The loud rapping on the front door came as a complete surprise to the two gentlemen sitting in the library, contentedly reading books as the morning waned into early afternoon and they waited the serving of their daily lunch. But whoever was at the door certainly hinted at a sense of urgency, according to the intensity of the pounding, enough of that sense that even a hastily prepared meal would have to wait.
Are you expecting anyone, Diego? Don Alejandro asked
his tall, practically reclining son as he rose from the chair
he'd been sitting in and headed for the door.
Diego shook his head and uncurled himself to rise as well.
No. I don't know who it could be.
Alejandro moved toward the carved wooden door that he was so
proud of. That door had been shipped, unharmed, all the way from
the carpenter shops of Europe when Alejandro was still just a
small boy. He deftly pulled on the brass door knob now, and
exclaimed in delight,
Diego, it's Seņorita Escalante! Come
in, come in! What can we do for you?
Diego's father and the seņorita continued to exchange pleasantries as Diego's heart suddenly began to pound, even as he stood, unmoving, in the library. Not that he gave anything away as he stood on the carpet, but he wondered frantically what had brought Victoria to the de la Vega hacienda on what was a bright, warm, May day. Had he done something lately, either as Diego or as Zorro, to encourage a visit to the hacienda? Whatever it was, it must have been important to tear her away from the tavern during its business hours. After all, she hadn't said one word about the need for a visit the night before while she and Zorro had been in her kitchen. Admittedly, what they had been doing might not have been conducive to remembering the need for a visit, but still, he would have thought that she might have mentioned that need if it was as urgent as her pounding had indicated.
His second thought, one that followed swiftly after the first, was that something unwelcome and drastic had happened in the pueblo that made her want to tell her friends immediately. Diego's heartbeat slowed as he thought, All right, what has Ignacio done this time?
Diego stood indecisively in the library, book in hand, warring with his urge to step forward while the conservative part of his mind, the part that always safeguarded his secret, successfully held him rooted in place. So, he was at an awkward half step when his father led a hesitant Victoria into the library.
Diego, Victoria's here! Alejandro exclaimed the
second they reached the library.
I don't mean to intrude... Victoria began hesitantly,
which was odd; she had never been reluctant to enter the hacienda
Of course you're not intruding! Alejandro said.
In fact, we would love it if you stayed for lunch. But I'm
getting ahead of myself. Is there something you needed? Nothing
going on in the pueblo, I hope? Alejandro asked as his son
fought with himself, forcing his heart to calm down even further
and stop beating so hard before his father and Victoria saw his
shirt move with the erratic rhythm underneath. His smooth
expression gave no hint as to the battle that was being fought at
simply the sight of her.
Victoria slowly pulled the round piano seat away from its
place and into the library, in front of Alejandro's recently
I had hoped to ask you.., she began
hesitantly. The reluctance was a singular sensation to express
for the pretty seņorita, as she usually was so angry at the
institution of some new tax or levy that she came quickly to the
reason of her visit.
Actually, I wondered if I could talk to
you, Don Alejandro? she cleared her throat, then inquired,
surprising the two men with her careful tone. It was definitely
something unusual that had happened to make her need to talk to
the elder de la Vega. Typically, she complained to both men at
once, seeing them as equals who could help her in defying the
latest scheme implemented by the Alcalde.
Alejandro blustered, but smiled behind the display of
emotion on his face. Truly, he was thrilled that Victoria sought
him out for advice. Ever since her father had been captured by
government troops and died as a prisoner at the famous prison
called Devil's Fortress, she had been an orphan in the most
absolute sense of the word, leaving her to the vagaries of fate,
and Alejandro had always looked on the lovely tavern owner as a
surrogate daughter. Necessity was thicker than blood in her
Why, of course, you can feel free to ask whatever you
want, invited the older man as he and Diego both resumed
their seats while setting their books aside on a table resting
between their chairs.
Diego, why don't you continue reading?
It may be your only chance today as we plan to separate cattle
Diego took his father's suggestion and comfortably propped his left ankle on his right leg, seemingly sanguine and content with Victoria's choice of confidants even while he listened intently to everything she had to say. Contrary to his obvious behavior, he fully desired to know what had brought Victoria out to the hacienda on that bright May afternoon. It had to be more important than an unanticipated lunch invitation with the de la Vegas. She might have news of the occurrences in town. To waylay any suspicion as to his interest, Diego reopened his book, laid it on his outstretched legs, and pretended to resume reading.
But it's your private time... protested Victoria
haltingly with a glance in Diego's direction.
Please, feel free to interrupt that 'private time,'
Alejandro invited again.
What's on your mind?
Victoria blushed even as she faltered, searching for the right words to frame her request.
Diego stared at the type on the page spread out before him and smiled slightly, though only a well-trained observer would have seen the gesture. It was a strange occurrence for the volatile tavern owner to blush enough so that the color red suffused her cheeks, yet she blushed as Diego watched her through the corners of his eyes. It was an endearing reaction to see, even from only his peripheral vision.
Victoria smiled as well, though her gesture was far more
embarrassed than Diego's had been.
Don Alejandro, I was
wondering if I... if I could ask about..? She was having
trouble even in the declaration of her request.
What had happened to her in the tavern this morning? Diego wondered in his growing alarm, while making certain to keep his face schooled in the bland, uninterested expression that he usually wore when dealing with Victoria. It wouldn't do for her to guess that his 'interest' leaned more towards 'concern,' for then such a smart woman would question her observations, and then she would think, leading to all manner of inquiries that Diego wished to avoid.
Victoria blushed again, then seemed to take a firmer seat on
the padded stool she had dragged over for herself. The color, as
becoming as it had unknowingly been, receded from her cheeks to
be replaced with a steely resolve.
Don Alejandro, she
began again in a much more determined, stronger, voice.
wondered if you could tell me what it was like for you to be
married? I mean, what was it like in a marriage made because of
No request could have surprised the aging don more.
Alejandro looked at Victoria, noting the expression in her dark
Why? he asked, suddenly sharp.
Are you and
Zorro planning to do something as foolish as getting
Diego blanched, and raised his book so the others in the room couldn't see his face. Victoria had said nothing about marriage the night before. No indication that it was on her mind, nothing. Diego held his breath, hoping against hope that Victoria wasn't going to divulge their secret engagement to his father.
Victoria laughed, a nervous sound forced from the back of
Oh, no. We know that to do something so silly
could lead only to hanging.
Diego softly took a relaxing breath at her denial.
But Victoria was continuing, and Diego quieted his relieved mind in order to listen.
No, nothing like that, she said with another little
laugh, setting Alejandro's concerns to rest.
I admit to
eavesdropping on a conversation about arranged marriages between
two customers at the tavern earlier this morning. They were at
the counter in the main room, and one of them plans to undergo an
arranged marriage tomorrow. That's why they were talking about
arrangements. He seemed very agreeable to the plan of his own
arranged marriage, and that surprised me, enough to ask about the
marriages of all the customers who came in, and I found
throughout the course of the morning that most of them had
arranged marriages, and that they were very satisfied on the
whole with the arrangements. That outcome... startled me,
Mine and Zorro's... relationship... is quite
different, she acknowledged.
There's nothing arranged
about it. Though, I wish to remain undecided to see if a love
match or an eventual arrangement is right for me. This morning,
I admit I didn't expect arranged marriages to be so popular.
That made me think of the opposite type of marriage, and that in
turn made me think of you. I hope you don't mind.
Diego's blood ran cold at Victoria's words, but he listened again as his father answered her seemingly outrageous question.
I don't mind at all to be the elected spokesperson for
love matches, Alejandro replied in some amusement.
all. I know there aren't many people you could have gone to in
order to ask. I'm glad you came to me, he admitted roughly,
Victoria sat back, almost as if she was getting comfortable
on her stool.
So what happened with your marriage? she
Why was it different than arrangements,
why wasn't it an arrangement, and how was it better if it was
Alejandro seemed stunned for a moment, judging by the way he
remained silent. Finally, he endeavored to answer her interest.
You are curious this morning, he noted, and,
according to the encouraging look on his face, organized his
thoughts. At last, he replied,
I'm not certain I'm the best
person to ask about this... I mean, it's different for
everybody... He sighed, then, and enfolded Victoria's hands
in his own.
Victoria, my dear, he began,
like my own daughter to me, so I'll not try to hide the truth of
my opinions on this matter. But you have to take what I say here
as nothing more than opinion, he cautioned next.
I won't, Victoria promised, as serious now as he was.
I just want to know what the difference is between the two
kinds of marriages, once and for all, but I don't have a parent
whom I can ask about any of this.
You know I'm always happy to fill in
for your parents, whom I loved dearly, he explained quietly.
Nothing pleases me more than to advise their daughter.
Victoria smiled back, and raised her eyebrows questioningly as a prompt to the older man.
All right, Alejandro acquiesced, patting her hand.
If you wish to know about love versus arrangements, I'll tell
you what I've learned.
Gracias, Don Alejandro, Victoria muttered, and Diego
could see her hand squeeze his father's hands even from where he
was sitting across the room.
Alejandro leaned back in his chair.
Love or an
arrangement, he said, as if remembering. Suddenly, he
You know, my parents had set up an arranged marriage
for me, he imparted.
This was news to Victoria. Diego had been hearing this same
story told most of his life, but she hadn't.
I didn't know
that, she insisted.
It's true, Alejandro protested lightly.
supposed to marry the daughter of my father's best friend in
Spain. It had been proclaimed since our births, which
incidentally, were very close together. We would bring great
fortunes to the match, so you see that there was a lot of
pressure to complete such an agreement for the both of
What happened to her? Victoria wanted to know.
She's the head instructor at a girl's
school in Barcelona, he replied more loudly.
married. I guess I was her one chance, he joked.
But what happened with the arrangement? Victoria
Alejandro sighed again.
Two months before the wedding
was meant to take place, I met Diego's mother, Alejandro
explained. But before Diego could become carried away with the
memories of his mother that suddenly barraged his mind, Alejandro
went on, cutting into Diego's thoughts.
Elena was... He
Alejandro smiled softly, remembering.
I met Elena at a
mutual friend's annual Christmas party, Alejandro replied.
She seemed to be on fire, lit from within. Very like you when
your temper is fully engaged, he said, smiling at Victoria,
who grinned abashedly in return.
And from the moment I laid
eyes on her, I knew.
That nobody else would do, Alejandro replied
But you had an arrangement already, Victoria argued.
What did you do?
We met in secret at first, Alejandro admitted,
surprising Victoria judging by the expression of shock on her
I'm not proud of our decisions from that time, but her
father was dead set against having me as a son-in-law, leaving us
little choice. He much preferred Don Carlos Estevez, whom her
parents had chosen to be her husband.
You went against her parents' wishes? Victoria
We went against much more than that, Alejandro
Everyone in the city who knew her expected her to
marry Don Carlos, who was far advanced in years, but agreed with
her father's political opinions. My father might have agreed
with his opinions, supplied Alejandro,
but, you see, I was
a lesser son, a second. Or a third, actually, Alejandro
I was expected to go into the army and not
complain about my lot in life. I was to be of help to God and
country, not be a husband to every girl I met.
That must have been difficult for you to accept,
Difficult? Alejandro exclaimed.
impossible! I was in love with Elena, she was in love with me,
we were both young and impetuous, and nothing less than having
her as my wife would suffice.
But what did you do?
What did we do? Alejandro grimaced, as if he wasn't
very proud of this part of his story, either.
Very little could have surprised Victoria more. Diego knew of his grandfather's opposition to the match, but not so for Victoria, who had only deduced bits and pieces of the facts of the matter from past conversations and allusions. She didn't realize that such feelings had caused a rift between parents and son, not that he had been secretly forced to elope just to get married.
Eloped? she choked.
Alejandro repeated his statement, as if to fix it forever in
Eloped. We ran away together. It was the only
course of action open to us at that point. We had argued with
our parents until we were both blue in the face, but our words
didn't seem to get through. A priest who was extremely
sympathetic helped us and, in the end, married us clandestinely,
against our parents' wishes. He paused and glanced at
Between you and me, I hope that this doesn't ever
happen to you. There's got to be an easier way.
Victoria grinned once more.
Don Alejandro, both my
parents are gone, she said gently, reminding him of past
I know that, he asserted.
And this is the only
time where their opposition might have been detrimental to you.
After all, considering who you've proclaimed to be attached to
doesn't promise an easy life, he argued, voicing reservations
for the first time.
You could have chosen just about anybody
else and things would have gone much easier for you.
They were both silent after that audible worry had been uttered. Alejandro seemed to be caught up in memories of his hasty, urgent marriage, and Victoria wore a determined expression on her face that said she wished to remain neutral in her discoveries. She had chosen a difficult task for herself, as the opinionated tavern owner usually only wished to express her outrage at such things as anger over the choice of a husband for a daughter.
Alphonso was a good friend, Don Alejandro affirmed,
seemingly still lost in his memories of Victoria's father. Then
he turned back to Victoria, and his eyes cleared of the foggy
expression caused by those memories.
And I wouldn't argue
over your choice of men to love. It's easy to love men who act
as admirably as Zorro does. Diego smiled to himself at his
father's favorable opinion. Then Alejandro was continuing,
But I'm probably one of the few who wouldn't want to argue
over your apparent choice, he ascertained.
Do you realize
how much trouble and heartache might be heading your way?
Eyes closed, Victoria nodded as Diego's own heart clenched inside his chest at the mere mention of possibly hurting her, but such a heartache, if avoidable, was also inevitable. No one else would suit them, either, no matter what anybody else thought, and that was the one truth that, in the beginning, had kept the romance with Victoria alive for Diego. Nobody else would do. It was as simple as that, except that nothing was really simple.
What happened in your marriage? Victoria asked,
bringing Alejandro back to the point of relating his story.
How did your parents take it?
They were less than happy at first, Alejandro
admitted readily enough.
But as I was a younger son and
destined to go into the army, they eventually came around. Elena
and I bought a house in Madrid so we could be close to her
parents while my parents moved here to the colonies. It's
What is? Why is it ironic?
Because Elena's father hated me from the very beginning
for taking his daughter away from him. He disowned her for
defying him. She never saw either him or her mother again. It
was my parents who sailed to Madrid to be present at Diego's
birth, since I was stationed in the Amazon and unable to get
leave in time for the event. My father was very happy that the
baby was a boy, and his heritage would continue, certainly, but
the estrangement of Elena's parents always clawed at her mind,
keeping her from being completely happy. So the closer we were
to her parents didn't really make much of a difference.
Diego's eyebrows rose, the only indication that he was secretly listening to the conversation.
Victoria pounced on his statement.
Then things didn't
That depends on who you ask, Alejandro imparted.
Things didn't work out in that my parents died too young.
They were barely sixty, younger than I am now. Both of my
brothers were killed, Emilio in a carriage accident in Spain, and
Alphonso in the sudden uprising of the peasants, in Guadalajara.
He was shot in the back by a deserter, but that's another long
I'd like to hear it, if I might, Victoria said.
Nothing could have pleased Alejandro more than an interest
in his brother.
I'll tell it to you, someday, he
But today you asked about mine and Elena's
marriage, he reminded himself.
Because it was a love
match, and not an arrangement. Well, here's to love matches,
that's all I can say. And Alejandro raised the half-full
glass of water resting at his elbow on the chess table aloft in a
toast, commemorating his opinion with the action.
Victoria smiled at the movement.
I take it you support
marriage for love?
In a heartbeat! Alejandro declared.
nothing like it. It's why I haven't pushed Diego into an
arranged marriage, and to my acquaintances' great surprise. They
don't seem to understand a grown, single, son who lives at
home, he revealed.
Diego was disconcerted to hear his father's confession. He'd had no idea that Alejandro had suffered from censure from his friends over the fact that Diego remained unmarried. That fact explained the further comments from Alejandro to Diego concerning grandchildren. Gratitude that his father hadn't been pushed into supporting an arrangement for his son engulfed him. An arranged marriage would be difficult to get out of and still keep Zorro's mysterious identity a secret at the same time, Diego admitted to himself. It was more likely that both parties would end up knowing the truth, Diego conceded, and gratitude for his father washed over him again.
You prefer love matches? Victoria asked then,
bringing Alejandro back to the point of his story for the second
Alejandro raised his eyebrows.
I prefer choice over
command any time of the day. There's nothing that can
compare... He paused, gathering his thoughts, then went on.
Now, I'll admit that Elena and I weren't ecstatic every minute
of every day, he said.
We weren't even in love all the
time. But when we were, well, the stars shone brighter because
of us, he proclaimed.
We were happier than most, and more
content with later life than the average couple.
Why? Victoria wanted to know.
What do you
We were in love, and nothing could stop us, though life
certainly tried its best, Alejandro said.
When we argued,
it was more intense due to our love, but when we apologized, as
we inevitably did, it was all the sweeter. He smiled at his
Elena was taken from me far too soon. Of course,
any time would have seemed too soon for me, he admitted.
The bad was enhanced because of the love, but, to be balanced,
so was the good. Most people worry about the bad so much that
the good sort of gets lost in the shuffle. That's why I think
there are still so many arranged marriages around today. I would
think that most people would have grown out of such a barbaric
custom by these modern days, but people also do what they're most
familiar with when push comes to shove. They mean well, but
arranged marriages should fall away, become an outdated
tradition, if you want to know what I think.
Silence reigned in the library for a moment before Victoria
cleared her throat and asked,
So, what do you advise for me,
knowing my case as you do? Should I wait, or should I seek the
help of the matchmaker again for an arrangement?
Alejandro pulled on her hands.
Don't let him go, he
There are those who would say differently...
Don't listen to them. Follow your heart's instructions instead,
not your mind's. Then, he ended his advice, sealing his
words with a fatherly kiss to her hair as he rose from his chair.
Now, you think on that for the rest of the day. It's time for
me to eat lunch if I'm to be energetic enough for this old man to
You're not an old man, Victoria protested as she rose
and replaced her borrowed stool.
Alejandro laughed, and Diego rose from his chair at the same
time his father did before Alejandro moved off to the front door.
My bones would argue with you. Let me show you out, unless
you have any more questions? No? All right, then. I'll get the
Alejandro preceded Victoria to the door of the hacienda, leaving Diego alone in the library for a moment again to begin pondering his words.
Thank you, Don Alejandro, for your time and your
opinions, came Victoria's melodious voice as it floated
around the corner and to the suddenly tortured Diego.
Remember, Diego overheard his father respond to
Victoria's statement in the entry hall,
as long as you and
Zorro are the best of friends, nothing can come between
I'll remember, Victoria answered, then left to return
to her tavern and mull over Don Alejandro's words.
But she wasn't the only one who had to do a little mulling now. Friends, thought Diego. There was little in the territory like his friendship with Victoria. However, the consideration caused him some fear as, right alongside that thought, he found himself deliberating on her concern about whether or not to visit the matchmaker again.
That innocent question of hers made Diego consider revealing himself to Victoria that very night. If she was already thinking about the pros and cons of arranged marriages versus marriage for love, he was faced with the undeniable fact that he could potentially lose her to another man, for while arranged marriages didn't offer total happiness, according to his father, they were immediate, and offered immediate results.
Yep, Diego conceded unhappily, Seņor Zorro was in trouble.
* * *
It was late, past eleven o'clock, when Diego found that he could finally enter the secret cave in the library fireplace without danger to his safety. At last, his father had given in to the fatigue that even Diego admitted he was feeling and gone to bed, leaving his son free to follow more enjoyable pursuits. Only Diego didn't plan to enjoy very much about his forthcoming visit to Victoria, especially if she had been thinking all day about paying a visit to the matchmaker again.
All evening, Diego had played with conversations in his mind, imagining over and over again his eventual unmasking in order to stop that visit before it happened, but nothing had seemed real to him. He was faced with a ride into the pueblo and he still didn't have a plan in mind. It was probably the first time in his entire life that he couldn't think of something to say or do. The blankness was not a comfortable feeling to entertain. The only thing he knew was that he had to unmask for her, claim her love, claim her, before she had the chance to decide that an arranged marriage with any man was acceptable. His fear made her possible decision for that arranged marriage completely unacceptable. Zorro wanted nothing more than to stop Victoria from becoming a statistic as she threatened to prepare to follow in the footsteps of thousands before her. The possibility of her getting married to someone else was definitely enough to cause the fear to beat in his heart all the way to Los Angeles.
Zorro found himself staring at the tavern's kitchen door sooner than he wished as Toronado galloped through town. No lancers jumped out at him from the shadows of the nearby buildings, and it was as if fate wanted to hurry him to his own funeral when nothing came forward to draw his attention away from the impending job he had to do at the tavern. The silence of the night was eerie in its complacency, and Zorro felt himself growing unreasonably suspicious as not even a guard met his carefully probing eyes. But there was nothing to be suspicious of, and he reached the tavern's door with no trouble at all. Which made him suspicious.
Ignoring the message coming from his conscience to be on the lookout for the Alcalde's lancers, Zorro entered the closed tavern, surprising Victoria when he stepped smoothly out of the clinging shadows of the kitchen, a feat not hard to do as the fire in the fireplace was the room's only illumination.
No candles? he asked without a preliminary, romantic,
comment. It was unlike him. Usually he was as romantic as
possible with Victoria.
Victoria started at his sudden presence, but put the
tomatoes down that she was carrying to give him her full
I was in a hurry tonight, since I thought you
wouldn't come for a visit, so I wanted no unnecessary light. You
rarely stop by two nights in a row, you know. I wasn't expecting
you. On the other hand, I'm very glad you're here, though it
probably means that I won't see you now for weeks and weeks.
Victoria smiled endearingly, not appearing to mind his future,
Only Zorro didn't intend to be absent for such a long period as she suggested. His worry over her wouldn't allow him be absent for so long. How could he live without her? Granted, several years before he might not have worried about their assumed 'togetherness' while he spent two months in France, taking that 'togetherness' as indisputable fact. But perhaps his peace of mind wasn't so solid now with this new threat of Victoria's to visit the matchmaker again. His heart beat faster with fear even if she only thought about making such a visit. With his mission so forcefully brought to the forefront of his mind, he turned to face her and stare shrewdly, still thinking.
Victoria, he started, and his discomfort came through
in his voice. He made a movement to rid himself of sounding so
bothered. The result was that he sounded too loud, suddenly, and
he endeavored for a quieter tone. He began again.
I've heard a few things around the pueblo that have made me...
fairly distressed, he admitted.
She was instantly on guard.
What have you heard? she
questioned with a brow lowered in puzzlement.
This would never work. He didn't want her to feel puzzled when her most desired dream was about to be realized. He wanted this conversation to be memorable because it was an historic event, but he didn't want it to be recalled for the wrong reasons.
No, that's not quite accurate, he said,
being atypically honest.
I haven't heard anything. Well, I
have, but not in that way.
Victoria was immediately concerned.
What are you trying
to tell me? Are you trying to... break off our relationship for
some reason? she asked.
No, of course I'm not, Zorro
soothed just as quickly, and the sound of his assurance tripped
around the room.
Where did you gather such a ridiculous
notion? There's nothing I want more than to keep you forever.
Why else would I ask you to marry me?
She endearingly shrugged one shoulder, throwing her sleeve askew with the gesture. Zorro felt himself grow pale as too much of her creamy skin was revealed for his own good, and he closed his eyes as he reached forward amidst the rush of his desire to right the article of clothing. It wouldn't do to be trapped by his emotions for her during this important revelation as well as giving that revelation. It was expecting too much from him.
But Victoria had other ideas. She slid, unasked, into his
embrace, though if he was being honest with himself, her presence
there was hardly undesirable.
Then what do you want to
say? she asked in a teasing voice. She just as teasingly
kissed his chest, a motion that she had never performed before,
but one, he thought hazily, she could duplicate anywhere she
Zorro sighed again, though he thoroughly enjoyed her
I want you to know a few things before... before
you start to feel too good and I lose all my resolve to finish
what I've started to say, he admitted as he brought his hands
up from her waist to cradle her cheeks in a loving embrace of his
own. With that action, he recalled that he still wore the black
gloves he'd always used as part of Zorro's costume, and he
hastily peeled them off and pushed them into his sash before
returning his hands to smooth her cheeks with a caress of obvious
Victoria's eyes widened at the warmth of his fingers, and
her stomach went into a complete tumble.
What do you want me
Zorro stared at her, gauging her ability to handle the
My identity, he whispered to her, and that
disclosure could only precede a kiss of equally enticing promise.
He held her close, letting his soft but firm embrace tell her how
much he wished other things to happen as well. But his desire
was leading him pleasurably away from the point of his visit.
Victoria was forced to fight her feelings as much as he was.
Your identity? she asked as a way to circumvent her own
racing emotions. Just his simple touch sent tingles across her
I have questions of my own to ask, she informed
Zorro felt her curiosity like it was a bucket of cold water
drawn from the pump in the corner.
Feel free to ask me
anything, he invited, then, despite his worries, bent down to
kiss her briefly on the lips.
The softness of even that quick endearment was almost the
end of her decisiveness. She had to clear her throat to remind
them of his vow concerning his identity.
You want to reveal
yourself to me, she repeated.
Why now? What
Zorro drew back, but kept his hands possessively around her
As I said, I heard a few rumors around the
Then you said that such a statement wasn't entirely
accurate, she reminded.
Ah, yes, I did, Zorro agreed. Then he went on,
You're right, Victoria. That is, we're both right; I
didn't hear any rumors.
Then what did you hear?
Zorro looked at her in trepidation.
That you asked Don
Alejandro about arranged marriages. There, he'd voiced his
concerns out loud and hadn't lied while he'd done it. He smiled
at the small victory.
Victoria slowly drew back.
How did you know about that
conversation? she wanted to know.
This was it, the confession to end all confessions.
Because I heard, he finally acknowledged, divulging
You were outside and overheard? she asked in
No, you don't understand. I heard because I
was in the room.
But she refused to credit the truth of what he was telling
That's not possible. The only ones who were in the room
at the time were Alejandro, me, and... and Diego, she
finished on an explanatory note.
He shuffled uncomfortably.
Yes, he said, truthful
for once, not denying her discovery.
Victoria's eyes grew even wider.
Then you... She
couldn't finish her statement. Slowly, she withdrew herself from
That must mean... She couldn't complete that
Zorro neither denied nor credited her sudden new insight.
Instead, he hugged her again.
I was too afraid to tell you
before now, he whispered.
But when I heard you talk about
possibly looking into an arranged marriage, I knew I had to be
honest about my identity or risk losing you forever, and I
couldn't fathom that. It was far too painful. I realize how
much danger this knowledge puts you in, and that danger isn't
courted lightly. Then he drew a deep, tattered breath.
just wanted to protect you all these years, Victoria. However, I
had no intention of deceiving you for so long. She remained
silent, her eyes as wide as her mouth. That silence was unlike
her enough to prompt him to declare,
Say something, please,
Victoria. Are you really so very disappointed?
Victoria blinked enough to reorient her mind into babbling
Disappointed? No, I'm not disappointed. How can
you think I'd feel that way? In fact, I've always wanted him to
be you. You're my best friend, and that effort you made to
always be around me, to always protect me, to be so near me means
more to me than... well, I can't think of a comparison right now.
My mind's not working particularly well.
Zorro slowly released her with one hand and slid his black, silk mask up to reveal his features for the first time. Even she, in her befuddlement, understood what danger he risked with the removal of his mask while wearing such distinct black clothing.
Diego stared cautiously back at her.
don't do anything... anything rash, anything you'll regret,
I love you too much to watch you marry another
man, and I hope you'll wait for as long as the need for my skills
exists. I know this is asking a lot of you, but...
What? she asked suddenly, interrupting him.
did you say?
That my skills with a sword are still needed?
No, before that.
That I love you too much to sit idly by while you enter
into an arranged marriage with somebody else?
She nodded with closed eyes.
Say it again.
He was confused by her demand.
Which part? The part
about arranged marriages?
No, the first part.
Nothing short of something tremendous happening in the
pueblo could stop the smile that erupted on his face.
part where I said I love you?
That part. You've never said that
His smile grew.
I'll say it again, then, because it's
true. I love you, even if such an emotion puts you in incredible
danger, even if there's a price on my head for my capture and I
shouldn't by all rights declare such a thing. I can't help
myself, and I no longer want to. I love the way you smell, the
way you feel, the way you champion the poor. I love you for
being you. He hugged her close again.
want... he stopped.
What do you want? she asked in her whisper. The
sound still penetrated the room, letting them know how exposed he
was without the protection of the mask. If they were
interrupted, by anybody, his hanging from the Alcalde's gallows
was the most likely outcome. She couldn't believe what a chance
he was taking for her.
Diego kissed her hair and smoothed her curls tenderly back
in disregard to the jeopardy he was courting. She was worth any
amount of peril.
I want to marry you, he confessed.
don't see how such an event can happen, short of a miracle, but I
want to. He hugged her again, feeling her body heat mingle
naturally with his.
Oh, how I want to, he admitted with
her cradled in his arms.
She pulled at him as well.
I want to marry you, too.
She quietly held him, then, the fire throwing their combined
shadows on her wall.
Victoria, he commented as he reluctantly drew away
Can I ask you a question?
Please, ask anything, was her encouraging
Why aren't you angry with me, why aren't you rejecting
me? After all, if not for my fear of that rejection, two little
words from me could have moved our lives forward years
I know, she conceded with a nod.
Maybe I wouldn't
have appreciated such a confession if given in the past. I don't
know. Right now, however, I'm thinking of what your father told
me when I left the hacienda this afternoon, his recommendation
that I should marry a friend. She grazed across his cheek
with the back of her hand.
You certainly fit that description
better than anybody else. Better than I deserve.
Deserve? You deserve the fairytale, Victoria, Diego
affirmed while he ignored his fears to remain silent and take the
entire conversation back for the first time ever in his life.
And such an affirmation felt incredibly good.
* * *
Diego awoke the next day with the most delightful sense of anticipation that he had ever experienced. Not even Zorro's original marriage proposal, months ago, had felt so eventful. Victoria had accepted him the night before. Without his self competition, he felt more tranquil than he ever had before.
He expected to feel ill at ease when he first caught sight of Victoria that day in the tavern, but that wasn't at all how he felt. He felt desire, excitement, and more love than he had imagined was possible. It was all he could do to remember to watch her through his lashes. He wanted to keep an eye on her all the time, to protect her, to cherish her. He didn't understand how every other male in the pueblo didn't vie for her attention. He was glad they didn't, but he didn't comprehend their blindness at such shining beauty, either. Contrarily, he wanted to take her in his arms and show everybody how he had won such an incredible prize. The sensation was almost overwhelming.
Diego also discovered what a good actor Victoria could be. The Alcalde came into the tavern while she was at the de la Vega table, taking their lunch orders. Coolly, she turned and greeted DeSoto with all her regular amiableness, then disappeared into the kitchen to fill her new orders, cheerful the entire time. No one had any idea that something secretive was going on. Only later did she disclose how she had wanted to violently beat DeSoto senseless for making such a calculated display necessary. For his part, Diego was used to such shrewd behavior, but he reviled it like he had never done before. He desired instead to confirm his more noble emotions to the pueblo's citizens.
Such artfulness, such deceit, was only necessary for a day, as their luck would have it. A scout from the Mexican army rode into town quite unexpectedly to announce the Spanish takeover by Mexico. DeSoto was asked politely to leave the territory, then harshly ordered to leave when he refused, and Diego quite suddenly found himself the proud owner of a governmental pardon as the Mexicans took control of all of California. While the citizens reeled to discover that their hero was in reality the least likely individual expected, Diego held tightly on to Victoria and began to lay plans for their wedding instead of how to deceive the people. It was as liberating as it was unforeseen.
Diego sat in the library the next day, anticipating the arrival of Victoria to claim the lunch that she had originally been invited to by Don Alejandro, but had been denied from accepting by circumstances. Now, there was nothing to hide, either for or from. Their feelings were out in the open whether the family or the town's citizens or anybody was ready to accept them or not. It didn't much matter to Diego. He was far too busy living in a fog of personal happiness to notice.
Lunch came and went, Don Alejandro entertained them both with more tales of his wife, then declared that a siesta was what the new, temporary, Mexican alcalde had ordered, and he intended to fulfill that order by going to bed and having only have one member of the family with a price on his head. So Alejandro disappeared to his room, hoping that he could trust the young people to behave appropriately, all the while knowing that no son of his would let the threat of 'behaving appropriately' stop him from doing anything if he wanted badly enough to do it.
So after lunch, Diego found himself alone with Victoria in the library, his favorite room in the house, as tongue-tied as a nervous teenager. He had no idea what to say to express his thrill at their upcoming marriage, though he was thrilled, beyond measure. Nor did he know what she liked to do with her free time. So he did the only thing he could think of; he asked her.
Victoria seemed a little astonished by his question. She
paused on the library carpet, on her way to the front door to
leave, her mouth a round 'oh' of surprise.
No one's ever
asked me that before. Perhaps that's because I don't have much
free time now.
Well, you certainly have it right this minute. What do
you want to do with it?
If we do nothing, won't you feel lazy? she asked.
Lazy? Us? The next time I feel like I'm not doing
enough, I'll exercise Toronado for an hour. Until then, perhaps
you would like to read?
She laughed at his joke, but considered his words with
I don't even remember the last book I
read, she confessed.
Then perhaps it's time you took an afternoon off to read
a good book, Diego suggested.
Victoria shook her head.
Oh, I couldn't! What will my
Diego drew closer to her, inviting, persuasive, seductive,
and undeniably handsome.
They'll think the truth; that you
have other interests to hold your attention right now. Then,
without further warning, he kissed her.
Victoria was caught off guard and flailed for a few seconds, then capitulated to the tingles wreathing her body in a more delicious fashion than lunch could never duplicate. He held her tightly. No, he cradled her, prizing every aspect of her, loving her, sensing her. If she could judge by his ragged breathing when he finally drew back, he'd been forced to employ his famous control not to give in to his emotions and keep the wedding from becoming superfluous. The warm air wrapped around them, capturing them in a delicate, convincing way that DeSoto could never accomplish with all his threats. Still, she felt that she didn't really know this person beyond the romance he was capable of. She knew Diego, and she knew Zorro, but she didn't yet know the combination of the two.
Attempting a much safer activity, she said,
Can we read
outside, on the grounds? It's such a warm day, and I spend so
many days inside that I feel the sunlight calling to me.
Whatever you want, mi preciosa. It's my joy
to help you in any way that I can, and if you want to read
outside, I'll find a way to make it happen. You have but to
Are you certain that the sun hasn't affected your
brain? Victoria inquired teasingly.
Diego laughed and took a step back, and stopped his joking.
If it has, it's your fault. I only want to make your life
easier, your burden as light as I can. To deny me would be to
deny my chief pleasure, and very few people are strong enough to
I never realized how conceited you are, Victoria
noted, half joking and half in earnest.
Diego quickly replied,
I'm very conceited, always have
been. And I'm very much in love with the local tavern
She smiled back at him.
Your one weakness. I intend to
exploit it every day.
Please, feel free to do so, Diego replied saucily,
then collected on another passionate kiss. It was about the
twenty-fifth he'd received since collecting his pardon the day
before, but he wasn't really counting.
Fifteen minutes later, after Victoria had nearly knocked him
flat with her own version of 'endearments,' he returned to the
matter at hand.
Borrow any book you'd like, and he
pointed at the shelves beside the fireplace. The full bookcase
reached to the ceiling.
Victoria eyed them all critically as she leaned around a
You certainly have a lot of books! There are so many
that I don't know which one to choose.
You can never have too many books, Diego jokingly
agreed, and reached across her to pull a book with a nondescript
blue cover off the top shelf.
I can't even reach that high, Victoria grumbled, then
pulled another volume from a lower shelf.
I promise, we'll rearrange things so you can reach them.
Everything except the best books. Those I'll be sure to place so
high that you'll need to stand on a chair just to see
Victoria couldn't tell if Diego was joking or not, but her
reply was definitely coy,
Then I'll have to be certain to ask
you to pull them down for me.
Diego had never seen Victoria behave coyly before.
you teasing me? he asked after a pause spent looking at her
That depends. Are you teasing me?
So that was how she wanted to be. Playfully, he replied,
Certainly, as he went into the hall to fetch an old
blanket for them to sit on after giving her a huge smile.
And so they soon found themselves lying outstretched on the blanket in the cooler shade outside the hacienda, Diego staring at his book in concentration, and Victoria secretly staring at him through her long lashes. But she hadn't taken into account that she was staring at a man who had long since perfected the use of his peripheral vision.
Without looking up from his book, he casually asked,
are you staring at?
There was no point in hiding the obvious.
And what are you discovering?
That I don't know you as well as I thought I did,
Victoria readily replied.
Diego continued to stare steadfastly at his book.
Victoria laid aside her book and regarded him thoughtfully.
I rarely saw the real you, she claimed.
You had to
pretend when you were in the pueblo, and you wore a mask when you
were Zorro. The only time I saw the true person is when we went
to Santa Paula and you talked so passionately to the Emissary.
The rest of the time, I knew you as that poetry-loving de la
Diego smiled at her assessment of him, and closed his book
to look at her.
I truly do love poetry, he confessed.
Is that what you're reading now? she asked.
Diego glanced at his book.
No, he said.
reading 'Pride and Prejudice,' by Jane Austin. I wanted to see
what all the fuss was about.
Is it an adventure story?
No, he admitted.
It's a romance, as far as I can
She seemed surprised.
A romance? I didn't know you were
interested in romances.
They suddenly have my undivided attention, he said
without missing a beat, and grabbed her hand from its resting
spot on the blanket to plant a heartfelt kiss on her fingers.
Do you like it? Is it good?
Diego sighed, still staring at the front cover of his book.
Well, the mother's the most inanely talkative person ever
created, but the prose is astonishingly real. The author really
hit on something there. And the main character is extremely
likable. She reminds me of you; has a temper. I'm interested
enough to want to see how it ends, certainly.
Victoria playfully swatted him when he referred to her ire.
I only get angry at injustice, she said.
Are you sure? he asked, still being purposefully
Because I've seen you get angry over a great many
True, she thought, but let the moment drift into
quiet as she didn't respond to his assessment. Suddenly serious,
she eventually asked,
Diego, how many children do you
want? Her voice was almost softer than the breeze that
played with her hair.
Diego looked up to stare at her, love displayed prominently
in his eyes. He kissed her hand again.
As many as we can
have, he answered sincerely, and squeezed her fingers with
Victoria smiled, guessing that 'As many as we can have'
really meant something else entirely. But his comment did bring
up something they needed to discuss. She was silent for another
moment, then asked tentatively,
Diego, what will you do if I
die early from childbirth like your mother did? After all, she
died from complications of childbirth, if I remember right. A
lot of women die that way.
For a moment Diego remained still and so silent that she
thought he wasn't going to answer at all. Finally he lifted his
head and looked her full in the face for the first time since
they'd reclined on the blanket. There was the shining of tears
in his eyes.
Victoria, you've just discovered my greatest
fear. He covered her second hand with his larger one and
drew a ragged breath.
I don't know what I would do without
you, how I could possibly go on. I suppose I would find a way,
but that way would be dimmer, as if all the light had gone out of
the world. Just the thought is horrible.
Victoria had no idea that she meant so much to him. The
knowledge gave her a sense of power for a moment, a thrill that
she buried deep inside. She wasn't sure if she liked that
feeling or not.
All we can do is hope I don't become a
statistic, she said, raised her eyebrows powerlessly, and
kissed his fingers on top of hers.
Please, don't talk that way, Diego begged.
can't stand it. He looked up at her again.
reading books and articles about the subject so I can anticipate
what will happen when the time comes. I will do everything in my
power to make sure... your death... doesn't occur. He had a
lot of trouble just giving voice to such a reality.
Much more lightly she questioned,
Why? Are you expecting
something to happen that you should tell me about?
Diego snorted his laughter at her comment.
Who, me? No,
not the most suspicious man in the pueblo, next to Ignacio
DeSoto. Then he calmed down and was honest again.
However, I know myself, and I know that I won't be able to
keep my hands off you once we're married. He stared at her
I love you, and want to spend the rest of my life with
you, just like this, getting to know every quirk you have, every
desire, every thought. I promise that I won't lose you now, not
after all these years.
Victoria was astounded at his honesty.
she vowed herself.
And know that I trust you implicitly, and
that I love you. That's the most important thing to remember.
The only thing, really.
Diego smiled, then, soft as the breeze.
Here's to my
father, he said and lifted their linked hands between them,
referring to Alejandro's tale about his marriage to his
Victoria smiled as well, but said the first thing that came
to her mind, determined for once to have the last word in a
Here's to arranged marriages.
And for once, Diego was certain that she was joking.
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