by Linda Bindner

The surf crashed against the sand, eating forward an inch at a time, rolling waves that petered into dull gray water droplets as soon as they were pushed up the beach. Driftwood and debris lay like discarded presents among the tiny shells left behind by the waves. Not a single footprint or horse shoe marked the sand, and it was obvious that no one had visited this desolate place for a very long time.

Two horses exploded out of the covering shroud of trees that surrounded the spit of land on all sides but the East. Tall grass bent in the afternoon wind. As the mounts halted under the trees, that grass was unceremoniously ripped up and gulped into the waiting mouths of the horses. The riders dismounted in the provided shade.

Victoria Escalante smiled a little in genuine puzzlement. Here, Diego?

I don't wish to be overheard or interrupted, and this is the only place that guarantees both. This is de la Vega land, but my father, Felipe, and the vaqueros are in the West pasture, on the other side of the ranch. Here we won't be disturbed. Diego de la Vega shrugged, then turned to tie Esperanza to a conveniently low branch so she could continue to reach the grass. He had no idea how long he and Victoria would be at the little spit of land, and grazing was definitely preferable to a hungry horse.

Diego turned towards Victoria and had to smile. This was a week of momentous occasions, he realized. First, Emissary

Risendo had come to Los Angeles, deviled the people, fought Zorro, threatened to kidnap Victoria, moved from attacker to brother to son in less than twenty heartbeats, and died as suddenly as he had arrived. Diego was then moved by that unforeseen and unexpected ending of life to tell his father the secret he'd harbored for more than four years, and the following day, today, on this deserted beach, he would tell Victoria. He only hoped she would take the divulgence of his identity as well as his father had. Uncertain, Diego looked at her again.

Still confused by being led to the secluded place, Victoria also tied her mount to a low branch to encourage grazing. All right, Diego, out with it, she said, trying to maintain her teasing tone of voice. At first she'd worried that she would be alone, on this tiny beach, with an unmarried man, but Diego was her dear friend and would never cause her harm. Once she had considered that, she felt completely relaxed. Why all the secrecy? What did you want to tell me?

Blissfully unaware of her thoughts, Diego played in the hard, wet sand with the toe of his boot, tracing lines and thinking. Undecided, he continued to stare at her, still internally debating. Should he tell her of his identity, or should he cover up with something more generic? There was time to back out of this sudden, unexpected and unplanned idea. He warred with himself, unsure of what to do.

Diego looked away, then looked at her once more. It was a quick, judging glance, but he noted how the sunlight fell on her shoulders, how the light moved with the tree branches over her beautiful, creamy skin, and the way her dark eyes shone in the half-light. One blink later, Diego knew he was lost, swirling in the depths of those trusting, dark eyes. She was essentially bathed in sunlight, and Diego thought that she had never looked more radiant than she did in that second. The strange light made him cognizant of how much he truly loved her. He blinked against the spell his emotions for her had created, and cleared his throat in nervousness. Finally he came to his decision and replied, Have patience, please, and take a seat. He smiled disarmingly and indicated the dry sand with a wave of his hand.

Victoria looked at him in further perplexity, but obligingly seated herself on the sand. Diego had seen that expression before, but instead of reassuring her as the Diego she knew would have done, he simply followed, sitting beside her well above the water markings on the sand, the hard surface doing little to conform around his shape. Hardly a romantic spot, or a comfortable one, he groused to himself as he shifted his position and gazed out across the ceaselessly undulating waters of the ocean. He'd had the original intent to take her to the hacienda, and tell her his secret in the library, but there was far too much temptation with the location of his bedroom just around the corner from the library to explain his secret there. Temptation was the one thing he didn't want to invite right at the moment. Instead, he looked at her thoughtfully.

For her part, Victoria wasn't unaware of his eyes, but she chose to remain unusually silent. Like him, her arms wrapped around her legs, her knees comfortably raised towards the sky as the wind twisted the material of her skirt around them. She did her best to keep it mostly contained on the ground, and settled for leaning her toes on the excess cream material. Then, she waited, expectant, her eyebrows raised in question as she looked at him seated on the sand beside her.

Diego sighed, knowing it was beyond the time to start speaking, though he didn't know where to begin. He hadn't woken that morning with the plan of acknowledging anything, but had thought of it at breakfast when his father had mentioned checking the cattle with the vaqueros. Don Alejandro had invited Diego along, but Diego had suggested taking Felipe, who needed to learn the operation of the ranch if he was to become a de la Vega.

When Don Alejandro had agreed, saying it was a wonderful idea and an excellent way to teach the boy in the process of a fairly delightful outing, Diego had known he had to take this chance to tell Victoria everything, when he was certain to be alone and uncensored by Felipe. The young man didn't care much for the idea of sharing the secret his friend had kept for so many years, and would oppose Diego's seemingly hasty decision to tell Victoria.

Diego sighed, hating to purposefully disregard his friend's wishes, but also hating the lies he had been forced to tell to Victoria all these years. He lost no matter what he did, but she had the right to know, even if she ended up despising him for all time when he told her the truth. Trying to garner the courage he needed for such an important explanation, he sighed again. Victoria, he said, it's been a long time since you've personally seen Zorro, hasn't it?

Victoria regarded him, her puzzlement now laced with curiosity. He had never mentioned anything so... exclusive... before this moment, but she perked up at the mention of Zorro. It was her general reaction when anybody uttered the outlaw's name. She had tried to squelch her enthusiasm, finding it slightly annoying how she always grew so excited at the mere mention of Zorro's name, but couldn't help it. Three weeks, Victoria answered, knowing readily how much time had passed since the masked man's last visit. Too long. But how did you know it had been a while? Have I been talking?

No. Diego snorted a laugh, an inelegant action for the overly proper caballero. Not once have you even so much as said his name. Feeling faintly pathetic for forcing her to talk about her feelings about him, even as Zorro, yet also feeling determined, he went on cautiously, But do you truly care for him? He had to know the actual state of her feelings before he continued with his confession, he had to know if she truly loved him, or only said she did. Nerves forced adrenaline to pound through his heart.

I do, answered Victoria firmly and immediately, and to Diego's relief, though the expression on her face indicated the strain of not visiting with Zorro that she'd been under recently; though they had survived longer, three weeks was a long time to go without any reminders of the love she felt for the man she had chosen.

Instantly, Diego's heart constricted at putting her through such pain, even if it was unwittingly. His only consolation was that he too was aware of the tremendous amount of time that had passed between visits to the tavern's kitchen and the warmth of her sweet caresses. That warmth, and the worry of losing it to another suitor someday, had been prompted by the Emissary's death, had finally forced this trip to the beach, and this confession. Three weeks? he asked, though he knew perfectly well how long it had been since he'd held Victoria in his arms. As an attempt to distract himself from the dangerously rebellious thoughts that his mind insisted on contemplating, he rested his chin on his knees.

Victoria mirrored his posture. Far too long, she complained, though she was always glad to talk to somebody about Zorro, even when the topic was of a depressing nature, as his lack of visiting apparently was.

Still, her reaction opened up the subject that Diego wanted most to discuss. He took a deep breath, trying to cover the loud beating of his heart; such a sound didn't exactly go along with the indolent image he'd enforced over the years. Perhaps it's time for you to think about getting married and having a family. I know it's time for me.

That statement caught her attention. Surprised and a bit stunned, she lifted her head from her knees to openly gape at him. What..?

Diego sighed, knowing that this line of questioning and commentary promised to take the rest of the day, but what choice did he really have, except for dumping the truth on her? Such a disclosure, bald and uncensored, would be too cruel for words. Since his heart now threatened to burst right out of his ruffled, white shirt, he opted for explanations of honesty instead, and apprehensively lifted his own head. This was it, the reason he'd dragged her out to this deserted beach during the tavern's business hours. He did want to confess, but found getting started to be much harder than he thought it would be in the safety of the hacienda. The truth of the matter is, Victoria, that... that I've... He paused.

What was troubling him? Did he want to marry her? That's what it sounded like he wanted. Yes? she asked with a hint of trepidation. She refused to give away any other implications as to what she was thinking.

Diego glanced at her in anguish, then lowered his chin to his knees once more so that he wouldn't have to look at her, staring at the pounding surf instead. His voice grew hushed in the afternoon air as he began again, sounding sad now. Several things, really. First off, I guess I should start at the beginning. He sighed, and the sad sound cut through the air between them like the quiet, yet relentless, hissing of a fire. At last he found the bravery to blurt, I've been in love with you for a long time, since I came home from Spain.

Uh-oh. It was as she'd anticipated, but nothing he could have said would have surprised Victoria more. She'd been expecting a rather unwelcome and uncomfortable proposal of marriage, as his words suggested, not a declaration of unrequited love. She was flabbergasted. What?

Diego still made no move towards her. I've wanted to say something to you for years, but the time never seemed right. In reality, she had been too wrapped up in the affairs of a certain man in black for Diego to speak. Now, because he'd found the courage to say something at last, he felt lighter as the admission went on. I thought you should know.

Astounded, Victoria could only splutter. Even though she had anticipated a marriage proposal, she had never expected her old friend to say this! But, Diego, we've... we've been such good... good friends for so long! she protested weekly.

Yes, we have, Diego wanted to make sure he pointed out, only there was still so much more to the secret, so much that she didn't yet understand. There's more, he warned quietly, keeping his eyes glued to the ocean and the horizon so she wouldn't see the sense of yearning in his eyes. He spoke clearly and slowly. He certainly didn't want her to misunderstand him now. And... and... you have... my mother's ring, he finally got out.

Victoria instantly comprehended his words and their meaning. She gasped softly, her features traced in wide-eyed disbelief. Here was her best friend confessing that he was also her..! It was too much to take in all at once. She couldn't talk to him, but only listen to the sound of the breeze in the nearby trees, the waves crashing on the beach, the birds calling to each other as they circled overhead, the horses munching, content, not caring that her world had just turned crazily out of the control she had always desired. When several quiet seconds had gone by, she was able to choke, Diego... I... I don't know what to...

Diego steadfastly stared straight ahead at the ocean. You don't have to say anything. I just wanted you to know, finally. Even if he couldn't have her, if she spurned him, this release felt good, made him lighter.

Diego needn't have bothered to keep his head averted; she wasn't looking at him, couldn't look even if she was both mortified at being deceived, and at the same time, beginning to feel the stirrings of forgiveness, acceptance, in her heart. The double set of emotions were confusing to her. Instead of answering him, she was examining the sand surrounding her. I'm sorry. I... I don't know what to do, how to behave. She stared at him, then.

Diego turned, and even though she hastily averted her gaze, he saw uncertainty, as well as something that looked suspiciously like love blazing at him out of her eyes. Diego thought he would drown in those dark pools even with only the fast look he had been given. You don't have to do anything, he said again. I just wanted you to know.

He sounded so sad in his divulgence that it almost broke her heart in two. She wanted to comfort him, to caress, had a double reason to ease his heartache. Yet she still didn't know how to go about doing it, how to break down the wall of habit that had guided their friendly relationship for years.

He spoke softly into the silence. I'm sorry, Victoria, so sorry for keeping this from you. I didn't mean for the deception to go on for this long, should have told you years ago. But I was too afraid of rejection to say anything, too afraid that you might be angry with me. Diego turned to look at her again, and there was suddenly more emotion in his voice than there had been for a long time. I know I'm putting you in grave danger by telling you at all, but sitting in the tavern this morning after breakfast, watching you, I knew... He stopped.

Knew what? she asked, her voice filled with the strain of trying to believe him as well with the intense curiosity she felt.

Diego once more faced the water. He heard the curiosity in her voice rather than the ultimate rejection that he feared. That was something, at least. I knew that watching wasn't going to be enough anymore, he divulged quietly and thoughtfully shifted sand through his fingers.

She blew out a breath that he could barely hear over the crashing of the waves, her mind still in turmoil. Eventually, she asked, How long have you been..? She couldn't even whisper the name.

He still didn't face her, and he didn't move any closer to her, carefully leaving the foot that separated them intact, as if he was afraid of what she might do if he tried to close the distance between them. Afraid of what she might do, or of what he might do. Since I came home from Spain, he replied.

Almost five years ago, she said with a note of admiration in her tone. Such a long time to... Why didn't you say anything before now?

Finally, he looked straight at her. Like I said, it wasn't the right time.

You didn't trust me enough to keep such a secret?

Diego snorted again. Trust was never the issue. I trust you with everything.

Then what was the problem? she asked, her voice now strangled and unhappy.

Diego flinched, but couldn't do anything about her tone of voice. Still, he hated for her to be unhappy because of him. The Alcalde was certain to hang anybody who knew of my identity. I... I wanted to protect you from that.

Victoria seemed to think his reasoning was valid as her shoulders shrugged slightly. And now? she asked timidly.

Now? Diego looked at her. She looked at him. He dissolved under her gaze as neatly as the sand was sucked away by the incoming tide; she was simply too beautiful. He took a chance and scooted an inch closer to her, then two, three, four, until the foot separating them was gone. Their legs almost touched. Like a magnet, they were unwittingly drawn closer together. The secret identity worked to spin a web of their own desire around them. For a previously unknown secret, it was terribly compelling. Now, answered Diego, and bravely took her hand, then kissed it. He studied her fingers wrapped in his intently so that he wouldn't have to look at her. Her fingers met his gaze, long and slender, with nails chipped from cleaning the tavern for so many years, cherished and loved for being a part of her, a part that he had kissed so often before now that he practically had the feel of them memorized. At last, he spoke, I knew I simply couldn't wait any longer. My... my brother's death showed me about the fragility of life, if nothing else. There's no point in spending what little time we have here on fears and insecurities. Then he ended almost on a whisper as soft as a sigh. And you've been left waiting for a long time, too. His voice truly was only a whisper now. I couldn't bear the silence any more, no matter the danger. It didn't seem fair.

Victoria's second hand joined her first to be locked in the cradle between them. Now she was riveted in place, held by the love that he couldn't keep from leaking into his eyes. Fair to whom?

Diego was enthralled by the fact that, with their closeness, he was fulfilling a secret dream of his. You, he answered on an expelled breath of air that he couldn't have halted even if he had wanted to. His breath washed across her cheeks.

Her eyes sped to his lips and back up to his face. She appeared terrified, yet hopeful. Since Madrid? she asked, making sure she was correct.

Since the University, he supplied with a nod. Since the beginning. She didn't need to ask what beginning he was referring to, as that 'beginning' was ingrained forever in each of their hearts and minds. His hand suddenly found the way to her cheek. He touched it, as softly as the wind, marveling at the smoothness of her skin. Even as he gazed at her like a man wholly, head-over-heels, in love, he was aware of the circumstances and of her split loyalties; loyalty to the man she thought she loved, and to the man she truly loved. His hand moved from her cheek to grasp her fingers once more in his. In a ragged voice, he said, Victoria, I tried to stay away, honestly I did. But when I realized it was too dangerous for us to be together any longer without... Then his voice trailed off as he just looked at her.

She had never seen such a haunted expression in anyone's eyes before, such fear, such a sensation of being hunted. But she had also not seen so much hope, either, and love. She tried to put words to what she was seeing, to tell him that he shouldn't fear rejection so much, shouldn't worry about her anger, an emotion that she was surprisingly feeling little of now that she knew his secret identity. She had expected to feel anger, but simultaneously, she realized she would always love the man who was Zorro. However, she found that she couldn't speak. His eyes were pulling her in, his familiar, vivid, blue eyes. She'd never seen such an intense color before as she was seeing now with her best friend admitting to his love, letting the sensation shine through in his eyes. Even her incredulity at being drawn to her best friend didn't make her question the emotions she suddenly attached to him. It was as if she had been looking at him for years, but she hadn't truly seen him. Neither could she think any longer as his lips met hers in their first unmasked kiss. It cut off any reply she might have made to his comment. She felt as if it had been a very long time since she had been kissed by anybody.

And he loved her. It was as obvious as the sand she was sitting on or the wind playing with the ends of her black hair. Diego smoothed his fingers across her cheek in a light, brushing stroke, and Victoria could barely feel those same fingers gently rubbing the skin along her throat in such a way that sent shivers crawling up her spine. Slowly, almost lazily, he kissed her, making her mind spin again and at the same time yearn for more. The tenderness with which he touched her was amazing, and in a more lucid moment, Victoria would analyze that touch, but this was not one of her most lucid moments. Now she could feel his lips on hers, caressing them with the soft velvet of his, making her think unaccountably of rose blossoms and the sweet smell of a fresh Spring morning, all that was good in the world. The two of them would have no troubles any longer if he loved her as strongly as she suspected he did. For what could conquer such an ardent love?

All too soon he drew back, and just looked at her, lovingly treasured her with his blue eyes, valued even her flaws of being too quick to judge, too outspoken, too opinionated. Diego didn't care about any of that, wanted those flaws, in fact, according to the longing gleam in his eyes. Without a word, he leaned down and kissed her again.

This time, the desire they shared exploded immediately. Blood pulsed through veins and arteries, carrying the feeling to their extremities, shooting out in a warm passion. The love was clear, and clearly shared, as was the depth of their sudden desire. Their arms wrapped around the other in a familiar and tight embrace. She had somehow become everything to him, somehow piercing every aspect of his heart. Diego thought for sure he was going to melt or burst into flames.

Victoria just closed her eyes and held on, better sensing the passion running through her insides. She felt languid, lethargic, so committed, so much in love.

Completely giving in to his emotions, Diego paused long enough to lay his large hands gently on each cheek. Then, his fingers buried themselves in her enticing curls, and he kissed her once more, soft, tender, seductive.

The kiss ended, and he stared at her, all his love for her displayed in his shining eyes. Now she knew his most intimate secret, but he still didn't know how she felt about her new knowledge. What are you feeling? he timidly whispered, his voice lower now that the need to hide had disappeared.

What am I..? She seemed slightly horrified; she had thought her love for him was extremely obvious. I'm... I'm... The words trailed off into the silence that had settled over them. What was she? Confused, and exhilarated. He's really you?

Diego couldn't help but smile a little, both happy and sad. Happy because he had won her with his confession, but sad because he had lost the identity that he had protected for so many years to get her. Hard to believe, isn't it? I made certain it was hard to believe. Impossible, even.

Again Victoria studied his face, her eyes flicking over every feature. You? she asked once more in disbelief, as if to make sure of the truth she thought she was hearing.

Silently, Diego had to nod.

And all this time you've been in my tavern..?

Diego's hands tightened. Yes, watching, waiting, dreaming...

Victoria looked at him in wonderment. I had no idea. She briefly closed her eyes. Well, that's not entirely true. I knew of the watching...

Now it was Diego's turn to be astounded. You knew? he asked in quiet amazement.

Victoria smiled. Of course I knew about that. What woman wouldn't? she asked rhetorically. But now that I know, what do you want to do?

Diego studied her face this time, his eyes flicking over every familiar feature. That depends on you.

On me?

Yes, on what you plan to do. You have several options, you know.

A hint of wonder was in her voice now. I do?

He nodded, though such a conversation seemed cold and analytical to him, as if he was checking on one of his science experiments. Six thousand pesos is a lot of money, and you'll make DeSoto's day if you turn me in.

But Victoria was shaking her head. I've already thought of that. And it's not an acceptable option.

Diego cradled her cheeks again. The movement and the emotion behind it sent a shiver of recognition through her. You can scorn me for the rest of our natural lives.

She was still staring, lost in his blue eyes. That's not an option, either. I could never scorn you.

He looked at her with fear. You could get angry, he suggested, being fair to all her potential options.

I could, she agreed. But what would be the point of that? We would just have to make up later.

He raised a brow. That could be... fun, he announced in some trepidation, gauging her reaction with his words.

All the time before would be awful, though, she predicted. And so much time has already gone by.

She was so close, he could smell the morning coffee she'd had. You could love me, he gathered his courage to say.

Victoria was quiet for several heartbeats, longer than she'd been quiet before. She looked down, then up, appearing to blush. Finally she whispered, I already do.

Diego bit his lower lip between his teeth. Are you certain? He shook his head. There can be no halfway in this case. No uncertainty, no constant wondering who...

Victoria looked at him as if she thought he was crazy for even suggesting such a thing. She drew his hands from her cheeks and planted a kiss on each palm, then released his hands in favor of his arms, which she began to methodically rub up and down. She felt the muscles under his caballero jacket instinctively constrict, sensitive to even her lightest touch. Yes, she replied firmly, and leaned in for another kiss, as if to prove her point, then whispered, This is no halfway. I love you, and have probably always loved you. Then she finished her lean forward to kiss him affectionately on the lips.

That kiss, filled with their love and passion, sealed something between them, sending both their minds to spinning and forcing them to hyperventilate on their consuming emotions. He kissed her cheek, her nose, her neck, his desire building with her under his lips. Have I told you that I love you? he whispered.

Her voice also deeper, she replied with closed eyes and arched neck, giving him what access she could. Yes, I thought so. Her voice held irony, though it was laced with the gentle affection she was also aware of. She closed her eyes even tighter, and her breath, already thin and airy, grew even thinner as his lips sank lower on her chest beneath the flowered snug, shirtwaist she wore. Even as Zorro he had not dared to caress her so... lovingly, so tantalizingly. She thought she might explode at any moment.

I do, more than anything, he responded, certain of his words for once. Victoria, you already have my mother's ring...

Victoria thought for certain she was dreaming. When? was all she said to indicate that she was comprehending the fact that he was asking her to marry him. For some reason, it was imperative that Diego ask, even though Zorro had already proposed that day, so many months ago, in his secret cave.

Diego's mouth moved an inch lower, tickling her with his mustache. As soon as possible. I don't think I can last much longer.

Eyes still closed, she whispered, I can't last much longer, either.

Still only half paying attention to his words, he whispered, Father will want a huge wedding, though I don't. There's much to balance, and we'll have to be careful for a while.

For you, anything. Her lips grabbed his again, consumed in another wave of passion.

When he could speak he could only whisper, That's exactly what I was going to say. It was when she began to work her way up the left side of his chest with her kisses that Diego groaned, though attempted to stop her. That feels extremely good, almost too good. What she was doing was sending his mind into another tumble, but he needed his mind to be clear. Know that you have to be convincing to the Alcalde, Victoria. He'll be very... Diego searched his hazy mind for the right word, but could only moan out that word as soon as he chose it, ... 'astute' for awhile. Diego floundered as Victoria continued in her endearments.

Victoria paused. I can be a good actor, too, she whispered as she blazed a line up the center of his chest through the outside of his shirt.

Eyes shut, sensing to the best of his abilities, Diego experienced as much of her endearments as he could while still holding her tight. His skin tingled at her touch. Victoria, you don't know how good that feels. He chuckled in appreciation.

She wanted to touch him everywhere, and was frustrated by his sense of integrity as much as by the caballero shirt he wore. I can guess, she whispered back. And I know we'll have some dangerous moments. Don't worry; I'll be ready.

However, in spite of his emotions that demanded the contrary, Diego resisted her endearments for the moment, holding her back, giving in instead to his inner sense of deportment, though it was probably the hardest thing he had ever tried to do. Grave now that his chief opponent had been mentioned, he warned, I'm not certain that good acting will waylay the Alcalde's suspicions this time. Anyone who marries you would automatically be extremely suspect.

Even you? she asked with her eyebrows raised in surprise.

Diego laughed. I know it's hard to believe, but even me. I'm taking a terrible risk just by telling you of my identity at all. That's why I've resisted giving in to my own emotions for so many years. I don't want to put you in danger.

Victoria smiled and rubbed her fingers enticingly up and down his arms as she listened to his concerns. I have to admit that despite the danger, I'm very glad you didn't resist any longer. Then she shrugged, though the smile still played at the corners of her lips. I guess we'll have to trust in the disguise you've always used to fool him.

As good as her administrations felt, he did his best to ignore them, even though his blood sent tingles throughout his body every time she touched him. I'm not certain that the charade, even from me, will fool him anymore, said Diego as he capitulated to the demands singing through his extremities and leaned down for another kiss.

It took all of their restraint to withstand the insistence of their shared affections after that. Diego grinned then and threaded his fingers in her hair to gaze into eyes that were smiling and warm. Full of wonder, he asked, Has anyone ever told you what an unbelievable gem you are?

She shook her head. I don't think so.

He kissed her forehead. You are, he gently affirmed, and tenderly ran his lips over her cheek and into her sweet smelling hair and hugged her close.

But Victoria was obviously thinking about the risks as well as he had been, yet not in the same way. She was more daring than even he was. Diego, we've been waiting for years... let's forget the courtship and just let everybody wonder about why we decided to marry.

They will.

I know they will. And I'm not sure I care.

Me neither, though I will probably regret that decision later, he predicted darkly.

She leaned back and studied his eyes closely. I'll wear your ring, she announced. And I promise not to say a word about what you've said here today. Victoria ran a hand possessively over his shirt towards his shoulder. Diego imagined how her hand would feel under his shirt, and grinned again. He would find out soon enough.

I love you, you know, she said.

I know, he whispered, then touched the end of his index finger to the tip of her nose.

Victoria nodded, too overwhelmed to talk.

Diego slid his arms from around her and took her hands. Those incredible hands that... He shut his eyes, breathed hard, trying to bury the memory of where those hands had been. I need to get back to the hacienda, now. Father and Felipe should be home, and they'll be wondering what has kept me for so long.

Let them wonder, Victoria recklessly declared. It will do them some good to wonder what you're up to, or what you're doing. Her tone held plenty of suggestion in it.

Diego grinned at her sauciness and kissed her hands. I love your wild side, he declared.

She grinned back. Then I'll be certain to show it often.

He laughed in amazement. He still couldn't believe that he was sitting on a beach, in the middle of the day, kissing her while she agreed to marry him. Do you promise? he asked, knowing that she would read a huge amount into his words.

She raised her eyebrows. Yes.

Later that day, Diego, Alejandro, and Felipe sat at a table in the tavern, ready for supper. Diego was pleased to note that Victoria, though ecstatic with the sudden twist in her life, did her best to hide such excitement under a far more serious expression. Looking too happy would attract the Alcalde's suspicion, not to mention the attention of the the rest of the pueblo's citizens. She had the unwelcome job of appearing thrilled, but not so thrilled that she garnered too much notice. Though the flicker of emotion in her eyes was almost too difficult to resist. The caution that Diego had spoken of at the beach had to already be in effect to guarantee the safety of the two, or even their most carefully laid plans might dissolve, ending in the unexpected hanging of one or both of them. Still, he couldn't help the excited feeling that warmed his toes when he caught sight of the familiar ring that had belonged to his mother on Victoria's right hand. The sparkle was almost strong enough to represent his emotions for her. Almost.

Alejandro speculatively eyed his son, pondering what was distracting him so badly. He took a spoonful of the albundigas soup he had ordered from the kitchen while Victoria stood beside their table and carefully averted her gaze from his son as she delivered the last of their supper orders before the food had a chance to cool. Then she disappeared back into her kitchen, leaving Alejandro with the satisfying food and Diego with tingles he could barely ignore. But Alejandro hadn't noticed any overt change in their behaviors, nor had he caught sight of the familiar ring on Victoria's finger. Instead, he carefully inquired of Diego, I just remembered, I wanted to ask about where you were when we came back home right before lunch. I looked for you, but couldn't find you anywhere.

For a second, Diego's heart froze until he reminded himself how Victoria had asked that they not wait to marry. They had the perfect excuse now, and he didn't want to miss this sudden opportunity. Fighting the desire to be explanatory and brisk in his response, he asked his own question, Do you ever wonder about the fragility of life, Father?

Alejandro looked up, the spoon halfway to his mouth, arrested by his son's unexpected words. The fragility?

Diego continued, Yes, the brevity. Ever since... Gilberto... died, I've been thinking about that.

Alejandro lowered his spoon. All he could think was Oh, no. He hoped that all Diego had done was think, that he hadn't done anything improper or rash. Aloud he asked, All right, tell me, Diego. Where did you go this morning?

All pretense of thinking disappeared. With the morning's encounter on the beach in mind, he forced himself to brightly say, I went with Victoria to the small beach we own. While I was there, I asked her to marry me. Then he attacked the enchiladas he had requested from the kitchen before he had a chance to change his mind and say something else.

Alejandro spit out the soup he had taken in the most ungentlemanly motion he'd performed in his entire life. Did I hear you correctly? he asked.

You did. Diego brushed futilely at the soup encasing his shirt as the tavern's other patrons stopped what they were doing, stared at them for a moment, then returned to their own conversations and concerns. Felipe realized that his mentor must have explained his secret at last to the woman of his dreams. The young man looked wide-eyed and horrified. Diego ignored him, hoping that Felipe would get used to sharing the secret soon enough.

Acknowledging that his actions had drawn the attentions of those currently in the tavern, Alejandro realized the need to spread this news quickly, before his son or Victoria were caught. Incredulous, only half acting, he barked a laugh. Did she accept?

Diego swallowed a bite of enchilada, and refused to look his father straight in his eye. She did.

Alejandro appeared even more incredulous. What about Zorro? It was a question that any father would be bound to ask.

That statement halted Diego, who looked up at his father. Being careful and carefully noncommittal, he said, I'm well aware of her past relationship with Zorro. Everybody is.

Alejandro inquired in amazement, And that doesn't bother you? He, like any father or member of the pueblo, was simply showing concern about his only child, and that led him to be less guarded in his questions.

Diego chose his next words while still being extra cautious. A great deal hinged on what he divulged. She said she preferred not to wait.

Yes, but Victoria? Alejandro spluttered in disbelief.

Diego paused in eating. Why not? he asked, then confessed with a sigh, I suppose you'll find out sooner or later, and you might as well hear it from me.

Alejandro suddenly looked as worried as Felipe. Find out what, Diego?

Diego stared at his food, looking contrite. That I've been in love with her for many years.

This didn't come as a surprise to Alejandro, though he tried to look surprised. He furtively glanced around at the people in the tavern to see if anyone was eavesdropping, but nobody was paying them the least bit of attention. And that's all you have to say? That's the only excuse you can give? he said back.

Diego was certain not to look at anybody as he quietly gave his answer, realizing that the sacrifices for his secret had only just begun. I know what everybody in the pueblo feels for their defender, but I had to speak while I had the chance; I love Victoria. He calmly stressed the correct word, hoping to convey his hidden message with it, that they were discussing his feelings, Diego's feelings, and not just his alter-ego's feelings.

Comprehension lit Alejandro's eyes. You do? He paused for a moment as he assimilated this startling information. Then he thought to lower his voice. Why didn't you say anything about this while we were at home? he hissed. Or last year? Or when you returned from Spain? He was concerned about his tone enough not to want to attract any more looks than he already had.

Diego just shrugged. It seemed like such a nice secret to keep for a while.

Alejandro ran an agitated hand through his hair. You and secrets. I suppose three years wasn't long enough?

Diego responded by correcting his faulty parent even as he lowered his voice, too. Four, almost five, years. He couldn't help but glance at Felipe and quickly winked, and was gratified when the young man winked back, albeit a bit sheepishly, but the movement was definitely a wink. And it's really been only a few months since Zorro proposed.

This was another shock. Proposed?

Diego gave a discreet nod, hardly moving his head.

Alejandro shook his own head. Something this momentous will certainly not be a secret.

Diego now appeared uncomfortable, yet determined. We can just tell everybody the truth for a change, that I've been encouraged by Gilberto's death to finally be honest. It's so incredible that people will believe it.

Alejandro wasn't so convinced. No one will believe it.

Yes, they will, argued Diego. You said yesterday that I can count on you for anything. Now is the time to prove it.

Alejandro's demeanor changed as he conceived that he would have to act surprised, but accepting of this unexpected news. The fact that he was accepting really didn't matter in the grand scheme of things. He had to act it. Barely above a whisper, his voice nearly drowned out by the common noise of the tavern during the supper hour, he argued, I meant how can I help with... those other things.

Diego still didn't look at anybody as he whispered, I'm quite determined in this.

Alejandro sighed, the sound cutting through the noise of the tavern, but no one paid attention. What have you decided to do about... other previous expectations?

Diego knew his father was asking about his earlier proclaimed feelings for Victoria as Zorro, even though Alejandro hadn't said so aloud. The people will understand a relinquishment of previous obligations, he answered.

Alejandro gaped. Previous..? Then he schooled his features into something less noticeable. I'm not so sure.

Just tell everybody that I can be very persuasive when I want to be, Diego explained.

At that point, Alejandro gave up. All right, it's you're neck.

Diego attempted to lighten the mood. Don't remind me.

Alejandro was clearly flummoxed, but covered his look well. In a much louder voice, he said, As long as Victoria is agreeable, I have no reservations to such a... match. But I seriously didn't know a thing about your feelings for her, and I'm your own father! he exclaimed. He carefully watched his son, but only saw a steely resolve to go through with the plans already agreed upon. Eventually, still being careful, he asked, What date will the banns advertise?

One month from now, declared Diego with certitude. The twelfth of October.

The twelfth! Alejandro exclaimed in surprise, and though he knew of his son's secret identity, even that haste astonished him. That's hardly enough time to plan a wedding!

Diego calmly took another bite of food now that it appeared he had convinced even his father. It will have to be, he informed.

Alejandro spluttered again. But, Diego, can you..? He looked embarrassed now, and his voice lowered again in accordance to his thoughts, though the hush was not meant to cover anything this time. Can you handle Victoria?

Diego glanced at Felipe again. The young man tried to retain enough composure to smile back. I look forward to trying, was all Diego would reply.

Alejandro still appeared reluctant. You'll try? You'll have to do more than try!

Diego was glad for the distraction of the food, knowing that it saved him from a truly severe lecture. I don't know; I've handled your temper just fine all these years.

Diego's attempt at humor went unnoticed. Yes, but, this is Victoria we're talking about!

Yes, Diego said, finally growing irritated himself, though his expression was practiced to be cool and bland. And she's my fiancée now; I'd appreciate it if you show her all the kindness that you would show anybody.

Properly contrite after that unexpected reproof, Alejandro spluttered, I... I... All right. One month from now, despite his natural misgivings. He kept forgetting that he really didn't know his son or what he was capable of.

Diego just smiled, glad that it appeared he had convinced his father, perhaps one of the hardest people he had to persuade. I know you'll make Victoria very happy.

And far be it from me to stand in the way of anybody's happiness, declared Alejandro.

It was at that moment that DeSoto suddenly appeared next to their table. Has any of you seen the sergeant lately?

No, Alejandro said honestly, and tried to look as blandly curious as to the sergeant's whereabouts as Diego. Then, unable to resist putting the plan in motion at his first opportunity, as was his way, he twisted further around on his bench so he could see all of his Alcalde. Do you want to be the first to hear? he asked in a good imitation of an enthusiastic parent.

DeSoto was nonplussed. Hear what? he disdained.

Alejandro replied, Diego is getting married.

Here it comes, Diego thought, wondering if he would spend his night at the hacienda, in his bed, or on the bunk in the Alcalde's jail.

DeSoto hesitantly looked towards Diego. You're joking, he announced, his typical derision in place. To who?

Whom, Diego corrected mildly.

DeSoto glared at him.

Victoria, Diego said calmly, as if announcing the dinner menu for the next week, though he was far from the calm that his exterior suggested.

DeSoto gaped and then laughed. Zorro's woman?

Diego dropped his fork and it clattered onto the dish even while he noted the look of fear that Felipe was trying his best to extinguish. He pretended to be slightly put out at the comment. Please don't call her that. She is not 'Zorro's' anything.

DeSoto passed a gloved hand over his mouth. Forgive me. It's just that... When? he asked, incredulous.

Don Alejandro saved his son from replying. One month.

A month! DeSoto was clearly surprised to hear this.

Diego spoke up then. I can be quite... persuasive... when I want to be, he said, with his voice full of suggestion that he knew the Alcalde would be unable to resist.

Alejandro spoke again, quite an actor when he had to be. He says he's been in love with her for years.

Really? asked a suddenly suspicious DeSoto. Still trying to be polite, since even the de la Vega's position in the community demanded respect, yet fishing for the information he wanted, he asked, Since when?

Diego wished his father, and the Alcalde, were not so ardent, but didn't see the point in upholding the pretense any longer. If Victoria had to mislead everybody in the real reasons for hers and Diego's seemingly precipitous decision to marry, then so would he, only he added a dash of the truth. Since I came home from Spain. Since we were children. Forever, he declared. The death of my brother was the factor that convinced me to be honest at last, he added, then held his breath. Would DeSoto buy such reasoning?

DeSoto appeared to be considering Diego's final statement even as he passed a glove across his mouth in silent deference for the dead Emissary. He looked confused. Spain? he repeated, still guarded. That's about the same time that Zorro presented himself, isn't it?

Diego did his utmost to cover up his pounding heart behind a calm demeanor. His hands were prepared to heave the table into the Alcalde, just in case. Yes, it is, he said as if considering the facts for the first time ever. But I'm here now.

DeSoto laughed again with a disbelieving shake of his head. but said, So you are. Well, my hat goes off to you, Don Diego, for speaking up, he said, his tone insincere.

If only he really knew what he was commenting on! Diego thought as he accepted the Alcalde's comments with a nod of his head.

Though I would keep a close watch on her if I was you, DeSoto ended.

Diego felt his temper rise at the unkind reference, and didn't pretend not to understand. Though the actions were difficult to display, he wanted the pueblo to finally understand that he too had the de la Vega temper, and there was no reason not to begin his unveiling with the Alcalde. Nobody, not even DeSoto, insulted Victoria with such an insinuation. Don't worry, I plan on keeping an eye on her, though not for the reason you imply, he said.

DeSoto put a hand to his chest. You wound me, Diego.

I don't think so, Diego replied, his gaze pinned to the Alcalde. Victoria's reputation was worth a look or two of death.

With a shrug of mock hurt, the Alcalde straightened his military jacket, making the epaulets on his shoulders wriggle.

Diego had pricked the other man's pride, and he knew he risked spending the night in jail, as the Alcalde had threatened, or even worse, for insulting a public officer, but it successfully removed the attention from Zorro and fixed it on Diego. It was a risk he was prepared to take. Like the daring man he really was, he added salt to the wound. Please don't speak of my fiancée in such a manner.

Furious, the Alcalde warned, Be very careful, Señor, or you'll be spending that night in my jail.

Alejandro appeared incensed at the suggestion, just for good measure, but Diego remained calm. Victoria's worth it, he said.

Alejandro tilted his head, unable to stay out of the battle of wills any longer. Diego! Alcalde! Let's be friends.

DeSoto growled like it would be a cold day in hell before he was friends with a de la Vega. Diego stared icily out of his blue eyes.

DeSoto was the first to glance away. May I offer my condolences... er, my congratulations, he corrected.

Thank you, Diego said, all the while knowing that such a prize as Victoria really was worth a lie or two to his worst enemy. With that DeSoto turned and walked out of the tavern. Diego felt the knots in his chest unwind. He hadn't realized how tense he'd been. It would never be so difficult again.

Little did he know, however, life was about to get almost as difficult.

Victoria appeared through the curtains from the kitchen, carrying more plates full of food for customers, hiding her feelings behind an appropriate face of unconcern, though she carefully refrained from looking at Diego. She delivered the plates, but couldn't resist stopping at the de la Vega table to inquire, Can I get anything for anybody? She was trying hard not to display her new knowledge in her expression, and Diego expected that he was the only one at the table not taken in by her deception.

Alejandro couldn't let well enough alone. Victoria, my dear, Diego has just told us all the news, he feigned in an unnaturally loud tone of voice.

Victoria quickly glanced once at Diego, then brightened. Really? I hope we're not being too precipitous. But the truth is that I've wanted to get married for many years.

Is that so? Alejandro interjected, but Diego heard the apprehension in his tone.

To allay any further questions and disbelief, Diego had no choice but to lay down his fork and pull Victoria beside him on the long bench. He left his hand on her arm. Showing affection while in public was something that they would have to get used to eventually, and they might as well start right now. To tell the truth to himself, he thoroughly enjoyed both the spectacle they were creating, and the feel of her under his hand. It wasn't hard to force the smile to his lips when he felt her form settle beside him on the bench. For her part, she easily placed an arm around his waist, ending a lot of the speculation and gossip before it even got started by the innocent action.

Alejandro tried not to look amazed at her display of affection, knowing that it would be the hardest to hide the secret right at the beginning. He tried to look unconcerned, and smiled, though his expression wavered into one more incredulous than one showing unconditional acceptance. The rest of the tavern's patrons instantly grew hushed, watching them with open curiosity.

My father thinks we're rushing things a bit, Diego commented nonchalantly to Victoria, though all the while knowing this conversation was for the benefit of the pueblo's citizens currently in her tavern. With any luck, the news of his and Victoria's impending wedding would be all over Los Angeles within the hour, and the need to pretend would no longer exist.

Does he? asked Victoria, willing to play along for the sake of the seemingly hasty decision to marry. You can rest assured, Don Alejandro, that there's nothing rushed about this relationship. I've known Diego for years, she said almost too loudly. Diego squeezed her hand in warning, and she instantly lowered the volume of her voice. This isn't how I anticipated my life to turn out, but when Diego asked, I could hardly deny my feelings in the matter. She grinned.

Diego smiled again. He wondered if she knew how much gossip her comment would stem.

Alejandro blustered, Of course I don't think things are rushed!

Diego offered Victoria his own smile again. He thinks we should wait longer than a month, he declared.

I said no such thing, Alejandro denied. I'm just... overwhelmed a bit by the prospect of planning a wedding in four weeks. That doesn't give us much time.

Diego knew his tone was dry, and he tried to make it even more full of irony. You'll adjust.

Of course, Alejandro said uncomfortably, and Diego would have laughed at his father's actions at any other time.

A month is plenty long enough for me, Diego said instead.

Alejandro noted Victoria's silence, but rather than simply repeating the time frame, asked something that had been swirling in his mind ever since she appeared. Victoria, what about Zorro? he addressed the concern most prominent in everybody's heart.

Victoria's discomfort showed for a second. She steepled her fingers together. Beside her, Diego offered his support by squeezing her arm, but secretly held his breath as he waited for her answer. I think, Don Alejandro, that we both know that his fight for justice will never end. He'll never be free enough to marry, and Diego is here, right now, as free as I could wish. She shrugged, then turned to Diego and smiled.

Alejandro looked like he didn't want to believe the obvious as it hit him in the face. You're not..? I mean, this isn't..? He glanced at Felipe, but found no help from that quarter, and finally asked the question that everybody else wanted to ask, but wouldn't out of sensibility for the couple. You're not marrying Diego out of spite, are you?

Diego might be nervous, but even that was too critical for him to take. Father!

Alejandro looked appropriately scandalized. But only four weeks!

It's plenty long enough for me to find or make a wedding dress, Victoria declared. And of course I haven't made this decision out of spite. Diego's real. He's been my best friend for years; it's only natural that I would want him as a husband.

Diego looked at Victoria in apparent affection and, incapable of keeping the devotion that he was feeling from creeping into his voice, said simply, Thank you. Then he turned to his father, fairly emanating justification, and giving her arm another conspicuous, claiming, squeeze. Showing such regard was exhilarating, if he was honest with himself. That's certainly enough for me.

She glanced at him in trepidation, but covered it and offered affection in return, saying, I would like to look nice at the wedding, though, Diego.

Diego smiled and sincerely declared, You look nice in anything you wear. At least that wasn't a lie.

Victoria's face showed her surprise at the compliment, but she covered that, too, by smiling back. Thank you. I never knew you could say such nice things, she was brave enough to confide.

Get used to it, Diego advised gently, and slid his hand from her arm to encircle her waist again.

Alejandro reacted immediately in embarrassment at their display of affection. Well, if you're ready, Diego, we'll be going as soon as we finish supper. Victoria has to serve, he pointed out.

Diego pushed his cold food aside, or what was left of it. I'm ready. Then he turned to Victoria. I'll see you later. It felt intensely strange to be saying that in front of people; they had rarely known when, or even if, they were going to see each other again, as such a meeting had always been secretive before.

Next time, Victoria promised with a smile. She wasn't quite brave enough to display her true affections in public yet. But she gave him a covert embrace instead.

Diego didn't miss the endearment or its hidden meaning, and was heartened. He gave her a much more noticeable squeeze back.

Alejandro was still amazed, no matter how he behaved to the contrary. But he rose with as much nonchalance as he could muster, and headed for the door.

Victoria nodded. Vaya con Dios, she said.

Diego nodded, and left her on the bench he was vacating. Next time, he whispered, a twinkle in his eye.

Her palm in her own hand again, she watched him go before returning to work. The tavern's patrons remained silent until the de la Vegas departed.

Diego, began Alejandro as soon as they rode out of town. Diego urged his horse up beside his father. I'm a little hesitant about this... match with Victoria.

Diego smiled inside, and he knew that Felipe was squashing the same impulse. He realized the younger man wanted to ask what he was doing, but had remained quiet to allow his patron to voice his concerns instead. Diego said, deliberately misunderstanding, Don't worry, Father. We still have a month to plan everything.

Alejandro did show his amusement. That's not what I meant.

Diego looked quizzical. Then what did you mean?

Well... I... Alejandro finally said, I'm a bit surprised by this sudden desire to marry Victoria. I mean... Do you know what you're going to do with the tavern?

We haven't really discussed it yet, Diego honestly replied. I suppose she'll want to keep it, so that... He stopped, looking like he was too embarrassed to go on.

So that what?

Diego bobbed his head and finally answered, not wishing to distress his father, but seeing he had no choice. So that our children can someday have the opportunity to run it.

Diego! expostulated Alejandro, reddening at even a hidden reference to making love, though it was what had propelled his son into revealing himself to Victoria, and it was the only way he could possibly get the grandchildren he was always saying he wanted.

Diego sighed, thinking again of Victoria's smooth skin. You asked, he said by way of explanation, but didn't divulge what was really on his mind.

Unlike the open inquisitiveness of Alejandro, Felipe remained silent until they were checking experiments later that night in the safety of the secret cave. Waving his arms, Felipe asked what Diego was up to the minute they were alone.

Diego immediately felt defensive with his friend, but he squashed the sensation. What was I supposed to do? he asked with his hands out in supplication. It's been weeks since I've seen her. The choice was either declare myself or go insane.

Felipe glared at him accusingly.

I know! Diego explained. He ran a hand over his hair then. I know the danger to her is extreme, but I simply couldn't resist her anymore.

With more arm movements, Felipe indicated that he thought Diego should have tried to resist her.

Diego instantly grew angry. I've resisted for long enough! he exclaimed, then grew calmer. He took a deep breath, glanced away, then back at Felipe. Look, Felipe, I know that you don't want to share my secret with anybody, but I don't wish us to disagree about my chosen course of action this morning. I love Victoria, and if any retribution befalls her because of me, of our shared emotions, I'll... He looked at Felipe for a suspended moment, beseeching, and it appeared that he grew smaller in the span of a heart beat. He whispered, I'm so afraid right now, Felipe, so afraid that DeSoto will do something drastic to her to get to me. But to resist my emotions was impossible... His voice trailed off once more into the silence.

Felipe looked at his mentor, then slowly smiled a close-lipped smile, tentatively, knowing that his father needed support now more than recriminations. He may not agree with Diego's decisions, but he was darned if he was going to say so. He only hoped that things turned out for the best.

A few days of doubtful calm fell on the pueblo and all its citizens. Victoria openly wore her engagement ring, and she and Diego began showing more of their true affections for each other whenever he visited Los Angeles. They even spoke to the padre about what they wanted in their upcoming wedding. Since they had never had the time to discuss such things, or anything, really, it was like getting to know an entirely new person for Diego and Victoria during those talks with the padre. They're relationship had never been conducive to much talking until now. They both marveled at the freedom, but didn't comment on it in front of anybody lest they inadvertently give themselves away. But it appeared that Diego's original fears about DeSoto were once again unfounded. Unfortunately, those few days were the calm before the storm.

A week after Diego and Victoria's unexpected announcement of their upcoming marriage, Felipe ran into the hacienda, searching frantically for Diego. The young man found his mentor and patron in the library, quietly reading before lunch. The calm didn't last long.

What's wrong, Felipe? Alejandro asked at once, putting down his book so that his servant would have his complete attention. Diego, on the other hand, was used to being interrupted by Felipe's apparent dramatics.

Felipe glanced from Diego to Alejandro, then must have decided that his message was important enough that they should both see it. He signed to the caballeros, using hand movements that only Diego, through years of practice, would be able to read. He faked poor comprehension, but even a poor reader would have no trouble figuring out what Felipe was trying to communicate.

Diego slammed his book shut, and his eyes glittered. The Alcalde has jailed Victoria again, he announced, deceptively quiet, his anger was so high that he didn't even try to hide it.

What? Alejandro started up. But that's impossible now!

It's not impossible, not for DeSoto, Diego commented grimly. Go on Felipe. I think you know more.

Felipe glanced again to Alejandro, then resolutely signed the rest of his story.

Diego put his book on a little side table, still appearing collected, but obviously furious according to the way he clenched his jaw. Because of her previous sentiments for Zorro, he confirmed quietly, and nodded. He shook his head, astonished at the Alcalde's gall. In a whisper attached to his anger that Victoria had to pay once again for his deception, he said, I was afraid of this.

Alejandro jumped up, ready to come to the defense of his future daughter-in-law. Well, let's go, Diego. We can't just take this lying down! We have to fight!

Slowly, purposefully, Diego stood, his quiet deceiving. It was certainly as awful as his father's blustering. Oh, I plan to fight this, he said to his father, his voice so deadly calm and determined that anybody would be frightened of it if they were intelligent. Then he turned to Felipe. Do you know what this is truly about? he asked Felipe.

The young man looked at Diego, wide-eyed, and shook his head.

Diego drew a breath before answering, forcing down his anger, certain that such a feeling, while useful, would ultimately get in the way of any planned action on his part. He was only half successful in burying the raging sensation that coursed through his blood. She's being used as bait, again. He's trying to draw the masked man into the open. His face turned to steel and he clenched his teeth. But he's chosen the wrong man to infuriate this time. Saddle the horses, Felipe. We're going in to Los Angeles. His command was terse, forgetting Felipe's future status for the first time. And even though his tone had always been quiet and controlled, there was no doubt in Felipe's or Alejandro's minds that they were witnessing the words of a vehemently angry man.

It was a new side of Diego not often seen, and Alejandro might have realized even more if he had not been consumed by anger himself. As it was, Alejandro felt his own blood boiling in his veins, as it often had over the recent years since DeSoto's arrival from Spain. He was just glad that his son had enough emotion to get involved in a dispute this time. However, it was enough for him to miss the danger of such a display of anger from his typically peaceful son.

Diego didn't say a word during the two mile ride to Los Angeles, but his silence was as deceitful as the lie he'd been living the past few years. His quiet was at odds to his father's constant barrage of words against DeSoto, but he was no less of a threat to his solitude.

However, at odds with his quiet up till now, Diego openly exhibited his temper the minute he thrust open the Alcalde's office door. Without a greeting, he leaned onto the front of DeSoto's desk with both hands, one on each corner, trying to contain himself, and immediately ordered, Let her go.

DeSoto halted the conversation he was having with Sergeant Mendoza in mid-sentence, the papers pertaining to that conversation waving uselessly in his hand, surprised at the demand. Then he recovered his usual confidence, though he didn't need to ask whom the tall caballero meant. I can't do that, Diego, he announced, sounding regretful, but firm.

Diego straightened and crossed his arms, attempting to control the dangerous emotion that swelled inside him like a whirlpool. He didn't think he had ever been so angry before, and for a moment, he was thankful that he didn't have his sword with him. Who knew what he might do? However, he also wasn't able to maintain the facade he'd always employed around other people, either, and more of his true personality shone through in his words and actions than ever before. It was a reckless way to behave, especially towards the Alcalde, but Diego was as incapable of holding back his real abilities now as the sky was able to hold back the rain. Victoria's life was in danger, once again because of him, and he refused to sit by while his alter-ego answered the challenge. As you so often remind us, you can do anything you want, he said, not caring any longer if he'd heard that statement as Zorro or as Diego. His fury was barely contained. He visibly shook as it was. Release her.

The Alcalde stared shrewdly at Diego for a moment. He appeared suspicious, then shook his head, as if he wanted to clear it of a sudden thought that was too ridiculous to consider. Yet, Diego also wasn't fooled by the genial tone of the government official's voice. Victoria Escalante is set to hang this evening.

What? Alejandro interjected, his own blazing anger outdone only by his surprise.

Diego didn't even try to contain his wrath at this news, but he was still quiet compared to Alejandro. He slowly uncrossed his arms and let them fall to his sides. That is my fiancé you've got locked up in your jail. I demand her release at once.

DeSoto actually laughed. You can demand all you want, Diego. But the truth is that her previous sentiments for a known outlaw target her for the hangman's noose. The punishments for treason of any kind are very specific. There's nothing I can do.

Treason! Alejandro bellowed, but it was his benign son that the Alcalde understood he had to keep a wary eye on. Diego's fury was new, and unpredictable, and dangerous because of it.

Diego's hidden temper knew no bounds now. His voice grew softer yet. Let's be honest, Ignacio; Victoria is not guilty of any treason. She's only being used as bait, and we both know it.

DeSoto slammed down the papers in his hands, but the action was for show as much as for flaunting his own sudden animosity. Truthfully, he had never seen Diego in such a temper before. He couldn't predict what the man was capable of. And in such a situation, he always stayed to his original course. I will do no such thing! Until Zorro agrees to take her place, she stays right where she is!

Diego's jaw worked back and forth. Nobody's coming to take anybody's place. Everyone here knows that you want to parade her to the gallows in the hopes that Zorro will try to rescue her again, leaving you free to surround and capture him. We've all watched the same thing a hundred times.

DeSoto turned purple at having his plans so swiftly revealed. It doesn't matter what I want to do, he stated, recovering and hoping now to distract. She's in my jail, and she's going to stay there.

But Diego proved intent on his purpose. You're right, it doesn't matter, because he hasn't been seen in Los Angeles for weeks, and Victoria is my fiancé now.

DeSoto rose to his full, terrifying height, though he was still several inches shorter than Diego. He released his hold on the papers he'd previously slammed to his desk. Don't try to frighten me with your demands, de la Vega.

I'm not trying to frighten you, Ignacio, Diego persisted. He leaned forward. You would know it if I was trying to frighten you. What I'm concerned with is trying to reason you into releasing my fiancé, and maybe in saving your life. Diego's fury went up a notch. And don't you dare threaten me, Ignacio. Let her go.

The Alcalde nonchalantly reached for a drawer in his desk, just in case. Why don't you make me, he audaciously invited.

Faster than the uncoiling of the famous whip he often used, Diego's hand snaked out towards the drawer, glad he was standing so close to the office desk. In that same, fierce way, he took out the pistol kept in the drawer for emergencies and unloaded it before dropping it on the floor beside his father, far from DeSoto's reach. Close the drawer, he demanded, his voice still quiet and deceptive the angrier he grew.

DeSoto obviously hadn't anticipated his favorite pistol's hiding place being discovered so quickly, and by Diego no less, and he sputtered inelegantly, Really, Diego, how did you know about..?

All right, the time for lies is over, Diego suggested, and would have gone on, but was interrupted by the door suddenly bursting open, letting in a square of morning sunshine onto the smooth and polished floor.

A group of citizens, twenty or thirty strong, crowded in, all of them with belligerent expressions on their faces, and all of them carrying a motley collection of firearms in their hands. They didn't come in shooting, but they looked like they were about to.

Ah, said old Hector Manual, the obvious spokesman of the group, we see that the de la Vegas have beaten us here, and what with Don Diego's and Señorita Victoria's recent announcement of their future wedding, I'm not surprised.

What's the meaning of this? DeSoto instantly demanded, looking fierce but not sounding it.

It's a coup, or a revolution, or a group of people who are really fed up, take your pick, replied Hector, a local merchant, a popular man known for his gentleness. Now, however, he looked anything but gentle. We ask two things. No, we demand two things, he said as he brandished his pistol, and Diego, though still angry, did his best to duck out of its range lest it should 'accidentally' go off. First, de la Cruz, escort the sergeant from the premises and out to the men guarding the lancers, ordered Hector.

de la Cruz waved to several men, and they instantly pointed Mendoza to the green, office door, using their guns as instigation to convince the sergeant to move. With one look of agony at his superior officer and a shrug of his military uniform, the sergeant left, his footsteps echoing on the planks of the wooden floor. Three men left with him. The others crowded around the Alcalde, and as there were so many, to be crowded around was practically to be squeezed into the wall.

Now, Hector continued very seriously, we ask that you first release Señorita Escalante, and that you then leave. And you'll comply unless you want to be riddled with about ten bullets. He glanced around at the evident miscalculation of the men with him. Hey, we can't all miss, he said congenially, despite his words and the situation.

Now, you listen here... began DeSoto, but that was as far as he got before he was interrupted.

It was Hector who didn't let him finish. No, it's time that you 'listen here.' The arrest of our tavern owner, no matter what her sentiments have been in the past, is the final straw. Your 'justice' is nothing more that an obsession that we're personally tired of being afraid of. You have fifteen minutes to pack and leave, or we will shoot you, and i can guarantee that. As for me, I hope you take too long, but the others have convinced me to restrain myself. You can't have all your wishes come true, eh, Don Diego?

For a moment, they all stared at each other, showing their open hostilities, and his final words made Diego wonder if the truth was uncovered by everyone in town. But before he could contemplate that information too heavily, DeSoto turned to him as well. What did you know about this insurrection, de la Vega?

Diego kept his hands at his sides, not trusting what he might do with them, and refused to take his cold gaze off his old schoolmate. Yet his voice was still deceptively soft. I am as surprised as you are. We knew nothing about any planned rebellion or insurrection. All I want is for my fiancé to be released. And she will be, or you will curse the day you were born, he promised.

Alejandro was a bit astonished at the height of his son's anger. Diego! he admonished, though he doubted his words of derailment were even heard in the battle of wills that he was witnessing.

The Alcalde eyed Diego, then eyed the men behind the pistols pointed at him. The men cocked their weapons as one, and the sound reverberated around the room. DeSoto seemed to be sizing up the intent of the men, and opened his mouth to say something.

Hector again interrupted. I wouldn't call for your lancers this time, if I were you. They're being watched even as we speak, probably sitting in the dirt they're so famous for protecting. They'll be released as soon as you're gone. Despite the gravity of his words, he stood before the Alcalde's desk, completely relaxed. You see, we're doing what Zorro's high code of honor keeps him from committing; we're forcing your resignation at gunpoint. We're tired of your crazy taxes, your undeserving arrests, and of you. Get out, and go back to Spain, Señor.

DeSoto then tried looking humble. He turned to his caballero acquaintance from his own university days. Diego...

But Diego's quiet voice interjected, These men just saved your life, Ignacio. Take their suggestion and go. Then, louder, he added, To anybody desiring to set the prisoner free, there are a set of extra keys hanging from a nail in the jail.

DeSoto glared at Diego. How do you know that?

But it was Hector who responded. Everybody knows that. Garcia, Mistolez, go into the jail and release her, he ordered, and as the two men immediately left, mumbled, You have to do everything yourself around here...

DeSoto tried general laughter next. You wouldn't really have killed me, would you, Diego? A peaceful man like yourself?

He's trying to get me on his side, Diego realized, and the thought made him even angrier. Who truly knows what I'm capable of when angry. After all, he pointed out almost kindly now that he knew Victoria was being released. I have the de la Vega temper as well, though I certainly don't know what I'm capable of doing with it when provoked. He intimated all and nothing with his response, not saying yes or no one way or the other, though he did indicate that no one should want to provoke him into finding out what he was capable of.

You have fourteen minutes, Señor, Hector warned almost lazily, and waved his pistol around again. But the second the Alcalde moved towards the door to the plaza, the pistol steadied and didn't waver from it's target. I advise you not to underestimate us, he cautioned, his expression turning hard.

Hector would have said more, but just then the door to the jail opened again, and the two men, followed by Victoria, pushed into the room. Victoria instantly shoved her way to her fianceé.

Diego! she exclaimed, and immediately wrapped her arms around him in a tight embrace. I was arrested this morning! There was no way to tell you, no way to ask for help. If Felipe hadn't read lips through the window, I'd...

Diego embraced Victoria just as tightly. I know, I know, it's all right, now, he soothed, giving a never before seen kiss to her hair. The gathered men didn't react one way or the other to the unprecedented endearment coming from the usually very proper caballero. It was as if they expected it, and their expectations would lead the couple in the future.

The clock is ticking, said Hector, and he waved towards the Alcalde's quarters with his gun. His intention was perfectly clear. Deceptively benign, but clear nonetheless.

DeSoto's face fell into rage himself. You can't do this!

Hector calmly replied, To take a saying straight from you, we can do anything we want, since we've got the guns to back up our words this time, and I notice your pistol is on the floor, out of your reach. I guess we can thank Don Diego for that piece of luck. Now, move, and please, try to resist.

DeSoto eyed them warily. You'll never all fit into my quarters. There are too many of you.

But Hector had thought of that, too. Then we'll be waiting for you outside. And if your presence goes undetected in that amount of time, we'll come looking for you, shooting first and asking questions second. I hope for your delay, but we'll see. You have only thirteen minutes. And don't try to escape. We have the office surrounded. He smiled a sick little smile, then marched out of the office with his gathered men, someone taking the pistol with them from the floor.

Diego wrapped an arm around Victoria's waist and refused to let her go. Come on, let's get out of here he suggested, and as they were in the back of the group, were the last to leave the office. With her arm around his waist like it was, she could feel him tremble with adrenaline, and she knew just how close to death the former Alcalde had come. With no lancers to protect him, he'd been open prey to the man beneath Zorro's mask.

Just the deliberation of such an event made Victoria shiver.

At the door, Diego turned to contemplate the fortunes of his fellow university student. DeSoto stood, unmoving and in shock, behind his desk.

He was about to get another shock. Diego couldn't resist a parting jab at his old enemy. He quietly said, Oh, and by the way, Ignacio, I'm the man you're looking for. I always have been. And he gave a cocky smile and saluted with two fingers to his forehead, almost as if he was wearing a hat. DeSoto blanched as Diego and Victoria left the office together, sunshine highlighting their forms until even they were swallowed up and disappeared.

Unceremoniously, Ignacio DeSoto left Los Angeles, the 'escort' of ten men and their loaded guns instant persuasion. Diego settled down to wait out the three weeks before his wedding with Victoria. He spent several hours every day reading at the tavern, sitting at the outside tables when it wasn't too hot to do much of anything, and seated at an inside table when it was too hot outside to be comfortable. As he waited throughout those long weeks, he watched the weather change to become even warmer, some children of the pueblo grow an inch over night, and Padre Benitez's grape arbor at the mission droop lower and lower towards the ground while Victoria kept his ever-present glass filled with juice no matter where he was sitting. He came to know the regulars at the tavern extremely well, and they came to know him as the rather wealthy, though eccentric, young admirer of Señorita Escalante's, but never as Zorro, the masked rider and savior of the pueblo. And he never told the truth, either.

But as the days slowly crept by, the tiny town still did not have a replacement alcalde, and though he received a few endearments from Victoria every day, the ones Diego gladly accepted only increased his desire for more, and his longing for her started to infiltrate everything he did. Sometimes he recalled how close he and Victoria had come to a permanent ending of that infiltration, and he shuddered. On the whole, though, he didn't spend his time in recollection, but in waiting impatiently for his wedding, and he began driving those at his home crazy. It was the longest three weeks in de la Vega history.

The time, however, came to an end, and it was finally the day of the planned activity, and the day of the party that Don Alejandro insisted on throwing to celebrate the marriage of his only son. The church was appropriately decorated, the bride was appropriately smiling much wider than on her previous trip down the same aisle, and Victoria's brother, Ramon, was only too happy to give her away to the de la Vegas as Francisco watched. Padre Benitez celebrated this 'most special union,' but didn't elaborate, and when the ceremony was over, Diego pulled Felipe aside in front of the mission.

Are you certain the guests won't be arriving for another half hour? It would be good to get away from this crush of people and be alone to think for just a little while.

Even you probably won't be doing much thinking, Diego, but yes, the guests won't be arriving for at least thirty minutes, promised Alejandro as he approached, a knowing smile on his face, though what he thought he knew and what was actually going to happen were two different things. Still, even Diego had to concede that some privacy on this busy day would be most welcome.

Diego sent his father a look of knowing exasperation before assisting Victoria into the most comfortable carriage owned by the de la Vegas. The wedding carriage, decorated by Felipe and some of his closest friends, wheeled as quietly as possible out of the pueblo, thanks to Diego's generous greasing party the day before, Victoria's horse tied to the back and ambling along quite contentedly, provided she had enough hay in her mesh feeding bag to eat along the way. The small bulge in the pocket of Diego's caballero coat was a gentle reminder of what he planned to do now on this warm, sunny, lazy day.

Diego, said the still smiling Victoria from the seat beside him, you still haven't told me what we're going to do next, or what I'm going to see. She was allowing her true emotions for him to show at last, and her smile grew, even in its curiosity.

Diego smiled back, but only said, I have something to show you. and urged the horse to a faster walk on the familiar trek to the hacienda.

Which is what, exactly? asked Victoria, her curiosity almost burning a hole through her white silk wedding dress.

Diego's smile only grew wider at that possibility. You'll see, he said enigmatically, and looked sideways at his wife as she gratefully slouched against the seat and tried to stifle a yawn. Tired?

A little, Victoria admitted. I didn't get much sleep last night.

Diego eyed her in a way that indicated he wished he had visited her the previous evening, but as he knew he hadn't, Victoria's insomnia was as much a mystery to him as it was to her. We'll have to make certain we go to bed early tonight, he softly promised in a voice dripping with suggestion.

Victoria laughed at his tone, though her mirth sounded highly agreeable. We'll have to do that.

Diego finally looked her full in the face and said, That's what I have planned, he joked, and moved closer to her on the cushioned seat of the carriage to encase her in a one armed hug while the other hand was occupied with driving the horse, though the horse didn't need much driver concentration to tell her where her next bucket of grain would be from.

Victoria moved obligingly nearer and laid her head on Diego's shoulder, her curls fanning out over his formal caballero jacket.

Diego tenderly kissed her hair. Almost there, he said in a whisper, still slightly astonished that she had agreed to marry him at all, and certainly surprised that she had come towards him and the new life he represented carrying wild flowers and wearing smiles.

The rest of the trip was finished in companionable silence, and Diego pulled the horse to a stop beside the hacienda's front door. Victoria didn't need any assistance getting down from the carriage, but Diego couldn't resist the opportunity to let her slide seductively down the full length of his body. He rewarded her choice with a kiss that left both of them trembling and longing to do more. But Diego's surprise called them on.

What do you want to show me? asked the ever-inquisitive Victoria when she could speak again. Still, dots that had nothing to do with the sunlight shining on the scene danced in front of her eyes. She blinked, hoping to clear her vision so she could have an unimpeded view of her new husband.

Patience, mi preciosa, Diego whispered. He kissed her once on the cheek, then grabbed her hand prior to leading her through the front door.

Oh, don't forget my saddlebags, Victoria remembered to say, which was an effort after the particular endearment that she had just enjoyed.

Diego grabbed her saddlebags, slung them over his shoulder, and led her stumbling behind him into the library, where he grinned at her, then touched his hand to a raised decoration on the mantel piece. As the hidden panel on the back of the fireplace opened and Victoria stared in open-mouthed surprise, he led her into a whole new world that spoke of years of work that had been frustrating, but simultaneously content. Victoria was as enthralled by the bubbling sound of boiling liquids as he had hoped her to be. Recognize this?

Victoria nodded, still speechless. The cave was hushed after the frenzy connected to the wedding, and Victoria looked a bit incongruous in her white wedding dress as she explored the experiments with her delicate fingers that were laid out on the long tables. It was a few moments before she noticed the blanket that Diego had spread out in the clean straw of Toronado's old stall.

What's this? she asked, flirting even as she held aloft the bottle of wine in her hands. Wine? Don't tell me you're planning to start drinking?

Diego chuckled as he joined her in sitting on the blanket and took the wine from her, pouring the already-open bottle containing the potentially lethal liquid into two provided goblets. No, he insisted, but one glass won't hurt now that Zorro's retired for good.

Victoria gazed at him in speculation. Zorro's retired? she questioned hopefully.

Diego handed one of the goblets to her and then raised his glass in a private toast of their marriage. Yes. I set Toronado free just yesterday. Zorro had better be retired since he no longer has a horse to ride.

Victoria practically choked on her wine. You freed Toronado? she asked in something akin to panic.

Diego nodded. Yes. Well, I couldn't have him kicking us while we sat here, he said in amusement. And besides, I had to clean the stall before I spread out this old blanket. Do you like it? he asked suddenly, indicating the piece of material covering the prickly straw. No Alcalde to interrupt us this time; how unusual. But cleaning the stall gave me the idea of letting Toronado go back to the wild.

This time Victoria did choke. The wild? Not the pasture?

Diego laughed. You have nothing to worry about; I know just where he is. Two hours after I set him free yesterday, he came back and jumped the fence into the mares' pasture. Apparently freedom didn't suit him very well.

Victoria smiled a bit flirtatiously. Reminds me of somebody I know. She smoothly ran her fingertips across his hand resting beside her on the blanket. You've just given me the best wedding present ever. Then she giggled at his obvious reaction to her words and grew much more businesslike in tone and demeanor. Now, what did you wish me to see?

This cave, for one. Diego waved his arm around to encompass the laboratory. I thought we shouldn't have secrets any longer. And I wish to give you this. He reached in to the inner pocket of his coat, which he had discarded when they sat down on the blanket, and pulled out a pendant set with two diamonds surrounding an emerald attached to a length of chain.

Oh! Victoria smiled, and took the necklace from his grasp. But you've given me so much already, she protested automatically, yet looked at her new acquisition.

I've wanted to buy something for you for four and a half, almost five years, Diego defended himself. I think I should indulge myself a bit. Well, you know I didn't sit at your tavern all the time. His argument fell on deaf ears as she dangled the chain before her critical eye. Diego hooked it around her creamy throat and added a hot kiss to the motion.

Slowly a smile crept over her features. That feels almost too good to take the time to give you my present. She held off for a moment, reached for her discarded saddlebags, and dug through the pile made by the clothes that she meant to wear while moving from the tavern to the hacienda, and finally found what she was looking for. She withdrew a small package, wrapped in black tissue paper, and handed it to him.

Thank you, he said, and gingerly held the gift in his large fingers.

You don't even know what it is, yet. Her smile became a grin as she gazed at his slightly accusatory expression. Well, you know I didn't sit at my tavern all the time, she repeated with a devilish air.

He gave her a look meant to quell her devilish streak, but then ripped open the paper like a young boy himself. Nestled inside was a gold wedding band, with tiny diamonds and an emerald embedded in it, a smaller representation of the ring that he had placed on her left hand only that day.

Victoria plucked the ring from his palm and slid it onto his finger. I hope it fits. It cost me almost everything I had saved up, which, after paying the mortgage on the tavern, wasn't much.

Diego held his hand out and looked at his new ring. Good guess, he said, referring to the size she had chosen. I guess this means we're truly married now. He smiled at her.

Victoria smiled back, aiming for sauciness, but not sure she actually showed that. Instead, she appeared about ready for surrender to the emotions just beginning to flow through her body. Softly, she swore, We've always been married in my heart, even when I didn't know it.

Diego smiled at her, but knew he couldn't take any more delay, either. With no hesitation, he reached for her and met her halfway, hungry in his demands as his mouth sought out hers, and his hands touched what had only been felt by him in his dreams. Carefully, he lowered them both back onto the cool blanket. Forgotten were the goblets of wine sitting on the cave's stone floor beside the blanket.

Alejandro turned once around in the deserted library. He seemed irritated as he looked throughout the sprawling hacienda for his son and new wife, but he could find neither of them, though the carriage was in the barn, like the two had driven home directly after the wedding. I thought Diego wanted a moment to himself so he could think.

Felipe just grinned, looked surreptitiously at the fireplace mantel, then led his patron out of the library. Diego, he suspected, was busy making those grandchildren that Alejandro always said he wanted. But then, Felipe figured, that's what one should expect when, for once, his own father told the truth.

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