Gold, Felipe. Diego de la Vega held up the vial in
In its liquid form, it should be fairly easy for us
to work with, but we'll have to be careful; this just came from
Europe, and I only have this one vial. He looked at the
young servant soon to become his son.
I hope it's enough for
our purposes. We'll know for sure in a little while, after we
You! The feminine rasp was at odds in a cave more
accustomed to having only male voices in it.
Diego whirled around, so surprised at the unexpected interruption that he dropped the vial in his hands. Yellow liquid seeped into cracks of the stone flooring, disappearing even as the glass crunched underfoot.
Victoria stood on the steps leading down from the anteroom, a look of thunderstruck incredulity on her beautiful face.
Diego couldn't quite believe his eyes. After dinner was over, he'd left Victoria to her own devices for a few minutes while he and Felipe had vanished into the cave to check his latest science experiment, but he never suspected that her own devices would lead her to his safe haven. In fact, he'd felt so secure that he never expected to be discovered in this manner. Thus, he had no plan for it.
Diego's heart congealed, then fell to his toes. He had protected his secret for so long from her that he had stopped expecting discovery of any kind. But still, he was able to collect his wits enough to suspect that she would want to rage at him for awhile, and to do that comfortably, he needed to send Felipe away. It was the last thing he wanted to do; the young man offered more support than he realized.
Can you clear the table, please, Felipe? Diego heard
himself say quite calmly. Only they both knew that the table
didn't need cleared of the dishes from dinner. The other de la
Vega servants would have whisked them away the minute Don
Alejandro and the others had left the dining room. But Felipe
went, for once glad to escape the cave and the scene that was
sure to ensue. Diego wasn't so lucky. He had no escape.
Felipe slipped past Victoria and out, working the hand release right in front of her. She was too stunned to notice.
Victoria could barely believe her eyes, either. She stared
at her best friend in the world, and gaped. Diego? Her Diego?
How long have you been Zorro? she asked from her place
beside the stairs.
Time was up, it seemed. Diego couldn't talk his way out of this incriminating scene, even as her gaze alighted on the coatrack and arsenal of weapons he kept to practice with. Because of that, he decided to be honest right off.
For years, he said regretfully.
Victoria looked surprised.
Years? she repeated
And you were going to tell
Diego hesitated, but he had decided to tell the truth, for
once in his life.
The truth is I wasn't going to tell you if
I could help it. You were not to know. His voice got softer
as her amazement increased. He hung his head, his once pristine
hair swinging wildly.
You weren't going to tell me? Didn't I have the biggest
right to know? she gasped in her anger.
Again Diego hesitated.
You had the biggest right, but I
was afraid for your safety, he explained.
If I was ever
discovered, certain hanging waited for me and those who knew my
identity. That's why I couldn't tell you, but you know that
already. I wish Felipe didn't know my secret, but he does and
has from the start. However, I didn't want that fate for
For me? she repeated, feeling like a parrot, but that
was the best she could do at the moment. She felt lucky to be
You... you. She was so angry that
she had to pause and collect herself.
You must have really
enjoyed this charade, always laughing at us behind our backs
because of our innate trust, our stupid trust, whenever you came
here. She gestured at the cave.
Diego took a step forward in protest. Victoria took a step
back. He halted, astonished. In all the time he'd known her,
romanced her, she'd never backed away from him.
wasn't like that.
Wasn't it? Then what was it like, to go gallivanting
over the countryside with lancers on your tail? Was it exciting?
Is that why you did this? For the excitement?
Diego sighed into the cave, a harsh sound that echoed off
It was exciting, but that's not why...
And all those visits to me? Victoria asked,
interrupting, a hand to her chest, her voice becoming shrill to
echo off the cave walls. Her anger wouldn't let him even
complete a sentence.
Was I a charade, too? Is our engagement
just part of a giant trick?
No. Diego shook his head. There were many things
about Zorro that he was willing to give up, but she wasn't one of
You have always been very real to me, as have been my
emotions for you. He decided at the last second not to say
'love,' thinking that it might be too much for her to handle, but
he was mistaken.
Your emotions for me? she said derisively.
very nice for you. You could get your excitement and your
emotions fixed all in one night, while we waited to do your
bidding like slaves.
No. It wasn't like that, his voice whipped out,
perhaps sounding a bit harsher than he intended. But he was
getting angry now, too, angry and hurt. He clamped down hard on
those emotions, knowing from experience that they would only fog
his brain, and he couldn't afford that right now.
always been the most important person to me.
Right behind a million other
peasants. She spoke disdainfully, as if she was looking for
some humor in the situation, failed, and decided to be sarcastic
I can't believe how many times you came into my
tavern and I didn't know. How you must have laughed at
Diego had lost his patience with this fight. He abhorred
violence, and arguing was not far behind it.
Now you have to listen... he protested again.
No! You listen! she yelled back, but only stood on
the steps with her hands balled into fists. Suddenly, without
completing her thought, she turned and vaulted to the hand spring
to open the door, as Felipe had done. She disappeared as quickly
as the gold in the floor.
Diego rushed after her, wanting to force her to listen to
Victoria, wait! I... Without glancing first
through the peep hole, without ducking low enough for the
opening, Diego took the steps in one stride and pushed his way
through the already open door, then promptly smashed his head
onto the underside of the mantel to the fireplace in the library.
Diego paused, seeing stars as he rubbed his head ineffectually and a knot formed right under his fingers. He didn't see the entrance of Don Alejandro, or his gaping face. He caught sight of the edge of Victoria's skirt as she first fled the library, then the hacienda. In such a hurry to get away, she didn't even close the front door.
Diego clutched at his head, arrested in front of the love
seat. He slid down to sit on the carpet in front of the piece of
furniture. Desperation now clamped at his heart.
God, he said in a low voice full of pain. The desperation
was quickly turning into despair.
I've lost Victoria.
Alejandro gawked in surprise. But he walked through the entryway to shut the door. It clicked loudly in the suddenly silent house.
Alejandro spoke a few minutes later.
Are you just going
to let her go like that?
Surprised at the further rebuke, Diego stared at his father
from his place on the floor.
What? he managed to ask.
Are you just going to let her go like that? Alejandro
Or are you going to do something about it?
Incensed, Diego lowered his hands, though his head ached
What can I do? Victoria clearly can't stand the sight
of me. Even speaking of such a horrible thing was hard.
Do you love her?
Diego was exasperated now.
Well, yes, but...
Are you the man of action? Alejandro asked next, not
looking for a reply to something he had deduced in seconds as he
stared at the open door in his own fireplace, saw Victoria, the
public love of Zorro's life, vault from that fireplace, followed
closely by his own son. Recognition had slapped into his face
like the mantel piece had connected to his son's head. But he
would be astonished later; right now there was a crisis in the
hacienda, and he could help, or at the very least, advise.
after her if you love her so much. Make sure she gets home all
right. It's the least Zorro can do.
Slowly Diego rose to his feet, weaving drunkenly from the
blow to his head. His world may have come crashing down, but
right now he had something to do. He just wished he could
remember what. He shook his head, and the fight with Victoria
came back in sudden clarity.
You're right, he would.
I thought so. Alejandro smiled.
Well, what are
you waiting for? An invitation?
Diego stood unsteadily on his feet. The world tilted strangely, and he knew he had a concussion. But that would have to wait. Victoria was out there, right now, maybe crying on her way back to the tavern.
For Diego knew that was where she would go, perhaps instinctively. She would head for comfort, for the familiar, for a distraction. She would probably go back to serving, definitely start cooking something. The customary activity would be a huge draw right now, more than he would be, he admitted in some discomfort to himself as he strode out the door and to the stables to saddle his horse. He may want to wrap his arms around her and let her rage against his own shoulder, but he refused to force his company on her for the whole evening.
Denying his instincts to fall asleep, he kept his attention on his task, noticing as he did so that Felipe's mount was missing. The young man had probably taken advantage of his sudden free time to visit his girlfriend in town. They were probably having fun. Diego wished he could say the same.
The stable spun dizzily, and Diego shook his head again to straighten it out. The saddle came in to sharp focus, and once outside, he sprang to the padded seat in a very Zorro-like imitation. He was in such a hurry, he didn't even use the stirrups. He spoke a word to Esperanza, and the roan leapt forward. It was as if she understood his reasons to hurry, and the ride into town had never gone by faster.
First the sign announcing the pueblo hove into view on the horizon, then the tavern came into his sights as Diego reined Esperanza and tied her up at the available hitching post. He walked on in, the nightly patrons keeping him on the porch, delaying him unnecessarily. Hurried, he dodged around them, and they made way for his authoritative figure, surprised to see a de la Vega coming in so late. It was almost dark.
Diego caught sight of Victoria immediately. She was standing behind the bar, pouring a drink of whiskey for somebody. Nobody was currently clustered around her, and she was free to place the drink on the serving tray in front of her with several other full glasses. But as she looked up to place the glass, her red eyes came into view. It was obvious that she had been crying, and Diego's heart clenched, sad beyond comprehension that he had caused her pain.
She caught sight of him as he neared her, and he held out his hands.
Don't say anything, please, he began.
The sadness changed to anger again. She couldn't help but
I certainly have nothing to say to you. In fact, I
think I'd like it better if you just got out of my
His hands remained up as he felt all the eyes in the place
turn to him. He hated being the center of attention this way,
but he had more to say.
I just wanted to make sure you made
it back all right.
Victoria tossed her head and retorted,
I made it back
just fine, no thanks to you. Now get out of my tavern.
I'm going. As long as you're all right. The pain in
his heart spread to the rest of his chest. Diego took a deep
breath, then a step back, towards the door. He was treating her
very cautiously in deference to her well-known temper.
Victoria noticed the caution, and it made her even angrier
to be treated as if she was so fragile. Numb, she grabbed the
tray and started forward.
I'm fine, as you can see. Now go,
please, before I hit you over the head with a rolling
The customers took a collective indrawn breath; an Escalante had never threatened a de la Vega before. This woman's best friend must have really done something terrible to warrant such an action, they figured. Never had they seen her so angry. She blazed.
The anger sparked through her hair, and even now Diego noticed her magnificence. She practically shone, like a light was set behind her. His insides constricted again; such a treasure was unlikely to ever be for him again. Wanting to kiss her forehead over those flaming eyes, he settled for turning, his hands still up, and stumbling out of the tavern. His head ached furiously as he grabbed the reins of his horse, and he felt empty, like crying right there in front of everybody.
But he could never stand their questions, never calmly take the teasing from the Alcalde. He waited until the pueblo was behind him before he let the first tear trickle down his cheek. Once the process started, he was powerless to stop it, and not even Felipe was at home to comfort him.
The next morning, the sun shone, the birds sang, promising another beautiful day with deep blue skies, but Victoria's stomach felt like a lead rock had fallen into it. Depression consumed her. No longer angry, she sat in her nightgown long after opening time and she was usually busily cooking something for breakfast. Instead, she wondered what to do. She should go to Diego, she knew, and apologize after the scene in the cave last night, but she felt sure that the prospect was too humiliating to be born. The last thing she wanted was to have him think that she was crawling back because she had nothing else to do.
On the other hand, what else did she have to live for? She pictured life without Diego, without Zorro, and life seemed to stretch to infinity, empty. She pictured again such an empty life; no more kisses, no more embraces. She didn't think she could bear it. She would have to apologize and hope that he would take her back.
She pushed on her eyelids with the palms of her hands. Oh, why did she have to react angrily to everything? Victoria wondered about that as she brushed her curling hair. She had tried to change before, to banish her anger, but it hadn't done any good; she had the Escalante temper, like the de la Vega temper, and no amount of changing was going to eradicate that part of her personality. Of course, it was the part that Diego liked most, she admitted to herself, the times when he stared the hardest. Not that he ever openly stared, but she wasn't stupid, she had seen him secretly watching her in the past. She had never done anything about it because she didn't want to encourage what she thought of as another man's infatuation, but now she knew the man she loved and her best friend were the same man, though seemingly so different. She thought about that.
In one sense, she supposed that to be like Zorro would have signed Diego's death warrant. But she couldn't think of two such different men. Did Diego have a double personality?
No, Victoria didn't think so. He was just a darn good actor, had been for years, as he'd said. She tried to consider such a double existence, and couldn't, not without a lot of acting and masking of his real personality. She guessed such a masking could exist, that Diego could have purposefully hidden his real personality, but who would want to hide themselves? The pueblo wasn't worth it, she was sure, even in the duplicitous times they'd lived through over the last few years.
And that wasn't taking into account all that he would have to give up. Why, he would have to say 'adios' to ever living a normal life! He'd be forced to give up his heart's deepest desire, her, and make her wait for him.
Suddenly a chill coursed up Victoria's spine. She had waited for him. She knew, without a doubt, that she was illuminating Diego de la Vega's existence over the last few years. In fact, she was the last piece of the puzzle. Hadn't he said when he proposed marriage that it was rejection that he feared the most? And her reaction had been rejection enough, as all she could do was yell at him for not telling her about his secret identity. Of course, he couldn't tell her! What did he want, a dead fianceé? And if she had known his identity, she would have been killed, for the entire pueblo would know immediately that she knew about Zorro's identity by her actions, and deduce the man's identity for themselves just by watching who she spent time with. Victoria didn't think she could act so masterfully if she had been in Diego's boots. She didn't think she could stay away, as he had.
That was the point that hurt so much, Victoria decided. The fact that he could stay away, converse with her like a sister, treat her like she meant nothing more than a friend, every day, for years
Still, he had made such an effort to be near her. The dichotomy was confusing. She couldn't be that cold on purpose, but he could, and the hurt swelled up in her heart, threatening to overtake her if she didn't think of something else. Quickly Victoria wondered what to fix for lunch, and it was the mundane thoughts that saved her from being completely swallowed up by despair. She wondered briefly if this was how he felt, too?
Of course, Victoria knew that if he had acted like Zorro, like her lover, he would have been quickly eliminated by their last Alcalde, Luis Ramone, and she wouldn't be sitting here, having these doubts. He did what he could, what he had to do, to stay alive, and when he couldn't stand it anymore, he would visit, slipping out of the dark like the bandit he was to make sweet love to her in the dim kitchen, of all places, but holding onto his secret to the last.
However, he couldn't mask his passion, his desire, his love for her, not completely. He said she was the most important person to him, and she believed him. She had to believe. After all, he was the most important person to her. Hadn't she proved that over the years?
Or had she? At the first opportunity, she had run. She had probably hurt him beyond all reasoning, beyond what a simple apology could fix. But she had to try. He was worth that to her. She loved him. If she didn't try, where would she be?
Determined, Victoria rose and dressed for an early morning visit to an old friend.
The knock on the door came during breakfast. Alejandro sent Felipe to answer it, hoping that it wasn't the Alcalde, coming to collect on taxes again. That man had no hidden agendas, at least. He was all evil, and didn't pretend to be otherwise. Diego, naturally, was still in bed, though with the remains of a headache instead of one of Zorro's adventures, thank goodness. Alejandro had seen the remains of Zorro's grand adventures scarred into his son's chest, and what he'd seen while changing Diego from his clothes to a nightshirt had made him shudder. If candlelight could be so revealing, he wondered how his son would look in the brighter light of day. He was fairly certain he didn't want to find out.
He and Diego had had a long talk the night before when Diego had returned from the tavern, about Zorro, and Felipe, and Victoria, all caught up in the myth of Zorro whether they wanted to be or not. Diego loved Victoria, that was indisputable fact, and it had been agreed that Diego couldn't do much with a concussion to worry about, but once it was healed, he planned to fight to the last breath for Victoria. A bit dramatic, perhaps, but no one would argue with Alejandro that Diego himself was a bit dramatic. He had to be, in order to be the hero of the pueblo.
So Don Alejandro was greatly surprised to see Seņorita Escalante hurry into his dining room that morning. He had been expecting the Alcalde.
There was no preamble. There wasn't even a 'Hello.'
Instead, she got right to the point.
Have you seen Diego?
Her eyes were puffy, like she had been crying, but otherwise she
looked unaffected by her discovery, if a little windblown and
agitated. What had she done, run like Toronado to get to his
He's still in bed, nursing a headache from a
A concussion! she blurted.
Alejandro ignored her outburst.
I'll see if he's
awake. He rose to his feet, then sauntered with nonchalant
unconcern to his son's room. He knocked on the door, then burst
Diego, wake up. He shook the lump that was his
Wake up. Victoria's here.
Alejandro was happy to see that Diego's first reaction was
to throw back the covers instantly and sit up. There, he stopped
and put his hands to his aching head.
Does she want to see
me? Diego asked.
Showing no mercy, Alejandro threw back the darkening
curtains over the window and let the sunlight pour in.
asking for you.
That was all it took. Diego threw back the covers the rest
of the way and strode to his wardrobe. Pulling out the first
thing his fingers encountered, Diego started to dress in his
brown trousers and a simple, unruffled white shirt.
into the library. I'll be there in a moment, he ordered.
Alejandro was amused at Diego's sudden haste, but left,
calling sarcastically over his shoulder as he did,
to see that your headache's gone.
Alejandro showed Victoria to the library, as was proper, but couldn't keep her company, as was not proper. He wanted to check on the cattle with the vaqueros that morning, and the men were waiting on him. Deciding that being in charge of his own cattle was a better use of his time than showing interest in his son's torrid love life, and secretly wanting to give the two some unaccustomed space, he left the hacienda, hoping his trust in the two wasn't misplaced.
Victoria paced the carpets covering the floor, and Diego watched her, as he was want to do, with love for her abounding in his eyes. Hands clasped behind his back so he wouldn't be tempted to touch her, he decided he couldn't watch all day, and announced himself into the library.
My father said you wanted to see me. He asked the
statement not as a question, but as a conclusion, hoping that
would protect him from future rejection. It was a small hope,
but it was the only one he had.
Victoria jumped guiltily, and took two steps forward before she remembered her anger from the previous night. It checked her forward momentum. Her eyes were puffy, as if she had recently been crying.
One look at her, and Diego anticipated getting his engagement ring back. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Hands clasped stiffly behind his back, he tiredly asked,
Seņorita, what can I do for you?
Victoria clasped her hands in front, and it made a world of
difference. She appeared timid and contrite as she asked,
How's your head?
Well enough, said Diego.
But you didn't come all
the way out here to ask about my head. Why did you come?
What she said next nearly sent him to the floor again.
I came to apologize after last night. I'm sorry for my
general reaction. What I said wasn't what I wanted to say at
Stunned, Diego crossed slowly to the love seat and sat down.
Victoria took a chair under the window, but their knees almost
touched. Diego was too schooled by years of furtive watching not
to notice this. It made his heart beat a little quicker against
his ribs. But at last curiosity got the best of him.
did you want to say?
Victoria looked at the sunlight out the window,
know. That I want to hit you and kiss you at the same time.
That you're the bravest man I know. And that I love you, despite
my words, even if I was laughed at, and I can't go away just
because I know your identity.
Diego was beside her instantly, kneeling on the floor by her
chair, looking as if he was ready to forgive anything.
Victoria, I never meant to hurt you like this. Please, you
have to believe that. I just wanted to keep you safe, and to
insure that safety, my secrecy had to be guaranteed. Only Felipe
One hand on each cheek, freshly shaved just for this visit,
Victoria leaned closer to him.
I'm a smart woman. I know all
that. And I know how much you care because of your ride to the
tavern last night, even though you had a concussion, just to see
ungrateful little me. Now be quiet and kiss me, before you make
a fool of yourself.
Diego grinned, loving the way she held his cheeks while she told him what to do, loving the way her hair curled around her ears, loving the way she leaned in close to him, just loving her, even her temper, though it had caused a sleepless night and an aggravating morning. The mighty Zorro, taken down by a five foot three inch woman, he thought to himself. If anybody asked him later, he would say that he liked those odds.
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