hardly aware of the puzzled, scrutinizing gazes of his citizens. Oh, Señorita, that is good! He calmed, though continued to smile and cackle intermittently through his words. Unfortunately, I don't believe a word of it, and neither do the rest of these good people. This man, and he pointed negligently at the prisoner, is a common thief, an escaped convict, and perhaps an arsonist. I appreciate your help in his capture, but don't try to pin your own carelessness on me. It's clear that Valdez merely had a score to settle with your - friend - Zorro. I certainly had nothing to do with it. He smiled affably and prepared to turn away from Victoria's frustrated face.

Somehow I don't think your words ring true, Alcalde.

Zorro suddenly appeared from behind the tavern, Toronado snorting and tossing his head with impatience at standing in quiet hiding for so long. Zorro's smile mirrored the Alcalde's in friendliness. I didn't expect you to confess to the truth right away, Alcalde. I hoped, of course, but.... Zorro steadied Toronado with a calming hand, his smile growing. So we took the liberty of speaking with the Alcalde of Santa Paula before returning to Los Angeles for Valdez to appear at his trial.

The Alcalde's eyes widened. You did what? he gasped out.

I suggest you prepare the garrison for the party of soldiers coming from Santa Paula. They should be here soon after nightfall.

The Alcalde spent one moment to consider the bandit's words, his heart racing in sudden fear. What if it were true? If the Alcalde in Santa Paula believed Valdez's story, he could be sent home in chains. His entire family would be disgraced. DeSoto collected his tumbling thoughts with an effort. But of course no official would believe an outlaw's word over Ignacio DeSoto's. Determined not to show his uneasiness to his citizens, he snorted loudly through his nose and smothered a forced laugh behind his glove, thinking quickly. If he reacted smoothly, he may just be able to turn this unpleasant situation to his advantage. No Alcalde, he decided, would worry about some minor details if DeSoto finally captured Zorro.

This is ridiculous! the Alcalde sneered at last. There's no party of lancers coming. His sneer cracked with confidence. And you have just walked right into my waiting arms. He pulled his pistol from his belt. Lancers! Arrest him!

The lancers, who had been standing scattered in the plaza, watching the drama unfold, now scrambled towards the masked man and his powerful black stallion, hastily pulling their muskets off their shoulders in the process.

Zorro pulled Toronado in front of Victoria, forcing her and her mare back to the safety near the tavern. His whip snaked out, uncurling smoothly from its dormant coil at his waist to snap harshly at the three nearest lancers. Toronado wheeled quickly left, kicking up a cloud of dust that hindered the soldiers' advance as effectively as the cracking whip.

By now Victoria stood well back from the danger in the plaza and Zorro calculated that he could fight better on the ground and with his sword. He recoiled the whip with a practiced twist of his wrist, hooking it over the black and silver saddlehorn and reaching for his sword in the same move. What he wasn't counting on, however, was the fairly well-aimed shot from the Alcalde's pistol. The single bullet missed its target by a foot too low and too far to the left, but it created an interesting reaction all the same when it embedded itself in Toronado's saddlebag.

Luckily the bullet struck the hard metal of the horseshoe that Felipe had included with the other paraphernalia in the saddlebag, bending the shoe beyond any useful purposes, but saving Toronado from a nasty flank wound. The shoe couldn't save the stallion from the sudden painful pressure he experienced, however, and he screamed, rearing high, his black coat gleaming in the sunshine, his forelegs pawing angrily in the air. And for the first time since their fight for justice began, the furious stallion threw Zorro off his back.

In one swift twist Zorro managed to push himself off Toronado's hind quarters, away from the horse's back hooves, and aim his drawn sword towards the plaza to keep its sharp edges as far from his body as he could. Then he felt himself falling, and the ground reached out for him sooner than he expected. He landed hard on his back in the dusty street, the wind rushing out of his collapsed lungs. He lay stunned on the ground long enough for several lancers to converge on him, their muskets cocked and pointed unflinchingly at his chest.

Zorro! Victoria yelled in horror, pushing her way through the paralyzed crowd, yet unable to reach him.

The sound of the Alcalde's gleeful laugh broke through the roaring in Zorro's ears, and he blinked hesitantly at the sunlight. He took a deep breath, gratefully expanding his lungs with the dusty air, then noticed the lancers' boots and the four deadly musket barrels. Surprise stalled any immediate action, and in that pause he heard the Alcalde gloat,

Zorro, you are mine!

At the same moment, confusion burst out near the burning pile of waste from the destroyed tavern. Valdez threw his shoulder into one lancer's stomach, pushing him away, giving him a chance to grab a pistol from the soldier's belt and pluck an unsuspecting boy from the crowd to use as a hostage. Eleven year old Paco Martinez clawed at the arm wrapped firmly around his throat, fear choking back the scream that gurgled up his chest. Valdez poked the pistol barrel roughly into the boy's hair and shouted, I want a horse, now!

Every eye turned on him, and the Alcalde's smile faltered as this new crisis drew his attention away from Zorro's capture. The lancers planted around Zorro looked over to Valdez, uncertain as to which outlaw to concentrate on. Hostage situations always had the highest priority, but on the other hand, they had Zorro practically at their mercy. Their hesitation increased as they waited for orders telling them what to do.

Irritated at having the capture of his most despised enemy interrupted, the Alcalde yelled, Let the boy go! We do not negotiate with criminals!

Valdez threw the boy to the dirt and straddled him, one foot weighing heavily on Paco's back as he reached for another hostage, this one a lancer, whom he quickly disarmed and held at gunpoint with the man's own weapon. I'm no ordinary criminal, Alcalde, which you know only too well. Now give me a horse! Or I kill them both.

Everybody's attention riveted to Valdez and Zorro took the opportunity offered. He brought his sword up with a powerful swing, easily knocking aside the inattentive lancers' muskets. By the time they regained their bearing on their own captive, he had rolled his body forcefully into their boots, pitching them instantly off balance. They fell forward, crashing into the two lancers guarding Zorro from his other side, driving them all to a pile on the ground. Zorro rolled clear, free once again, and jumped to his feet, his sword arcing through the air. His head spun at the sudden activity, and his step faltered as he shook his head, trying to clear his hazy mind. He took another deep breath and the plaza suddenly came into sharp focus.

Unfortunately his movement did not go undetected. The Alcalde glanced at him and, finding him free from his recent capture, angrily shouted, Lancers, Zorro has escaped! Get him!

Galvanized to action at last, uniformed lancers streamed forward, turning their attention once again to the masked man. Zorro met them with mighty sweeps of his sword, his strong blade clanging hungrily on the lighter military swords. He clenched his teeth, the satin cape sweeping menacingly back and forth, and with two well-timed blows, broke two blades from their hilts. He plowed his fist into the unfortunate soldiers' faces to finish off the first wave of their attack.

He jumped dexterously onto the stone edge of the plaza's fountain to calmly and methodically fight back the soldiers, separating them, taking advantage of the mistakes they made, easily defeating them one at a time. With each passing moment he felt himself grow stronger as he shook off the effects of his fall from Toronado. His clenched jaws slowly relaxed into a grin and he parried a swinging blade, stepping aside just in time to avoid a lunge from another lancer. Zorro stepped on the lancer's back, sending him sprawling into the cool fountain pool, then kicked the first lancer away, making room for another to replace him. He parried again, carried out a quick riposte, and flung the lancer's sword sideways into the roaring flames. He grinned, carved a neat 'z' in the man's tunic, then effortlessly summersaulted over the defeated man's head, allowing another lancer speeding towards him to run into his comrade and collapse beside the fountain.

Zorro landed squarely on his feet, calmly confronting the Alcalde.

Alcalde! Valdez yelled, once again drawing everyone's attention to him.

Mendoza! DeSoto bellowed while he gripped his sword firmly in his immaculately white gloved hand. Take care of the hostage situation!

But Alcalde! Mendoza skittered sideways on the porch, forcing everyone to shift and move aside. Your orders are to never negotiate!

The Alcalde's face screwed together in anger and he screamed, Mendoza! At the same time he lunged, his sword pointing straight for Zorro.

Zorro brushed the blade aside with ease. Sorry, but I don't have time for you, Alcalde, he said, grabbing DeSoto by his wide coat collar and spinning him around before thrusting his fist hard into the official's jaw.

The masked man turned away before the Alcalde even had time to fall to his stomach in the dirt. Zorro now faced Valdez. Let him go, Valdez, he suggested coldly, advancing slowly towards the outlaw, his sword held threateningly before him.

Mendoza nervously pushed his way off the tavern's porch, jostling more frightened citizens in the process. I warn you that we will not cooperate with your demands.

Valdez grunted with a curl of his lip. We'll see. He shoved the lancer over the boy still lying on the ground and into Mendoza's arms, tripping them all in Zorro's path.

Zorro lowered his sword to catch the tumbling Sergeant, forced to take his eyes from Valdez, forced to give the outlaw the opportunity he was waiting for. Before anyone even knew what was happening, Valdez reached for Victoria's wrist, yanking her protectively in front of him and eyeing Zorro knowingly. I think you'll cooperate now.

Victoria wriggled in the man's steel grip, fighting to pull free. Let go! she ordered. His dirty, calloused fingers bit into her arm, and in anger tinged with fear, she kicked the toe of her riding boot into her captor's knee.

Valdez fell back a step towards the fire, bending over in pain, but his grip remained firm. Furious, he jerked Victoria practically off her feet as Zorro instantly battled through the web of arms and legs created by Mendoza and his fellow private.

Victoria! Zorro halted, his eyes darting between Victoria's pained features to Valdez's glowering stance. Can I risk my sword? he asked himself. He glanced at the fire still burning about two or three steps behind Victoria, gauging the danger from the flames, judging his options.

Zorro! Behind you!

Zorro whirled around at Victoria's yell, but the upheaval of emotions that morning and the long afternoon spent tracking Valdez in the hot sun had taken its toll. He wasn't fast enough to block the downward swing of the Alcalde's sword. He managed to twist his arm back another inch before he felt the blade's edge slice evenly through the black silk shirt and into the muscled flesh of his shoulder, forming a slash halfway to his elbow.

Zorro fell back, swallowing his cry of pain, the red blood seeping quickly through the thin flowing material to form a darkening stain on the black sleeve. He grimaced, gingerly touching his left hand to the burning pain in his arm, the dark blood dripping steadily from his fingers when he pulled his gloved hand away.

The Alcalde stood surprised for half a second, then slowly a maniacal laugh gurgled from his throat. I don't believe it. I've actually wounded Zorro!

It was then that they both heard the struggle behind them and Zorro again turned his back to the Alcalde, fear for Victoria efficiently cloaking the pain in his arm.

Victoria, it seemed, was engaged in a battle of her own. At her yell, Valdez, had roughly pulled her by her arm, jerking her right to the edge of the forgotten pile of burning debris. He raised the pistol again, prepared to demand a horse and supplies for his escape when the hem of Victoria's brown riding skirt suddenly burst into flame. The hot yellow fire fled around her skirt, creeping up her legs even as she tried vainly to tear her hands from her captor's grasp to beat out the flames. The smell of burning material filled her nostrils and she coughed on the smoke, unable to even take a breath.

Alejandro surged forward, crying, Victoria! his voice drowned in the screams and yells from the other citizens of Los Angles. He cursed, fighting his way forward even as the frightened onlookers flowed onto the porch, crowding him against the wall, barring him from the young woman as effectively as any jail cell.

Others, however, were not so trapped. Hector Alvarado, an old, grey-haired tenet farmer who stood in the paralyzed crowd of onlookers, reacted instantly. He reached a gnarled hand for the nearest precautionary bucket of water the lancers had set out and flung the contents on Victoria's skirt, soaking her from the waist down, extinguishing the fire just as it ate through her skirts to hungrily touch the unprotected skin of her legs.

In the same instant, Valdez saw a weapon in the form of the bucket flung at him, and he instinctively leveled the pistol and fired at the old man. His aim was better in the explosive situation than it had been with Victoria that afternoon and the small lead ball hit Señor Alvarado in the neck, severing his wind pipe, his carotid artery, and most of his vertebrae with one swift shot. Hector's rescue of Victoria was the last act the man remembered before he died, his blood pooling wickedly on the ground where he crumpled.

The Alcalde stood, unable to move, oddly surprised at the sight of so much blood, his wide eyes mesmerized by the look of horror frozen on old Hector's lifeless face. He passed a glove respectfully across his mouth and his sword point fell uselessly to the ground, tracing a small line neatly in the trampled plaza dust.

Zorro ignored the Alcalde, his attention focused only on Victoria. His only thought was to reach for her, to pull her away from the outlaw's side. He brought his sword up and pitched himself through the distance like the empty air was a mighty barricade, breaking through when the tip of the Toledo steel was only inches form the outlaw's heart. Zorro noticed the fear and pain in the señorita's eyes when she looked at him.

In that instant a musket shot split the tension. The second bullet, following only seconds on the heels of the pistol ball that ended Hector Alvarado's life, cut the air above Zorro's bloodied arm, travelling a path parallel to the blade, biting into Tadeo Valdez's chest as if shot from the sword itself.

Valdez jerked back, surprised, still clutching Victoria's wrist in an iron grip, the leaping flames of the fire greedily arching towards his unprotected back. Victoria lost her tenuous balance and teetered with him, her free arm stretching out for Zorro's hand. If only she could reach his glove! The smoke from the fire coated her throat, making it hard to fight the persistent tug on her wrist. She felt herself falling, following Valdez into the hot flames of her charred tavern remains.

Then Zorro's blade flicked Valdez's wrist, pressing the tendons just hard enough for his grasp on Victoria to loosen. Valdez fell the rest of the way to the ground, his mind blank as his heartbeat slowed, stopped, resumed, and stopped again when he landed near the fire. He felt the heat and the ground, but no pain, and the blue sky above him darkened one last time.

With a last, desperate lunge, Zorro found Victoria's hand and held it with all his strength, forcing the muscles in his left arm to extend themselves beyond their limits, determined not to lose her to the hostile flames at her back. One more yank and she was free from the fire, her warmed body sliding into him with the force of his pull, the motion carrying them both several steps back.

Sergeant Mendoza stood trembling in the warm afternoon sunshine, the musket in his hand still smoking. He looked at Valdez lying dead on the ground, and crossed himself shakily. I'm sorry, Zorro. I didn't mean to kill him. I had to help Señorita Victoria.... He choked on the words, his face paling at the death that he had caused.

Unable to speak, Zorro only nodded at the sergeant, his shaking arms still firmly locked around Victoria.

Their moment of peaceful respite from the day's traumatic events was short lived. Once the immediate danger to the hostages was over, the Alcalde resumed his commanding demeanor and, pointing at Zorro and Victoria, ordered, Sergeant Mendoza, arrest them.

Mendoza gaped, his face still a pasty white. But, Alcalde, they did not do anything wrong.

Mendoza. The Alcalde's voice lowered and he eyed his sergeant evilly. Two men are dead. Perhaps you would like to join them?

No, Alcalde.

Then I suggest you remove the prisoners to the jail. They will remain there until I have some answers to this whole affair. He waved his arms expansively, his sword swinging dangerously close to Mendoza's sweating face.

Instead Mendoza chose that moment to bring up another topic that had been plaguing him all afternoon. Mí Alcalde, there's some new information about the tavern fire that you should know about. He stepped back to avoid the swinging blade and pulled nervously at his collar. Don Alejandro discovered two barrels of kerosene in the señorita's kitchen.

DeSoto sneered. There's nothing special about that. Obviously the señorita was careless. Now carry on, Mendoza! he barked.

Don Alejandro stepped forward then, finally able to push his way from behind the crowd on the tavern's porch. Wait one moment, Alcalde! he called, standing supportively beside the trembling blue-coated sergeant. His white hair fell over his wrinkled forehead as he took one quick glance at Zorro, his masked son, and Victoria before continuing. These barrels are marked with your garrison's seal, Alcalde.

The Alcalde glared at him. That's a lie. Everything in the tavern burned yesterday. I saw it myself!

Alejandro slowly shook his head. Not everything, Alcalde. Those barrels came from the storeroom in your garrison. Here is a piece of one of them now. See for yourself. He handed a chunk of charred wood over to the scowling Alcalde.

Mendoza softly added, And only you have keys to the storeroom, Alcalde.

Alejandro continued, So unless those keys were stolen, which according to the sergeant here, they weren't....

So it is true, Zorro released Victoria and materialized at Alejandro's side, his face a hard rock of controlled anger as he finished the caballero's accusation. You opened the storeroom for Valdez to retrieve the kerosene that ultimately destroyed Victoria's tavern. He nodded. Very clever. Valdez would be arrested for the crime, and you would go unpunished. Except Valdez wasn't quite as cooperative as you thought. Zorro took a calm step forward, his voice still very controlled, completely at odds with the fury brewing like a storm in his blue eyes. Now he's dead, as is another innocent, harmless old man. Victoria's tavern is destroyed and it was only through luck that she escaped with her own life today. He took one more step forward, then another, the wind billowing under his cape, his eyes never leaving the Alcalde. This is your doing, Alcalde. Zorro said softly, ignoring the pain from his wounded arm, ignoring the hush of the crowd, and even ignoring the hot sunshine blazing imperturbably down on them. He only felt his savage anger and the incredible rush of release that flooded through his blood as he drew his right arm back and slammed his fist into DeSoto's jaw as hard as he could.

The Alcalde fell back to sprawl on the ground, pain lancing through his head. The sun dazzled his eyes, momentarily blinding him to his enemy. However, he still had the presence of mind to hold his sword between himself and the approaching bandit. Lancers! he called unconvincingly, his command lacking the force to spur any soldier to heroic action.

Oh, no, Alcalde, Zorro muttered through his clenched teeth, bringing his sword up with a viscous swing. This is between you...and...me.

The Alcalde climbed slowly to his feet and wiped his jaw with the back of his glove. The red stain of blood on the white material enraged him, and he growled his fury at the man in black standing before him. How he hated this man! He was so arrogant, so damn cocky. Fury roared through his body, and blood swelled in his brain. He would show this masked bandit, this unholy Fox, what true fear was really like. He lunged with more accuracy than he'd ever exhibited, his sword swinging in a blur towards the man's heart.

Zorro pushed the Alcalde's sword aside, his lips a tight, grim line of hate in his pinched face. He wanted revenge, he wanted Ignacio DeSoto to pay for the Hell he had created in Los Angeles. And he wanted him to suffer torments while he was paying. Unable to restrain his raging temper, Zorro lunged with his own blade in the most badly-executed move he had ever made in a sword fight. His tumultuous emotions gave the Alcalde the immediate advantage, and the official brushed the Toledo steel away, swinging his sword around in a quick attack, forcing Zorro several steps back.

But Zorro would not be denied his retribution. At the last moment he changed his tactics, moving out of the Alcalde's path, turning a full circle and bringing his sword down hard on his opponent. He fought mercilessly, the sweat dripping from his cheeks to run unnoticed down his neck. The steel swords clanged against one another with metallic frenzy, yet the sound only infuriated Zorro more. He swung his blade down to meet the Alcalde's sword again and again, his rage increasing with each blow, the blood flowing hotter in his veins, his eyes black pits of resentment and hatred.

The Alcalde stumbled back, holding his sword with both hands now to defend himself against the mighty blows raining down on him. He knew he could not fight off the strength flowing from the masked bandit, even when the man was wounded. He had wanted to hurt Zorro when he ordered Valdez to burn the tavern, and he had hurt him, far worse than even he had intended. But DeSoto had not bargained for the black rage that now possessed Zorro in talons of hatred, and he could no longer hold back the inexorable blade that smashed against his weapon. DeSoto slipped in the dusty street and lost his footing, and another powerful swing from Zorro's sword caught his blade near the hilt, ripping the saber from his grasp, flinging it to the dust. His heartbeat stopped, his blood froze, and the Alcalde knew he was lost.

Zorro glared at the man cowering at his feet, and let the rage consume him. All you cared about was capturing me and returning to Spain in glory. Here is your glory, Alcalde! He drew his arm back, prepared to plunge the deadly point of his sword into this despicable man's heart.

Zorro, don't! Please stop! Victoria called out, her voice pleading, quiet in its desperation. She ran to the two men, her hand catching Zorro's upraised arm in an attempt to stop the terrifying expression she saw in his face. He truly wanted to kill DeSoto, she realized in horror, and the realization frightened her. She hardly recognized him as the man she loved.

Zorro blinked, and his eyes focused on Victoria standing so solemnly beside him. Her hand touched his arm, and it felt soft and somehow right as it penetrated the madness blinding his thoughts. He could not look into her luminous eyes and kill the Alcalde, even after the dreadful things this man had done to her. In a burst of frustrated anger, he plucked the Alcalde's sword from the dust and smashed the edge of Toledo steel on it, cracking the blade from its hilt. Then he flung that rancorous, ornately carved, gold edged hilt into the hissing flames of the waiting fire.

The Alcalde scooted back a few feet, trying uselessly to put some distance between himself and the black vengeance still towering over him. Zorro merely reached down and hauled DeSoto to his feet, letting his hands wrap securely around his captive's silk-protected throat until the Alcalde's eyes bulged red under the carefully combed white hair. There is a price for your deeds these last two days, Señor, he snarled softly. You will take the six thousand pesos from the safe in your office and donate it to Victoria as reparation for the damage you've done. Comprende? He squeezed harder on the Alcalde's throat, demanding a response, oddly satisfied with the fear blazing back at him.

The Alcalde clawed at the fingers that were so efficiently blocking his air supply, and nodded. He wriggled vainly in Zorro's grasp, but could not escape the bandit's steel-like grip.

Don Alejandro! Zorro yelled. See to it that his word is carried out!

Done! Alejandro shouted back triumphantly, pride for his son suddenly surging through him. That man, he thought delightedly, is definitely a de la Vega!

Unaware of his father's proud look, Zorro pushed harder on DeSoto's throat. I want you to know something, Alcalde. His voice lowered to rasp threateningly in DeSoto's ears. Only the pleas of this woman you tried so foolishly to destroy keeps me from killing you now. You owe her a great debt. I expect you to honor it. Fury seized him with a deadly calm. Or I will kill you, Ignacio DeSoto. I swear to God Almighty I will kill you. He allowed himself one last punch at the Alcalde's jaw, knocking his words forever into the man's terrified brain. DeSoto slipped thankfully away from the painful beating into the heavy grip of unconsciousness, and Zorro remorselessly let the official thump to the ground in an undignified heap.

Zorro whirled fiercely, his cape rippling menacingly against his back, his fists clenched, tightly controlled, at his sides. His whistle for Toronado pierced the silent plaza and he swiftly resheathed his sword, snapping it down with a sharp clang. Toronado, still angry at the treatment he'd received earlier, galloped across the plaza and pranced circles around his master, his eyes glaring white if anybody moved too close to him. The bandit grabbed his reins, his arms shaking now with the released anger, his blood still pumping adrenaline through his body. He spun to face Victoria.

She still stood beside him, her singed skirts ruffling against her blackened riding koots, a large red mark bright on her pale skin where Valdez had gripped her arm. The fingers of her right hand alternately clenched and relaxed, methodically rubbing her palm. Only her wide eyes betrayed the turmoil surging under her cool exterior.

He watched her while his heartbeat slowed and the rage gradually ebbed away. This is exactly what I've always feared for Victoria, he thought miserably, glancing at the slumped Alcalde. Her love for him was being persecuted, and would always single her out as long as she professed her feelings. But still she stared at him with such tenderness.

Zorro looked away. Now that she knew his secret, he could not approach her, not after her stinging rejection of him that morning. Frustration gave him the energy to pull himself stiffly into his stallion's waiting saddle, and he roughly pulled Toronado around.

Yet he was unable to leave her so cold-heartedly, without ever a word. He looked at her again, his jaws clenched against his own weakness for her. Toronado independently sidled next to Victoria, tossing his long mane into the air, forcing others back with powerful sweeps of his tail. Zorro fixed his gaze to her upturned face while Toronado danced, but for all his past dramatics and bravado, he could think of nothing to say. The smell of carnage, fire, and death hung in the air, but he sat, speechless, squinting at the sunlight that hindered his vision. He did not reach for her, or even offer a smile to soften his silence. In reality, he had lost her already, and no words from him could change that.

However, he had to try. At last he quietly said to her, It is your decision, Señorita. Whatever you choose, I will abide by your wish. Then he urged his mount into a brisk gallop, his eyes leaving her pale face as he rode unhindered from the pueblo.

Victoria watched him go, paralyzed by a sick feeling of unhappiness that mixed circles in her stomach. But Alejandro was there, wrapping a supportive arm around her shoulder. Do you understand his words? he questioned softly, unwilling to raise his voice above the hush of the stunned crowd.

She nodded, feeling the wind tug comfortingly at her hair. The wind, she mused, was always dependable. She could count on it. The emotions plundering her mind, however, were another matter entirely.

Yes, she understood Zorro's words. But she had no idea what to do about them.

Victoria pondered those words every waking hour while Los Angeles worked to recover from the horrifying events of the past several days. She ordered supplies, she directed the reconstruction of her tavern, and she saved a tiny slip of concentration from each task to try to unravel her confused emotions for Zorro. For Diego. For a future. It was an impossible endeavor.

While she debated internally, her tavern was again emerging as its old self. The bar stood in its old place, shiny and ready to be used. The new deep brown tile on the floor only waited to be scuffed by boots. The banister on the stairs gleamed from the polish and glossy finish on its spiral-carved slats, while new lengths of colorful material draped over the balcony railing and hung from nails on the walls. Sparkling oil lamps and candle sconces decorated the freshly white-washed walls, and new ornaments of mirrors and hanging plates made the humble Los Angeles tavern quite elegant amidst the dust of California.

Yet through all her work, Victoria found no solution to her dilemma. A permanent wrinkle formed between her eyebrows, and she often found herself standing in the middle of a room, staring blankly at the wall. All the smells of the new furniture and new feel of her establishment jumbled haphazardly together in Victoria's mind, but with increasirg frequency she paused in her work to watch the front doors for Diego to saunter in unexpectedly and interrupt the numbness settling over her soul. In fact, she wished he would come with all her heart.

Despite Victoria's wishes, Diego stubbornly remained at home. He valiently tried to practice the Mozart on the piano, despite his injured arm, and failed miserably. He composed several of the worst poems ever written. He even discovered that he couldn't focus his eyes on one page of a book long enough to read it. He was incapable of doing anything while waiting for Victoria's decision.

Victoria spoke to Padre Benitez about her ordeal. The sympathetic priest watched her with growing concern as she grew paler each day after Zorro's enigmatic words, and was relieved when at last she sought his council. But he saw no way to help her except to listen patiently to the doubts battling her desires. At first she told the Padre that she knew of Zorro's identity and she talked of despising the man known as Zorro for all eternity. How could she ever forgive him? she asked. But he saw forgiveness in her eyes and heard it in her voice the more she talked. Yes, there was hope for happiness yet, he decided.

Diego talked to Felipe so much that the younger man finally gave up trying to sooth his worries and simply let him talk. Don Alejandro patiently answered Diego's grilling questions each time the older de la Vega returned from town. Had he or Felipe been to the tavern? How was the rebuilding coming along? Did the Alcalde give the promised funds? Had they seen Victoria? How was she? What was she doing? In the interim between his father's trips to the pueblo, Diego tried his best to remain calm and understanding, but his grip on his patience was becoming dangerously thin.

The padre, on the other hand, grew more and more hopeful for an eventual reunion between the two. Though he did not know Zorro's secret, he knew of Victoria's love for that extraordinary man. He must be very special, Benitez thought, to have won such love from so remarkable a woman. Yet they could find no way for the two to be together in Los Angeles while Ignacio DeSoto remained the Alcalde. The padre prayed for a solution to come to him daily, but he knew that at this point, they were stumped.

Then one day the unanounced miracle came. A peaceful troop of lancers arrived from Mexico City, spreading the news that the provisional government of Mexico had successfully annexed the California territory as a Mexican province. Independence and freedom from Spanish oppression had at last come to the people of upper and lower California. To say that there was great rejoicing all over the pueblos of the Pacific coastline would be an understatement, and Los Angeles was no exception.

Felipe bounded through the hacienda's front door, slamming the edge of the brass door handle against the wall, cracking the white wash from the adobe bricks. Don Alejandro will end my life when he finds that, the young man thought, but didn't stop on his flight into the library until he slipped on the colorful French carpet and almost landed in a heap on the marble floor. He had hoped Diego was back from helping to clear brush from the south fork of the creek, but only Alejandro jumped up from his chair to catch him. Felipe began gesturing before Alejandro was even able to steady him.

Now what, Felipe? Wait...no...slow dow.... Felipe.... Are you sure? You're serious? No, I can't understand what.... Nooooo. California is no longer a colony of Spain? There must be a mistake. You heard the captain incorrectly or.... I don't believe it! You're certain of this? Felipe let his hands fall limply to his sides, exhausted, and nodded his head. Alejandro drew in a sharp breath and rocked back on his boot heels. Oh, Felipe, he said in a low voice. If this is true and Spain has truly surrendered her claims to the colonies, then California will be changed forever. Another nod. The government will change hands. DeSoto will no longer be Alcalde.... The shock disappeared and Alejandro's eyes slowly began to sparkle as a smile crept over his wrinkled cheeks. Does Diego know of this?

Victoria and the padre stood side by side in the mission's doors, watching the sudden crowd in amazement. Children ran wildly back and forth, long-dormant musicians pulled guitars out of closets for impromptu serenades, and couples danced gaily in the plaza. The new military personnel under the command of Captain Renaldo Cortillo mixed happily with the citizens of Los Angeles as well as the Spanish military who were willing to pledge allegiance to the new Mexican rule. Alcalde DeSoto, who was still nursing his wounds from Zorro's beating, had already been removed to the jail prior to his trip back to Spain, so the pueblo had several good excuses to celebrate.

Mendoza beckoned for Victoria to open her reconstructed tavern, and with a perplexed grin on her face, she allowed the jubilant crowd to escort her from the mission to the tavern. Everybody followed her into the large open room that smelled of the freshly hewn pine tables, and sounds of laughter and merriment again filled the once destroyed tavern. Lack of a broad liquor supply didn't slow the party, either, as citizens opened up private stores of wine and home-made aguardiente to share with anybody desiring a drink. Victoria was making money on beverages that didn't even belong to her, but it was impossible to explain any mix-ups. All anybody cared about was having a good time and they were determined to thoroughly enjoy their new-found freedom from the despotic Spanish rule.

For the first time in several days, Victoria forgot to think about Diego.

Diego glanced to the road behind him again, letting his eyes roam across the sea of horses and buggies stretched out as far back as the hacienda. Whoops and hollers echoed from every direction, and someone had started a rather bawdy tavern song. He might even have thought the lyrics were humorous if his stomach wasn't all tied into knots. He saw the revelry all around him and felt a little of the excitement charging the air, but most of his energies focused on the fact that in a matter of moments he could quite possibly be face to face with Victoria for the first time in days. The thought of such an encounter terrified him.

What will she say? More importantly, what will she do? Will she slap me again, he wondered? Will she even speak to me? Should I say something to her or just act as if nothing has happened? He asked himself a hundred other questions while skillfully threading his buckskin through the wild party of animals and vehicles clogging the road. He did his best to keep his horse beside Felipe's and his father's, but the congestion on the road made it difficult.

His thoughts detoured momentarily to the new state of affairs the change in rule brought to California. The government of Mexico was far from stable, he knew, and factions led by men named Iturbide and Santa Anna were even now fighting to gain power. But he had heard that the new government, hopefully one less corrupt, already established in Mexico City would be appointing governors sometime later in the month to the outlying provinces of California. Los Angeles would eventually receive a new alcalde, he supposed. He wondered what role Zorro might play in the pueblo's future.

Thoughts of Zorro brought his mind back to worrying over Victoria; the knots in his stomach tightened.

Peasants, farmers, servants, strangers, Indians, ranch hands, caballeros, travelers, stray dogs...every creature able to walk streamed into Los Angeles from all directions. They filled the tavern, the plaza, the mission, the surrounding countryside, all excited about the news and ready to congratulate Captain Cortillo and each other on the glorious takeover. The fact that very few of them had even taken part in California's independence didn't bother them in the least.

Victoria smiled excitedly over her tray at Dr. Hernandez. The aging doctor had pulled off his black overcoat and rolled up his white sleeves to the elbow and was dancing with a young brown-haired señorita. He grinned back at Victoria before whirling the young lady away, losing themselves in the crowded tavern. Victoria laughed and served drinks to her thirsty customers and occasionally took the time to go around the dance floor once or twice when someone needed a partner. Everyone was having such a good time that she didn't have to worry about any trouble starting. The presence of Captain Cortillo, a tall man in his early forties with thick black hair, a ridiculously bushy mustache, and an unmistakable presence of command, helped keep things under control.

But the sight of Padre Benitez and his long brown priest's robes invoked a strange desire for her to be dancing with a tall, dark-haired caballero rather than the slightly awkward Mendoza. Victoria whirled, suddenly discontent, across the tavern.

Diego followed his father and Felipe through the pueblo gates, careful to avoid the children running uncontrolably in the street, smiling in amazement at the sight in the plaza.

It's incredible, Alejandro commented, a slight grin lifting the corners of his mouth as he stared at the dancing and merriment.

Felipe pulled on Diego's sleeve, jerking his head towards the plaza. The dancing looked like fun and he didn't want to waste any more time gawking at everything from the outskirts of town. He wanted to join them! He gave up on Diego and guided his mount the rest of the way into town, jumping from the saddle and taking only enough time to tie his horse to a nearby tree - all the hitching posts were occupied - before joining a group of teenagers near the tavern. He was dancing with a girl dressed in a striking blue skirt when Diego and Alejandro pulled their horses to a halt outside the cuartel.

I think Felipe has the right idea, Diego. Alejandro swung down from the saddle. Look, he's already dancing with Mercedes. I tell you, Diego, that boy carries a flame for the pretty señorita.

Diego grimaced a grin and wished that he'd taken the time to change at least into a dress shirt. The old unruffled work shirt he had on was decent enough, but his trousers were so worn that they had faded to a light brown. They were perfect for clearing the creek bed of shrubs and brush, but not exactly what he would have chosen to impress Victoria.

Father, perhaps I should return home and change.

Don Alejandro grabbed Diego's shoulder and steered him in the direction of the tavern. Come on, son, quit stalling.

I'm not stalling. I just didn't know that there....

Diego, you look fine. This is a time for celebration, a chance for justice at last! You of all people should appreciate what that means, even if we are now foreigners in our own home. But we'll worry about that tomorrow. For now, let's enjoy ourselves! He laughed loudly and strode across the plaza, shaking hands with other caballeros, nodding his head, smiling at the señoras and their shy older children.

Diego sighed, aware of the bulk of his mother's ring in his trouser pocket where he had kept it since Victoria returned it. He was being sentimental, he knew, but having the ring close all the time somehow made him feel better. The ring, however, was little comfort to him now. As he apprehensively began to weave his way to the tavern, he felt sure that he wasn't going to enjoy this party at all.

Victoria placed a bottle of wine and three glasses on a table, then did the same at a second table. Sunlight poured through the opened windows, glinting brightly on the new mirrors and glass lamps hanging from the walls. Even the kitchen was clear and sunny when she slipped quickly through the curtain to retrieve her last three bottles of champagne from the new storage room opposite the kitchen's street entrance. The room was built at a suggestion Diego had made years before. He had commented on the inconvenience of always running down to the wine cellar to restock the bottles on particularly busy days. A small room with built-in bottle racks located just beyond the curtain was much more convenient. Diego had even designed it for her, but she'd never had the funds to build it until now.

Victoria looked happily at the wonderful way she had chosen to spend the last of Ignacio DeSoto's reward money for Zorro, and pulled the bottles from the emptied racks; one bottle for Don Guillermo and his wife, one for the three soldiers and Captain Cortillo, and one for Mendoza, who was now an officer just sworn in to the ranks of the Mexican army. Victoria smiled, thinking of Mendoza's excitement, and headed back for the busy main room.

Diego turned dizzily around again as another señorita snared him for the next dance. The trio of musicians standing on the fountain's stone bricks broke into a rousing song and Diego's flirtatious partner pulled him along in time with the music. In fact, swishing skirts and flowing long hair were everywhere Diego looked. Where did all these señoritas come from? Diego questioned, and tried to guide the beautiful stranger in his arms towards the tavern. Now that he was finally in town, he discovered that he very much wanted to see Victoria again. He missed her; her voice, her hot temper, her hair and the way it always escaped the combs she used to hold it back, her pretty hands, the smell of her skin. Even if she was still angry with him, he wanted to see her. But he was having trouble getting across the plaza. The tavern remained the single, yet elusive, focus of his attention, much to the distress of every unattached female present.

Don Guillermo kissed Victoria's hand again and laughed benignly. He was slightly drunk, but that didn't detract from his charming manners or graceful bearing. His wife, a short, plump woman with graying hair pulled back from her smiling face in an elegant style, laughed along with her husband and told him to stop flirting.

Victoria smiled and laughed again. She felt slightly drunk herself, though she hadn't had anything stronger than coffee to drink all day. The festivities and excitement were infectious, and she bounced around dancing couples to the captain's table.

Let me take that for you. The military officer took the champagne she offered and opened it effortlessly.

Hey, why don't you just leave the other bottle, too! one of the new Mexican soldiers exclaimed drunkenly.

I can't do that. This is a special bottle for newly-promoted Lieutenant Mendoza. You'll have to enjoy what you have and come back another day if you want more.

Hey, that's all right. You know, you run one heck of a tavern, Señorita! The soldier saluted her with a raised glass and downed his champagne in one gulp.

Thank you! Victoria smiled and moved away, again passing dancers and well wishers alike to reach the open doors and the equally crowded porch in the fresh outside air.

Diego managed to extract himself from the next dance by expertly stumbling against the young woman waiting to be his partner, feigning a hurt knee. Riding accident, he said in brief explanation, nodding his head. I think I'll sit down for a moment. The señorita looked disappointed, but smiled soon enough as a blue-coated lancer caught her up and twirled her away. Diego thankfully limped for the porch.

One bottle of champagne for Lieutenant Jeime Mendoza! Victoria ceremoniously handed the expensive wine to the Lieutenant.

Mendoza grinned. Oh, thank you, Señorita! I never knew that being captured was so wonderful!

Victoria deftly cleaned out a glass from a nearby table and filled it with the clear, bubbling wine. We're lucky the captain was so willing to allow you lancers to swear an oath to Mexico, or you would be behind bars right now.

Yes. I feel a little sorry for the Alcalde....

I don't!

But he's missing such a splendid party! Mendoza laughed, then at the urging of his surrounding men, cautiously took a sip of champagne. He closed his eyes in complete rapture. Oh, that's good!

The soldiers laughed and cheered, each reaching for the bottle. Victoria slipped aside to let them in, gratefully stepping off the crowded porch.

Diego shied away from two approaching women in matching red flounced skirts, backing up and convincingly massaging his knee. He stumbled and bumped someone, and instantly straightened to apologize.

Victoria turned her head instinctively as Corporal Sepulveda materialized before her.

Señorita Escalante, may I have this dance? Sepulveda smiled proudly at Victoria, one arm held respectfully against his back as he bowed deeply.

The royal lancer's deep bow left a surprised Victoria unexpectedly face to face with an equally flustered caballero standing directly behind the soldier.



Her eyes widened and she stared at him, stunned at their sudden encounter. Her empty mind blocked out all words and intelligent conversation, able only to grasp at one instantaneous thought; my, he's handsome. The casual, no-nonsense work shirt suited him on this day as well as sunlight suited the blue sky. A strong, ridiculous urge to throw her arms around his neck struck her, and she resisted the temptation, though his expression encouraged her not to.

Victoria and Diego reached for each other's hands at the same time, their touch meeting over the bowing lancer's shoulder. Diego turned startled eyes to Sepulveda and said, Excuse us, Corporal. Then he held her lightly in his arms, leaving a very confused lancer behind as they disappeared away into the dancing throng.

A hundred people crowded the plaza, but for all Diego and Victoria noticed, they might as well have been alone in the desert. They remained silent, Diego's grip on her firm but gentle, his eyes never leaving her face. Her hand was soft and smooth under his fingers.

You've made your decision, he said.

Victoria shrugged. I couldn't decide...I mean, I didn't know until.... She bit her lip, unable to untangle her tongue from the roof of her mouth, and finally closed her eyes on her explanations. Then she could answer, Yes, Diego.

His grip around her waist tightened as he sighed. I have caused you so much heartache, Victoria. Can you forgive me?

He would not meet her eyes while he led her twirling on the outskirts of the plaza dance. She, however, looked directly into his pained expression. The padre will tell you that a few days ago I was ready to despise you forever. She smiled sadly at the recollection. But it is I who needs forgiveness.

He looked at her then, surprised by her words. But I tho....

She held up a hand to stop his protest. You did what you thought was best, Diego. After all, you were only thinking of me. I was upset that day...in my tavern. I should not have done what I did. I'm sorry. Her voice trailed to a whisper.

Diego remained silent, oddly aware of the warmth of the sun on his back, the warmth of Victoria's hand, the close heat from the dancing crowd. He blinked at the brightness from the sun. Still, you were right, Victoria. Love needs trust, he admitted. He lowered his eyes to gaze at her, their dance slowly coming to a halt near the small grape arbor behind the mission. You deserved the knowledge of my identity.

She cocked her head to one side and watched him through her lashes. Well, now I have what I've always wanted. A crooked smile marked the irony in her next words. And still I want more.

Diego stood close in front of her, tall and serious, his brows furrowed heavily over his searching eyes. He paused, his breathing sounding steadily in their isolated nook far from the revelers in the plaza. He could touch her if he would only reach out his hand, but he remained still. He was afraid he would lose her if he moved. He felt her presence tingling against his nerves, yet their future was not in his hands.

At last he quietly asked, What do you want, Victoria?

Victoria raised an eyebrow pensively, watching the familiar lock of brown hair fall over his high forehead. She knew exactly what she wanted, but she didn't know how best to say it. She wanted to talk with him, to sit near him at dinner, to see him first every morning and say good-night to him under each starry sky. She wanted his thoughts, his dreams, the strength of his hands curled around hers. And more than anything, in that moment, she wanted to kiss him.

A thoughtful, mischievous smile curved the corners of her lips. Without saying a word, she purposely took his face in her delicate fingers and, standing on tip-toe, hesitantly touched her lips to his. The instant she felt the slightest response from him, she drew back, oddly shy with this old friend and new love.

But her kiss broke the spell that had descended on him. Diego's hands came up to cover hers, to draw her fingers to his lips. Oh, Victoria, he whispered as quietly as the sighing of the wind.

She answered with a sigh of her own. I wasn't sure until I saw you, Diego. His hands, so big and strong smoothed her forehead, her temples, brushed the slope of her shoulders. I wanted to tell you that....

The tips of his fingers gently lifted her chin and she surrendered her resistance to wrap her arms around his neck, to press her body close against him and accept the pull of her desires. His lips met hers with softness and warmth, halting any further thoughts, causing a knot of painful pleasure to twist in her stomach. She felt his arm on her back, his hand on her cheek, and she wanted to touch him everywhere. There was no awkwardness, no tension or hesitation between them. Only soft feelings of tenderness and love aching to be expressed.

Diego couldn't breath. The luxury of loving Victoria as himself overwhelmed him so fast that he forgot about everything else except feeling her kiss and the lazy desire that crept over him like a summer sunrise. Her sweet lips moved to his cheek and his ear, caressing him along the line of his jaw, then with a sigh she sank into his welcoming embrace.

Diego, I want to marry you, she said, her face pressed against his chest and her arms holding him tight enough to bruise his ribs.

Diego's slow smile crept over his face, but he was cautious of her quick transfer of such strong love from the legendary Zorro to the humble Diego. He calmly placed his hands on her shoulders and took a step back to look at her. Are you sure about this, Victoria? His heartbeat suspended itself while he waited for her to answer his sober question.

Fortunately her reply came instantly. You must think I'm crazy, Diego. But I know what I felt when I first saw you today, just outside my tavern. I was happy. I wanted to see you, to talk to you. Victoria kissed him lightly on the cheek. I missed you, Diego.

Slowly he inquired, And Zorro?

Zorro doesn't exist, Victoria stated softly. A thousand thoughts crowded through her mind, explanations of her feelings for the masked bandit, and she could not express any of them. She shrugged again, and looked at him tenderly. You are my friend. Nothing either of us does can change my love for you. I am.... She searched her mind for the correct word. I am incomplete without you, she decided quietly.

Diego smiled at her tenderness. I know what you mean. He understood only too well! He had spent years of withholding the best that was in himself, waiting for the day he could finally reveal the truth. The day had at last arrived. He gathered her in his arms, holding her gently. My Victoria, he sighed.

The sun continued to shine from the cloudless sky, and the celebration progressed. But Padre Benitez noticed Victoria's extended absence from the tavern, and he smiled a private little smile.

Still grinning, the padre grabbed a glass of champagne from one of the soldiers on the porch, explaining to the surprised young man, You will be greatly rewarded for your generosity, my son, then took another glass from the lancer standing next to the youth. Remember, God works in mysterious ways, and all we mortals can do is try our best to understand His more infinite wisdom.

The drunk lancer smiled and nodded enthusiastically, if not exactly in understanding. The padre left the two standing together and carefully threaded his way through the jostling crowd until he reached Don Alejandro. Benitez handed a glass to the caballero.

Alejandro accepted the wine and nodded his appreciation. Quite a celebration, eh, Padre?

The padre smiled. And we have so much to celebrate today, Don Alejandro. He toasted the puzzled man and pointed in the direction of the mission.

Confused by more than the amount of champagne he had just imbibed, Alejandro turned, scanning the crowd for a meaning behind the padre's toast. Then he saw his son and Victoria emerge from the shade of the mission wall, both looking ridiculously happy and pleased with themselves. Diego shyly motioned her ahead of him, but Victoria stubbornly locked her hand around his as they drew closer to the crowd gathered in the plaza. Alejandro's eyes immediately flew to Victoria's free hand. Even at that distance, he saw the sunlight glint like fire on the gold circling her finger.

Felicidad's ring!

Alejandro turned with a smile of pure delight to the padre. Padre...Felipe! He turned back as Diego and Victoria reached the crowd. My friends! he called over the noise of laughter and music, catching the attention of those around him. He lifted his glass of champagne to the couple and affectionately hollered, I think we have a wedding to attend!

Victoria smiled in fond recollection, pausing for a moment in the sun outside the new doctor's office to remember. Don Alejandro had been so happy that day! It was amazing how he remained ecstatic during the two weeks between California's sudden release from Spanish rule and the wedding. Victoria laughed even now, thinking of his excitement at every detail of hers and Diego's wedding.

That was eight years ago, she mused in disbelief, shaking her head. So much had happened since then, yet it blended together in one quick blur of contentment in Victoria's mind.

Not that everything about her marriage to Diego was perfect, she reminded herself. It was, in fact, often far from what most people in California accepted as ideal. However, it was always interesting, and it suited them. And, she admitted, it was also a lot of fun.

Señora, does something trouble you?

Victoria turned to find the grey-haired Dr. Hernandez standing beside her in the warm spring sunshine. He pulled the spectacles that he now wore all the time from his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. She ignored his question and instead scolded, Dr. Hernandez, when are you going to buy some new spectacles? You know that Dr. Benito is willing to go to Santa Barbara for you if you'll just order a pair. Or Diego will go if Dr. Benito is too busy.

Hernandez smiled at Victoria and squinted his blurry eyes. Benito, that young upstart? He worries far too much for his own good. He'll give himself a fit one day, mark my words!

The corners of her mouth lifted in reluctant amusement. He's only concerned for you, as he is for all the citizens of Los Angeles. Hernandez glared at her and she laughed out loud. The older doctor had never quite forgiven himself for growing so old as to need an apprentice, and he gave Juan Benito a hard time about trying to force his retirement sooner than necessary. But Benito merely had his mentor's health in mind. She continued, I just visited him, and I think Dr. Benito is very good for everyone in this pueblo.

Hernandez squinted pointedly at her slim form and the elegantly fitted red dress she wore. Yes, this town's population is growing bigger everyday, he groused, moving towards his office door. You take care of yourself, Señora, he warned with a smile and affectionately patted her shoulder before disappearing through the brown carved door, leaving her alone in the lengthening shadows cast by the surrounding buildings.

The sunlight made her blink as Victoria glanced once more around the plaza. It felt bigger and emptier every time she journeyed to town. Her eyes wandered to the tiny sections of the street she could see between her tavern and the adobe house standing beside it. How long had that second street been part of Los Angeles, she questioned, trying to remember. The town now sported a saloon and hotel located just off a second, smaller plaza, and the public stable at the end of second street made it much more convenient for travelers to tend to their horses.

Horses reminded Victoria of their reason for coming to the pueblo on this sunny Wednesday morning. Diego had wanted to see what kind of stock the garrison was offering at their weekly horse auction, hoping that he might find some decent mares for sale. She noticed the herd of horses milling irritably around the garrison corral, and several children clamored on the fences to watch the animals. Older girls kept an eye on the rambunctious play of the younger children, and she saw a tall girl with a long jet black braid pull a small boy from the top rail of the fence. The girl patiently reprimanded the boy and dusted off his torn pants and oversized sombrero before releasing him again. But Diego was not among the children or the group of interested buyers who talked quietly together in a corner of the corral. She wondered if he hadn't discovered anything he liked or if his attention had been called away.

Suddenly her stomach twinged uncomfortably and she grimaced slightly. The smells that wafted across the plaza from the corral weren't always the most pleasant to behold, and it didn't take much to upset her stomach these days. Then she smiled, thinking of the many unpleasant things she'd seen and smelled without a thought in the days before her marriage. Now she could barely even cook a tamale! Things do change, she thought ruefully as she headed towards her tavern, thinking now of an early lunch and a quiet conversation with Señora Reyes, her tavern manager, about last month's accounts.

Señora Reyes met her on the porch, a broom in hand as she prepared to sweep the mud and dust tracked from the plaza to the porch back into the street. Victoria! What brings you to town? No, don't tell me. I bet that husband of yours is here to look over the horses for the auction.

Victoria laughed. Maria, you know him almost better than I do! she said in a teasing tone.

Maria's dark, almond eyes narrowed shrewdly. But no one truly knows everything about him. Except perhaps for you.

Victoria shook her head in mock disappointment. Maria was fishing for information, she knew. Ever since Victoria's seemingly hasty decision to marry Diego de la Vega after the strangely coincidental disappearance of Zorro, Maria had tried to persuade Victoria to admitting that her husband had secretly portrayed the legendary swordsman all along. Everybody in Los Angeles had their suspicions, of course, but with Spain's departure from California, the bounty offered for Zorro no longer existed, and few citizens wished to possibly incur the bandit's anger by challenging Diego just to settle their curiosity. Diego is the last person in town who has anything to hide, Victoria answered, as she always did. Someday you'll just have to accept that.

Someday I probably will, replied the shorter woman. But not today. Maria laughed and pushed the bangs covering her forehead out of her eyes.

Victoria smiled to cover another twinge of nausea passing through her stomach. Have you seen Diego lately? It's almost eleven o'clock and I'm surprised he's not waiting for the auction to begin.

Maria nodded. He stopped by the tavern about an hour ago, looking for you. There was something he needed to help the sergeant with.

You mean the lieutenant? Victoria chided.

Maria laughed again. After eight years, I should remember, shouldn't I? But I guess he'll always be Sergeant Mendoza to me. Oh, there they are. Maria quickly pointed to Diego and the lieutenant as they emerged from behind the mission.

Victoria's eyes immediately settled on her husband. Even after all the years that had passed since the need for Diego to give the appearance of a conservative scholar, he had chosen to retain his casual habits of dress. And as far as Victoria was concerned, he looked much more handsome in a plain shirt and vest than other caballeros did in their opulent and expensive suits made by the best tailors in Mexico City. The sleeves of his simple cotton shirt were rolled to his elbows, baring his strong arms to the warm sunshine, and the light blue trousers he wore accentuated his long legs and relaxed manner. She watched him listen intently to something Mendoza was saying, and she felt her cheeks grow warm as thoughts of the previous night flooded her mind. Victoria personally thought Diego looked as good out of his clothes as he did in them.

Papa! Watch me! See what I can do?

Victoria and Maria looked back to the garrison corral in time to see the young boy wearing the sombrero once again attempt to walk along the top fence rail, and just as before, the older girl pulled him down, less patiently this time. Her scolding carried even to the tavern.

Sebastian! Victoria called to the boy, beckoning him over to her. The girl sent Victoria a look of frustration and shook her head, then directed the boy towards the two women standing on the tavern's weathered porch.

Victoria leaned over as the boy reached her, his lower lip stuck out in a pout. Aren't you a bit young to be walking the top rail of the fence?

Rodrico did it. I can do it too, but she won't let me! He pointed an accusing finger at the girl who was now listening to the caballeros discuss the finer points of the horses, the same expression of rapt interest on her face that Diego displayed while talking with Mendoza.

Victoria laughed and dusted his pants again. Well, your sister is a bit protective, I will admit. She's just looking out for you. The boy's pout increased. I was wondering if you could do something for me. Victoria went on, and Sebastian's expression lifted a bit. Do you see those two men over there? The ones talking near the mission? Sebastian nodded. Give this rose, and she pulled one of the first blooms of summer from a bush planted at the corner of the porch, to the man wearing the light pants. Don't tell him where it came from. Can you do that?

Sebastian nodded solemnly and carefully took the rose from Victoria. He even meticulously broke the thorns from the stem before jogging energetically across the plaza.

Diego paused in his conversation with Lieutenant Mendoza when he felt a tiny hand tugging on his leg. Sebastian! he exclaimed, scooping the boy up in his arms. What have you got there?

Papa, it's for you! From.... Oh, I can't tell you.

Diego took the flower from the boy's dirty fingers, and held it delicately in his large hand. His eyes instantly sought Victoria's across the plaza, and his shy smile warmed the glow in his dark blue eyes.

Roses! Mendoza said appreciatively, caressing the velvet petals with his thumb and forefinger. Summer is definitely here, Don Diego. And I'm glad to be alive to enjoy another season of beautiful flowers. He rubbed his large belly in contentment.

Sebastian looked confusedly at Mendoza. Why wouldn't you be? Did something happen? You have to tell me!

Diego quickly said, Oh, Seb, the lieutenant has far more important things to do than tell you another story.

Mendoza shook his head and raised his eyebrow. Now, Diego, we can't let our daily duties keep us from helping our pueblo's children. He reached for the boy's hand when Diego lowered him to the ground. Did I ever tell you about the time I captured the bandit Zorro at the tavern, right in you own mother's kitchen?

No! Sebastian's eyes were the size of small pancakes, and Mendoza led him into the tavern where the possibility of a large, appreciative audience was at its greatest.

Diego followed, stopping to lean against one of the wooden porch supports while Victoria spoke to Señora Maria about the affairs of the tavern. Victoria looks very pretty in that red dress, he thought, and wondered what she would say if he were to tell her exactly what that dress made him think about while standing in such a busy place as the street outside her tavern. He smiled and let his imagination wander as he waited patiently for Maria to finish listing the many bottles of wine and liquor that needed to be restocked.

He honestly did not understand how Victoria still managed to turn a nice profit with her tavern despite the newer accommodations available in the pueblo. The saloon on the next street was owned and run by an American from Boston named Jake Brown. The citizens of Los Angeles called him Lucky Jake for his knack of winning consistently at poker. Victoria suspected he was simply an excellent cheat, and Diego didn't doubt it, but Mr. Brown allowed quite a lot more revelry to take place in his saloon than was allowed in Tavern Victoria, and the liquor was just cheap enough to encourage travelers to take their patronage to Jake. But Victoria had a much better cook than Lucky Jake could ever hope to retain, and she still had the best reputation for the fairest price of a meal and a room in the territory. Her warm hospitality and personality in general kept many loyal customers in the tavern.

Diego looked again at the rose bloom and rubbed the petals gently across his cheek. Victoria took a moment to glance at him during a brief pause in Maria's tavern run-down, and he winked wickedly at her from behind Maria's back. To her credit, she managed to keep the red blush on her cheeks to a minimum, but he still relished the effect of his flirtations.

At last Maria was called back into the tavern to take care of some customers, and she left with the promise to talk to Victoria in more detail later. Diego smiled at his wife and waited until they were alone in the area in front of the tavern before saying, Thank you for the rose. It's almost as beautiful as you are, but not quite.

Victoria let the blush fully suffuse her face this time, and she laughed, settling comfortably against his side as he enveloped an arm around her shoulders. Seb wasn't supposed to tell who it was from.

He may be a precocious four-year-old, but Sebastian Alphonso Escalante de la Vega knows when to hold his tongue. I made a lucky guess. He patted the rose teasingly on the top of her head.

Our daughter, however, seems to be a bit upset with us. Victoria nodded her head in the direction of the corral, singling out the tall, dark-haired girl from the crowd of older girls and caballeros. The open glare on the girl's face made her opinion of her parents quite obvious.

Felice told me that affection in public, even between a married couple, is improper and a bad example to the younger children, Diego replied in a mild, amused tone.

Victoria glanced up at him, surprised. She said that?

She did, he continued, and his expression became mischevious again. Shall we make her even angrier?

Diego, you really are impossible! But Victoria raised herself on tip-toe to briefly touch her lips to his in a warm, tender kiss.

He sighed in contentment and kissed her forehead. Ah, if only Father could have lived longer. He would be so happy and proud of you. And I wish Mother could have known you. She would love you as much as I do.

Victoria was silent, thinking of Don Alejandro. She still missed his comforting presence in her life, even after the two years since his accidental fall from a horse and subsequent death. I don't suppose I'll ever quite get used to not seeing Don Alejandro riding through town or charging across the plaza to confront the Alcalde about some government matter.

Yes, nothing made him angrier than the injustice of the government, though he loved Spain to the very end. Diego shook his head, amazed.

Now it would be nice to have any government, Victoria commented sarcastically. Those politicians in Mexico City can't seem to decide what to do with California, can they? To think, they left Mendoza in charge!

Well, he's fair and just, even if he is more interested in your enchiladas than in collecting taxes. Diego gave Victoria an affectionate hug, missing the paleness of her face when he mentioned food.

By the way, what were you and Mendoza discussing so intensely?

He laughed. The lieutenant was wondering how to improve his wine-making process. He and the padre have grand ideas for the mission arbor. I told him to write to Felipe in Monterey. He knows more about wine than I do, that's certain.

You're just jealous that he can hold twice as much wine as you. He was fine the night of our wedding, but you...!

Diego glared down her teasing remarks. For reasons known to both of us, I was forced to abstain from alcohol for many years before our wedding.

That may be, but at least I could walk without help, she Fointed out.

Diego gave a lopsided grin. Well, I didn't need much help.

Don Alejandro laughed himself sick just watching you! I thought he would burst the buttons on his vest! she laughed at the memory, then sobered and nestled her head in the crook of her husband's shoulder. I miss him, she admitted sadly.

Diego nodded in understanding. At least he lived to see his grandchildren. That made him happier than anything else in the world.

Victoria reached for the rose in distraction and hesitantly said, Diego, I have something to tell y....

Mendoza's voice suddenly carried out to the porch as he reached the exciting part of his story, effectively overriding Victoria's words, ...And there I was, face to face with Zorro, the most feared outlaw in all of California. But I knew that he was no match for me. He was afraid to cross swords with the best swordsman that Los Angeles had to offer! he boasted. Then his voice lowered again as he narrated the suspenseful 'capture', drawing his audience of boys, farmers, and soldiers into the story with his voice and dramatic style.

Another story for Seb, Diego explained, then took a quick glance at his daughter, who had turned her back in disapproval of her parents' behavior in public. You know, he commented, Felice never used to be bothered by our 'unseemly displays of affection', as she terms it.

Victoria shrugged a shoulder under his hand and circled her own arm around his waist. It's probably just a phase. But she is growing up, Diego. You can't expect her to stay your little girl forever.

He sighed sadly. I know. I feel like I'm missing out on something, though. She informed me just the other day that she's definitely old enough to be sent to school in Monterey next year. And this summer she wants me to start teaching her Latin. Victoria, she's only seven years old! he exclaimed, dismayed.

She laughed. Don't worry, Diego, she hasn't outgrown her father quite yet. She'll change again soon enough, you'll see.

Oh, I know. It just seems like she's growing up so fast. I keep thinking of all the things I wanted to teach her and didn't quite have enough time.

Well, perhaps you will have another chance, she said with an encouraging smile, turning under his arm to face him.

Diego's eyes returned to his wife, his face puzzled. What do you mean?

She took a deep breath, trying to calm the knots that had suddenly formed beneath the twinges in her stomach. While you were examining the horses for the auction, I took the time to talk with Dr, Benito....

Diego's eyes widened in surprise. Victoria, you're not...?

She shrugged and smiled a little smile. I'm going to have another baby.

Diego stood before her, stunned and speechless, for thirty seconds. Then he let out a yell loud enough for people to hear over in Jake's saloon, and swung Victoria around in several circles, laughing happily and making as much commotion as a child at Christmas.

Victoria dizzily hung onto his arms when he finally set her back on firm ground, certain she was going to be sick, and not even caring if she was. She had never expected such a reaction about her news or she would have mentioned it sooner. Diego! You're so excited! she said when she could talk.

Diego practically exploded with joy. But this is wonderful news, Victoria! When? How soon do you expect the baby?

Victoria smoothed her tossled hair away from her eyes. We calculated sometime around November.

November! Then you've known about this....

Victoria placed calming hands on his shoulders. I didn't want to say anything until I felt sure it was safe this time.

Concern immediately clouded Diego's happiness. Did Dr.Benito say anything about any problems or complications?

Victoria shook her head firmly. He believes I will have a perfectly healthy baby in another six months. I'm much stronger than I was after your father's death two years ago. Don't worry!

Diego laughed again, his worries soothed by her confidence and understanding. You're right, of course. He pulled her into his arms, grinning broadly. Oh, Victoria, I love you.

Sebastian suddenly appeared on the porch, his sombrero in hand, his eyes still wide from Mendoza's story. I heard Papa yell. What happened?

Felice's quiet, well-mannered voice answered as her bright yellow-skirted form materialized at Victoria's side. Mama's going to have a baby. Aren't you?

Victoria glanced in surprise at Diego, then put an arm around her grown-up young daughter. How did you know, Felice? she asked gently.

I could say that you have that - what did Señora Reyes call it? - that glow about you. But truthfully, I heard you being sick two nights ago. I asked Dr. Hernandez about it this morning.

Diego affectionately ruffled Felice's bangs. You are getting too smart for your own good, young lady.

Felice smiled shyly, looking exactly like her mother when her father was being flirtatious. I just don't want you to lose another baby, Mama. I want to help.

Sebastian elbowed his way between his parents and looked up. You lost a baby? A whole baby? Where did you lose it?

Victoria and Diego laughed, and he grabbed his son's sombrero and playfully perched in on the boy's head. I'll tell you the story while we eat some lunch. Let's get inside before your mother turns any greener than she already is. He ushered his children onto the porch, his arm protectively around Victoria's waist.

Is it a good story? Sebastian wanted to know. Better than Lieutenant Mendoza's stories about Zorro?

Felice scoffed in an unladylike manner. Lieutenant Mendoza doesn't exactly know what he's talking about. I talked to Padre Benitez last week and he finally told me the truth. Come on, Seb, I'll tell you what Zorro was really like!

The rose bloom Victoria had picked for Diego lay in the dusty street where it had fallen during Diego's impromptu twirl. The dust from the family's trampling feet settled slowly on the forgotten velvet petals.

Sebastian suddenly raced across the empty porch and pounced on the flower just before a ranch hand crushed it beneath his worn leather boots. I found it, Papa! the boy yelled, holding his prize aloft in his hand and scooting back into the tavern. Hey, if the baby's a girl, can we name it Rose? Can we, Mama, can we?

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