Rape of Innocence

By Linda Vogt Bindner

My, it's quiet in here, Diego commented with a short laugh as he looked around the empty tavern. The room was cool and felt spacious after the crowded, dusty plaza. He wiped his sweaty hands on the leg of his blue trousers, then leaned contentedly against the bar. The closed doors shut out any noises from the rest of the town, leaving only silence in what was usually a bustling public building. The change was welcome and the midday air felt comfortable inside, out of the hot, siesta sunshine.

Victoria appeared, carrying a box of bottles from the wine cellar. Hello, Diego, she said pleasantly and he hurried to take the box from her. She pushed back her hair that had fallen into her eyes and pointed to the bar where Diego deposited the box. What brings you in here during this time of day? Aren't you usually at home?

He pulled the bottles out of the box one at a time to hand to her, and she wiped dust and cobwebs off of them with a white towel before setting them on a shelf beneath the counter. I heard there was some excitement in town, so I came to see if I could help.

Victoria paused for a moment to look at him, doing her best not to let the humor she felt come through in her voice. You, help Zorro? She still sounded mocking despite her efforts. She didn't want to hurt his feelings, but sometimes she couldn't help it.

Diego's eyebrows rose slightly. Was Zorro here? I guess I didn't make it to town fast enough.

Victoria's eyes shone and she spoke, You should have seen him, Diego. He single-handedly saved that poor boy from a flogging, and completely embarrassed the Alcalde.

This is the boy accused of stealing that picture of Ferdinand from the Alcalde's office?

She nodded. Of course he was innocent and Zorro proved it by discovering where the Alcalde had hidden the picture himself.

Diego smiled. Zorro really is very clever.

A dreamy look came into Victoria's eyes. He is much more than clever, Don Diego. He is ...

Ah, yes, I get the picture, Victoria.

She smiled at him sympathetically, I'm sorry, Diego. I know the mention of Zorro makes you uncomfortable.

Diego moved his head in a nod, as if to agree with her. Any form of violence is unpleasant. I much prefer to read about it. He nodded again. With Father and Felipe gone, the hacienda is a pretty lonely place. I've been getting a lot of reading done outside on your porch. But it's too hot to read outside any longer.

Yes, it is very warm today. Too warm even for people to cool off in my tavern.

Bad business day?

She shrugged one white-sleeved shoulder. It gives me time to catch up on some things. Like restocking my wine supply, and she placed the last bottle under the counter as she spoke. When do you expect Don Alejandro to return? She looked up at him, noticing the way each hair laid perfectly combed back from his forehead. She wondered if he ever did anything active enough to dislodge such perfection.

Not until tomorrow at the earliest. Plenty of time to finish the book on Mozart I started yesterday. Diego watched her study him from the corner of his eye and he wondered what was going through her mind. Victoria Escalante was very well educated, especially for a woman in such a small pueblo as Los Angeles, but she was often quick to judge people, sometimes forgetting to look beyond the external in her judgments. Because of that, he never knew quite where he stood in her opinions.

Mozart is that piano player...?

That composer, he corrected, realizing as he spoke that she was just teasing him. She knew very well who Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was and why he was so famous in Europe.

Victoria laughed, You'll have to tell me more about this new interest of yours when you finish your book. She wiped the counter off with the towel, then grabbed the box again. But right now I have to get more wine from the cellar.

Diego stopped her, gently taking the box from her hands. Just point the way, Seņorita, and you shall have your wine, he said, uncharacteristically gallant.

She looked at him in amazement. Either you've been reading too much or the heat has effected your head.

Diego smiled. It's the Mozart. Composers and piano players do have a strong affect on me.

She narrowed her eyes suspiciously, then smiled when he began laughing softly, his blue eyes warm in the afternoon light. Someday, Diego, you will outsmart even yourself. She gave him an affectionate shove towards the cellar door. I have plenty of beds to make while you are being charming to my wine bottles, so don't hurry back, she called after him. He gave here a funny look over his shoulder, almost implying that he wanted to hurry back with a wistful smile, then disappeared down the stairs into the coolness of the small underground cellar.

Victoria shook her head, a picture of his last expression still in her mind. He was always so distracted with his studies that it surprised her when he suddenly noticed the people around him, and especially when he noticed her, which he had been doing with growing regularity. She wasn't sure if the extra attention pleased her or not. Sometimes she simply didn't understand Diego de la Vega. Or her feelings about him.

She dismissed it from her mind; she had far too much work to do to waste such an opportune time as this on thinking about Don Diego. She piled sheets and blankets into her arms and started up the stairs to the rooms she rented from time to time to travelers and local caballeros. Hot days like this were perfect for doing laundry and she had taken the chance when she got it. Now all that was left to do was remake the stripped beds and tidy up each room before the dinner crowd began to trickle in after the siesta.

Just as she reached the top step, the double doors were thrown open, admitting four rough-looking, unshaven men. Two wore wide-brimmed sombreros, and they all carried knives in their belts. Only two of the four had swords swinging from their hips and Victoria was relieved to see that none of them carried pistols, which were forbidden in her tavern. She usually had no trouble, but these gentlemen looked particularly unrefined.

What can I do for you? she called down from the balcony and four pairs of eyes turned to look at her.

No answer came immediately. They looked around the empty tavern and took in the bar and the bottles and glasses arranged behind the counter. A husky, middle-sized man exhaled a raspy breath in the quiet, then said, My men and I need a good meal and rooms. He pushed his sword away from his leg and sat down on a single bench.

Victoria reluctantly nodded her head. Your rooms will be ready in a minute, and I'll be down to prepare a meal. She gladly slipped into one of the rooms, getting out of the sight of the four men. The sound of scraping stools reached her from below, and she breathed easier. It was so rare that her tavern was empty that she didn't have to worry much about thieves and bandits, but for some reason the four customers below made her nervous. She was glad Diego was in the cellar, just in case anything should happen.

Quickly she spread a sheet on the bare mattress, expertly tucking the corners in and smoothing out the wrinkles. The open window allowed a tiny breeze to blow across the bed, fluttering the sheets slightly. A bird whistle was the only sound coming from outside now as the pueblo lay hushed in rest. Even the dogs were silent.

Victoria fluffed the homemade pillow and placed it on top of the sheet and blanket, pulling the corners neatly down. She gave the room one last scrutinizing look before gathering up the remaining sheets and blankets for the other rooms. She turned, only to find one of the men blocking the doorway. I'm not quite finished with your rooms, Seņors.... she started to say, her words dying into strangled silence as the husky man, the only one to speak for them, pulled his knife swiftly from his belt and laid it against her neck.

He wheezed a laugh, his heavy mustache drooping from his sweaty lip. We're not exactly planning on staying the night, pretty seņorita. Another of the men moved into the room and the two others flanked the door. We just need some help with a little money problem we're having. Maybe your cash box can solve it for us. He stepped closer to her. Why don't you tell us where it is, he demanded.

Victoria closed her eyes momentarily against his yellow teeth and scruffy beard, then swallowed to give her time to calm her panicking heart. Anger followed the initial panic. Her jaw clenched tighter. I won't tell you anything, she retorted, Now, get out of my tavern.

The taller man in the room moved behind her. The one holding the knife chuckled again. Ah, a spirited one, aren't you?

Suddenly the man behind her pushed the sheets she was holding to the floor, kicking them out the door with a practiced move of his dusty boot. He grabbed her arms, trapping them behind her back, and lifted her easily with one arm.

The man with the knife grinned wickedly. I like my women to be a little feisty. They last longer. His laugh echoed in her ears, and when Victoria opened her mouth to scream for help, a smelly, gnarled hand clamped over her mouth and nose, effectively stopping any sound she might try to make.

* * *

Diego carefully choose four bottles of wine from the racks in Victoria's basement, examining each of them before placing them in the waiting wooden box. He truly enjoyed doing these little tasks for Victoria when he could, not only because he liked her, but because, maybe, he could make her life just a bit easier. Though he knew she loved running her tavern, he saw how tired she sometimes got on the busiest days. And deep down he hoped that maybe he could raise her opinion of him just a bit by showing that he was not above helping her with such mundane chores as restocking wine.

He paused, the last cobwebbed bottle of wine in his hand. He traced a thin, delicate strand around the cork and down the dark bottle with his eyes, thinking of his relationship with Victoria. He so much wanted to tell her his secret, to show her everyday how much he cared for her. He wanted to put his arms around her, to have the right to kiss her when he wanted to, not just when he wore his black mask and the opportunity presented itself. Sometimes the desire built up so high he had to leave the tavern for fear of losing the tight grip he had on his emotions while he was near her. She was so different from the young daughters of the caballeros that he knew, so much more honest and original. He wondered that no other eligible young man had not discovered the life burning under the calm, unruffled exterior Victoria showed to the pueblo everyday. He lived in dread of the day it might actually happen, yet the mere fact that he was Zorro prevented him from doing anything but wait until he could disclose his secret, and trust in Victoria and in himself.

Diego gripped the bottle tightly in frustration. He wished so much more from life than he could ask right now. And Victoria did not love him as he loved her.... Damn! He hung his head despairingly, the picture of her smiling face in his mind. He wanted so much and right now it seemed he had so little.

He shook his head and briskly put the last bottle in the crate, climbing the stairs slowly while he regained his composure. Thinking like this helped no one, and caused more problems than he needed to deal with. By the time he reached the cellar door, he was himself again, boring, predictable Diego.

He was surprised to find the room empty, considering how much time he'd taken in the cellar just to get four bottles of wine. He set the box on a table and looked around. A noise thumped upstairs and he assumed Victoria was still fixing up the guest beds. Then the hair on the back of his neck prickled with warning, and he instinctively knew something was wrong. A fly buzzed annoyingly in his ears and he swatted it away, concentrating on the tavern's silence.

Male boots scraped on the floor above.

Diego moved rapidly across the floor, noticing that some benches were misplaced at one table. Someone besides Victoria was in the tavern and that someone was certainly not friendly. He looked up, catching sight of two torn jackets and muddy pants standing in the door to one of Victoria's guest rooms. The men were intent on whatever was taking place inside.

Then he heard the unmistakable sound of a body being thrown on a bed. Boards groaned and more boots thumped on the wooden floor. A low laugh barely carried down to him over the balcony railing. What sounded like slaps reached his ear and he heard Victoria cry out once, her voice full of fear and pain.

Victoria, he whispered, his nerves taut and the skin tightening on his scalp. His heart froze for a second in indecision. Then she cried out again.

He reacted instinctively, lunging for the stairs, throwing himself up them three at a time, letting the rage he usually held in check flow through his body. The two men standing in the doorway were taken completely by surprise as he grabbed their collars and yanked them clear off their feet. Effortlessly he threw them backwards over the balcony, their cries following them down until they crashed onto the tables dotting the floor below. Diego ignored his remorse at breaking more of Victoria's furniture and heedlessly pitched himself into the small room.

One glance showed him Victoria and the burly man holding her down on the bed, a knife at her throat. Where is it? the man growled menacingly. The sleeve of her blouse was torn and her bruised face was already beginning to swell where she'd been hit. Another man stood at the foot of the bed, a tangled rope held in his gloved hands.

Without thinking, he yelled, Stop! drawing the attention of the man holding the rope. The man's lewd smile disappeared at Diego's sudden entrance. He was even more surprised when a powerful fist smashed into his mouth, knocking two teeth to the floor. He fell back as he lost his balance, the rope flying across the room. In a sort of glee of released emotion, Diego caught him and punched him again.

Victoria used the moment of distraction to bite the hand holding the knife so near her unprotected throat. She yelled, Diego...!

Diego blocked the swinging arm of his opponent and gritted his teeth while he shoved his fist into the thief's stomach. The man doubled over, the wind knocked out of him, and Diego brought his knee up hard against the other man's stubbly chin. The man floundered with arms spread wide into the corner, his head banging into the wooden wall. He slumped serenely to the floor, unconscious, his sword laying across his outstretched legs.

Victoria managed to roll off the bed to a standing position while Diego fought, but the husky outlaw simply threw her against the wall and took a stand in front of her, his sword drawn as Diego turned to face him.

Diego was breathing hard with his efforts, and his hair flew wildly in his eyes. The caballero dress pants were a bit more restricting than Zorro's black outfit, but he found the restriction a challenge more than a drawback. There had been no time to think of changing to Zorro, and there was no point in stopping his uncharacteristic heroics now. With a glorious sense of abandonment, he knelt and quickly pulled the unconscious thief's sword from its sheath, barely getting it up in time to block the first clumsy rush of the outlaw. Though he was knocked off balance, he parried the attack and pushed the other man back. He had enough time to regain his feet and salute before the outlaw lunged again. Diego's sword cracked metallically against the other's as a half smile slowly seeped through the concentration on his face.

The seņorita is mine! rasped the outlaw, unceremoniously throwing himself and Diego against the wall.

Diego snorted and shoved back. That's what you think. He attacked furiously, his teeth clenched behind his smile, his cheek muscles twitching with the effort. The swords connected briefly with each well-executed swing, and Diego added a few punches in between the sword strokes when the chance arrived. He almost had the other man worn down enough to finish him off when one of the gentlemen he'd thrown over the balcony suddenly appeared in the door, his knife slashing wildly through the air.

Victoria called a warning and Diego ducked, bringing his sword down on the hand holding the knife while its wielder sought a more open position than the confining doorway. The knife clattered to the floor and Victoria kicked it under the bed, but Diego was forced to turn and meet a lunge from the other man's sword. He parried, then brought his left hand up to smash backwards into the knife-wielder's face. The man fell into the hallway, his hat flying over the railing.

With the attention once again centered away from her, Victoria took the opening and grabbed the tiny bedside table, letting the bowl and water pitcher sitting on it crash to the floor, and swung it as hard as she could on her attacker's back, but he was hardly phased by the splintering wood. He threw her into the wall again, and she felt her lungs cave in with the impact on solid wood.

This does not concern you, caballero! the man sneered, brushing the table aside and tossing his sword between his hands, his eyes tiny bits of glaring light under his heavy brow.

Diego took his first glance at Victoria since the swordfight began. Oh, but it does concern me, Seņor, he said softly, his heart beating in time with his anger. She was hurt and frightened, and her room was practically destroyed with all the action it had seen in the past few minutes. Diego swung his sword angrily, the outlaw needing both hands to block it. How dare you enter this tavern and hurt her like that! His voice was low and hard. The sword handle was slippery in his sweaty palm, but he didn't even notice it. He swung his arm fast, bringing it down again and again on the other's sword until he reached out to grab the man's wrist. I am tired of people like you, Diego whispered. The outlaw only grinned wickedly. Diego used the man's sword hilt to plow into the gloating, sneering face. Blood flowed from his mouth to drip down his grungy shirt front as he slid to the floor at Diego's feet.

His movements fluid, almost like it was all part of the same motion, Diego pushed the sword through his sash and stepped over the sprawling, unconscious bodies and broken pieces of furniture until he reached Victoria's side. She was sitting on the floor where she'd fallen, her back against the wall, her hair covering her face. Without a word, he carefully lifted her in his arms and carried her out of the demolished room. He pushed open the door of the guest room farthest from the stairs and hence the avenue of escape should any of the thieves happen to regain consciousness. He needn't have worried for Sergeant Mendoza, aroused from his siesta in front of the tavern by the fighting, suddenly entered at a run, his sword drawn, just as Diego reached the door to his destination.

Sergeant! he called down, his voice snapping with authority. There are four men here who desire to spend time in the jail for attempted robbery and assault. Please see that they get there. And send Dr. Hernandez for Victoria!

Spurred to action by any commanding tone, the sergeant rushed outside to find help and bring the doctor. Within moments the four prisoners were being escorted to the jail and the doctor was on his way.

Diego entered the empty room, closed the door against the noise, then lowered Victoria to the sheetless mattress. He wiped sweat off his forehead with the white sleeve of his ruffled shirt, and paused, his breathing harsh in the quiet room.

He pulled the awkward sword from his sash and let it fall to his side, his arm beginning to shake from the fear that his anger had held back since entering the dispute. Now it overpowered all other feelings and he had to fight to push it down again. He and Victoria had been lucky and he knew it. As Zorro, he'd always gone into a fight knowing what to expect and approximately what he needed to do to defeat his opponent. He'd even rescued Victoria several times from equally as dangerous situations. But today he had not been prepared either emotionally or mentally, and he was suffering aftereffects that he'd never before experienced. His heart stopped pumping the adrenaline that had given him the strength to fight four men after the morning's excitement, and he was suddenly very tired. But he pushed his exhaustion far from his mind as he dropped the sword with a clatter on the floor and turned to the washstand resting under the window. He poured the water that Victoria always kept in each room from the pitcher to the bowl sitting on the stand and submerged a small towel in the cool, clean water before turning back to Victoria.

Scattered drops of blood stained her white skirt, turning deep crimson as the minutes passed. For a terrifying second, he thought the blood was hers, but when he helped her to sit up, he saw that the majority of her injuries were confined to her face and arms.

His hand shook as he gently pushed her hair out of her face. Her cheek was red and swollen, and a bruise was forming just over her right eye, turning a deep purple under the swelling. Her cheek was bleeding, and red marks crisscrossed on her arms where the men had roughly handled her.

Are you all right? he asked quietly with a trembling voice, holding her tightly against him, using the wet cloth to clean the dirt from her bruises.

She nodded, still trying to catch her breath, her face pale and frightened. He dabbed the cloth carefully against the bleeding cut until she took it from him, a weak smile of gratitude on her bruised face, her hand shaking as much as his.

I'll be fine, Diego. I just need a minute. Her voice was quiet, belying the trembling in every part of her body.

Relief flowed through him in a powerful surge, and he had to fight off the tears he felt threatening in his eyes. He pulled her into his lap, holding her tightly, rocking gently on the soft mattress. Thank God they didn't hurt you, he whispered into her hair, completely forgetting himself as he tenderly kissed her forehead.

Familiar, comforting feelings washed through Victoria as he held her, rocking her, keeping her safe. Thoughts spun through her mind, but they slowly calmed and the pain roaring in her head receded somewhat. It didn't even occur to her that this man whose arms wrapped around her in a safe cocoon belonged to Diego and not the man she knew as Zorro. Her frightened mind only recognized that she felt loved and cared for as she did the few times Zorro held her. She closed her eyes, resting her head on Diego's shoulder, her hands cradled against his chest, until she was able to sort out the chaos in her mind enough to speak.

I'm sorry...I can't seem to catch my breath. Her hands still shook as she held the cloth to her head.

Don't talk, Victoria. Relax until Dr. Hernandez gets here.

But, Diego, what you did.... She pushed away from him to look at his face, reality breaking through her scrambled thoughts, her dark eyes searching.

The full realization of what he'd done was finally beginning to hit him. He, Diego, the scholar and confirmed coward, had bested four men with a sword, a weapon he was hardly known to be familiar with. He knew Victoria had recognized his fighting style as Zorro's and that she could identify him now if she chose. But he only continued to rock her, his mouth set in a grim, determined line. I did what I had to do, he said quietly, sounding as though his thoughts were far away.

The voice of Dr. Hernandez interrupted those thoughts as he called out, Seņorita Escalante! from the floor below. Diego moved Victoria to the bed and lightly touched her cheek. He said, We'll talk later, and waved the doctor into the room, withdrawing clumsily then as Dr. Hernandez banished him to the hall.

An hour later, Hernandez announced she had no broken bones, but was badly bruised. He gave her laudanum to help her sleep and had her carried to her own room. By then the tavern was crowded with people, all talking about how Diego had saved Victoria from what could have been a truly awful experience. The Alcalde had not believed the story told by the four outlaws reposing in his jail, and he had certainly questioned Diego carefully. Diego only rubbed his skinned knuckles gingerly and said, It must have been beginner's luck.

But that short fellow said you handled a sword like a practiced swordsman, DeSoto interjected.

Diego smiled slightly. You know I'm not very good with a sword, Ignacio. The Alcalde snorted and stroked his mustache, But I learned enough about fighting from the University to realize that the outlaw's skills were more appalling even than my own. Honestly, Alcalde, he probably hit his head on the wall and passed out. It's as simple as that. I was merely trying to help. He didn't mention that he'd fought two of them at the same time or that he'd thrown several of the outlaws over the balcony railing. The less the Alcalde knew, in this case, the better.

The Alcalde nodded reluctantly. I never thought I'd be saying this, but well done, de la Vega. Not wanting to be too complimentary to a man he considered to be far beneath his notice, DeSoto turned to his men milling around the tavern and motioned them back to the cuartel.

As they left, Diego was the recipient of many handshakes and congratulatory slaps on the back. Unaccustomed to thanks and compliments for his stand against injustice, he could only smile in surprise and try not to be too humble.

But his mind was really centered on Victoria. What he had done for her today had more far-reaching repercussions than just scraped knuckles. He'd done what he'd always dreamed of doing; he had abandoned all caution and expressed his true feelings as well as his identity to her. He didn't think he could pass off the kiss to her forehead or the way he'd held her as the gestures of a concerned friend. But it was up to her as to what might happen next. And so, as usual, Diego waited, patiently determined to stay until Victoria woke up.

* * *

It wasn't until the next day that Victoria finally opened her eyes to find sunlight and wind blowing the curtains into her room. She pushed herself up in bed, and the muscles in her arms and stomach screamed in protest. She was so surprised by the pain that she had to rest and catch her breath before she attempted to swing her legs out of bed and stand up.

She swayed when she gained her feet and grabbed the iron bedstead to keep from falling over. Her mind felt fuzzy, like it was full of dusty cobwebs. She breathed deeply several times before she felt better, and her head cleared as she took in her surroundings. She was in her own room, in her long white nightgown, and she felt awful. Her stomach swirled and heaved, her head still hurt despite the fact that she could think clearly now, and every part of her body ached fiercely. Her neck stiffened when she turned her head towards the little mirror on her dresser, but she forgot the pain as she calmly examined her bruised reflection.

Her cheek was only swelled a little, but the purple and black mark over her right eye overshadowed any other injuries she saw. It was puffy and hurt when she touched it gingerly with her fingers. The sight of it made her mad, so mad that as her thoughts turned to the men who had so vilely mistreated her, she felt glad that Diego had beat them as badly as they had beat her.

This brought her thoughts to dwell on Diego. It was so unusual for him to be moved to action of any kind. Or at least it was of the Diego she knew and called her friend. He had just said yesterday that he would rather read about the valiant acts of others than see or participate in them. Now she realized he had been participating secretly for several years, disguised as Zorro. For the first time she grasped how much more freedom Zorro gave him than he would have if he fought Spain's tyranny as himself. It also kept his family safe, as well as protected her, she supposed. She could certainly never tell anybody of her discovery yesterday. Nobody would believe her at fist because of Diego's general lack of...everything, she eventually admitted, and they both had far too much to lose in such a revelation. Besides, in a way, she liked Diego just the way he was. He was practical and easy to get along with, overly friendly, and nobody cared more about the people of Los Angeles than he did. But Victoria wasn't sure she was ready to accept such a drastic change in her opinion of Diego. To think that he was Zorro...!

Still thinking, Victoria slowly dressed herself, pausing every few minutes to relax her tensed muscles. The sunshine blazing on the town outside her window informed her it was midmorning, long after the hour she usually opened her tavern. She really couldn't afford to keep her business closed for an entire day, and she felt pressed to return to work, though her aching muscles suggested otherwise. However, after she'd moved around her room a bit, her muscles loosened up enough for her to feel relatively normal. So with renewed energy, she pulled her bedroom door open, only to find her way blocked by a pair of long legs.

Diego looked up from the book he was reading, letting his propped legs drop to the floor. He smiled broadly. Victoria! he happily exclaimed. You're awake! He jumped up from the chair he had placed outside her door.

She was surprised to find him waiting for her outside her room. Diego. What are you doing?

He showed her the book still in his hand. Mozart, he said, then tossed the book onto his vacated seat. I figured I can read here as easily as downstairs or outside. I'm glad to see that you're awake. How do you feel?

She indicated that she felt better with a nod of her head. But what happened to your hand?

He lifted a bandaged right hand for her to inspect. The knuckles swelled more than Dr. Hernandez wanted to see, he explained. Then he smiled ruefully.

She nodded. That's why you wear those thick black gloves.

He grunted softly and stared at his hand, lost in thought. He leaned against the wall, feeling suddenly at a loss for words. Her new knowledge put a different perspective on their relationship, one he had never thought much about dealing with until now. The possibility of Victoria discovering his secret had always been present, but he'd assumed it would happen far in the future. Though he'd been thinking of little else for more than a day, he found himself severely unprepared now that the time had come.

You can turn me in, you know, he suggested lightly.

Her eyebrows rose in further surprise. Turn you in?

Six thousand pesos is a lot of money. If you received the reward for Zorro's capture, you would be independently wealthy.

She gave a short laugh. What would I do with so much money? The Alcalde would take it all back in taxes and then where would I be? Where would you be? she asked rhetorically, then found herself sobering to answer her own question. You would be dead, and I.... she turned back into her room, her feet quiet on the rug near her bed, I would be wishing for the same if I had to live without.... She stopped again, her back to him, her hands held in fists at her side.

A tense seriousness invaded the air around them as Diego slowly followed her into the room, carefully closing the door behind him. He kept his eyes on her back, watching the way she hung her head, a lock of hair falling over one shoulder. He wondered what it might be like to wrap his arms around her waist and lay his cheek against her neck. But he only stood by the door, his hand still cradled around the latch.

He would have been surprised to discover that Victoria wanted to touch him just as he wanted to hold her. She could feel his eyes on her, and the charge in the air between them. She knew without a doubt that Diego was the man she loved so much. But she didn't know how to change the distance separating them, to break apart the wall she'd built to protect herself from the strange, unwanted emotions she harbored for Diego. They had always been there, present in the shadows of her heart, stomped down and ignored because she believed she loved another man. Now she understood those feelings of love and attraction that had frustrated her so much in the past, but she was at a loss as to how to express them.

Victoria, Diego started slowly, interrupting her thoughts.

Wait. She turned to face him, nervously laughing as she smoothed her hands down her skirt, her gaze wandering from his. Please don't say anything, Diego. I ... I will think about ... about what happened yesterday....

Victoria....

This is all still very surprising, she laughed again. I always knew that you cared for the people of Los Angeles, but I never...it never occurred to me that you might be - She looked up at him, a pucker of disbelief between her eyes. You are really Zorro?

Diego have her a half smile of amusement. I'm afraid I am. He crossed to her, placed his hands on her shoulders. I'm sorry you discovered my secret under such unpleasant circumstances. He sighed and dropped his hands to his sides. You were not to know until I could put Zorro in the past for good.

Calmer now, still trying to understand, she said, Then why didn't Zorro come yesterday? If it's so dangerous for you reveal your identity, why...?

Diego felt his stomach turn, remembering his fear from the day before. When I heard you yell, I reacted without thinking. He waved his hands dismissively. I was so angry I couldn't stop myself. He looked down at her, and his hands returned to touch her shoulders, You stand here so grave and disbelieving, but you're alive, Victoria. His hand moved to smooth her hair back from her face. Even if you choose to hate me or turn me over to the Alcalde, you are still alive. That's what's important, what I want. He stopped, his emotions working across his face as he fought to control them. You are the most important person in my life, Victoria. There would be nothing worth fighting for if you were to die. He closed his eyes against her and turned away, staring hard at the wall until he regained the control he'd lost. I'm sorry, Victoria. I shouldn't be saying these things to you. You need rest now, not unwanted revelations.

Victoria watched his back muscles move under the white shirt he always wore, the agitation he was feeling clear in his rigid stance. She felt sad for him, much more than for herself. She wanted so badly to reach out for him, to wipe away the pain she'd seen in his eyes. She hesitated, then laid her palm flat against his warm shoulder. He stiffened under her touch, losing his control again, choking on his words. Do you know what it's like, Victoria, to wait a lifetime to find the perfect love, to be near her every day, and not be able to express your true feelings? His voice lowered with the pain he felt. To be so close every day, only to hide behind a mask when I wanted ... more than a conversation. He waved a fist in the air in frustration. Suddenly he relaxed and hung his head, defeated. I'm sorry again, Victoria. I'll go now and.... He left his thoughts hanging as he turned to the door, one hand reaching for the handle.

Wait.

He paused, and in a sad voice, said, You don't have to say anything, Victoria. I will leave you alone now.

Diego, please wait.

The pleading tone in her voice kept him from opening the door. He turned, a stony expression concealing the raw emotions roiling under his calm surface.

She smiled a little smile. Perhaps you should stay until you've heard - She stopped to draw a breath, her heart beating fast in time with her racing thoughts. I know my feelings for Zorro are not a secret.

Victoria, I understand, Diego said patiently and he continued with resignation. I know that you love Zorro and not Diego de la Vega. Then he looked at her, and some of the depression he felt seeped through the stone of his face. He gave a short, ironic laugh. In all the years I've played Zorro, rejection has been one of my greatest fears.

Diego, don't say that! She put a hand to her forehead, brushing the forgotten bruise. The pain inflicted the day before mixed with the ache she felt in her heart each time she looked at him. She knew with a certainty she'd never experienced before that she loved Diego, and she was hurting him by remaining silent. But she didn't think he would believe her if she told him the truth now. Yet they would both lose so much if she didn't try.

All this time I thought I was in love with two different men, she commented quietly, casually.

His eyes lost their pained expression. What? he asked.

She clasped her hands together and thoughtfully rested her chin on the crossed fingers. Diego, you are my friend. I have always had...I don't know, special feelings for you. I always felt you understood me better than most men. She snorted softly through her nose. Most men are intimidated by the fact that I am a business woman and don't need their support. But you are... she sighed, different. I can talk to you about anything, Diego.

Diego interrupted, I know what you're trying to say, Victoria...

I'm not finished! Please let me talk before I run out of courage. Diego, she hurried forward, somewhere, someday the friendship I felt for you changed...I...I can't explain it.

Suddenly I found that I had the same feelings for two men. She had to pause to order her galloping thoughts. I didn't want to accept that, so I concentrated on loving Zorro and forced ... forced down the same feelings I had for you. Victoria moved forward to lay a trembling hand on his white sleeve. I don't blame you if you don't believe me - I only realized it myself yesterday. I'm still a little confused. She laughed shakily. You're such a good man, Diego, always thinking of others. And you've given up so much. She looked down, unable to go on.

Diego closed his eyes for a brief moment to shut out the rush of tingling emotion that rolled over him. Had he heard her correctly? Or was he dreaming, creating a beautiful fantasy around this woman who held his heart so delicately in her hands? To find the truth meant to risk everything and the fear he felt at that thought constricted his chest, making it difficult to breath. But still he needed to find that truth. He swallowed hard, a lump tight in his throat, and he dared to brush his hand across her shoulder along the line of her collar bone to the soft skin of her neck. When he felt her look up at him, he opened his eyes and gave a long, peaceful sigh. When he spoke, his voice was a whisper. I think there have been a lot of sacrifices made for the sake of Zorro. He stepped closer to her and slowly kissed her fingertips with his lips. You are one sacrifice I no longer want to make.

A surge of warmth spread suddenly through Victoria's entire body, reaching her toes, her fingers, the very top of her head. She felt every nerve jump at Diego's soft touch and she reached out her own hand to caress his smooth cheek with the back of her fingers. She lifted her face to his, her hand holding his cheek, and pulled him down until her lips met his.

It was as if they had never kissed before. She could feel him shaking as he accepted her embrace, their lips barely touching in that first cautious, unmasked kiss. Another burst of glorious warmth erupted in the pit of her stomach, hurrying to attack her tight muscles, relaxing them in seconds even as Diego drew back from her, his breathing deep and uncontrolled.

He looked at her gently, his eyes holding the amazement he felt at what they had just discovered in each other. He pulled her closer, his lips softly kissing her hair, then her temple, and across her forehead. Delight at touching her sweetened each kiss as he caressed her face with his lips, moving down her cheek to the sensitive skin on her neck and back up her chin until he found her lips again. She sighed in loving, passionate abandonment and leaned into him, communicating her feelings of love and passion through a kiss of tender magic that created feelings she never knew existed.

Now that she had touched him at last, she wanted more. She had never felt like this before in her entire life, not even during the brief romantic interludes with Zorro. This was her friend Diego, and she felt like she'd hardly been aware of him before this moment. Now she felt alive and in love. And it was a wonderful feeling.

Diego held Victoria tightly in his arms, his large hand methodically stroking up and down her back, his head cradled on top of hers. He smiled contentedly to himself, thinking of his despair only the day before. This was what he had wanted so desperately and through some miracle, he had won his heart's desire.

I love you, Victoria, he whispered against her hair.

They stood, lost in each others arms, each knowing that this was exactly where they always wanted to be.


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