Choices

by Linda Bindner

He really was hopeless, Zorro decided as he mounted Toronado. It's late. Why don't you go to bed, he suggested to Felipe as he wheeled the great steed around and aimed for the mechanism to open the back door of the cave. Felipe nodded, then asked using hand and arm gestures if the legend would be all right unsaddling Toronado by himself. Zorro chuckled lightly.

I better be. I'm going for selfish reasons, after all, he answered. Zorro was riding into Los Angeles for one reason and one reason only, Felipe knew; he was going to see Victoria. As it was nearly time the tavern usually closed, Zorro knew he would have to hurry if he wanted to catch Victoria before she went to bed. This window of opportunity was relatively short. As for Toronado, he would rather be eating hay. At least he was honest, Zorro comprehended with a small smile, understanding full well that he was not.

Zorro pondered that information as Toronado's hooves pounded into the dirt and the pueblo drew ever nearer. Victoria's charms were... considerable.., but he knew that he would have to tell her the truth, and soon, or else he would be forced to tell her against his will by his own body, a body that seemed to have a mind of its own lately. His identity was a small price to pay for Victoria.

It wasn't always like that, and he wasn't always like this, consumed by an inner fire every time he was around her. It had started small, like a tickle, but had built until the fire was everything and meant everything, eating through his defenses like butter, almost ready to bring him down.

Zorro laughed ironically. Leave it to love to capture the legendary Zorro. But that's what would surely happen the next time he saw Victoria if he wasn't careful.

But Zorro intended to be careful, very careful. As he slipped passed two guards supposedly on watch and into the warm kitchen, Zorro just hoped that being careful would be enough.

He doubted it, as soon as Victoria parted the red curtains and stepped into the kitchen, carrying a tray stacked with dirty dishes. He watched from a shadowy corner as she critically eyed the wash basin, then, according to her expression, decided against washing the dishes and opted to clear the tray instead.

Zorro watched Victoria while she worked, noticing the bounce of her hair, even at this late hour of the day, and the gentle slope of her shoulders, her delicate hands... Stop it! he remonstrated himself, but knew it was a lost cause. She looked like she was lit from within, and her beauty melted his insides to slush. He wanted her, and there was no use denying it anymore.

He couldn't even think of something that was dramatically romantic to say, like he usually could. Hello, was all he said, but his voice had the same soft whisper with the gentle timbre that it always had.

Victoria whirled around at the sound of his voice, and he added, I didn't mean to startle you, though you look even more beautiful when you're frightened. He came forward then, admiring the rosy blush on her cheeks as the shadows clung to his black form, reluctant to release him. He took her hand and kissed it, though he would rather have kissed her rosy, red lips, but didn't dare. That might be too inviting.

Zorro! she exclaimed, keeping her voice low just in case. Simply glad to see him, she rushed forward to envelope him in her arms.

He just couldn't help himself; he welcomed her embrace. Somehow, the embrace turned into a kiss, which released tumbling, hidden emotions in both of them, and minutes later they were both panting for breath. He kissed her again, passionately, dreamily, then drew back, his breathing even more laborious.

Victoria, this won't work, he whispered, finally being honest with her and with himself. I stay away until I can't stand it anymore, then I'm drawn to you like horses are to hay. It was the most common thing he'd ever said to her, but she took it as the compliment it was meant to be. She smiled, largely, and the smile went all the way into her eyes, as her smiles did every time she was with him. He caressed her cheek and went on, Perhaps you've noticed, but my visits have gotten much... closer together.

I have noticed, she said rather dryly, not commenting on his undramatic choice of words. And you won't hear me complaining.

He smiled at her inherent understanding. But have you been aware of the change that's recently come over us when I kiss you?

She smiled enticingly and lilted, I'm not sure. We better try it again until I can be more positive.

He looked at her in mild reproach at her obvious flirtation, but happily leaned down for another kiss. As something of a response to her overt challenge, he slowly released his hold on the floodgates restraining his emotions, and they were both barraged with the desire that instantly flamed, like a slow eruption from a volcano. She wrapped one arm around his neck while the other hand held on to his shoulder, answering him completely when he deepened the kiss, his gloved hand slowly caressing the back of her hair.

The kiss, while a repeated gesture of affection for the two, could hardly be termed 'chaste.' He kissed her cheek, her chin, her neck, feeling the pulse point with his tongue, and she stretched her neck long to give better access to his hot, sensuous lips. Forgotten was her initial challenge in the blazing heat of the moment.

They were both panting even harder for air when he gently drew back once more, and the last thing he did was kiss her forehead as he was hit by one final wave of desire. He found himself wanting to continue, but squashed the sensation and buried it deep inside, refusing to give in to such a basic craving, though he wondered how long he could withstand its magnetic pull.

You see? Zorro said, rather unnecessarily, though his voice sounded charged and uneven. He cleared his throat, a bit embarrassed. I think we have something of a problem.

Victoria was a little taken aback by the sudden intensity of his emotions, but she gazed up at him out of understanding eyes. You've been holding something back, she accused.

So have you.

Victoria at least looked chagrined. But now that it's... um... shall we say, 'out in the open,' at least we can talk about it.

Zorro leaned his masked forehead against hers and closed his eyes at the emotional onslaught that still ran around inside his brain and on to his body. That's the problem. I don't want to talk. I want to do something about it, and that's not a good idea no matter which angle you look at it from.

Feeling sorry for his evident suffering, Victoria kissed his exposed chest, above the open collar of his shirt. Instead of comforting him, like she intended, he shivered and in response pulled her tighter yet into his arms.

Oh, Victoria, mi preciosa, don't. That just makes things harder to control.

Now feeling remorse, but not much remorse, Victoria apologized. I'm sorry, but I just couldn't help myself.

He chuckled deep in his chest. Who would have known that feeling such passion would someday be such a problem for us?

Hugging him close, Victoria asked, Have you been to the padre about how you feel?

Yes, twice.

She lifted her head to look at him. Only twice? I had to go three times, and none of those visits have done any good at all. She sounded contrite and not contrite at the same time, a duality that matched his emotions perfectly.

He should have known. Three?

Now she looked embarrassed as well. Three. And I'm about to give up and throw myself at your mercy. The padre advises that I choose another course of action, naturally, but he doesn't understand what it's like when desire takes hold of you so completely.

You told him about... your feelings? he ended lamely, amazed at her audacity to bring the situation up to the priest at all. About all of them? He himself had mentioned no names and been quite vague during his own confessions that took place in the dark of night.

My sentiments for you are rather well-known, she admitted ruefully. I didn't see the point in hiding anything.

His arms got tighter, if that was possible, and he lay his cheek on the top of her head. That's what I love about you; your audacity.

Victoria paused right in the middle of her answering endearment. It was the first time he had ever mentioned loving anything about her. Did that mean...?

Unable to even complete her thought, Victoria still commented, You've never said that word before!

He sighed a loving sigh. I know, and I shouldn't now, but anybody who feels like I do needs to say it, and say it often. Even the bandits with a price on their heads. Zorro laughed at himself again, then went on, I'll say it now; I love the way your hair sparks when you're angry, I love the way you always defend the helpless, I love the way you walk and talk, and too many other things to mention. I guess I just love you.

Astonished at his admittance, she was simultaneously warmed by his words. A glow suffused her when he spoke of loving her. She understood that to admit to such feelings was tantamount to him admitting his identity.

Seeming to be thinking on the same subject, he said, And I'm not about to give away my... Zorro paused, and Victoria could tell that he had a sudden idea just by the way he was standing.

What are you thinking?

Zorro held up a gloved finger for an accommodating silence even before she was done speaking. Then he took hold of her shoulders and gazed at her in love and determination. Victoria, I'm going to suggest something that's rather revolutionary, but I don't want to frighten you in any way.

She looked up at him, a wrinkle from her frown growing between her brows. All right. I'm listening.

Instead of speaking, he sighed and looked into the dying fire. A coolness was settling over the room, and he knew it was getting late. He felt the urge to hurry.

Victoria, what do you think... Are you open to... I mean to say, what I'm thinking is...

Just say it.

This idea is so incredible that it's hard to put it into words, he said, trying to explain his stumbling. All right, he said after gathering himself. Let's get married tonight, and then there won't be a problem anymore. What do you think?

Married? Victoria blurted loudly, unable to hold the sentiment back in her surprise. Tonight?

Shhh, or your boarders will hear.

She glanced furtively around the kitchen, as if those boarders would be in the very same room as she was just by the draw of her voice. But won't you have to reveal your identity? she asked much more softly, though the incredulity was clear on her face.

Yes, he answered simply. But I'm ready for the subterfuge to end, I think. I find myself again and again wanting to be more open when I'm around you. I want to hold you and kiss your head and touch your cheek - but I dare not give myself away, or I'll hang for sure. On the other hand, I'll explode if I don't do something about my emotions, and soon. I'm begging you, Victoria, to at least think about it. But I don't have much more time that I can stay here. I'm placing you in too much danger as it is.

Victoria had to laugh at that, though she sounded as frightened as amused. In other words, think, but think fast.

He could always count on her to find the humor in any situation, even one so inherently dangerous as this.

All right, she said.

You've come to a decision?

I've already told you; all right, let's get married tonight. Right now.

It was what he wanted, more than anything, yet he cautioned, But you won't know who you're marrying until right before the ceremony starts. It's not like the engagement; this changes everything. I can't reveal who I am any sooner; it's too dangerous.

She swallowed noisily, fearful, but went on with resolve, I said all right, and I meant it. I also said that I love the real you when you proposed, and... and I meant that, too.

What if you're disappointed?

Victoria was silent for a moment, considering such a dilemma. Then I guess I don't feel what I think I feel and I'll call it off. It won't be the first time I've called off a wedding, you know.

I do know, and that's what frightens me, he admitted. But for good measure, he kissed her, knowing what she had agreed to do for him, letting a small amount of his deep emotions show again, but he dare not let loose too soon, or he would be in more trouble than simply having some unwanted feelings. Now hurry upstairs and get your ring, he told her, distracted already, looking at the quickly dying fire instead of at her.

She paused. How do you know I keep it in my room?

How? He grinned arrogantly at her, and touched her cheek briefly, all the while wondering how on Earth he was going to tell his father. I'm Zorro, that's how. Now hurry. We have to wake the padre first.

Victoria ran up to her room and was back in five minutes. She'd changed to something dark and long-sleeved, and was wearing a conspicuously bright ring on her right hand. I'm ready.

Zorro was at the door, peaking out, but all he saw was darkness, even when his eyes adjusted to the lack of light. Bank the fire, he ordered, scared enough at what they intended to do to make his voice sound terse and short. Victoria jumped to rid the room of the fire's pleasing light. Darkness descended immediately. However, he knew that if those guards were still on patrol, this could be the shortest adventure in history. If those guards were still on patrol and shot at them, this could quickly turn from adventure into tragedy.

I'll go first, he cautioned, slipping like the phantom he was out of as small an opening as he could fit through in the doorway. A moment later, when nothing happened, she followed.

They crept from the tavern to the mission, staying in the shadows of the buildings even though it was a moonless night. Victoria kept her hands in her skirt and hid her face with her dark hair. Luckily her hair had grown so much since he met her that it now covered her face and clung to her shoulders. But keeping her face to the wall and her hair over her head were small prices to pay for the secrecy that was required. Still, her heart beat loudly against her ribs, and she was sure that if there were guards, they had heard her a dozen times.

But nothing happened, and Padre Benitez let them slip into the mission church from the back door when Zorro knocked lightly on its scarred wood.

The padre was clearly amazed when Zorro made their request, but not so amazed that he couldn't have guessed he would be seeing them sometime in the middle of the night. His demeanor showed that he had expected this all along. Still, just for good measure, he protested, But, a wedding so quickly? This is unheard of!

Victoria spoke. Padre, if you don't marry us right now, I'm afraid we'll break more church laws than you know, and I know that you know quite a few.

My child, responded Padre Benitez in a scandalized tone, what are you suggesting?

Victoria paused, but bravely went on. I'm saying that if you don't marry us right now... well, there might be some sins committed tonight that you don't want to discuss in church on Sunday.

Victoria! The feeling was mutual, but even Zorro was surprised at how honest she was being.

But the padre was pausing in his amazement. I could never encourage sin, he said, half to them and half to himself, sounding like he was trying to be convincing. He looked down, thinking, then looked up again, only to finally settle his eyes on both of them, calculating. You have a ring?

I'm wearing it, replied Victoria. She took it off and gave it to the padre.

He looked at it closely. Very pretty. I seem to remember hearing of a similar one...

Padre, Zorro interrupted, always careful about giving away his identity and searching his fuzzy mind for a distraction. We don't have a witness for the ceremony. I wonder if you can wake Carlos to stand up for us?

Successfully distracted, Padre Benitez closed his fist over the ring. Of course, I'll only be a minute to fetch him. And then, against my better judgment, we can start. With a parting look at Victoria, he hurried into the hallway and on to the back of the mission.

I'm a bundle of nerves, Victoria said when he had gone, shaking her arms in sudden fright when she considered what they were planning to do.

Zorro dropped his gloves, hat, and cape to the front pew and turned to her. Strangely enough, now that they had decided on a course of action, he was very calm, though his nerves tingled each time he thought of the long night still to come after the wedding ceremony. Perhaps I can help with that. Then, without warning, he reached out for her, pulled her in, and kissed her right there in the mission. Victoria would have been shocked herself if he hadn't released the full strength of his emotions for her, flooding her suddenly in waves of desire that quickly awoke a twist of sensation, almost of pain, in her stomach. Her muscles quickly grew warm under his incredible, relaxing hands. He drew back what seemed like too soon and just in time as the padre returned with a tired and stumbling Carlos. Need any more reminders? he whispered.

Stunned by a sensory overload, Victoria only shook her head, forgetting about being nervous. Dazzled, she followed Zorro and the padre to the front of the pews.

Padre Benitez pointed. You stand there, he said to Zorro, then turned to Victoria and indicated the floor, and you stand there.

Wait, said Zorro before the actual ceremony could start. I have to... He turned to Victoria. Are you sure?

Padre Benitez mumbled, It's a little late for that, but Victoria knew Zorro wasn't talking about the wedding.

Are you? she asked.

Silently, Zorro smiled. No, he admitted ruefully, and she saw his fear warring with the remains of the desire that he'd let loose to calm her in that kiss, but he said nothing more. He did sigh, a sound that echoed throughout the church, a sound that conveyed some sadness at losing the identity that he'd protected for so long mixed with a stronger excitement for the future. He kissed each of her palms, then turned to Carlos and the padre.

You also understand that what I'm about to reveal must remain in the strictest confidence, he warned them, and Padre Benitez bristled.

I would never reveal something about someone who has been to Confession! promised Benitez. And you have been to other Confessions?

He had yet to release Victoria's hands, but he wasn't so fazed that he couldn't enigmatically smile at the padre. Many times, for many reasons, said Zorro.

That was more than enough for the padre.

I hunger for justice as much as you do, said Carlos. Then he pointed at the black outfit, a bit wry. I just don't go to the lengths you go through to ensure it.

It would have to be enough. But realize that I'll know where to look if information suddenly finds itself in the wrong hands, and anything goes awry. I can't vouch for my mood if that happens, Zorro warned.

It was a testimony to how much they trusted him that they both nodded, serious in the face of his sudden and not-so-veiled threat.

All right, let's not put this off any longer, said Zorro, while taking a deep breath for courage. Victoria's own nerves were strung so tight that they couldn't jump, or she would surely have had butterflies in her stomach. She was so numb, she couldn't feel anything, not even love for him, as he first squeezed her hand then lifted his arms to the back of his head and slowly untied the knot holding the mask in place.

First one tie, then the other, came undone, and, never once taking his eyes from Victoria, he lifted the loosened mask free to reveal...

An audible gasp escaped Carlos' lips, but the padre was strangely quiet, as if he'd somehow known all along. Even his expression was placid. But not so for Victoria.

Diego? she questioned more calmly than she felt, her nerves settled by the sight of her best friend, then jumping up to fly around again at the same sight. I don't understand.

Diego straightened his flattened hair, combing it back with his fingers, sighed once more, the sound regretful at keeping such a secret from her, and rubbed her hand with his fingers. Let's just say that I'm much more than you've been led to believe.

I'll second that, whispered Benitez, his gravelly voice sounding harsh in the empty sanctuary.

Diego ignored the padre, his whole being focused on Victoria. He asked in a hushed, anxious voice, Do you still wish to marry me?

Victoria's surprise transmuted suddenly to a blazing smile of... relief? Yes, she answered, and turned towards the priest. Go on.

Vowing to himself that he would ask about her reaction later, Diego tucked the mask into the black sash at his waist, and the priest began.

I hope neither of you will regret this hasty decision, Benitez felt duty-bound to warn, then asked the ancient question, Diego... what's your middle name?

Diego smiled tolerantly. Alejandro, he supplied, and glanced at Victoria.

Diego Alejandro de la Vega, also known as Zorro, he slipped in a little guiltily, then hurried on, do you take Victoria..?

... Rose.

You're kidding? This time it was Diego who interrupted, his tone one of disbelief.

No. It's Rose. Has been all my life. I'm named for my mother, she said quietly.

Diego smiled slowly. How appropriate, he murmured, his meaning secret to everybody but her. He had always left her roses when he could. They grew in abundance in the garden just outside the hacienda.

The padre continued, Do you take Victoria Rose Escalante to be your lawfully wedded wife... At that word, Diego took a deep inhalation of air, and let it slip out noisily in a long hiss that escaped his tight mouth and reverberated around the mission church.

The ceremony went on, somewhat dramatic with all of its 'in sickness and in health's, but Diego found himself enjoying the flair, even though he knew what was coming after the ceremony, perhaps especially because he knew. Padre Benitez kept sticking in his own commentary to personalize the service, and Diego dropped the ring in surprise when the padre muttered, They always come in the middle of the night. Carlos found the ring under the front pew, and the ceremony continued without missing a beat.

Put the ring on her left hand, instructed the padre gravely.

Diego, a self-patronizing smile on his face and a much firmer grip on the ring, slipped it onto Victoria's finger, cognizant of what such a gesture meant, knowing that the change couldn't be undone or banished, even if he wanted it to be. One look at Victoria's face, and he felt sure that he didn't want it to be anything but permanent. He smiled tenderly at her.

She glanced at the ring, and she smiled back.

Diego, repeat after me; with this ring, I thee wed.

His voice thick with emotion, Diego did as he was instructed, and couldn't tear his eyes away from Victoria. If the Alcalde had chosen that moment to attack, Diego couldn't have fought off the onslaught brought against him for anything.

Amazed at how right this felt, to have his mother's property belong to Victoria, Diego gave her hand a squeeze, and she squeezed his back.

Then Diego was suddenly kneeling at the end, taking the communion on his tongue, and the ceremony was over practically before he knew it. It wasn't even as late as he had often stayed out as Zorro. But the emerald ring sparkled in the candlelight on Victoria's left hand, and its significance wasn't lost on Diego. Cold or emotion or something he had yet to read about stirred in his blood, and a shiver coursed through him when he stood again to conclude the ceremony. Married.

Padre Benitez's gruff voice quietly intoned, I now pronounce you husband and wife. I think you have the 'you may kiss the bride,' part down sufficiently, and he looked them over like he knew something they did not. As for me, I'm going back to bed. I'm not so used to these late nights as you are. Oh, the registry. He turned, gathered a book from the altar table, and whirled back to them. Again, he pointed. Sign here, the padre commanded, and he indicated the next line that was free. Diego wrote his name, then, with a quiver of excitement, handed the quill to Victoria. She signed next to his name, and Padre Benitez snapped the book shut and took the quill. He turned to Carlos. Gracias, Carlos. You can return to bed now. Morning comes early... for some of us. He disappeared, followed by Carlos, into the hallway leading to the friars' cells, but he might as well not even have glanced at the two he had just married. Diego and Victoria had eyes only for one another.

Diego smiled and took Victoria's hand. He felt enormous, astonished love for her, but he also felt nervous, too, overwhelmed with the knowledge that he was now married. Father will be happy, he finally said, thinking about those grandchildren his father always wanted to have, thinking about how he was to get those grandchildren for his father. Suddenly his face turned bright red; married, he comprehended, and to Victoria. It was one of his most desired dreams in the world. The comprehension of that dream pushed him to say, You were very brave to agree to marry someone you didn't even know. For a moment he marveled at her; her trust in him must have been tremendous to even consider marriage.

But I did know you, Victoria managed to protest softly. You're the man behind the mask, the most courageous man I know. My best friend, watching over me even when you didn't have to wear the mask. And now you're the husband of Victoria Escalante, and I couldn't be happier about that.

He kissed her hand, not knowing what else to do, and fire sparked.

Diego lay his cheek to her hair and ran his hand up and down her back. Mi preciosa, he whispered, his eyes closed. My Victoria. My wife. Then his lips were on hers, and they were both prominently reminded of why they had chosen to do this in the first place. The last obstacle had been overcome, and the barriers were down. The desire rose immediately to swamp them both in previously inexperienced emotion. Victoria would have been content with the sanctuary floor at that point.

Before the desire could take complete control, Diego pulled back and said, Wait for a moment. Until we reach home. A hand on her cheek, he strove for the control he was known for. Not bothering to hide his true intentions, he replaced his clothing and led her quickly out of the mission to skirt the pueblo's buildings. He pulled her back just in time to avoid the patrolling guards at the tavern, his heart pounding, half in fear at the near miss and half in anticipation. He whistled for Toronado when he was certain they were out of hearing range, and seemed calm and coherent as the huge, black horse swiftly carried them back to the cave. But Victoria must have felt his pounding heart against her back, and drawn her own conclusions as to the reason for that increased heartbeat. He was usually so controlled that a fast heart rate was very noticeable, and their nerves tightened just a little bit further, their emotions grew just a little bit more, as the horse ate up the two mile trek like it was nothing.

They reached the cave sooner than he thought possible, and Zorro knew that his feeling for haste must have communicated itself to the animal, or else he was just hungry for the hay he started eating the minute they arrived in his stall.

Zorro climbed down. I'll untack later, he promised, and Victoria slid flirtatiously into his arms as if she was made to fit there, but her kiss to his shoulder was urgent, impassioned, flaming. The mask was removed with haste as Diego sought out and found her mouth, devouring it and her in his sudden need. He wanted to touch her everywhere, and now even the church sanctioned such an action. Such information was exhilarating. With both hands to the sides of her head, he kissed her slowly, but passionately, like he had never kissed her before.

The pressure building inside each of them forced him to lead her from the cave, through the library, down the hall, and to the room that would become theirs in the many months ahead, Victoria gaping at her discoveries about her hero, but too intent on their destination to say anything. The room was cold and empty at first, and Diego halted long enough to light the fire that the servants had been thoughtful enough to lay in the grate. He continued to notice little things like this, but he noted Victoria's unqualified acceptance of the man beneath the mask the most, and that comprehension acted as a fire of its own.

She came to him as he was still kneeling by the fireplace, finding his lips as her knees found his rug. Victoria pushed into him in necessity, and threaded her fingers in the hair on the back of his head for the first time. It was intoxicating. She kissed his cheeks, his neck, the open part of his chest, her fingers lazily skipping down the few buttons of his black shirt, undoing with ease that which he had done up only hours earlier. It was wonderful to kiss the skin set free from the shirt and know that the belief system she had been raised with didn't look down on this action, and knowing that it wouldn't have stopped her if it did. The shirt slid down his arms without any prodding from either of them.

Diego thought he was going to faint or die or something every time Victoria's lips touched on his willing nerves. His tongue tasted hers, and he could no longer resist the magnetic pull of his own desires; no longer delicate or careful, he pulled her blouse from her skirt and yanked it over her head, then drew off her corset as well, leaving her chest unconfined to brush against his, and he thought he was going to explode with the new sensation. Nerve-endings never before awakened jumped to life just from the pass of her fingertips, and he fulfilled a frequent dream when he pressed his face to her breasts, feeling their softness as sweat broke out to glisten on his skin.

He kissed her stomach, casting frenzied, unrelenting circles around her bellybutton, then pushed at her skirt, feeling hurried to divest her of the rest of her clothes as he felt the same about his. Boots, trousers, skirt, undergarments, were carefully placed beside the bed, away from the consuming flames of the fire. A heat of their own bounded to life, something they had never felt before, as they stumbled to the bed, not bothering with the coverlet, yearning to complete this act of lovemaking, yet wanting to make the exploration of each other last. The confusion twisted and urged that exploration, and side by side they tasted the incredibleness they could offer as their blood poured inexorably through their veins and tingles rushed through their nerves anew. Their harsh breathing was the only sound in the room as finally Diego was forced to lay on top of her, his arms wrapped tightly around her. She took on his whole weight, enveloping him with her legs, eyes clouded by unfulfilled emotion. Then, unable to deny her natural heat any longer, he joined with her in necessary culmination of this inevitable end to that original passion.

Victoria hissed, and grew tense as the pain of the first time threatened to overtake her, but Diego kissed her again, deepening the kiss even as he moved deeper inside her. She pressed her head deep into the coverlet, bringing her hips up to him, tightening her muscles as sounds that she couldn't hold back exploded out of her mouth in long denied passion. With no warning, she began to shiver and shake against him, and he felt himself rushing ahead to a chasm that had suddenly opened up, ready to leap off the edge of it as he was abruptly consumed by blinding flashes of light. He closed his eyes and groaned audibly into her hair, holding on to her so firmly that at any other time, he could have easily broken her like a twig. She was his only link to the real world when the sensation of drowning overwhelmed him and the feeling of exquisite, almost painful pleasure ripped through him as he was lost, deep inside her, exactly where he wanted to be.

He lay over her, breathing hard, almost hyperventilating, feeling the tingles that rushed over his body, noticing how Victoria's hand was held to her forehead. Are you all right? he whispered as she let her hand drop and kissed him.

The kiss was slow, languid, and full of love. Will I get to see you tomorrow night? she asked in answer to his question, and he laughed at her enthusiasm.

I hope so, he whispered, wanting to be with her always, wanting to be free around her at all times, wanting to do nothing but show her the depth of his affections and knowing that the next day he would be forced to treat her without affection again, like always. The wedding hadn't changed that. But at least now he wasn't also fighting himself at the same time. It was a small consolation in the face of so much loss. Let's get some sleep and we can talk about it in the morning when we have cooler heads, he suggested, and they curled up under the covers, in each other's possessive arms, and fell asleep.

I just want you to know that you're the first person who I've ever forgotten to unsaddle and rub down Toronado for, Diego said conversationally the next morning, as the horse Victoria had chosen for herself sidled up to Esperanza, who was much calmer on this familiar ride to Los Angeles. A nip and a nudge pushed her horse on the right behavioral path, but it did nothing to jar loose her hold on Diego's hand in the space between the two horses. She squeezed his fingers, then settled to a more comfortable position on the horse.

What are we going to do? asked Victoria.

Diego didn't miss her little movement. Sore? he asked, instead of answering her more important question.

She nodded, being honest. A little.

Me, too. Diego wiggled then against his saddle, finally allowed to display his own discomfort now that she had admitted to hers. She looked over at him as the first rays of the rising sun highlighted his hair to a deep black. It wasn't unlike the mask he wore to cover that hair and hide who he really was.

She is so beautiful, Diego thought, the light illuminating her as she faced it and him, and he couldn't believe what she had done for him, given him, the night before. She had done much more than marry him. She had trusted him to the core of her being by allowing herself to say the vows that Padre Benitez had uttered. And not once did she hesitate when it had been time for her to repeat those vows after him, like she had the previous time at the altar. He could almost feel sorry for Juan Ortiz for not winning such a wonderful prize. She was so sure of herself, of her heart. Even while Diego was amazed at such self-possession, he wished he could know that emotion for himself.

He pulled his horse to a stop, and she was forced to stop also or let go, and since she refused to release him, she stopped, too.

What is it? What's wrong? she asked.

He shrugged. I just want to stare at you, admire you, marvel at you. Soon you'll be at the tavern again and no longer just mine. I want to look openly while I still can. He stared at her, and understood how two people could get so caught up in each other.

Suddenly she pulled up on her horse's head and announced, Marrying you was the best thing I ever did.

Just as abruptly, Diego also pulled up on the reins and patted Esperanza absentmindedly between her ears. His voice was serious, though, and plagued with hesitancy. Victoria, there's something I've been wanting to ask you, a personal question that's been nagging me.

She raised her eyebrows, intrigued. Go ahead, she invited.

He smiled, a little shy now. Esperanza knickered lightly, and for a second or two Diego could pretend that he had her to deal with. The horse moved closer to Victoria's mount of her own accord, saving Diego from the necessity of doing so. But he was still glad to be so near her. Full of trepidation, his heart clearly displayed in his blue eyes, he said, Two things, really. Then I won't ask again, though I will probably always doubt what you say, because I'm naturally a doubting man. It's kept me alive all these years...

She understood his inner yearning toward hesitancy, but... Diego, just say it.

All right. I have to know: who'd you marry last night, Diego or Zorro, and why did you look so relieved when I first took off my mask?

She smiled a little smile. Instead of answering him, she asked a question of her own. Diego, do you remember that first day we met, when you rescued me from that soldier I had dumped lemonade on?

Not comprehending what this had to do with anything under discussion, Diego nevertheless said, That day has been engraved in my heart for eternity.

Victoria's smile grew at that reply. I could have easily fallen in love with you then, just because you were you. That was so amazing, being delivered so quickly, and from a man of the government. A small smile continued to light her face as she remembered. You were magnificent.

I didn't know what I was getting into.

She couldn't tell if he meant that he didn't know how strong the government was at the time in Los Angeles, or if he didn't know about his future creation of Zorro. But she said, I don't know the real you yet, however, I suspect I saw it on that day. It's been hidden ever since, to avoid suspicion. Still, you couldn't quite stay away, and I saw the timid Diego every day, and every day you fooled me, and didn't fool me at the same time. I saw you watching me.

And I thought I was so discreet, Diego groused under his breath.

You were, Victoria protested, to everybody but me. Yet I saw it. I knew. You were in love with me.

Diego was slightly incensed about his secret. If you knew, how does everybody not know?

Victoria shrugged apologetically. I'm a woman. What woman doesn't want a man to be in love with her? At first, I felt pulled to you like a magnet. But Zorro came along, you seemed to change, and I publicly fell in love with Zorro, though I always saved a tiny bit of my heart for you. I didn't understand those feelings until Zorro unmasked at the wedding, and it turned out to be you, a man I have everything in common with. A man I can spend the rest of my life with. I was so relieved it was you and not someone I didn't know at all. She looked down, at her saddle, then away, off towards the pueblo and her memories. To already be a little in love with you was irresistible.

Diego was frightened to ask, dreading the answer, And now?

Now I'm a lot in love with you, she replied in a whisper.

Diego followed her lead, whispering as well. And you married?

She looked at him. You.

The knowledge was almost overwhelming to Diego, who had wondered, but been too scared to ask. Diego could only stare at her in amazement. Suddenly an idea hit him like a tile falling on his head. I want to court you, in the open, so everybody can see my true feelings. Do you think I have a chance against El Zorro's affections?

He was being serious. Victoria could tell by the intensity of his blue eyes. I think you have a good chance to win me away, she confided. Like you've won my heart, she whispered, her gaze now as fierce as his. Louder, she said, You are my best friend. You are my husband, my lover. She smiled shyly, remembering. I think you have a good chance of success.

That's all she would say on the subject as she urged their horses forward. But she squeezed his hand again, her ring sending off flashes in the early morning sunlight. She looked composed, serene in the shimmering early morning air. She smiled, and sighed, content, though a little embarrassed by the obvious worship on his face. She nevertheless squeezed his fingers again. Court me, quickly. So we can get on with our lives. I want the world to know that I can wake up to your handsome face every day.

Amazing, isn't it? All right, I will. That idea used to scare me to death, but now it only makes me feel excited to start.

Scare you? She laughed. Whatever for?

Because I'm just Diego and you're Victoria Escalante, the heartthrob of Zorro.

No, I'm Victoria de la Vega, wife of Don Diego, the bravest man in the pueblo. Victoria pulled their horses to a stop again, glanced around to see if anyone was looking, then leaned over to kiss him in an endearment that sent his mind spinning. She drew her lips away first, then her hand from his cheek.

Diego sighed. How do you do that?

Do what?

Melt my insides like so much hot cheese.

She only laughed again, and started off at a trot, eager to meet the day so night would hurry to bring him back to her. Oh, she said, remembering. It's time to tell your father, too.

Diego didn't have to ask what he should tell his father about. That might be difficult.

More difficult then telling me? I doubt it. Tell him, and we will see his pride in his son climb to the highest heights, she predicted.

That's what worries me, Diego said, a dark thundercloud of concern suddenly shrouding his forehead.

You don't think he can hide the truth?

I don't think he'll want to hide the truth. Diego could envision it easily; his charged father, gloating to his friends in the tavern that his son was Zorro, the man they all admired so much. He grimaced at the picture. Don't you think the status quo has a certain appeal?

Victoria snorted. If you like disrespect and criticism. She looked across to him. You have to tell him.

Diego sighed sadly. I know. The mighty Zorro, killed by loving too well.

Victoria smiled at that statement. There are worse ways to go.

I can think of some that are better, Diego said.

Victoria looked at him. If you don't tell him, today, at breakfast, I'll... I'll...

You'll what?

I'm thinking, she said, unable to think of something bad enough. Just tell him. I don't want to hear his disrespectful comments again.

You know about that?

The whole pueblo knows about that.

This information was certainly new judging by the surprise on his face. I thought I was the only one who felt shot down by his commentary.

She shook her head. Oh, no. At least, everyone who comes in to the tavern knows.

And that's about everybody in town, he groused, suddenly feeling very public. You and Padre Benitez; you know just about everybody.

She grinned. That's what happens when you marry someone who owns a tavern. Now be quiet, the pueblo is just up ahead, and I don't want anyone to hear us.

Coming up through the grass that grew behind the tavern, Victoria slipped off her horse and silently crept through the back door. Diego watched her go, resentment at her ownership slamming his aggrieved heart. Then he grinned; he was jealous of a tavern.

Amused at himself, he gathered the reins of the waiting horse. He vowed that he would collect her and gather her in his arms as soon as he could.

Quietly, somberly, he guided the two horses back to the hacienda and untacked, slipping through the front door just as his father sat down at the table for breakfast.

Ah, Diego, up all night working on one of your experiments, I see, grunted Alejandro, a hint of disdain in his tone.

No, answered Diego slowly, his mind on Victoria's last request. His wife's last request, Diego reminded himself. Could he possibly deny such a thing? I was out riding.

Alejandro was clearly surprised. Well, well, you seem to have become the son of a ranchero overnight.

Diego blushed at the reference to the night and its activities. Then he recalled how much he had enjoyed those activities, and he wouldn't let himself feel embarrassed anymore. He turned to face Alejandro. Father, I need to talk to you.

Well, Alejandro said, not even remotely suspecting what his son planned to impart. Pull up a chair. Share some breakfast. Talk and food have always made good bed fellows.

Diego blushed again at his father's innocent reference, but schooled his face to show only blankness. However, he couldn't resist his humor. That's not all it makes, he murmured under his breath, all the while knowing that half-muttered jokes wouldn't help him. He stared at his father in cold calculation. Could his father keep such a secret?

Alejandro didn't miss the expression aimed his way. Out with it, Son. What'd you do this time?

It was easier than Diego thought. Victoria and I got married last night. And I'm Zorro.

Don Alejandro sat in stunned silence for a full minute, probably the longest he had been quiet since Diego's mother had died. He couldn't have been more stunned if Diego told him that Spain had sold California. You what?

His voice low for his father's ears only, Diego repeated, I married Victoria and I'm Zorro.

Alejandro's own voice wasn't so low. Are you joking? he bellowed, and even the most deaf servant could have heard.

Diego looked around, nervous. Father, please, he said, then offered, Shall I show you the cave where Zorro did the proposing and keeps his sword?

His proposing? Alejandro slowly came to himself. He deliberately folded his linen napkin and laid it beside his clean plate. You're serious?

Oh, yes, Diego assured. I just returned from taking Victoria back to the tavern. She told me to tell you or else. Diego smiled affectionately at the memory.

Or else what?

The smile grew. She didn't elaborate, but I don't want to test my luck. So I'm telling you. Finally.

Alejandro linked his fingers together over the empty plate. How did you manage to tell Victoria?

Remembering the emotions that drove him to confide in her, Diego said only, I unmasked before the wedding ceremony.

Alejandro blew out his breath in dumfoundedness. Can I ask what you plan to do now?

I plan to court her, informed Diego. Properly. Publicly. Then have a very big, very public wedding, where afterwards I'll bring her home and make passionate love to her.

Diego!

Well, you asked. His innate humor couldn't be denied completely.

Alejandro had a look on his face that bespoke his utter amazement at this news. Amazement and astonishment. I think I'll saddle a horse for a ride myself.

Diego half rose. Do you want me to come with you, Father?

No. I need to think. Alone. You stay here and eat. You must be hungry. Or something.

Diego would have laughed if the situation hadn't been so serious. He didn't think he'd ever seen his father so flummoxed before. But he didn't laugh, or even grin. The situation was too serious for either gesture. As you wish. Actually, I am quite hungry. Having intimate relations with Victoria apparently raised his appetite, among other things. Diego groaned at the thought.

Alejandro shuffled through the front door even as the food arrived via a sleepy Felipe. Seeing the servant cast a pall on Diego's mind; he hadn't thought of Felipe since sending him to bed the night before. Guiltily, he said, Felipe, I need to talk to you. Not scold you, talk to you, he emphasized. Can you meet me in the library in half an hour? That should be long enough for me to finish breakfast. Did you get something to eat? At the young man's shake of his head, Diego pointed at Don Alejandro's plate. Sit down, please. Somehow I don't think my father's coming back for breakfast.


They found out what life was going to be like with Zorro in the family exactly one month later.

Zorro was in Los Angeles to protest the Alcalde's newest tax on entertainment in the pueblo. Victoria recognized him as the man she spent her nights with, but she didn't give away his secret as she watched his antics from her tavern's porch. She would have been worried, her heart in her throat, but he was so good at defeating and embarrassing the lancers that she almost laughed instead.

Until, the fun over and the crowd cheering, Alcalde DeSoto raised his pistol at a retreating Zorro's back and fired.

Before a stunned crowd of cheering supporters, Zorro was flung forward onto Toronado's neck. He didn't get up.

No! yelled an alarmed Victoria as she jumped from the porch to the plaza dust, watching in horror as her husband's horse continued out of town at a fast gallop, frightened by the loud noise and the sudden additional weight on his neck.

Victoria watched the world narrow into a tunnel of numbness for her, and she heard the Alcalde's chuckle through the melee.

I've finally done it! DeSoto exclaimed to his men. I've finally wounded Zorro! And that was no little prick with a sword, that was a fatal wound if I've ever seen one.

Had she married him only to lose him so soon? Were they destined to have so little time together? Victoria felt the tunnel open up, and the world spun around her. She fainted right there in the plaza, and for once there was no Diego to catch her. She crumpled to the dirt where she stood.


Regaining consciousness a few minutes later was agonizing, as Victoria remembered everything she had witnessed. The distress and despair was almost all-consuming. Right away, she wondered if Diego was dead, and she realized that she couldn't go to him if he wasn't until that night, after the tavern closed. Seeing him, rushing off to take care of him, would lead the Alcalde and his men straight to the masked man.

Stay here until you feel better, commented the kind voice of Dr. Hernandez and it was all she could do to clamp down on her urgency and not ask him why he was bothering with her and not Zorro. But the doctor couldn't see to Zorro; seeing to the wounded man would be paramount to unmasking him, and would mean certain death on the Alcalde's gallows. Zorro might be suffering from a gunshot wound, but to treat him meant hanging at dawn.

Silently, she hoped Don Alejandro and Felipe were up to removing a bullet by themselves.

Rest, Seņorita. That's the best thing I can prescribe. Dr. Hernandez kindly patted Victoria's arm, and then left the upstairs room.

How had she gotten to her bedroom?

Sitting up made her feel better, though the worry consumed her even then. But she had to act like she had nowhere else to be, like she could offer no warming hand, no hope. In thirty minutes, she was back to tending the tavern, terrified, but hiding her feelings from her customers. Then Don Alejandro sauntered in.

He walked in like he didn't have a care in the world, like he was just at the tavern for dinner and didn't know about the afternoon's events. Except Victoria knew he did care, and that his world could have crashed in that day.

She sat at the table he chose, the action so common that it excited no interest; she often sat for a moment with the de la Vegas to catch up on news around the pueblo.

Her face frozen to a look of unconcern, she immediately whispered, How is he?

The don didn't say anything, but she felt a piece of paper pressed into her hand under the table. She slipped it into her sash, none too soon, as the Alcalde and Sergeant Mendoza entered the establishment. They walked immediately to their table.

Have you heard? DeSoto asked right away to an astonished and confused don. Victoria was impressed by Alejandro's untried acting skills.

About what? asked Alejandro.

I shot Zorro, that 'hero' of the pueblo, said the Alcalde, being particularly sarcastic on the word 'hero.' It's only a matter of time until we have him now. I just have to look for a wounded man.

New fear shot through Victoria; she hadn't thought of that. But Alejandro kept his head. Shot Zorro? That's a lie. Nobody shoots Zorro!

DeSoto barked a laugh. Tell that to him as he bleeds to death somewhere alone on the way to his hideout.

That image was too much for Victoria. Toronado would take him to safety, she staunchly replied.

That horse? The Alcalde laughed again and smoothed his goatee with his fingers. Toronado is half wild, and he may be fast, but he'll never know to return to the hideout without guidance. No, Zorro has outsmarted himself this time. There was a sick smile on his face.

Victoria could take no more jibes. Pushing the bench back in haste, she stood and spat, I refuse to listen to any more of your lies. Get out of my tavern.

As an answer to her obvious defense, the Alcalde turned his glee on her. Lies, are they? Seen any good dust mites lately, Seņorita? he asked, particularly malicious, referring to her fainting scene earlier in the plaza. He moved outside with a laugh, and it was up to Mendoza to mutter an apology.

I'm sorry, Seņorita, he said, aware of the terrible slur his superior had just said to her. But he followed that superior without a word.

Don Alejandro and Victoria could only watch him go, their blood boiling at the unjustness of it all, knowing that they would be no help to Diego if they got themselves arrested. Alejandro muttered, If it weren't for Diego...

Victoria resumed her seat, trying to appear peaceful. I know, Don Alejandro, but we must remain calm. It was a pity she sounded calmer than she felt.

Abruptly, Don Alejandro rose to leave. Apparently he had ridden into town only to deliver that piece of paper to her, and now that his duty was done, he wanted to return to his son. Victoria hoped he still had a son to return to. She rose, too, and entered her kitchen, looking like she wanted to check on supper, but in reality she wanted to read her message.

She pulled the scrap from her sash. Her hands shook while she read it:

Don't panic.

Don't come. You might be followed.

I love you.

Underneath the uneven script clearly written by Diego's left hand were more words written in a different hand, Alejandro's, probably:

One hour later: Bullet's out. He's unconscious, but alive.

That was it, but it was the world to Victoria. She now knew what was happening, that she still had hope, even small hope.

Victoria stared at the scrap of paper in her hand. Though no names were mentioned anywhere in the message, the paper should be burned, as it gave proof to anybody paying attention, most notably to the Alcalde, that Zorro was obviously still alive.

With burning in mind, she read the message through three more times, committed it to memory, then threw it onto her daily fire in the kitchen fireplace. The paper curled, burst into flame, then disappeared as the fire ate through its fibers with ease.

She wished she could return to the hacienda with equal ease, but that wasn't likely. No one knew that was where she now lived except her, and rushing off would be sure to kill Zorro.

Suddenly, an idea burst into her brain in a flash of light, like the fire she was staring at. Kill Zorro. Diego had said something about love killing Zorro only a few weeks ago. Now he was shot, in the back, almost dead himself. Diego would die yet if infection settled into his wound to eat through the flesh despite Don Alejandro's and Felipe's best efforts to keep it out.

Kill Zorro, thought Victoria, and she let the idea percolate as she went about refilling her customer's drink glasses.

Somehow she got through the rest of that long day, and closed the tavern doors with relief at eleven o'clock. She rushed up to her room, put on her wedding ring, and changed clothes to something dark. It was time to ride to the hacienda. She couldn't stand the suspense a minute longer.

But before she opened her back door, she happened to glance out her window, and saw the glint of a patrolling lancer's sword in the dying firelight casting about through her window. The tavern was being watched. She hadn't counted on that. Victoria supposed the stables also had a 'guard' for the night. She stopped still in her tracks, one hand already on the back doorknob, prepared to pull it open.

Fortunately, that hand hesitated. What should she do?

Light. She had to get rid of the light if she didn't want to be seen.

Rapidly, her mind jumping ahead, Victoria banked the kitchen fire for the night. She had two choices now: she could wait out the lancers, but they might not leave until morning, or she could escape the tavern without being seen.

It wasn't much of a choice to Victoria. She had waited for this moment half the day, and she was determined that a few lancers wouldn't keep her from it. Her mind turned numbingly to her recent idea, and so she wouldn't think about what she was doing, she felt her way up the stairs and to her room. There, with no light to help her from the plaza, and no moon, she felt in her wardrobe for the thin rope that Zorro had insisted well over a year ago that she keep: Zorro had too many enemies not to be prepared for the worst. After tying it as tight as she could to her bedpost, she carefully opened her window and looked out.

No lancer guarded this exit, at least that she could see, and for that she was grateful. If she was caught and jailed while trying to escape her own tavern, she would know that it was for a good cause. That was little comfort. Awkwardly, trying to be as quiet as she could, she prayed that the rope wouldn't break and lowered herself to the ground. Once behind her tavern, she let the grass of summer swallow her up as she crouched and half ran through the tall stems. No lancer apprehended her, and no lancer even stopped her as she hurried towards the road, muffling her breathing with her skirt as she went. The glint of that lancer's sword told her she needed to keep all light from her ring. Determined, she shoved it in her sash to be put on later.

But she had little to worry about as no lancer approached her dark form. Now all she had to do was walk two miles to the de la Vega hacienda. It shouldn't take her long, and she had several thoughts to keep her company.

Unfortunately, her mind seemed to fixate on a dead Diego, and her worries stayed with her throughout most of the nerve-racking journey. The walk took her over half an hour, and there were blisters forming on her right foot when she drew near the sprawling house, only to be deterred again by the sudden appearance of a lancer on patrol. Don Alejandro had been too vocal of a supporter of Zorro in the past for his hacienda not to be staked out at a time like this.

But nobody thought to watch Diego's room, and his habits were known to be so erratic that lights in his room at odd hours of the night would not draw much attention. Victoria skirted through the grass until she was inside the protecting wall, cautious to a fault, as Diego had been teaching her, crawling on hands and knees to his bedroom window. Their bedroom window, she corrected herself, all the while knowing that a distracted mind led only to capture. Refocusing, she quietly slid the shutters aside and carefully opened the window.

She had been so quiet that Felipe, who was on watch and asleep in the chair beside Diego's bed, didn't even stir as she looked for the first time at her wounded husband.

She wished she hadn't looked. Right away she noticed that he lay on his stomach and his skin was a pallid color, pasty and white, attributed to the blood loss he had suffered during his ride to the hacienda, no doubt. A thick bandage, stained red, was already affixed to his shoulder, and blood was slowly seeping out the corners to trickle irritatingly down his skin. Dark hair, uncombed, flung across his forehead, hung in strands that surely must itch his dirty face. Blood stains had dried onto that skin, lending him a piratical look in the dim light of the fire. As it was early summer, the room was hot and stuffy.

First thing's first. Victoria threw open the window to air out the room, lit a candle, and banked the fire that gave off way too much heat. Then she smoothed the hair from his forehead, hoping to stave off at least a minor irritation for him. She started when he grabbed her hand and kissed the palm.

I thought you were unconscious, she accused.

I probably will be soon, he answered, then coughed, then shivered, as if from pain. Determined not to let the emotion show on his face, he pressed his head into his pillow and held on to the edge of the bed. I really did it this time, didn't I? he asked weakly, then coughed again.

Don't try to speak, she said, then glanced at the pile of rags beside his bed. I'm going to find some water, then change your bandage. This one's leaking. We can talk later.

A trip to the kitchen gave her the water that she needed, and she brought back an extra pitcher of it to pour in what she suspected was an already full wash basin in the room. The pink, swirling water that confirmed her suspicions and sent her stomach to churning was quickly disposed of out the back door, and the bowl refilled with the fresh, clean water ready to use in case of an emergency, which wasn't unlikely in the given situation. First, she washed all the grime off his face. Then she went about the task of changing his bandage.

Halfway through, he grabbed at her hand again, kissed her palm, and muttered through clenched teeth, I don't know how you got here, but I'm glad you did. This speech was followed by more coughing, after which his unconscious form settled more firmly into the sheets. It appeared that changing his bandage was too much for him to cope with at this time.

Smoothing his hair back again, Victoria finished pulling the old bandage away and caught her breath at the sight of the angry, red bullet hole under the white bandage. Still seeping blood, the ragged hole burned through his shoulder blade and stopped only inches from his right arm. His sword arm. A bandage was little use to keep out infection until that hole clotted and stopped bleeding. Laying new cloths gently across the wound, Victoria did her best to wipe up the extra blood flow and tie the new bandage on with more cloths. Diego didn't stir the entire time, and Victoria knew that he was still mercifully unconscious. Having a cloth so close to the wound would have been terribly painful.

Knowing that she would get little if any sleep that night, Victoria returned to her interrupted idea, the idea of letting Zorro die of this gunshot wound. Not Diego, Zorro. How much displeasure and anger did she risk in allowing that flight from the pueblo be Zorro's last battle? Then again, what could Diego do while in this shape, trapped in his bed by a shoulder wound that could truly kill him yet? And if she ever wanted a normal life with the man she loved, did she have much of a choice?

Zorro had once told her that he always chose life, and for Diego to have a life, Zorro must die. Enough sacrifices had been made in the cause of justice. Victoria didn't want to have to sneak to the hacienda again just to visit her wounded husband. She preferred to act normal, to ride a horse to the tavern when she wanted, to return to the hacienda in the evening, to enjoy being married while she was still fairly young, not when Diego decided to end his fight for justice. What if his fight never ended? Were her dreams of normality the price they would have to pay?

Wishing she could tell Diego of her plan, Victoria made her decision alone anyway and moved to sit down more comfortably on the floor. She refused to go through this nightmare again, and if Zorro was allowed to live, she might be forced through many gunshot wounds. Diego didn't wake again, and Victoria tried to steel her mind as best she could for the possibility that he might never wake up, and be gone to her by morning, no matter what they decided to do about Zorro. She needn't have worried.

An hour before her planned departure, Diego stirred and his eyelids fluttered open. Instantly his eyes squeezed shut against the pain, but he was conscious, gloriously conscious, and there was miraculously no infection as Victoria prepared to change his bandage one last time before waking Alejandro at that indecent hour. They had a hero to kill, and she needed Alejandro's help to do it. Diego was not to know until it was too late to do anything about it.

Still spread out like he was on his stomach, there wasn't much movement he was capable of. Yet he grabbed weakly at her hand, and tiredly kissed her palm again. It was amazing how alluring that action could be when passion was behind it. Clearly that pistol ball had not done much to change Diego's emotions. Hey, he whispered, the loudest voice he was capable of at the moment.

Hey, yourself. How do you feel?

Like a wagon ran over me.

I'm not surprised.

Victoria, it's almost light - you need to go.

That was Diego - always concerned about someone else. Victoria was more determined than ever to carry out her plan.

Don't worry; I'll go. First I'm going to change your bandage one last time before I turn you over to your father and Felipe.

How can I help to recover when under your gentle touch? More coughing ruined the romantic effect of his words.

She smiled. You always say the sweetest things. Now let me rush you on your recovery. I did a lot of thinking last night. Victoria dampened her natural urge to snort in derision; she had done nothing but think, and that was most of her problem. Thinking and counting. And it may be too early to be sure, though it's a good guess, what with making love every day for a month, but I think you're going to be a father.

Diego was unmoving for a moment as the new information sank in. What? Are you sure?

No. But you can spend all your free hours today contemplating names, just to be on the safe side.

Isn't it a little early for babies? he asked next, helpless.

Yes, it's early, but not unheard of. Now, 'Alfonso' was my father's name; how about that for a boy? And 'Felice' for a girl? What do you think?

Diego gave a laugh, somewhere between incredulity and amazement. I think I'd better not die of a pistol wound, that's what I think.

You're right, said Victoria, purposefully giving him something to think about in the long hours ahead. Her relief at his waking could wait. Right now he needed to be surrounded by strength, not hysterical females, though right then Victoria felt like crying. Funny, she hadn't even cried at the sight of his shooting. You'd better not die. I don't want to be a widow just yet.

And I have the ranch to run.

That was not a prospect Victoria had thought of. But leave it to Diego to come up with a new worry. Sh! Don Alejandro might hear you say that. And that would truly be a catastrophe, she said, her whispers not quite loud enough to wake the still-sleeping Felipe. Now, I need to change your bandage before I leave. Lie still.

Victoria, are you all right? Do you feel..? Diego began.

Victoria was secretly delighted that he had someone besides himself to worry about. I'm fine, she affirmed soothingly. I've never felt better in my life. She neglected to tell him about her fainting stint in the plaza, or how food recently sent her stomach into upheaval. What he didn't worry about wouldn't kill him.

I love you, you know. He kissed her hand again, brushing his mustache over her fingers.

She giggled, just as helpless as he was. I do know. Now here goes. Be quiet while I do this, or I might jar you needlessly.

Quickly she changed the cloth on his back for a fresh one, then prepared to leave the room to dump the water again, pleased that it was much less pink this time, though it still made her stomach heave and churn. Several deep breathes later, she had just remembered that she had to wake Don Alejandro so they could put her plan into motion that day, when Diego's voice stopped her.

You're touch is so gentle, Seņora, that I wonder if you can make the day go by any faster so you can hurry back tonight?

Amused, she promised, I'll see what I can do. Now why don't you go back to sleep while I get rid of this water? I'll kiss you goodbye before I leave for the day.

But he was already gone to the world, asleep and content while lying against the sheets.

Have you heard? Don Alejandro asked later that day when he walked into her tavern and leaned against her green bar.

What? Victoria asked, coming up beside him in front of the bar, while highly aware of exactly what everyone was eating for lunch in her tavern. Her stomach twisted at the smells. She tried to take deep, even breaths.

Alejandro didn't pretend to soften the blow for her. I just heard. Zorro's dead.

Convincingly enough, Victoria gave in to the smells, and at the news, fainted dead away. Again there was no one to catch her.

She woke to concerned looks from the doctor and Don Alejandro.

I wish I knew why you keep fainting, complained a puzzled Hernandez, who only stared at the wall clock while he took her pulse. She didn't enlighten him.

Victoria still managed some sobs and tears, as she thought of tamales and enchiladas. She gripped Don Alejandro's hand.

It's all right. I'll stay with her, said Alejandro, and Victoria was never so glad of the don's presence. She wanted to ask how the citizens were taking the news.

Alejandro gazed at her out of knowing eyes after Dr. Hernandez left. They're all in shock, he said.

I would be, too, if I didn't know the truth, Victoria whispered and sat up on the side of her bed, taking deep breaths again.

Fainting was a good idea. Very real. You even had me fooled, Alejandro whispered back.

Oh, that was real, she answered with a little laugh.

Alejandro looked at her again out of even more knowledgeable eyes. Victoria, you're not..?

Pregnant? Yes, I'm pretty sure now.

Alejandro blustered, Have you seen Dr. Hernandez?

More than I want to, Victoria quipped.

Alejandro sent a look of irritation at her. You know what I mean. Does Diego know?

She nodded. He does now.

Alejandro paused, then confessed what was on his mind. This could put a little hitch in our plans.

Oh. Victoria hadn't considered that, either. How long have I got until I start to... um... show?

Alejandro considered. That depends, I think. Elena showed immediately with Diego, but I heard that's unusual. I mean, with Diego and Gilberto. He shook his head at the correction, reminding himself. How far along do you think..?

Not very, Victoria replied, amazed at having such an intimate conversation with her father-in-law, and even more amazed at her calmness in the face of such a conversation.

Good. But we don't have a minute to lose. Alejandro was referring to Diego's desire for a real courtship, Victoria knew, which he had already started. We can begin as soon as Zorro's memorial service is held. Diego should be able to stand by then.

I'm not so sure, Victoria warned. He's awfully weak.

Alejandro sighed. Then he'll have to quicken his pace. Unless you want the entire pueblo to know that you married Zorro.

The idea exploded in Victoria's mind again, leaving little lights behind her eyes. Her face lit up, like a candle. We can just work the baby into the courtship idea, Victoria rambled excitedly.

Alejandro wasn't so thrilled. My dear, what about your reputation?

Victoria laughed. Now I know where Diego gets it from. Don't worry, she assured. We'll just let everybody know I married Zorro, which is the truth. No one has to know that Diego is Zorro. Nobody would believe it. And he is my best friend. Such a 'rescue' isn't unheard of.

I hope the citizens buy it. Alejandro looked far from convinced himself.

Victoria was honest with him. I'm not as concerned about the citizens as I am about the Alcalde.

Suddenly Alejandro slapped his legs and rose. Unlike Diego, he didn't let worries stop him from proceeding. We'll never know unless we test this theory of yours. We'll tell Diego tonight, after you reach the hacienda. And just to warn you, twins do run in our family. Alejandro's eyes twinkled.

Victoria hadn't thought of that, either. Suddenly she practically felt herself turn green as the smell of food wafted in under her door.

Good! That's good. Now if you can just do that at the memorial service...

That shouldn't be hard, thought Victoria. All they would have to do was put a tamale in her pocket...


As it turned out, Victoria and Alejandro hadn't counted on two things; how well the pregnancy would help the pueblo believe Victoria's heartache, as she frequently turned green at even the mention of Zorro's name, when in reality she was busy thinking of food; and they didn't count on the strength of Diego's affections. Though he was angry at first that they had acted without consulting him, he had little choice but to go along with their plan by the time he was able to get up and around a week later. And, in truth, he wanted nothing more than to show his real affection for Victoria before the citizens of the small town, anyway.

Diego was still healing but up and standing as long as he didn't have to stay on a horse too long when Victoria tearfully mentioned the death of her 'hero' while serving her customers the day of the memorial service, and she turned green and fainted again, but Diego caught his young wife, resting her weight on his left arm, all the while thinking she was pouring it on a bit thick. Dr. Hernandez did a complete physical then, and discovered the pregnancy, not long after she began wondering if it wasn't cooking that brought on the greenness and not food at all. No matter the cause, the nausea persisted even as the condolences started rolling in. Alejandro neglected to tell his partner in crime that nauseous was exactly how his wife had felt when she was first pregnant with Diego and Gilberto. In fact, that was how the pregnancy was discovered. But he kept quiet as the nausea went on...

Two months. That was how long it took for Diego's courtship, and it wouldn't have even taken that long if it was up to Diego. According to Sergeant Mendoza, everyone already knew that Diego was in love with Seņora Victoria, anyway. One more fainting spell was all it took for the news of Victoria's pregnancy to circulate, and that's all it took for Diego to propose, according to rumor.

The wedding of the century took place, then everyone sat back to see if the mother-to-be would fall in love with her new husband. To everyone's satisfaction except DeSoto's, she did, and the problem of Diego's and Victoria's precipitous marriage seemed to be solved.

Until the birth of Alfonso... and Felice!


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