A sort-of sequel to the story, Facing Fears.

Confession

by Linda Bindner

The party at the de la Vega hacienda was over for the most part. Even though it was late, a few of the guests still remained to take their leave, and Victoria still needed to pack up a few of the dessert dishes from her catering service. But the guests were on their way to the door, and Don Alejandro had already assigned his son the task of seeing Seņorita Victoria home to the tavern, so there was very little to do but see the guests out and say goodbye. The servants would clean up in the morning.

That's the last of them, Victoria announced as she put the final dessert dish in her basket to keep safe on the trip home. The dish slid into the basket like her black shawl snuggled under her arm. No one had to ask why she liked simple black material, but the shawl was plenty warm for a ride to the pueblo. Stubbornly she slung the shawl over her shoulders and took a seat in the library to wait. Even the blackest night like this one couldn't deter such a strong, resolute woman.

That's what I love about her, Don Diego thought as he surreptitiously watched her from near the black grand piano. The piano had been a welcome home gift for Diego from Alejandro when he returned from studying in Spain, but the best present came later, when Diego first laid eyes on Victoria Escalante that same day. It had been love at first sight for Don Diego, and Victoria had seemed amenable to a courtship from him, until Zorro arrived on the scene.

Zorro, Diego's alter-ego, was the dashing, debonair, action-hero, adventurer that seemed to be the answer to a young Victoria's dreams. Don Diego didn't stand a chance next to the man dressed in black, even though Zorro soon became an outlaw with a price put on his head. Despite bounty hunters, fortune seekers, and the Alcalde's various schemes of capture, Victoria's love only grew with each encounter with the masked man, and Diego returned her affection as that man dressed in black.

But therein lay the problem facing Diego that night: Victoria loved a legend, not predictable Diego, though he and she were good friends. Except after years of waiting to see if he could leave the mask of Zorro behind for good, Diego was tired of waiting. He wanted Victoria for himself, not shared with an outlaw. He wanted to end this clandestine watching, even as he

watched with bated breath and love in his eyes. But life was too short for snatched moments with the woman he loved. That's why he was determined to tell her his secret that night, as soon as all the guests left, which was going to be in a few moments, he realized.

Snatched moments are better than nothing, Diego reminded himself softly for perhaps the hundredth time. But though the arguments for silence were strong, the driving need he felt to tell her was stronger, forcing the confrontation on a night when simply going to bed was equally as enticing.

Of course, Diego admitted to himself, going to bed with Victoria was the most enticing argument of all. He only hoped he wouldn't have to forgo all her affections in the coming future. It was a very real possibility, and it had encouraged his silence over the years.

But now it was time, literally as well as figuratively. Diego took a deep breath, then entered the library.

Victoria stood from where she sat on the love seat immediately on his entrance. There you are, she said, and smiled. I'm all packed and ready, and the horses are just waiting on you.

Diego smiled back at her unusual mildness, wishing he could just hold her now that the guests were gone. His arms itched with the need, driving him to say, Can we just sit for a minute? The quiet in here feels good after the noise of the party, and I want to talk to you for a moment.

Surprised by the request, but not resistant to a quick chat, Victoria's smile widened. That would be a nice way to end the evening. Thank you, Don Diego. She resumed her seat, and he walked over to join her, the cravat at his throat suddenly feeling tight. What did you want to talk about?

Diego paused when he had turned toward her on the love seat. His heart began beating loudly in his chest, and it was a miracle that she didn't hear it. He reached to uncharacteristically take her hands in his, noting how cold he was compared to her warmth. It was the cold of nervousness, he knew, and took another deep breath.

What I say may shock you, and I promise to leave you alone immediately when I'm finished, but I ask that you don't interrupt or follow me when I'm done. I'll see you tomorrow at the tavern, and we can talk then if you need to. Right now, I suspect you'll need time alone to think.

Victoria's smile had slowly disappeared while he spoke, and a look of concern now replaced it. What could he have to tell her that was so serious? She glanced at their hands and thought, he's never touched me like that before, and a shiver of apprehension tore through her at the sight of the simple gesture. In spite of his warnings not to interrupt, she interrupted. It's all right, Don Diego. You can tell me. We're friends, she encouraged.

He smiled broader at that. This may well be the end of that friendship, Victoria, and you may hate me for telling lies all these years.

Victoria was stunned that it was that serious. She brushed a stray hair off his forehead, wishing she could also take the trepidation out of his eyes as easily. It can't be that bad, Diego. Just tell me. Are you in trouble?

Diego laughed low at her question. No, it's nothing like that, he assured.

What could cause him to lie for years? It was ludicrous to think of Diego lying to her. It must be something else. Did he wish to end the friendship? Was that it? Was he finally getting married to some undeserving girl, and he was afraid to tell her for fear that it would end the friendship? You don't have to be afraid, she said then, gripping his hands in hers. What was it that caused such concern to invade what had been a lovely evening?

His smile turned wry and ironic. I've always been afraid, Victoria. I stand to lose everything tonight, but you have the right to know the man behind the mask.

Her face blanched as she recognized the words burned into her brain the night Zorro proposed marriage. How do you...? Her heart skipped a beat, then painfully resumed. White as a ghost, she could only sit mute and let him continue.

His fingers tightened on hers. Gently, he confessed, I'm Zorro, and I've never been sorrier for something in my whole life.

He could hear her breathing, loud and erratic in the quiet of the library. She looked surprised, and as if she might fall over sideways with this new knowledge. But she didn't say anything, and that was a good hint to Diego that his confession was causing more than surprise in her quick mind. Usually so vocal, Victoria sat quiet as he went on.

I overemphasized the studiousness of my personality so nobody would suspect, but I thought the deception would end quickly. When it didn't, I continued the facade I had started on my return from school.

Victoria croaked, I was a facade? In a hundred years, she would never have suspected that he might tell her this.

His voice was still quite gentle, and he made sure to sustain that tone. No, he said with a little laugh. I certainly didn't expect to fall in love when I got home, either, and I fought against it, even as I worked to protect a broken heart during the trip. I saw you once and couldn't help myself. Visiting you has always been the best part of being Zorro, and I have loved you from the beginning. There was no facade in that.

Her breathing was now coming in short gasps, and Diego knew his time with her had to be limited, just like it had always been limited. He hoped she wasn't taking his news too poorly, but he didn't dare stay to find out. One of the grooms would have to see her home, or one of the servants. He certainly refused to prolong her agony by forcing his presence on her any longer than necessary. With that in mind, he hurried to continue.

I'm sorry, Victoria, especially if Diego doesn't meet your expectations of Zorro's identity. But do know that I love you, and that love has only grown since the lies started. You are the one truth in this whole story. I may be very sorry for lying to you for so long, but I'm not a bit sorry that I fell in love with you. I do love you, Victoria, and I want you to remember that, no matter what comes of this confession.

At his words, Diego slipped off the couch and leaned forward to kiss her, though she didn't, couldn't, respond. It felt like kissing wood or ice, but the endearment was real enough on Diego's part, and he poured what emotion he could into it. The kiss, one of passion and longing, was the last thing he did. With the end of the endearment came the end of the interview. Diego rose from his knees, his admission still hanging baldly between them, put one hand on her cheek, then quietly slipped away. The last thing he did was release her hand he was still holding, as if the contact could ward off the rejection he feared.

Victoria sat, too stunned to move for a moment. Then she stood, creaking like an aged person, but feeling far from ready to meet anyone new. How could he have told all those lies? And to a friend? To her?

But Victoria realized the friendship must be a lie, too. She didn't know the real Diego, if he had lied to her all these years as he claimed. He had kept his true self hidden, masked as much as Zorro wore a mask to conceal who he was. She felt deceived by friendship and love at the same time, and the double blow was almost too much to take in. Only Victoria's inborn strength kept her mind straight as the knowledge began to sink in.

Diego? Diego was Zorro? Never in a million years would Victoria have guessed that. Which was the point of the deception, she realized as she numbly reached the door. Her hand suddenly on the knob, she pulled it open, forgetting to gather her basket, forgetting the promise of an escort home, forgetting everything as this new knowledge slowly but steadily took over everything.

She stumbled to the front gate and gathered the reins of one of the waiting horses. Since Don Alejandro had sent Felipe to the tavern to bring her and the dishes to the hacienda, she had nothing else to leave behind. Except her heart, she remembered with a start as she tried to calmly mount a horse. The other she left tied to the front gate's hitching post, a bold message to Diego as to the state of her emotions when she left.

But the thought of Diego also brought thoughts of the kisses and embraces she had received over the years, and those had been real enough, she remembered with a tiny blush. Sensation began to creep back into her heart with the memories of those actions, but Victoria was swallowed by the darkness as she began the two-mile trek back to the tavern before the feelings could show on her face.

Darkness surrounded her as she remembered her words, his gestures, their love. That had been true if unexpected. Sweet, like a gentle summer rain. She knew with a certainty that she wanted Zorro no matter who he was, but did she also want Diego in the same way? Which was more important, the lies or the love? Had she always wanted Diego and just not known it? Did it matter who Zorro was underneath the mask?

The questions whirled through Victoria's mind during the quick ride home, and only Diego could answer some of them. She imagined him holding her hands again as he softly replied to her concerns, and thought about the gentle feel of his lips on hers, cool and confident, the way she had always secretly liked.

She had reached the lights of the pueblo when she stopped the horse under the swinging sign of Los Angeles. Only the garrison was still awake at this late hour, a single light shining under the office door to let her know that someone, probably the Alcalde, was up late doing paperwork. The illogicality of her situation struck her then, the humor, the innate strangeness.

Was she really turning away from such strong love because of a technicality? Most people only dreamed of such a feeling, some didn't dare dream it at all. Some didn't even understand it. She thought logically and coolly about being with Diego, and the thought wasn't so foreign after all. She had wanted to publicly wrap her arms around Zorro's waist for years, and now she could, only it would be in the guise of Diego. He could acknowledge her love, her emotions, and it would be the same, yet different. It would be in front of other people this time, and he could court her as he had always said he wanted to. Ah, to be courted like normal, thought Victoria, and smiled at the image. The temptation was almost too strong for her, even on horseback and surrounded by darkness like she was.

Abruptly, she knew what she was going to do. She wheeled the horse around, ignoring the late hour and the darkness and the stupidity of her actions. She began to retrace her steps with determination equal to what she had seen that night in Diego. Even an entire garrison of lancers wouldn't have deterred her. He would understand, even if no one else would.

At a trot, the fastest she could go on such uneven ground in the dark, she approached the hacienda, deciding not to wait for the morning. Not wishing to harm the horse, a loan from Don Alejandro, after all, she ate up the miles nonetheless, tying the horse alongside the other to patiently wait for day light. With a sense of purpose now, she loudly banged on the front door, hoping to wake the de la Vegas but hoping not to disturb the kind neighbor's rest at the same time. It was a confusing dichotomy, like all her emotions on this extremely emotional night.

Then the door opened to her insistent knocks, and Diego stood there, haloed by the light of a single candle. He must have been close by, doing who-knows-what at this late hour, and his amazement couldn't have been bigger if a bear had been knocking on his door.

Victoria! he said in delight before he remembered.

As an answer, she flung herself forward and he caught her, like he always had, and held her in strong arms that were made for holding instead of wielding a sword. He made some gentle shushing sounds that she couldn't make out, then his lips were touching hers in a kiss that made her lightheaded from passion even though she was held so tightly. Neither of them paid attention to the open door or the night or the blackness. They were the only two awake if not alive, and for once they were completely alone, proper or not.

Actually, Victoria didn't care whether or not they were proper. She just wanted to feel him, to touch him. They'd never had this opportunity, this freedom, before. It was going to her head, as now there was no sudden appearance of Sergeant Mendoza or the Alcalde, no curtain separating them from certain death, no military officers to avoid on the ride out of town. Nothing holding them back but themselves and their own scruples. And their scruples were dying as quickly as their desire was growing.

He touched her gently, but possessively, feeling her all over, her hair, her shoulders, her chest. She shivered in desire as his hands strayed to her breasts, but even that didn't stop him. His mustache tickled whatever it touched, the tickles turning into shivers as well. Soon that desire roared in Victoria's ear, and her heart beat stronger and faster as she worked to unbutton Diego's caballero shirt, exchanged from the more formal party shirt from earlier. She laced her fingers in his hair, something she had always wanted to do, but had been stopped by the black mask. She touched his naked chest, too scarred from fighting all Zorro's battles, returning to his hair, not knowing what to stay with, and wanting to feel everything at once.

Diego made the decision for her by scooping her up and shutting the door quietly. He didn't want to awaken the sleeping hacienda with a slammed door. But it took all his will power to care about a slamming door when Victoria was so willingly curled into his arms. He briefly considered being a gentleman and refusing her unvoiced request to make love, but his own passions were too engaged by then to deny them. Such freedom and knowledge were undeniably leading him as he carried her to his bedroom and shut the door with a foot.

Slowly, languidly, they touched what they could until they both noticed the coldness of the room. Diego led her to the fireplace and freed his hands for a moment as he lit the small, prelaid fire. The servants had laid that fire but refrained from lighting something that might not be enjoyed as Diego worked on his experiments. Now its golden light washed Victoria's skin with heat, though she needed no help from a fire.

Her skin was hotter than he remembered it ever being, thought Diego as he helped in removing her close fitting blouse, followed by her corset and skirt a moment later. The undergarments were a mere annoyance to his probing fingers as she removed them, leaving his hands free to roam where they wanted to, and they instantly buried themselves in the skin along her back and on her shoulders. Boots disappeared, as did his trousers, followed by his already open shirt. Blood flowed slowly yet undeniably towards the culmination of their desires even as that desire was heightened by the feel of naked skin for the first time.

Diego knelt before her, unsure how long he could maintain such a posture, yet delighting in her response. When he stroked the peak of her smooth breasts, she rose up to meet the caress, eyes shut to better feel the emotions the move provoked, but hiding nothing with the action. He stroked more firmly, relinquishing his control to bury his face in their smoothness, fulfilling a dream with the motion. She held him tightly, and he knew he would never make it to his bed in time.

Lying down on the rug and taking Victoria into his arms on top of him, he touched her in circles in places that she had never been touched before. He groaned quietly when she passed a featherlight touch along his own breast, and his mind reeled when she kissed the nipple ever so lightly, letting her tongue coax emotions from him that her hands could not. With her legs spread apart, tongue sending him spiraling, warm from the fire inside and out, she let the desire pour through her in waves of increasing sensation. He touched her warm shoulders with his lips, then her neck, her forehead. Unable to resist any longer, he entered her then, ready to relinquish the tight control he always employed near her, ready beyond anything to complete his love and feelings of passion despite the rough floor under the braided rug behind his back, despite the misgivings of years worth of teaching the opposite, despite what could culminate from his actions and choices this night. She was simply too impossible to deny any longer.

Victoria tensed for a moment, then shuddered suddenly in his arms, and she would have cried his name if his mouth hadn't enveloped hers at the crucial moment. He released any control he had left as he gasped softly into her enveloping, sweet-smelling hair. His own climax came as she shivered on top of him, his face buried in her hair, his eyes shut against the tight sensations pouring through him, an incredible splitting of his body from his soul as he held onto her with an embrace that ended all embraces, holding on for his life.

When the tightness had left and they were both feeling content, she rolled to his side, leaving wetness that neither of them cared about behind. She stared at his face then, smoothing the back of her fingers over his mustache and day's growth of beard on his chin, and Diego knew what she felt before she opened those amazing lips to utter a promise and commitment. I love you, too, she whispered, and kissed the fingers that attempted to stop any words from having to pass between them.

In memory of their recent and spontaneous lovemaking, and with a desire now to get warm, Diego rose to retrieve the spread and pillows from his bed and gently laid them near his Victoria before carefully joining her under the cover, protected from the cold air on the outside and the intense heat from the fire. With one more look of love at the woman beside him, he pulled her into his arms and fell asleep.

Memories stayed pleasantly with him as he, his father, and Felipe rode into town the next day for lunch. It would be the first time he saw Victoria since she slipped out early that morning. His father was currently giving him a lecture on leaving single women alone in the dark, but he wasn't really listening. Instead he was remembering how Victoria's hands had felt on him, how his had felt on her, their mutual affection and why such an emotion was deemed a sin since he felt so rested and at ease with himself. Making love to Victoria had been awkward and painful, but so beautiful that a lifelong of teaching was necessary to banish such beauty from his memory. Now he wished he had told her his secret long ago so he could have been experiencing her love all along instead of only recently. But who could have guessed that things would have turned out so well? Now he wasn't afraid of anything.

Diego thought about what it truly meant to be a gentleman while Alejandro continued to lecture on the same subject. He was always polite, concerned, attentive, and chivalrous when dealing with women, except for last night. But he didn't feel guilty, and he refused to look on Victoria as a fallen woman just because of her chosen actions. She was no more fallen in his opinion than if Sergeant Mendoza stopped eating. Both would cause him great surprise, and there wasn't much to surprise him any longer. He had seen too much cruelty to believe that the decisions of others could affect him in such a strong way.

Still, he was enough of a believer in his chosen faith not to feel the need to visit Padre Benitez later on that day. The padre was sure to be shocked, but Diego found that he no longer cared about that. He planned to confess his real 'crimes' rather than make up something to say, as he usually did, and that was sure to appall the padre. Yet it would take more than the fear instilled by his fellow man to make him feel bad about Victoria. He was resolved about that, too.

As they rode and his mind wandered, he wondered what it would be like to really court Victoria, to squire her to the various gatherings he was required by his station to go to, to buy her things when he wanted to, to touch her as himself and not arouse misgivings from the Alcalde or his father or anybody else, for that matter. It was an exciting feeling, he realized, and he could barely wait to start, as he and Victoria had agreed in the quieter moments of the morning. The sense of the plan appealed to the studious nature in Diego, even if the newness attracted the wild side that was Zorro.

He and Victoria had talked about him being Zorro the night before, and they had concluded that part of the joy of riding as the masked bandit was humiliating the Alcalde, but most of it was the draw to her. Since she was taken from the equation suddenly, he had agreed to fight the Alcalde as Zorro less and less often and let the citizens protest the unnecessary cruelty to the pueblo more and more. Coupled with the courtship idea, they hoped there would be little reason to visit the pueblo as Zorro, leaving Diego free to be with Victoria, the one thing about being Zorro that he refused to give up.

It was a good plan, especially considering that one or the other would visit clandestinely at least once a week, and who knew where that might lead? In fact, Diego concluded to start the seeming struggle for Victoria's affections that very day, at lunch, leaving little doubt as to his intentions to the rest of the pueblo.

He did begin that day, ignoring another talk from his father while he walked purposefully over to Victoria and kissed her hand lingeringly in front of everybody. There was mischief sparkling in his blue eyes, and humor at the situation he was causing, and love to anybody willing to look deeper. His actions really did charm an astonished Victoria, and they surprised the calm lunch crowd. Her sudden and inexplicable transference of affection from Zorro to the abruptly romantic Don Diego were completely understandable. After all, he was far richer and could offer the security that a woman was supposed to desire. However, Victoria desired far more than security, but only Diego was ever the wiser.

Thus began the legendary courtship of the scientific but romantic Don Diego and the tavern owner. They gave Zorro a run for his pesos in the interest department, but only they ever knew the difference. And they both knew how well they could keep a secret. In the end, love did seem to triumph as the most eligible bachelor and freest maiden found each other, taking them both off the market, as the pueblo watched and sighed and attended the wedding, looking at real starry-eyed lovers for perhaps the first time in a lifetime. Only Diego and Victoria ever knew the truth.


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