It all started on a normal, sunny, Tuesday afternoon. The punishment was swift and sure.
Don Diego de la Vega was completely unaware, sitting inside the library after lunch, working on his latest poem while waiting rather impatiently for the afternoon siesta. He had spent several hours the night before as Zorro, tracking a pair of renegade cattle thieves, and he was tired.
Without warning, the outside door suddenly burst open, letting in the warm, Spring air, and Victoria Escalante ran into the hacienda looking like the horrible things of all her nightmares were on her tail. A second later, the Alcalde followed her, and caught her, wrapping one steel-like arm around her middle, lifting her off the floor and swinging her to the side in one violent move.
Now I've got the perfect bait! he said, triumph in his
voice, followed closely by the patrol of lancers he had led from
the cuartel in the pueblo and Sergeant Mendoza. For her part,
Victoria was putting up quite a struggle, twisting and pulling
against DeSoto's harsh grip. But it was a lost cause; no matter
how she struggled, she could not regain her freedom. She earned
nothing but a calming slap on the cheek for her efforts.
Attracted by the noise, Felipe and Don Alejandro appeared in the dining room archway, concealed for the moment from the lancers whose entire attention was on Victoria, DeSoto, and Diego.
Slowly, seething with the force of his abrupt anger, Diego
rose from the chair by the fireplace where he'd been sitting only
What's the meaning of this? he asked, clamping
down hard on his anger. Such an emotion could easily drive him
out of control, he knew.
But Victoria still twisted in the Alcalde's grip, even though one small hand lifted in surprise and pain to her cheek. A tiny sound from the back of her throat was the only indication that she had been struck. That, and the red mark that was blooming on her skin even as Diego spoke.
Mendoza looked nervous, as if he wished to be anyplace other
than where he was.
Uh, mi Alcalde, do you think this is such a
good idea? He's going to be awfully angry.
DeSoto struggled for a moment against Victoria, but he held
Oh, I'm counting on it, Sergeant. You see, an angry
man is easier to beat. And when I have him, I plan to hang him!
There was no need to ask whom he was talking about. Zorro. It could be the only reason for the suffering currently undergone by the señorita.
Mendoza went on,
But do you think using Señorita Escalante
as bait is such a good idea? Inside he was practically dying of
humiliation for his favorite cook and tavern owner.
What difference does it make if it's right
or not? I'm tired of the cat and mouse game we've played for
years, and the only bait sure to bring him into the pueblo is the
señorita. Now, back to the horses!
As Diego listened, horrified at these sudden and unexpected turn of events, he tried to think of something he could do. There was no way he would let the Alcalde manhandle Victoria that way. He would divulge his identity first.
Which gave him a sudden idea. Perhaps it was the time to reveal everything. The Alcalde, his most ardent enemy, was already at the hacienda and willing, as he stated. His father was in the room. Victoria was present, though she was being detained at the moment. It was not the opportune time he had invisioned, but when had he ever truly gotten what he wanted?
The decision made, he called,
Wait! to the Alcalde and his
DeSoto paused at the door in his dealings with the señorita.
He was prepared to exit, but the commanding voice arrested him.
This has nothing to do with you, de la Vega, he said, trying
hard to breath against the wriggling in his arms.
In a lower voice than he usually employed, and letting his
anger slowly seep through his otherwise controlled expression,
Diego took a step forward.
But it does concern me, was all he
said through clenched teeth. He never took his eyes away from
the struggling Victoria.
The Alcalde didn't appear to be listening.
I said this
doesn't concern you.
Anything that concerns Zorro concerns me, Diego went on,
throwing the paper and quill he'd been using onto the cushion of
the chair he'd just vacated. Angry beyond words, he shook as he
tried to contain such anger, knowing that he would be of little
use to Victoria if he let the emotion control his actions.
Understanding suddenly dawned on the Alcalde's face. Victoria was a bit slower, but her comprehension of the deception was right an DeSoto's heals. Then Mendoza, his father, and the lancers slowly understood the terrible truth.
Well, said the Alcalde, loosening his hold on Victoria
Well, well, well. It looks like my plan
worked better than I thought.
Diego took another step.
Let the señorita go, he
But DeSoto would have none of that.
No. Her imprisonment
secures your cooperation, he spat, thrusting Victoria into the
waiting arms of the nearest lancer and drawing his sword.
are under arrest.
Even held captive by strong hands, even having the sudden disclosure of her masked hero and love, Victoria truly looked horrified at DeSoto's option. In vain, she renewed her writhing, but couldn't get away.
Diego let a smile of steel penetrate his granite features,
though all the while he kept part of his attention on Victoria.
Why wait? he asked, seeming to sign his own death warrant.
Why not end it all right here and now?
The Alcalde paused, though his sword point never wavered
from Diego's chest.
What do you have in mind? he asked,
curious in spite of his own misgivings not to be. The truth was
he couldn't resist something that sounded like a challenge,
especially from the man known as Zorro.
Diego broadened his smile, allowing it to take on a cocky
appeal that he knew would be irresistible to DeSoto.
With swords. Right here, in the stable yard. Just you and me.
At the impulsive suggestion, both Alejandro and Victoria
surged forward, yelling,
Diego, no! at the tops of their lungs.
Both were held back by lancers.
Slowly, the Alcalde's sword point lowered, to Diego's
If I lose?
Diego's mind raced. This was his final opportunity, his one
chance to rid the pueblo of this scourge.
You climb aboard a
ship bound for Spain and never come back. No complaints. No
DeSoto warily eyed his adversary.
And if I win?
Diego allowed the smile to envelope his entire face. Just
to make it impossible to resist, he gave his old schoolmate
exactly what he wanted.
I hang, at dawn tomorrow.
No! Victoria twisted again against her imprisonment,
horrified, terrified at Diego's suggestion. Despite his
unmasking, his option was anything but an option for her.
Diego was gratified by her reaction, but still kept half his
attention on DeSoto. The Alcalde lowered his sword point the
rest of the way, taking Diego up on the suggestion, giving in to
his wildest dreams, as Diego knew he would.
It's a deal, he
said, quietly agreeing.
Alejandro wasn't so quiet.
No, it's not!
Never taking his eyes off DeSoto, Diego loudly proclaimed,
Yes, it is! He slid his body to face Felipe, but his eyes
didn't move from the Alcalde. From here on out, they were
Felipe, can you please run and get my sword?
he requested, calm and ready behind his furious tone of voice.
Felipe, surprised at his sudden calling, nodded his head in acquiescence to the requested chore nonetheless. He pushed his way through some surprised lancers, and passed Diego before hitting the door release in the fireplace to the secret cave. To everybody's astonishment, the door swung open on silent hinges and Felipe disappeared inside.
I should have known, DeSoto said when Felipe had gone.
There was no way you could have fought so much without help.
Felipe has always been a loyal assistant, Diego said,
confirming the idea without confirming anything.
He'll surely hang beside you for his complicity.
Wrong! Diego yelled, his voice loud in the room.
will happen to him, my father, or Victoria. They will not be
harmed because of their connection to me. Or there's no deal.
That's the conditions under which I agree to fight.
The Alcalde seemed to be thinking hard about the deal, but
the chance of hanging his nemesis was too much to resist.
right. Nothing happens to them.
Sergeant Mendoza, Diego said, still with only half his
Sí, Don Diego? Mendoza asked, his respect evident in his
Diego spoke once more.
I entrust you to make sure these
plans are carried out.
Mendoza shrugged his shoulders nervously but proudly under
his military tunic.
You can count on me, Don Diego.
Diego's voice softened, but his gaze remained hard.
I could. Trust in you has always been well-placed.
The Sergeant beamed at this unexpected praise, but by this time Felipe had returned through the secret panel, carefully carrying a black scabbard and sword that appeared so familiar.
With a movement that was equally familiar, Diego drew the
sword in one fluid motion, pulling it from its sheath practically
before the weapon was in his hand.
Know that this gives me no
pleasure, he said as the lancers parted and headed for the door.
DeSoto paused again on the threshold of the door.
really matters little what you want, he said, goading his enemy
with the tiny jab.
What I want is everything, Diego negated, with one
straight glance at Victoria. His mouth was a tight, grim line of
Victoria grimaced at the rough handling she was receiving, but had enough mastery of her features to send him a look of pure love out of her frightened eyes.
It was enough for Diego. As long as he had his Victoria, nothing seemed insurmountable. His sword point lowered so it wouldn't accidentally catch an unwary individual, Diego followed the lancer holding the writhing Victoria out the door, pursued closely by his father, Felipe, and the other lancers.
The stable yard quickly came into view, and the horses neighed at the sudden influx of strangers to their personal domain. The Spring rains hadn't begun yet, and the dirt was packed hard and even glazed white, like adobe or brick. A good place for a fight.
Sword points raised the second they were outside, Diego and DeSoto warily circled each other long before the stable yard came into view. But the yard offered them the room they needed to fight, and they stayed their hands long enough to reach the open before the Alcalde struck, swinging his blade around in a sudden blur.
Diego reacted instinctively, knocking the Alcalde's blade aside with ease as he slowly allowed the anger he felt to sweep down his sword arm. With a jerky movement, he saluted, angry but in control, bringing his sword up to his swinging hair before releasing the action. He was reminded of one of Felipe's lessons with the movement, and he abruptly thought that Felipe's idea to kill his opponent had merit. It was the first indication of how angry he felt for Victoria's mistreatment. He'd never wanted to kill before, and resisted the pull of the desire even now.
Not so for DeSoto. His face twisted by hate, he said,
see that you hang. Or I'll kill you even now! He lunged
accurately, fueled by his emotions to make his moves the best
sword fighting he had ever tried.
Tired out by the long night he'd been through as Zorro, yet
fueled as well by anger, Diego fought poorly at first, executing
the worst moves he'd ever made with a sword. To buy himself some
time and energy, he slid the entire length of his sword up
DeSoto's and couldn't keep the sneer out of his voice as he
grabbed the Alcalde's coat,
That's what you think. Now let
No! DeSoto promised, gleefully engaging Diego in a round
of his best moves.
She guarantees your good behavior.
Diego parried each move, glad to finally have an opponent
worthy of his sword, even if he was already exhausted. Knowing
that to broadcast such news to the Alcalde was suicide, he
pretended not to be so tired as he said,
She guarantees nothing.
Haven't you been listening, Alcalde?
I've been listening, and she stays, DeSoto grunted, winded
from his exertions.
No. Rude, taunting, attempting to make his opponent
angrier, DeSoto gave his own famous sneer.
Why don't you make
me let her go.
Diego pushed his sword up the length of DeSoto's again.
Don't tempt me.
Hah! DeSoto insulted.
I've been watching you, and you're
too tired to make me. I'll release that tavern wench when I'm
good and ready.
That was it. Diego couldn't calmly take any more such
insults. He moved to go on the offensive.
As much as I'm
enjoying this... Diego blocked an attack, then halted the
retreat that had been the head of his style, and attacked back,
another fast look at a frightened, hurt Victoria leading his
movements. For her sake, he would have to end this fight
He lunged, parried, and blocked with unprecedented, unseen speed. Pulling out all his memories of the lessons he'd been given while at the University in Madrid, he finalized the duel with a sudden, brief flick of his wrist and sent the sword flying, disarming the Alcalde.
Not confounded in the least to lose his sword, DeSoto
quickly drew his pistol before he lost his footing and fell
backward into the dirt.
It's not over yet! he called.
Oh, but it is. Diego's calm tone of voice heralded the
flick once more as he hit the Alcalde's wrist and the pistol fell
harmlessly to the side.
I've never really cared for guns.
They're so messy.
Suddenly finding himself at the wrong end of a sword, and
divulged of his obvious weapons, DeSoto still retained his
Go on, kill me, quick, and be done with it!
Again, don't tempt me, Señor.
You can't do it! Emissary Risendo was
right - you are a coward! That's why Zorro never kills.
Diego raised the sword, the point drawn to the Alcalde's
Wrong again, Señor. When I received this blade, I swore
that it would never feel the sting of blood. I plan to uphold
that promise. Now get off our land and don't come back.
DeSoto twisted suddenly and, his movements a blur, threw the knife hidden in his boot.
But Diego reacted faster. With a mighty sweep of his sword,
he met the knife in mid air and deployed its forward momentum
into the ground on the left, where it could do no harm. Again
the sword point was lowered and held at DeSoto's heart.
a deal, Señor. Let's both be men and honor it.
With loathing just beginning to seep into his expression,
DeSoto belatedly perceived what he had agreed to. His departure
loomed uncomfortably before him.
Show some mercy, he begged
Diego turned hard. Furious, he retorted,
Is that what you
were showing to Victoria? No, I don't think so. Leave, now,
while your life is still intact. And remember, that if I ever
see you around Los Angeles again, I will kill you next time.
Even DeSoto would not attempt to push aside such fury. It
practically snapped from Don Diego's eyes, and DeSoto began to
have an inkling of just what he had been fighting. His arms went
All right. I'm going. You don't have to end my life.
But Diego wasn't taking any chances.
DeSoto looked to the lancer holding Victoria, and he gave
the barest of nods. The lancer's hands fell away, and Victoria
was suddenly free. She stepped away from the threat the lancers
posed, and in one swift movement on her part, she was in the safe
circle of Diego's arm. Still the sword didn't lower.
Diego ordered in a low voice that carried to everybody.
According to the tone in that voice, DeSoto went, creeping out of the hacienda grounds to find his horse. The sergeant went with him, to ensure his departure, and at the last minute bidding of Don Diego. The lancers left immediately afterwards, intent on gathering their horses before returning to the cuartel.
Diego let his sword point fall to the dust before he slumped and knelt in fatigue, the duel taking its toll even on him.
An instantly worried Victoria reacted instinctively.
Diego! She knelt beside him and quickly examined him. She
found a scratch on his wrist, testimony to how close the Alcalde
had come to beating him.
Get me some water!
No. That's not necessary, Diego was quick to countermand
the order, removing his arm from around her even as he removed
his fingers from the sword. His hand was shaking and seemed
suddenly to have a life of its own. Unencumbered, he shook it to
work out some of its jitters.
The water was given, however, and Diego, secretly grateful, drank its coolness down a suddenly parched throat. The scratch on his wrist was bathed by someone, and even a clean bandage was pressed into his fingers, but he was busy furtively watching Victoria. Now that the excitement, the danger was over, he had to wonder if she had changed her mind.
Why don't we go inside, out of the dust? It was Don
Alejandro's suggestion, naturally, but even his solemn voice
seemed loud and out of place after the concentration required by
So they moved to the library, and Diego resheathed his sword and laid it in the corner, away from harming anyone. Then the questions began, and Diego no longer tried to pretend, speaking in his real voice, letting his true persona shine through.
It was too much.
You know, Don Alejandro said at last,
trying to assimilate all that Diego had told him,
overwhelmed. He looked overwhelmed, too, with wide eyes and an
open mouth. Even his silvery hair was windblown and unkempt.
think I need some time alone to absorb this latest information.
Why don't we leave for siesta, like we had planned, and meet
again after a good amount of time alone to think?
Diego sat unmoving on the love seat, where he had parked himself upon entering the door. He noticed that Victoria had taken the single chair for herself and he was sitting next to Felipe. Well, he ruminated unhappily, the guilty should be seated together. She appeared discontent, and Diego had to believe that she was also unhappy with the revelations of the day.
With his suggestion in the air, Alejandro and Felipe both rose as one. They disappeared into the bowels of the house, intent on heading for their rooms and solitude. Diego wished he could join them; he'd never felt so tired before.
Instead, he raised his head until he could see Victoria completely, so terrified that he could think of nothing to say. The red bruise where DeSoto had hit her was raised and obvious in the pallor of her skin.
We should soak that injury, he said, standing finally and
going to the wooden bowl of water that a servant had brought
immediately upon their arrival in the library. He wrung out the
small, white cloth that had also been offered, and carefully
wiped at the mark on her cheek.
No, Diego, I'm fine. Really, she protested immediately,
self-consciously, nervously pulling his hand away to cradle in
I'm sorry, Diego suddenly said.
This is not the way I
had invisioned telling you. Not so... abrupt... His voice
trailed off to silence. Ignominiously, he sat on the rug at her
feet, too exhausted now to move again.
Victoria sighed, and played absently with the fingers held
in her lap.
Did you plan on ever telling me?
Ever? Diego asked to be sure of what she had said. She
Of course. When any danger had passed and I was
certain of your safety. However long that might take, he added,
then wished he hadn't.
Diego was right.
However long? Victoria echoed, her voice
Miserably, he nodded. Now, he wished he had told her of his
secret years ago.
As long as it took to guarantee your safety.
That was always the most important thing, the only thing,
Without warning, she moved from her chair to his lap and
cradled his face in her hands.
I know you're wishing you had
told me sooner, but the damage of lost time is done. We can't go
back. Now she had started to rub his cheeks with her thumbs.
Diego wanted to close his eyes to better enjoy the sensation, but
he didn't dare take his gaze from her. He wasn't sure he wanted
What I said during your proposal is also true. Though, I
will always mourn the lost time, I do love you, even without the
mask. I know that's hard to believe, yet I said it then and I'm
saying it now; I don't care who you are under the mask. I will
always be yours, until eternity. Then, with a slight shrug of
her shoulders, she added,
I can't help loving you all the time,
no matter who you are, though I'm glad beyond words that you're
my best friend. I feel like I know you so well, that I've always
known you, she insisted.
Wordlessly, too choked up to say anything, Diego could only
envelop her in his arms. She slid into his embrace as if she had
always been there, as if he had been holding her forever.
Perhaps he had. When he could finally speak, all he could say
Victoria. Sweet Victoria, before his voice broke on the
sound of her name, and he thought with antipathy that he might do
something as ignoble as cry. With hands shaking from too much
pent-up emotion, he stroked her hair methodically, as if the
movement could calm them both. He had done the same thing when
he proposed marriage. But this time he bent to kiss the top of
her head, adding the extra endearment as if he couldn't quite
help himself, as if there was much more he wanted to do.
Eventually she drew back, her cheeks now shining with tears,
and she laid her forehead against his.
Thank you, Diego, she
whispered, overcome by emotion herself.
I've never had two men
fight over me before. And thank you for choosing me in the first
How could I refuse? he asked, whispering as well. Now
they were both crying, and Diego found that he didn't care if he
made a fool of himself. He hoped he would be spending the rest
of his life feeling foolish.
How could I stay away from the
woman I love more than life itself?
And then he leaned down, she looked up, and he kissed her, his breathing already ragged. Victoria felt like a slip in his arms, slim, petite, and full of love. All at once he realized that his father had suggested leaving to not only think about all that he had been told, but to give his son and Victoria some much needed space and privacy for talking. He knew that was all it would take. Alejandro was one smart older man.
Both Diego and Victoria felt the building desire that had
always accompanied their endearments lately, and they were forced
to break off the kiss before their passions could claim them.
But this relationship, this being together without the confining
spirit of the mask, was still too new, too raw, too exciting.
Another kiss led to even more ragged breathing, and Diego felt
himself begin to inadvertently react to her closeness. But he
was loathe to give her up; she felt warm, soft, and malleable in
his arms, something that he had never experienced before. He
tightened his embrace around her shoulders, and whispered into
How I love you.
Victoria didn't quite know what to think of such a sudden
and strong declaration aimed in her direction, but she did know
that she was glad it had turned out to be him. She trusted Diego
implicitly, and easily fell in love again with her best friend.
Thank goodness it turned out to be you, she said, and hugged
back even harder.
Victoria and Diego ignored the re-emergence of Don Alejandro and Felipe into the library an hour later, having eyes only for each other. And both the rancher and his servant knew that this was how it was supposed to be.
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