Note: This story takes place about a month after 'Conspiracy of Blood.'

Further Note: Thanks to Smithcrafter for story ideas.

Glass Splinters

by Linda Bindner

Victoria Escalante lifted another clean glass from her stack behind the bar and began polishing it. The day's dust soon marked the towel she was using for her cleaning purposes. But as she spent a moment to rub diligently at fingerprints on the glass's clear surface, a lancer from the cuartel interrupted her cleaning almost before she had gotten started on it.

The soldier hit his fist lightly on top of the green bar, then, in a cheerful voice, said, Whiskey, por favor, for me and my men. He then turned towards a table full of fellow lancers dressed in the red and blue uniform of the King's guard. They all shoved each other, laughing, behaving like typical soldiers released from a military exercise in order to have fun. Some bowed to her and grinned when they heard their superior giving their drink orders.

Victoria smiled and quickly counted the waiting men for the correct number of glasses she would need, then divided the number in half in order to tally the proper amount of alcohol to serve. Un memento, Señor, she said. So many men will take a few minutes to attend to.

The lancer smiled at her. Please, take as long as you need. My men are just returned from maneuver practice and look forward to refreshment with their usual...

Their usual gusto? another voice finished for him.

Victoria turned to regard the familiar smile coming from the face of her best friend, Diego de la Vega. He sauntered slowly up to the bar to stand congenially beside the lancer while the two men who followed him, his father, Don Alejandro, and personal servant, Felipe, moved deeper into the tavern in search of a free table. Victoria grinned at Don Alejandro, and he replied by smiling back and saluting her with his dark riding gloves in hand, but didn't stop for a chat. Instead, he strolled to an empty table and pulled out a bench to settle onto the seat with an audible sigh. It was obvious that he fully intended to leave the art of standing in order to converse with unknown men to his younger son.

Can I get something for you, Diego? Victoria asked before bending to retrieve the whiskey for the group of thirsty soldiers.

Just juice, please, Diego answered, his voice still sounding light and friendly.

The soldier standing beside Diego was in an equally genial mood as he held out his hand and affably said, I'm Jose Cesar.

Diego shook the offered hand as Victoria handed him a glass of the orange juice that had been left over from that morning's breakfast rush. Diego de la Vega, at your service, he greeted, still smiling, then took the glass from Victoria and swallowed a small amount. He grinned to show how it refreshed even him. Thank you, he said appreciatively to Victoria.

Victoria pulled out the whiskey bottles and set them on the bar as the two men continued their conversation. She tried not to overhear what they were saying to each other, but they were hardly trying to be quiet or covert.

Juice! noted the lancer as he fanned his slightly red face with his hat. A smart thing to drink on such a hot day!

Diego smiled again. It is quite warm today.

Um, the soldier agreed with a brisk nod of his head. It never gets this warm in Monterey, where I come from. The farther north you go, the cooler the mountain air is.

Diego's brows rose in inquisition. So you're not from Los Angeles? he ascertained.

No, said the lancer with a short laugh. I've only been stationed here in Los Angeles for a week. I think I need more time to get accustomed to the heat, though! He laughed again, and fanned his hat back and forth.

Indeed. Diego frowned, then. Don't tell me you and your men were out in this heat?

The lancer nodded his bared head, though his sweat-soaked hair barely moved. Yes, we were. I noticed that the men were ill-prepared to handle a sudden attack by this bandit I keep seeing on the posters that are hung everywhere. We were out practicing maneuvers.

Diego brightened. Do you mean Zorro?

That's his name, Cesar affirmed with a snap of his fingers.

Uh, what did the maneuvers have to do with Zorro? asked Diego innocently as he took another drink of his juice.

Victoria had now started to collect enough glasses for all the soldiers and to set the glasses on her serving tray, but she continued to secretly listen to the conversation at the same time. She couldn't help being interested in anything that had to do with the masked outlaw she was known to love.

Cesar seemed to take a step back in surprise. He's a wanted man, he disputed Diego's question, as if his answer were an obvious one. A bandit with a price on his head. He shrugged. The King must want him captured for some reason of his own, and I don't intend for the men under my command to be caught unprepared, even for such a clever, dangerous man as this El Zorro is reputed to be.

Victoria had to respond to such a comment. She whirled around, two glasses careening against each other in her haste. But Zorro is no bandit! she declared with a look half in incredulity, and half in anger on her open face. He's a friend of the people! she declared.

Cesar rolled his eyes. Yes, that's the same response I've been getting ever since I moved to this pueblo.

Victoria blazed at him, Well, maybe you should listen to those rumors.

Cesar snorted impolitely as Diego raised a cautionary hand in Victoria's general direction. Maybe, echoed the soldier, but he's no 'friend' to the government, and that's who I serve.

So you intend to capture Zorro, which accounts for the military's maneuvers on such a hot day? Diego asked, smoothly interrupting the two in order to halt the argument that had broken out between the tavern owner and her customer.

Cesar smiled at the interruption. Yes, capturing Zorro is the main reason. Then his smile disappeared. Unfortunately, we have a great deal to learn before we can hope to capture such an intelligent man.

Diego grinned. Zorro is rather clever, isn't he? he asked in a soft voice.

Maybe too clever for us as we are, Cesar answered as Victoria added the last glass to complete his order on the tray she had placed before her on the counter. But we intend to give it our best shot, ended the soldier.

Victoria lifted the tray of glasses, prepared to service the lancers gathered in her tavern, but Diego immediately stopped her. Here, let me take that for you, he quietly said to Victoria, then turned back to the soldier as he hefted the tray of empty glasses. Louder, he went on, Well, here's wishing you luck. He lifted the tray of glasses a little higher in a sort of salute to the lancer's lofty goal, then proceeded to follow the man to his table, but dropped back to speak softly to Victoria and whisper, Don't worry; Zorro can take care of himself.

Victoria couldn't help grinning at his statement. I'm not worried, but thank you for your vote of confidence in him nevertheless. Then, in a bit louder tone, she continued, And thank you for carrying the tray for me.

Diego met her eyes for a brief and uncommon glance at her, and flashed her a smile that brightened the room for a moment. But, My pleasure, was all he replied.

For just a second, Victoria thought she saw something warm and inviting spark in his eyes as she carefully set down the bottles of whiskey she carried, but he covered the expression almost instantly. When she turned around again after serving the men clamoring for drinks, he had returned to his father's side at the table they had appropriated for themselves, facing the kitchen and the rest of the tavern's main room.

After returning from the kitchen with three more bottles of whiskey that she handed over to the grateful lancers, she glanced at the de la Vegas to see that they had been served in her absence and were already eating lunch. Victoria returned to her place behind her bar and her interrupted task of polishing the glasses until they shone as she let her mind wander. She mentally went over the recent conversation in her mind, and felt the prickles of fear on the skin of her arms as Cesar's vow to capture Zorro went through her memory. But, then, she recalled Diego's quiet assurance that Zorro would be all right. Her glance quickly darted to the caballeros and their servant while they happily talked and ate their lunches. Victoria couldn't make out what they were saying, but it must have been a pleasant topic of conversation, according to the smiles she saw from Alejandro, Felipe, and Diego.

Summoning a recollection of the flicker of... something... that she had seen in Diego's eyes just moments before, Victoria's gaze lingered on Diego as she continued with her line of thought. Diego always supported Zorro, she ruminated, smiling. That smile was replaced by an expression of puzzlement as she noted to herself that it was odd for a man known to deplore violence to be such a big supporter of Zorro, a man who was often forced to use violence in his battle for justice.

Victoria shrugged, but was unable to throw off her baffling and contradictory thoughts as she continued to steel glances at Diego while she went on in her task of cleaning glasses so they were ready to use. She had polished glasses so many times before that she could do it in her sleep if she had to. The chore was more just something to keep her hands busy than an important job as she waited for the noon rush to begin.

Victoria stood in a solitary state, alone behind the bar with nothing to assist her except her thoughts. She went on thinking about Diego, at first to have something with which to occupy her mind, then because she was truly intrigued by the subject so prominently on that mind.

Diego was a much more intricate man than anyone suspected, she noted to herself as she went on staring at him and scrubbing fingerprints off glasses. Diego frequently paid attention to her by asking about Zorro or making some comment about him, as he had with that lancer, Cesar. But, on the other hand, he never treated her as someone to court himself, which rather negated the way he was always sure to single her out by asking questions concerning her relationship with Zorro. He was a puzzle no matter how she looked at him, with his seemingly strange ways. Even she had to admit to herself that it was unusual for one man to so commonly bring up the subject of another man to that second man's known sweetheart.

Victoria was wrenched from her thoughts when a customer at a table in the corner ordered more wine for him and his companions. She walked over to the table with the wine in hand, but even as she walked, she distinctly heard Don Alejandro's laugh as it rang out over the crowd. She retreated to the bar just prior to grabbing a brown glazed jug full of water and refilling the drinks of the tavern's current patrons. Still, one part of her mind was left free to contemplate her odd friendship with the de la Vegas.

It was an unusual relationship she shared with the de la Vegas because, on one level, she was intimate friends with the caballeros, and had been invited as a guest to their hacienda many times in the past. Simultaneously, she and Diego were not courting, even though they were close in age and seemed to have similar concerns for the people of the pueblo, only choosing to show that concern differently. This fact in itself might preclude the intimacy that came from the relationship she shared with the de la Vegas, but it didn't. Victoria could not deny the common bond of the love of justice she and Don Alejandro both felt, or the friendliness between herself and Diego. She was even on good terms with the servant, Felipe, so she had nothing but good memories of the caballero family who laughed and ate so often in her tavern.

Yet, Diego, the son of that respected family, and Victoria's personal friend, was still a mystery. She felt that she didn't quite know everything there was to know about him, though he was always courteous and amicable towards her. There was some quality that he possessed that she didn't quite understand, she thought to herself now as she looked at him, something that he always seemed to keep from others, including her.

Such a thought led Victoria to considering that Diego might have some secret in his past, something that she might not know about, something that he would need to keep hidden. The idea came to her mind before she had the chance to convince herself that such a thought was utterly ridiculous. Diego might appear to the citizens living in the pueblo to be an open document, but she hoped that she spent enough time with him to know him better than that. Yet, the thought of Diego having secrets that he kept from those living in the pueblo was as outrageous as... as him being Zorro!

Suddenly, Victoria paused, the glass she was polishing still held aloft in her hand, as if she were inspecting it for further fingerprints and smudges. Breathlessly, she allowed her thoughts the freedom to go where they wished, and her mind was instantly filled with images of Zorro. Now, he was a man who had secrets, Victoria immediately admitted. She didn't even know who he was, though she had been romantically involved with him for years. Many times, she had tried to guess his hidden identity, of course, but had never been certain enough in her reasoning to tell him about those reasons. Several times, she had laughed at herself for the results those thoughts had led her to, noting just how absurd those deductions really were. Other times, she shrewdly looked at Zorro during his infrequent visits to her, and wondered.

But she had never contemplated that Diego was Zorro. Diego was just too... too complacent... to be Zorro. He liked a simple existence too well for his life to be complicated by posing as a dueler for equality. Just the thought made Victoria smile in amusement at the glass in her hands.

Then, Victoria's smile slowly faded as she recalled her original idea; was Diego also Zorro? No, the concept was just too outlandish to bear further scrutiny. Instead, she peered at the glass she held up. It remained steady as her gaze stayed on the distorted view of Diego that appeared through the beveled glass in her hand. He was laughing again at something his father had said, and his smile beneath that dark mustache he always wore struck a chord of familiarity in Victoria. Suddenly, she resonated with suspicion.

In a single second, the thought she'd entertained only moments before, of Diego being Zorro in secret, didn't seem so ridiculous. Yet she would have known, wouldn't she? She, of all people? Victoria didn't breathe as she looked once more at Diego, and at the same time allowed her thoughts to lead delicately to more ideas.

Instead of the instant sense of 'don't be ridiculous' that she had always been inundated with before when she had considered that Diego could be Zorro, Victoria continued to hold the glass up high in her hand and to relax enough to let her ideas flow naturally together.

But her thoughts refused to be calm enough for any serious thinking to get done. The glass continued to throw highlights of Diego's laughing features at her, yet she couldn't be peaceful enough to think beyond her original thought. So when she saw Maria sail through the curtains from the kitchen nook of the tavern, gripping a tray full of delectable-looking dishes and bread and food, Victoria took her unexpected opportunity and slipped through the curtains into the deserted kitchen. Maria was currently her only employee working that day, and Victoria knew she could be alone in the kitchen.

Except that she couldn't get her mind off her revolutionary thoughts. Ignoring any needy patrons, Victoria's scuttle through the curtains went basically unnoticed. The silence of the kitchen wrapped around her, but she was too busy contemplating the towel she held in her hand to notice such an intense quiet. It was the towel with which she had been using to polish the glasses, and had been in too much haste in her retreat to the kitchen to take the time to lay it on the bar. Now, she peered through the slit in her curtains, and before she could take the necessary time to talk herself out of such a ludicrous action, fixed Diego in her sights, then lifted the towel up so that only the bottom half of his face was visible to her eyes.

One glance was all that was necessary. With a start, Victoria snapped the towel back to her side. Her discovery was astonishing enough to send a thrill through her from her head down to her toes. Victoria felt the shiver coursing through her. She had begun to tremble, but tried to remain calm and rational in the face of her sudden suspicion. All right, breathe, Victoria, just breathe.., she quietly ordered herself.

When she had her shaking and breathing once again under control, she risked another glance through the curtains. Diego was now saying something to Felipe, who gestured back, using both of his arms. Diego grinned, and again the same old sense of familiarity struck Victoria. But, she had to be sure... One more look... she whispered to herself, and forced the towel back up and held it in front of Diego's now thoughtful expression as she did her best to conjure an image of Zorro in her mind.

Yes, the similarities were all there, if anybody cared to look close enough. The mustache was the same, the strong line of the jaw, the curve of his lips while he concentrated to read whatever Felipe was gesturing back to him... It was all so similar to what she was accustomed to seeing when she looked at Zorro that her hand holding the towel immediately fell back to her side again with another start. Her gasps of breath commenced instantly.

What had she just discovered? she asked herself. She tried once more to remain calm enough to allow her thoughts to slip through her mind like sand, but it was almost impossible with the the sound of her rasping breaths intruding on the silence of the kitchen. All she could think was an amazed, incredulous burst of 'Diego is Zorro, Diego is Zorro!' over and over again.

Maria briskly entered the kitchen, then, complacently saying, We need two plates of tamales, Victoria, and some.., before she paused, one hand reaching up for another of the brown jugs stored high on a shelf. She looked at her employer leaning against the counter, one hand supporting her weight while the other arm swung at her side. A towel lay bundled in a heap of discarded material at her feet. And she was so pale that Maria instantly worried that she was going to faint. Victoria? Victoria? asked Maria. Are you all right?

Of course, gasped Victoria, who heaved in more air. She felt as if she had just been hit in the stomach as her breath rattled thinly in her lungs. It's just so hot out today... she meagerly excused.

Victoria? Maria asked once more.

But Victoria was more collected as she replied, Maybe I should take a walk... get out of this tavern... breathe clearer air...

I can take care of things here for a little while if... Victoria.., continued Maria, are you sure you don't need to see Dr. Hernandez?

Victoria tried to smile brightly at that suggestion. Oh, no, of course I don't need the doctor! she loudly declared. I'll just take a few minutes to...

You go on, Maria invited, as she pulled two plates off a nearby shelf. I'll watch over everything until you get back.

Gracias, Maria, Victoria remembered to say. I won't be long. Then she nearly ran to the back door and pulled it open. She was gone, into the plaza that her back door opened onto, a blink later.

Victoria didn't stop at the end of the dusty plaza, but continued out of the pueblo's boundaries, not realizing where she was heading, though her feet seemed to know where to take her at the fast walk she had established. As she nearly ran from the town, her thoughts stayed with her, leaving a frozen feeling in her mind. She would have tried to outrun her thoughts, but she couldn't get away from where her mind insisted on taking her.

Her first thought was 'How could he?' as she instinctively reacted exactly how Zorro... no, Diego, she acrimoniously reminded herself... had always predicted she would react... in anger. However, she forced those emotions aside as quickly as they had risen in her mind. She refused to fulfill Diego's fears by being predictably angry at her discovery.

So, what was she going to feel? she asked herself. Pain? Confusion? Betrayal? Love? General unhappiness? Relief that she finally knew? What? Victoria walked forward, her mind in a turmoil that settled at last into one emotion: shock.

Oh, how could he? she asked herself again, this time more in despair than in anger, feeling regretful now. He had refused to tell her the truth for years, even though he knew the truth was the one thing she wanted more desperately than anything else. If he had told her, they might have found a way to be together, be married by now, have a family, children... But, before she could become sufficiently incensed at this fact, the question of why he had chosen to act in such a way flitted across her mind. Before she could stop herself, she had answered that mental inquest.

Diego's afraid, she thought. He's afraid of so many things; his death, her death, her anger, her rejection... There was so much for him to be worried about....

The concern buried her in one, swift movement. Victoria didn't know how he had lived with so many burdens, as her soul instantly felt shriveled and torn under the bombardment of so many concerns. But she could not afford to feel so sorry for him, she knew. She had to be solid and firm in her anger, like a boulder on the sandy shore...

My anger, Victoria thought with a hint of bitter irony. If she were honest with herself, she could hardly detect any anger stirring inside her. Already, she could sense rousing forgiveness instead...

No! She couldn't forgive this kind of disguise, a deception that had been purposeful and had gone on for years! She should feel used, abused, cheated... She had to be resolved! Think of his deception, his treachery, how he kissed you in your tavern at night, all the while refusing to give you his identity! she instructed herself.

Yet, her heart would soften every time Zorro's image appeared in her mind's eye, then turn with the beginnings of that forgiveness and relief that she couldn't help but feel. The softer emotions in her heart were changing to sadness at the acknowledged need that he felt that he had to champion the pueblo's citizens against the injustices that they faced. A tear traced down her cheek, blurring her vision as she hurried forward. A second tear raced after the first, and Victoria was helpless to stem the emotional onslaught as she reached her destination at last. With a gasping cry, she gave in to the tears as a sob racked through her frame.

But, she didn't want to cry for him, to feel this powerful sense of relief mixed with outrage that Zorro turned out to be Diego. Yet, she couldn't stop herself. Blindly, she stumbled to the edge of the ocean and stopped, a sound, half groan, half cry, half sheer frustration, tore past her lips, a cry at him, at herself, at Zorro, at Diego, at the Alcalde, at the King of Spain, at the situation of loving a man doomed to fight for the poor and downtrodden, doomed to be shrouded in his own sense of justice, doomed to give his life for a noble and invisible cause... It wasn't fair, to be so betrayed and uplifted by love and friendship at the same time...

Waves continued to crawl up to the tips of her black, woven slippers as the water wavered and shimmered before her streaming eyes. The sunny horizon quivered with the heat and distance and the blue of deep, unending water as her sobs grew into dry heaves, then tapered off as her turmoil subsided after the first invasion of her emotions declined. It was then that she heard a crack behind her.

Victoria whirled around as a final sob tore through her frame, caught sight of the familiar forms of Esperanza and the man who typically rode that particular horse, and quickly averted her tear-streaked face back towards the ocean again. It was Diego who stood unaccountably behind her. How had he found her so quickly? And why in heaven's name did she have to be crying now? Crying made her face swell and turn red. But she feared she hadn't been fast enough in her bid to conceal her emotions from him. Maybe I'm not the right person to love a man who can hide his own identity - I'm not quick enough, she thought in mock despair.

Victoria? Diego called softly to her after he had tied Esperanza to a tree growing at the edge of the ocean's sandy beach. Victoria? he asked again, the worry evident in even his affected, higher voice, and he crossed the sand to stand beside her. His shadow cast onto her feet, but he hung back, unsure of what had so upset her. What's wrong? Not bad news, I hope?

Victoria brushed at the tears still leaking from her eyes. Diego. What are you doing here? She sniffed.

Diego handed her his handkerchief, which she gratefully took and mopped her eyes before blowing her nose. He was quick to answer after her necessary behavior. Maria at the tavern said you had taken a walk, but she was worried after you had been gone so long... She asked me to look for you... I found your trail at the edge of the pueblo and followed it...

Of course, Victoria ruminated dryly, her features screwing up into a look of self disdain for leaving such an obvious path, the man who is Zorro can easily follow a trail through dirt and grass and trees... He's done it often enough when chasing outlaws... Another sob racked through her slight body at the thought of Diego chasing anybody, even though she knew it had happened countless times. He had put himself in danger over and over again, to bring notorious and not-so-notorious men to justice... Danger... Diego had been in danger...

It was a new thought, one she hadn't considered before, but one she should have deliberated right after first falling in love with a vigilante... More tears, more sobs. She could not stop crying, no matter how hard she tried...

What's wrong, Victoria? Diego gently reiterated as he moved beside her on the uneven sand. Concern fairly oozed out of him, to surround her with his sense of apprehension.

She hated this. She hated his need for secrecy to begin with. She hated the need he felt that he had to pretend when with her... Oh, she didn't blame him; he had to hide his identity, after all, even from her...

In one move, Victoria threw back her head and propped her hands on her hips. Contemplating the blue of the sky, she was reminded of the blue of his eyes, but that thought didn't help her. She lowered her head and found herself gravely regarding him as the stray tear still slid down her cheek.

Being entirely uncharacteristic, Diego caught one of her tears on the tip of his right index finger. His touch just grazed her skin, but the twist to her stomach tightened further again, and within seconds, the tears had begun once more.

Diego was fast to apologize. I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to make you cry... Whatever's wrong, I'm sure we can fix it...

Just like a man, Victoria thought unkindly, yet honestly. She did spend her life around men, after all, as the only single, female tavern owner to live in Los Angeles. He's trying to fix everything. Well, this is one thing he can't just swipe away with his sword...

Taking a deep breath of the clean, tangy scented ocean air, Victoria stopped crying long enough to somberly whisper the words, Diego, I know about your secret identity.

The effect was immediate. His eyes grew round and wide, and his face whitened to a pasty expression of horror and fear.

Victoria despised that look of terror on his face even more than she hated the need for him to hide his identity, his true skills, his very life, from everybody, including her. Please, don't look like that! she entreated.

Like what? he asked in a whispery voice that was almost lost in the sound of the crashing waves.

Like I'm going to... Please, this crying isn't about that rejection you told me you fear. she hastened to assure. It's just a reaction to... to... But she couldn't go on.

The expression of terror left his eyes. Then... what..? he inquired.

Victoria would have stamped a slippered foot out of frustration if they had been standing on a solid surface. As it was, she had to settle for staring out at the ocean and groaning. I just figured this out, Diego. I'm still feeling a little...

Angry? Betrayed? he guessed, interrupting her.

Victoria lifted a hand to her forehead, as if she felt the beginnings of a headache. No, she forcefully replied.

You're not angry? he asked in surprise, then turned to carefully stare at the ocean water. He appeared to want to look at anything except her. I always thought for sure you would be furious...

I know, she said. I know that's what you thought. She gulped back another sob. But, no, I'm not crying for that.

You're not? he finally asked.

Victoria scrubbed the tears from her cheeks with his handkerchief. The square of white linen hung soggily from her fingertips. I'll have to wash it for him, she thought, then laughed at the absurdity of such a concern coming during a scene that she had waited half her life to have happen. She turned to regard him out of eyes that were dry for the first time in an hour.

Diego looked... smaller than she expected, somehow. He was still tall, exorbitantly tall compared to other men of the age, but somehow... he looked not as fierce without the mask, the black costume, the cape... Suddenly, Victoria chuckled. Maybe I was in love with the legend all this time and just didn't know it, she observed.

Was? Diego questioned, fearful at once that she was planning to do the one thing she had said she wasn't going to do.

He thinks I'm rejecting him, she realized. Why is it always rejection with you? she inquired in slight exasperation, her tone at odds with the heavy discussion they were embroiled in.

He started. But, I thought...

Victoria stopped him by laying her hand on his arm, palm down. It was a habitual movement that brought them standing closer even then before. Diego, look at us; you're standing here, terrified, and I'm standing here, crying...

Why are you crying? he asked in distress mixed with a sense of appeal. Please, Victoria, you have to talk to me, explain... Then, he stopped himself, and threw a piece of driftwood that had been lying at their feet into the clear, blue waters of the ocean. No, I'm the one who should explain, who needs to...

There it is again! Victoria sobbed her loud interjection. Your nobility, your sense of sacrifice... Will you stop it?

Diego shrugged. I don't know what I'm doing that's wrong, so how can I halt something I...

Victoria burst into tears again at his words. That's just it, she wailed in a whisper. Your sense of high morals, your dedication to be the one to sacrifice... Please... This is me you're talking to, she begged. Diego continued to stare at her in such confusion that she could believe she had grown two horns out of the top of her head. Please don't turn away from me.

Her entreaty was instantly met with tears of his own swimming against the blue background of his eyes. Oh, Victoria, he choked, Don't feel that way. Please. Isn't that something I'm supposed to say? He placed his own hand on her shoulder. She could feel the warmth that was in his fingers. Please don't turn away from me.

His hand, placed so innocently against her skin, represented years worth of gestures of affection that Victoria found hard to ignore, even if she wanted to ignore everything he did now. Unconsciously, looking for comfort in a suddenly tilting world, she moved just a little in his direction, and the hand on her arm slid to cover her shoulders. One more step, and suddenly, she found herself enveloped in his arms, the white sleeves of his ruffled caballero shirt ballooning around her in diaphanous waves of material. She felt a burning sense of security, of home as she leaned into his sun-warmed chest and let the tears streak their way down her cheeks.

I'm so sorry, Victoria! Diego blurted in watery misery. So sorry for all of it.

Don't apologize, said Victoria, sniffling herself. We've lost so much time already... there's no use being regretful.

Diego held onto her tightly, cradled her in his arms. I don't regret you finding out - I could never regret such a thing.

Victoria shook her head, closing her eyes, swallowing her natural response. I don't regret it, either. Did she? Remembering the glass, the towel, the sense of betrayal she'd felt in the beginning, her eventual, if sad, acceptance... She sobbed again, and amended, Well, not exactly.

Again, Diego froze, as if he had been seized by a new fear. Not exactly? he repeated.

Diego, she said patiently. You're a part of my soul, too. I know I need to share you with so very many people who need your protection, but...

Diego interrupted her by shaking his head to negate her statement. No, not share. I'm all yours, only yours.

You'll grow bored belonging to just me, even if I am me, Victoria predicted, and sniffled again, hopefully for the last time, she thought to herself. I know you... you'll be longing to do something dangerous very soon, she went on, sobbing one final time at the thought. But I don't want you to do anything dangerous. I don't want to worry about you, now that I know, every time you and Toronado go anywhere, bring bandits into the plaza...

Now you understand why I never told you, Diego whispered, a catch in his soft voice. I never wanted you to worry on my account. He paused, then added, I never wanted to cause you that kind of pain.

Victoria looked up at him, much calmer now that she was being held by his strong, beautifully familiar arms. There are many kinds of pain in the world.

Diego smiled ruefully, a mere lifting of his lips. Now, you sound like Padre Benitez, he suggested. Obscure and vague.

Victoria grinned a bit herself at his statement, but resumed her doleful expression when she said, That's a noble sentiment, Diego, not to want to cause pain. But what would you have done if something had happened? If the lancers had actually shot you, if you had slipped and fallen and broken your back, or I fell down the stairs in my tavern and was never the same again, or I was kidnapped by outlaws who... who... She couldn't quite vocalize the possibility of what she was suggesting, but continued, though her voice was more ragged now. Even you can't be everywhere at once.

Diego was quick to respond through the obvious pain showing on his face, Please don't say that, Victoria. I live in dread of such things happening someday. He drew a tattered breath. Why do you think I was in your tavern so often? I only wish it could have been every minute of every day, as often as I was worried...

Victoria'd had no idea that he was such a consistent worrier. I wouldn't have guessed you had so many worries all the time - you always seem so cheerful...

I was cheerful... am cheerful... when around you, he interrupted.

It's good to know that I do something for you, Victoria said wryly, her voice muffled by his chest and shirt.

Diego gazed at her, then hugged her close again. You have always done so much for me, just by being who you are, he whispered.

Victoria couldn't help her snort that answered his comment. Who I've always been is an outspoken female who gets into trouble, which gets you into trouble... I'm sorry for doing that...

Diego smiled. I love your outspokenness. I don't care if it causes loads of trouble. Then his gaze turned more puzzled. And how did you get to be so wise? he asked in semisoft astonishment. You're like Felipe in that way, minus the consuming need to fret.

Victoria grimaced. Oh, I fret all the time. I can't help it.

Diego grinned back. I don't want you to fret anymore. I want you to be nothing but happy for the rest of your days.

Victoria glanced up at him, the expression on her face a mingling of adoration and irritation that he thought that way. I am happy, she corrected him, then grimaced again. Well, as happy as I can be when I didn't know who the man I was in love with was... Frustration overwhelmed her, then, and she had to stop before she said something she would regret.

I'm so sorry about that, Victoria, Diego said again, and the distressed expression that graced his features acted as more than an example of his inner agony.

Victoria clung to him even tighter. Don't be sorry, she said. When I think of all the nasty things I've said to you over the years... She snorted in derision, then. 'Diego, why can't you be more like Zorro?' she quoted, mocking herself. 'Be a man of action instead of reading poetry.' Ugh! she expostulated. I almost make myself sick!

Sh! Diego said, then buried his face in the hair on her shoulder. Please don't be so hard on yourself, he advised.

She laughed a full out laugh of disdain this time. I can't quite forgive myself as easily as you have forgiven me...

I can forgive you anything, Victoria, Diego admitted just before he lowered his face to hers and captured her lips in a kiss that indulged in the full impact of his emotions and turned her insides to soft uselessness in seconds. Her arms clung to him even more. At last, when he drew back to cradle her in his arms again, he panted for breath and whispered, I can't... I can't let you go now. Please... please don't make me stay away.

Victoria wondered both how she could possibly remain apart from him, now that she knew who he was, and how they could stay together at the same time. Diego, she said in a low voice that was again choked with her tears brought on by her fear, How can we... how can we stay together when..?

He touched her cheek with his hand, gently stroking it, placing a kiss on her forehead. Let me think on it, he suggested. Felipe and I and you will consider everything... I don't know what we'll do, not yet, but... Again came the tears to mingle with hers. Victoria, I can't... I can't... He couldn't finish this time, only hugged her tighter yet and lay his head down on her hair. Don't make me... The pleading tone seeped into his voice.

No, was the response that was practically ripped from Victoria before he had spoken. I could never... I love you, you! She shook in his arms, a natural reaction to his declaration. Don't forget that. Don't forget...

Diego shook his head against her hair. No. Never. I won't, he promised, once more laying his warm lips on her sun-drenched hair.

Wind blew, almost throwing his words away so fast that she had trouble hearing him. Hair gusted into her mouth, and the breeze stirred the waters at the edge of the ocean. Victoria suddenly was aware of a severe feeling of frustration at the position she was sharing with him. She went on to explain the emotion a second later. Diego, you know I could stand like this with you for the rest of the day, but my feet are getting wet - the tide's coming in.

Diego slowly, lovingly, kissed her forehead once more. He had lost his sense of anxiety, replaced now with one much more benign, soft, and gentle. One that showed his love like it was written plainly across his face. I know, he whispered. My feet are getting wet as well.

Victoria couldn't quite suppress the giggle that bubbled up inside her at that statement. I don't care if you don't care. Wet feet seemed to become a wholly unimportant detail for her at the moment.

Diego's face took on a look of worship, too. I don't care a bit, he affirmed, then kissed her, releasing the careful restraint he had always kept on his emotions.

Victoria's head reeled with so much devotion. His kiss was soft, and loving, and inviting, like being completely wrapped in sun-warmed velvet... She blinked at the stars in her eyes when he pulled back... When she could speak again, she couldn't resist gently accusing, You've always been holding back just a little bit, even with me, haven't you?

Diego answered quickly, much to her gratitude. I didn't dare show you exactly how I felt. I still can't. He looked down at his boots now completely submerged in salt water. I would ravish you right now, right here, I know, despite what my father has always taught me. Then his features turned rueful. That's why I chose to stay in the water. It's rather hard to ravish anybody when you're soaking wet.

Victoria had no trouble laughing aloud this time. Where she had been crying uncontrollably only moments before, now her laughter tinkled out to stroke the beach with its light sound. Good thinking, very... safe, she eventually decided on. But I can't say that I'm not a little disappointed.

Diego slowly smiled in complete appreciation as he openly glanced at her body. It was by far the most aggressively overt in expressing his emotions that he had ever been. Don't tease me with such a hint, he said, the tone of his voice indicating that what he was thinking of doing was far more than his words indicated that he would do.

Victoria frowned. I would never tease you.

You tease me just by being alive, Diego admitted, then hugged her again. I love you, you know, Victoria. More than even you suspect. You're a part of my soul now... the best part. He tightened his arms about her once more.

Victoria reveled in the feel of holding him, finally, without the worry that the Alcalde and his men would break up the display of affection. This feels so good, she commented, even if it's completely unexpected, she added on a wry note.

Diego thoughtfully regarded her. We'll think of something, he assured, then suggested, We can say that I finally gave in to my feelings - Diego's feelings - which is the truth, in a way. I had to tell you about everything, then. He looked at her, his face softening just at her image. For I can no longer seem to stay away from you. I don't want to, either. His arms squeezed against her back, as if he could keep out anything harmful just by employing his will alone. Now, I should probably take you back to the tavern before Maria has a fit at your disappearance. He grinned down at her. And before this water crawls any further up your skirt. His voice turned to a whisper. I want that pleasure for myself.

Diego! Victoria chastised in a pretense of shock at his behavior and freedom at displaying his affections. But it was simply pretended conduct, and she knew that he knew it.

I'll see you later, tomorrow, he promised. I suddenly think I should visit the tavern as early as I can...

Victoria leaned into his chest, the farthest up she had ever been able to reach on him. Still, her breath washed over his skin. I can't wait, she said, turning her vow into a promise as well.

Z Z Z

I've got it, Diego said the next morning as he leaned as nonchalantly as he could against the bar. It was an unseemly early hour for Diego to be in Los Angeles, but it wasn't so early, considering the unknown circumstances. I had to see you again, he whispered to her as she stood behind the bar, though the tavern was empty and no employees were working diligently in the kitchen this early in the day.

Victoria felt her face flush in color as her delight at his statement slowly suffused her entire body. She almost smiled, but caught the endearment in time to school the gesture into a frown. Yet, she answered him back in a whisper of her own. Why don't we pretend to see more and more of each other, both in public and in private? We could say that you're courting me.

At the same time she spoke, Diego said, I'll follow you around like a lost puppy - no one will be surprised to see us together after that, but he paused when he realized that both he and Victoria had ultimately suggested the same course of action. Neither of them could hide their smiles this time. What gave you the idea? he asked then, still keeping his voice low.

Nothing special, she told him. I just thought about wanting to see you last night, which made me ask myself how I could see you without rousing any one's suspicions. That's when the idea came to me.

Lucky you, he said, a sheepish look in his eyes. It took both me and Felipe hours to come up with that simple solution.

As much as she wanted to ask him about why he had Felipe helping him in a task that was so linked to Zorro, she couldn't help the mischievous glint that came into her eyes. If you act too much like a dog, do I get to tell you to heal or roll over?

An answering twinkle winked in his eyes. You better watch it, or I'll start begging for you to pet me right in the middle of the plaza.

The mischief left her eyes then. You wouldn't dare! she squeaked, partly from horror at knowing he actually might do what he threatened, and part in amusement at the thought. She furtively glanced around, but Sergeant Mendoza, her only customer left over from an early breakfast, stayed seated at his place on the porch. Obviously, he hadn't overheard anything they'd said to one another.

Diego raised his brows at her. Don't tempt me, he said suggestively before turning and sauntering slowly out the door and into the morning sunshine.

Victoria allowed herself to grin as she watched him leave, then made her features relax into something more accustomed to her expression used while talking to a friend. Yet, she could do little about the pleasure that blazed out of her face.

Z Z Z

Two hours later, Diego was sitting at one of the tavern's tables, talking animatedly to Mendoza and drinking coffee. Simultaneously, he kept at least one eye on Victoria the entire time.

To be honest with herself, Victoria found the open regard of the man who had been known for so long to be only her friend a bit unnerving. She had been stared at before, to be sure, but never so... acutely. Diego was quite open about his staring.

At last, Mendoza left the tavern, and Diego flagged Victoria down to ostensibly order more coffee. As he did so in a loud voice meant to be overheard by anyone sitting nearby, he pulled her down to sit in Mendoza's recently vacated seat. You need a break, Victoria. You work far too hard, he noted.

Before he could go on in a whisper, since it was clear that he had something to tell her, she held up one finger, retrieved his coffee cup, then asked, Sugar? as she rose, her tray in one hand and the cup in the other.

Please, he said.

Then she disappeared into the kitchen, only to reappear a moment later bearing two cups of coffee and a smile on her face. With an audible sigh, she settled across from him and cautiously slid one of the cups over to him. Careful, it's hot, she said as he raised the cup to his lips and took a sip.

Whew, he said appreciatively. You aren't kidding when you claimed it's hot.

Did you burn yourself? Victoria asked solicitously.

Nearly, Diego answered.

I'll have to remember not to get it so hot next time, Victoria responded, then blew on her own warm beverage before taking a prudent drink.

Diego glanced at her, noting the fact that she was planning on doing some tavern business expressly because of him. It was the first time she had ever done so, and his actions showed that he understood what a momentous occasion this was. Yet, he said, Please, don't do anything different on my account.

Victoria couldn't quite stop the smile that spread across her face. Oh, I do many things on your account, she flirtatiously said under her breath. Then, before he could reply, and in a much louder voice, she continued, I need to go to the market still this morning - would you like to accompany me?

Diego gazed at her with obvious surprise. Certainly, though you've never requested my help before...

Victoria paused in rising from the bench. This isn't for the help you offer, but for your company, she coolly noted.

Again, Diego appeared to be surprised. After a silent moment had gone by, he bowed his head and agreed. Of course I'll go with you.

Victoria didn't bother to halt her beaming smile this time. Good. I'll get my basket, then, she said, and hurried into the kitchen.

A moment later, she re-emerged carrying a basket on her arm and a change purse in her other hand. Whenever you're ready, she invited. Diego said not a word, but gestured towards the open double doors of the tavern. He grinned and followed her out.

They had made a spectacle of themselves, they both knew, but wasn't that the point? To be seen together, to have asked to be in each other's company? But it was so strange, to be seen with Diego out of his mask, and not have the Alcalde's men give them a second look. This might work, Victoria heard him whisper as they stepped off the tavern porch and into the sunshine spilling onto the town plaza.

Diego instantly took the basket from her arm, and it felt even stranger to be walking through the market without having to carry anything except her change purse. But Victoria could barely conceal the sensation of pride and ownership that ran through her whenever she felt the presence of the companion at her side. They didn't touch, but she knew instinctively that he was there.

Victoria expertly felt through the produce being marketed that day, and before she knew it, her basket was half full of melons, peppers, and tomatoes.

Buy anything more, and I'll have to get Esperanza to carry the basket for you, Diego joked, and put a hand on her elbow to solicitously help her over a puddle in their path.

Oh, very funny, Victoria answered, a smile on her face at the joke, as if it were funny to her. It's for the tavern, you know, not for me.

That makes it all right, then. Please, Señorita, feel free to buy up the entire market.

That's what I intend to do, she said, then smiled at him when he gave her a look of confused surprise to let him know that she was joshing back at him. I'm just joking, Diego. I've run the tavern for years; I know when to stop.

Diego sighed, let sadness overtake his expression, then said, Too bad.

Victoria wasn't sure if he was speaking of her buying methods, or if his words had a double meaning and he was speaking metaphorically about their romance and how one or the other of them had lately been allowing the other to only go so far in the liberties he or she had taken. They always seemed to suffer under a slight sense of disappointment these days.

Do you want him to go a little further? Victoria asked herself with a sense of mental surprise. For just a moment, she imagined his hands roaming to places they hadn't been as of yet, and she couldn't say that the idea wasn't completely new, or undesired. However, she felt herself flushing and had to force her thoughts along a more conservative path. But it was already too late; Sergeant Mendoza had seen them and started to head their way.

Buenos Dias, Señorita, Don Diego, he said affably, but didn't stop to talk to them. Still, he noted that Victoria looked too red to have just been out in the sun too much that day.

I wonder if he suspects? Victoria thought, then realized that his suspicion about she and Diego was what she and Diego wanted. This is very strange, was Victoria's next thought. But she linked a hand around Diego's arm the next time they came to a puddle, just to reinforce the idea.

We're being watched, Diego immediately whispered to her, barely moving his mouth.

I know, Victoria whispered back. I'm trying to create rumors. Try not to look surprised. The sound of their voices was heard only by the other, as the typical noise of the market overrode their whispers.

I'm not surprised, Diego said, and squeezed her arm with his free fingers. I just don't want any rumors of a bad nature spread around about you.

Victoria had to laugh, then, letting her true feelings show. Diego smiled down at her, apparently savoring the rich sound, and then they continued their buying. Both seemed to be oblivious to the attention they were receiving from a certain sergeant, but both rarely took their eyes from him for long. For once, Victoria hoped he was taking notes, and that he talked about what he saw. As much as she liked the sergeant and considered him a friend, she also knew that there was nobody in the pueblo who liked to gossip more than Mendoza.

Z Z Z

Diego, Victoria noticed that night, was spending plenty of time lazing in the tavern while reading. Or, at least, he had a book with him and was pretending to read. He spent far more time than usual with one eye trained on her as he held the book open in front of him.

His watchfulness was so unusual that Victoria had a difficult time ignoring his apparent solicitation long enough to do the work that she needed to do for the tavern's customers. Not that she didn't fully appreciate his attentions; they were just something new to get used to. As she paused momentarily at her place by the fire side where she had been serving dessert to a couple who had rented a room for the night, Diego lowered the book he was reading and openly gazed at her across the tavern.

Finally, when she had a free minute, she approached his table, and, standing still at the end of it, she watched him watch her for a second. Blushing at the unusual, yet not unwelcome, attention, she leaned down just low enough to whisper, Diego, what are you doing?

Diego gazed for another silent second, then whispered back in unabashed sincerity, Watching you at what you do best. You're a beautiful work of art, you know. Every other man in the tavern right now is jealous of me - they're wishing they'd thought of watching you before I did.

The way he whispered his answer, his voice slightly husky and seductive, made her blush even deeper. Her face emblazoned in red, she stood back up, straightening. But everybody saw her red face because everybody was watching them. An unnatural quiet had fallen over the tavern's patrons, but still nobody could hear a whispered conversation.

She was a bit taken aback by Diego's complimenting her in the first place, the words he had chosen in which to frame that compliment, and the clear and obvious favor that shone at her through his eyes. The regard he was showing frightened her a bit, because she wasn't used to his regard, yet, but she also couldn't help herself when she smiled back at him in genuine fondness.

Z Z Z

This was all so new to her; it was undeniably freeing to be conscious of his eyes fastened to her form from across the tavern, but she also liked that freedom of his gaze so much that she couldn't keep the smile off her face as she worked, and eventually, she stopped trying. His sudden interest in her was as undeniable as his gaze - a week of staring went by, until the following weekly market occurred, and this time it was Diego who asked to accompany her.

May I walk with you? he requested quite loudly enough for those sitting nearest them to hear without any trouble. Diego and Victoria were again sharing their coffee together, a morning custom that had quickly developed into a habit for them, one that seemed so comfortable and cozy for the two involved that not even the Alcalde had found the courage to question their sudden and strange comraderie.

Victoria wrinkled her nose. Please, don't feel like you have to come with me; you'll be bored just carrying my basket for me when it gets too heavy for me to lift by myself, and it's just the market, after all. She shrugged her shoulders in a show of nonchalance. It's the same people who have always been at the pueblo every week; nothing new to see.

Diego slowly grinned. Perhaps I wish to see someone who's not new at all, but cast in a new light.

Victoria eyed him carefully, She was well aware that anything she said would be overheard by the other customers in the tavern, but that she couldn't halt the red that colored her cheeks once more. Was she ever going to stop blushing every time he opened his mouth?

Her face aglow in spite of her concern for his safety now that he was showing his deference for her so openly, she rose from her seat on the bench at one of her outside tables. I'll get my basket, was the only thing she complacently offered.

The market was the same as it had been for years, and Victoria bought the same things she had been buying for a decade. But the entire experience seemed unique and fresh as he strode calmly by her side, grinning at her in the broad sunlight of the plaza. She found herself grinning back at him.

You don't have to stare so much; everyone at the tavern knows of this little outing and are appropriately gossiping about it even as I speak, Victoria said to him in a whisper.

Diego just whispered back, I enjoy staring, and who are we to deny a person's enjoyment?

Again, Victoria blushed at his words. She found that particular reaction both exhilarating and a bit annoying.

You blush when I say just about anything to you, Diego said then, as if he was noting something she hadn't already marked. He carefully looked up and away from her, but whispered loudly enough for her to hear, I love that reaction of yours.

Victoria blew a breath up at her hair, keeping it and the breeze out of her eyes. I find it rather an irritating response, actually.

Diego did glance at her this time. Irritating? he asked. Why?

Victoria blushed, then smiled. Because I don't have the chance to say something to you to make you all red and embarrassed, she said, and looked away as well.

Slowly, his appreciative gaze settled more firmly on her eyes. Go ahead; say whatever you like, he invited. I'm all ears.

Emboldened to show more of the natural exuberance she was feeling in his presence, she slid her arm into his, linking her hand to his fingers.

Diego grew red in his face, but appeared more pleased than red. And you didn't have to say a thing, he noted in dry embarrassment.

Gaily, Victoria laughed, and he chuckled with her.

Z Z Z

Señorita? Sergeant Mendoza inquired when she had a free moment later that day.

Victoria paused in a dash to her kitchen in order to get another plate of tamales. Yes, Sergeant?

Señorita Victoria? Please.., Mendoza continued.

Irritated now at the untimely interruption during her busy lunch hour, Victoria tried to rein in her temper as the kindly military man fumbled for his words. How Diego could tolerate his company for meal upon meal, she would never know. As for her, she knew she would faint from boredom if it had been her sharing meals with him for the last four years. Just spit it out, Mendoza; what do you want to know?

Spit it out, Mendoza repeated under his breath. He jerked his head up and looked her square in the eye. All right, Señorita... Is it true, what we saw this morning at the weekly market?

Victoria was puzzled. What you saw, she echoed unconsciously. What did you see, Mendoza?

The sergeant looked uncomfortable, but determined to finish his inquiry. Well, the Alcalde told me to find out if you..? Again, he paused.

Irritated even more, Victoria stood in obvious impatience, one hand on her hip. Am I what?

The look of discomfort in Mendoza grew, and he actually shuffled his feet like he was a child caught in some forbidden deed. Finally, he took a deep inhalation of air and squeezed his eyes shut and blurted, You and Don Diego... at the market... two weeks in a row... Are you and he...

Mendoza, Victoria uttered in a low stir of anger. You tell the Alcalde that yes, I was at the market with Diego for two weeks in a row, and, yes, we were... a bit ... She hesitated. What was the right word to say?

Friendlier? the sergeant filled in.

Yes... friendlier... she went on as if he hadn't interrupted her, than in the past, she hedged. And you can also tell the Alcalde that what we do is none of his business, and he can just watch someone else at the market next time!

Oh, Señorita, Mendoza assured, we weren't watching you... exactly.

Victoria hardly appeared mollified by his words as she turned him to head straight for the tavern's front doors. Well, next time, be sure your eyes are trained on someone else! Then she shoved, and pushed him right out into the noon sunshine. Mendoza did his best to straighten his collar, as if he had not just been dismissed from the tavern, one of his favorite places in the pueblo. With what dignity he could muster given the circumstances, he headed at a seemingly unconcerned saunter across the plaza towards the Alcalde's office.

Inside the tavern, where she knew he couldn't see her due to the bright noon sunshine she had shoved him into, Victoria smiled; not only had the Alcalde noticed her and Diego at the market the last two weeks, he was sending Mendoza to do his 'digging for information' for him, which meant that his notice had made him curious enough to wonder about Diego's and Victoria's sudden regard for each other, which in turn meant that he was sure to gossip about the fact that she hadn't denied the sergeant's observations, and that she had gotten angry enough when asked about this weekly occurrence to heighten his gossip and curiosity even further.

Victoria sighed, grinned even more, looked to Diego where he sat, leaning against a pillar, reading, and allowed her shoulders to sag in a sigh of comfort; it was obvious who she was gazing at and who had caused such a reaction in her in front of a large lunch gathering. She sighed again as she gazed; things had worked out better than either of them had ever anticipated.

Z Z Z

A week later, and excited beyond what she thought she should be feeling, Victoria prepared to step off the porch and into the plaza where the weekly market had been set up early that morning. Diego had promised to meet her in the market, and Victoria was responding not to the hope of being seen together one more time, but of being with Diego again. She fanned her flushed face in anticipation, and pretended interest in the stalls nearby, but watched the pueblo's northern gate, instead, out of the corners of her eyes.

There he was, in the middle of Felipe and Alejandro, riding into the pueblo. In spite of his natural height, he was almost obscured from sight from her place on the ground, the way he was on horseback. For a minute, Victoria admired the way he gracefully sat in the saddle, utterly amazed that no one else noticed the ease with which he sat on his mount. But, she guessed, he was just 'Diego,' and therefore didn't excite any notice. Only Victoria noticed. And she had to admit to herself that she liked what she was noticing.

Just to see what he would do, Victoria leaned against the watermelon stall she was standing near, and waited. She had nothing to be concerned over; the wheels of the farmer's watermelon wagon were blocked, so the wagon couldn't unexpectedly roll in to her, the Alcalde was gazing the other direction, as if Zorro were to the South of the pueblo, and no guns were trained on Diego as he rode into town. From the moment he entered the pueblo, Diego kept one eye trained on the children who always darted to and fro on market day, and one eye on her.

She heard him say, Father, I think I'll remain out here in the sunshine for awhile, and Alejandro's reply, As you wish, Diego. Just be back right here to meet us in... say... He glanced to his pocket watch. An hour? He looked to Felipe and Diego to confirm that an hour was acceptable for meeting again.

Felipe waved his arms at them, and Victoria caught a reference to 'girl,' then 'visit,' then a bunch of signs that went by too fast for her to interpret.

But Diego apparently had no trouble. He smiled and nodded. It's all right with me, as long as it's all right with you, Father?

What? asked Don Alejandro obliviously, turning from a conversation he had been having with Dr. Hernandez at the tavern's hitching posts. What does he want to do?

Diego grinned even more, and Victoria noticed that his face seemed to light up with the gestures that Felipe was making. Felipe wants to run and see some of his friends while we're in town.

Alejandro nodded. As long as we know where he is and he's back here in an hour. He pointed at the ground with his outstretched finger, and Felipe nodded enthusiastically.

Get out of here; see you in an hour for lunch, Diego said, and Felipe ran across the plaza to Mercelina Todea's house while he had the chance and before Diego could change his mind.

As if Diego would ever have other ideas, Victoria said to herself, perfectly aware that without Felipe and Don Alejandro, Diego was free to spend some time alone with her, an always agreeable way to spend a free hour. As if to emphasize her mutterings, Alejandro sauntered across the market to stand at one of his own friend's side, leaving Diego, predictably, alone.

Slowly, deliberately, Diego moved in her direction when he was certain that he was all by himself. We're being watched even if we don't think we're being watched, he said out of the corner of his mouth the moment he was close enough for Victoria to hear him over the general market noise.

I know, she answered in lieu of a more formal greeting.

Want to give them something to look at? Diego inquired.

Feeling brave in the forgiving warmth of the outside air, she nodded.

He moved carefully around her toward the wagon bearing the watermelons. He hefted one into his arms, put it back when he discovered a white spot on the backside of the melon, hidden from sight, and then hefted another. This one he evidently liked, for he reached into a pocket of his vest, withdrew a coin that would have paid for the entire wagon of watermelons, tossed it at the farmer, a gray, wrinkled old man who caught the coin in his weathered hand, and grinned at him.

Diego grinned back, nodded his thanks, then turned to face her.

What did you mean by giving them something to look at? asked Victoria in a quiet voice.

This, Diego answered in confident tones. No longer trying to be quiet or to fade into the background of the market, Diego placed the watermelon in the basket and the basket on the pommel of Esperanza's saddle. He calmly climbed onto his mount, 'calmly' considering who he was, and then reached for her. He grinned, and before she understood what was happening, she had been scooped up in his arms, stronger than they looked, but, oh, so gentle! until she had landed snugly in front of him, her skirt billowing out around the horse's neck.

Diego! she couldn't help but squeal, then she laughed. It had been a long time since she had been on the back of a horse, and then she had been on one alone, not pushed tenderly against a male chest so that she would be assured of not falling off.

I know how much you like picnics, as we talked about them just yesterday... Diego was referring to an hourlong debate of the merits of an outdoor picnic versus food partaken indoors, out of the insect filled air of summer. She had firmly been entrenched in the 'no bugs' camp, and he had given up... until now, it seemed.

Bugs, Señorita? Diego couldn't refrain from teasing.

Absolutely! Victoria answered on a laugh. They turned Esperanza's head and started forward, out of the plaza in full view of absolutely everybody gathered in the pueblo plaza for market day. The Alcalde, Padre Benitez, Sergeant Mendoza, Don Alejandro, Felipe, and Mercelina Todea, and all their friends, saw Diego and Victoria leave the pueblo, laughing good-naturedly all the way.

And if Diego's arms appeared to be around her more snugly than was necessary, all the better.

Z Z Z

Diego sliced the watermelon in half on the clean grass surrounding the blanket he had laid to keep any dirt... or bugs... from soiling their clothes, and he dropped a half of the watermelon back into her basket and kept out the other half. He arched his eyebrows and said, For the tavern... indicating the basket. Then he carved the knife that he kept hidden in his boot for a time of 'just in case' into the sweet, red, juicy half that was left over. He handed the first slice to her, and she went to work brushing off all the seeds as he sliced another piece for him. He watched her deal with the seeds before she took a bite of the slice he had given her.

I'll remember next time that you don't like seeds, he commented.

They get stuck in the back of my mouth and drive me loco, she explained as he watched her watermelon ritual.

Diego glanced at the piece of fruit he held in his hand. Maybe you'd like mine better; fewer seeds.

No, this is the last seed... thanks anyway. She brushed the offending white seed away, then settled more firmly onto the blanket.

This spontaneous picnic idea of his was undeniably romantic, even though they were always in clear sight of the pueblo... distant sight, Victoria admitted to herself... but arguably in sight. Everything had been done according to the strict social code that dictated behavior between an unmarried woman and an unmarried man... Diego wanted to make sure they did everything just right, so no one could fault either of them at any time. They knew that every eye in the pueblo was trained on everything they did.

However, proper behavior had always seemed silly and restrictive to Victoria. Taught to circumvent convention by her two older brothers, Victoria took another bite of the juicy melon, chewed, swallowed, then licked the leftover juice from her lips with a decidedly seductive tongue.

And she noticed that Diego noticed.

Diego cleared his throat in sudden discomfort.

You should taste the juice in this piece, Diego, Victoria invited. It's... ah... not like yours.

Isn't it? Diego was beginning to get the same glint in his eyes that Victoria had in hers. Devilishly, he lifted her hand that was covered in watermelon juice and slowly kissed it, never taking his eyes from her. He grinned. Would that be an... appropriate response... do you think?

She drew her hand away almost immediately. People are watching us, Diego; they may not be able to hear what we say, but they can certainly see what we do, she warned.

I know, he told her, his voice low, quiet, and mischievous. Let's give them something else to see. Then he kissed her hand again, and this time, she didn't resist at all.

His lips were so soft, so warm, so inviting... Victoria found that she had to fight an impulse to want to kiss him on the lips, lay back on the blanket, and let him have his way with her... that might be too much for even the people of the pueblo to see!

But that didn't mean that she didn't hunger for it, just the same.

Fingers linked together, always in sight in case the Alcalde had bought another telescope like his first one and had it trained on the two of them right at this very moment, Victoria tried to keep the gesture of affection light and semi-innocent. But Diego had other ideas, apparently. He pulled her hand close, pushed his fingers into hers, clung to them for all he was worth, and kissed her knuckles again like he was going to lose her tomorrow.

Dios, but I love you, he whispered when he sat back again into a more natural position.

And I love you, too, Victoria echoed.

Quiet wrapped around them, then, like the black gloves he sometimes wore.

Then Diego chuckled. Was that enough for them to see?

Victoria laughed, and turned to look in the direction of the pueblo. I think that was sufficient to cause enough for them to gossip about for at least a month.

At least, Diego agreed.

Victoria laughed. I have to say that a picnic was a pretty good idea... Then she stared at the piece of watermelon that she had dropped onto the blanket, and watched a string of ants march up to it and try to cart it off. ... bugs and all! she finished.

Z Z Z

Oh, Dios! said Victoria as she rubbed her stomach again. The trip back to the pueblo an hour later wasn't nearly as much fun, nor as exciting, as steeling away had been. I can't believe we ate the whole thing!

I can't believe I have to eat lunch at the tavern now, noted Diego, with a kiss to the back of her head that no one who might be watching from the fast approaching pueblo could possibly see. Am I behaving enough like a dog for you? Diego asked suddenly.

Victoria smiled. Not enough heeling, she impishly said.

Careful, Diego whispered with a grin on his face. I might still roll over in the plaza and beg you to pet me.

And speaking of begging, Victoria suddenly said, Do you plan to attend the festival next week and 'beg' me for a dance or two?

Wouldn't miss it, Diego answered. Especially the begging part. Then, his brow furrowed. Why? Is that not a good place to start rolling over in complete obedience?

Victoria laughed again at his light tone. Yes, it's a great time to start begging me for forgiveness if you plan to dance with anybody else.

Diego tightened his arms. I plan on staying by a certain señorita's side all evening long. He pulled her back into his chest, a move that those in the pueblo couldn't see, either.

Who might that be?

I wonder... Diego kissed her on the back of the head again.

It better be me, Victoria answered, enjoying the sensation of his lips on her hair.

And if it's not? Diego couldn't help but ask.

Victoria giggled then like a girl just out of school. She marveled at how he could make her feel so carefree even as she said, Then roll over and beg.

Z Z Z

Diego, Alejandro said in a low voice while he and Felipe were eating their lunch. Diego was strangely not hungry. I hope you know what you're doing, the caballero continued.

Diego's forehead wrinkled. What do you mean by that?

Alejandro sighed, then, and dropped his fork onto his empty plate with a clatter. I mean with Victoria.

What about her? inquired Diego.

Alejandro sighed again, then stared at his son in a straight forward manner. Let's face it, Son, she's been connected to Zorro for the last four years, so...

Diego held up a calming hand. True, she has, though not anymore.

But, Diego, Alejandro said, now in some urgency. I'm afraid that you will be taken for Zorro if you're known to be cavorting with Victoria...

Father, interrupted Diego, I am not cavorting! His tone was serious, even as Felipe had to smile at his patron's choice of words.

Whatever that was out on the grass this afternoon...

It was a picnic, Father! Diego interjected again.

A picnic where you kissed her! hissed Alejandro.

I kissed her on her hand; what's wrong with that? Diego demanded then in a voice as low as his father's. Were you spying on us?

I wasn't! Alejandro insisted. I only heard about it!

What's the difference?

I'm just telling you to be careful! Alejandro warned. I don't want to wake up one day to the news that my only son was carted away during the night because he's suspected of being Zorro due to the fact that he's cavorting with Victoria, who...

Diego stood up to protest the idea that Victoria was 'cavorting' with anybody. Surely you don't believe that I am Zorro? he questioned in a loud voice for all those in the tavern to hear. The gathered crowd laughed at such a ridiculous idea. The Alcalde's paranoia about Zorro has obviously started to become contagious, he exclaimed. He only hoped Victoria was not witnessing this rather humiliating scene.

Victoria sailed through the curtains from her kitchen, then, entering the main room from the place set aside for the food cooked at the Los Angeles inn.

Good, Diego thought, she didn't hear a word of that.

Alejandro sighed again. Just be careful, he warned once more. You know how twisted the Alcalde's mind gets when it comes to Zorro.

Diego resumed his seat, and sent a quick glance towards Felipe, who, he realized, was greatly enjoying this scene between the two men who had taken care of him for years. Diego had entered into this public tryst with Victoria against the young man's advice. Felipe preferred keeping Diego's secret a 'secret,' for want of a better word. At least until they could come up with a less obtrusive way for Diego to be together with Victoria. But Diego had simply overruled his friend this one time, and had suffered several arguments with his assistant because of that decision.

Diego next glanced hastily around the room, trying to gauge what the tavern's customers thought of the idea that he could possibly be Zorro. The disbelief that met him on all sides was encouraging. Father, please listen to me, pled Diego in a much softer voice as he leaned across the table towards Don Alejandro. Victoria is in a rather delicate phase right now...

Alejandro bristled at that statement. There's not a delicate bone in her body! he proclaimed indignantly. You mean to say that this fling you're having right in front of the entire pueblo is...

Diego's eyes darkened in anger. This is not a fling! he quietly but firmly insisted. And I would appreciate it if you would not insist on holding Victoria in such poor opinion as to think she would ever participate in something as ignoble as a fling: I won't be having anyone, you included, saying anything about her that's not...

But Diego! Alejandro went on, you went on that picnic today without a chaperon! What's everyone supposed to think?

Diego gave a start. We didn't need a chaperon because we both knew that everyone in the entire pueblo was spying on everything we did! he abruptly informed. He stood again, anger clear in his stance. And we did nothing wrong except eat a watermelon that I paid a handsome price for. And I don't think I particularly like what you're insinuating, Father. If you don't mind, I'll see you at home! With that, he threw the napkin that had come with his drink dramatically on the table and strode out of the tavern. He didn't even wait around to see the effect of his words. He only took a second to share one assessing glance with Victoria, then he was gone, into the summer sunshine soaking the plaza.

Sergeant Mendoza entered just as Diego left. Buenas Dias! he said, but Diego seemed so angry that he didn't greet the sergeant in turn. He simply untied Esperanza from the hitching rail and rode out of the pueblo.

Sergeant Mendoza stared after him for a moment, thinking, then walked the rest of the way into the tavern. He crossed to the bar where Victoria stood, pouring drinks for her customers' orders, and asked, What's wrong with Don Diego? in a curious tone of voice.

Victoria sighed, doing her best to sound long-suffering as she continued to fill glasses and mugs. He and Don Alejandro just had an argument, she reported. All the patrons in the tavern today heard every word of it.

But he seemed to be in such a good mood earlier, protested Mendoza, gazing back towards the double doors through which he had just entered.

Victoria set the bottle she was holding down on the bar with a loud plunk. How would you know that? she asked suspiciously.

Mendoza appeared uncomfortable as he toyed with his military hat. Well, I heard...

We weren't in the pueblo long enough for you to 'hear' anything, Mendoza, Victoria accused. So you were spying on us!

Mendoza looked more than uncomfortable, now. He looked guilty, too. I wouldn't go that far.., he started to say.

Victoria eyed him, just as incensed as Diego had been earlier. What would you call it then? she inquired.

Well, I.., Mendoza began again.

Victoria threw down the towel that she had been carrying. Diego was right, wasn't he? Victoria braced herself against the bar, a sure sign of her temper. You, and the Alcalde, and the entire garrison, and everybody in the pueblo were watching us this morning! She gave her best imitation of a caged animal, and succeeded rather well. You tell the Alcalde again that he can just mind his own business, Mendoza, and I don't plan to tell him a third time!

Mendoza looked as if he were dying of distress. He scrunched up his eyes and begged, Please, Señorita, I was just following orders!

You can follow them right on back to the Alcalde, then! Victoria answered, completely incensed.

But Mendoza had one last defense to explain. You have to admit that you're quite a public figure, Señorita, what with your past relationship with Zorro and all. He continued to play with the tassels on his hat, a known signal that he felt extremely uneasy.

Victoria didn't appear to take any pity on the sergeant. 'Past' is the important word, there, Mendoza! Victoria blazed, and if Diego had been present to see her raging temper, he would have commented later that she looked strong enough to take on the entire garrison herself. She practically blazed from the inside.

Mendoza crossed himself, then. I tried to tell the Alcalde that you wouldn't like this, and neither would Don Diego, but he insisted.

Victoria paused for a moment and placed her right hand on her hip in a display of total irritation. And here's something I 'insist' that you tell our Alcalde, since he's so interested, she started.

Oh, please, there's no need for.., Mendoza began, but Victoria cut him off.

I need him to understand! she emphatically said. She held up her fingers. First, I was only a teenager when I met Zorro - I hope my tastes in life have become more mature than they were when I was nineteen! Second, Diego is the opposite of everything Zorro stands for, something not even the Alcalde can argue about. Third, at this point in my life, I realize that things like security and normality mean a lot more than I ever gave them credit for, and Zorro can give me neither, while Diego can give me both! And fourth, Diego has always been my best friend, and it's only natural that the feelings I have for him would change and grow until it's the next thing for me to do to enter into a relationship with him. She gestured at the bar and took in the entire tap room with the wave of her hand. I can't be expected to take care of the tavern forever, anyway! she exclaimed. I was always likely to get married and leave the tavern sometime!

Are you getting married, then? Mendoza asked with a tone of incredulity. His eyes did everything but pop out of his head. It was evident that he had previously thought that she would, indeed, be the tavern's proprietess far into the future, and he was disappointed to hear any different.

Victoria huffed in annoyance with the portly sergeant. Not yet, but if you ask me, I think that's a fine idea! she blazed. It's true that what I feel for Diego is different than what I felt for Zorro, but love comes in many contrasting packages, doesn't it?

Mendoza continued to fiddle with his hat. Are you in love, then, Señorita? It acutely embarrassed him to be discussing the softer emotions of the heart in this public forum, especially Señorita Escalante's emotions; she frightened him a bit, but he had his orders, and a military man had to follow his orders to the best of his abilities.

Wouldn't you like to know? Victoria yelled. You, the Alcalde, and the rest of the pueblo! She whirled around the end of the bar and emerged out into the open, then grabbed Mendoza by the tail of his tunic and pulled him towards the door. Now, you tell the Alcalde to do his own dirty work in the future, and to leave me and Diego alone! With that statement, she pushed Mendoza out of her tavern for the second time.

Mendoza tugged at the collar of his blue tunic and tried to look as if nothing untoward had just happened in the tavern as he turned in the direction of the Alcalde's office.

Inside the building, Victoria hid a pleased smile at the departure of the military officer from her business establishment.

Z Z Z

The week that followed Mendoza's disgraceful ousting from the tavern went by in a breath and a blink as the citizens of Pueblo de Los Angeles did their best to transform the plaza into a magical world where dreams, and fiestas, could take place with nobody grumbling that the decorations had been poorly spread about the town. Even the Alcalde's office sported red and green streamers that denoted the good harvest that had just been hauled from the fields surrounding the tiny town. DeSoto allowed the festival and the decorations because a good harvest meant more people able to pay more taxes in the coming year, and that was reason enough for anybody to celebrate, especially him. He couldn't argue with the citizens' desire to enjoy what would ultimately mean more money for him, so he looked the other way when the citizens hanging the streamers and banners reached his office in the central plaza.

Victoria was just as glad that he chose not to create a fuss over the coming fiesta, happy, instead, to see the grins of anticipation lighting her customers' faces each time the fiesta was mentioned. By the time Friday, the day of the planned festivities, had arrived, the tavern was filled with nothing but festival talk and beaming expressions. There was no time left over for the citizens to speculate on the state of Victoria's and Diego's seemingly budding relationship. And that was a fine state of affairs as far as Victoria was concerned. Less talk meant less gossip, and that meant greater general acceptance of the relationship, and that pleased Victoria to no end. She was tired of being the center of attention for the pueblo, and wanted to get out of the public eye and go on with her life.

And getting on with her life was what was happening, she realized as she paused to think for a moment that Friday during the lunch rush. She had been seen with Diego more times in that week alone than they had appeared together since Zorro first arrived in the pueblo of Los Angeles. They had gone for three moonlit walks, one other picnic where Felipe acted as their chaperon (disappearing to go fishing right after lunch, as Diego encouragingly eyed him), escorted each other to and from Sunday morning Mass, and walked in the de la Vega garden during Don Alejandro's yearly supper party. It was beginning to be known and accepted that Victoria Escalante was being courted by the very wealthy de la Vega heir.

Courtship and getting on with her life were both prominently on her mind as she shut and locked the tavern door firmly behind her and emerged into the plaza at twilight that Friday night of the planned fiesta. People were milling around with blue-coated lancers and suited caballeros, and Victoria joined the edge of the throng, but had her eyes peeled for a certain caballero who had promised to dance the first dance of the evening with her.

While Victoria was looking around the gathered crowd for Diego, the man himself slipped up to stand next to her. Buenas Noches, Señorita, he whispered into her ear.

She jumped at the way tingles washed across her bare arms at the sudden sound of his voice. Putting a hand to her rapidly beating heart, she rolled her eyes a little. How do you do that? she whispered as her heart continued to flutter in her chest.

I hope that reaction is because I was the one who spoke to you just now, and not because I frightened you, or worse, Diego said, indicating the way her hand clutched at her chest.

Victoria removed her hand, and, thus, his attention from that area, yet said, It's because it's you, I can assure you, but it's also because you seemed to appear out of the night like a phantom in one of my father's nightly stories.

Diego cocked his head. A phantom, he said, considering. I think I like the sound of that... as long as I can be your phantom.

Victoria couldn't hold back her smile, knowing that he was teasing her at the same time as he was gently flirting with her. I hope you can, she answered, being equally as flirtatious, which felt strange, she had to admit to herself; they had never had time to flirt together before. At any rate, that's what I would like, she whispered back to him under the noise caused by the musicians warming up on their instruments.

For the entire night? Diego daringly inquired, his hands held behind his back to ensure that he wouldn't inadvertently touch her in his bid for her consideration.

Victoria knew what he was doing by keeping his hands tightly restrained behind his back, and did the same; she was unaware of how the new position emphasized certain parts of her anatomy to Diego's questing gaze. She only repeated, with a gentle smile on her face, I hope so.

Diego smiled softly. I hope so as well, Señorita.

A quiet moment went by, when suddenly Victoria took an audible breath, then turned towards Diego. She looked as though she had come to some sort of decision about something. I wonder if I could have a moment alone with you, Diego? she blurted in an unprecedentedly fidgety manner. Outwardly, she appeared as calm and unruffled as usual, but inside, she was shaking more than she had ever shaken before. She was extremely nervous - I mean, this just isn't done, even if I'm determined to do it, she thought to herself, trying to excuse the unusual behavior she had planned for herself to partake in before the evening was over. She felt apprehensive before she had even said anything! She tried to garner the courage to continue.

Of course you can see me, acquiesced Diego, who had an expression of concern on his face, though his agreement was voiced in a mild tone. Is there anything wrong?

She gave a little laugh to cover up any shaking that she was not able to hide. Of course not! she said brightly. But I have something I wish to ask you, and I don't want an audience for this particular question. She shrugged. That's all.

Diego didn't say anything more, only motioned with an agreeable swing of his arm towards the side of the tavern that they were pausing in front of, waiting for the first dance of the festival to start. Victoria preceded him into the alley to the side of the tavern, then continued on to the back of the building, where they would be out of the sight of the eyes of so many curious people who were surreptitiously watching them.

Now, what is it, Victoria? Diego asked the minute they were out of sight of the people gathered in the central plaza of Los Angeles. Is something wrong?

No! Victoria assured immediately. The one thing she didn't need was for him to worry that something had happened or gone wrong. Nothing! Not one thing! She was babbling, and cut herself off.

Then... what? Diego went on in a quizzical manner, his voice still gentle. His encouraging smile bathed her in the half illuminated, half shadowed light of moonlit persuasion.

She couldn't help but to respond to his silent request to be more informed, but she was still hesitant. Victoria opted for being abrupt in her request, so that she would be sure not to lose her courage at the important time. Diego.., she began, her voice echoing in the silence that engulfed the barren spot behind her tavern. It was empty of any citizens or wanderers this early in the evening, which was why she had chosen such a desolate place for such a startling conversation.

Go on, he prompted.

This might come as a surprise to you..,

Victoria.., Diego warned with a roll of his eyes to show his impatience with how enigmatic she was being. What's on your mind?

On my mind? she echoed. All right, she said then, nodding. She would just spit it out... She took a deep breath, and heard herself broaching the subject that had been on her mind for several days. You remember the question you asked me while we were in your cave that day that you...

Victoria, what day are you talking about? I'm in my cave almost every day, reminded Diego.

Was he being purposefully obtuse? Victoria had to wonder. No, she said and smiled. No, No. I'm not explaining this very well. She closed her eyes and sighed, impatient with her hedging. You don't understand... Of course, you can't read my mind...

Victoria.., Diego interrupted again in warning, and would have continued, but Victoria cut off any word he might have said.

Diego, she began, and the muddled quality in her voice from before was absent now. Don't you think we've been seen together by enough people? Aren't you tired of trying to 'encourage' them all to get used to seeing us as an 'item' so we won't raise any suspicion? she asked, and regarded him, at first hopefully, then rather dolefully when he didn't respond right away. She sighedagain, and placed her hands on his arms and said, Look Diego, please understand... She glanced up to see the moon glint off his eyes in the darkness. I'm twenty-seven years old... I want to get married, and as I want to marry you, and as you might not ever get around to officially asking me again, I'm asking you instead, even though I know that it's very unusual for the female to ask such a question... Diego, Victoria went on, hushed now, will you marry me? she almost pled.

Diego stared at her with eyes startlingly widened in astonishment. You want to what? he began, sounding too surprised to be more elegant, something he always strove to be with her in the more typical situations of the past. Only, this was most definitely not a typical situation, and he vocally stumbled over his words for the first time in his life in front of her, showing that he didn't quite know how to behave. He was so flabbergasted at her apparent taking control of matters rather than waiting for him to do the more traditional thing by asking himself for her hand in marriage that he sounded extremely confused and flustered when he asked for further clarification, Will I what?

Braver now that she had said something at last, Victoria sighed again, and repeated her request. I want to know, will you marry me?

Diego was so stunned by her simple question that all he could do was stare at her and look frozen with his mouth hanging open.

A simple 'yes' or 'no' will do, Victoria informed him, a tiny smile playing at the edge of her lips.

Uh... Diego tried to say.

Yes? Victoria attempted to lead him on to give the same response that she had given in his cave more than a year before.

Diego smiled a little in embarrassment. Finally, he was collected enough to say, Are you sure that you feel ready for such a commitment, Señorita?

Ah, so it's 'señorita' again, eh? Victoria couldn't help but tease. Then she straightened her face into a more serious expression. I find that I'm more than ready, Señor. She had a hard time making a proposal of marriage that was followed by calling her intended future husband the common title of 'Señor,' but she forged heedlessly ahead. If you'll have me, that is.

Have you? Diego sounded more animated and less stunned each time he spoke. He laughed a little bark of a laugh. Of course I'll have you. He lifted his hands, then, and cradled her cheeks with his cool fingers. I've wanted you for my wife for... How long have we known each other?

Victoria was trying to forget the feel of his hands on her cheeks enough to answer him rationally. All our lives, but a little better the last four or five years.

For the last four or five years, then, confirmed Diego in a staged, near whisper, a voice that was slightly louder than the one he had been using to speak to her in the recent weeks. That voice gained volume and confidence as he went on, Since our first kiss. Since I got off the ship from Spain. His enthusiasm was increasing with every word, yet, when his first response didn't proclaim an impressively long enough amount of time, he practically shouted his next statements. Since before I left for the university. Since the beginning of time... He gazed at her in the soft joy that lit his face from inside, and Victoria could just see the moonlit smile lifting his lips. Yes, you will have to drag me away from marrying you, he said, then laughed again. Yes, Señorita Escalante, I would like nothing better than to marry you. He kissed her, then, a quick grazing across her lips, an endearment that was so fast, she barely had time enough to sense the feel of his ticklish mustache. Father will be furious that you asked me instead of the other way around, but I think he'll quickly get over it. And he kissed her again, deeper, more tenderly, more like the displays of ripening affection that they had recently shared in the confines of her kitchen at midnight.

Diego kissed her a fourth time, gingerly, lovingly, passionately kissed her, openly, for all to see. No mask lay between them, keeping them together, yet eternally apart. Victoria wrapped her arms around his thin waist and hung on tightly to him, the touch of his fingers cradling her cheeks a loving reminder of his eternal devotion. She threw all her emotions into returning his gesture with a desire that was equal to his. She knew what she wanted, and she had been waiting patiently for him for a long time. Perhaps for too long.

With a feel like the lash of the whip Diego used when he fought for justice, Padre Benitez's voice coiled through their mutual love for each other. What is this?

The kiss abruptly ended. Diego and Victoria looked up to see the padre staring at them in genuine astonishment. Light that had not been there one second before poured out of the tavern's high kitchen window to illuminate them and what they had been engaged in sharing. Victoria's employee, Alicia, must have needed something in the kitchen and used her key to open the locked business establishment and let herself in.

Victoria felt color flood into her face - of all people to discover them during their first intimate, unmasked kiss, it had to be the only religious man in the pueblo. Even Don Alejandro, with the inevitable anger he would have felt at seeing the assumed improproper conduct of his only son, would have been preferable to the padre, who was appealed to by his religious convictions to pass judgment as to their believed show of impropriety. No one was supposed to kiss so passionately before marriage. It would have shocked him further to find out that, lately, Victoria, at least, had been entertaining thoughts of actions that were much more improper in nature.

Padre Benitez, Diego said in a smooth tone of voice, just the man we want to see.

Padre Benitez gaped at them. You wish to see me? he asked in incredulity. A finger pointed in wavering awe at his own brown-robed chest.

Yes, Diego answered, and Victoria was astonished at the amount of persuasive confidence in his voice. This was the assuredness of Zorro speaking, not the unsure tones of Don Diego, though the words that followed his affirmation were delivered in the higher tones of the indulged caballero. The man in Victoria's arms gazed at her, and in an incredibly final, loving sound of ownership, said, We wish to be married. As soon as is humanly possible.

Padre Benitez continued to stare in amazement. You what?

Diego sighed in an exhalation of pent up air that matched his pent up emotions. If I don't take this lady to be my wife, and soon, I promise that our future Confessions will be interesting enough to set even your hair on fire.

Even Victoria was thunderstruck at how open and honest Diego was being. But she found that she couldn't utter a sound of the astonishment that she felt.

Diego grinned. I love her, she loves me, read the banns that declare the wedding will take place in a month or so from now...

Love? confirmed the padre with just as much astonishment on his face that Victoria was feeling in her guts. Even she was a bit surprised by his use of the word 'love.'

Yes, Diego answered with a sense of finality in his voice. I've loved Victoria for so long...

Padre Benitez was so stunned by this disclosure that he spoke unguardedly, But what about all those years when Zorro... He stopped himself in midsentence, not wishing to open wounds in Victoria that might not have had time to completely heal.

Yes, there is that, said Diego, allowing the stickiest part of the equation that made up the relationship he shared with Victoria to be discussed more openly, and therefore, more candidly. Let me just question who spent all his time at the tavern, me or... the bandit in question? he inquired, referring to the outlaw without putting a name to him. It was extremely difficult for me to hear of that... that outlaw over and over again, but if it meant that I could be near Victoria without incurring her suspicion as to the state of my emotions, then that's what I had to do. But I want you all to note that it was I, and not... not the bandit in question... who was at the tavern every day, for years, waiting while I gathered enough courage to make a move to ingratiate myself, and then, after all that waiting, Victoria beat me to it. He stared in serious contemplation at Victoria first, kissed her on the forehead, then stared at the padre. Will you read the banns? Tonight? Please?

Padre Benitez shook his head, as if he were clearing it of a deep covering of entrapping cobwebs, and stuttered, Uh.., he started to say, and shook his head again to reorient his thoughts. Are you certain about this? he asked in slight disorientation. This all seems so sudden and quick...

There's nothing quick about this, Diego assured. My emotions have been solidly centered on Victoria for years.

Victoria continued, And there's nothing quite so irresistible as someone who appears to be interested in me... for years... only I was too blind to see it for what it was worth.

Diego's eyes moved from the priest's form to Victoria's, and his hands tightened just a bit on her cheeks in a show of genuine admiration. Not blind... just too close to the situation, he negated in a solid tone of gentle assuredness.

Padre Benitez noted the palpable affection between the two standing before him in the square of light that was blazing from the tavern window. All right, he heard himself agreeing. I'll publish the banns this weekend. He regarded them in a critical once-over. That is, provided you know what is expected of you in a marriage: can you be subservient and congenial? he inquired of Victoria, a woman known to be neither subservient nor congenial in her views, then turned to Diego, And can you be overt and commanding when the situation warrants?

Diego chuckled a laugh, and Victoria had to say, I think you have that backward, Padre.

Besides, added Diego, the day I require a wife to be subservient would be the day I... He stopped to let his voice drift into the quiet of the night.

You what? Victoria gently asked.

Diego sighed, not an unkind sound. Marriage is meant to be a partnership. I want a companion as much as I want a wife in the more traditional sense of the word. I want you, he said in determination. With all your edges and roughness and opinions and unpopular views. He paused to look her square in the eyes. I want you, Victoria Escalante - I always have, he announced.

Padre Benitez couldn't help but chuckle in appreciation at Diego's declaration. But he turned again to Victoria. Señorita Escalante, you've been unusually quiet... What do you say to all this?

Victoria blinked. Um... I think Diego has said everything that needs saying, she said. It was enough.

The padre was quite flabbergasted at her apparent silence. You truly have nothing to add? he inquired.

Victoria smiled, but shook her head quietly for perhaps the first time in her entire life. To be honest, she was enjoying seeing the astonishment of the padre.

The padre's surprise was big enough to steal him of his voice. He could only say, Fine, then, fine, and grin like a sodden banshee.

Before Diego and Victoria knew it, they were again in front of the tavern, part of the large, fiesta crowd, but with a secret big enough to make them both grin from ear to ear.

Yet, the conversation wasn't over, it seemed, as far as Diego was concerned. Are you going to be silent for the rest of your life? he asked after a hushed moment had gone by as they stared at the colorful plaza rather than each other in order to avert any danger of discovery. You're certain this is what you would like to do? They were both well aware that an entire garrison of lancers was even now just steps away in the plaza.

But, danger or not, Victoria did look at him, then, as an expression of surprise mixed with affection warred on her lovely features. Not even wild horses could drag me away from this, she said, fully aware that Diego had a horse that was at least partly wild, and that Diego knew that she knew about Toronado's origins. Victoria smiled and protested at the same time. Though, she added breathlessly, I do realize that we haven't even danced together, yet.

Diego also couldn't keep the smile off his face at her general, but restrained, excitement. A single dance doesn't matter much to me, he informed, his voice still quiet, but louder than before. I know what I want, and I want to dance with you all night long, and in order to do that without raising eyebrows and gossip, I had better be engaged to the girl in question. Or else I... Here, he risked a glance at the woman at his side. You would rather dance with and marry someone else?

Victoria looked at the crowd in breathless anticipation, her eyes sparkling, even though he had already asked this timely question once before, and she had already voiced her acquiescence. It still gave her a thrill to have a man, and this man in particular, voice his desire to marry her. I think.., she slowly said, now no longer attempting to keep her voice low so as to attract no notice. I think, she repeated on a swallow of excitement, that would be more than agreeable to me. Then she whispered, I did ask, after all.

Diego looked at her appraisingly, and asked, So you did. And I gather that you find this prospect as agreeable as I do?

Victoria gazed steadfastly at the crowd of people before her, but every ounce of her attention was centered on the man standing at her side. She smiled, nodded, then snuck a glance in his direction.

Then, you had better wear this, Diego said, once more in a whisper, as he held out his hand, palm up, to her. In his smooth hand he cradled the emerald and diamond engagement ring that he had presented to her more than a year before.

Where did you get that? she blurted before she could think better of her choice of words. Then, in a quieter tone of voice, continued, Aren't I supposed to offer a ring to you? Her voice was just a touch facetious.

Diego considered. That would be more traditional, he admitted, then went on, However, I think my father would have a case of the vapors if I showed up wearing an engagement ring. He glanced at her from the corners of his eyes. And having a ring just shows that I've been busy lately.

When he said no more, but took her hand in his instead, Victoria couldn't suppress the shiver she felt at just his touch. The band of the ring was just as cool to her overheated skin now as it had been when he had given it to her a year ago in his secret cave. Now, he continued shyly in an entreating whisper, if you don't give me a hug soon, I might not last the night, and you will have no one to dance with.

Now, that would be a tragedy, murmured Victoria. But she was grinning, her smile so wide that it made her eyes glint in the lantern light bathing the plaza. A bit slowly, as they were far more used to being furtive than obvious with their emotional regard for each other, Victoria leaned into him and he first circled his arm around her shoulders just prior to wrapping her in his arms in as tight an embrace as he could give and still be gentle with her. As it was, he stole what little breath there was left in her body.

Giddy, emboldened, Victoria lifted her head up to look at him, a silent request in her eyes, and Diego immediately complied by tenderly, briefly, kissing her lips. I think we just shocked the entire gathering of citizens with our poor and unusual behavior, he commented, still smiling at her.

Victoria just settled herself more securely in his embrace by lying her head down on his ruffled shirt. I'm not sure I care, she reported on a sigh. It's not ever day a girl proposes; if we shock a few people, then that's the way it is. She grinned even wider. Let's shock them some more, I say. Then she lifted her head again, and kissed Diego as lightly as he had kissed her, but the passion she held in check just under the surface of her sheen of good behavior was apparent.

Four years worth of repressed emotions could have a very strong effect on events, Victoria knew. As emotional nights went, this one was promising to be one of the best, she admitted as she smiled to herself and at him. And the fiesta hadn't even begun yet.

Z Z Z

The next morning, Alejandro walked into Victoria's tavern during the lull between breakfast and lunch. His eyes immediately landed on the emerald ring gracing the finger of her right hand as she once again stood in her place behind the bar and polished glasses. The ring flashed and twinkled each time she moved her hand.

Without preamble, Alejandro strode to the bar and grabbed her right hand, towel and all, to regard her new acquisition.

Victoria self-consciously let him continue his examination. Don Alejandro - Buenos Dias, she self-consciously said.

Don't be so polite, Victoria, Alejandro objected. When Diego told me about what you and he plan to do... well, I almost lost my breakfast in surprise, the caballero admitted.

Victoria's eyes widened. Don Alejandro, please, I had no idea that you objected so heavily or...

Who said anything about objecting? Alejandro asked, further astonishing the tavern owner. Then he chuckled a bit. I'm delighted, he said then. Completely ecstatic. However, he went on to say, I am somewhat surprised, though, I'll admit, he divulged. I truly had no idea that Diego has felt this way all these years. Then he snorted a laugh. I had no idea that you felt this way...

Victoria pulled her hand back from Don Alejandro's grasp to gaze at her ring. I'm as stunned about all this as you are, Don Alejandro, she said.

Stunned, but happy? the don inquired.

Victoria sighed in contentment as she went on looking at her ring in the sunlight streaming in through the open door. Then, she smiled. Yes, very happy, she answered in a tone that only her closest friends would dare to question further.

Don Alejandro was one such friend. Victoria, he asked gently, Don't get me wrong here... nothing would please me more than to welcome you into my family... but what about your feelings for Zorro? Are you sure you're not just... He hesitated, then continued, ... using Diego and his affections for you?

That idea horrified Victoria, and such a sensation was obvious according to the look of revulsion on her face. No! she answered emphatically. Then she sighed a little in resignation. She went on, I admit, I was a bit surprised when Diego told me how he's felt all these years...

He told you about his feelings at the festival last night? Alejandro ascertained.

Victoria nodded. It's rather funny, actually, that Diego only uncovered his own emotions after I had admitted to myself that my feelings for Zorro would never come to fruition. She shrugged. An outlaw is hardly the marrying kind, she lied glibly in an attempt to explain.

True, Alejandro softly agreed.

I was at the ocean a few days ago, crying about these thoughts...

Yes, Diego said something about finding you at the seaside when this all began, Alejandro interrupted.

Yes, Victoria said with a small, pleased smile, remembering. The pensive expression on her face grew deeper as she contemplated her ring again. I was so upset, convinced I was going to be an old maid... I might have 'encouraged' Diego to express himself, but I'm certainly not using his affections...

Alejandro looked at her, judging. Then, he nodded and smiled benignly. I have to say that I had my misgivings when Diego told me about his tender feelings for you and that you had proposed marriage last evening.... but I can see now that my worry was unfounded. It's no wonder he always resisted the thought of getting married to anyone else, though! Alejandro shook his head. Imagine all those years, he was pretending to be just your friend, and he was in love with you the entire time. He shook his head again in wonder. Then, his features grew grave. But what about the Alcalde? he asked. Won't he suspect that Diego could be Zorro?

Victoria snorted a laugh at that question. She appeared to be unable to help herself. Diego could be Zorro? she questioned incredulously. Then she shook her head to negate her old friend. That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard you say, Don Alejandro, she declared. Why, Diego's nothing like Zorro! she reminded in order to cement the idea in the minds of anyone listening to her. I should know, as I know them both so well.

Alejandro's face turned red. You're right, Victoria. But you can't fault an old man for wanting to protect the members if his own family when...

Victoria dropped the towel in her hand to the counter top of the bar. Diego doesn't need any protection, she said unequivocally. Except of the softer variety. She grinned in mischief.

Alejandro held up both his hands in a warding gesture. I don't want to know about it, he said. What I don't know about, I won't have to put a stop to.

Victoria took pity on the aging don, but she couldn't quite suppress her giggle. There's nothing for you to worry about, Don Alejandro, now or until the wedding, I promise, she said, a twinkle in her eye. After the wedding, however... She grinned mischievously again.

Alejandro's hand went up once more. Don't tell me, he ordered. Victoria laughed. And once more, Alejandro's features clouded. But I wonder if Diego is going to have trouble dealing with that famous Escalante temper of yours? He went on, explaining his troubled thoughts. You do have different outlooks on life, after all.

Victoria wrinkled her nose. Not so different, she refuted. I've spent many years, now, watching his behavior in my tavern. And do you realize how many people he knows, Don Alejandro? The caballero shook his head. Victoria shrugged. Practically everybody! she exclaimed. And do you know how he knows so many people? she asked, then went on when Alejandro didn't respond, He helps them all, that's how, she reported. You and I and men like Zorro may start any protest of cruelty in the pueblo, but it's Diego who is much more heroic than I ever realized when he finishes things, she said. He gives aid, gives money, lends a hand, even uses the knowledge he gains from his science experiments to help whatever situation arises. Then she glanced down and her own face reddened just as deeply as Alejandro's had moments before. He even helped with the mortgage for the tavern, she divulged. She explained more at Alejandro's gaping expression. The rewards for all the bandits Zorro has apprehended over the years - Diego convinced the Alcalde to give the money to him for The Guardian, since it's a government run newspaper. Then, once he had the money, he instead gave some to me... anonymously, of course... and the rest has gone to whomever else needed it at the time, or to the poor box, ever since I paid the mortgage on the tavern.

Alejandro's mouth grew even wider than it was. I had no idea...

No, no one did, Victoria said forgivingly. But, please don't cut him down so much in the future. He may not be fighting like Zorro, she said, her tongue between her teeth at the 'bending of the truth' that she was currently doing, then went on, but he's doing something far more important, really.

And far more quietly, Alejandro said. Again, I had no idea.

Suddenly, Victoria glanced around her future father-in-law. By the way, where is Diego this morning?

Alejandro pushed himself away from the counter until he was balanced again on his own two feet. He said he had something he had to do for The Guardian before it came out next week. He'll be along in a moment. Just then, Diego entered the tavern and glanced towards the bar, his gaze landing and staying on Victoria from the moment he entered. And here he is, Alejandro went on.

Diego smiled at Victoria almost immediately. She smiled back as he joined her and his father at the counter.

Buenos Dias, Victoria shyly said.

But Diego hardly seemed shy. He picked up her hand, the one bearing his ring, and gave it a slight brush against his mouth. I have to say that I haven't seen that ring looking so lovely in years, he noted softly.

Still, Alejandro heard every word. His gape intensified. Diego, he expostulated, what's come over you lately? he asked in a tone of incredulity.

Diego gazed in unabashed affection at Victoria for a moment, then he turned to regard his father. And how did you feel when mother agreed to marry you? he asked dryly.

Alejandro nodded, still sounding vague. I see your point, he conceded, not bothering to voice his own observations brought on by his memories.

Victoria smiled, even though Diego seemed to be acting very uncharacteristically. Only she knew that he wasn't behaving strangely at all - he had kissed her fingers many times before, after all, so such regard was hardly surprising. Did you get everything done at The Guardian? she asked thickly at the rush of tingles that spread through her the second his lips touched her skin. Silently, she wondered how she was going to manage her emotions until the wedding the following month.

Diego's brows lowered in confusion for a moment, then cleared before his father could see his features. But nothing slipped by the ever-watchful Victoria. Oh, things went fine, there, he said, quickly covering his confusion. Is everything all right here in the tavern?

Yes, Victoria answered, filling three glasses with water prior to servicing the new customers as they sat down at the table to the right of the front door. Why? she asked, stopping in her work to suddenly glance at him with curiosity. Is there a reason why everything shouldn't be all right?

Diego shrugged. I have no reason, no, but Sergeant Mendoza told me that he was wondering if something was wrong with the tavern, since we talked about selling it once we got married...

That was all Victoria needed to hear about the consistently hungry sergeant. It seemed that he was more worried that his favorite eating establishment would change hands when she and Diego were married than he was curious about the very marriage he had obviously been ordered to show interest in. She smiled tolerantly. How did he hear about that? she wondered aloud. You and I only spoke about it yesterday in the plaza... Suddenly she was consumed by a wave of suspicion. I wonder... She didn't finish her statement, but threw her towel onto the top of the bar.

Alejandro showed the concern and curiosity she wasn't. Do you..? he began to ask, but she ignored him and strode out through the front doors, looking as if she had a purpose to her stride. Diego, do you suppose..? he asked.

Diego shrugged. I only know that I'm glad my name isn't Sergeant Mendoza right now.

But Victoria was not seeking out Sergeant Mendoza. She was looking for the Alcalde, and she knew exactly where to find him.

The green office door belonging to the Alcalde of Los Angeles was wide open to the warmth of the morning sun shining onto the plaza outside, and two lancers stood calmly on guard duty near the white adobe building. Victoria marched headlong across the square and brushed by the two lancers without saying, Good morning to either of them. Ignoring everything else but her objective, Victoria strode straight up to DeSoto's pine desk and placed her hands on it as she leaned towards him over the wood.

DeSoto glanced up. I'm very busy right now, Señorita Es...

Victoria bluntly interrupted him. She thrust her right fingers under his nose. There it is, Alcalde, she said. Take a good look, so that you can describe it in great detail the minute I leave your office.

DeSoto glared at her after he had carefully perused her engagement ring. I don't know what...

Again, Victoria broke in on his excuses. Flinging her hand back to rest on her hip, she regarded him with barely concealed animosity. Don't bother to tell me what I'm talking about. I know that you know precisely what I'm referring to.

But DeSoto wasn't so easily swayed. Honestly, Señorita, I don't...

Of course you do, Victoria said in a challenging tone. You've set Sergeant Mendoza on me like a dog, and you've done nothing bu spy on me and Diego for weeks... For your information, Diego and I plan to marry in a month; we courted over several weeks time; I proposed to him on the night of the fiesta, and he accepted, which has nothing to do with his sense of courage, only my lack of patience; I'm perfectly happy with this change in expected events; Diego can offer far more security than Zorro ever could, and don't think for even one minute that I can't appreciate security at this point in my life; I'm as much in love with Diego as my younger self ever was in love with your most hated bandit; and I plan to continue running the tavern, even though I will be living at the de la Vega hacienda. Victoria glared at him and heaved in air. Now you know. She whirled away before the man had the opportunity to say anything to her string of words, but paused on her way out the door to say, And now that you know everything, I expect you to stop sending Mendoza to spy on me and do your dirty work of gathering information for the gossip you intend to spread. Now, you should have all the information that you could possibly need. Since that's the case, I expect you to leave me and Diego completely alone! She angrily left the office before he could respond, and she found herself back in the sunshine of the plaza without specifically remembering how she got there.

Still incensed, she walked jerkily back to her tavern, bounded onto the porch, and entered to return to her job of polishing her glass collection as if nothing had transpired. Diego and Alejandro stared at her over the green counter top, expressing their surprise by indulging in a moment of silence to stare at her.

Finally, Diego asked, Everything's all right, I take it?

It is now, Victoria said as she drew in breath after breath through her nose in an attempt to cool her fury. I gave the Alcalde a piece of my mind that he's been waiting to receive for weeks!

Diego peered at her with a sense of interested complacency that Victoria could tell was feigned, though she doubted that anyone else in the tavern had any idea how tense his muscles were, or his coiled ability to come to her aid should she need it. You left him alive and intact, I take it? he hesitated to ask.

Victoria slapped down her towel with a snap. Oh, he's fine, but I don't think he'll be bothering us again any time soon.

Diego continued to peer at his fiancé. You told him what he wanted to know?

Oh, that and more! Victoria answered, her voice hard and brittle in her response.

Then I suggest that you and I take a walk together until your anger cools. Diego turned to regard Alejandro. Father, could you please tend the tavern for a few moments while Victoria gets better in touch with her temper, and before she hurts anyone? We'll be back in just a few moments. Diego didn't allow time for his father to respond, he simply held out his hand to Victoria, and she took his offer of assistance without much thought. They were gone, out of the tavern, in seconds.

Victoria felt her hand encased in Diego's fingers, and she had to admit to herself that the sensation of feeling his skin against hers was quite refreshing, certainly enough to divert her attention from her anger at the Alcalde.

Diego leaned against her shoulder and whispered, Okay, now tell me what really happened.

Victoria grimly smiled as she felt the muscles along her spine start to soften at the sound of his voice. Nothing much did happen, she responded. I simply told him everything there is to know about us so that he can stop his spying and looking for things to gossip about.

That's all? Diego questioned.

That's all, Victoria affirmed. I was the picture of restraint... You would have been proud of me, she joked.

Diego smiled at her and rubbed his thumb calmingly over her hand as he drew it and here arm to his chest, where he gave it a hug that promised so much more, that it sent a thrill straight to Victoria's toes. You know, I've always loved your temper, as long as it's not turned towards me, but centered on somebody else.

You know that won't always be the case, Victoria commented, letting the warm sunlight sink into her tired bones. I'm sure there's something that will highly annoy me about the way you handle things.

Diego laughed. I'm sure Felipe will be happy to fill you in on the existence of just such annoyances, too.

I expect he will! Victoria laughed with him.

Feel better? he asked then, and wrapped an arm around her waist.

Victoria groaned loudly in distress. I'll feel better when the wedding is over and we can... She stopped herself, and looked to Diego with a mischievous expression. Um.., she continued.

What is it? Diego inquired, making Victoria smile again.

Nothing, she said, shaking her head, but with the smile still on her face.

Victoria, Diego said warningly. What?

Victoria just smiled even wider and leaned in to him to whisper, Well, let's just say that I didn't tell the Alcalde everything that I want to do the minute we're married.

Understanding lit Diego's face, and his arm tightened imperceptibly around her waist. Señorita! he gently admonished in a whisper of his own. In spite of his lowered voice, his estimation of her imagination grew, according to the grin of pure delight on his face. I can't say that I'm not looking forward to that as well, but I agree that not everybody needs to know about such things.

Victoria blushed scarlet at his words. Just as long as you know what to expect, she said. I don't quite plan to hide my feelings on the subject forever, if you get my drift.

Diego answered, I don't plan to hide such regard, either. In fact, I plan to display it quite often.

He laughed at the redness that stained Victoria's cheeks after his comment, but simply steered her back to her tavern, and didn't say any more on the subject. But he was pretty certain that she understood exactly what he was referring to.

Z Z Z

Before Victoria knew what as happening, the month leading up to her wedding disappeared in a haze of patrons, cooking, and sewing on a wedding dress that Alicia had convinced her needed to be cream instead of the more traditional white, as cream did more to set off Victoria's darker skin color than white. Victoria was happy to oblige in this one request from her employee, as she really wanted as few reminders as possible to her ill-conceived pseudo wedding to Juan Ortiz several years before, and her dress had been white in that attempt to get married. She made every endeavor to make this affair as different as possible from that earlier, much more hasty wedding, and she got most of her wishes fulfilled.

Diego was as compliant in the planning of this ceremony as he was in the planning of everything else that he did, and Victoria was again amazed at his ability to blanket his true feelings until they were alone, where she was left with little to wonder about as those true feelings of his blazed into being on a face covered in moonlight on evening walks through the plaza, or in the sunlit jaunts in the de la Vega garden on peaceful Sunday afternoons.

Soon, the wedding was only a week away... Then, two days away... Finally, it was later on the very day that Victoria had been waiting years for... Then, it was over before she knew it, and a celebration feast was held in hers and Diego's honors in the very plaza that she had marched across before her confrontation with the Alcalde.

She sat calmly in the shade of the rough porch overhang of her tavern, beside a small table that was currently holding the empty wine glass that had belonged to her as she and Diego had toasted their union off to a hopefully good start. Now, her new husband was across the plaza, near the cuartel, quietly talking to Sergeant Mendoza as he finished his own wine in the glass safely contained in his right hand. He had decided that he could partake of wine this one time without having to worry about the consequences of his decision. Victoria knew that his worry was baseless, as he might be unused to the heady effects of alcohol of any kind, but that he was so tall that he could handle a much larger consumption of wine with no ill effects, either. She had seen too many of the effects of alcoholic drinks on the patrons in her tavern not to know that Diego had as little to worry about as he had to worry about her behavior... though her behavior over the last month had been far from model perfect, she admitted to herself with a slight smile. In fact, she had wantonly tempted her fiancée at every turn, and it had only been with his iron will that he had kept them both from straying too far off the path of ideal behavior that Padre Benitez had set down for them early in their less secret, second, engagement. But the promise of what was to come had always been there, patiently waiting for the time when no one, not the padre, the sergeant, Don Alejandro, Felipe, no one, would be watching what either she or Diego did with themselves or each other. Victoria wasn't ashamed to admit to herself to be looking forward to that time, even if such behavior was deemed a poor display of unladylike actions.

But Victoria could hardly care, now, as she reached for her discarded wine glass for a moment, and just out of curiosity and a sense of old time's sake, raised it up until it was at eye level to her. She gazed through it, placidly this time, until she caught the sight of Diego reflected over and over again in the beveled glass in her hand. She watched for a moment, turning the glass as the sunlight hit its crystalline surface to send shards of coalescing colored light in every conceivable direction. It split the image of Diego into several similar pictures as he continued his conversation with the sergeant, and she pondered how very many personalities those images represented.

Then, without warning, Diego sauntered slowly back to her side, reaching out to take the glass from her grip and set it aside on the table near her chair. He grinned down at her and asked, Checking up on what you just got tied to, Señora?

Yes and no, Victoria answered truthfully. Enjoying what I just got tied to in all its glorious details. She sent an unapologetically riveting eye over the caballero clothes his father had insisted on him wearing for the occasion of their wedding. Victoria could hardly complain, as the tight fit of his outfit did well in emphasizing just what was going to be hers at the end of the day. And waiting... she finished, letting the implicit understanding of her words hang in the air between them.

Waiting for what? Diego wanted to know as he sat down next to her to join her in a perusal of their guests.

Oh, something that I can't talk about in mixed company, Victoria said with a smile.

Diego smiled back at her. May your expectations be met with only approval, Señora.

The grin on Victoria's lips remained fixed, and even grew a little wider. I don't think there's anything to worry about in that regard, Diego, she said. In fact, I think that the adventure is just beginning!

THE END


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