Victoria glanced up at the light knock that sounded on the frame of her curtained doorway.
Hola, Victoria, said her tall, studious friend, Don
Diego de la Vega. He stood uncertainly just inside the doorway,
one hand still on the wooden frame.
You said that you wanted
to see me?
Yes. Victoria set down her knife on the chopping
block in the center of her kitchen and dusted her hands together;
the vegetables she was in the middle of cutting would have to
wait. She pushed them smoothly into a mound of fresh onions and
peppers and tomatoes that she'd bought only that morning at the
Los Angeles Market.
Ah, Diego, thank you for coming during
siesta. I imagine you're giving up quite a nap to answer my
questions and soothe my curiosity. Then she wiped the end of
her fingers distractedly on the apron she was wearing and worked
at the knot at her back that held it tied around her waist.
Diego swallowed, and his face grew pale for a second. His
heartbeat, something he found difficult to control, quickened for
just a split instant, pounding a pattern on his rib cage. How he
wished it was his hands that wrapped around her waist and not the
string of her apron. He blinked to shut out the incongruously
erotic sight of Victoria doing an act as simple as removing her
apron, then chided himself severely for having such amorous
thoughts. The images of what he would like to do to her faded
from his mind, but the fact that they were visible at all said
something about the trap he was falling in to; those images would
be back when he least expected them, that was one thing he could
guarantee, perhaps the only thing. They were already coming too
frequently for his level of comfort. Even now, his fingers
itched and burned, yearning to touch her sweet skin... He balled
his hands into fists and held them rigidly at his sides while
gazing about him for something to distract himself with. He
settled on the pile of fresh vegetables.
It looks like you
plan to make something good for supper, he said.
Still with only half her attention on the task she had been
doing while waiting for him to arrive, Victoria looked to the
pile she'd shoved to the side.
Oh, yes, I'm making enchiladas
tonight. The vegetables are for them.
Heartbeat under control once more, Diego sauntered the rest
of the way into the kitchen and paused at the block in its
Sounds wonderful. I wonder if it's too late to
suggest the same thing to our cook at home.
I shouldn't think so. With a hesitant air, Victoria
moved away from the block of wood resting in the middle of the
one room she spent the most time in at the tavern. It also
didn't escape her fleeting thoughts that it was the one room that
Zorro had often felt safe enough in to visit her there in the
past. That image stayed with her as she considered the point
that she had settled on as the main reason why she had chosen the
kitchen in the first place for the conversation she planned to
now have; she, too felt a degree of safety there. That is, if
she had enough courage to have such a conversation at all.
But Diego was speaking.
I heard that you desired to see
me this afternoon, and it all but ruined my morning as I tried my
hardest to figure out your reason behind such a strange
She looked shocked.
I'm sorry, Don Diego, I didn't
It's all right, Victoria, I'm joking. A
bad joke, I admit, but at least I tried. The truth is, I got a
lot of work done on articles for The Guardian while I
waited for siesta time.
That reminded her of the potential nap she was interrupting
You have my apologies again for wanting to see you
during siesta, Diego, but I didn't want to be disturbed during
Once more, Diego interrupted,
That's fine, you aren't
breaking into any planned nap time. He reached passed her,
purposefully brushing her hand in the process, and picked up a
slice of red pepper. With an air of nonchalance that was
completely feigned, he popped the vegetable into his waiting
mouth, then wiped his wet fingers on the leg of his trousers.
You saved me from an afternoon spent having to work on the
newspaper, which means intense boredom and backbreaking stiffness
from sitting for hours in my desk chair. Not that I don't like
the paper, or the work it gives me, but on such a nice day, I
prefer to be elsewhere, I think. Thank you for giving me the
excuse to leave.
Victoria's look of thoughtfulness dissolved into a teasing
smile at his flippant comment.
You're welcome, Diego, but I
have to admit that I didn't call you here to discuss the
Chewing slowly, letting the flavor of the pepper burst like
a small explosion in his mouth, Diego asked,
Why did you call
me here, then?
It was an innocent enough question, but the implications
behind the conversation she wanted to have were colossal in their
importance. She took a deep breath to steady herself and give
her the courage to say,
All right, the truth.
Diego gave another teasing look of caution.
Seņorita, the truth can be an awfully frightening thing. He
ought to know, as the truth had been his greatest enemy for
years. But he couldn't tell her that. Thus he was taken
completely off guard when she blurted her next question.
What do you think you are doing, Diego?
That stopped his hand bearing the second piece of red pepper
from the pile of vegetables. He dropped the second red pepper
back into the pile, and looked at her in inquiry while his heart
started beating in double time again.
What do you mean,
Victoria? Even frightened by the suddenness of the topic of
conversation, he relished the feel of her name on his lips. He
couldn't help himself.
Victoria drew a second deep breath.
I've seen you,
Seen what? Diego was again pretending indifference
that he didn't feel.
Victoria's next words were wholly unexpected.
you staring while you're in the tavern. The minute you come in,
you start watching me through your eyelashes; I've seen you,
she repeated in accusation. Her explanation over, she
What do you mean by it?
The allegation was unanticipated, so unexpected that he
froze, his mind a mad scramble of explanations that he didn't
think she would buy. So he tried to play dumb.
You must be mistaken, Victoria. I'm not watching you do anything
Please don't treat me like I don't know what's going
on, she said, overriding his words.
What do you mean?
she asked again.
I would never treat you like you don't
know what's going on in your own tavern, Victoria,
Don't, she insisted. She looked skeptical, as if she
didn't accept his protestations.
Don't pretend like nothing's
happening. I know what I've been seeing for months. Please, all
I want is an explanation.
Diego paused in his protests for a moment, then stared at
her, thinking. His shrewd look was a judgmental one, like none
of his expressions had been so far. It was also more honest.
An explanation? Such honesty may be more than you bargain
Hand on hip, she regarded him just as shrewdly.
admitting the truth, then? That something's going on?
I'm admitting nothing, Diego began a little coldly.
He viewed her with distrust as his secret identity and all the
possible repercussions of knowing that secret rose in his mind.
Then, hearing his tone, the finality of it, the sense of
distrust, he seemed to deflate. For just a second, he hated his
secret for what it did to him, to her. Had he just been pushed
into treating Victoria like she was an inconvenience? Like she
meant nothing to him, instead of how she was his everything? How
could he do that? Even maintaining his secret life wasn't worth
such hurtful words. She deserved to know everything if anybody
Making his decision quickly, probably faster than such a
decision deserved to be made, and hoping that Felipe would
understand his reasoning behind such a decision and forgive him
this one transgression, he slowly asked,
What is it you wish
Victoria stared at him, and it was as if she'd never taken
the time to look at him before. Now, she noticed the smoothness
of his cheeks, the darkness of his eyebrows, the blue of his
eyes... Why had she never seen such things before? She was
staring at a man who was more than handsome, and she had never
even realized it.
What can you tell me? she asked,
expecting... well, she didn't know exactly what to expect, if she
was honest with herself. Did Diego harbor some kind of private
feelings for her? Is that why he came into the tavern so often,
then behaved so strangely, often leaving abruptly and without an
explanation? The divulgence of such emotions would uncover a lot
of things that had occurred in the past, and suddenly cause his
reactions to her to make sense.
Diego furtively looked at the curtains that shut off a view of the main room. If he was going to announce the fact that he was actually the masked bandit, Zorro, in secret, then he didn't want anyone to overhear his confession.
It's all right, Victoria said, correctly interpreting
his furtive look.
The doors are locked tight for siesta, as
long as you pushed on the bolt after you came in, like I asked
I did, Diego said.
And the tavern's empty; no one to bother us.
No boarders sleeping away their siesta? Diego asked
as he double checked that the back door was also locked. The
door clanged against its bolt as he pulled experimentally on the
knob. It didn't budge, and Diego was satisfied that she had
locked it against possible intrusion.
I locked that door, too, Victoria assured, not quite
comprehending his odd behavior, and getting worried because of
No, we're quite alone, she informed.
And now that he was certain of the locked door, he whirled
on her to stare in his most open, unsettling way yet. He looked
behind her to the rest of the kitchen, as if making certain that
they were, indeed, alone, then he placed his large hands
comfortingly on her shoulders.
Victoria, you have to promise
not to react... negatively... to this news, he said
He's never touched me before, was what Victoria
distractingly thought, but she still managed to say,
my promise. Now, what is it, Diego? What's wrong? For some
reason that she couldn't name, she wanted to soothe away the fear
she saw in his eyes.
Now, please, don't get angry, and don't decide anything
right away, not until you've had time to think about your
options. There, that should leave him on pins and needles
until he heard her answer, but it should also negate her outright
rejection, too. It was the one thing he feared the most, and
would do just about anything to make sure didn't happen. Waiting
in suspense for a day at the most was a pittance of a price to
pay if she just didn't turn from him immediately upon hearing his
I promise, I won't, she said, but knew her temper
could rise faster than her common sense in unpredictable
You have my word that I won't... won't get
At least, not right away, he thought, but had to
accept her promise as binding, since he had nothing else to count
All right, he said softly, agreeably.
Diego, what is it? What could possibly be so wrong
that..? she began, and he cut her off.
Nothing's wrong, Diego assured quickly in a voice
that was lowered even more.
In fact, everything could be
right. It depends on what you decide to do.
Nothing he had said could surprise her more.
all he had to worry about was her reaction, then he had nothing
to be concerned of.
Yes, you. What I'm about to tell you may stir up your
world, but please... He halted his words, just looking at
her, then, and his face grew more tender by the second.
Victoria, you're... I'm... He stopped again, and his
trembling hand came up to almost touch her cheek. Breathless, he
strove to go on.
I'm Zorro, he said in a whisper.
It seemed like the world came to a crashing end. Victoria's
sight narrowed to a small tunnel of afternoon brightness.
What? she whispered back, fighting off the call of the
You're who? Her voice seemed like it came
from far away.
I'm Zorro, he repeated,
and if you need proof, you
have the ring that my father gave to my mother before her death,
and the one that I then gave to you. Victoria!
But it was the last thing she heard, the last thing that could penetrate the darkness before it overwhelmed her completely and she crumpled, heading straight for the floor, though she wasn't given to fainting when she heard unexpected news. It was just that the news she heard was so amazing, so incomprehensible...
The next thing Victoria knew, she was gasping on air like her lungs were already too full to hold more oxygen. A glass of water dangled before her face, and she slowly sat up, her head swimming.
Here, drink this. It'll make you feel better.
The cold of the tile floor seeped through her skirt as she
reached for the glass and drank. The water cleared the foggy
feeling from her mind, yet her arm still felt oddly heavy. But
she could feel the strength returning quickly even as she
What happened? she asked
Diego sounded a bit hesitant himself when he informed,
You fainted. I caught you before you could hit anything.
His assurance came quietly in a voice much lower than the one he
Somehow, this lower voice seemed right for him, and in a rush, his incredible declaration came surging back to her in force. She gave a sudden jerk that sloshed water over the rim of her glass.
He gave her a slightly ironic look and dryly said,
remember, I see.
She looked at him, looked away, looked back again, then
Why? he parroted. He seemed surprised that this was
Well, you know the state of things in Los
Angeles when Zorro first appeared better than I do, Victoria.
What would you have had me do? I had to do something, and seeing
to yours and my father's escape from jail as a man with a hidden
identity seemed a better choice at the time than going as myself,
only to hang on the Alcalde's gallows the next morning. I didn't
anticipate that he would put a price on my head, nor did I expect
the disguise to go so long. I should have told you of this
secret years ago, and for that, I'm truly sorry, Victoria, but I
was afraid that your temper would get the better of you and you
might tell me... He stopped, swallowed the feelings of
dread, then forced himself to continue,
... that you might
tell me that you can't see me any longer. I didn't think I could
bear that, even if it was already too late; I was so in love with
you that just the promise of seeing you sent my insides into a
useless spin. But what if you sent me away from you? Not saying
a word became easier than the deception itself as the years went
by. Until now, that is. You know the rest.
The silence after his admission was loud in the tiny kitchen. The pop and hiss of the fire was the only sound except for their breathing as they both contemplated his words. He was on his knees now, and his hand remained on her back in support, but that was the only place he touched her as he knelt beside her sitting form, seemingly glued to the floor next to her.
Victoria was cognizant of the fact that she needed to say something, anything, to erase the tension that she could feel in just his single hand and the fingers pressed into her back. Yet... she couldn't think of a thing to say. The only thing she was capable of doing was thinking, Could I possibly love... Diego?
Then Victoria was hit by a barrage of images as she sat beside his kneeling form on the floor of her kitchen. Images that were chaotic and random... Diego in her tavern, Zorro kissing her in the kitchen, Diego avidly listening to her talk about something, Zorro releasing her from prison yet again, hugging her hard and tight, Zorro pulling her up in front of him on Toronado for an unplanned picnic, Diego publishing an article that had been the topic of one of their recent discussions, Diego standing by as she dealt with an incredible, new idea that he had just given her, Diego reading in her tavern while he watched her in secret, Diego respecting her enough to listen to her rants and offering an opinion when no one else was brave enough to face her temper, Diego calming that temper with soothing words of wisdom when it slipped out of control... Diego, Diego, Diego.
Again she took a breath, and again it acted like it was trapped by lungs too full to accommodate the air they had just received. She gasped, then choked, then drank the water that he urged on her once more.
Slowly, slowly. That's right. Don't overdo it, he
Give yourself some time. He set the water
aside when she had finished, careful lest they knock it over.
The result of all this solicitation was that Diego's face ended
up only inches from hers, though that clearly wasn't his
intention according to the expression of concern etched into his
features when he had begun to comfort her. They both froze when
they realized how close they had managed to draw to each
Finally, Diego broke the silence.
I should go and let
you decide what you want to do next. His voice grew fainter
and fainter as his sentence wore on until it practically faded to
nothing as it drew to a close. Then they just looked at each
other, neither moving, and only their strained breathing again
made any noise. It was as if a blanket had been thrown over the
entire room, a blanket of silence.
Diego's heart beat loudly enough to hear in that all-encompassing quiet.
Victoria started shaking as more pictures from the past assaulted her mind.
It finally entered his mind that the heat from his hand might be making her uncomfortable, but he couldn't remove it for anything.
Victoria raised one trembling hand to his cheek.
It was almost an inquisition, as that shaking hand scrutinized every bump, every dip, in that cheek, his chin, his mustache, his lips. She wore a strange, almost ethereal, expression of wonder and discovery as their breath mixed, but otherwise, both remained motionless except for the air he breathed and her shaking hand.
Madre de Dios, Victoria whispered, and even her
whisper was soft and cautious.
It's you. I finally found
you. Her fingers flattened into the short hairs at his
temple, and Diego could feel them tremble against his skin even
as she threw herself towards him. With a rush of shaking fingers
and tense, tight arms, they came together in a kiss that was as
ravenous as it was inevitable.
Victoria clung to him as he kissed her, leaving bruises and scratches from her fingernails just as he left red marks around her upper arm where he had gripped her in haste beforehand. Neither meant to harm the other, yet they were both amazed as the sense of incredibleness grew, and the kiss wore on. Diego tasted the salt of tears when his lips moved to kiss her cheeks, her ear, her hair, and his arms wrapped around her in a hold so tight that it might have split a lesser woman in two. As it was, Victoria just held her breath and hugged him back in an equally explosive embrace.
Sh, sh, said Diego, though she was held in arms far
too closely to make a single sound, be it one that needed hushed
or not. One of his hands came up to grip her head, and he rocked
gently on his toes as her quaking wore on despite his comforting
You're not going to lose me, not now.
Victoria had to snort inelegantly at those words.
not going to lose me, either, she tried to say, but
the declaration came out more as a grunt as he held her, too
tightly for proper breath. Her hand rubbed at the back of his
head in great fondness, her lips grazed across his forehead and
into his hair, frantic in her desire to show her affection,
now, while it was still steeped in its sense of
Diego also fought against the inherent strength in her arms
as he whispered,
Victoria, I love you, I love all of you,
every last inch of you and everything you do. I admit, if I
could love you even more, I wouldn't hesitate for an instant to
do it. That's why I watch; I can't keep my eyes off of you.
You're everything I've ever wanted out of life, and if anything
were to happen to you... He didn't finish, couldn't finish,
as his habitual rocking went on.
After a few moments, they leaned back and stared at each other as if they were both starving for one sight of the other person. They looked, reverent, that they had found one another at last, after four long years, what seemed like a lifetime of waiting and hoping that this day would finally come. Another moment of quiet passed, then they rested their foreheads against the other's, talking softly of hopes and dreams as they sat, incongruous bundles on the cold, hard tile of the floor.
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