Francisco

by Linda Bindner

The tavern bustled with life. Farmers, traders, peasants, and military personnel moved casually from table to table in the cool interior, drinking, eating, and talking boisterously among themselves. Outside, sunlight poured from a clear, bright blue sky, warming the market set up in the wide central plaza of Los Angeles. More citizens wandered from cart to cart, cheerfully haggling over prices, merchandise, or whatever else caught their interest. A cool breeze from the ocean combated the warmth of the sun, further cheering the residents of Southern California; a long spell of searing heat was over.

Whew! Don Alejandro de la Vega leaned his elbow contentedly against the bar, a glass of wine within reach of his knarled, callused hand. What a relief to have cooler weather, eh, Diego?

Diego looked around the busy tavern, nodding his dark head in agreement with his father. That cool breeze has certainly done much to improve the morale of the pueblo. He smiled benignly. Everybody seems to be enjoying themselves.

Victoria Escalante paused in her hurried walk to the kitchen to smile at Diego and comment, Yes, and happy people make good customers. I've never been so busy this early in the morning. She gestured with her empty tray at the cheerful crowd. It makes me think that life is good and we're all happy to be alive. Her smile widened and her dark eyes shone in the morning sunlight.

Diego laughed in response to her huge smile. He couldn't help but feel happy to see Victoria smile so much. It felt wonderful.

Alejandro took a quick drink of his mild wine, then pointed a finger at the two young people. But what's really exciting is the arrival of the governor's Emissary. He should be here any day now. I can't wait to hear what he has to say about the Alcalde's tax program.

Diego spoke up, Hopefully he'll be an honest man. The last Emissary showed very little interest in anything but Victoria's wine supply.

They all laughed and Victoria said, He carried half my supply over to the Alcalde's office. It's a wonder they got any official business done at all.

Alejandro's face turned sour. Well, what they did accomplish didn't amount to any improvements for the pueblo. We need to keep a much closer watch on them this year.

Diego brightened. Why don't you insist on a public forum. That way the Emissary is sure to hear the voice of the people.

Alejandro looked skeptically at his blue-coated son. But will that work?

Diego shrugged. I went to several forums in Madrid. It seemed to work there. I don't see why it won't work just as well in Los Angeles.

Hmm. Alejandro nodded thoughtfully, his white hair shaking against the collar of his bolero coat. Maybe you have an idea. He pointed a commanding finger at his son. But we'll have to keep a very close eye on the Alcalde. Victoria, I think we'll need some rooms here in town during the Emissary's stay.

She lifted her eyebrow. Ah, to be close to him at all times. She laughed. The Emissary won't be able to breath without somebody hearing it.

Alejandro laughed with her. I'll talk to the other caballeros. We'll work out a system that will confound even the Alcalde.

The plump figure of Sergeant Jeime Mendoza joined them, a small glass of whiskey in his hands. The Alcalde is too busy preparing for the arrival of the governor's Emissary to pay attention to anything else. You have nothing to worry about, Don Alejandro. He smiled, his mustache lifting from its typical droop. There will be no problems in this pueblo, you can be sure of that. He straightened his shoulders proudly, his uniform jacket straining over his large stomach.

Alejandro rolled his eyes, but clapped Mendoza's shoulder. We'll count on you, Sergeant.

Of course.

Suddenly Felipe, the young de la Vega servant, hurried in to the tavern, several envelopes held triumphantly aloft in his hand. The tail of his print shirt hung from his loose-fitting trousers, and one sleeve had come unrolled to flap against his wrist. He ignored both in his obvious excitement.

Felipe! Diego exclaimed. What's this?

Felipe waved the envelopes under Diego's nose and the older man swatted his arm away. Yes, I can see that the mail is here. But how? I thought most of the roads between Los Angeles and Monterey were cut off by all the fighting in that area.

Alejandro interjected, taking the envelopes from Felipe, who smiled proudly. Obviously the revolutionaries and the militia managed to restrain themselves long enough to allow the mail to go through. And it's about time. Three months is long enough to go without news. He rifled through the envelopes, handing several to Diego, one to Victoria, keeping a few himself, and giving the rest back to Felipe to distribute to other lucky mail receivers in the tavern.

Diego said, It looks like it's been piling up in Monterey for some time. There are a few letters here from the same people.

Well, don't wait, Diego, Alejandro prodded excitedly. Open them. Here, there's a package for you, too. He laid a bundle on the counter before going back to his own mail.

My books! Diego exclaimed. At last! He tore at the paper wrapped around the bundle.

Alejandro grinned. This is like Christmas.

Victoria laughed. It's better than Christmas because it's so unexpected.

Felipe bounced back to the group, too excited to stand still.

I don't even have anybody to write to me, and I'm as excited as a boy! Mendoza said. Who is your letter from, Señorita? The suspense is killing me.

Victoria turned the envelope over to examine both sides of its creamy surface. I don't know.

Alejandro gestured. Well, go ahead!

Smiling, Victoria pulled open the envelope as Diego piled books around her on the counter top. He leafed through a few pages of the most recent information concerning minerals found in ponds and other waterways, only to put it aside in favor of perusing his new score for Beethoven's 'Für Elise.' He hummed a few bars in his head, but found the music too difficult to restrict to simple humming. He wanted to sit down at his piano immediately and attempt to play it.

Alejandro leaned against the bar, quietly pondering the news of his uncle's family in Barcelona. Hmm, he said. Then he laughed. Well, I'll be.... he said.

What is it, Father? Diego asked, distracted from his music.

Alejandro glanced up. Your cousin Raphael is going to be a father... again! By now the baby has probably.... He stopped suddenly, his hand going out. Victoria, what is it?

At Alejandro's words, Diego looked up. He felt his face freeze when he saw Victoria's blank expression. Pain suddenly flashed across her eyes, now luminous holes in her pale skin.

Victoria dropped the single sheet of paper she was holding. It fluttered gracefully to the floor at Alejandro's feet. Her hands hung uselessly against her skirts and tears appeared in her eyes. She glanced at them briefly, then said, Excuse me, before hurrying to the semi-privacy of her kitchen. The tray she'd been carrying still sat on the bar where she had left it.

Alejandro bent to retrieve the dropped letter. He read a few lines to himself and muttered, Oh, my. He looked at Diego, Mendoza, and Felipe, his face grave. It's Francisco.

Victoria's brother, Diego said.

He has been in Monterey where the fighting is the worst. Alejandro's eyes lifted to the three faces staring at him. He waved the paper lightly with his hand. He was shot two months ago in a skirmish. He's dead.

The blood slowly drained from Diego's face until it was empty of everything but a frozen, numbing sensation. His fingertips became sweaty and he subconsciously wiped them on his blue trousers. A lump formed thinly in his throat.

Mendoza swallowed noisily and hastily made the sign of the cross on his chest. He was an excellent officer and served his king well. He hung his head, all the previous merriment gone from his voice now. What a wonderful swordsman he was, he said sadly.

Diego put his hands to his head, letting the helplessness overpower him for a moment. But he felt Felipe's fingers prodding his arm, and he knew he had to do something. Victoria shouldn't be alone, he muttered, then headed for the kitchen. His few encounters with Francisco, both as Diego and as his alter personality, Zorro, spun crazily in his mind. Sword fights, plans, words of anger and of honor, clamored together like bells for attention. Diego pushed them aside; there was no room to dwell on the dead when the living so desperately needed his help.

Victoria, he said softly. She leaned against the tavern's thick wall, her forehead cushioned on her arm, sobbing quietly.

It was rare that Diego was in a situation that he did not know how to handle, but he had to admit that he'd never actually encountered a crying woman. Victoria was a strong person, he knew. Would she prefer his simple presence to a pat on the shoulder? Maybe he was wrong and she would rather be alone....

He hesitated behind her, indecisive as to what to do, and repeated her name. Victoria. He made it sound like a question.

She heard him this time and looked up. Tears streaked her face and strands of dark hair clung to her wet cheeks. Her eyes were heavy and red, and held such unhappiness that Diego felt compelled to at least place a reassuring hand on her back. I'm so sorry, Victoria.

A fresh string of sobs tore from her, and before Diego knew it, she had flung herself into his arms and was crying all over his white silk shirt. I'm... I'm sorry... Diego, she hiccuped.

Stunned by her sudden action, Diego just stood where he was, unable to move. Then slowly he closed his arms around her. He tried his best to give some comfort by rocking back and forth a little and whispering, It's all right. Everything will be all right.

She shook her head violently against his shoulder. No Diego. You don't understand. I knew! I knew!

Puzzled, he continued to hold her, his hand moving to smooth her hair back from her face. Knew what?

She sniffled, and Diego felt her gather herself until she was able to talk again. Calmer now, she explained, Francisco wrote me that... that he.... She had to take a deep breath to control more threatening tears. Diego pulled his handkerchief out of his sash to hand to her. She hardly noticed the gesture. He wanted to join the outlaws near Monterey... several months ago. I tried... to convince him to.... Victoria looked Diego full in the face, salty tears dripping from her chin. He refused to listen to me. Now he's... gone. Her voice dissolved to a whisper at the last word.

Diego's mouth tightened to a grim line at her words. He turned to Don Alejandro and Felipe as they joined them in the kitchen.

My condolences, Señorita, Alejandro said, reaching for her hand sympathetically.

Victoria's face contorted in an effort to contain her feelings. He did not know... how proud... I was, she managed to say before her composure failed and she broke into sobs that made her body shake.

Laughter from the other room broke through the crying, assailing Diego's ears. What a horrible sound, he thought. He turned anguished eyes to Victoria, who now leaned heavily against Alejandro, her strength almost used up by her tears. He hated seeing her suffer like this and he silently damned the tyrannical Spanish king who made such rebellions that had killed Francisco necessary. But he could not bring the lieutenant back to life, and he also could not bear to watch Victoria cry any longer. Typically a man of action, despite public opinion, Diego softly spoke to his father. I'll settle accounts and clear the tavern.

Diego beckoned to Felipe to follow him and they left the kitchen together, Felipe quickly wiping away a few tears of his own that slid down his cheeks. While Diego asked the patrons of Victoria's tavern to pay and leave as politely as he could, his eyes suddenly alighted on the letter announcing Francisco's death. He picked it up from the table Alejandro had dropped it on and read it over one more time. It was short, only a few sentences, giving no details beyond the facts that Francisco had died in a skirmish with revolutionaries near Monterey. He was thankful that the writer had not told of Francisco's desired affiliation with the outlaw band. Diego knew if the Alcalde discovered the truth, Victoria could be arrested for harboring information of enemies of the Spanish crown. She could and probably would be tried, found guilty, and hung.

Diego shivered at the thought of losing Victoria to the gallows. What would he do in life without her? He shook his head to push such uncomfortable thoughts away, and found himself staring at the letter. He recognized the name of the rebel leader whose band was responsible for Francisco's death, and his cheeks tightened in anger. Joaquin Correna, he whispered the famous outlaw's name, his voice lost in the confusion of departing customers. With this new discovery, Diego knew that there would be no trial for Victoria if it ever got out that her brother wanted an alliance with Correna. Anybody even remotely connected to him was instantly hung. Anger flared strongly through Diego's depression. Victoria had risked her life to help Correna thwart the Alcalde's men and escape from Los Angeles. And this was his payment for such courage. He quickly folded the letter, then sighed sadly, glancing at the kitchen. This situation could get very dangerous indeed for Victoria. And it was up to him to see that she remained safe.


A breeze blew through the open window, fluttering the candle flame wildly around its wick. Funny shadows reached their fingers around Diego's unmoving form, then withdrew like teasing children when the wind died away.

Diego had not noticed the wind, nor was he aware of the chill in the library until Alejandro strode to the window and pulled the glass shut with a bang.

Diego! he admonished severely. What is wrong with you? Don't you know it's cold outside?

Diego jerked his eyes until they focused on his father. He attempted a placating smile, but failed to do anything but lift his lips from the concentrated frown to the grim line he'd worn all day. He took a deep breath and uncurled his long frame from the small chair he sat in. I'm sorry, Father; I wasn't paying attention.

Alejandro grunted. Nothing new, I'm sure. Then his expression became contrite. I'm sorry, Diego. This day has been very hard.

Though Diego had gotten used to his father's sometimes unpleasant remarks, he could not always stop the pain caused by the biting words from showing on his face. However, he once again endeavored to push it aside and said, I was thinking about Mother. This surprised Alejandro. I was wondering, Diego continued, what it was like when she died.

Alejandro gave his son an odd look. You were there, Diego, he reminded him.

Diego shook his head. No, I mean what was it like for you? She was your wife for a long time, he pointed out.

Alejandro slowly sank down on the settee in front of the window, his face white and pained with memories. She was my best friend, he admitted, his voice low. I was... empty without her.

Diego rubbed his chin with his hand, his mind on his deceased mother and Victoria Escalante simultaneously. He had lost his mother at a young age, and he had even caused the death of one evil man. But what was it like to lose someone so close to you that their passing left such a hole in a man's life? For Diego there would always be love from other quarters that filled the gap left by his deceased mother. But what of Alejandro? Who had filled his emptiness? He was certain he hadn't filled anything for his father. Diego knew Alejandro didn't think much of his only son.

Alejandro shook his head, slapped his knee, and stood up. She was the best thing that ever happened to me, Diego. God only knows I want the same thing for you, but....

Diego smiled. Someday, Father, it might happen. His chuckle lightened the oppressive atmosphere that had fallen over the library.

Alejandro smiled and nodded along with Diego. Then he took a deep, calming breath and let it hiss out through his teeth. A bad day, he tiredly repeated his earlier statement.

Diego propped his elbows on his knees, resting his chin in his hand. Victoria has very little family left now.

She'll need her friends now more than ever. Alejandro pointed at Diego. We should be at the tavern early tomorrow morning to check on her. We'll support her as much as we can.

Diego shook his head. I have never seen her so upset. Not even when her father died. He sighed. I wish I could do something to help her... to stop the pain.... He ruffled his hair. She cried so much today.

A hand descended gently to his arms. The candle briefly lighted Alejandro's dark eyes as the older man leaned towards his son. You care a great deal, Diego. But not even Zorro can help in this. Time is the only thing that will heal Victoria Escalante. Alejandro patted Diego's shoulder and Diego covered the old hand with his own. Don't stay up too late, Diego. He squeezed the wide shoulder with his fingers.

Diego smiled and nodded as Don Alejandro disappeared down the hall, heading for a good night's sleep. Diego was also weary from the day's draining events, but he wasn't quite ready for bed. He stood, watching the candle in the glass panes of the window. By refocusing his eyes, he saw the reflection of the room around the single yellow flame. He looked at the fuzzy representation of himself, and slowly walked towards the glass.

He was thinking that today was the first time he'd ever touched Victoria as himself rather than as Zorro. And he had not known what to do. But he admitted that, in spite of the tragic circumstances, he had liked trying to comfort her. As Zorro, he spent so much effort helping many people attain justice that he didn't have time for the small things in life. Since his arrival home from the university the only tangential thing he could own as an every day accomplishment was teaching mathematics to Felipe. The lessons were always very satisfying to Diego, especially when Felipe grasped a difficult concept. He'd felt the same type of satisfaction that morning with Victoria.

Diego had always made it a rule to never dwell on Victoria and the possible future he might have with her. Now he allowed himself to dwell for a long time while he watched the candle slowly flicker and die in the window's reflection. A future unfolded in those panes of glass, a future as fragile as the flame that grew weaker as time went on. Eventually the wax gave out and a puff of smoke rose from the extinguished candle. But Diego dreamed on, refusing to relinquish his flame so easily.


Diego didn't know what to expect when he saw Victoria again the following morning. Yet he was still quite surprised to find that Victoria's tavern was not only open but doing good business. Every day the citizens of Los Angeles anxiously awaited the arrival of the expected Emissary, and the tavern was the only public place to wait. The breakfast crowd was as large and as boisterous as the day before.

The de la Vegas were more surprised to discover that Victoria was not even at the tavern. Sergeant Mendoza told them she had taken the Alcalde's breakfast to him quite some time ago and had not returned.

I wonder what she needs to talk to the Alcalde about? Diego mused aloud.

Mendoza shrugged his shoulders. She would not even let me remain in his office while she talked with Alcalde DeSoto.

Don Alejandro said, She's a strong-willed woman. If she wants us to know, she'll tell us. He wagged his finger at them. You'll see; Victoria Escalante can take care of herself.

Diego was certain she could do just that. But still he furrowed his brows and frowned hard until Mendoza brought his mind back to the tavern with one of his many tall stories. He listened attentively, occasionally casting a concerned eye at the tavern's wide open doors, waiting for Victoria to return. Mendoza's voice wore on, keeping his thoughts from settling on the señorita.

Anyway, Mendoza continued, laughing heartily, the corporal turned to the private and said.... He paused to laugh again. He said I have shoes just like yours at the stable! Mendoza's laughter exploded across the busy tavern and the sergeant was forced to sit down.

Diego gave a little smile in response to Mendoza's red face. The officer certainly loved a good laugh. Then his smile faded; out of the corner of his eye he saw Victoria enter the tavern.

She wore a long sleeved flowered shirtwaist and a flowing white skirt. She stopped a moment at the bar to angrily fling a towel onto the smooth green countertop before straightening her back in determination. Diego turned to look at her more fully. He knew that stubborn set of her jaw well. She planned to do something rash. She put her hands on her hips and thoughtfully rocked on her feet, staring blankly into the air. Then she whipped off the apron tied around her waist with practiced ease.

Quickly Diego said, Excuse me, Sergeant, to the still laughing Mendoza and moved to intercept the tavern's owner before she entered the kitchen. He gently placed a hand on her arm and said, Victoria, how are you today?

She looked up into his concerned blue eyes and without preamble said, Diego, I've decided to go to Monterey. I can't stay here any longer, not knowing what truly happened to my brother, not visiting his... grave. Her voice caught on the word and she looked down for a moment, her hair shielding her eyes from view.

Diego felt her pain like it was his own, and he too looked at the floor. He cleared his throat. Are you taking the stage?

Composed again, she shook her head. No. It doesn't come through again until next week. I don't want to wait.

He crossed his arms over his chest. You can't go alone, he stated.

Victoria looked at him out of very determined eyes. I asked the Alcalde to send a lancer with me, but he refused. He said he can't spare any men from the preparations for the governor's Emissary. So I have no choice. She moved past him and flung the curtains aside to enter her kitchen.

Diego followed. Victoria, have you lost your mind? he half-yelled. The heaviest fighting is near Monterey! You could be wounded or killed. He put his hand on her arm again, not as gently this time. I won't let you do this.

Angrily she flung his restraining hand away. Diego, he's my brother!

For a minute, Diego just looked at her. Tears caught on her eyelashes when she blinked. She wiped them away before they had a chance to fall. He sighed deeply and set his mouth in a tight, thin line. I'm sorry, Victoria. I consider you a good friend. He looked at her again, aware of the unhappiness barely held back by her grim stubbornness. I just don't want to hear of another Escalante killed in the rebellion.

Her anger dissipated at his quiet tone. I'm sorry too, Diego, she said as her tight muscles relaxed. Please understand why I need to go to Monterey.

Diego shook his head. I understand your need to go. But why now, Victoria?

Before she could answer, the curtains parted, revealing Don Alejandro. He took one glance at the two cheerless faces confronting him and said, What's going on here? He'd never seen Diego so... emotional. Diego, what happened?

Victoria calmly turned to the older gentleman and said, I'm going alone to Monterey, to see to Francisco's remaining affairs.

Alejandro's eyebrows shot up in surprise. Diego, we can't let her do this.

I've tried to tell her it's too dangerous. Maybe you can persuade her.

But before Alejandro could utter a word, Victoria said, The Alcalde can spare no lancers right now, so you see I have no choice. And I am going, Don Alejandro, alone if I have to.

Alejandro's eyebrows rose even further. The Alcalde refused you one lancer? A scowl settled on his tanned face. He shook his silvery head. Come on, Victoria. We'll see what he has to say to me.

For the last time, the answer is no, absolutely not.

Arms folded across his chest, his face a thundercloud, Diego barely kept the scorn out of his voice as he said, You can't spare one lancer? Not even your lowest ranking man?

Alcalde DeSoto sat back comfortably in his chair and steepled his fingers. As I explained to Señorita Escalante this morning, every last man in this garrison is preparing the celebration for the Emissary's arrival. Everybody must do his part. I can't possibly spare a single man right now.

Alejandro interjected, his voice thick, You have to realize, Alcalde, that she plans to go alone.

DeSoto watched the three people standing before his desk from behind his dark lashes. That, he said, is her decision.

Monterey is a very dangerous place now. What if she's killed? Alejandro asked, leaning on the ornate desk.

The Alcalde slowly straightened up, and his face turned hard. He pointedly looked at Victoria. Then there will be one less Escalante to interfere in Spain's political affairs.

Victoria jumped forward and the Alcalde rose to his feet at the same time. How dare you.... she began, hot with rage.

DeSoto's voice easily overrode hers. Why don't you ask your friend, Zorro, to accompany you. Huh? Where is the masked bandit in your time of... turmoil?

Furious, Victoria spat, Zorro is protecting the people from greedy, evil men like you. Alejandro caught her and held her back before she could proceed any further.

The Alcalde laughed softly. Temper, Señorita. He circled around the desk to stand over her. You can thank Zorro for making your journey north unprotected. I'm sure he'll make an assassination attempt on the Emissary during his stay and I must have every man available to protect such an important political figure. So you see, I also have no choice.

Diego snorted. That's ridiculous.

Victoria added, Zorro has never tried to kill anyone.

There's a first time for everything, sneered the Alcalde. I don't plan to give Zorro that chance. He pointed at the door and barked, Now, out of my office!

Alcalde.... Diego began.

Out!

Alejandro pulled Victoria around. Come along, Victoria, we'll think of something. I promise you that.

Diego followed, the anger boiling inside him, but he only allowed a frustrated expression to show on his face.


Zorro's secret cavern was cool and comforting. Water bubbled, Toronado knickered, and Felipe brushed the floor with a broom. All very familiar, cozy sounds. But Diego didn't hear any of it. He stared intently at a map of the Northern California provinces, tracing stage routes, targeting possible ambush areas, and in general giving himself a headache. The lantern light flickering over the browned paper didn't help, and he leaped out of his chair in fright when Felipe accidentally knocked a pile of books over on the work table.

Felipe's apologetic eyes met his suddenly alert gaze, and Diego relaxed. You scared me, Felipe, that's all.

Felipe left the books scattered on the table and leaned his broom against the stone wall in order to take a look at the map. He gestured with his hands and raised his shoulders.

Oh. Diego tried to smile and failed miserably. I'm trying to find the safest route to Monterey. Felipe's brows rose to his hairline. Yes, Victoria is still determined to go to her brother's graveside. Father managed to get her to wait until tomorrow at least. He paused to flick the map with his finger. It's more than I could do, he added, slightly bitter.

Felipe heard the edge in his friend's voice, and knew from experience that Diego just needed someone to listen to him for a while. He settled on the desk top, absently rubbing a tarnished candlestick with his shirt sleeve as Diego paced the floor of the laboratory.

This whole situation is ridiculous, Diego fumed, throwing up his hands. The filmy material of his shirt billowed around his arms with the movement. Victoria can't stay and she can't go. Not alone. I could feel easy if the Alcalde would only send one lancer with her. Just one! But he's so busy with political aspirations and finding a way back to his glorious Madrid, he can't even protect his own citizens from rebellion.

Felipe painted a 'Z' in the air with his finger.

Diego promptly shook his head. I couldn't live with myself if Victoria were killed on this trip. But how can Zorro go with her to Monterey when he's needed so badly in Los Angeles? I can't leave now when the Emissary is due to arrive any day. The Alcalde's sure to try one of his clever tricks to raise the taxes again. Distressed, he shook his head. No, I must protect these poor people from further oppression.

Felipe gestured, the candlestick still in his hand. He glanced questioningly at Diego.

Diego paused in his pacing to send an aggravated look in Felipe's direction. Felipe repeated his question, and Diego's face softened. Of course I still love Victoria. You of all people know that, Felipe. Felipe's soft smile appeared on his young face. Diego sighed. The pueblo needs Zorro as much as Victoria does. He shook his head, running his fingers through his thick hair. Felipe, I don't know what to do.

Suddenly exasperated, Felipe thunked down the candlestick and pushed himself off the desk. He scratched his head while he gathered his thoughts. Then he began to signal rapidly.

Diego concentrated intently on the flying gestures. Felipe had never spoken so fast before. Slow down, Felipe. I can't follow you.

Frustrated, Felipe rubbed his neck to calm himself before starting over.

Again Diego shook his head, his own arms raised in confusion.

Angry now at his inability to communicate with the speed of his racing thoughts, Felipe abandoned his gesticulating and grabbed a piece of paper from a pile on Diego's desk. He hastily dipped the white-feathered quill into the ink well and wrote as fast as he could. Ink spattered over the page and onto the desk top.

Felipe, you're making a mess, Diego said, starting forward to stop him. The teenager froze him with a strong glare.

Finally he was finished. He threw the pen onto the desk, splattering more ink, and gave the paper to Diego before his last words had a chance to dry.

Mystified, Diego took the paper forced on him and tried to decipher the handwriting. 'Stop feeling sorry for yourself!' he read aloud. 'You have the laue...no, the love of a very specific... I mean special woman, whether she knows it or not. This is something most people only get in their... their dreams. The caballeros can handle the Alcalde. Zorro is not so necessary that Don Alejandro can't duel... deal with a little politics without him. It is time to make a choice about who needs you more, a bunch of complaining peasants or Victoria. You must choose.'

Diego's eyebrows shot up in astonishment. Why, Felipe, you're yelling at me, he said.

Felipe glared at him in disbelief. He hit Diego on the arm hard enough to knock him off balance, and stabbed the paper with his finger.

Diego read Felipe's words again. As put by his friend, his choice was clear. His eyes settled on Felipe. You're right, he said quietly. I can live with taxes, but I cannot live without Victoria. Come, we have work to do. At the hidden door to the cavern, Diego stopped Felipe with a friendly hand placed on his shoulder. Thank you, Felipe. You can yell at me any time. They smiled at each other, then slipped through the opening, the door closing silently behind them.


Diego, you must be joking.

Morning sunlight poured through the hacienda's open front doors. Alejandro stood framed in the doorway, his coffee mug in hand, an astonished look on his face.

Diego dropped his small valise on the floor near the door and said, I'm perfectly serious, Father.

Felipe hurried up behind Diego, carrying a bundle wrapped in an old blanket. A small clank of metal striking metal came to Alejandro as the teenager set the bundle on the floor.

Swords, Diego? Are you planning on fighting? Alejandro's voice rose with each word.

Diego took another bundle from Felipe, also wound in a blanket and tied securely with a rope. Of course not, Father, but the road to Monterey is dangerous. There's no point in traveling unprotected. He turned to Felipe and said, Bring the horses up front, and get your own clothes ready. Hurry now.

Alejandro stepped forward. What of the Emissary's visit? You can't just leave at a time of such importance to the pueblo.

Diego reached out to pat his father's shoulder. Father, I'm sure you and the other caballeros can handle the Alcalde and the governor's Emissary. I'm not so sure Victoria can handle bandits and robbers on her own. I had to decide who needed me more, the pueblo or Victoria. He wondered what Felipe would have thought about his speech. He shrugged and smiled at his father. Please try to understand.

Slowly Alejandro returned Diego's affectionate gesture. I think I do understand. He gripped Diego hard, his fingers closing on the strangely muscular shoulder. His eyes held all his worries and concerns for Diego's safety, but he only said, You're traveling alone with Señorita Victoria?

Diego gave a little laugh at the thought of being alone on the trail for several weeks with Victoria. A dangerous desire, he concluded silently. Oh, no. He shook his head. Felipe is coming as well. He laughed aloud this time. Imagine Victoria and I traveling alone together.

Alejandro narrowed his eyes in hopeless resignation to Diego's apparent lack of imagination where women were concerned and managed a smile. Yes, imagine that.

Playing the part he'd created, Diego smiled again. He bent to retrieve the bundles and valise as Felipe brought the horses to the hacienda's front gates.

Saddlebags full of food and supplies were already tied to the saddles, and the few remaining items were soon securely stowed on Felipe's wiry paint and a heavily disguised Toronado, who had to accompany them since they would be on the trail so long. Felipe hugged Alejandro while another servant held the horses.

Be careful, Felipe. Keep an eye out for hidden dangers. You have keen sight; use it, my friend.

Felipe brushed his hair out of his eyes, nodding.

Diego embraced his father too. Good luck with the Emissary, Father, he said.

Alejandro studied Diego's face with emotion. Come back to me, Son, he whispered.

Diego's mouth became a serious, tight line. I will, he promised. Then he turned away and mounted his excited horse. The saddles creaked in the early morning stillness, and the bits jangled as the horses played with them. They gave one last wave to Alejandro, then galloped away towards Los Angeles.


Diego took another hasty glance in Victoria's direction. The light from the camp fire illuminated her face, throwing the supplies and horses tethered behind her in concealing shadow. Her eyes were wide and staring at the prancing flames, and he knew she didn't even see their little fire. As usual, she was lost in her own dark thoughts, shutting him and Felipe out as effectively as a locked door. He sighed and went back to his book.

Soon, however, his thoughts turned back to Victoria. They had been on the trail almost four days, and she had said no more than ten sentences the entire journey. She rode from morning till dusk, never complaining at the fast pace or the lengthy side routes Diego insisted they take to bypass potentially dangerous parts of the Monterey road. She cooked an excellent meal for the three of them while Diego and Felipe made camp at the end of the day. It seemed that once she'd actually set out on this dangerous expedition, she was content to sit back and let Diego make the rest of the decisions. This, above all else, was not like Victoria.

Each night Felipe gave him a teasing, lopsided grin when Diego arranged Victoria's sleeping blankets in the softest, dryest part of the chosen campsite. But she never said her thanks, or even gave a hint that she noticed any extra attention on his part. If he spread her blankets on a boulder, she still wouldn't notice. Her thoughts were all wrapped in her own mind. Diego grimaced at her over his book. She watched a log roll in the flames, and blinked.

Felipe swatted him on the shoulder, breaking his concentration. The younger man handed a paper to Diego, then stood behind him while he read it, dancing restlessly from foot to foot.

Diego's eyebrows rose. Very good, Felipe. It's an excellent interpretation of Shakespeare's 155th sonnet. Except for one thing. He pointed to the paper. Shakespeare only wrote 154 sonnets. He smiled up at his friend and swatted him back on the leg.

Felipe grinned before plopping down beside Diego and crossing his legs. He gestured with his hands, smiling to help convey his idea.

Yes, Shakespeare had a wonderful way with words. I wonder if there will ever be a poet to rival him.

Felipe pointed at Diego, grinning.

Oh, no, not me! I just fiddle around with words when the mood strikes me. Nothing to compare to this! and he flipped the paper to Felipe's lap.

The sound of chirping crickets filled the following silence, reminding Diego of the darkness surrounding them. One of the horses snorted. An answering knicker came soon after.

Felipe titled his head slightly in Victoria's direction. He lifted a questioning face to look Diego in the eye.

Slowly Diego shook his head. He settled into a more comfortable position on the log he was resting against, and shook his head again. Not a word, he whispered. She just sits by the fire, thinking. I don't know what she's going to do when we finally arrive in Monterey. He pushed his long fingers through his dark brown hair. Then he visibly pulled his attention back to Felipe. Why don't you check on the horses one last time. I noticed earlier that one of the tethering ropes was fraying a bit. We don't need to waste time looking for lost mounts.

A knowing smile on his face, Felipe jumped up, winking slyly at Diego before pulling a half burned log from the fire as a torch.

Oh, go on! Diego exclaimed, laughing. He also climbed to his feet as Felipe was swallowed up in the surrounding blackness. Diego looked up at the stars glinting back at him from so far away. There was no moonlight to diminish his view, and he gazed up for several moments, filled with awe.

The fire crackled, reminding him of their precarious situation. No moonlight also meant any surprise visitors to their camp would see them before they saw the visitors. Not an opportune set of circumstances, but Diego didn't see how he could change anything, so he added another log to the fire from the pile stored beside his own blanket.

A coyote howled in the night. The horses stomped nervously in reply until Felipe was able to quiet them. Another howl came from farther to the East this time, and Diego tried to relax. He found himself staring at Victoria instead.

He walked around the fire, deliberately making noise so his sudden appearance at her side wouldn't startle her. She rewarded him with a smile, something uncharacteristic these last few days.

It's good to see you smile again, Diego said, his voice quiet and gentle in the crisp night air.

Her smile soon turned to a look of admonishment, however. Have you and Felipe finished discussing me?

The fire burned Diego's blush to a brighter red. You were listening, he said unnecessarily, and seated himself beside her on the ground.

Well, I wasn't sleeping while I was sitting here, she chided quietly.

He sighed, poking at the fire with a stray stick. We should be in Monterey soon. Maybe even tomorrow. The change of subject sent a dark look into her eyes. Diego didn't miss it. What do you plan to do when we get there?

She looked at him from the corner of her eye. She could tell he was concerned by the passive look of unconcern he wore on his face. Did he think she was going to break into hysterics when they entered Monterey? Victoria glanced away, knowing that she was being ridiculous even as the thought entered her head. Diego was simply worried about a friend. He only wanted her to be happy. The fact that he'd offered to make this trip was proof of that. She only wished.... She sighed sadly. She only wished Zorro were here to help.

I don't know what I'm going to do, she finally admitted. I thought I might start by talking the the Alcalde. Francisco's joining with the outlaws was not common knowledge. It's possible that he was... buried in the garrison's cemetery. She always hesitated when she tried to talk of her brother's death. Victoria shivered in a gust of wind and pulled the brown jacket of her riding suit closer about her.

Smiling a little, Diego pulled his blue-green coat off and placed it carefully around her shoulders. No matter how many clothes Victoria wore at night, she always seemed to be cold. Handing his coat to her before going to sleep was becoming a nightly ritual.

I wondered if you might visit his grave right away, he went on when she was settled again.

Her wavy dark hair catching under the color of Diego's coat, Victoria turned to him and said, I have to know for sure. She turned back to stare gloomily at the fire. And he was my brother. I have to know.

Felipe appeared at the edge of the firelight, his torch in hand. Victoria jumped as he stepped on a stick, its crack lashing through the night.

It's all right, Victoria. It's only Felipe. Diego briefly touched her shoulder and rose to his feet.

Victoria took a deep calming breath. I just wish Zorro were here, she admitted at last.

Diego felt a little hurt at her lack of confidence in his and Felipe's abilities to help her, but couldn't stop himself from seeing the irony of the situation. He said, Don't lose heart, Victoria. Zorro has a way of showing up when least expected.

True, she said hopefully. Then she thought of the problems that might arise in Los Angeles during the Emissary's visit. The Alcalde might easily convince the Emissary that taxes needed to be raised again, or that the search for Zorro sapped the garrison's strength so much that he needed to use citizens of the pueblo, usually men who owed tax money, to work the hard labor of clearing roads. Wasn't she being selfish to wish that Zorro were here to help her rather than guarding the pueblo against injustice? She herself had said many times that his fight for justice was more important than their relationship.

Victoria grinned sourly at the fire. What relationship? she thought. Waiting for his fight to end had made her feel noble in the past, but lately all she felt was tired and lonely. What was she doing with her life, waiting for Zorro the way she was? And was she ever going to find someone to love who did not live by the sword? Or die by the same weapon? She sighed and lifted her eyes to stare moodily at the stars above, thinking of Francisco.

Beautiful, isn't it?

Diego stood beside her again, craning his neck to look up at the black sky.

I don't know, she answered after a short silence. The stars seem cold to me. Cold and far away. Her voice trailed off into the hush of night. Even the crickets seemed aware of the sadness surrounding her, and were quiet.

Diego too was aware of her unhappiness. It emanated from her in waves like the tide crawling forcefully up the sandy beach on his father's land. He bit his lip, wondering if he should mention Francisco's death to make her talk about it, but he settled for cheerfully pulling her blankets closer to the fire and saying, That's because you're chilled. Come sit by the fire and get warm. He reached for her hand to help her up.

She gave him her hand, which was cold as ice, but remained seated. Her other palm she placed on her forehead, curling her fingers tightly in her hair. This has been a nightmare, Diego, she said softly, pain filling her voice. Every day I hope I will wake up to find that things are different, but.... She stopped and took a ragged breath, forcefully recovering her control again. I'm sorry, Diego. I don't mean to keep you up.

Victoria rose, her cold hand still clutched in Diego's warming grasp. She laughed nervously. You and Felipe probably wonder why you came all the way to Monterey on such a silly whim....

Diego's brow furrowed, and he instinctively placed a hand on her arm. Not at all.... he started to say, but she turned away, taking her fingers out of his hands to pull his coat closer about her shoulders. His coat was warm, yet she shivered with an inner cold that went beyond the surface of her skin. Victoria....

I'm sorry, Diego, but I need some sleep. I think I'll go to bed now, she interrupted, nodding encouragingly, then promptly curled up in her blankets that Diego had recently dragged close to the fire. She lay still, hardly daring to breath, hating herself for being so rude, but not having the energy anymore to apologize. Poor Diego, she thought. She heard his sigh of frustration before he turned to his own blankets for the night.

Victoria squeezed her eyes shut, hoping to block out the last few awful days from her memory, but the sick, tight feeling of dread in her stomach persisted even as she relaxed and began drifting off to sleep. She heard Felipe move around, and Diego dropped more logs on the fire. In her mind, she heard Diego's sigh again and again, and felt an odd sadness at his unhappiness which she caused. If only she could tell him her thoughts about Francisco, and Zorro, and the world in general. But she needed her hopes more than she needed Diego's cool, detached logic right now. He might unwittingly shatter the dreams her life was built on.

And right now her daily existence relied on a persistent hope that maybe Francisco was still alive.

Monterey was far busier than any town Felipe had ever been in. He never got tired of watching so many people. People rushed from buildings to the docks and back to buildings. They stood in the streets, bartered with merchants and peasants, or strutted around, looking important.

Merchant vessels cluttered the harbor, spewing more men onto the crowded docks. Goods lay stacked on the rickety wooden docks and along the streets, and men carried them on their shoulders to and from the ships anchored in the harbor. Boxes full of wine bottles, clothes, and baskets, passed Felipe and Diego as they leaned against the outside wall of the Alcalde's office, waiting for Victoria to finish her inquiry into Francisco's death.

While Felipe's attention remained fixed on the general bustle of activity, Diego's eyes roamed over the crowd, judging the movements of the military. The garrison at Monterey was necessarily much larger than the one at pueblo de Los Angeles. He watched the strict change of guard at the Alcalde's doorstep, and the many drills the soldiers were publicly involved in. They practiced marching, formations, and shooting in a large open area to the south of the cuartel. They looked much more organized and better trained than DeSoto's lancers at home.

Diego leaned closer to Felipe and said, If Zorro needs to make an appearance any time soon, I think he'll have to beware of the soldiers in this pueblo. He pointed out his observations to Felipe. They're more prepared than he's used to dealing with.

Felipe nodded in understanding. Diego didn't anticipate any trouble beyond their ability to handle, but Zorro's clothes were stored securely in one of Diego's saddle bags, nevertheless.

Diego continued, I wonder what would happen if he suddenly jumped form the rooftops and announced his presence. These lancers are....

Victoria suddenly appeared on the step of the Alcalde's office, her hand shading her eyes against the sudden glare of sunlight. A man, presumably the Alcalde by his noble bearing and expensive, well-cut clothes, stood behind her in the doorway.

Diego watched Victoria's impassive expression, trying to read any thoughts that might escape her tight control. She spoke first.

Alcalde Martinez, may I present Don Diego de la Vega of Los Angeles.

The Alcalde bowed slightly at the neck, a smile curving his thick, dark mustache around his lips. The sun glinted off the gold buttons on his blue bolero jacket, and a breeze from the harbor whispered through his graying black hair. It is my pleasure, Señor de la Vega.

Diego shook the man's offered hand. Were you able to help Señorita Escalante in her search for the truth of her brother?

The Alcalde nodded. Sadly enough, I could. We buried several good soldiers that day Lieutenant Escalante was killed. I have given my permission for you to visit the grave in the military portion of the cemetery. I'm... I'm sorry I could not give happier news, he ended in an attempt to soften his businesslike tone and manner. Now, if you will excuse me. He nodded to Diego and Felipe, and kissed Victoria's hand before returning to his office.

The cemetery is this way, Victoria said when the Alcalde disappeared, and started off at a fast pace, refusing to allow Diego's scrutiny of her to continue. A look of curiosity like the one Diego was wearing only led to questions, and Victoria didn't think she could trust herself to answer anything that probed very deep right now without losing her composure. She couldn't bear it if she cried in the middle of a busy Monterey street.

They found the cemetery easily enough, and Felipe paused to pick some late blooming wild flowers growing along the path. He handed them to Victoria with a shy, closed-lipped smile, and she fondly touched his hand as she gathered the bouquet from his fingers.

They stopped in a section of fresh graves, the mounds of dirt pulling their attention away from the older, more peaceful sections of the burial grounds. Seven new graves lay evenly spaced on a slight rise shaded by some small trees. Headstones were considered a luxury in the military, so only a cross marked the identity of the man buried beneath it. The cross farthest to the right marked the mound of fresh dirt as Francisco Escalante.

The breeze feathered Victoria's hair back from her high forehead, drying her eyes so she had to blink. The material of her riding outfit twisted around her legs, impeding her as she slowly neared the rise of dirt. The dirt was hard and dry under her fingers when she knelt down beside her brother's grave. She rested her palm on the earth for a minute, peacefully alone in the wind and sunlight pouring over the cemetery.

Diego and Felipe held back on the path, allowing Victoria her moment alone. Then Diego came forward to lay his own bundle of flowers next to the cross. He rubbed Francisco's name carved in the marker's smooth wood, thinking of the noble courage shared by all the Escalantes. Almost an entire family lost to the pains of revolution, he thought. First Victoria's mother, then her father, and now Francisco. He looked at Victoria still kneeling beside him, and put a supportive arm around her shoulders.

She lifted her face to him, a smile amidst the tears on her cheeks. She self-consciously brushed the tears away with a trembling hand as she rose and said, If only Ram¢n could be here. He would want to say goodbye to our only brother.

Felipe came up on Victoria's other side, his face somber in the bright sunlight. Slowly he began gesturing in the air over the grave, his intense gaze never leaving the cross and the name so permanently engraved in its wood.

Diego's brow puckered, then his eyebrows rose as he gradually understood what Felipe was saying. His voice caught in his throat as he repeated the words of the twenty-third psalm aloud for Victoria to hear.


Felipe gestured again, pointing excitedly towards the docks and the harbor. However, the pleading look on his face said more words than his hands could ever hope to say.

Diego laughed, slapping his friend playfully on the arm. Are you sure that looking at the ships is the only reason you want to go down to the docks?

Felipe cocked his head towards his left shoulder and smiled reluctantly at Diego.

Diego laughed again, louder this time, his voice carrying across the open space until several lancers paused in their task of removing debris caused by the previous night's storm from the civilian cemetery. Diego waved a half-salute in their direction, and they returned the gesture before bending over more crosses and gravestones to collect the fallen leaves and branches cluttered on the ground.

The cool sea breeze billowed through Felipe's hair, blowing it in his eyes. Annoyed, he moved it away to look impatiently at Diego.

All right, my friend, chuckled Diego. You can look at ships to your heart's content. He laughed even more as Felipe ran away then, heading towards the harbor and any ship that happened to be in port. His energy was boundless, and Diego found himself envious of youth. If he had that, he could only imagine how many battles he could fight. He turned back to the beach and the ocean he'd been walking beside.

Victoria eyed the teen balefully. Where is Felipe going so quickly?

To the harbor, answered Diego, resuming his calm walk on the deserted beach. I'm afraid that walking with the adults is too boring for him. He'd rather watch the ships unloading at port.

Victoria eyed him then, an eyebrow rising flirtatiously. It was the expression Diego loved the most, and one that he felt glad to see come back. Just to see the ships? she asked. Or to see a young girl?

Who knows? With Felipe, it could be either. He tossed the stick he carried out to sea with his well-muscled arm, watching it for a few moments as it flipped end over end before landing in the salty ocean.

Victoria turned her eye on him then. And how about you? Did you have a good time watching the ships?

Why, Victoria, pretended Diego, whatever do you mean?

Nothing, smiled Victoria, shaking her head in helplessness.

You know I never look at ships, answered Diego in the perfect tone of innocence.

Victoria bent to scoop up another stick to replace the one Diego had thrown. The beach was littered with them, because of the storm the previous night. Of course, she replied lightly, but knowing differently.

They continued their walk, already well outside of Monterey and still heading down the beach. The wetness of the sand from the storm made the perfect hard surface to enjoy walking on, and Diego and Victoria were gladly taking advantage of the opportunity. They rarely got a chance to walk on such a hard surface, as storms were as exceptional in Los Angeles as the horses were as fast as Toronado. But on this day, the environs were opportune for just such a hike, and Diego was glad that he had suggested it as he looked at a much happier Victoria than he'd seen in days. It seemed like once she had seen Francisco's grave and had her answers, she was a new person. The old Victoria was back.

Diego sighed happily, content.

What are you thinking about? asked Victoria.

You, Diego answered honestly. You seem much happier now.

I am, she said. It feels like, now that I know, this is the start of a new day. And she took his arm to show her own contentment with the world.

Diego was very surprised when her fingers wrapped around his arm, but the sight of four men walking towards them cut his enjoyment short.

They were rough-looking characters, all with beards that hadn't seen a barber or trimming sheers in a long time. Diego was suddenly as aware of the emptiness of the beach as he was of Victoria's hand. His pace unconsciously quickened. The four men kept up.

What is it, Diego? Victoria asked, struggling with her shorter stride to keep up with him.

I think we're about to find out, he replied, stepping with sudden assuredness between Victoria and the approaching men. He silently cursed the fact that he didn't have a real weapon with him, but who would think of taking a weapon on a walk? The swords and pistols he'd had the foresight to bring were even now resting in his room at the inn. Like a prize believer, he'd been happy to think they wouldn't need protection. And now he would pay for that belief.

The first man spoke. Buenos Dias, he said in a wispy, light voice that was hard to hear over the crashing of the ocean.

A wary Diego replied, Buenos Dias. He made sure to keep his arms down low and nonthreatening. When one didn't have a weapon, it was the best chance of survival in a hostile situation. He didn't yet know if this qualified as a hostile situation, but he had the sneaky suspicion he was going to find out.

I wonder if you could direct me to the Prancing Pony Inn? asked the man as the three men with him joined in forming a neat semicircle around Diego and Victoria. Now they were trapped with the men in front and the sea at their backs.

We're just visiting this lovely pueblo, Diego said cautiously, while wondering if he dared to fight them. But there were four of them, and he had Victoria to worry about. He didn't want to give himself away if he didn't have to, yet her safety was far more important than safely retaining his identity. He knew that, and understood it as truth, but he also knew that fighting was always an option. Three and a half years at the university had taught him that, and it was a lesson he'd taken to heart. Unfortunately, he was currently with the one woman who had seen him more times than any other. I'm afraid we can't help you. But the lancers we saw a ways back should know where this inn of yours is at; why don't you ask them?

We have an aversion to the law, answered one of the men, talking for all of them, finally being truthful.

The reply didn't settle any of Diego's sudden fears. He surreptitiously looked up the beach for more tree branches that he might use as a weapon, but the cleanup crew had already been on this part of the beach; it was empty of anything save some useless shells. In a hostile situation, shells wouldn't be much use. And he felt pretty certain that this situation was as hostile as they come.

Now you can either came with us quietly, or we take you anyway in these bags. The man held up a cloth sack that had once contained horsefeed, according to the advertisement on the side. It's your choice, of course.

The boss said no more killings, protested the first man.

What the boss don't know won't hurt him, said the other.

Diego asked, What do you want? It seemed the best question to ask with Victoria at his back.

You, replied the second man. His beard wagged in agreement with his head. He reached confidently for his sword. Someone has an appointment with you.

An appointment we don't want to be late for, so if you'll just climb on our horses, we'll be off. One man gestured towards a group of trees behind them.

Diego had no intention of mounting horses at this juncture, but Victoria chose that moment to pipe up. I think we should do as they ask, Diego. Her hand tightened on his arm in fear.

Listen to the little lady, one of the men had the misfortune to suggest.

Victoria looked him over and from what she said next, found him wanting. I was merely saying that for safety's sake. I am not your 'little lady.'

The other men laughed. Eeewww. She's a feisty little thing! one said, suddenly producing a club from the waistband at his back. The boss likes feisty ones.

It was the last thing he said as Diego's fist rushed out to punch him in the mouth, knocking several of his remaining, yellowed teeth to the ground.

Victoria reacted with a jerk. Her hand flew off his arm at the sudden violence to wave helplessly in the air. Diego, don't! she yelled at the same time the first man spoke.

No more killings!

Diego felt incensed. Though he knew he was probably giving himself away, he also knew that nobody talked about Victoria that way. But for all of Diego's hidden strength, the man he'd punched was hardly fazed. He wiped blood off his mouth with his arm and lethargically beat the club into his own fist. Oh, you're going to pay for that. And he slowly approached Diego.

Diego put up warding hands to keep the other man away from Victoria, but he knew it was a hopeless gesture as a curse word rose immediately to mind. The first man saved him.

I said no more killings. He stepped forward, too.

More? Diego wondered how a walk could so quickly go awry even as he listened to the first man speak again, Now, you have two choices. Either come with us and mount the horses like civilized folk, or we turn Guillaume on you, and you mount the horses anyway. Which is it going to be?

Diego didn't lower his hands or answer the question. Instead, he asked a question of his own. What do you want with us? The truth this time.

The men laughed at the part about turning the man called Guillaume loose on them, but the first man answered, Like I said, someone has an appointment with you.

Who?

Come with us and find out, the man said.

Reaching a decision, Diego suddenly lowered his hands in a friendly gesture, knowing that he had to protect Victoria, though he still refused to move, even knowing he couldn't do any more to help them. It took Victoria's next comment to spur him to action.

We should do as they say, so no one gets hurt.

This was Victoria talking? What had happened to the feisty little lady, as the man had called her? It wasn't like her to give in to demands. It was more like her to resist at all costs. Diego glanced at her from the corners of his eyes. But her hand once again on his arm was a dead giveaway; it wasn't shaking, and her eyes held her true emotion in check. She was angry, not afraid.

Understanding, Diego lowered his hands the rest of the way. Curiosity suddenly overcame him, but he also held the emotion in check. Lead on.

That's better, wheezed the first man, obviously the real leader of this group. Yet despite the words, he made sure not to turn his back on them. He knew enough to be careful. Who were these men? Diego asked himself as they were led away from the ocean and into the copse of trees, instantly surrounded by first humans, then the dark of leaves. Escape didn't look good.

Victoria took his fingers in her own, and Diego would have been thrilled at any other time, but the presence of the four apparent bandits deterred his more instinctive feelings. Four horses waited patiently for them, large and impressive. Someone knew enough to use big horses for the taller Diego. Again he wondered where they were going.

Victoria mounted easily without assistance, and it was soon clear why such big animals were required. One of the men climbed up behind her, wrapping his arms around her to get to the reins. Victoria clearly didn't like that, but she sat docile enough. Her actions led Diego's as he climbed aboard a second mount, and one of the men joined him a second later. Soon they were all traveling through the trees at an alarming speed. It appeared that the bandits knew these woods fairly well.

After three miles of wandering in and out of trees, meant to confuse any pursuers as well as the captives, they all paused.

Blindfold them, ordered the first man to speak on the beach.

You're not going to rob us? asked Diego, while wondering why the men needed blindfolds. What were they hiding? Zorro had often used such a trick in the past, but he had an obvious thing to protect. These men didn't seem to have anything that needed the dark of night.

The man laughed mirthlessly. If that were our intention, you would be dead. Dead people don't tell you what to take, he explained.

Still trying to look for an escape, Diego felt the coolness of unused cloth descend over his eyes, blocking out the sun, the men, and Victoria with one move. He suddenly saw the irony of the blindfold; he himself had used the device before, and now he was its victim. He much preferred being on the other end of the cloth.

Complain, and we'll use our bandannas, threatened Guillaume in a tone of voice that indicated a hope for resistance. And they don't smell so good.

They all laughed then.

Diego had never felt so helpless. He preferred to strike back, but Victoria's presence kept his more base emotions at bay. He contemplated the turn of events as they moved forward; this was not how he had planned their day at all. He had hoped that Victoria would become more open on the ride home, and he had secretly looked forward to their anticipated conversations. Now he would be happy just to keep her alive and unharmed. Diego contemplated if more Zorro-like behavior was in order to reach that goal. Even if Victoria discovered his identity, he would rather that happen than any harm come to her.

But they arrived at their destination before Diego could come to a decision. The blindfolds were removed, and a bustling camp was revealed.

Men were everywhere, running to carry out unknown orders, cooking over open fires, guarding the ones who had nothing to do and were lounging around the trees. It was as if they had stumbled into a camp of revolutionaries in the area. Everywhere he looked uncovered the sight of men accustomed to living out of doors. Diego began to get the sneaky suspicion that he was right, and he was starting to expect something else when he felt himself tugged from the saddle.

The boss wants to see you immediately, said the leader in his strangely soft voice. He pulled Victoria off her horse and pointed at a ring of fire just barely distinguishable through the trees. Victoria hurried forward on legs unused to the ground.

If Diego was right, it would explain her odd behavior and answer a lot of other questions besides. He hurried to catch up with Victoria, concerned for her in this camp full of men. She seemed oblivious to the certain danger she found herself in and skipped forward.

Three more steps, and all was revealed as they emerged from the cover of trees to see a large circle that was clearly a meeting place of some kind. It ringed a group of well-chosen logs, a fire ring of stones and sand, and one man leaning against one of the logs while a second man stood close by, his once opulent military uniform in tatters.

Francisco! Victoria suddenly yelled, explaining the second man's identity in no uncertain terms. She threw herself into his waiting embrace.

Victoria! called her brother from the edge of the circle. He swooped her up, leaving little doubt as to his feelings. He twirled her around before setting her back to earth and holding out a hand to acknowledge Diego.

Diego de la Vega! I certainly never expected to see you again!

Likewise, my friend. Diego smiled and clapped Francisco on the arm in a friendly gesture. I'm glad to see you doing so well.

He means glad to see you alive, stated Victoria without even glancing at Diego. Let me look at you. Why Francisco, you're developing a paunch!

The young man laughed. It's all this good food and sitting around with nothing to do. But come, I'll tell you the whole story over some coffee. And this time you're not to serve! They walked away, talking animatedly, forgetting the very existence of Diego, they were so wrapped up in seeing each other again.

Diego hung back, smiling and determined to give them their desired time alone. After all, it's what they came to Monterey to discover. Still, Diego could barely wait to hear the story of the young lieutenant's resurrection.

They seem to have forgotten you. Not seemly behavior for one who's she's in love with, said the man suddenly from his place by the logs.

That comment got Diego's attention. What? Diego half asked, half exclaimed.

The man turned around. It was Joaquin Correna, the confirmed outlaw and wanted man. She's in love with you, you know. I have the knowledge about such things, he said, then calmly took a drink of coffee from the cup in his hand and tapped a finger to his head.

Diego would have been shocked if he hadn't figured out as much while on the road. He's expected to see Joaquin Correna the minute they got on the horses. You're mistaken, he said as he took a seat on the log next to the reposing Correna. Victoria Escalante is in love with Zorro. The entire pueblo of Los Angeles knows that.

Then the entire pueblo is wrong, stated Correna. He finished his coffee, tilting the cup to retrieve the last dregs. And you return her desires.

Diego laughed while inside he quailed. Oh, no. She hardly knows I exist.

Oh, she knows, amigo. She may not know it yet, but she knows, if you know what I mean.

Diego could deny it or admit to his feelings. The smile felt frozen on his face. Suddenly, he sighed. Can we keep my feelings between the two of us? he asked seriously, but still using a light, quiet voice to belie the strength of those feelings. Victoria doesn't need that kind of knowledge right now.

Whatever you wish. But I think that's foolish. Anyway, you're probably wondering about Señor Escalante's death. Correna took a seat beside Diego on the log.

Diego turned to the outlaw leader. The thought had crossed my mind, he said nonchalantly, as if it didn't matter in the least if he ever heard the story or not. But he liked the fresh, no-nonsense way this outlaw leader had about him. No one spoke so bluntly in Los Angeles.

You're good, the outlaw suddenly said, sitting up straighter with a smile on his face. All the pretending you do. Are you sure you don't want to join us?

Diego shook his head. No. There are better ways to bring about change. Less violent ways.

The outlaw looked at him closely. That's foolish, but I still like you. I think we could have some fun times disagreeing, you and I. But I was going to tell you about the lieutenant's death, he said, switching subjects faster than most people could keep up with. It was all a planned hoax.

You planned it? Diego asked with interest.

Correna turned to him then. No. Planned by the Señor.

You mean he planned his own death just to join you? That surprised Diego.

Down to the last detail of the letters to his sister and brother. Why do you think we finally let the mail get through without ending the hostilities?

Diego was amazed. You mean that was a plant?

Correna nodded. All from a very devious mind if you ask me, and I'm no one to trifle with.

Diego sat back for a minute, taking it all in. The emotions, the tears, the trip up here, had all been expected, controlled actions. Diego felt like a puppet on a string; doing the things others wanted of him. He was not sure he liked that. But the one thing he truly regretted was Victoria's sorrow. She had genuinely not known. That's extraordinary, he said finally.

Safira pointed it out right away, but I didn't listen. Being a woman surrounded by men, she understood the way we think better then we did.

Diego didn't miss the use of past tense. Others might make such a mistake, but not Correna. He continued to talk about his wife and Diego's university fiancée in the past tense.

That was the one thing Escalante didn't count on in his plan. People would die. It's an unfortunate way to win a revolution.

Diego felt the blood drain from his face and his insides turn to ice as he asked the question burning in his mind about his former fiancée. She's not...?

Dead? Correna's jocular tone changed to a whisper. Yes. In the battle that brought us Señor Escalante. She was caught in the crossfire with the government troops.

Diego just sat, feeling the roughness of his seat, but remembering the softness about Safira that had first attracted him to her. I'm sorry, he said at last, remembering that she had been this man's wife.

Correna nodded, accepting Diego's solicitude. She spoke about you in the end. She wanted you to be happy. She asked that I do what I can for you.

I don't need anything, began Diego, but he was cut off again by Correna.

Everybody needs something. She saw that, much better than most people see it themselves. So, what do you need, Señor? And if you say nothing again, it will only make me ask one more time, and you wouldn't want me not to grant a dying wish. His voice was light, denying that he had loved a woman who had died. Diego thought again of what life would be like if Victoria died, and he was instantly filled with a black hole.

I don't want anybody to know that kind of pain, said Diego solemnly. I want the revolution to end so young sons can go home to their parents. And I want justice.

What? Correna mocked. No wish for a young lady? You know, the love of a woman is like the beauty of a sunset. Take it from someone who knows.

Diego's eyes flipped of their own volition to the break in the trees that had swallowed up Victoria and Francisco. As long as it's the right woman, Diego whispered back, his thoughts on Victoria. Suddenly he turned to Correna. No, I take it back. I'm not so noble. I do want the love of the right woman.

Of Señorita Escalante?

Yes. Diego played with his imagination, remembering the future he had dreamed in the candlelit window at home. And he wanted that future right now with his entire soul.

I can't help you there, the outlaw leader was saying. I can just give advice. You know, Safira and I were married for four years. And they were all the best years of my life. Stop wasting time, Señor. I can take care of the government now. His wistful tone turned suspicious and condescending.

He knew! He knew that Diego was Zorro. Diego decided to play along and find out just how much he knew. We all do what we can in our own little way, Diego replied stiffly.

I know that. But don't you think it should end? It was obvious that Correna knew it all.

It will end when the government no longer abuses the people, Diego said with quiet fervor. When there is a just government, then there will no longer be a need for the fight. Until then....

Until then we will all have wasted the best years of our lives.

That can't be helped, said Diego.

Yes, it can. By being as normal as possible. Correna dumped his coffee cup upside down once more, watching the few drips left spend themselves on the ground. Don't be like this coffee, Señor. Don't be among the drips.

It's not my decision, Diego said in a soft voice. It was Victoria's, whether she knew it or not. But it definitely wasn't up to him. It's not my decision, he repeated in a whisper.

It was at that time that shots rang out in the camp. Two rifles fired simultaneously, sounding like tiny pops among the firing of pistols. Diego jerked and fell backwards off the log to lay among the leaves and dirt. Then there was silence, so profound that one could hear a leaf rustle.

There came a shout. We got them. Military lancers. Two of them. Both dead.

But Correna was hardly listening. The second Diego had disappeared over the log, he had sprung into action and leapt over the log himself. He lay next to Diego, trying to make a small target. Then came the silence, filling the camp, and the yell of the lancers' deaths. A small attack. He was just crawling to retrieve his coffee cup when he noticed the blood.

It was just drops on the leaves at first. He followed it with his eyes to the grimacing Diego, seeing the source at last, noticing the two holes in the blue trousers and immediately pulling out his knife. He split the trousers cleanly along the seam with the knife, then wished he hadn't. The two bullet holes were a mass of blood and tissue, seeping from the leg in globs to run and clump together behind the knee. It was an ugly mess. He pressed his handkerchief to the wound, knowing it wasn't fatal even if it wasn't pretty, but the bullets had to come out.

Yet the clearing was empty, an oddity in such a busy camp. Hey! he yelled, and within seconds two men ran into the clearing. One he sent to find Miguel Olsen, their resident expert on bullet wounds. The other he sent to bring Señorita Escalante to him. When more people came, he had them boil water and bring clean rags. But it was almost all he could do to keep the bloody handkerchief from sliding away. There hadn't been nearly as much blood when Safira had died.

Diego! yelled the señorita from the edge of the trees.

Over here! Correna called back, still unable to take his concentration from the bullet wounds and the blood he was blocking. Now I do what I can for you, he whispered before Victoria descended on him, and others milled around.

Diego heard the whisper, and tried to comment, but couldn't fight through the fire. That was all he knew. The fire consumed him, racing through his veins, throbbing inside his head, reaching for his fingers and toes. He couldn't breath for the fire. Then Victoria was there, holding onto his fingers for him, holding onto his life. She was his center, even if she didn't know it. He heard the knife leave the sheath again, heard a person talking about the fire, felt the pain once more as someone placed that hot knife into the fire inside him. Victoria tilted his head, begging him to look at her, and he did, with all the love he had left in him. Hers was the last face he saw when the release of unconsciousness claimed him. It was a beautiful site.

Unconscious, he dreamed about her face, seeing the future of his candlelit world unfolding for him. It was remarkable. And through it all, Victoria was the one constant. His precious, always.

As he slowly became more aware of his surroundings, winning the battle against the fire, she went with him, stayed with him, remaining calm when the fire got too hot and when it came back for him. But she would not let it have him, no matter how it raged. It ran in circles, it begged, it dressed in black, but she wouldn't let it return for him, and he finally slept deeply.

When Diego really came awake, it wasn't to find Victoria beside him, but to find Felipe sitting on a pile of leaves, reading a book, his hair hanging in his eyes when the breeze wasn't rippling through it like a brook.

Diego grunted as he tried to roll over, then groaned as his leg grew into fire. Pain lanced through him, then left, leaving him drained but pain free for the moment. The noise attracted Felipe's attention, and the teenager leaned over him.

Felipe. What happened? It was all he could ask.

Felipe began gesturing, but Diego was too tired to follow his friend's hand signals, the weariness creeping up on him as harshly as a snarling tiger. He shook his head against the pillow crackling on leaves. He felt sheets underneath him, and didn't understand. He would have to wait for Victoria. Meanwhile, he slept again.

At long last, she came, yawning and barely dressed, yet willing to answer the questions burning a hole in his soul. Felipe laid down then, the two of them trading places.

What happened? he asked again, and the asking did not leave him drained and tired this time.

We were followed, her voice boomed out as she struggled to pull back her hair into a single clip without the aid of a mirror. She lowered her voice then at Diego's wince, and went on with her explanation. Two lancers from Los Angeles. Must have been sent by the Alcalde. They shot at Carrena and missed, but got you instead. There are two bullet holes in your leg, right about here. She pointed to her own inner thigh in demonstration. The lancers are both dead. Shot by Correna's men. But at least we know why the lancers keep missing Zorro; the military muskets fire too low.

At the mention of Correna, Diego looked around him, but saw only trees and their green leaves. The camp, down to the last man, was gone.

Victoria followed his eyes. They're gone. Packed up and left. I only saw Correna once. He said something about coffee and drips. Do you know what he meant?

Diego nodded, using up the last of his energy. He drifted off to sleep, the sound of her melodic voice still in his ear, his hand holding tightly to her fingers.

When he awoke again, it was obviously night by the presence of a fire to his right, and Victoria was gone once more, relieved by Felipe. The minute his eyes opened, the boy started signing. Diego found himself understanding this time, even if he didn't want to. The signals were accompanied by a face full of accusation.

What did I say to Victoria? I didn't say anything to Victoria. Why? Is she angry? asked a confused Diego.

When Felipe nodded, he gave him a wide-eyed look of terror, leaving little doubt as to how horrible Victoria could be when she got into a temper about something. Diego had to laugh. Give it time, my friend. She's been through a lot these last few days.

At which time he was told he'd been laying here, unconscious or asleep, for six days. He was starting to smell.

Six days! exclaimed Diego. No wonder I'm so hungry.

The accusations left and Felipe silently laughed at him, but went to gather food nonetheless. Leaving half for Diego, he started on a second supper of Señorita Escalante's famous tortillas.

Felipe, said Diego, changing his position until he was more comfortable. Tomorrow I want you to bring the horses from Monterey. I know it will take several hours, probably three, but I think that if someone helps me, I can ride back to the inn. He remembered how Correna had cut his pants with a knife. Oh, and please bring my extra trousers with you. Do you think you can do that?

Felipe suddenly smiled, not needing encouragement, and continued talking to his friend, although Victoria slept only a few feet away. Diego tried to keep his voice low in order not to bother the sleeping señorita, but he was aware of her presence as if it was her that he conversed with.

Felipe left the next day right after breakfast, leaving Diego in Victoria's excellent care, and with the one new book he'd allowed himself to bring on the trip. He propped himself on one elbow, the caballero shirt doing little to hide the effect that being alone with her had on him. He wryly felt grateful for the blanket that covered him from the waist down, especially now that he no longer wore his trousers. Victoria did the dishes with water from a nearby creek, and Diego contentedly read his book about pond minerals, letting his leg heal when he would be just as content to help Victoria.

Diego was getting really interested in his new book when Victoria sat down next to him on the crackling leaves.

Diego, I have to talk to you, she said as her opening.

For an answer, he laid his book down on the leaves after first glancing at the page number, mentally marking his place. Then he gave all of his attention to Victoria. He couldn't help thinking of her radiance; living outside and not working agreed with her. Go ahead.

But she was silent, her gaze moodily centered on the trees instead of him. I don't quite know what to say.

He smiled and touched her hand. What could be such a problem? Why don't you start at the beginning, he suggested.

She sighed then, turning her eyes suddenly on Diego. With a nod, she bluntly stated, I know about your secret identity, surprising Diego enough to drive all thoughts of his book from his head.

The blood drained from Diego's face. He could deny her suspicions, own up to them, or pretend that he didn't know what she was talking about. But he looked into her dark-eyed gaze, so honest and trusting, and he knew he had to tell the truth. The moment for divulsion was finally at hand.

He sighed, too, playing absently with the end of a leaf in reach, not smiling. His face was as serious as her claim. Discovery was always a danger, but he hadn't truly expected it, if he was honest with himself. How did you find out?

Victoria looked at him searchingly. So it's true? That you're Zorro?

A moment went by, filled with anticipation, then he nodded.

I thought as much when I put my hand on your arm. I remember feeling so much strength. It didn't surprise me at the time, but it came back to me later, and it made me think. Besides, you called me 'Preciosa' when we took out the bullets. She paused, shuddering. I was so mad at first that you didn't think I was important enough to tell....

That's not true.

She looked at him then, a questioning gaze that burned him like the pain never could. That's when you started asking about being shot and I was so short with you.

You were angry? Diego asked quietly, still playing with the leaf.

Victoria nodded with another sigh. I was angry that I thought you didn't trust me enough to tell me. But not anymore, she ended on a whisper, wondering what to say next, what to do next, what would happen to her next.

Diego hesitated, thinking of his normal fear of rejection, but he had to know. And now? he asked, still quiet in the face of her confession.

She sighed. I don't know, she admitted, also playing with a leaf. It was torn, like she was, jagged at the edges.

I'm willing to find out if you are. Diego didn't know where he found such courage, for he was usually so faint of heart where Victoria was concerned. He only knew that the courage didn't desert him when he needed it most, and for that he was glad. If ever he needed his father's good advice, it was now, and he felt the irony of his situation.

But Victoria wasn't immune to the situation and its emotions, either, according to the expression on her face. She knew very well what he was asking for, and was as willing to find the truth as he was. So she leaned in hesitantly, her hair falling affectionately against his arm, their breath mixing for just a second before her lips met his in their first unmasked kiss.

It was tentative at the beginning, both exploring the emotions that a kiss would bring. Then Diego couldn't help himself; he forgot about the pain in his leg as he deepened the kiss and reached a hand up to touch her hair. He poured all the love he'd been feeling, but had gone unexpressed because of wearing that mask, into Victoria, secretly willing her not to reject him as who he was. She responded immediately, easily keeping up with the change, unable to hide the love she felt, even from him at such a vulnerable time. Her fingers rose to cup his cheek, and he briefly wondered if she knew how seductive such a motion was. He couldn't resist the temptation to deepen the kiss even further, going to a place he had never before allowed himself to go with her, always afraid he wouldn't be able to climb back out again. He was determined to be afraid no longer.

Victoria trembled against him, and felt his shaking as well, when he deepened the kiss the second time. She couldn't help the love she suddenly felt, or the desire to wrap her hand into his hair, something she had always longed to do, but had been stopped by the mask he had worn. Her thoughts spun in circles, and the only anchor was him as together they went to an amazing height they had never been to before, spiraling faster and faster, until the only thing she was aware of was him and his incredible lips on hers, and he was seeing into her soul for the first real time in that amazing kiss.

Victoria was breathing hard as they parted, as if she had just run a marathon. Diego was equally as out of breath, thinking helplessly of all the things he still wanted to do with her. He silently cursed his often-numb leg, but only looked at her, letting her know by the expression on his face that to stay or go was still her decision.

She stared into the blue eyes that were so familiar, and couldn't stop herself as she leaned back down without a word to kiss him again. Victoria admitted it to herself; she loved him, and wouldn't stop just because she knew his identity. In fact, kissing him as himself almost acted as an aphrodisiac. She kissed him slowly and languidly, tasting him with her tongue when he responded. Her hand rested not-so-innocently on his muscular chest when they parted again to stare at each other.

Diego whispered, I guess we know now, twining his fingers in her curly black hair, the smell of leaves and woods disappearing under her direct gaze, and he once again forgot the pain in his leg.

Victoria stared back at him, whispering, Yes, we know, when she felt the pull on her head, and gave in to the inevitable, thinking the inevitable wasn't so bad after all.

Much later, Victoria was spread out on the ground, her head propped up on one elbow, just like his, and she was glancing through his book on waterways and ponds as he lazily played with the longer curls of her hair. What is this book? she asked. More importantly, why do you like it?

Why do you like the tavern? he asked rhetorically, their voices quiet in the bird-filled air. He touched her hand again with his own, and both felt the electric jolt that came with the motion. His fingers strayed to her cheek, and a gentle caress later, she finally attempted to answer him, even though she knew he wasn't looking for a reply.

I guess because I've never known anything else. And I like to cook and take care of people, she responded, closing the book to lean into his hand.

That's why I like ponds, Diego said, giving her jaw a quick nuzzle and running his fingers along her cheek. He knew it was close to the time Felipe would return, and he didn't want him to feel suddenly uncomfortable or left out. Yet the new discovery on Victoria's part left Diego slightly dizzy, and it was getting harder and harder for him to keep his hands on the blanket and away from her bewitching form. He decided right then to send a handwritten note home to his father, explaining the shooting and his need for a recovery, by way of Felipe, who would have to ride ahead of the two adults. Diego needed to spend some uninterrupted time with Victoria if they were going to cement their relationship, and he needed time for his leg to recover enough to ride all day before he might attempt the trip home.

He took the book and pushed it further aside before asking, What are you thinking? It was a loaded question, given the new set of circumstances.

She glanced at him in a way that he secretly loved, sort of beguiling and flirtatious, and said, I was thinking that we're engaged, and how funny it is not to know who you're engaged to. I'm glad I know now.

Diego suddenly squirmed under the blanket. You don't have to keep that ring if you'd rather give it back. It had to be said, even though the saying of it made him unconsciously hold his breath in anticipation of her reply.

Victoria watched him, quietly taking his measure before answering slowly, I will give it to you if you want it back....

I don't, Diego was quick to say, honest at last.

... but I would like to keep it if you don't mind, she finished. I rather like being engaged to you. It's... novel. Then, overwhelmed with emotion, she kissed him quickly, taking him by surprise too much for him to respond. The moment he became aware of what she was doing and answering, she was drawing back to look at him again. She couldn't seem to get enough of looking now that she knew who she was looking at. But she too was aware that Felipe might return soon and did her best to apply her knowledge to her behavior.

You never did tell me what you think of my identity, he reminded her, as determined as she was to speak his thoughts.

Victoria sighed and played with a leaf in her hand again. Suddenly, she smiled almost wickedly, her grin expanding to a lovely blush. I know that rejection was always one of your biggest fears, as if Zorro could have any fears....

You have no idea, Diego said with a heartfelt laugh.

She went on as if he'd never spoken, ... but I don't think you have anything to worry about there. She looked up at him again. I said then that I love the man, and I meant it.

Diego carefully took hold of her hand. Without looking at her, he asked quietly, Even if the man is me?

Victoria remembered all the times Zorro had come to Los Angeles even though it was dangerous, just to see her, how she had unwittingly compared Diego to the masked bandit, her sometimes biting comments when he didn't seem to live up to her expectations, the worry and thrill she felt when Zorro fought with his sword or his whip. It was grand, and he was always magnificent, but still she worried. And no matter what he wore, from now on he would be Diego to her, and no matter what, he would be magnificent. Especially if it's you, she said in a hushed voice, nervously confiding her innermost thoughts.

I love you, Victoria, he declared with all the certainty he could muster as he took her confession for the honest answer it was.

Victoria sat up in astonishment. I don't think you've ever said that before!

Diego shrugged. It's the truth, he said. I know my feelings run deep and it's hard for me to verbally express them, but I usually tell the truth.

And you're telling it now, she said, asking the words as much as telling him.

Yes. His voice was as hushed as hers.

I love you, too. I think I always have. She said the words as if they were a discovery to her as much as to him.

Diego's heart soared at the confession, but he was saved replying by the sudden arrival of Felipe and the horses. The teen had no idea what he was interrupting, or even that he was interrupting something momentous. He and Victoria often sat with Diego to keep him entertained, and as far as he knew, that's what was going on. Keeping in time with what he thought was the mood, he tossed Diego's extra trousers to him, creating a physical as well as a mental barrier between the two.

Wearing trousers again after being naked for so long felt strange, but Diego didn't comment, and the young man held tightly to him the entire ride back into Monterey. It was only a few miles, but Diego had sweat on his forehead by the time they reached their destination, and he needed support to get to his room. He gratefully sank beneath the covers, glad of the bed, knowing that they had been lucky not to experience rain in what had been Corena's camp.

Victoria treated him like always, giving nothing away, and Felipe was never the wiser for the sudden change in their relationship. Beyond bringing him soup that she made herself in the kitchen of the inn, she didn't even appear to spend more time with him, and when Felipe left for Los Angeles the next day, he had no idea what he was leaving them to.

Though he was worried about Felipe traveling on such a dangerous road by himself, Diego was content to read his book and quietly dream of the day he could leave the mask behind forever while Victoria visited the local market, but he was resolved to finish the conversation they had started the day before. It had been too interesting to leave unfinished. The least he could do was ask about her interview with her brother.

But what Victoria did drove all thoughts of continuing their conversation from his head.

When she came in, she had more than food from the local market with her. In walked a man, dressed from head to foot in priest robes. Diego knew what he was right away as he slowly put his book aside. Had Victoria done what he thought she'd done?

She walked in very quickly, as if she was in a hurry. Slightly out of breath, she did the introductions. Diego, this is Padre Marone, padre, Diego de la Vega. The man I told you about.

Buenas Dias, said the priest, as if he was giving dire warnings with his low voice.

Buenas Dias, Diego said dutifully.

Diego, began Victoria somewhat nervously, the padre has agreed to come here to... to marry us. She looked hopefully at the unmoving Diego, watching his blue eyes grow wide, then returne to normal in the span of a heart beat. All depended on what he said next.

Diego asked Victoria, Can you please get my trousers for me?

Victoria patiently turned her back while Diego changed, pulling the brown trousers awkwardly over the bandages, then the padre began the wedding ceremony.

It would have been a strange ceremony even in a church, with the padre talking about fornication and the necessity of a woman to obey her husband, making Victoria beautifully angry, but when the padre said to a by-then completely gray Diego, You may sit down before you kiss the bride, they would have laughed if it hadn't been true.

Diego sat, and slowly the color began to creep back into his face. It's all right, he assured, slightly out of breath himself, I just needed to get my weight off my leg.

His hand clutched Victoria's, for more reasons than needing support or because the ceremony called for it, but he didn't enlighten the padre. I'm all right, he said again eventually, and took a deep breath, letting it hiss out between his teeth. The pain was leaving like his breath.

Victoria played absently with her new wedding band. She'd had to buy it herself, and the jeweler had almost refused to sell a woman the band of choice, but he had come around when Victoria mentioned but for Diego's injury, he would be the one purchasing the ring. That had convinced the jeweler, or they might have had to use a string.

With a significant look at Diego, Padre Marone said, I'll show myself out. I think I know the way. With that, he was gone, leaving them alone in the tiny room for the first time.

Still clutching a nervous Victoria, Diego took another deep breath and looked at her. She stared back in the sudden silence, very aware of him abruptly, noticing his masculinity and the effect it might have on her life with this seemingly hasty decision to marry. But he stared out of those familiar blue eyes, and the nervousness was gradually ebbing away, to be replaced by tingles that ran up and down her spine.

Are you angry? Victoria asked as she hung up her cloak on the hook provided for such a purpose.

The question surprised him. Angry? No. A little astonished, maybe, and certainly delighted. We've been waiting a long time. Diego reached for her hand when she came back to the bed. The contact left more goosebumps on his arm. He was also suddenly aware of the new position she held, and the fact that she even wanted to marry him was amazing. With that seemingly innocent decision, everything was different.

Can we just sit for a minute? asked the stunned Diego. It's so quiet in here. I feel like I want to soak it up.

Victoria sat by him, the motion restrained considering the circumstances. She held tightly to his hand as well. Diego, can I ask you a question?

Most certainly, he answered, wriggling his leg to relieve some of the pressure and the pain that had set in with the sinking of the mattress under her.

Victoria looked down, twisting her wedding ring again. I don't quite know how to ask this, so I'll be blunt. Have you... known many women?

He didn't quite understand what she was getting at. A puzzled wrinkle settled over his eyebrows. He thought of Safira and asked, What?

Victoria sighed somewhat impatiently. We haven't talked about... I mean, my question is... Diego, she suddenly asked with that direct stare of hers, Are you a virgin?

So that's what was bothering her. Had he waited for her like she had for him, sacrificing his very soul for her in the name of passion and desire? He touched her cheek again like he had the day before. He met her eyes, and in a whisper, said, I am.

Victoria met his gaze and also whispered, Me too. That might make for an interesting wedding night.

But Diego was holding her shoulder now, her skin under the shirtwaist burning his hand, making his fingers tingle. Why wait? Then he was kissing her, knowing there would be no interruptions, knowing that he didn't have to restrain himself for anyone, knowing that he wouldn't have to stop. It was a heady knowledge that fed the burning desire for her the tingles had turned into.

Shamelessly, Victoria thought that this was what she had wanted. She was finally going to be allowed to touch what she had wanted to touch all along. But Victoria was having to fight her own unanticipated response to him. She slowly unbuttoned his caballero shirt and ran her fingertips across his well-muscled chest. Diego drew in a deep, ragged breath and moaned.

A second searing kiss later and he was sliding his lips along her jaw and the soft skin under her ear, drawing moans from her as well. Victoria raised her arms to encircle his neck, giving herself up to the emotions and his incredible mouth, wondering if a wounded man could make love or not.

He definitely could. Lying on the sheets afterward, trying to catch their breath again, feet and good legs entwined, Diego played absently with one of her hands. It was the one wearing the wedding band. I don't think virginity was much of a problem.

Victoria laughed at her concerns and jitters. No, I should say not. She stretched languidly, leaving her hand in his grasp, wondering why they hadn't done this before since she felt so good. Victoria pondered society's rules as she let Diego look at her newly-acquired ring.

He looked, then briefly kissed it to glance at her. Marrying you was the best thing I've ever done, he declared and kissed the ring again.

What about all the good you've done for the pueblo? Victoria asked, curling her fingers around his hand.

It pales in comparison to you, he assured. He ignored the pain this time as she rolled right next to him, feeling his desire for her build once again. It would be empty justice without you, mí Preciosa.

She smiled at the pet name, and felt him grow hard against her hip, knowing what was coming next. Her fingers moved slowly through his hair. Enough sacrifices, she whispered.

He whispered as well. Enough.

They left Monterey a week later, leaving a tiny room and used sheets behind, but glad to be finally going back home. Diego wasn't fully healed yet, but that didn't stop him from wanting to recover at home, or from enjoying Victoria's company both day and night. As they traveled, he wondered how best to explain his decision to marry to his father.

Victoria was wonderful to be with. She never complained, as many women did on the road, and her ardent desire matched his, leaving him more breathless each time they made love, and they made love a lot, as if they wanted to make up for all the time they had waited. The journey extended several days as that desire often erupted in the middle of the afternoon or after lunch, interrupting what might have only been a much shorter trip.

Diego was an amazing and considerate lover, but it was her emotions for him that brought equal desire out in her. Unlike most other wives she had heard about in the tavern, she was more than willing to break up the trip occasionally for an unexpected adventure among the blankets.

But such a honeymoon had to end, and the evening before the day they were expected to return to Los Angeles, Victoria brought up the closed subject by saying, Diego, I think we need to talk.

Diego didn't pretend not to know what she was referring to. He stopped laying out rocks to protect the fire, and sighed, not wanting to be practical for the first time in his life. I suppose you're right.

You know I am. She pushed back her hair, which Diego liked to see hanging free, and said, We need to decide what we're going to do with the tavern. Do I keep it, do I sell it? What?

He sighed again. I would never stand in the way of your personal happiness, and I can't even think of going to the tavern and not seeing you there. Still, I want you with me now, all the time. He looked at her fairly helplessly. I don't know what to suggest.

Victoria suddenly grinned impishly. I think that's the first time I've ever heard you say that, she said, then came to a quick decision. Since we can't decide to sell it now, I say I continue working there, but I come back to the hacienda in the evenings.

That means traveling in the dark sometimes, protested Diego.

Then I travel in the dark. Victoria shrugged. You'll be with me most of the time.

Diego sat for a moment, then agreed, not liking the plan, but accepting it. His first compromise, the first of many.

And your father? she asked.

I guess it's time he learned everything, Diego said, still unmoving beside the fire.

You mean he doesn't know? That surprised Victoria. She assumed she had been the only person in the dark.

No. The only one to know everything is Felipe.

Felipe! she exclaimed, clearly surprised to hear that.

Diego nodded. He's known since the beginning.

Victoria suddenly blushed. Then he's known all about me, she said in a hushed tone of voice.

Diego rose and limped to her place by the horses. That I was in love with you? Yes, he knew. Diego sounded contrite, explaining everything then, guilty.

Victoria blushed again, remembering the kisses she had grown to look forward to. Does he know everything about you and me? she asked, her voice still hushed.

Diego paused, also remembering. No. Not everything, he finally admitted, fully aware of what he'd chosen to keep to himself.

Good, Victoria stated decisively, making Diego smile.

How do you do that? he asked. You make decisions so quickly.

She replied, Years of running a tavern, I guess. Lots of practice.

I wish I could do that.

What? Diego de la Vega, not good at something? she asked in mock horror.

He reached for her across the blankets she had been about to lay. I'm not good at a lot of things, Señora de la Vega. Cooking, for example. He rose to his full height.

She stared up at him. Fortunately, there is plenty that you are good at, she said with only half-pretended flirtatiousness.

Fortunately.

Then they were off for another unplanned delay, but neither seemed to mind.

They arrived at the hacienda the next afternoon.

Diego helped Victoria to dismount, keeping her hand in his afterwards. He figured he would need all the support he could get.

Don Alejandro met them outside. Diego! Your note scared me to death, but now you're back. Welcome home, Son! What's this? he asked as he noticed Diego holding Victoria's hand far longer than seemed necessary just to help her dismount from a horse.

Diego looked at Victoria.

You tell him, the señora said.

Tell me what? I already know about the shooting, Alejandro said, a puzzled expression on his face.

Diego glanced toward his father, and decided bluntness was the best policy, like Victoria always employed. Father, meet your new daghter-in-law.

Alejandro looked at them both blankly. What?

We got married last week, Diego explained with a glance at Victoria.

You're joking, Alejandro said as he waited for the real explanation. When neither of them said anything more, he commented, You're not joking.

No, said Diego. We're married.

Alejandro beamed and held out his arms. This is wonderful news! Welcome to the family! And Victoria felt herself enfolded in the smaller man's embrace. It felt very strange to be embracing Alejandro instead of the stronger Diego. Though I thought you were waiting for Zorro, I'm just as glad you didn't!

Well, that's something we need to talk about, said Diego, indicating with his arm that he wanted his father to proceed him into the library where they could both sit down.

Always the tavern keeper, Victoria said, I'll bring some cool drinks, and she made herself scarce in the kitchen for the first time since the wedding as Diego told Don Alejandro all about Zorro. It was good to be off the horses, but Victoria would never admit that to Diego. In truth, she was a little sore, and glad that they had finally reached home for him and the stopping place for her. It wasn't her home yet, though it soon would be, she supposed.

And so life went on, the marriage of Don Diego to Señorita Escalante excited relatively little gossip, considering she had been waiting for Zorro for years. It seemed only natural that a man would fall in love with the woman who nursed him through such a truly rough time in his life as being shot. It was completely romantic, and there was nothing more that the citizens of Los Angeles liked better than romance, as both Diego and Victoria could attest to. To fulfill that story, not a day went by that wouldn't find Diego visiting his wife in the tavern.

And Zorro? Truth be told, he was never actually seen in the señora's kitchen again, though he stopped by when he could for a quick kiss full of the desire not seen by the public, until the day he was no longer needed in Los Angeles. His identity was just another mystery to the citizens, and only a few very boring, normal people knew the truth.


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