Friends

by Linda Bindner

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 before.

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 vacated chair. 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 case. 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 this afternoon.

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. I 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 love?

No request could have surprised the aging don more. Alejandro looked at Victoria, noting the expression in her dark eyes. Why? he asked, suddenly sharp. Are you and Zorro planning to do something as foolish as getting married?

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 her throat. 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, she confessed. 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. Not at 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, pleased.

Victoria sat back, almost as if she was getting comfortable on her stool. So what happened with your marriage? she inquired curiously. Why was it different than arrangements, why wasn't it an arrangement, and how was it better if it was better?

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, you've been 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.

Alejandro smiled. 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 laughed. 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. I was 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 us.

What happened to her? Victoria wanted to know.

Alejandro sighed. She's the head instructor at a girl's school in Barcelona, he replied more loudly. She never married. I guess I was her one chance, he joked.

But what happened with the arrangement? Victoria asked.

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 stopped.

What?

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.

Knew what?

That nobody else would do, Alejandro replied instantly.

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 face. 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 sounded surprised.

We went against much more than that, Alejandro divulged. 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 explained. 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, Victoria noted.

Difficult? Alejandro exclaimed. It was 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. We eloped, that's what.

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 her memory. 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 Victoria. 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 events.

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 ironic, really.

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 work out?

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 story.

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 promised. 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. There's 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 time.

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 mean?

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 memories. 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 whispered. 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 separate cattle.

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 door.

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 you.

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 attention. 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, anticipated absence.

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. Victoria, 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.

He sighed. 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.

Heaven forbid. 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 wanted.

Zorro sighed again, though he thoroughly enjoyed her attentions. 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 fondness.

Victoria's eyes widened at the warmth of his fingers, and her stomach went into a complete tumble. What do you want me to know?

Zorro stared at her, gauging her ability to handle the truth. 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 body. I have questions of my own to ask, she informed suddenly.

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 happened?

Zorro drew back, but kept his hands possessively around her waist. As I said, I heard a few rumors around the pueblo.

Then you said that such a statement wasn't entirely accurate, she reminded.

Ah, yes, I did, Zorro agreed. Then he went on, saying, 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 nothing.

You were outside and overheard? she asked in confusion.

He smiled. 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 her. 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 his arms. That must mean... She couldn't complete that comment, either.

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. I 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 an answer, 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. Please, Victoria, don't do anything... anything rash, anything you'll regret, he suggested. 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. What 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. That part where I said I love you?

She nodded. That part. You've never said that before.

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. Victoria, I 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. I 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 from her, Can I ask you a question?

Please, ask anything, was her encouraging response.

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 ago.

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 raised eyebrows. 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 customers think?

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.

He smiled. 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 ask.

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 do that.

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 owner.

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 chair. 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 them.

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. Are you teasing me? he asked after a pause spent looking at her in puzzlement.

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, What are you staring at?

There was no point in hiding the obvious. You.

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. After five years?

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 Vega.

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. I'm 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 tell.

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.

Victoria laughed. 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 light. Because I've seen you get angry over a great many things.

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 his.

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. I can't stand it. He looked up at her again. I've been 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 again. 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. You won't, 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 mother.

Victoria smiled as well, but said the first thing that came to her mind, determined for once to have the last word in a conversation. Here's to arranged marriages.

And for once, Diego was certain that she was joking.


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