Note: This story is extremely long, even by my standards, novella length. It also needs a lot of work, work that I'm not willing to give it at this time - I'd rather write something new. So, some of it may not make much sense, but the rest is very... well, 'interesting' comes to mind. So keep this warning in mind while you read. Oh, this is also the sequel to Lost.

Lost Again

by Linda Bindner

The dimness of the tavern was welcome after the bright sunshine beating down on the central plaza of Los Angeles. The coolness of the room was equally as welcome as Diego and Alejandro de la Vega sauntered in and stood near the front doors. Their eyes slowly adjusted to the darker light. When they could see again, Alejandro turned once to Diego, said something under his breath, and Diego motioned towards a table beyond one full of reclining, laughing caballeros right next to the bar and the open door. They started forward, but were stopped by the group of men currently laughing raucously at some comment or joke and making enough noise to raise the dead. One of them halted his own fit of hilarity long enough to say in greeting, Don Alejandro, Don Diego, what brings you to town on such a warm day?

Lunch, Alejandro answered with an easy smile. We wanted to eat before we have to return home and get ready to take a group of cattle to Santa Paula for sale tomorrow.

Sell cattle? asked Don Miguel de Hernandez in reply, grimacing at the unwelcome task of being forced to leave the area only to sell cattle. It must be that time of year again.

Alejandro answered, I'm afraid so. But if you'll excuse us, we need to eat if we're to be ready to leave by tomorrow morning.

Eat? Don Miguel's grimace deepened as the other caballeros sitting at the table grew silent in order to listen. You have my sincere apologies, amigos.

Diego's face remained pleasant and unruffled, but his insides turned to ice at the words from his father's friend. Why? Is something wrong?

Don Emilio Martinez broke into the conversation then. Wrong? he piped up from his place beside Don Miguel. He took a quick drink from his glass of wine before answering. No, nothing's wrong that we know of, not precisely...

Diego's pleasant expression dropped to a scowl as he was forced to allow more of his true emotions to show through his public demeanor. At the same time, his chilled insides plunged to his toes, but it was far too dangerous to allow that feeling to seep onto his face. Had something happened in town that he hadn't yet heard about, something that had occurred since he left the night before, crawling through Victoria's window with a promise to see her today? Now that the moment had arrived when he would walk into her tavern and get to see her for the first time after the highly delightful activities of the previous day, he felt worried instead of ecstatic, as he had expected to feel on this day. Has something happened? Diego cautiously asked.

The men seated at the table broke into a general chuckle at his innocent question. They all glanced at each other until Don Emilio finally decided to reply, No nothing's happened, at least, nothing more untoward than a temper fit from Seņorita Escalante.

This surprised Diego. When he had crept through her window, Victoria had been too glowing, too emotionally drained, though fully content, to be angry about anything. She's angry? What about?

Again the men erupted into spluttered laughter. Finally, Don Emilio finished what he'd started and glanced at his companions before saying, We don't know the specifics, but I would walk on tiptoes for awhile if I was you, Don Diego.

That statement amazed Diego even further. Me? You mean she's angry at me?

The splutter of laughter erupted again from the men sitting around the table. They shouldered Don Emilio, who more judiciously replied, As I said, I don't know the specifics, but you know how women can be; she's been slamming bottles and sending glares to every table all morning, muttering your name under her breath the entire time. I'd be careful of your friend if I was you.

Alejandro turned his head to look at his astonished son. He sighed a bit sadly through the smile of grudging amusement on his face. If only his son could be more to the pretty seņorita than a friend, as Don Emilio was suggesting... But he gave his head a shake to rid himself of the ridiculous thought and asked, All right, what did you do this time, Diego?

Diego fought with the emotional upheaval he was feeling for a second. Had he done something yesterday that might have upset her? Well, besides the obvious? Diego smiled blandly at the men sitting around the table. I haven't done anything, Father. This must be a big misunderstanding.

Don Emilio laughed, himself, at that casual disclosure. Whatever you say, Don Diego, just be careful, and walk softly.

Diego shrugged at the glance he received from his father. He really had no idea what could be making Victoria so angry so soon after such a day of... such emotional contentment. But he still had to pretend that nothing was on his mind. Even if she knew all about his secret identity, that didn't mean that he wanted everybody in town to know. I'm sure it's nothing. You'll see, everything will be cleared up before you know it. He only wished his insides were as calm as he sounded.

Alejandro bid his friends good day, then motioned Diego on to the empty table his son had chosen earlier. Well, well, well, Diego. It seems that you've fallen into hot water this time.

Diego answered his father's teasing tone. I truly don't remember doing anything wrong, Father. At least, that was the truth!

Well, we'll find out what it is soon enough, Alejandro said as he took a seat on the side of the table facing the kitchen. Here comes Victoria now.

Diego fought against the desire to whip his head around and see her for himself. Instead, he waited the two seconds it took for her to reach his side. He looked up at her with a glance of harmless inquisition plastered on his face. Hola, Victoria. We're...

She interrupted immediately. Slamming the tray she was holding on to the table top, she eyed him critically and said, Don't you play the pleasant friend with me, Diego de la Vega. I have a few words I want to say to you.

The strength of her tirade took Diego by surprise, even though he had been warned about it earlier. Me? he asked again.

Yes, you, she went on through clenched teeth. We can either have it out here, or we can do your little dressing down in privacy in my kitchen. You choose.

Diego sent an uncomprehending look at his father, shrugged once more, then glanced back at Victoria, predictably choosing the place of privacy. The kitchen, I think. Father, if you will excuse us...

But Victoria cut him off. Fine, she muttered. Without another word, she whirled around and marched straight to her kitchen, not even looking behind her to make certain that Diego was following her. More laughter circulated through the main room as the scene unfolded, but Diego ignored the sounds of merriment as he walked in Victoria's wake towards the curtains sectioning off the kitchen part of the tavern.

Hesitantly, he stepped through the curtains and into the familiar room. What has happened to make her to be so angry? he wondered to himself.

Victoria drew back, away from the waving curtains, out of sight of her curious patrons. Diego joined her, and asked, Is something the matter, Victoria?

For a second, nothing happened, then the frown on Victoria's face disappeared, slowly melting into a grin of pure enjoyment as she threw her arms around him in her final surprising move of the day.

Diego's brows drew together in a thundercloud of puzzlement even as he cradled her in a return embrace. I don't understand...

Good, Victoria responded, the noise of her low voice muffled by the shirt her face was currently pressed into. If I can fool you, I can fool anybody. She glanced up at him, then her face really did look angry. You didn't tell me how much fun this could be, she accused.

Then nothing's wrong? he asked himself in confusion. You're not angry?

Victoria swiped at him with the towel she held in her hand. Of course not. That was a ruse, an act, to get you away from prying eyes. I was pretending the entire time. She kissed him lightly on the chest. How did I do?

Diego felt her kiss all the way through the ruffles on his shirt. His emotions still a jumble, but no longer feeling so confused, he said, You did a wonderful job, though in future you might not want to give your subject a choice; too uncontrollable. But even I had no idea what was really going on. He took a chance and kissed her lightly on the lips. When did you learn to act so well?

Victoria smiled. While you were in Spain. We used to have an amateur dramatic group in town. I was part of it. Her dark brows drew down. The fact that we don't have anything of the kind in town now just shows you how much Los Angeles has changed, she said, spelling out the fact that nothing as fun and lighthearted as theatrics was allowed to flourish now in the pueblo, alluding in hidden words to the tyranny the citizens of Los Angeles daily suffered, only her meaning wasn't really so hidden after all due to her sudden scowl.

Diego smiled at her obvious opinion, holding the chuckle he felt at her disclosure inside. He rubbed her arms. Take heart; perhaps theatrics will abound in Los Angeles once again. He kissed her, quickly, then stepped back, putting a distance between them. The sudden coldness left a forlorn expression on Victoria's face. He really did give a low laugh this time, but said, If anybody walks through that curtain, we'll be caught for sure.

Disappointed, but agreeable, Victoria only said, You're right, though I don't like it. She looked at him then, twisting and untwisting the towel she was carrying in her hands. How has he done this for years? she wondered. Though I have to admit that you look mighty good right now.

Encouraged, the first time he'd felt such an emotion since entering the tavern, Diego leaned forward and whispered naughtily, You'd look even better than you do already with a little less... on.

Victoria blushed, but whacked him again with her towel. Oh, hush. You know we don't have the opportunity for that just now.

Diego grumbled, I do know, and too bad for us.

Victoria's smile lit the room at his comment. Maybe I have a suggestion that will ensure such... behavior... in the future.

Unable to completely contain himself at this news, Diego's eyes showed his appreciation. What do you suggest?

Besides trapping you in a compromising situation that forces us to marry..?

That idea, as wonderful as it sounds, won't encourage me to display much emotion when I'm around you, Diego interjected quietly, and leaned back against the counter to cross his arms in a show of nonchalance. One never knew when Sergeant Mendoza or anyone else was likely to poke their head through the curtain, demanding service. A display of apathy would go far in helping maintain his role of disinterested caballero, while crossed arms were sure to keep his hands from wrapping around Victoria's waist in obvious seduction, which is where they itched to be. No, it wouldn't do at all. To distract himself, Diego whispered, What do you mean by a suggestion?

Victoria looked nervously at the curtain. More laughter from the caballeros drifted in. I gave Maria the day off so that I could be sure to be alone with you sometime today... But I find myself short of help now. Why don't we say that you forgot to return a book you borrowed, and I'm asking you to do dishes as penance?

Diego raised his eyebrows, shrugged, and said, That doesn't sound too bad.

All week, she ended.

All week? Diego's voice rose as he exclaimed his question.

It was all I could think of this morning. And besides, you've always said that you wanted to help, Victoria declared intently, her voice still a whisper. Here's your chance. And it will also give us the opportunity to be together without raising any questions.

Then Diego's gaze as well as hers fell on the curtains, and he admitted, You know that nothing pleases me more than to do little errands for you, but... He sighed, then whispered much more agreeably, Where are you keeping the dirty dishes?

Victoria gestured at the stack of dishes sitting precariously on the counter behind him. She looked somewhat apologetic and at the same time didn't look apologetic at all. It was a strange duality that he hadn't seen coming from Victoria before. Of course, their lives had been severely altered on the previous day...

How about if I start after lunch? he asked, still in a low voice. That way, my father won't become suspicious of my sudden absence, and I get to eat. He grinned at her suddenly disapproving look. Hey, after all of yesterday's activities, I'm still hungry.

Makes sense, she agreed, then lowered her brows in puzzlement. But how did you keep your father from being suspicious yesterday?

Diego slowly backed away from her, not being able to predict her reaction to his answer. Remember the note I sent him? She nodded. I said that you and Zorro had experienced a fight and that you wanted to talk. A lot.

Victoria tossed the towel at him. Zorro and I had a..? We did not! But Diego was gone, backed through the curtain.

Alejandro smiled up at his son as Diego sauntered back to join him at the table. Well?

It looks like you'll be going to Santa Paula with Felipe instead of with me; I have a week of dish duty for not returning a book I borrowed, starting today, Diego replied as he took a seat on the plain wooden bench pulled up to the table.

Alejandro looked slightly disappointed that it hadn't been something else. However, he did comment, A week of dish duty seems awfully harsh for not returning a book.

Diego thought fast. Apparently, she wanted to read the book last night and spent all her free time looking for it instead. It was a bald-faced lie; Victoria had spent most of the night, as well as the day, lying in his arms, but he certainly wasn't going to tell his father about that.

Alejandro sighed again. Ah, the mysteries of a woman, was all he said.

Tell me about it; you're not the one being asked to do dishes, Diego grumbled.

Alejandro laughed this time. You do the crime, you do the time, he said, making Diego shiver with how close he had come to the truth. The older don didn't notice.

After another delicious lunch, thanks to Victoria's cooking, Alejandro left the tavern alone, a smile on his face at the thought of his son's afternoon 'business.' Diego headed for the kitchen and his 'penance.'

He knocked politely on the door frame. Seņorita? he called. Victoria?

Her voice drifted through the noise coming from the tavern's main room, though Diego could have picked it out through any interference, he'd had so much practice at recognizing it. Come on in, Diego. You can wash even during siesta, she called, just to make sure everyone could hear and knew what they were doing behind the curtain's cover. In actuality, she threw her arms around him the moment the curtain closed and they were out of sight.

Diego kissed her quickly on the lips.

I don't know how long I can do this, Victoria muttered. I'm going crazy already, and it's only been half a day.

Diego laughed, though he could appreciate her pain. To distract both him and her, he glanced around the tiny room. Where do you keep your wash tub?

Victoria instantly spoke. Oh, I was just pretending; you don't have to wash dishes. I'll do that.

Diego kissed her fingers next. And redden such beautiful hands by asking them to be submerged in hot water? he asked in mock disbelief.

She raised her eyebrows in imitation of him, then pointed to the tub hanging on the wall. It amused him that his mannerisms were rubbing so quickly off on her, but only walked over to lift the metal tub from the wall while she poured water into a large pan and set it on the fire to heat. He filled the tub with more water from the pump in the corner, then carefully carried it to the counter by the stack of dishes.

Diego critically eyed the stack. It was so high that it threatened to topple over to the floor. Is it always like this?

She shrugged. It's usually not this bad, but I don't have any helpers today, she reminded him.

And that was his fault, in a roundabout way. Then I'd better get busy.

Victoria poured the water into the heated water into the metal tub at Diego's side, and gestured at the powdered soap she kept on hand in a chipped green container. Diego added some without complaint, admiring the graceful way she moved about her kitchen as she went on with her interrupted business of preparing something with tomato sauce for the evening meal. He enjoyed the companionable silence as much as he did her conversation, but she broke through the quiet in the room.

Diego, Victoria began hesitantly as he started washing and drying the dishes. I've been thinking...

About what? he inquired somewhat absentmindedly. Most of his attention was on not causing the dirty dishes to fall to the floor. How do you do this every day?

She grinned at him from her place near the fire where she was ladling out hot red sauce into burritos on the chopping block. He paused in his chore long enough to gently tug off the towel she had resting on her shoulder, fold the one he had resting on his shoulder for drying purposes, reach for the pan, lift it from the fire, and set it on the waiting towel next to the burritos.

Oh, thank you, she said. Usually I'm not strong enough to lift a pan from the fire without spilling whatever's cooking in it all over the floor until the pan is half empty. Can I keep you around all the time?

He grinned back at her. Only if I get to do the dishes, he joshed. Then, more seriously, asked, But remember, my question was how do you do this every day?

By thinking of other things, she said, and smiled. That reminds me to tell you of what's been on my mind since you got here.

Affably, he asked, What's that? as he reached for another plate and began cleaning it. When he had a sizable stack of clean, wet, dishes, he stopped to dry them with a new towel he had pulled from a shelf, only to set them in another stack farther down the counter. A kind of sweet, pleasant, pall settled on the two of them while they worked. It was the first time they had ever done anything together besides behave furtively, and Diego thoroughly enjoyed the good feelings that twisted his insides with unspent desire at her close proximity. He carefully washed the dishes, but he also watched her just as openly.

Victoria hesitated, unaware of the expression on Diego's face. Well, you gave me my idea when you made that comment about Zorro and I having a fight.

Diego laughed. You gave me my idea for the note's contents the other night with your remark about fights and 'unforgivable things.'

Victoria grinned again. Well, my idea is this; the next time you come to town as Zorro... She made sure to barely breathe the puff of air she needed to say the name. and I can stage a public... not a fight, but a disagreement... in front of everybody. That will make pealed wonder. In the meantime, you're here as Diego, doing dishes every day...

For a week, he reminded her.

Her grin grew into a genuine smile. For a week, and I get to know you even better in that time, spread a few rumors about us around the pueblo... We reputedly fall in love and voila, nobody will question us if we show affection for each other. What do you think?

Diego halted his dish washing thoughtfully. Well...

You consider it while I go back to the big room for a few minutes. I need to check on my customers. With that new idea hanging in the air, she walked out of the kitchen with a jug of juice in her hand and an even bigger grin on her face.

He knew he shouldn't, but Diego couldn't help watching appreciably as she departed, recalling how she had looked without any clothes on, in bed, and flushed with the heat of passion. He simply couldn't help himself; he smiled as well.

Victoria appeared through the curtains without warning. What are you smiling at?

Diego suddenly found the dishes consuming all of his attention. Nothing, he said, then chastised himself for allowing his mind to wander. He forced it to turn to mulling over Victoria's idea. She grabbed a plate from the clean, dry stack, and began filling it full of chicken enchiladas.

Diego groaned. I just washed that.

The smile on Victoria's face grew. And you'll wash it again. But don't let that get you down. She ladled some of the sauce over the food from the pan sitting on the block in the center of her kitchen, then disappeared once more through the curtains.

Ten minutes passed by before Victoria was able to return to her burritos. The sauce in the pan was much cooler by then.

Diego watched her work and dried dishes in a pensive manner. I could never do that, he declared.

Victoria paused too, ladle in hand. Do what? she asked.

He gestured That. This. Them, and he pointed at the curtains, indicating the tavern's invisible patrons with the gesture. Get interrupted constantly, for hours on end, by people constantly needing things. My experiments would surely explode.

She laughed. Oh, you get used to it after awhile. It's like being a mother, I've heard. She turned towards him. Did you get a chance to think over my idea?

Diego paused. Hands on each side of the tub, he leaned forward. I did.

Victoria noticed, not for the first time, what an extremely handsome man he was. He didn't need the black of Zorro to look appealing. He need only wear a wet, splotchy caballero shirt, and blue trousers. She noticed the skin of his arms where it met his rolled sleeves, and swallowed convulsively. And..?

And I think you've gone loco with the heat to invite such discomfort. Then he slowly smiled at her. And I also know you're worth any amount of discomfort. I'm all for it... poor Zorro, he said, alluding to the planned 'disagreement' they would stage sometime in the near future.

Victoria smiled yet again. Thank you, Diego. She paused on her way out through the curtains as she intended to take care of her customers' needs once more. She turned to him. You know, it might take as long as a week to get used to hearing such personal compliments coming from you. But I can adjust. At that statement, she sent him a saucy grin, then disappeared, letting the red material of the curtains sway with her passing.

The next day, while Diego attended to his 'dish duty,' he recited poetry for her. Maria, Victoria's usual helper, was back at work at the tavern, and a poetry recitation could be as romantic or as innocent as either Diego or Victoria wanted to make it. When they were alone, Diego told her of the more romantic poems he knew, and when Maria was with them, preparing supper, Diego stuck to poems that were more general and innocuous. Maria was completely fooled, and never knew what was really occurring right under her nose.

But Victoria wasn't fooled into thinking that anything besides a gentle, long, afternoon seduction was going on. Diego! she scolded laughingly after the recital of a particularly bold lymeric towards the end of the time relegated to the dishes.

Diego laughed as well. I just read that one last week. I had no idea it would come in so handy so quickly.

She admonished him for the look of mischief in his eyes, for if she could see it, then anyone could, but only said, One of these days, you'll see that you're not as clever as you think.

Diego snorted, then suggested, I can always be distracted by anything you cook, Seņorita. He was careful to always call her 'seņorita,' or 'Seņorita Escalante,' or 'Victoria' when they were in public. It wouldn't be considered polite to be more familiar with her, to call her by a pet name, and one thing he didn't want to do was call too much attention to what was truly going on behind the curtains while dishes were ostensibly being washed.

She smiled and filed that information away for use at another time. I'll have to remember that.

Information about personal lives and personalities weren't the only things on their minds, however. After washing the dishes, and after taking a part in the delectable supper he had watched Victoria prepare an hour before, Diego glanced up at her from the book he was reading that Tuesday evening while sitting at one of her outside tables. She refilled the glass still resting at his elbow as he surreptitiously stared at her out of the corners of his eyes.

He watched as the shirt she was wearing stretched tight over certain parts of her anatomy while she was intent on filling the small glass. He would have thanked her for the small chore, but he no longer trusted his voice. His face grew red, then white, as he waited, very aware of her presence as she stood next to him. She stood so close, he could smell the clean scent he always associated with her skin.

It was all too much for him to take. Because of the seduction disguised as a poetry recital that he had played at that afternoon and that he had been pondering all evening while he 'read,' he swallowed a groan that was audible only to her. A slow fire of passion began burning in the pit of his stomach, to sweep easily over the rest of him until he was fairly consumed with the inner desire, and he wriggled uncomfortably on the tavern's hard wooden bench. He had to do something, something besides giving in to such emotions before he exploded right there, in front of everyone in the plaza. He had to move about, so he whispered, Wait ten minutes, then meet me behind the tavern.

Victoria hesitated with the jug for just a second, gave a discreet nod, barely moving her head, then disappeared through the open front doors. Only a master at detection would have known that anything had been imparted at all. As it was, no one in Los Angeles was a sleuth, amateur or otherwise, and only a wild dog was even looking in their direction, hoping for table scraps from the kitchen when Diego whispered his instructions. He let the air escape his clenched teeth as he hissed out the air the second she disappeared.

Since no one else saw the invitation Diego whispered, no one was surprised or even noticed the fact that not two minutes later, Diego stood, left his glass of juice half full for Victoria or Maria to care for, mounted his horse, Esperanza, and cantered through the pueblo's gates on his way home to the hacienda. But the entire town's citizens would have been buzzing with gossip when he turned the horse around once they were out of sight of the sign bearing the pueblo's name. The citizens would have gossiped even more if they had seen him pull his mount to a stop just behind the tavern, then climb down, only to stand and wait impatiently as he watched the purples and pinks of an early autumn sunset.

Exactly seven minutes later, Victoria arrived through the door in back of her tavern. She nonchalantly pushed the blanket covering the entrance aside, paused while she answered a question coming from an invisible Maria in the kitchen, then dumped a bucket of water after closing the door with a swing and a practiced twist of her wrist. In two heartbeats, she had looked around, saw no one, dropped the bucket when she didn't find anybody obviously noticing them, and wrapped her arms around Diego's waist. With a little sigh of contentment, she said, You wanted to see me?

Diego couldn't help but grin down at her as his own arms responded to her endearment without thought from him. The stirrings of passion in his stomach would not leave him alone, but he pushed the feelings aside for now. No... Well, yes, I do, but actually I have something to show you tonight.

Show me? Victoria's brow wrinkled in bemusement. She glanced around. What could you possibly have to show me? Besides the obvious; you? She grinned impishly up at him, squinting in the evening light. In her mind, she was slowly removing every article of clothing he was wearing, but she couldn't give in to her thoughts while they were still in full view of anybody who happened to wander around the corner of the tavern, including the Alcalde.

Diego grinned at the clear twinkle in her eye. But he ignored the persistent push of his heart to say, Come riding with me, and find out.

You know I'll ride anywhere with you, she said, her eyes giving the promise of a steady flirtation while her voice remained cool and even. Give me a moment to tell Maria to watch the tavern for an hour or so, then you can take me wherever you wish.

The suggestion in her tone wasn't lost on Diego, who smiled like a besotted fool, but would only suggestively kiss her fingers while they stood so near the pueblo. I can't wait, he said in a low voice that only she could hear, but the answering flirtatious expression in his eyes was equally as unmistakable as the look in hers.

As a shiver of excitement traveled down her spine, she reluctantly drew away, entered the kitchen, explained her wish to the agreeable Maria, then found herself pulled onto Esperanza's back before she could take ten breaths. One breath later, Esperanza was galloping away from the pueblo as the darkness quickly grew deeper. She snuggled up close to Diego in the saddle without looking like she was snuggling close while they were still so near the pueblo, in case anybody saw them. Nobody would question her choice to be with Diego, she knew, but it was never a bad time to be careful.

They rode in silence, and only when the pueblo fell from sight behind them did Diego's own arms tighten around her in a definite embrace. Any doubt an observer would have been suffering under about the two would have been settled the instant he began nuzzling Victoria's neck with his face, but nobody witnessed the exchange, as Diego made certain they were not in sight of anything when he made such a move, and the look of complete bliss on Victoria's face was obscured by the speed of the horse.

They arrived at the small swell of a hillside before Victoria had the opportunity to become chilled with the passing stream of air. She glanced around at the desolate place, and her puzzlement grew. This is it? I don't see anything.

You will, promised Diego with a definite double meaning to his words as he lowered his treasure to the ground, then dismounted himself with a recognizable jump. Victoria admonished him again for behaving in so plainly a Zorro-like fashion, but he only grinned. Don't worry, preciosa. We won't get caught way out here. Besides, people are expecting to see you with Zorro, not Diego de la Vega. We're perfectly safe.

If we're so safe, why are you whispering? she asked as he pulled an old blanket from Esperanza's saddlebags and spread it on the ground.

He paused in his task to look her square in the face. But his voice raised a touch as he said, Trust me. Would I ever take my precious one to a place full of danger?

Victoria gave up on her admonishments. Not knowingly. But it's the unknown that has me worried.

The blanket spread out to keep the dew of the evening from wetting their clothes, Diego held out his hand to her. The unknown is what we're interested in tonight. How did you know?

She smiled as she took his outstretched hand. Call it woman's intuition if you want. He pulled her down to a sitting position on the blanket. She went on, It only makes sense that this is all about something scientific. Remember, I know you for who you are while you're in the pueblo, too. Or is that a disguise as well? For a moment she felt the discomfort of not knowing where the deception ended and reality took over.

He drew them into a reclining position as he said, No, I'm not pretending about liking science while I'm in town, or ever, for that matter. He lay on his back with her head pillowed on his outstretched arm. I have never pretended while I was in town. He glanced at her questioning features. Never.

A quiet moment passed as she examined his eyes, knowing that he was speaking of his time spent as Zorro as well as that spent as Diego. She said nothing, only studied his eyes, looking for the truth. His gaze was gently held by hers. Finally, she said, I believe you.

It's important that you understand me when I say that, Victoria. I love you, and only you. He gazed at her with such adoration and intense longing in his eyes that she blushed to see so much emotion coming from him at one time. He gently touched her cheek in a tender caress. I could never love any other person the way I love you.

Another moment went by. She broke it when she imparted, I do believe you, and I love you, too. She let a second moment pass by in silence before bringing them face to face with reality by throwing off her cautious mood, blinking, and saying in a businesslike manner, Now, what did you want to show me?

I wanted to show you the stars, he said, without taking his gaze from her, refusing to let his mood become altered so easily. But I find that I would much rather stare at you than some imperfect pinpricks of light in the sky.

Again, Victoria studied his concentrated look. She rolled from her back onto her side so that she could have an unimpeded view of his face. He matched her position. When he didn't glance away, she threw aside the rest of her uneasiness with the situation that was holding her back and leaned into his muscular frame to kiss him with all the pent up longing of two days worth of being in his presence, but not being allowed to touch him.

Diego responded to the rush of his desires. He tenderly caressed her shoulder with fingers suddenly tingling each time they passed across her soft skin, then wrapped his arms around her, breathed her in, and reveled in the scent that had been maddeningly tickling his nose for several days. A stray thought that his father, as well as many others, would be astonished at such unchivalrous behavior coming from a notoriously polite caballero entered his mind. But Victoria settled more firmly against his chest, he kissed the soft, silky skin along her throat, and then he didn't think about anything at all.

Giving no indication about why he was arriving home so late at night, Diego quietly entered his father's hacienda through the front doors. He would have snuck through the house and gone to bed with equal quiet, except that Don Alejandro was waiting up for him in the library.

The older man rose and endeavored to keep the irritation that he was still feeling from creeping in to his voice as he said, Where have you been all night, Diego?

Diego jumped, but was glad that he and Victoria had both taken the time to straighten their mussed clothing after their... session... learning the names of a few convenient planets. He decided that truth in answering his father's question was the best way to ward off suspicion. Uh, I was with Victoria, Father, showing her the location of several stars.

Alejandro scowled. With Victoria?

That's right, Father.

A sigh greeted this confirmation. I wish you had been at home for supper this evening, Diego, though it's probably a good thing you weren't. I was in no fit mood to be good company tonight.

Diego's features instantly schooled themselves into showing his genuine concern as he asked, Why? What happened?

Alejandro's hand waved ineffectually through the air separating them. Oh, I just wanted to complain tonight, Diego. It's about Emilio, but it's not important now, he said dismissively.

Diego's concern went up a notch. Emilio? Your favorite horse of the moment? What about him?

Alejandro secured his hands to his hips in irritation again. It's official, I think.

What is?

Emilio. I did everything I could for him, even drove all the way to town just to buy him special grain because I thought his fits were part of his diet...

Diego's anxiety was now really heightened. He knew what an excellent horseman his father was, and if anybody would know a good horse like Emilio from a common cart horse, it was his father. His fits?

Alejandro's hand rose to rub at his hairline. Yes, his fits. I've been riding him for weeks, and he keeps trying to throw me off.

This news alarmed Diego. Has he succeeded?

No. No, of course not. Alejandro was suddenly attuned to the worry he was causing his son. There's no need to be uneasy, Diego. Then he went on, But I've done everything I can think of, given the circumstances. There's only one thing I can do now, I think.

What's that?

Alejandro looked up at Diego, as if he was secretly judging his son for something. I can deed him to you, see if you can do anything with him. I'm certainly at the end of my rope.

It wasn't difficult for Diego to act surprised. You're deeding your pride and joy to me?

Alejandro's smile was a bit sad as he said, I know how you are with horses; I've watched you before. Maybe you can create whatever miracle Emilio needs. I don't know. Alejandro sadly shook his head. Whatever you can do for him is more than I've done, apparently, or I think we'll have to sell him to get such a poor influence off the ranch.

Sell him? You can't sell him! Diego exclaimed.

Alejandro glanced wisely at his son. We'll see. In the meantime, he's yours, to do with as you see fit. He held out a tiny piece of parchment that Diego took with an uncomprehending frown. Create that miracle, Diego, or it's the end of Emilio, I'm afraid. And you know how I can't bear to see him sold, Diego, he ended quietly.

Diego hated to see that look of defeat in his father's eyes. Don't picture him in the harness of a wagon just yet, Father. I'll work with him and think of something, he promised.

But even as Diego grasped the slip of paper deeding Emilio over to him, he wondered what more he could possibly do for the newest, best horse in the de la Vega stables. It would take a miracle to save Emilio from the sale block, indeed.

Though his thoughts had been admittedly filled with Emilio's plight the entire night, Diego still remembered on the following day to bring the book for Victoria that he thought she might enjoy. Considering the reason behind the 'dish duty' he was currently embroiled in, she laughed as she took the book from his outstretched hand, setting it on the bar in the main room, in front of half the pueblo's citizens' prying eyes, just to make certain that she wouldn't forget to remove it to her room at a later time. The gift of the loan, while friendly and fairly innocent, did have overtures of being something more. The gesture didn't remain unnoticed by anyone in the tavern, and the rumors of secret emotions between the tavern owner and the quiet, unassuming, scholarly Diego de la Vega, began circulating around the tiny town. Diego overheard such rumors as he sat on the tavern's porch with his father and Felipe for lunch, but he did nothing to set the minds of the citizens straight.

The next day, Thursday, they discussed the more inane topic of horses while Diego washed dishes and cutlery in the kitchen. Emilio, still a puzzle that intrigued the young don enough for him to mention his new acquisition to Victoria and the reason for that acquisition, was yet the quandary that he had always been. That discussion led Victoria to pausing in her mad rush to fill her patrons' lunch orders. Standing by the curtain on her way out to the main room yet again, she asked Diego, Is it true that some horses are meant to be female mounts while some are destined for men? She didn't mention that he handled the high-strung Toronado with notorious ease every time he entered the pueblo, and she had no doubt that he could take care of the problem that was currently disturbing Emilio without any trouble.

Diego considered her question as he washed what seemed like his thousandth glass that week. Some experts would disagree with me, but I've always found that some mounts respond better to one gender or the other. It's fairly rare, but it does happen every now and then.

Victoria cradled the jug of water that she held in her hands. I've always wondered about that. She wiped at a smear of liquid on the side of the jug, still thinking. That must be why Zorro has always been seen riding a stallion, she commented, with a sly glance at a working Maria.

Diego smiled at her reference to his alter ego, but said just as slyly, Perhaps it's Zorro who prefers stallions.

Do you think so? asked Victoria as she paused near the curtains.

Oh, I definitely think so. Diego took a chance and winked quickly at her from behind the mound of dishes, glasses, and silverware that he had washed that afternoon. The action was caught by Victoria, and ignored by Maria. Things couldn't have gone better for that entire day if he had planned the exchange himself. Victoria smiled, too, softly, before she escaped the kitchen through the curtains hanging over the doorway.

Without further comment, Diego let her go. A new and intriguing idea had suddenly entered his mind, and he gave it the full benefit of all his thinking power as he continued to wash dishes.

Despite his good luck in the contemplation of new things to try with Emilio, little of the rest of the day went according to any design of Diego's, however. He was resting after his second meal that evening that had been prepared in his love's tavern, sitting at a table and contentedly reading a book when the sound of Victoria's angry voice rose above the general din in the main room of the tavern. Diego looked up in surprise. The last time he had checked on Victoria, his eyes scanning across the room to stop on her and stare at her figure more openly than he ever had before, had been only a moment prior to her angry exclamation. Things had seemed calm at the time. But now, the situation was very different.

A clearly drunk and disgruntled Don Roberto de la Sancho stood at the bar, and he was currently and very clearly leering angrily at Victoria as his fingers gripped her upper arm in a lock so tight that it was cutting off the blood supply to her whitened shoulder. According to the murderous look on Victoria's face, she was not amused at this caballero's impolite behavior.

Victoria pulled vainly at his grip with her hand. I said that you had had enough, and I meant it, Don Roberto! Now I want you out of my tavern and I want you out now! She tossed her head in a fit of temper that Diego secretly loved to watch.

But Diego wasn't enjoying such a display at the moment as his blood boiled at the sight of the inebriated man's grip. He watched it tighten even farther from where he sat near the bar.

Don Roberto leaned forward, a lopsided smile on his lips as breath that reeked of alcohol washed across Victoria's face. And I demanded more whiskey, Seņorita, and I always get what I want, comprende?

Victoria pulled at his grip and spoke through her clenched teeth. You're nothing but a lousy drunk, Don Roberto. You've been in her every day this week; go nurse the hangover you're sure to get somewhere else.

At her words, he went pale and yanked her close. Then his free hand easily slapped her across one cheek. I don't think I'll be going anywhere. Now, you sorry excuse for a barmaid, get moving and bring me a bottle of whiskey.

Just as unexpectedly, Diego stood next to Victoria. His hand darted out of nowhere, and he grabbed the caballero's arm with a clasp of steel. Like Victoria, he did not appear amused. With a glare, he said, That is no way to treat a lady, Seņor. I suggest you think about the proper behavior we've all been taught while you take that hangover you're going to get and leave this establishment, just as Victoria requested. Then he effortlessly spun the inebriated man around to throw him off balance, and ushered him towards the door and across the plaza, straight to the Alcalde's office, where it was assumed that he requested the man to be jailed while he sobered up. It was never known if Diego pressed assault charges on the seņorita's behalf, but he certainly was seen leaving the Alcalde's office and striding back to the tavern, looking like a furious, avenging angel the entire time as his boots struck the dirt in thumps of anger that even the staring citizens could hear. Everybody watched in stunned silence. Diego had never acted so... manly... before, or on Seņorita Victoria's behalf.

Diego re-entered the tavern, completely unharmed, and ascertained Victoria's well-being in front of everyone currently in the tavern for supper. Are you all right?

Victoria stared at him with wide eyes and an ashen face, though the place on her right cheek where she'd been slapped glared an angry red. She could only nod to answer his question, too terrified that his secret identity might be discovered to reply vocally. When he sat down again at his table as if nothing untoward had happened, she let out the breath that she had been holding, and, her face still white, slowly retreated to her kitchen.

A moment later, Diego left amid almost complete silence. The second he slipped through the doors, the talk began, centering around what had just transpired, as well as the Alcalde's new decree that the lancers would now be given preferential treatment anywhere they went in the pueblo, including the tavern, in thanks for their work in Los Angeles for bringing down bandits, as the lancers officially did public service and no one could argue that the tavern was one of the few public gathering places in town. The 'treatment' should, by all rights, extend to the building owned by Seņorita Escalante.

Only running a close second as the favorite topic of discussion was what Diego had done for the tavern owner that evening. It was accepted as common knowledge that the seņorita 'belonged' to Zorro, and no one had dared dispute that claim until now. It had taken the surprising behavior of the confirmed scholar, Diego de la Vega, to shake that belief. However, shake it he did. The gossip fairly flew as, not an hour later, DeSoto and Sergeant Mendoza sauntered in to the tavern for a late meal.

There was what had to be termed a satisfied sneer marring the pristine good looks of the Alcalde's features as he approached Victoria, who stood next to the bar, polishing glasses in a rare moment of free time. DeSoto rudely grabbed the seņorita's chin and lifted her cheek to the candlelight for a better look at the red mark Don Roberto's slap had left behind.

The Alcalde narrowed his eyes. You seem to be under the weather tonight, Seņorita, he said. It was clear that he was enjoying the discomfort of someone who was a reputed to be the chosen one of his main enemy. Behind him, Mendoza appeared apologetic at his superior's behavior.

Victoria jerked her head until her chin tore out of the Alcalde's hand. She slapped her towel down on the countertop of her bar. I'm not 'under the weather,' Alcalde. You know very well the the drunk currently sitting in your jail is the one who 'gave' this red mark to me. And where were you when he carried out his assault? Filing your papers detailing the times Zorro humiliated you? It wasn't a wise thing to say, but worry over the way Diego had rather publicly jumped to her defense, quite possibly to his secret's detriment, left her with a shorter fuse on her temper than she normally had. I'm not in the mood for your games tonight, she said. Order your food and leave.

It was also a series of statements that piqued DeSoto's equally as volatile temper. Nothing got his anger stirred faster than a solid questioning of his authority. He leaned in close to Victoria, much as Don Roberto had done earlier that night, and warned, I'd be very careful of who you tease, Seņorita, or someone might misconstrue that teasing for the threats your comments really are.

Suddenly, a voice drifted down to the crowd from above. Now we know where Don Roberto gets his deplorable manners - he's been taking lessons from you. Zorro jumped from the edge of the balcony and landed next to Victoria with the easy grace of the animal he was named for. The look he gave the Alcalde could have scalded meat, it was so fierce.

The Alcalde reached for his sword. Ha! Come to defend your girlfriend? he retorted.

Among other things, the bandit replied and drew his sword just in time to hold it up and block a particularly vicious swing from striking Victoria. The lunge embedded itself into her bar, instead.

Angry at all the poor behavior she'd had to put up with in one night, Victoria screeched, Not in here! She instinctively backed away.

Zorro didn't glance at her, not allowing himself to become distracted by such a distressful exclamation. He said to DeSoto, I've come to protest your new edict about the treatment of the lancers, Alcalde. He blocked a second strike of DeSoto's. The good people of Los Angeles will treat the governmental army as they see fit.

DeSoto was incensed at the way the other man delivered his words with such scorn. He attacked with his sword again. Those men would do anything to protect the people.

I'd like to see that, Zorro responded, warding off the next unheralded assault.

That statement further angered the already angry Alcalde. The lancers deserve the respect from these people!

Not for doing their sworn duty! answered Zorro with yet a fourth block with his sword. The two were now moving so fast, with their strikes and counterattacks, that their swords were nothing but blurs cutting through the air. They overturned an empty table, breaking the glassware that remained on top of the scarred surface, then continued with their battle.

Victoria, who was the forgotten reason behind this altercation, ducked beside the bar, looking for safety from the flying debris. Only Mendoza saw her crouching form and tried to give what comfort he could as her tavern was practically destroyed around her by two men bent on annihilating each other.

A bottle flew through the air and smashed on the floor as DeSoto threw it in Zorro's general direction.

You will repeal such a ridiculous edict, Zorro threatened, then stepped out of the way as another bottle the Alcalde threw at him somersaulted through the air. It careened into a wall before falling to the floor.

I'd rather rot first! DeSoto declared over the heads of the watching crowd.

Zorro caught a third bottle that went sailing towards him. That can be arranged, he said softly, then tossed the bottle back towards his opponent, where it struck the man on the temple before it hit the floor, shattering into a million shards of glass as the wine inside oozed across the tile. DeSoto slumped, unconscious, to the ground, where he lay among the wine in an undignified heap.

Silence sounded loudly in the room like a lion's roar for a second as Zorro breathed easily even after the altercation he had just caused. Then Victoria wailed, My tavern!

The onlookers' eyes were drawn to the destroyed room at Victoria's startled cry, and they all had to agree that the section by the bar had seen better days: wine dribbled down from the green countertop even as they gazed at the broken tables and glass that littered the floor.

Remembering the public 'disagreement' that she was supposed to have with Zorro, Victoria found that it was not hard to feign angry emotions when he said, I apologize for the mess, Seņorita.

Even in the tension of exhibiting the plan that she and Diego had devised, Victoria noticed that Zorro made no mention of making reparations for the damage that he, in part, had incurred, and she lashed out with so much emotion that it surprised even her. Just how am I supposed to pay for all this?

Humor had always worked to alleviate a strained situation, Zorro had found, so he indicated the mess with a wave of his hand and joked, Why don't you charge a new 'fee' to pay for the cleanup? The Alcalde will surely understand that.

But Victoria was not in the mood for humor, even from him. Oh, ha, ha, very funny! she said sarcastically, and even Zorro jumped backwards at the scathing tone of her voice. But she was assessing the mess in her tavern and missed the expression of surprise that crossed his masked face.

Zorro reached out a comforting hand for her, but she was bending away from him to examine the plight of her furniture, and he missed. I'm truly sorry, Victoria. I'll pay for the damages, naturally.

She whipped around to face him. That could take months! What am I supposed to do in the meantime? It was the harshest tone many of the citizens had ever heard her employ with the masked man, and they jumped again.

Zorro stuttered, sounding like he didn't know quite what to say. Victoria, I...

But she interrupted him with a growl as she held aloft what was left of a bottle of rare wine that Don Roberto had drunk from earlier in the evening.

The remains of the bottle reminded him of the attack that had occurred just that evening. That reminds me, I heard rumors of some unpleasantness that...

She interrupted him again. Yes, what you heard is true, and I'm standing here thanks to Diego de la Vega, she shot at him. It was also the first time she had mentioned another's name in his presence in anything resembling a grateful light. It was he who rescued me from what had been some very unwanted attention.

Zorro continued, I would have liked...

Victoria leaped up with the energy of a wronged woman. Is that so? I bet you would have liked to help in that incident, too. Only you weren't here. And then she finished her accusations with a quieter but no less forceful, You never are.

Zorro's eyes widened, though he gave no other indication that her words affected him in a negative fashion. This is clearly not the correct evening to discuss this situation, Seņorita. I'll be going. And he disappeared through her kitchen curtains without another word. A faint whistle told the stunned observers in the tavern that he had called for Toronado and really was fleeing the scene.

Victoria sighed, then dumped the remaining liquid in the water pitcher she had set on the bar that night right on the form of the unconscious Alcalde, and the man spluttered back to life as she regarded him. She didn't say anything, just shook her head, making her curls dance on her shoulders. With another growl, she strode through her curtains to retrieve a broom and dustpan.

Shaking his head to clear it and make his hair dance much like Victoria's had just done, the Alcalde dripped and scowled and said, Mendoza, I want the lancers to capture that masked menace if it's the last thing they do. And I want the seņorita's relationship with that... man... to be as bumpy as we can make it. I would get great pleasure at seeing them out of sorts with each other. He rubbed his temple with a finger as he contemplated his new plans.

Mendoza answered while he assisted his superior to his feet, That won't be too hard, considering the mood Seņorita Escalante is in tonight.

DeSoto looked at him in confusion. What do you mean?

Mendoza shivered. I mean, I've never seen the Seņorita speak like that to Zorro, with such...anger... in her voice. And Mendoza, like the other patrons of the tavern, wondered if Victoria's feelings towards Zorro were quite so steadfast, especially considering the fight between the two that Don Alejandro had reported on Monday, and Diego's obvious rescue of the lady just that evening. Now this new 'disagreement' had happened.

The pueblo's hero and his lady had exchanged unfriendly words twice in one week, and another man had come to the same lady's aid. What did it mean? News of the possible trouble in paradise as well as the guileless concern of a certain caballero was enough to make rumors about the three people fly around the tiny pueblo, which was exactly what Victoria and Diego secretly wanted.

Friday morning found Diego up and around the hacienda at an earlier hour than he'd enjoyed in a long time. For a change, his adventures as Zorro had taken place at a fairly early hour of the prior night, and he had reveled a sound sleep for the adventure's aftermath. The 'disagreement' with Victoria may have the pueblo's citizens reeling, but it had all gone according to plans for Diego. The entire evening's events made him smile in contentment.

Now, he stood hesitantly at the door to the hacienda's kitchen, staring at LaRosa, the de la Vega cook, clearly considering something as he remained quietly in the same position. The woman who had prepared his meals for the past twelve years, ever since her mother had died and left the post to her daughter, smiled indulgently. What's on your mind, Don Diego? she asked quietly.

Her voice snaking through the room seemed to bring the young don out of whatever reverie had ensnared him. He jumped at the sound of her words, then stared at her in shrewd thought. Eventually, he asked, I was wondering, how far does your devotion to this family extend?

It was a strange question, but LaRosa was used to hearing strange questions come from her young patrķn's lips all the time. Why, my loyalty has never been questioned before, she assured.

Diego smiled and relaxed against the door frame. I'm not questioning your loyalty, LaRosa.

She squinted at him. Then what are you questioning?

Diego seemed to wilt under the power of her stare. Of all the servants in the de le Vega hacienda, only LaRosa had ever managed to intimidate her charge. Diego had always suspected that it was because she could give him prison rations if she ever thought he needed correction, but now she just smiled in encouragement. His shrewd look returned. I wonder if you can do something for me, he invited. You can always say 'no' once you hear it, he was quick to point out, though his request had been mysterious and vague.

LaRosa smiled more sincerely, completely unconcerned with the vagueness of the request. You know that I trust you implicitly, Don Diego.

Now it was Diego's turn to smile.

What do you want me to do? she inquired.

I want you to test a new theory that I have concerning Emilio.

Your father's horse?

My horse, Diego corrected her. Father gave Emilio to me just the other night.

LaRosa knew of Don Alejandro's affections for the animal, and she exclaimed, Why, Don Diego, nothing could surprise me more!

Diego grunted, then was forced to spend the next few minutes explaining the story to LaRosa before he could tell her about his new idea. Anyway, it's my theory that Emilio simply prefers a female rider to a male, and that he will be as quiet as a well-trained kitten with you on his back. However, I could be wrong and Emilio may attempt to throw you the second you get it the saddle. I've been wrong before. However, I have no wish for you to get hurt, so I'm a bit hesitant to ask for your help.

Yet, despite his words, she was already dusting off the flour that marked her position in the household as a cook and walked to the back door. We'll never know unless we try, she said simply and in answer to his request. Are you coming?

Diego grinned and followed her out into the California sunshine.

While Diego collected Emilio, LaRosa gathered up a saddle and bridle for the horse from the tack room adjacent to the long line of boxlike stalls that the de la Vegas had kept their horses in for generations. She met him at the outside corral gate, where he took the tack from her while a group of vaqueros watched in respectful interest. Diego saddled and bridled Emilio, and LaRosa cautiously approached the horse. She had heard too many stories of the animal to want to get kicked now. But he stood docily beside Diego as his new rider approached.

Don't do anything impressive, cautioned Diego in a quiet voice. This is no time to be fancy.

I wouldn't think of it, LaRosa answered. Nervously, she took the reins from him, then mounted swiftly, reminding herself that she had been riding horses since she could walk.

Emilio quivered once, a shaking that traveled from his head to his tail. Then he relaxed, seeming to get used to the feel of having such a light weight on his back as she asked him with a click of her tongue to move forward. Without hesitation, Emilio responded by sidling up beside Diego standing at the fence.

Good, Diego said softly, looking restrained, though his smile showed his enthusiasm for this new project. Now, pull him into a circle.

LaRosa did as he requested. Emilio once again responded with ease.

The other way. Emilio responded instantly. Back him, was Diego's next command.

They went backwards as far as the fence. Bring him forward. She did. Dismount. She did that, too.

Diego smiled. It was a positive response to his theory, but it didn't really prove anything. He had LaRosa mount and dismount several more times, and each time Emilio waited patiently while she settled into the saddle. To further the test, he had LaRosa back away and one of the watching vaqueros mount the horse.

Emilio immediately bucked as he made his way around the edge of the corral. An instant later, the vaquero left the saddle, flew for several feet in the air, and landed in the dust. Emilio stood by, quivering, as the vaquero slowly climbed to his feet. Not the horseman my father is, Diego thought to himself, then instructed another man to mount, with the same results.

Next, he asked LaRosa to steal into the hacienda and bring one of the female servants back with her, one who had little experience with horses. The two soon appeared, and the servant, named Consuela, mounted. Emilio was so gentle, that it was amazing he was the same horse who had thrown the vaqueros only moments before.

Diego sent LaRosa in for another female servant, and while they waited, ordered another male vaquero who had been watching to mount the animal. A minute later, after the man had been thrown into the air, Diego had the servant girl mount, but he was fairly certain that he could identify Emilio's problem by then.

Emilio behaved admirably with this female as well, and an hour later, every woman on the property had ridden Emilio. The male vaqueros had learned their lesson and refused to volunteer as mounted test subjects after the third one of their number was thrown. They watched, admiring, as Diego led the lathered horse to the stables to be brushed and cleaned and left shining and pretty. The animal allowed Diego's touch, even seemed to like it, but refused to stand still when Diego acted as if he planned to mount. There was little doubt in Diego's mind then; Emilio preferred a female rider, just as Victoria had wondered about the day before. He waited impatiently for the hours to crawl by so he could tell Victoria that once again, she had been right in her curiosity. Considering the 'disagreement' the two had undergone the night before and the condition he had left her tavern in, it was the least he could do to make amends.

That phrase stuck in Diego's mind as he re-entered the hacienda prior to his trip to town for lunch. His father was waiting for him in the library, even as the spark of a new idea lit in his bright mind.

Diego played with the concept he'd thought of while his father just smiled and shook his head.

I never would have figured that out so quickly, Alejandro remarked proudly.

Diego smiled at the tone in his father's voice. It was Victoria's question about horses with gender preferences that really got me thinking, he replied casually, not wanting his father to show too much pride.

But there was no way to shut down Alejandro once he truly got started. Still, knowing how Diego responded best to a small amount of praise, he only clapped his son on his shoulder and said, Well done. I knew that giving him to you would be the right thing to do.

Diego grinned. Thank you, Father. But don't speak too quickly; I'd like to give him away now that we know he's a female's horse. After all, and he laughed, what good would he be in a house full of men?

That suggestion surprised Alejandro. Give him away? To who?

To whom, Diego automatically corrected.

Alejandro rolled his eyes in irritation with the son of whom he had so recently been proud of.

Diego chuckled. That didn't take long.

To whom? Alejandro asked.

Quietly, Diego turned in the direction of his room in order to get ready to ride to town. To Victoria, he answered.

Alejandro was so stunned at this announcement that he was speechless as he stood, rooted to the floor. A gift of a horse could only be construed as a present from a very serious suitor. But... Diego and Victoria?

Later that day, Diego rode Esperanza, as usual, but led Emilio by his reins and tied them both securely to the tavern's hitching rail before entering the building. Another hour beyond that, and after another delicious lunch, Diego was well involved in the duty assigned to him for the week, yet he wasn't so involved that he didn't think to casually mention his gift to a surprised Victoria. He wanted the timing of the reception of this bequest to be just right.

A gift? For me? she questioned with a look of inquiry that suited her and left Diego weak in the knees.

Diego smiled enigmatically. See for yourself. It's out at the hitching rail, next to Esperanza.

Esperanza? Victoria repeated doubtfully, unaware of Diego's discomfort. All right. She disappeared through the curtains, assumedly aiming for the porch hitching rail.

A silent moment went by. Diego washed two more plates and stacked them on the ever increasing pile of clean dishes beside the metal wash tub he was using. Maria came in to fill two plates with tamales before disappearing again through the curtains.

All was quiet for the next minute as Diego worked.

Then Victoria's yell drifted even to Diego in the kitchen. Madre de Dios! Diego smiled again.

A quiet fifteen minutes elapsed then as even the tavern's patrons grew silent, making Diego want to peek around the edge of the curtains to see what was going on now. He ignored the impulse. He continued washing for most of those fifteen minutes, then dried his hands on the towel pulled from his shoulder, and waited.

Diego didn't have to wait for long. He was leaning nonchalantly with his back against the counter, his ankles and arms crossed to deepen the appearance of his listlessness, when Victoria suddenly ran into the kitchen, not caring that the curtains rippled up to the ceiling in her haste, leaving both him and her in plain view for a few seconds as the hanging material settled down to their original state. Next, she was hugging a smiling Diego, shocked to speechlessness for perhaps the first time in her life.

Thank you! she was finally able to fervently whisper against his shoulder.

Dios, but she felt good in his arms! Not that he had decided to give Emilio to her for the simple joy of a hug, but that was a good side effect, he admitted to himself.

Now she swallowed so loudly that even he could could hear it. She sounded grateful, and astonished as she said, You shouldn't have given a horse to me!

I know, I know, he whispered. People will talk.

Well, yes, but that isn't what I meant.

He pulled back from her so that he could see her face. I'll tell you everything behind my decision later, he said in a low voice. Maria had just entered the kitchen.

By his perplexing words, Victoria knew that he had given her the horse tied next to Esperanza because of something to do with Zorro, and she was so overwhelmed that she wasn't certain she cared if everybody knew or not. That lack of self-restraint terrified her.

He went on when she didn't say anything. This gift comes with some rules, however. He sounded reluctant now, like a teacher with a recalcitrant student.

She lifted her head from his shoulder. Rules? What rules? She was always suspicious when someone tried to tell her what to do.

Diego smiled; he loved her automatic desire to be her own boss. It showed her spirit. However, he had no desire to see her get killed by a horse gone crazy, either. That had been the one point he'd continually considered that was always in favor of keeping Emilio. Once he'd deliberated on it, he knew that if she was ever thrown for any reason off a horse that he had given her, not only would he feel terrible at the loss,, which promised to be consuming enough, but he'd also feel responsible. He wasn't certain that he wanted to take on that kind of responsibility. However, he wasn't at all certain that he didn't want to take care of her, either. It was a very confusing way to feel, and he had suffered that strange juxtaposition ever since he thought of giving Emilio to her. First of all, you need to know that I'm fairly certain that Emilio is a female's horse; not very useful in a house full of men.

Fairly certain?

Yes. Diego hesitated a bit. Since I'm not completely convinced yet, rule number one is that you have to promise not to ride him by yourself for at least a week.

That's not so very long, she commented.

By then I should know whether or not he can be trusted.

Isn't that playing it a bit too safe? She chafed under his natural inclination to worry about and protect her from everything. He was a natural at protection, clearly.

Diego smiled again. I'd rather play it safe, have a riderless horse for a week, than have you suffer a fall while riding him.

Victoria eyed him slightly flirtatiously. I never knew you had such an active imagination; fall indeed. I won't fall.

I have a very active imagination, and it's peppered by any number of things that might cause you harm, Diego whispered, but his words were under the cover of the noise level coming from the other room. And Maria, busy as always, had just slipped out of the kitchen. It was still the lunch hour, after all. She was busy serving, and everybody wanted to come to the tavern to see the horse. It wasn't often that someone gave such an expensive gift to the woman chosen out of the crowd by a legend. It had already caused a great deal of interest... and gossip.

But Diego couldn't seem to care about Victoria too much, not yet. To care too quickly would invite suspicion. But soon, Diego swore to himself, he would marry the spirited lady and take her back with him to the hacienda, where a life he hadn't even dared to dream about would start. It was only a matter of time, now.

But Victoria was asking him a question. Diego was so wrapped up in his daydreams of the future that he didn't hear what she had to say in the present. What? he was forced to ask.

She sighed, a bit aggravated by his propensity to daydream. I asked you what's the second rule?

Second rule?

She rolled her eyes. One thing was certain; she was talking to Diego. Nobody else was as likely to be caught daydreaming so often. About the horse?

Oh. The second rule. He smiled. You're going to like this one.

What is it?

Take a ride with me?

It was the first time he'd ever asked her to do anything while he was Don Diego. The manner in which the pueblo's citizens were sure to take this ride left her with goosebumps raising all along her arms; it was a bold move on Diego's part, almost as bold as asking her on a first outing.

She grinned back. If you insist.

Diego smiled at her. I do insist. I feel like I should be available if my theory is proven wrong.

Victoria cocked an eyebrow and whispered. To pick up the pieces left of me? How romantic. Her sarcasm and irony were obvious in her tone.

Suddenly Diego was inspired by an idea. How about a riding lesson first? You know, to make sure Emilio is safe.

Victoria cocked he other brow. A riding lesson? He nodded. Alone, with you?

He nodded again. Followed by a ride as soon as I finish washing the dishes.

I was wrong; that is romantic. But you don't have to worry about the dishes; I think you've done your 'duty.'

At first, Diego reacted with surprise at his unexpected reprieve. Then he was all smiles at the prospect of being alone with her. Let's go, then.

Victoria paused and openly studied him. Are you ready for what this will do to the gossip mill?

Diego nodded yet again. Are you?

For this horse? You bet I am! And Victoria grabbed Diego's hand, walked into the main room in front of everybody that had eyes to watch, told Maria that she would be on the outskirts of the pueblo, then on a ride with Diego while she tried out her new horse. Maria nodded at the information, and watched as the two unmarried young people left the tavern together amid a multitude of stares. Even as she innocently watched the couple, the urge of those bent on causing mischief glinted in the early afternoon sunlight that streamed into the tavern.

Victoria might have been uncomfortable from the stares if her mind hadn't already been reeling; a horse! He had given her a horse! And openly, in front of the entire pueblo's citizens! Now he was clearly leaving the tavern with her, and she wondered how long it would be before she might wear her engagement ring in public. Then he would marry her... and she could show her real affection towards him before everybody...

But she was getting ahead of herself. With a strong will that matched her curiosity and desire to see justice in the small town, she restrained her hidden agenda, untied her new acquisition, and followed Diego to the grasses outside the sign leading into the pueblo, well away from the people in carts, on horses, and other potential distractions. She waited impatiently for him to start.

All right, this is the dangerous part, Diego said as he came up from behind. He stood well back from them, but ready to run foreword in case Emilio went wild and he had to save her. Grab the mane in one hand and mount.

With a considerable degree of trepidation, Victoria followed Diego's instructions. The next thing she knew, she was sitting on Emilio's back and could see much farther than she could from the ground. Emilio quivered again, but showed no other interest in his new rider. It was the same way he'd behaved for each new of the ladies at the hacienda.

Diego ordered Victoria to take Emilio through all that he had already learned while at the De la Vega household. Victoria was not nearly as an accomplished a rider as Diego was, but she showed adequate competency in the area of horseback riding, and Emilio behaved like the well-trained horse he was. He didn't even balk when Victoria ordered him to gallop, then come to a halt so she could dismount, a common daily command.

He seems fine, called Victoria from her perch on Emilio's back once more.

Diego shrugged. So far, Emilio had given him no cause to worry, but then, he knew that it only took a second for a horse to spook and go crazy, throwing its rider. He had used that knowledge many times in the past as Zorro when he needed to even out some odds with bandits. Only, now was not the time he wanted to see Victoria thrown into the air. If something happened to her because of a gift that he had given her, he didn't see how he could live with himself.

However, he was going to have to begin trusting Emilio sometime. Even he could not watch Victoria at every second, and she would certainly not like the added attention! Or, rather, she would like the added attention, but not the reason for that attention. She was as independent as she was beautiful.

Her attitude had kept many suitors at bay, he knew, but even being the chosen one of Zorro couldn't always keep Victoria safe from future 'appreciation.' That was one reason why he was glad he'd finally given in to his emotions and claimed Victoria as his by making love to her. Though he wasn't entirely proud of his decision and its encumbering emotional fallout, he couldn't ignore that same call now as his heart began to pound and his skin grew hot when he was just thinking about ravishing her.

To hide his more basic, and obvious, instincts, he called, You still up for that ride?

She called back, Ready when you are!

He nodded. Then I'm going to go back to the tavern and fetch Esperanza. I'll only be gone for a minute.

Even from his position far away from them, he could see Victoria roll her eyes again. We'll be fine, Diego. I think I can manage a horse while you're gone.

Diego smiled; he just loved her independence. Without another word to indulge his naturally overprotective attitude, he turned and trotted back to the tavern hitching rail, where he ignored the curious stares of the people on the porch, and gathered Esperanza's reins in one hand. Using stirrups as a cover to his secret identity, he mounted and trotted out of town.

He and Victoria fairly flew down the well worn trek of the main road into town, past the hacienda, and out into the wild countryside beyond. They raced each other through places too narrow to sit side by side, and both took chances they should have avoided, but it was such fun! Diego welcomed the wind that streamed around him as he showed Victoria those escape routes he often used as Zorro as the lancers chased him. They stopped at the ravine that Toronado often jumped across, and Diego watched as Victoria tried to hide the shudder that coursed through her body at the sight. However, worry and concern were far from their minds as they gave their horses a welcome breather and walked them as they headed through the grass for the ocean. It was a trek that Zorro had taken often as well, but he'd never shared it with Victoria. Now, Diego contentedly sat back in his saddle and gazed in abject worship at an oblivious Victoria beside him.

Can I ask you something, Diego? she inquired after a moment of silence.

You want to kiss me senseless all afternoon? All right, I accept, he said with a cavalier tone to his voice.

Victoria smiled at his evident request. No, that's not what I mean, and you know it.

Then you won't kiss me senseless?

She huffed at him in spurious irritation, then archly said, No, but I will promise to do so at another time.

Diego smiled, warming up to their flirtatious game. That's more like it. But in the meantime?

In the meantime, Victoria repeated, I've been thinking...

That's always a frightening thing to do. Don't think too much, Victoria.

She smiled at his banter, then answered his advice with, As if you should talk.

Who, me? he asked virtuously. I never think.

Right, of course you don't, she said with barely concealed sarcasm. And what you were doing while we were discussing the 'rules' for Emilio? Wasn't your daydreaming just transformed thinking?

Of course not. I was daydreaming, and daydreaming is just daydreaming. Although it was a good daydream, he admitted. You said it was nothing but a dream yourself, he shot back, his own voice carrying not a hint of the sarcasm he was obviously feeling.

Oh, you're good, she suddenly complimented. If I didn't know what we were really talking about, I wouldn't know what we were talking about.

Diego smiled at her; he couldn't help himself. Lot's of practice, Seņorita, that's all.

Victoria smiled as well, but refused to be misled from her original line of thought. I'm wondering about men.

Men? he asked, and now he couldn't quite hide all the consternation that he felt.

Victoria laughed. Not to worry. But I do hear things in the tavern when I'm behind the bar and forgotten. And you're the first man I've felt comfortable with enough to ask.

I'm flattered, replied Diego with a smile of his own. But go ahead and ask your question.

Victoria took him up on his blatant invitation. All right. What is it about men that makes them always want to..?

Diego was confused by her reluctance. Always want to what?

Victoria huffed again, then swallowed her embarrassment. This was just Diego, after all, she reminded herself. Always want to, you know... make love?

Diego colored a bit at her brazen question, but did his best to formulate an answer for her. It was, after all, the activity most on his mind in recent days. Well, it isn't covered in the University health course that all students have to take. But I've read up a bit on the subject since I arrived home...

And? Victoria prodded.

Diego's red coloring deepened a shade, but he was determined to answer her. It's a fairly new field of study - isn't it some kind of male chemical? Something with a strange name that derives from the Latin?

Testosterone? She'd heard it mentioned once or twice in the tavern.

That's it! What about it?

I don't know. Victoria shrugged. It just seems that all males tend to have a lot of it.

You mean, more than females do?

Victoria looked grateful that he had vocalized the main point of her curiosity. Yes. Why do they? I figure you should know, being the scientist you are and all.

I guess I don't have a definitive answer for you, Diego sighed regretfully, trying hard to remember all that he had read on the subject and coming up with little he could tell her.

Well, it seems ridiculous to me that men have enough testosterone for two, or ten, for that matter, and women, who have the babies that keep the population always growing, have less. You'd think that women should have more, or that men should be the ones having the babies. It doesn't make any sense.

The soft sound of the horse's feet clopping on grass was the only sound in the air until Diego spoke with skepticism, What have you been hearing, Seņorita?

She rolled her eyes for the third time that day. Oh, you'd be surprised, she answered enigmatically.

Apparently, Diego responded, doing his best to cover up his anxiety.

Not all men are as... genteel... as you are, Victoria said. In fact, few are.

Is that some sort of compliment? asked Diego.

You can take it as one.

Well, then, thank you, I guess.

Victoria laughed at the confusion in his voice.

But Diego went on, I would be careful, however, if I was you, who I questioned about the way things are made. Others might not be as... insightful and understanding as I am.

Victoria was well aware of whom she should ask about such a delicate subject in the pueblo and whom she should avoid. You mean your father?

Diego nodded. For one.

What about the padre?

Diego blew out his breath. He's a good one to ask, meaning that he's educated and should know the answer to your question. Diego stopped, then decided to plunge on with his personal opinions. However, he's also a bit conservative and may not approve of a young, unmarried lady with such a question. He may ask where you came up with such an astonishing query, and wonder about such blatant curiosity. You should be prepared to answer his own questions.

Victoria looked over at him, then, comprehending his hidden meaning as well as the words he spoke aloud. I won't give you away, if that's what you mean. I can always say that I'd heard about it while listening to conversations in the tavern, which is the truth.

Diego smiled at the image that her words conjured. What a Confession that would be! He laughed again. But, really, Victoria, honesty might get you in more trouble than you bargained for.

Victoria's curiosity was hardly curbed by the threat of possible retribution. But what's the answer, then? Why do men have more testosterone?

Diego sighed. There's no distracting you, is there?

That's one thing you need to learn about me; I'm undeterable when I want to find out something.

I'll be sure to remember that, Diego half promised, half threatened.

Do that, She minutely corrected Emilio and kept him on the path they were walking along. but... my question?

Diego noticed her correction, and approved of the light way she handled the stallion. It was one reason why the horse preferred a female rider, he suspected; females were simply gentler than men. But he didn't want to point out this observation to Victoria, given their current conversational subject. In answer, Diego shrugged. I'm not sure. It probably has something to do with the Human drive to procreate...

I knew you would give me the scientific reason behind my question. The irony was clear in her voice this time.

Diego laughed. Well, what do you want me to say, Victoria? He quickly looked around; they were alone on the path and no trees were available to hide any stray passersby. In a softer voice, he said, I could say that it's just part of the male brain, an unfair part, to be sure, but that doesn't alter the fact that I've wanted to tear your clothes off since we were in the kitchen of the tavern.

Victoria grinned in spite of herself. You do?

I do. It was almost a relief to admit to such base longings, Diego thought.

Victoria pulled her mind back to the topic under discussion with an effort after that confession. What else do you think? About testosterone and men, I mean.

Diego considered. That perhaps it's just something that's part of the bigger mystery of life, and we have to accept it for the way things are, Diego replied. There's no reason for it; males are just made that way. Caring males might be expected to hold their emotions in check...

For how long?

Once more came the shrug. I held back for many years, as did you.

Victoria's smile was hidden in the collar of her shirt as she put her head down to conceal the gesture. But you're different.

I'd like to take credit for such a compliment. But in all honesty, Victoria, you proved to be my greatest challenge. His voice dropped even lower at the end of his statement, and she had to lean over to even hear him.

Diego took advantage of their closer proximity. He pulled both Esperanza and Emilio to a halt on the trail, then leaned the rest of the way and hungrily kissed her. His tongue probed her mouth, curling with hers as his hands rose to cup her cheeks, even with his grip on their reigns. Both horses waited patiently, eating grass they found along the trail, while desire, sweet and hot, rushed forward to instantly claim their riders. Such a reaction was a mystery to the horses.

Victoria felt his hand blaze along the side of her breast, and though she had one hand buried in shirt, she knew they had to break things off before they swirled out of control. There was only so much one could safely do from the back of a horse. But the tickle of his mustache felt so good! Reluctantly, she pulled away.

He kissed her again, quickly, then leaned his forehead into hers. His sigh almost made her bones drip with unspent passion.

I love you so much, Diego, she whispered, cradling his head in an awkward embrace.

He sighed again. If we don't stop, we'll never get to the ocean. And I do want to show you this beach.

If it's the one I'm thinking of, I've already been there. She glanced up when he raised his brow in astonishment. You aren't the only one given to daydreams, Seņor.

This was a surprise. You daydreamed about me? he asked, his voice still a whisper.

Victoria's response was equally as soft and equally as filled with unexpressed emotion. All the time.

Diego grinned at her confession. The beach makes an excellent venue for hidden dreams, doesn't it?

It does, she said, her voice now full of innuendo. But she pulled back all the way and sent Emilio forward again. Diego grinned and followed.

They traveled the rest of the way in silence, companionable, and each helped along by their own dreams of an alternative, though longed for, reality. Each had pleasant daydreams about the other, and each sent a silent prayer up to the possible netherworlds of the sky. Both accepted the usefulness of prayer and belief in a powerful deity to help see to the culmination of those fantasies. Their own personal dream-granter was a difficult fantasy to deny.

They reached the beach with never-before-experienced eagerness, and they let the horses roam on short tethers as they crashed through the surrounding undergrowth of new trees and bushes to emerge on sand that quickly lent itself to cushion their respective backsides as they sat next to each other and listened to the crashing of the surf, letting it mesmerize their senses. Fortunately, it didn't suffocate all their available perceptions.

Diego, can I ask you another question? Victoria inquired after they had dutifully spent on hour thoroughly enjoying themselves by wading in the water and collecting numerous and pretty shells to bring back to the tavern and the hacienda. That afternoon might be nearly the best time she had ever spent, Victoria suspected, running a close second only to the night Diego had revealed himself and showed her how much love and passion he held for her and her alone. Like that night, she positively glowed.

Another question? My, your curiosity must be extensive, Diego joked.

Victoria joked right back, My curiosity kicks in only in the afternoon.

Diego laughed. What are you thinking?

Now that Victoria had opened up the subject, she was hesitant to voice her query. Diego, do you think... do you think...

Victoria, just say it, Diego demanded in an easy command, taking a page from her book of expletives that he had heard her utter at odd times in the past.

All right, Victoria said, though she still looked uncomfortable. What do you truly think about how we have behaved the last few days?

At first, Diego didn't say anything, only stared at the constantly moving waves of water. Finally, he asked, What do you think?

That's not fair; I asked you first, she responded immediately.

Diego sighed. He wasn't going to wriggle out of an answer this time. What do I think? I think that we're probably a huge disappointment to people like my father who will always advise others to wait to make love to the special person in his or her life. However, and he made a point to turn Victoria towards him. I also think that we spent four, almost five, long years denying ourselves the best possible expression of the love that we feel towards each other. At least, I assume that you feel the same way I do. I guess I'm assuming a lot.

I do, answered Victoria right away. I mean, we do. I mean, we do share the same feelings, she went on in a stuttering fashion.

Diego sighed again, though he also smiled at her, and it was as if the sun rose for the second time that day. Disappointment aside, I'm glad now that I couldn't fight my feelings any longer. Making love to you was really the best way to show you how deeply I care about you. Signing my name on the next line in the padre's registrar isn't what makes us truly married. We already are married. This spot right here tells me so. And he placed a hand directly over the site in his chest where his heart was located.

Victoria studied him for a moment, then seemed to wilt right into the sand. Whew! That's exactly what I think, too, only you say it much more poetically than I ever could. She continued to gaze at him. And to think, the girls in the tavern say you're not romantic at all. I could tell them a thing or two, only I don't plan to enlighten them any time soon.

Diego turned to look back at her, and anything more he might have had to say died on his lips as just her features enraptured him. He couldn't help it; he gazed at her in soft wonder and amazement.

Diego, Victoria started to say, but he pressed a finger against her mouth to stop her.

How much do I love you? he asked in a whisper that only she could hear. Let me show you the ways, with or without the bad quotation of poetry.

Diego leaned forward. Victoria did the same. He raised his hand to her cheek. Victoria lifted her hand too. Looking like he had been waiting for years to do this very thing, he leaned down and touched his lips to hers in a soft, slow dance that had been going on for millennia. He rubbed his thumb across her skin, trying to communicate his feelings with just his caress, light and gentle as it was.

Victoria responded to his kiss in kind, giving an even gentler stroke to his cheek and forehead. What she couldn't say, what got tied on her tongue, she transmitted through a soft, though no less beautiful, kiss of infinite depth and devotion. She loved him, and wanted to express that feeling in the only way she knew how.

Eventually, Diego drew back to stare at his chosen one, his beautiful Victoria. Wordlessly, he gathered her up in his arms and they each held on tight to the other, sealing a marriage that had only taken place so far in their hearts. But for each, it was more than enough.

Like all good things, it too came to an end. Diego saw Victoria properly back to the tavern, and kissed her on the knuckles to say goodbye. The fact that he was hardly known to even touch her sent more rumors flying about them than his gift had sent. If either of them knew where those rumors were headed, they might have buried themselves in the sand at the beach they had lately visited. But they didn't know, and it was just as well. One more night of splendid rest could do both of them equal good.

However, everything ends, even the good times. A knocking on the de la Vega hacienda door heralded the first interruption to Diego's newly discovered bliss. As Diego and Felipe were both in the garden, reading books, and Alejandro was in the den, doing some much needed paperwork concerning the ranch, he answered the door. The hum of indistinct words reached to the garden, but neither Diego nor Felipe understood what was said. Five minutes later, Don Alejandro entered the garden, a heavy scowl etched on his face. He came alone, without the visitor.

Diego laid aside his book with a laugh. Why so agitated, Father? It must have been bad news to bring such a frown to your face. What happened?

Alejandro fairly growled at his son as he paced the length of the garden. You want to know what happened? I'll tell you what happened. Sergeant Mendoza was out on patrol yesterday with the lancers. He claims he saw something, or someone. He claims they all saw someone doing something, and when they got back to the pueblo, they certainly didn't mince words at the tavern, spreading the gossip that will surely ruin you.

Diego was flabbergasted. Me? He shrugged just slightly in Felipe's direction. What did I do?

Do? mocked Alejandro, then leaned down and exploded. You were seen, Diego! You and Victoria were seen yesterday at the beach! And this was no kiss of brotherly affection that was witnessed; this was the kind of kiss that demands a marriage proposal, that's what!

The blood drained from Diego's face, and even though he remained silent, his reaction was confirmation enough.

I see that the reports are true, hissed Don Alejandro angrily. I can see it clearly written in the worry lines that have suddenly sprung up on your face.

Diego rubbed at his throat, a nervous habit that he hadn't employed since he was a child. It's not exactly what the sergeant thinks.

But Alejandro reacted even faster. It's exactly what Mendoza thinks it is! Honestly, Diego, how could you do this to Victoria's stainless reputation, to yours? What were you thinking?

What was I thinking? Diego asked, so stunned that he was only able to mimic his father.

Alejandro said, I'll tell you what you were thinking; you weren't, that's what!

Diego turned towards his pacing and mortified parent. Now, Father, I know you're angry , but it's not what you think.

Alejandro ran an aggravated hand through his hair. You bet I'm angry! In fact, 'angry' doesn't even begin to describe how I feel! A pounding on the front door reached their ears as the sound drifted all the way into the garden. Honestly, how many other gossips did you have hidden in the bushes? Alejandro asked rhetorically, but he left the garden to answer the door.

Felipe instantly turned to Diego and motioned a question.

Yes, answered Diego somewhat hesitantly. He felt manipulated into a corner and slightly used as he continued, I really did kiss Victoria down by the beach. Felipe motioned again. Yes, the one shaped like your sandal. Again came the arm waves. Diego appeared even more reluctant to answer Felipe's question, but answer it he did. Yes, and he tugged on his ear in a show of deeper hesitation. She knows of my secret identity, and one kiss isn't exactly all that we've done, either.

Felipe's eyes widened, and his face went as pale as his white shirt at Diego's unspoken confirmation, but there was a grudging respect for Diego's bravery behind the incredulity in the servant's eyes.

Suddenly, Alejandro appeared around the door to the garden. Look, Diego, it's Seņorita Escalante, here for a visit. Imagine that!

Diego sent his father a scathing look as he stood from the chair where he'd been reclining. The statement he made to Victoria, however, gave no indication of the scene he was currently surviving. Victoria! What a delight to see you at this early hour of the morning.

Diego! Victoria exclaimed in some agitation, not one for wasting time with idle pleasantries. I suppose you've heard?

Diego raised his brows. About the gossip? Yes, we were just apprised of the situation. He sent his father another scathing expression.

Victoria's own brows gathered down into a thundercloud. But we have to do something about this... this malicious...

Alejandro interrupted. Is it true?

Diego answered back. Yes, it's true, and I wouldn't change anything that happened yesterday for the world.

Diego! Alejandro admonished, glad for the fact that his son was man enough to admit the truth, but sad because that same son seemed to have enjoyed himself way too much the day before.

Diego tossed the book he'd been reading onto the round table in between the chairs he and Felipe had been lounging in. Does it make any difference to know that I have been in love with Victoria for years?

That confession put a halt to Alejandro's tirades. You have? he asked, stunned.

For years? Victoria responded, just as surprised.

Diego sighed and ran a hand through his hair. Since early childhood. Maybe even since we first met.

Clearly, even Victoria didn't know this piece of news. That long?

Alejandro, however, was only slightly deterred. This doesn't really change anything. Honestly, Diego, did you have to kiss the woman chosen by Zorro, the legend of the pueblo?

Diego regarded his furious parent. Had to, no. Choose to, yes. In fact, I'd do it again if given the chance.

Victoria turned to him. Thank you, Diego, that's so sweet. Then she turned to Alejandro. And nobody chose me like a rock in a field. I had a hand in the relationship I've been involved in, too.

Alejandro actually smiled, though the endearment was anything but felicitous. A lady with fire; I don't envy you the disagreements you'll have in the future since you've 'chosen' so well. His sarcasm was evident in his tone.

Father, that's quite enough. Diego looked to Victoria and waved his hand towards the hacienda. Now, if you will excuse us, I believe Victoria and I need to talk for awhile. He led Victoria into the library, several rooms away from the garden and the loathing censure of his father. Please forgive my father for his rudeness. He's not quite himself this morning.

Victoria exploded the second they were alone. Diego, what are we going to do? These rumors...

Diego interjected, ... are exactly the excuse we need.

Victoria looked even more surprised. How can you take this so calmly?

Diego chuckled. And a happy morning to you, too. He wrapped Victoria up in his arms. Maybe this whole situation seems worse in the pueblo.

Diego, Victoria hissed urgently, everyone will expect you and Zorro to duel because of this, and you'll be the expected looser! What are we going to do?

I can't exactly duel with myself. Diego kissed her on the top of her head.

That's the point I'm trying to make! exclaimed Victoria, her voice still muffled in Diego's shirt. Now, Diego, will you be serious? she said as she warded off another kiss. What should we do?

Diego laughed again. You keep asking that. He allowed her to interrupt his endearments. Victoria, this isn't the catastrophe that everyone acts like it is.

It is, too! Victoria looked at him like he had recently gone insane.

He tightened his embrace. No, it's not. We can tell everybody that I proposed, which I have. You can wear your ring. That way, you get what you want, Father gets what he wants, the gossips get what they want, and I get what I want. Everybody's happy. Unless you plan to deny my rather hasty proposal?

She swatted him, a hard feat, since she was currently held tightly in his arms. No, I never said I'd change my mind about your proposal.

Diego smiled tenderly. Then what's the trouble?

Zorro's the trouble, that's what!

No, he's not. Diego kissed her head again. Everyone is already talking about the disagreements you've recently had. No one will expect him to call me out. And the 'dish duty' you've had me engaged in for the last week can make an excellent excuse as well; we did a remarkable job getting to know each other over a stack of dirty dishes. Preciosa, your hair smells extremely good; did you wash it?

Diego, will you forget about my hair for a minute? This is serious business! Every citizen of the pueblo expects you to marry me! She eyed him immediately. And Zorro's proposal doesn't count.

Diego looked slightly offended. Of course it counts. But if you want another one... He tightened his embrace again. Victoria, I love only you. My life is meaningless without you. Will you agree to share everything with me? Will you marry me?

Victoria was weak in the knees by this point of the conversation. Madre de Dios, Diego, she swore, overcome with unexpected emotion. I don't know what to say.

Say 'yes,' he prompted.

Her eyes opened in wide wonder, she repeated, Yes. sounding rather numb.

Diego held her tighter yet. Can I tell our children that you cursed when I proposed?

She slowly hugged him back, momentarily forgetting the reason why she was visiting the hacienda. She nodded as she hugged.

Then you'll wear your ring? Diego asked. He was not nearly as confident as he sounded. What if she had said 'no?'

I'll wear your ring, Victoria acquiesced, still sounding slightly stunned.

Diego smiled, though his heart was actually pounding in fear. It's a good thing nothing more happened on that beach yesterday. This could potentially be a lot harder to explain than it is. Diego embraced her once again. Now, do I get a kiss from the bride to be?

Victoria smiled, perfectly content now that the proposal had been 'issued' and things were settled. Again. Absolutely, she replied, still a bit numb.

Diego leaned down to kiss her...

And Alejandro chose that moment to poke his head around the corner. Well? he asked derisively.

Instead, Diego kissed Victoria's hair again. Father, I'd like you to meet the future Doņa de la Vega.

Alejandro had a hard time believing how forward Diego was being, but he expected his son felt more comfortable in the familiar surroundings of the hacienda. I should express how happy I am, but under the circumstances, I don't think you had a choice, he said dryly.

It's good to know what he truly thinks is important, responded Diego as he hugged Victoria from behind. I'll walk you out to your horse, and ride into town to get your engagement ring out of the bank vault.

Alejandro's face lit up. So that's where it's been! I practically tore my room apart one day, looking for it.

Diego did pause at this news. Yes, well, I'll just ask for it, then - shall we?

Victoria took Diego's arm and he pulled her, numbness and all, out to the porch steps. She let her arm drop the minute they were out of sight; she knew a sham when she saw one. Diego, she suddenly said, what can I say about looking so happy? Or shouldn't I look so happy?

Diego halted on the top step to look down at her, making certain the door was firmly closed behind him, shutting out their voices. You can look as happy or as put out as you want.

Victoria looked like she was considering the choice he had offered. I think I'd rather be happy. Looking sad all the time takes too much energy.

Diego laughed, and the sound rang out in the walled-in section of the great house. That's the way I prefer you, I admit.

She walked down from the steps, and he moved to follow her, but she stopped him with an upheld hand. You don't have to ride with me to town, Diego. I'm perfectly capable of walking up to my room and getting out my own ring.

So, she had hidden it in her room; he'd always wondered. Are you joking? Diego asked in mock amazement. It's Emilio I don't trust. And he gestured towards the horse tied to the front gate. Remember, yesterday I said that you had to wait a week before riding him by yourself.

Under the circumstances, she huffed, I thought it was more important to get here quickly than in caring how I arrived.

Diego's good spirits were irrepressible. Ah, but I care, Seņorita. And that reminds me, he gathered Emilio's reigns in his hand, then headed for the stables where he planned to saddle Esperanza. What day do you want to set for our wedding date?

Victoria thought for a moment. I don't know? A month? Six weeks?

A month, Diego said decisively. I don't think I can wait any longer than that.

Victoria suddenly halted. Diego, what about the Alcalde?

What about him?

Well, aren't you worried that he'll suspect something? The last she barely whispered to him.

Diego laughed in response and kissed her hair again. No, not really.

Not really, she said, looking worried once more.

No, Diego said again, and went on as he pulled a saddle and bridle out of the tack room, using the noise he was causing to cover up their conversation. I'll wager that he won't suspect a thing, thanks to the gossip produced in this small town that we live in. Actually, this is working out better than I could ever have predicted.

Diego! Victoria sounded scandalized now. What about a courtship? What about banns?

A courtship? Diego paused with the saddle in his arms. Seņorita Escalante, I would be delighted if you would accompany us to the Manuels for dinner this Saturday. How's that for a courtship?

Diego! Victoria sounded even more scandalized.

Diego set down the heavy Spanish saddle on a convenient feeding trough rail. He looked at her all puffed up in indignant anger, and sighed. A minute later, he grinned. I really do love the smell of your hair. Almost as much as I love you. He kissed her hair one more time for good measure.

And Victoria stopped being indignant and soaked up the unexpected attention.

On the way back to Los Angeles, they talked of this and that, about how many children they wanted, about the prospective future of the pueblo, about Sergeant Mendoza's famous love of food.

Then, the discussion moved on to much more personal topics.

Victoria, Diego said, hating the hesitant sound in his voice, yet not quite able to hide it under a more jocular tone. What do you think about what's going on?

She plodded along beside him. What do I think?

Diego grimaced. I've never asked you that before, though I should have, and I'm extremely curious. Your good opinion means a lot to me.

Victoria smiled. I'm glad that you care about my opinions, but I'm not sure I know what you're talking about.

Diego gave an uncomfortable grimace again, then plowed on in determination. Well, I know what I think about... He cleared his throat, still uncomfortable. ... the two of us getting married, but what do you think about it?

Victoria seemed surprised. Diego wasn't sure if she was surprised at the fact that he had asked at all, or that he cared enough to ask about her thoughts in the first place. In answer, she pulled up on Esperanza's and Emilio's reins, then twisted in the saddle until she was fully facing him, hooking her right leg over the saddlehorn. Diego dismounted and stood just below her, sensing the seriousness of her reply, wanting to hear it, needing to hear it. She raised her hand and gently brushed it across his hair, mussing it, but loving the feel of it in her hands. He leaned against her legs, her left foot just touching the stirrup for support, and the other foot left dangling as she wrapped her leg more firmly around the saddlehorn. She looked at him with sudden love in her eyes as she felt the hair that had been hidden from her for so long beneath the mask he had always worn.

Victoria sighed as Diego's arms rested on the top of her legs. He kissed her legs through her skirts, and she rubbed the arms that she loved touching and hadn't felt since the day before. Now she welcomed the additional weight as, after a moment of hearing nothing but birdcalls and seeing little except glances of passion from him, she said, Diego, I can't begin to tell you how glad I am that he turned out to be you. Her whisper was heard only by him, and even though she didn't say who 'he' was, she didn't have to, as Diego intrinsically understood.

Diego squinted up at her, and possessively rubbed at her leg with his fingers. You can try, he suggested saucily, his voice quiet to match hers, yet fierce in intensity. No one witnessing such a hopeful declaration of emotion would buy such devotion from a woman who, due to circumstances, had been forced to forgo the usual courtship where the more tender feelings might have been expected to spring forth. Now, though Diego and Victoria were openly engaged to be married, they still had to be careful lest anyone see such devotion as theirs and become suspicious of just how impassioned their sentiments truly were.

Diego, Victoria whispered as she leaned down to cup his cheek with her fingers while Emilio unromantically swatted at the flies that were currently buzzing around his body. Getting married to you, making love, this entire situation... Nothing could please me more. It's exactly what I've always wanted out of life.


Victoria shut her eyes to savor the concept as she answered, Exactly. I love you so fiercely..,

Diego sighed and kissed her leg again through the material of her skirt before he serenely lay his cheek for just a moment on her hidden limb. The emotion he automatically felt for her swelled up inside him. Dios, Victoria, I love you, too.

But I want you to understand, Victoria beseeched him. You don't just lie in my heart, Diego, you've touched my soul in a way that's so deep, so impressive... For a moment, she couldn't speak, she was so overwhelmed with emotions. There is no one else for me, who could possibly make my soul tremble like you do.

For a second, he stood still, just to soak up her words. Then he reached up for her. She leaned back in response to his upraised hands...

... and without warning, she continued to fall back, slipping off Emilio's saddle with the ease of material against leather on a cool day. With her feet out of the stirrups as they were, Victoria had no opportunity to check her descent as she fell backwards, as the ground rushed up to meet the top of her head. Birds called, but strangely enough, all else was quiet...

Then, suddenly, like such things happen, Diego grabbed hold of her foot in a grip of steel that would have stunned her if she didn't know of his true identity. Then, despite Diego's grip, she felt her foot slide over the top of the saddle. Diego halted her descent for just a second, long enough for her to put her arms up, palm down, over her head, and then she was falling, almost in slow motion, graceless, to the ground.

Victoria landed with a thump amid the dust and dry grass stems of the road to Los Angeles. At the exact same moment, out of the corner of his eye, Emilio saw a man moving into position to mount him, and he instinctively jumped, shoving the man back before he had the chance to so much as set a foot in a stirrup. Overbalanced, the man fell, and simultaneously, the lady rolled across the grass as Emilio gave his first buck in several days.

Victoria! No! Diego yelled, but the yell came much closer to a whisper as his own fall to the dust drove the air straight from his lungs.

Emilio's hooves came crashing down to the ground, not two inches from Victoria's head, before he lunged his way forward and then ran in the direction of the pueblo. The view of his receding rump was the last either saw of him for several hours to come.

Seconds before his lungs had filled with the appropriate amount of air, Diego had pushed himself up and forward, scrabbling over the ground in his rush to reach Victoria's side. Victoria, say something, anything, please, Diego begged before he had even crawled across the dirt of the road. He coughed as he breathed in the cloudy air when his lungs finally expanded, but he barely noticed, as all his attention was instantly poured into Victoria's prone body.

Terrified at what he would find, Diego's arm extended out, and it was almost as if the limb belonged to someone else. At the same time, Victoria coughed, clearly agitated by the amount of dust her horse had created in his mad dash to get away. Diego's scramble across the road wasn't helping as that dust mixed with the grit Emilio had raised. Victoria lay on her back on the ground, and just coughed.

Victoria, don't breath, don't breath, there's too much dust in the air... Diego was so panicked by then that he couldn't really account for his actions any longer. He looked around. He noticed the streaks of dirt on her face and arms, and without thinking, he scooped her up and carried her towards the rocks and trees that marked the only twenty feet of wet land in the entire area.

Diego plunged recklessly through brambles and bushes until he came to the single stream that marked the halfway point in the trek from the de la Vega hacienda to Los Angeles. Since the area was so small, nobody wanted it for use as a cattle pasture, and it was far too tiny to build a house on, but Diego was grateful for even this insignificant little stream as he made for it in haste, his heart pounding in adrenaline, a reaction to the accident that had just occurred. Still without forethought or a plan of any kind, Diego gently released Victoria on the ground beside a rotten, fallen tree and rushed to the stream. He pulled out the linen handkerchief from the pocket of his shirt as he went, glad for once of the societal rule that insisted a gentleman always carry one, then plunged it into the icy water of the tiny stream. He scurried back to Victoria lying prone on the ground. The entire process of wetting the scrap of linen had taken him less than three seconds, a necessary absence in the long run.

When he reached her side, he let his barrage of questions run free. Victoria! Say something! Did he kick you anywhere, like your head? Where does it hurt? In swipes too gentle to be believed as coming from a man who was clearly so strong, Diego wiped at the dirt on Victoria's face. Victoria?

With a start, Victoria coughed, though the water from the handkerchief quickly helped to lift the fog of dust from inside her head. She started, then sat up slowly, still coughing but sounding stronger as each moment passed. I'm all right, Diego, she insisted even as the coughing interrupted her words. He didn't kick my head. Nothing hurts, she rasped through a throat gone abruptly dry with a coating of dust.

Just as suddenly, she sat up the rest of the way. Dios mio, but that water feels good, she said, her voice still hushed as she tried her best to catch her breath.

Diego washed her face with the handkerchief, then let it lower as he collapsed against his upraised knee, trembling but gratified that she was all right. For a moment, he just heaved in air to his expanded lungs. She coughed, he coughed. Neither said anything, either as the odd comment or through the imparting of information. They just sat there on the ground and coughed.

Finally, as if he couldn't deny the force of his emotions any longer, Diego lifted his head, slowly, and then pulled at Victoria. She crept into his arms, her actions as sluggish as his. Her arms circled around his back, and it was only when her head landed comfortingly on his shoulder that he thought to close his eyes in an attempt to squeeze out the memories of the near mishap that they had both escaped.

Victoria, he whispered, the sound fraught with the pain that was starting to encompass his numb chest, Dios, Victoria, you could have died. I could have lost you... But he couldn't go on. Instead, his arms grew tighter around her, cradling her as if she was a precious bundle, and he concealed his face in her sweet-smelling hair.

Victoria just heaved a sigh, drawing in a breath of the pure, crisp air, of his smell, and lifted her face up to his.

Diego's lips dropped the few centimeters to give her the hottest, softest, most loving kiss yet. He melted into her matching embrace. Their shared feelings swirled and coalesced until the hot demand of mutual affection left them little choice but to show and experience the love they each felt for the other. Again, with hardly a thought as to the possible consequences of such a decision, they lowered themselves to the ground, hidden from the road behind the fallen log.

Emilio was waiting patiently beside the tavern hitching rail when Diego and Victoria arrived quite unexpectedly in Los Angeles. Those who had seen the riderless horse feared the worst, but they were surprised to find that not only was Victoria unhurt, but she was now the fiancée of the heir to one of the richest families in all of California. The gossips of the town really had a good time with that news, happily spreading the story as quickly as they could, leaving Diego and Victoria with little work to do beyond riding into town, one held tightly in the arms of the other while the old gossips of the pueblo did the rest. Before the day was out, it was common knowledge that the known scholar and poet of the pueblo had stolen the girl previously chosen by the town's renowned masked legend, and that woman acted as if she had gone to him willingly enough. A trip to the bank, and the tavern owner was sporting an ostentatious de la Vega ring. Plus, rumors not withstanding, the tavern owner seemed content with her lot in life. Which also seemed strange for such a passionate, volatile, young woman, though nobody dared question what had been forced to occur. The name of Zorro and his aura of protection still clung to Victoria, no matter whom she was marrying.

Diego arrived back at the hacienda hours after his and Victoria's initial leave-taking, glad to see Esperanza at ease in her stall, looking forward to food himself, as he had missed lunch, only to find his father waiting for him on the love seat in the library. One look at the frown on his face let Diego know of the displeasure he was about to be subjected to. But, not knowing the subject behind the frown, he paused on the threshold of that austere but welcoming room. Father? What's wrong?

Diego, Alejandro greeted, not warmly but not frigidly, either. Have a seat. What I have to say may take a few moments, and you might as well be comfortable while we're talking.

The hair on the back of Diego's arms lifted in trepidation. He recognized that tone, and he also knew that it heralded a lecture of severity. He took a seat, as his father had suggested, in one of the chairs. But what had he done wrong? At least, lately? What happened?

Don Alejandro waited for Diego to get comfortable before he began his diatribe, and it began softly, slowly. Diego, I think we need to talk.

Diego was completely mystified by his father's behavior. His brows drew together in question. About what?

Don Alejandro sighed. Is there something you want to tell me?

That statement hardly cleared the air between them. I don't think so.

Again came the sigh, and the sadness in his father's voice immediately dampened the joy in Diego's heart at having Victoria alive, because she could very easily have died that morning, and he couldn't forget that fact. But Alejandro was speaking again, and Diego rerouted his attention to his father. I wish to talk to you about this marriage business...

What's to discuss? Diego interrupted.

The disappointment rolled off Alejandro in waves, but still Diego had no clue as to its cause. There's plenty to discuss, now that Victoria is gone, and there's no one left to overhear my questions, though I'll bet anything that you tell Victoria all about my... um, inquiry... before the week is out...

Questions? Inquiry? Father, what's on your mind?

The movement that came from Alejandro burst out of him, then, as if it had come from a much younger man. Diego, he hissed, not known to be one to hide the truth of his feelings, giving in, instead, to his previously contained anger as he rose like an avenging angel from the love seat. What were you thinking of?

Diego was still confused. When?

When? Alejandro mocked. When you asked Victoria to such a secluded beach, unchaperoned, that's when!

Diego's expression of bafflement lifted in understanding. Oh, then. I just didn't want to be overheard, that's all. What I had to say was a bit... personal.

Personal? Alejandro questioned. You choose to reveal your feelings, of which I had no knowledge of prior to that revelation, on a piece of land not far enough removed from the road into town to avoid prying eyes, and to the very woman who has been loved for many years by that town's protector, and you expect everybody to just accept it?

Father, Diego said, irritated at his parent's predictable reasoning, You're jumping to conclusions...

Am I? Alejandro burst out. How so? What conclusions, besides the fact that my studious son didn't think his actions through, yet again, am I jumping to?

Diego felt his temper rise at his father's scathing words, but held onto his own anger in tight concentration, unlike his more explosive parent. What happened yesterday at that beach is between Victoria and myself, he said through clenched teeth. It is of no concern...

But Alejandro interrupted him. It's everybody's concern, now! What the good sergeant saw...

The answer that came was laced with anger. What Mendoza saw was nothing but an innocent declaration of several years worth of suppressed emotion.

Alejandro was sarcastic. You've been in love with Victoria for years, have you?

I have, Diego responded, more evenly than his father. Only Zorro has been in the way, so to speak. But now, with these disagreements...

I can't believe that a de la Vega would wait for trouble to start brewing between an established, noble couple before...

Father, I don't understand this inquisition of yours. I thought you would be pleased to finally have the hope of those grandchildren you're always saying you want, no matter how the issue for their reality is being forced, Diego said.

Alejandro spluttered a reply. Well, yes, I want grandchildren, but not at the expense of such a noble man as Zorro!

But, Father, you're forgetting that Victoria is as agreeable to this arrangement as I am.

Victoria's hand is being coerced, and that's not how I want to acquire a daughter-in-law!

What's being coerced is the abruptness of this wedding, not Victoria's hand!

Quite abruptly, Alejandro changed the object of his discussion. You have no idea what gossip like this can do! It can cause a rift between you and...

Diego stood up now. There is no danger of any rift...

But, Diego, Alejandro explained, as if to a small boy, what am I supposed to do when Zorro calls you out for stealing his...

Zorro is not going to call me out to a duel, and I stole nothing!

You don't know that!

Yes, I do!

How? How can a man so scholarly possibly claim to know the mind of such a noble man..?

I am noble as well!

I know that, but you're not nearly as skilled...

Skill has nothing to do with this situation!

It will if you're challenged to a duel...

I'm not going to be challenged to a duel! How could he possibly challenge himself?

You don't know that!

I do know that!

How can you possibly know..?

The scathing and disbelief in his father's tone was intense. Because...! Diego's voice grew softer out of habit. Because...

Because..? As usual, I'm waiting for this new excuse for your scandalous behavior towards another man's chosen one!

Victoria belongs to no one but herself!

In this case, I think she does!


Yes, and you went along and ruined her!

Having his motives concerning Victoria questioned so scornfully by his father was more than Diego cared to accept. I haven't ruined anything!

Secreting her on a beach isn't ruining? Kissing her isn't ruining?

I kissed her because I had to or... because... But dare he say it? Because...

Why? I'm waiting, Diego, although my patience is wearing very thin right now.

Because... He couldn't do it. Oh, you wouldn't understand!

Try me! said Alejandro.

Because... Just say it, Diego ordered himself. Say it! His voice much quieter, in deference to his secret as well as to the state of confession he was suddenly facing, Diego whispered the words that had changed his life, in more ways than one. Because... I'm Zorro, Diego ended in agony.

Alejandro wasn't able to shift to what this new information meant fast enough. You're who?

Diego resumed his seat, but dejectedly held his head with his hands at having the secret he'd so carefully safeguarded for so many years come out in a confession of anger. Victoria isn't losing anything by this hasty marriage. I am Zorro, I love her more than life itself, and she's getting exactly what she wants in all this. You can't fault her in any way.

Madre de Dios, Alejandro muttered as he slowly resumed his seat as well. You can't be him.

Diego answered, But I am him. I worked for years... years!... at highlighting my studiousness, my perceived weakness, to waylay suspicion... Perhaps it worked too well.

Alejandro remained in his seat, staring in stunned disbelief at the son he thought he knew so well. Your studiousness?

Diego laughed, but there was little humor in his action. My love of poetry, of reading, he explained. I didn't know that proclaiming to like something as esoteric as poetry would prove to be so contentious. At the University of Madrid, it's so well respected; here, it's discounted immediately. All I had to do was claim that I liked reading. The citizens have done the rest by casting me in a much poorer light then they did Zorro.

The numbness was beginning to wear off Alejandro. And Victoria?

Diego's hands pushed harder against his features. Victoria. She's so loyal. Once she found out, she only claimed to love me more, a claim that only life can best, as I know I would quickly trade my life for her. He slightly loosened the grip of his hands. She almost died today, did you know? She fell off Emilio while we were riding back to the pueblo.

Alejandro was stunned. My Emilio?

Diego laughed bitterly. He's not your Emilio any longer, and I made the stupid mistake of looking as if I meant to mount him. It was my fault; I should have known better. I should have known him better, been able to anticipate his thought process. The least I should have done was not lower my guard so much. But Victoria...


Diego sighed helplessly. Victoria was just so beautiful, so...

Alejandro interrupted with, She's everything you ever wanted?

Diego lowered his hands and said in self-condemnation, Yes. I should remember by now that I can't allow her to become that for me.

Alejandro chuckled wryly, the first potentially 'nice' thing he had done all morning. Well, I wish you luck in forgetting about her enough to do the job you have chosen, but I think you're underestimating the power of love.

The one person I can't underestimate is the Alcalde.

Alejandro waved aside his son's concerns. Oh, him. He's as cheap as they come. There might be more of him, certainly there's more like him, but Victoria, now... You won't find another like her.

Too spirited? Too independent?

No, too much an individual. Alejandro spoke as if he knew what he was talking about. There won't be another like her because there won't be another like her, if you know what I mean.

Diego looked puzzled now. I'm not sure I do.

Alejandro sighed, sounding again as if he was talking to someone of a much younger age than his son. Love comes once, if you're lucky, and it lasts a lifetime, forever. Can you honestly say that about any Alcalde we've had?

Now it was Diego's turn to be stunned, to be too numb with a new thought to move. You're right, he said slowly.

Alejandro rose, now looking contrite. It's hard to believe this... I apologize if I've ever said... Well, we both know what I've said in the past. He paused beside the chair that Diego was sitting in. I was wrong - you are the most noble man in California. And the most skilled swordsman I've ever seen.

Diego smiled a little, but it was a vague thanks, almost a gesture born of pure habit. I'm not so noble as everyone believes, he said, remembering his recent behavior with Victoria, demonstrated only a few hours since, even if he wouldn't change the pervasive happiness he felt at his decisions.

Alejandro smiled again, this time with wisdom. Neither am I, Diego. Neither am I. Then, with a pat to his sacrificing son's shoulder, he left the room and disappeared into the bowels of the hacienda.

Diego's eyes followed his father's figure, surprise and a new respect written all over his face.

The wedding drew ever closer, but that didn't mean that life didn't go on. While plans for the wedding moved forward, so did Zorro's visits, as well as the Alcalde's yearly revenue tax. It loomed on the horizon, ready to take place just a few days after the wedding. The pueblo's citizens didn't know which they preferred talking about most over food and drink in Victoria's tavern. According to the seņorita, the wedding, which had the added benefit of being brought around by good gossip, had beat out the tax issue by only a little talk, but the taxes were certainly holding their own. On the days that Diego visited the tavern, he and Victoria spoke quietly while the storm of wedding talk raged around them. The citizens knew more about their wedding than they did.

You're sure about wanting to invite Felipe to stand up with you? Victoria asked, even as the words 'the wedding' rang on either side of her. She ignored the remarks as she looked pointedly at Diego instead.

Diego paused in his eager consumption of the albundigas soup he had ordered for lunch. He swallowed the meatball in his mouth before answering, I think it's a good idea. He has certainly stood by me in other things; why not this?

It was a rhetorical question, and though he didn't require an answer, Victoria responded anyway. If you have Felipe with you, then I should ask someone to stand up with me. You know, as a kind of balance.

Diego nodded, but he was more interested in watching through the open front doors for the stage's arrival than in wedding talk, he admitted to himself. Why don't you ask Sergeant Mendoza to stand with you, then we can serve more of this soup to keep him happy? He gestured at her with his bowl held aloft, saluting her, or at least, saluting her cooking abilities. Delicious, as always, hot and spicy, just the way I like it.

I'm glad you approve, Victoria said, and gave a hint of a smile, the first she had shown in days.

It's good to see you smile again. You should do it more often, Diego couldn't help but note.

Victoria gave the smile again. It's talk of the wedding; it always makes me smile.

Diego joked, Then we should talk of it more often.

Victoria grinned once more, but the gesture was still only a shadow of what she usually wore. Diego ought to know; he had seen the real thing often enough, both in and out of the mask he wore. Slowly, his brows furrowed. What's wrong, Victoria?

Again came the shadowy smile. Wrong? Why, nothing's wrong.

Diego didn't believe her. All of his attention on her, now, he quietly said, You've never told stories to me before. Now, what's wrong?

Victoria seemed to wilt under his discerning eye. Zorro was here a little earlier, she said.

Diego paused. He knew very well that Zorro had put in an appearance in the pueblo, but he didn't want anybody else to discover the reason why he knew. He pretended with his ruse of not knowing anything; it had always worked for him in the past, and the need for Zorro's sword skills had only heightened instead of diminished. Did he ignore you again? Diego asked, also knowing full well that he had completely neglected Victoria while visiting the tiny town, even though it twisted his heart to do so. He hadn't realized how much he had relied on the promise of a visit to her in the tavern's kitchen to pull him through whatever he needed to do. Now that he had no hope of such a visit, he rather missed the stops. Even Toronado was puzzled by not wheeling around to spend time eating the plants hanging in pots from Victoria's outside balcony.

Victoria shrugged at his words to show him and anyone listening that she honestly didn't care about Zorro any longer. We may have been involved for years, but all that is over now. He knows that as well as I do.

Well, this wedding was a bit sudden, Diego commented, refusing to rise to the expected role of the jealous groom who had been, for all intents and purposes, second choice.

The disagreements we had were only indicative of the end of a relationship, Victoria insisted, and eyed him meaningfully.

Diego understood that it was a good thing for Victoria to talk about the end of her relationship with Zorro; the news would only spread. Still, hearing her say so herself left him feeling cold and bereft. Do you want to talk about it? he asked, questioning the wisdom of asking such a question even as he asked it.

But she just shrugged. What's to talk about?

However, despite what Victoria insisted, Diego watched her grow more withdrawn, more preoccupied, as the wedding drew ever closer. Before he knew it, the wedding was only a week away. Then Zorro had to visit the pueblo for a second time, and he could see by her unsmiling face that she missed the promise of his visits from the past as much as he did, though she would never put voice to such a longing. By the end of his third visit, he was certain that, because of his absence from her kitchen, something was on her mind.

The protest of the revenue taxes over, the Alcalde unconscious in the dust of the plaza, Zorro had little choice but to ignore the silent calling he saw in Victoria's eyes and reach for Toronado's saddle. At the same time, a yell from someone else ordered him to listen instead of mount his half-wild stallion, like he'd been about to do.


The voice was male, and hurried. Zorro turned slightly to see Padre Benitez rushing up to him, dragging Seņorita Escalante with him by her arm. To her credit, Victoria did not look like this interruption of his ride out of town had been her idea.

Padre, Zorro said in greeting, but didn't remove his hands from Toronado's saddlehorn.

Zorro, panted the priest. I'm glad that I caught you before you left.

I'm hardly leaving for good, Padre, Zorro said, amusement in his voice. That lightness swiftly changed to sadness as he glanced quickly at Victoria. If you wish to speak in private, perhaps another time would be better. As you can see, I'm in something of a rush to leave before the Alcalde recovers. And it was clear that Victoria had no desire to speak to him, not that she said much to him these days when he was Diego. He couldn't remember the last time she had ridden out to the hacienda. but he didn't wish to cause her further pain or embarrassment by forcing her to speak now. I should be on my way. He grasped the saddle's cantle again.

Zorro, wait! It was Victoria's voice this time, that arrested him. He just could not wholly ignore the pleading tones of her voice, no matter how much his sense of decorum told him he should. I... I do have something to say.

Zorro didn't know if what she had to say was meant for Zorro or Diego. He carefully turned towards her, aware of the eyes of the crowd watching them. The hurt he was feeling at her apparent defection was clear even in the unmasked portion of his face. A mouth with a line of tightened lips gave another indication as to the pain simply speaking to her caused him. Such a desertion now, so near to the wedding, was only an indication that she was still in love with Zorro, that she quite possibly had never loved Diego. Such a thought drilled holes into his heart as he stood beside his patiently waiting horse.

But Padre Benitez chose that moment to speak as well. I, too, have something to say to the both of you.

Warning bells went off in Zorro's mind, but the agony in his heart caused him to disregard them. Yes?

Uh... The padre had a difficult time saying what he wanted to say now that he had the opportunity to speak. He looked into Zorro's pain filled eyes for inspiration, but found little help there. He wilted suddenly, looking like a man who was giving in to something. Uh.., he repeated. There's no delicate way to put this, so please, excuse me. But are you both absolutely certain there can be no reconciliation between the two of you?

This made Zorro do a little jump. He had never seen the padre acting so forward before. His eyes darted to Victoria at the question, though he knew such a gesture was a mistake. Um...

There's no hope? asked the padre, beseeching.

Zorro didn't know what to say. Feeling awkward, he said, Um.., again.

The padre was talking once more, looking apologetic. There are those who should be together and aren't, as well as those who are together and shouldn't be, and I don't want to see members of my own flock fall into this category. Humor an old priest; at least talk to each other.

The gossips will love this, thought Zorro, but he dropped his gloved hand from the back cantle of the saddle. He made mistake number two of the outing by darting another look at Victoria, but he couldn't quite stop himself. What about the young de la Vega?

The padre was completely warmed up by now. Diego? Though we can hardly ignore his obvious part in all this, he does not really have a role to play in these deliberations.

Zorro couldn't stop himself; he snorted. He has a large part in this, I'd say.

Then Padre Benitez dropped the biggest explosion onto the conversation. Not if you two were married.

Married! Zorro expostulated, catching the attention of some of the nervous lancers standing around in the plaza. Though they were prepared to chase after a departing Zorro if given the command to do so, Zorro knew the highest ranking officer left in town until that time the Alcalde regained consciousness, Mendoza, wouldn't give that order. So there were a lot of people in the plaza just hanging around with nothing to do but listen to the conversation. What about the gossip? Even I have heard about that.

Yes, well, and the padre looked uncomfortable. There's nothing we can do about that. But I do hate to see two people who have been through so much bow to mere stories. And he glanced meaningfully at Doņa Carmen Puloto, the pueblo's biggest tale-spreader. She glared back, hardly cowed. Admonished himself, Padre Benitez went on, Just talk, that's all I ask. I'm sure Diego will understand, and if he doesn't, I'll make him understand.

Zorro grinned slightly at the padre's obvious threat. I'm sure it won't come to that. He's a reasonable man. Though I doubt he would appreciate an old flame speeding to the side of his intended bride.

True, said Padre Benitez, but before he could go on, Victoria raised her voice above the protestations.

Zorro, can I please see you alone for a moment?

Again, the warning bells sounded. Seņorita, I fail to understand what we could say to each other that needs to be said in private. You were seen with the young man in question on a beach. In happier days, he added silently to himself. What more is there to say? He hoped his father, who was standing in front of the milling crowd, watching the goings-on with interest, didn't mind such obvious use of words that his son would resort to.

Victoria hung her head at first, then raised it in a show of spirit that he hadn't seen from her in weeks. Sparks shot from her eyes, but all she said was, Please.

Zorro could never withstand that word, and she knew it. Comprehending that he was being purposefully manipulated, but hoping he would finally hear of whatever had been troubling Victoria for weeks, he sighed, but gestured for her to walk into the kitchen of her tavern, one of the only places that promised the privacy she requested. After you. He made a sweeping gesture with his arm.

Victoria led the way through her back door, then shut out the sunshine that streamed through it when she opened the portal. The main room of the tavern was empty, as the occupants waited in the plaza for one last look at their hero, whenever he might ride out of town. For all intents and purposes, they had the tavern to themselves.

Nervous at even spending this kind of time alone in Victoria's presence, Zorro jumped right to the heart of the matter. So, are you going to tell me now about what's been on your mind for the last few weeks?

Oh, you noticed, she simply said.

Zorro gave her a tiny head shake of astonishment. He noticed? Of course I noticed. I wouldn't be much of a prospected groom if I didn't notice. His whisper cut through the kitchen to mingle with hers.

A slightly guilty expression on her face now, Victoria pushed her hands into her skirt, as if they were sweating and she wanted to wipe them off. But why would Victoria be sweating? I have been a bit confused lately.

He didn't bother to tell Victoria what how badly she had acted in recent weeks. Accusations would get him nowhere now. But he did say, I have to say that I don't understand you right now, Victoria. First I give you a horse, and you seem overjoyed at the present. Then I'm caught kissing you quite passionately, if I recall, on a beach. But after a marriage, which we have been waiting for for years, has been coerced due to that kiss, you seem... unhappy. I only want to fix whatever's troubling you. So... what's wrong?

Victoria looked uncomfortable at his speech, yet determined to go on. She began immediately. I hate this constant worry.

What worry?

About you, when the lancers shoot at you, when bandits swear to bring about your death... this.

Victoria, he said calmly, reaching out a hand to her, you knew when you first became involved with me that such a possibility was part and parcel of the job. Why does it bother you now? It never bothered you before.

Victoria looked contrite now. I know, and I asked myself that same question each time you rode in to the pueblo. A momentary glint in his eye showed how well matched he thought they were when she mentioned thinking along the same lines as he had, but her next words killed any joy he was feeling. I came to the conclusion that, because we were officially engaged now, it was different.

Zorro's heart fell. Then you don't wish to marry?

Victoria's answer was mercifully fast. I don't wish to worry any longer, but I can't marry you until this is settled. I'm giving you a choice, Zorro or me.

Slowly Zorro sat on a leftover bench pushed against the wall. Surely you're not serious?

But Victoria appeared resolute. I argued with myself about the wisdom of this ultimatum until I wasn't getting any sleep any longer. Then, without any warning, she took his hands in hers, pulling off the thick, black gloves he wore so she could feel his skin. But I can't stand this any longer, can't promise to marry a man who I'm terrified 'll never see again. So I ask you to choose.

You, Zorro said once his initial shock wore off.


I choose you.

Such a quick decision surprised Victoria. Don't you want to think about this for awhile?

Zorro smiled, glad to just know at last of the problem bothering her. A choice between her and Zorro was no big deal, as far as he was concerned. Recalling his father's words from weeks before, he explained, I don't need any time to think about my choice. Victoria, there may always be a need to defend the poor in this pueblo, but there will not be another you. My father woke me up as to how important you are to me, and these weeks without you, either as Zorro or, quite frankly, as Diego, has only stamped such a loss on my heart. Victoria, I love you. I can't live without you in my life. I can as soon give you up as give up air to breath. Zorro, I can live without.

Her eyebrows raised to her hairline at this speech. But what about what the padre said? What about the Alcalde? You'll need to unmask, use your real name, for the marriage that the padre is talking about to be true. But I don't see how you can do that while DeSoto is still here. He'll hang you.

Zorro sighed, and looked thoughtfully at their grasped fingers. Yes, that is a problem. He sighed again. But perhaps it's time to take the concerns of the poor and put them on the backs of the rich, the citizens, instead of always relying on Zorro.

Victoria furrowed her brow this time. What do you mean?

Run DeSoto out of town, he said with a shrug. I've done my best to change his ways, but he refuses my lessons, and even I can't be a one-man army. I'll unmask on one condition.

Which is? she asked warily.

That the citizens promise to defend the pueblo from any future persecution. That this mask won't be needed any longer. That we can be allowed to live our lives in peace. He lowered his voice even further. That I can finally marry you and start those lives. Nothing is a greater dream for me. If you don't believe me, ask Felipe.

She smiled, and for the first time in weeks, the gesture reached her eyes. It was a beautiful sight to behold. I believe you. It won't be necessary to drag poor Felipe into this.

Then we're agreed?

Do you still want to marry me?

Zorro paused, took a deep, calming breath, then said, More than anything.

Slowly, her smile crept across her face again. Then let's go make the padre's day.

The sun was shining brilliantly on the central plaza when Zorro and Victoria emerged from the back door of the tavern's kitchen and walked sedately to the front door of the mission.

And? inquired Benitez.

Good people, Zorro shouted out in answer to Padre Benitez' questioning face. I have only one request to make of you, then I plan... well, there should be little Zorro's running around this town in the upcoming years.

The crowd laughed indulgently, then leaned forward to hear of the masked man's plan. The freshly regained conscious DeSoto was hardly overjoyed to hear of it. He, however, was the only one not in favor of the decision. That's my condition of removing the mask for you, Zorro finished off by declaring. It's time for the citizens of Los Angeles to pursue their own destiny, I think, and it's time for me to get on with my life, he said with an affectionate look down at Victoria standing coolly at his side. Beside the mission, at the edge of the crowd, Padre Benitez smiled inwardly.

The sound of swords scraping the insides of scabbards as their were drawn, and of cocking pistols ringing all over the gathered group of people instantly met the masked legend's proposal.

Zorro chuckled. I guess that's my answer.

DeSoto was again not so quick to capitulate. Ignoring the drawn swords and cocked pistols, disregarding the fact that he and his lancers were vastly outnumbered, he spoke jeeringly, rubbing his jaw with a gloved hand as he took a parting shot at Victoria, So, are you going to marry de la Vega or not? It's just like a woman to not know her own mind.

Victoria immediately bristled at the insult. I know my own mind perfectly well, she said, even as she held tightly to Zorro's ungloved, naked hand. And so do these other good citizens. She gestured at the people with the swords and pistols, answering his unspoken insult with an unspoken one of her own. She tossed her head in a show off defiance that made Zorro laugh.

Ew, you've made her angry. You might want to watch your back in the future, he suggested.

But DeSoto only waved aside her comment, waving aside all women with the poorly thought-out gesture. Ah! There's more where she came from! he proclaimed, even surrounded as he was.

Zorro glanced once at the woman who was standing beside him, her hands angrily on her hips. I doubt that, he answered, then leaned down and kissed her cheek in front of everybody.

DeSoto quickly called attention to such an action of fondness. I don't doubt that de la Vega won't like you at al; he might even call you out for stealing his girl

I am no girl! Victoria argued.

But Zorro's reply cut her off. I doubt that. And in a moment, you'll see why. He lifted his hands to the tie holding his mask in place, and began undoing it right then, in front of the mission and all the watching people. Then he stopped just before he finished and revealed himself. Oh, I almost forgot... you aren't invited to our wedding. Then he raised his voice. But the rest of you are! And with a flourish of his hands, whisked off the concealing black material, revealing his face beneath.

For a moment, there was silence, then that quiet was broken by the astonished bellow of Sergeant Mendoza. Madre de Dios! I don't believe it.

Believe it anyway, Victoria said, then turned to a not-so-astounded Benitez. Padre? Will you join us? She grasped Diego's hand in hers. I believe you have a wedding to perform.


I hate epilogues. It's like the author is done with the story, but thought of some last minute things that should be in the story, but aren't. Adding such things would only seem natural, but... Just get on with it! But, any author worth his or her salt would give in to the question of, What happens? Okay. So, in an attempt to 'get on with it,' this is what happens next.

Yes, Diego and Victoria do get married. Their lives as the next de la Vegas, however, are not the easy ones you might wish for. They have three children, a girl and two boys, but Victoria had difficulty conceiving those children. And you probably all thought that a pregnancy was inevitable as well as immanent. Nope.

When she was twelve years old, Diego and Victoria's eldest daughter drowned, leaving them with only their two sons, Don Alejandro, and the adopted oldest boy, Felipe. The entire family mourned for her death, but found that such grief was only practice when the last colt of Emilio accidentally kicked Alejandro in the head, killing him instantly when he was only sixty-seven. The irony of that unfortunate deed wasn't entirely lost on the distressed Diego.

Then, when he was only forty-five, Diego suffered a mild heart attack. Dr. Hernandez, who isn't mentioned in this story but who definitely existed as a character outside the unfolding events, had no idea of the affliction, but prescribed bed-rest for a week and little activity for life, just to be on the safe side. For a man born to action, this was a hard road to follow for Diego, and Victoria spent what free time she had in stopping the more lively pursuits of her husband. But who knew that such a genetic defect would be passed on to the man known as Zorro from his mother's side of the family? Even if the de la Vegas didn't know the cause, they certainly knew the results, and a slower life was a small price to pay for the alternative, of which they all knew too well.

DeSoto returned to Spain, completely dishonored for not capturing Zorro. He spent the rest of his life in constant mental anguish, wondering where he had gone wrong in his taxation of the citizens of Los Angeles. The answer, better training of the men under his command, never occurred to him.

Sergeant Mendoza rose to the rank of temporary Alcalde again when DeSoto was 'requested' to leave, but his love for a life free of the stress of public office and for the tamales served at the tavern led to his downfall, and he slipped into obscurity when not a year later, the Mexican Army marched into the pueblo, demanding to see its leader before taking control of everything. He never married, and was the last of his line as a result.

Felipe regained his speech after years of a hard and difficult regimen created by his mentor and friend, Don Diego. Although, after such a rigorous creation, he wasn't sure the man was his true friend any longer. After several years, he became the first lawyer in the family and moved on to Monterey, where he had more hope of a large base of clients. He visited the old home rarely, but never forgot his humble beginnings, and championed the cause of the underdog, to an increased detriment of his career. Few who worked for the advancement of the poor were rewarded with riches themselves, and Felipe was no exception. Yet, he continued to work towards his goals of eventual peace and harmony between the have's and the have-nots the rest of his life. He made slow progress, but he did make progress.

And that, dear reader (I suddenly feel like Charlotte Brontë,) is the end of my story. I would say that this is the last of my Zorro fan fiction, but I know better.

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