Hungry

By Linda Bindner

Victoria Escalante closed the tavern door and bolted it, then leaned against it with a sigh. Anybody watching her would assume she was tired, and that was the reason for her plaintive sigh. After all, it was midnight on what had been a very busy day for the tavern. But now all was quiet, with the stools on the tabletops to indicate the end of the day. It was one of Victoria's favorite times, but tonight she was too nervous to enjoy it.

For in a few moments, he would probably come. Zorro. The love of her life. The man she had sworn to stay beside, to love, to protect would probably be standing in her kitchen, waiting for her, waiting to give her a kiss as he had the two previous nights. She really was going to have a midnight rendezvous. The only problem was that she didn't know his identity.

And that was the stone in Victoria's current and theoretical shoe. He would never unmask for her. He would never tell her who he really was. It was truly amazing how one relatively tiny piece of material could so easily stump such a strong love. But she hadn't figured out a way for them to be together, and neither had he, and he would not unmask for her. Not unless some situation pushed him into it. And she intended to do the pushing.

Victoria collected the empty glasses from the bar and set them on the tray. It would be much more convenient to have a sink behind the bar, but she could not afford to have one built, so she just dreamed and lugged the glasses into the kitchen, where at least she had a pump. Some taverns didn't have any running water, she knew. So she felt lucky most of the time. Except tonight, when she only felt her nerves tingle at the slightest touch.

Because she had a plan.

It was so simple, Victoria wondered why she hadn't thought of it before. She planned to unmask Zorro while she kissed him. It should be easy enough; just pull the black silk mask back. It should slide on his hair easily, and she would know who he was the minute the kiss broke off. And her curiosity was so great that she would be sure to break it off quickly. It was a decent plan: distract him, then surprise him. The Alcalde had been trying it for years; he just hadn't used the right kind of distraction.

But Victoria heard all the 'should's' in there, and that's what made her nervous. It should work, but Zorro had a knack for getting out of trouble unscathed, and that's what worried her. Victoria shook her head to rid herself of troublesome thoughts, then walked expectantly towards the curtain, carrying the dirty glasses on the tray.

To Victoria's disappointment, the kitchen was empty. No Zorro. He had surprised her by not coming to see her, and now she would have to wait to implement her plan. Despite being nervous, Victoria found that she was also more than a little disappointed. She liked visiting with him. She set down the tray with a harder than necessary thud.

Your beauty truly shines in the moonlight, came the sudden murmur from the corner of shadows beside her curtains.

Victoria gave a start, and she felt glad that she wasn't carrying the glasses any more, or she would have dropped them. She whirled around just in time to see Zorro step away from his hiding place and cross to where she was standing by the counter. He immediately reached for her hand to place a kiss on her fingers. It made her tingle. She wished suddenly that he would kiss her someplace else as well.

Seņorita, he said in a low voice, but then stopped, as if he didn't know how to go on. He just looked at her.

Zorro! she said with a smile. Even with a fairly sneaky plan in mind, she couldn't help smiling. Love for him washed over her, a flood of emotion that engulfed her in the rushing waters of too little contact. I didn't expect to see you tonight.

Victoria. My precious one, was all he said, but his gloved fingers rubbed her cheek and the back of her neck under her hair, just the way she liked it, and he stared like one starving and she sustained him. He placed his hat on the counter. Without another word to her, he bent down and leisurely kissed her lips, giving himself up to her as he deepened the kiss in passionate abandon, answering her apparent desire.

Feeling a bit guilty, Victoria nevertheless entwined her fingers in the ends of his hair that peaked out from under his mask. She cupped her hands around the mask surrounding his head and was happy to respond to his endearments. She had innocently repeated the same procedure of the fingers-on-his-mask both preceding times he had come to her in the tavern, hoping to accustom him to the feel of her hands on his head so he wouldn't be so surprised by the sudden, planned action. The kiss grew even deeper, and she responded again, and then....

Victoria drew back her hands to unmask him.

She was right: the smooth black silk of the mask slid easily enough on his hair. What she didn't count on was the man's speed of response to such a sudden action.

She didn't have time to even blink in his direction before he broke the kiss and moved one step forward, wrapping his own large, black clad arms across her back, effectively trapping her against his chest, close enough that she couldn't see him at all. Her arms hung uselessly against her ribs, and he forced her head to turn to the side with their closeness. All she could do was listen to his heart beating wildly in his chest and try her best to recover from such a passionate kiss.

Oh, Victoria, he said, not sounding angry, only disappointed in her actions.

Guilt replaced her earlier feelings of love, and without a doubt Victoria knew she had made a mistake. She shouldn't have been so impatient with his chosen timetable. But he had always controlled when to impart his identity, she was obviously ready before he was, and who would blame someone for getting a touch... curious?

We've been engaged for years and I still don't know who you are, she explained impatiently, and tossed the now useless mask on the chopping block between her and the counter they stood beside.

Using someone's emotions against them... he started to say, then ended up replying, That wasn't worthy of you, Victoria, and you know it.

She knew he was talking about her decision to unmask him, and not her emotions, and the guilt increased. You're right, she said to him, or rather, his voice, since she couldn't see him. But you can't blame a girl for being inquisitive. I mean, I've known you for years and you still can't trust me....

Trust isn't the issue here, he said, holding her lightly, but firmly. His heart beat increased. I trust you with anything I can give you, even my heart. But I'm trying to keep you alive. That's why I can't give you my identity.

The guilt increased, if that was possible. Can you ever forgive me? asked Victoria, getting a trifle angry at herself now, since he refused to be angry with her. A feeling of anger she could deal with, but this disappointment was far worse.

However, he said, You're curious. That's only natural. There's nothing to forgive. His hand, minus the leather gloves, - when had he removed his gloves? - wrapped tighter around her, caressing her back, her head, and she felt his feather light kiss on the top of her hair. Her own heart quickened to beat in time with his, even if she felt she didn't deserve it to.

Well, what are we supposed to do now? she inquired sardonically. I can hardly walk around attached to you like I am.

He was silent. Finally he suggested, Ask me questions. I'll do my best to answer them.

Are you from Los Angeles? Victoria immediately entreated.

Yes and no, he hedged, not wanting to give too much information away right at first. I live several miles out of town, he finally settled on.

She was silent this time, trying to decide what best to implore. At last he asked softly, Would it help your curiosity to know that you see me every day? He understood her need to know even if he refused to part with the one thing she needed most.

He was so understanding, it was almost unreal. But those words... whom did she see every day? Victoria asked, I do?

Uh-huh, he said, But I want you to deduce my identity for yourself.

The feelings of guilt were starting to vanish. What else do you want, Zorro? she asked.

There was silence to greet her inquiry, so long and so eerie that she wondered if it was final. Was this subject taboo, too? But eventually he whispered honestly, I want to marry you, Victoria. I want to love you openly. I want to make love to you. I want the secrecy to end. I want you to love me as me. I want....

Victoria risked his anger and interrupted him. You want to make love to me?

Zorro's low voice glided over her ear with his admittance, Yes. I suppose that shocks you, but that can't be helped. I've already gone to Confession twice for my feelings, but I guess it will take more than a few 'Our Father's to change the way I feel.

Now that she paid attention and knew what to pay attention for, she could feel him against her. To the contrary, his response didn't shock her in spite of his words. It excited her, and her heart beat even quicker in her chest. It doesn't shock me, she said back, suddenly quiet in his arms. It might shock you that I feel the same way.

You do? His tone sounded surprised, but not shocked, either.

I do. Maybe that's why I tried to make you reveal your identity sooner than you wished.

Patience, mi preciosa. I've had to be very patient myself with those emotions. Does it surprise you that there have been times I've had to leave the tavern quickly because of those feelings?

Her arms rose to embrace him. An unmasked Zorro let her do it, but he didn't step back, either. Who had left the tavern quickly as of late? Victoria couldn't think of anybody. But then, she couldn't think at all, so she really didn't blame herself. You have? The smell of his skin so near was driving her crazy.

Yes, he admitted again.

It was their first real conversation. They'd never had time for one before. There were always bandits to catch, or lancers to fight, or the Alcalde to outrun. It seemed as if he was telling her a lot about himself, but she had so much to learn. Usually their time together was extremely brief and fragmented. This was absolutely the longest he and she had ever been together. But because of the feelings he excited in her, she wasn't ready for it to end, so she asked him something else he could tell her to distract him from leaving. What characteristics do you have?

Victoria could feel the smile in his tone. You are curious tonight. Let me see, besides seeing me every day, I'm tall, I have blue eyes....

I know that, she said with a roll of her own eyes. Since you're so mysterious and I don't know anything about you, tell me something I don't know.

He thought for a moment. Finally he said, I like books.

Does that mean you like to read, or just that you like books? Do you collect them? she asked.

He smiled again. I like to read. I don't just have them in a collection.

So you're educated. Her weight resting on one foot now, she pensively said, I only know of one educated man....

You know several, he interrupted, correcting her deductions. Think of all the educated caballeros you know, he said.

So you're a caballero?

Not necessarily. She started kissing his chest left free by the shirt. Mmm, that feels nice, he whispered, and by his tone, she knew that he was weakening. But then he only continued with his hints. I pretend to be someone I'm not.

You do? Oh, I'm sorry, she said suddenly, ceasing her endearments in surprise.

Why?

Because then you're pretending all the time.

I am.

Victoria paused in incredulity. That must take a lot of energy.

It does. His hands ran up and down her back and into her hair in a slow caress. When had the hold changed to a caress? She didn't know, but was glad it had. This felt so much better.

Her brows puckered. But I don't see how knowing that you pretend will help me figure out who you are.

Zorro sighed, a big exhalation of breath. He kissed her lightly on the head again. I'm not sure it's meant to. I just know that you don't always have a good opinion of me and, maybe, I'm a little afraid of you for that.

Afraid of me?

He chuckled at her. Your comments are rather... famous, he replied. Maybe I hide from you behind this mask. That's what.... He stopped.

Victoria smiled at his somewhat substantial blunder. It showed he was getting more comfortable with her. She knew he had been about to tell her that was what someone thought, but he didn't want to give himself away by mentioning a name. Who?

No, that's not how this works....

Who? she demanded again. When he didn't answer, she mock threatened, I'll keep unmasking you if you don't tell me, Seņor.

I'll not kiss you again. Can you stand that? he threatened back, sounding perfectly serious in his threat, but how could he ever keep such a vow? He would be denying himself as much as her, and did he really want to do that?

Victoria considered what her world would be like without his kisses, without his touch and sweet caresses, without him. I'd die, she decided.

I hope not, because if you did, so would I, he explained seriously. His arms tightened around her, continuing his embraces. The mysterious identity keeps you alive as long as you don't know who I am. He was silent then, and so was she when he suddenly tightened his embrace even further and whispered, I should never have let you love me. It's too dangerous.

She tightened her arms, too, noticing then how big he really was. Maybe that's a risk I'm willing to take.

Maybe I shouldn't have let you.

I think it's too late now, Seņor Whoever-you-are, Victoria informed him lightly but firmly. I fell in love with you despite the risks.

Zorro heaved a sigh. You don't love me, Victoria, you love a legend.

But I do love you, Victoria refuted.

Zorro heaved another sigh. Victoria, can you honestly say that if you knew who I was, you would love me? You can't, because you don't. And you can't find out my identity because you would be disappointed and want to stop loving me, and I don't think I can give you up. I'd die then. There would be no more Zorro.

Cognizant of the tremendous responsibility he was taking on, and making their love endure, she paused, then said, It's still my decision.

It's too risky, he reiterated.

There he went again with the risk in loving him. No, it's not. Are you sure I would be disappointed in who you really are? she questioned.

His voice was infinitely sad but certain as he said, Yes, I'm sure.

In a final attempt to make him understand, she said, You can't help it if I figure it out your identity.

But he was adamant. I can help it. I should help it.

Suddenly she hit him on the back with her hand. Will you stop it?

He was surprised at her attack. He was so surprised, he drew out of his sudden depression. Stop what?

Stop disbelieving everything I say, she said with a shake of her head. Her hair moved enticingly against his hand. Stop saying I won't and don't love you when I do. Stop... stop taking the weight of the world on your shoulders. Stop saying I would be disappointed in your identity if....

I think I hear Toronado calling, said the unmasked bandit, saying anything that came to him in order to put a halt to her tirade. I should be going.

Don't change the subject! Victoria responded, being more honest in accordance to the theme of the night, and being more aggressive than she had ever been with him in keeping with that theme.

Victoria, he said to calm her tone, though he loved it when she got angry enough to speak harshly; it made even her hair spark, you give me little choice but to change the subject, especially if you want me to leave here tonight while you still remain an honest woman.

She drew in a sharp breath. You would do that? The amazement and the hope was evident in her voice against his chest.

His light rumble of laughter vibrated through her ear and cheek. Feeling you in my arms for this long is a dangerous temptation, mi preciosa. To reinforce his words, he lightly kissed the top of her head again. If I don't leave now, I'm not sure I can leave at all.

Her arms tightened around him. Would that be so bad?

Once more came the chuckle. That's my Victoria; always flouting convention, he said, his tone easy to give levity to his words. But I worry about your reputation... he began.

Victoria sighed a bit sadly, a trick while being held so tightly in his embrace. Probably more than I do.

Probably. But you wouldn't love a man who takes liberties with a lady, would you?

It was a dangerous question, given the situation. She arched her eyebrows, suddenly mischievous. Oh, you can take liberties if you like, she invited encouragingly.

He laughed for a third time. Know that I would if the mask could be removed forever instead of only for one night.

Perhaps it can be, she said in a whisper.

She could tell that he shook his head by the feel of his chin rustling the top of her hair. Don't tempt me, he whispered appreciatively.

Who's talking about tempting? I'm talking about following through with your dreams.

He softly kissed the top of her head once more, then laid his cheek in the place where his lips had been, giving a gentle caress. It felt wonderful to have the time to do that, even if his mere presence put them both in danger. I, too, have that dream. But it's to be fulfilled when I can show my face in the pueblo without shame or retribution. Again, don't tempt me; you're much harder to resist than you think. I've often considered unmasking my identity for you, he admitted.

This was news. What's stopped you? she asked.

Fear, he answered immediately. Fear that you'll be disappointed. And worry for the danger that you'll find yourself in. I'm not sure my identity is worth that sacrifice.

Victoria snorted a laugh. It's worth it, she assured.

Ah, you say that now. But can you say it while standing on the top of the Alcalde's gallows? You know I can't let you offer to do that for me.

I would, she stated recklessly.

He smiled, and the endearment came through in his voice. Dearest, sweetest Victoria, you know I can't let you do that, not even for me. I wouldn't want you to do that. Now, I need you to turn around, slowly, he ordered in a much more commanding, brisk tone. It was a complete flip, as if his voice had undergone the same change his mind had undergone.

Victoria did as she was told, turning slowly one hundred eighty degrees within the confines of his arms until she was facing her fireplace, as he was. His arms felt so good on her bare flesh! But her curiosity was practically burning a hole through her skin. Why? What are you planning to do?

I'm going to put my mask back on, and this way is better than blindfolding you, unless you wish to be blindfolded?

She shook her head. No, that's not necessary. Still, her eyes tilted up as she turned. All she saw was the bottom of his soft chin and a thatch of dark hair. By her quick observations, she only knew that he could be anybody in that entire part of California.

His hand descended over her eyes. No peaking, he warned.

In response, she brazenly brought his hand down to her mouth and lovingly kissed each finger.

His free hand paused on the mask, and Zorro groaned out through clenched teeth. He whispered, Dios, Victoria, don't, or you may have one extra guest for the night.

I have the room, she answered, being flirtatious.

Again he groaned, but by the shadow on her kitchen wall, she could tell that his mask was back in place and only needed to be tied. But he was too interested to take his hand back for the necessary twists. Too interested or too enthralled. He suddenly gripped her own hand, hard. You're making this so difficult. But I can't let you know who I am, even if I want to; it's too dangerous for you. He kissed her on the top of her head again, the only place that was safe with the possibility of his identity showing under the untied mask. He quickly tied the black silk in place, then, taking a deep breath to steady his madly beating heart, whirled her around, and before she could say anything to the abrupt change, covered her lips with his in a kiss that was hard, desperate, claiming, demanding in its profoundness. He touched her lips with his tongue once, twice, three times, and she more hesitantly did the same before opening her mouth to less timidly invite him in. They both melted under the thunder and lightening of their emotions. He had never kissed her like this before! Wild and carefree, it was the kiss of a man in love and full of desire.

At last Zorro ended the intriguing endearment. One thumb caressed one cheek. I love you, he said, his voice still a whisper, and he grabbed his gloves from the chopping block, then slipped away like smoke.

He was gone before Victoria realized that he had never said those words to her before.

Outside, concealed by the dark but still quite close to the pueblo, Zorro held onto Toronado's bridle as gently as he ever did, but his heavy breathing cut the dark like a knife. If Victoria needed to go out her door for any reason, she would have easily heard him.

Helpless against the onslaught of his rampaging blood, yet forcing the war inside him to calm down, he leaned into Toronado's saddle and groaned. How he wanted to love her openly! But he knew he couldn't, and tonight had just reminded him of that need. He couldn't share his identity with her if he didn't want her dangling at the wrong end of the Alcalde's gallows rope, or stabbed to death by the end of a brigand's knife. And that truth had never so frustrated him as it did on this night.

How he loved her! It was a feeling not contained to his heart, but shooting out fire in every direction, to each of his extremities, like molasses flowing from the containers it was always sold in, slow but inexorable. He positively throbbed for her. Yet he had to put a halt to these emotions before he gave up, returned to her kitchen to rip the mask away, and carry her off to her bedroom. While they might enjoy that scenario, they would also have to pay the consequences of those actions, and the consequences were too high a price to pay for the one he loved. He wouldn't, couldn't, do that to her; he loved her too much.

For a second time, he groaned out his desire and despondency. How much longer could he resist her? How many more of her charms could he take? Those were questions he didn't enjoy asking of himself, but the night's events made him wonder.

No, he couldn't risk it. He dare not come in to the pueblo again. She really was too enticing for his own good. He wasn't certain he could see her without compromising both her safety and her reputation. Because, like he'd said, he did care about that, even if she didn't, but his restraint was getting weaker by the minute. No, he couldn't risk seeing her again.

And that thought filled him with despair.


It was two days before Alejandro asked his son to accompany him to Los Angeles. Though his emotions had calmed by then, Diego was reluctant to go to town, and his reluctance showed; he couldn't hide all of it. His father thought with some disdain that his son wanted instead to watch over some of his experiments. Alejandro would never have guessed that Diego was afraid of what he might do to the tavern owner.

As they rode into town, Diego felt the most awful feeling of paranoia settle over him. He glanced across the plaza out of habit, but he didn't see Victoria's swirling skirts. For that he was thankful. All he had to do was slip away to The Guardian office before he saw her, and he would be safe. Sure, he internally complained, safe to envision her loveliness and further daydream about her. Even his dreams were getting too hot to handle! He would have to calm down, or his father might notice and say something about his son's wandering attention.

But the gathered crowd outside the mission halted their progress into the plaza of Los Angeles.

Curious, Alejandro steered his horse, Dulcinea, over to join the crowd. It was then that Diego noticed the creamy-colored proclamation nailed to the mission roof support post.

Diego, Alejandro called. Can you read this? Your young eyes might make something comprehensible out of these squiggles.

Obligingly, Diego rode up to the front, but he didn't have time to read aloud the new notice before Padre Benitez, who stood directly before the proclamation as if he had been reading it for those who couldn't read it for themselves, spoke.

Don Diego, Don Alejandro, Felipe, haven't you heard?

Diego's reluctance was slowly ebbing away to be replaced by curiosity. Heard what?

The padre went on to explain, The Mexican Revolution that we knew was going to happen, but prayed wouldn't, has arrived at last! Mexico has won their independence from Spain!

Diego gazed at him quizzically from the advantage of Esperanza's back. What does that have to do with us in Los Angeles?

At his question, general laughter broke out in the group surrounding the sheet nailed to the post.

Diego smiled, affable. What?

Padre Benitez smiled back at him. A man named Iturbide is now the president of Mexico, and he has bought all of California from Ferdinand, for too low of a price, if you ask me. Diego had to smile further at the padre's interjection of his own opinion into the incredible news. We are now Mexican citizens. We just heard yesterday morning.

Despite the schooled gesture of calm on his face, the practiced ease of his bearing, Diego was dumbfounded. He kept smiling, pretending that nothing was wrong with this astonishing news, but inside, his emotions were reeling. Aloud, he said, I forgot something at The Guardian office - if you'll excuse me.

His short statement had been rude, of course, but before anybody could protest, most notably his father, he rode off, reaching the adobe building with no more interruptions. He dismounted and entered unmolested, where he collapsed into the chair behind the only desk. Then, and only then, did he allow the exploding emotions to show on his face. He instantly buried that face in his hands.

He couldn't believe this! This exact type of event was what he had been waiting for. A turnover in the government might mean a turnover in its leadership. DeSoto might be gone. It could mean new lancers, new taxation policies, a new alcalde. Zorro might not even be necessary any longer.

Instantly, on the trail of that idea, he had thoughts about Victoria. Madre de Dios, he said to himself immediately, Victoria! He could be free with Victoria!

Without letting his mind wander over the news, Diego launched himself from his chair and yanked open the door. His gaze instantly settled on Padre Benitez as he strolled, or rather, waddled, across the plaza.

Diego ran out of the office, slamming the door shut behind him. Padre! You have to tell me! Diego yelled, not caring that his calls were gathering a crowd of his own. What happened to DeSoto? Who's in charge?

Padre Benitez chuckled. Why, Diego, it says everything on the proclamation.

What, Padre? What does it say? demanded an increasingly agitated Diego.

DeSoto's gone home to Spain, Captain Moreno's in charge until we get a new alcalde, and everyone has to take an oath to honor Mexico. Don Diego, where are you going? Did you hear what I said?

But Diego had for the first time in his life, rudely pushed past the priest and was heading for the tavern before Benitez was done speaking. What can I do? he asked himself as he walked. What should he do? Should he unmask publicly, privately, only for Victoria, or not at all? The choices were endless. But one thing was for certain; he wasn't going to squander this opportunity. He had to do something about Zorro and Victoria, and sooner was better than later.

The thoughts spun in his mind, and he hadn't decided on anything when he found himself bounding onto the tavern porch, past several patrons, past another notice, when he decided that he'd better think again.

What did he expect, that Victoria would jump into his arms the minute he entered the tavern? But she didn't know his secret. For the first time, Diego felt regret that he hadn't told her before now. Her response would make his choice of action now a lot easier.

But he hadn't told her. That had been his big plan until about thirty seconds ago; to not tell her for reasons of safety. Now, however, things were different. There was no safety involved, no alcalde to keep her away from, no possibility of a hangman's noose. He could declare his love without threat of retribution.

But the question remained, what should he do now?

Diego paused, one foot in the tavern, one foot out. That's how he felt, too, unbalanced, caught between two worlds.

Should he tell Victoria of his identity? Should he not tell her? Should he play it safe and see what the new alcalde was going to be like, just in case Zorro was still needed?

That plan was the most sensible, but had the least appeal to it - he was tired of playing it safe. Though his more conservative side told him that waiting was a good idea, the wild side that had gloried in being Zorro told him to reveal himself. But, no matter what he did, Victoria could still reject him. The news of this changeover hadn't changed much of anything between them. They were still trapped by this facade, this great image he had created. His own words echoed annoyingly in his head - she didn't love him, not the real him.

Suddenly, an idea so revolutionary that it left sparks behind to sizzle in his brain exploded into tinier ideas. What if he didn't reveal his identity? That was the main idea, followed by the smaller one of slipping the real him into the persona he showed to the pueblo. It could work, especially if he began right away. Zorro would never be revealed, or at least his identity would be highly suspect, and Victoria might fall in love with him as himself.

But that's the part of the idea that held him back. Should he risk everything on 'might?' Was he willing to chance her possible rejection in his fight to win her affections? Could he live without her kisses, her warmth, if that occurred? Could he live without her?

The very idea left him cold and sweaty at the same time. The thought of a Victoria-less future frightened him, terrified him more than he'd ever been terrified before. The thought of living without her endearments, even though he'd threatened to withhold his own just two nights ago, made him feel clammy and slightly sick. But what should he do?

In the end, his father made up his mind for him. Joining him by going all the way inside the tavern, Alejandro looked at the new edict again, tacked onto the message board that Victoria had finally put up to keep unsightly nail marks off her railings. He shook his silver hair. I wonder what this new government means for Zorro? After all, it's not like you resemble Zorro, not with your peaceful ways and love of experiments. It probably means more changes for me than it does for you. Nope, and he gazed around the town with a sigh, this probably changes more for Los Angeles than for you. By the way, did you find what you were looking for? He turned at the last towards Diego.

Diego could only stare at his father and bite his tongue so he wouldn't automatically refute what his father had said. What?

At The Guardian office. Did you find it? At the blank expression on Diego's face, Alejandro continued, You know, that's a fine newspaper, but you need to take better care of your things, Diego. It will go much smoother for you in life if you know where things are, and that includes keeping your stuff straight for your own newspaper.

Victoria sidled out the opened door then, and Diego was certain she had been standing just inside the door and had heard every word of his father's scolding. It was just another example of his ineptitude, he supposed, but he wished he didn't have to look so foolish in front of Victoria.

Wait a minute, he stopped himself. He didn't have to look so foolish anymore. He could let things go as before, with everybody having a nice, but low, opinion of him, or he could respond to his father's words, showing the first bite since he'd returned from Madrid.

Feeling like this was his second chance, that he was starting over, he said softly, I wish you wouldn't say things like that. I was looking for my book, and now I know perfectly well where it is; since it's not in the office, it must be on the bookshelf in the library. I'm an adult, you know, Father. I can keep track of my things.

Don Alejandro stood speechless beside a positively gaping Victoria, the food and drink in her hands forgotten. It was so rare for Diego to speak out that once he did so, people noticed. Apparently, they noticed right away, Diego thought.

Alejandro recovered his power to speak first. He contritely said, Excuse me, Diego. I'm well aware of your adulthood, as it constantly reminds me of my old age.

And mine, thought Diego, but didn't enlighten his father or Victoria by speaking aloud.

Alejandro continued, I apologize, Diego.

Being the congenial son, Diego put his arm around his father, something he never did. It's all right, Father, it's already forgotten. Let's eat some lunch and listen to the reaction in the tavern to this incredible news. Oh, hello, Victoria, he said as if this was the first time he'd seen her.

It was apparent on her face that she didn't know what to say. Diego could sympathize with her. Hello, Diego, Felipe, Don Alejandro. She left them then to serve her other customers.

Diego and Felipe shared a knowing glance, missed by Alejandro as he turned his attention to entering the tavern. Together, silently, they followed.

Twice more Diego seemed to change as he let his true personality filter through the pueblo's more anticipated opinion of him. Now that he had started to be more himself in public, he couldn't stop. He found that he didn't want to.

But his chief concern remained what to do about Victoria. He had asked her concerning Zorro's possible unmasking now that the Revolution had taken place, and she had admitted that she'd already thought of that possibility. But a complete retirement was met with more trepidation; she was afraid that she wouldn't see Zorro again, and after their last evening together, he didn't blame her! He was afraid, as well.

His more conventional courtship began in a quiet way, private, not public, as their relationship had been public since the inception of Zorro. When he was certain she was occupied in the tavern's main room, he climbed in her bedroom window and left her flowers in her bedroom, violets, not roses as Zorro would have left, and a letter explaining his intentions, signed only by 'an admirer.' The secret was revealed with that rather hasty action; it was clear to everybody that Zorro wished to unmask, but to her alone, and to romance her as himself, even if everybody inherently knew who he was. There was a tacitly understood agreement among the citizens not to say anything about the identity of their masked hero. The letter Diego had written in some of his less coherent moments said it all. He wished to woo her, win her, then marry her, all as himself, if she was agreeable to that plan. According to the look on her face, or rather, her constant smile, she was agreeable.

Diego's other plan, to slip more of himself into the matters concerning the pueblo, was going rather well, as was his attempt to be less reviled by his father and others, as had been their established habits over the past several years. This seeming turnaround bled into the two other new plans of his life, but none so obviously as with his courtship of Victoria.

Zorro hadn't been seen since that night two weeks ago that he had spent in Victoria's kitchen. Diego, on the other hand, was in the tavern every day, as was his habit, but he very unnervingly watched Victoria, as was not his habit. He kept one eye on her all the time, and left things of interest for her in the kitchen, too, each day, as his more obvious courtship progressed. But he never officially unmasked for her.

The weeks went by, then turned into a month, two months, and Diego had done nothing more than leave presents for her in her room and the kitchen. One thing he was determined not to do was embarrass her by openly declaring his intentions with the gifts. He had a desire to see her cheeks turn red, but not in embarrassment.

But nothing happened quite like the time Diego finally invited Victoria to the hacienda one afternoon for coffee. It was an invitation between friends, one that had been given and taken many times in the past, so it raised no suspicions in anyone but Victoria. Thus, all the pueblo's citizens were as astonished as Don Alejandro was later that afternoon.

But first came the serving, and then the conversation, until Alejandro was called into the kitchen to check the dinner preparations. The servants knew he liked to keep his finger in the cooking process, even if no one was attending as a guest, as it was the case that night.

Excuse Father, please, said Diego as he set his coffee cup and saucer on the little table containing the chess board and pieces, pushing the familiar and loved set aside to make room for his drink. He can't resist playing 'tavern owner' when he has the opportunity.

Victoria laughed with him, light and enchanting. He can take over my job any day.

Diego said, Don't tempt him; he might just take you up on the offer, and we know that he's not nearly as good a cook as you are - what a loss to the territory that would be!

Victoria smiled at the compliment, but instead of simply saying Thank you, and moving on in the conversation, she set her own saucer next to Diego's drink and took a suddenly nervous turn around the room.

But she had seen it hundreds of times; what was on her mind?

Diego, she finally said, Can I ask you a question?

The verbal request wasn't enough to raise the feel of his goose bumps, but the look on her face was. Fear, hesitancy, blazed at him out of dark eyes. Diego's heartbeat quickened. Of course, he said. You never have to be afraid to ask me anything.

She snorted a nervous laugh, then, clearly afraid of something. Do you promise to tell me the truth?

Naturally, Diego promised, his thoughts just as intrinsically turning to the promise Zorro had made to her one rash day in the plaza.

Victoria swallowed, a sound loud enough in the quiet library to carry over to his ears. The only constant sound was the ticking of the mantel clock. Suddenly, Diego was concerned. He reached out a supportive hand to hold her elbow. Victoria, what is it, what's wrong?

She appeared to gather herself, to fight off the effects of her fear, or at least to hold them at bay. The result left her white and trembling. He reached for her with both hands. Alarmed, he said, Victoria! more harshly than he had ever spoken before. The result of that was a lower, more concerned, tone of voice.

No, she insisted, taking hold of his arms. I'm all right, Diego, just nervous. Bear with me.

Nervous? What was going on? There's no reason to be nervous, Victoria, he assured. You're among friends. You can tell me anything, he audaciously declared. His promise was like the one he'd made in the plaza; quickly made and a little foolish. But he planned to stand by his words, even the ones with little thought behind them.

Victoria smiled, then, a genuine gesture, her first since Don Alejandro had left the room. Thank you. That's very kind. Then her voice grew serious, and so did the expression on her face. But I'm not sure if I want simple kindness any more.

The worry slowly began to ebb away from Diego. What do you mean? he inquired, though he had his suspicions already.

Victoria swallowed again, then blurted, Are you Zorro?

The worry leaked the rest of the way off his face. Here it was, the moment he'd been waiting years for, and he didn't know what to say. He'd wanted to tell her of his identity, more than anything, but now his instincts screamed to keep his identity secret at all costs. He wished he'd rehearsed something, anything, beforehand.

You promised to tell the truth, she reminded him, and it was then that he knew he was caught.

His will deflated, then. Yes, I am what you say I am, he whispered, almost reluctantly imparting the information that he'd dreamed of imparting for months, ever since that incredible kiss in her kitchen, a kiss that had left him longing for much more. His sensations prompted his answer now.

The effect of his answer was immediate. Her features lifted instantly. I thought so, what with the different way you've been behaving these last few weeks.

Diego sighed, and ran a hand through his hair, doing his best to hide the pounding of his heart. Goose bumps caused by fear broke out on his arms. He'd wanted her to discover his identity, more than anything, but didn't have a clue as to how to handle such a disclosure. He also didn't understand why he was so frightened, but again his sensations led his question, What do you plan to do with your new knowledge?

Do? she asked, taking a quick turn around the room in her agitation. I don't know, she confessed honestly. You're my friend, and have been for years. But now I know that you've been so much more at the same time. She felt amazement that she had been courted, kissed, by Diego! But even as she had that thought, she knew that his kisses weren't like any that she'd received before.

Victoria, began Diego, though he halted there, unsure of what, if anything, he could say. He decided that more honesty was necessary to match her own. I've loved you from afar for a long time, for years.

Her face blanched again. Maybe he'd gone too far too fast. But she gathered her courage again and asked, Since when? Since your return? Since Madrid? Her voice was light, curious, not accusing.

Diego's heart rate increased even more. Yes, he said again, his honesty taking his confession only so far by itself.

I thought so, she said again, a small smile now playing at the corners of her lips, those lips that Diego yearned to kiss. I suspected as much way back then, the first time you walked in to my tavern.

Again Diego was forced to inquire, What do you plan to do now that you know? The bounty on my head left with DeSoto, unfortunately, and you can't just turn me in.

She shook her head, making her curls dance. It's not unfortunate. I don't think I could bear it if you were jailed and had to hang for the sake of money.

This was more like it. She had broached the subject that was close to their concerns with her words. Again Diego's heartbeat increased.

I'm sure I couldn't bear it, either, Diego joked as he grew aware that she was drawing closer to him. His heart threatened to pound right out of his shirt.

Victoria smiled again at his joke, though the serious atmosphere didn't leave the room.

Once more, he had to ask, What are you going to do?

She seemed surprised by such a question, although she shouldn't have been. Me? Do?

Yes. What are you going to do?

Victoria sighed a little sadly, the sound reverberating around the room. Kiss you until you can't see anything? she guessed with raised eyebrows.

Kiss him? Not yell at him? Sounds like a good idea to me, he answered warily, encouraging their sudden closeness yet frightened that it would end, like many of his previous dreams had ended.

Me, too, Victoria replied, honest again. In fact, I've missed that kind of affection, she admitted, referring back to 'that night,' as she had begun to call it.

So have I, he whispered.

Her hand rose to brush across his cheek. The endearment, while soft, felt tremendously good. Victoria suspected that a simple endearment like that shouldn't be so... erotic. Yet he was really very handsome, she thought. Why hadn't she noticed that before?

Without quite realizing how she had gotten there, Victoria suddenly found herself cradled in his arms, his white caballero shirt billowing around her. The white material made her feel small as his hand began roaming down her hair and back.

Diego supported her head with one hand, letting the other caress where it wanted to. It wrapped around her tiny waist, tight, secure. Do you know I love you? he repeated, still whispering.

Victoria nodded as her own arms crept up to wrap around his neck. I know, she whispered back.

Any more words had to be swallowed as his lips descended on hers. The room fell away, the coffee no longer demanded to be drunk while hot, the dinner was forgotten. All either of them felt were the sparks that erupted on the impact of her skin against his, leaving no doubt in her mind that after years of cajoling, she had finally found her man beneath the mask.

The kiss deepened. Diego couldn't help himself as his blood boiled to life in his veins. This was incredible, what he had always wanted. Wordlessly, he broke the kiss, changed hands so that his right could circle her slim waist, then, still questioning his luck, lowered his head again to mix his breath with hers before meeting her lips in a quest to repeat what he had started that night when they had come to know each other better than they ever had.

No longer tentative, or shy, Diego drew her closer yet, and his tongue searched for the way into her mouth, sending spiraling tingles down his spine as he did so. Dios, how he loved this tiny woman! He endeavored to show his emotions gently, but insistently, as waves of passion kept crashing into his mind. Both hands on each side of her face now, he cradled her and kissed her like they were still alone, back in her kitchen.

But they weren't alone. Their position stopped Don Alejandro in his tracks as he came from the kitchens into the library, surprise clear on his face as the first thought that came into his head was that he was glad his son was finally showing interest in women. He just wished the interest was in some other woman.

His voice squeaked into the quiet library, What's the meaning of this?

Victoria pulled back, a bit unnerved by the interruption, but Diego wasn't the least bit sorry for hanging on until the last possible second. He had been waiting for nearly five years to kiss her as himself, had fallen so deeply in love with her that she permeated his life. He wasn't about to brush that aside just because his father had interrupted their first kiss. In fact, he added a kiss to her forehead, soft and tender, mirroring his feelings perfectly.

I think you have some explaining to do, stated Alejandro, coming slowly forward into the library.

Diego raised his own brows in sarcasm. That's an understatement, he said quietly, but refused to take his hand off Victoria. The feel of skin on skin was still essential, and he wished it was night and they were back in her kitchen so he could feel all he wanted to. But his father was looking at them expectantly and judgmentally; it was time to explain the entire secret.

Diego sighed, then started talking after they had sat down and retrieved their coffee. He held onto Victoria's hand as if it was a life line, his fingers linked through hers, his thumb absently rubbing as he spoke. He did his best to patiently answer their questions. He mentioned Toronado, the cave in the fireplace, the laboratory, the coat tree, the outside entrance, the pulley system he'd rigged up to hide that secret entrance, the engagement to Victoria...

There, he paused. Gazing at her, he tried to discern her emotions through her eyes. Is that... I mean..? he asked, though his heart was beating so painfully in his throat that he couldn't get the words out. The very thought that she might say 'no' sent chills down his spine.

Victoria smiled charmingly. After that night in the tavern? I think so.

Alejandro perked up at the mention of this. That night? What night? What did you do? Then, just as quickly, he changed his mind. You know what? I don't want to know. Just go on with your explanation, Diego.

Diego pursed his lips, amazed at how light he felt. These secrets had been hanging onto his soul for a long time. He blew his breath out in one big burst. There's not much else to tell. Felipe has known from the beginning, he's been my loyal aid all this time, and he made an excellent spy for me all over the pueblo.

Alejandro interrupted with a question. Spy? How could he spy for you if he... can't... hear? His voice grew softer and softer, then he looked at Victoria in surprise.

Felipe can hear, can't he? Victoria asked, some of the incredulity she was feeling coming through in her voice.

Diego nodded. Yes. I'm sorry I couldn't tell you sooner, but... His voice trailed off, lost in his explanations of keeping the secret of his identity to protect them from harm.

No wonder you always seemed to know what was happening, Victoria breathed, her voice almost a whisper in her amazement. It seemed like magic, but it was just good research.

Diego chuckled. No, no magic, I'm afraid. He's probably down there right now, cleaning the laboratory utensils, waiting for you to get out of the library before he shows himself. With those words, Diego raised his voice and called towards the fireplace and the secret entrance, It's all right, Felipe. They know everything. You can come out now.

As if on cue, or more likely, as if he'd been waiting and watching through the peephole, the door opened in the fireplace and Felipe hesitantly walked through it into the library. There was trepidation in his eyes, and accusation for Diego, his entire stance hunched and worried. A cloth used for dusting was in his hand.

It's all right, amigo, they know everything, Diego repeated. Fast hand movements asked him a question, or made a comment, or an argument, according to the look on his face. Diego shrugged, but more decisively than apologetically. What was I supposed to do, then? Carry on the pretense for eternity? Victoria changed my mind for me, convincing me that it couldn't go on forever. He squeezed Victoria's hand, even as Felipe gave him a look of thunder that spoke as loudly as words. Diego laughed and held up a hand. Stop, why don't you. No more censure, please.

Alejandro was still gaping at his supposedly deaf servant, and repeated, Felipe can hear? This is wonderful news! He stood. Almost as good as learning that my studious son is in actuality the legend that we've all revered for years. Honestly, you two fooled us all for so long!

Victoria spoke out, They fooled me, too. I certainly had no idea.

Alejandro turned to his son, Diego, there's still...

He was interrupted by the arrival of a servant. When it looked like Don Alejandro had indeed stopped talking, he said, Supper is ready, Patron.

Thank you, Miguel. The servant left. I'm sure there's more to know, but supper will get cold if we spend too much time on more questions.

Diego was glad for the hindrance supper created. You two go ahead; I have to see Victoria back to the tavern. Don't wait on me.

Alejandro immediately invited Victoria to dinner, but she declined. Thank you, Don Alejandro, but I really should be getting back to the tavern. Who knows what could have happened while I've been gone?

Alejandro agreed with her assessment of the situation, though reluctantly, and proceeded Felipe on to the dining room. Felipe was just happy to have food at his disposal, and he planned to dispose of a lot. Still, he kept enough of his focus on what they'd been talking about to shoot a look of death towards Diego. Then he disappeared.

Victoria laughed. I think Felipe has it in for you.

He'll get over it, Diego said assuredly. He rose, and pulled Victoria up with him. Now, where were we?

She blushed a beautiful shade of red. The color clashed with her cream skirt. You were kissing me.

Ah, Diego said, smiling, now I remember. Only I think you were kissing me. His expression said that he was gauging her reaction to something so rash.

Was I? she asked bashfully. We should do it again, just to make sure you're right.

Diego laughed. That's my Victoria, ready to flout convention.

She laughed then. You said the same thing that night in the tavern.

Did I? That's why I need you around; to point out these little things.

You would want me around anyway.

He had to agree to that assessment, whispering. You're right. I do need you, Victoria. Stay for supper? he asked again.

At last, she capitulated. Yes.

Diego hazarded to ask, Stay forever?

Victoria stared at him, knowing what he meant by his cryptic words. She nodded. Yes, she whispered.

Are you certain you want to?

Still whispering, she replied, Yes.

Trying not be too amazed by her response, feel too lucky, he touched his forehead to hers and said in a whisper, Do you like one word responses?

Victoria giggled, and said, Yes.


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