by Linda Bindner

Diego sat, irritated, in the desk chair belonging in The Guardian office, and scowled. The scowl suited him on that day; the visit he'd paid to Señorita Escalante the night before hadn't quite gone according to his designs. In fact, it hadn't gone according to anybody's designs unless they had wanted an argument, and he doubted that anybody in the entire pueblo of Los Angeles had designs about fighting.

Diego hadn't anticipated any conflict. It was the last thing on his mind. Dueling with swords was the extent of his fighting experience until the night before. Now, he knew intimately how to sting with words, and just how much a returning volley could hurt. But he hadn't gone to visit Victoria with the sole purpose of angering her; he had gone because, though he had tried, he couldn't stay away any longer.

The call to see her was undeniable. Darkness filled the tavern's kitchen, but it was lighter than the night that had so lately wrapped around him. He'd been dressed in the customary black of Zorro, even if he was thinking about revealing his identity to Victoria sometime in the near future. He was getting tired of seeing her only every now and then; he wanted to see her all the time, to marry her, to celebrate the joy of having a family together. He could think of no sweeter future.

But a revelation of his identity meant dealing first with his innate fear of rejection, and there he had hit his first real stumbling block. Nothing frightened him more than the possibility of her rejection, and it was the fear that insured his silence, much to Victoria's regret. He knew that such a fear didn't make any sense. Even Felipe, who certainly knew of its existence, couldn't talk him out of it, and he had tried for days on end. But that's how fears were, especially irrational ones.

However, the night of Zorro's visit to Victoria hadn't begun with fights and rejection and fear. It had begun with a letter.

Look at this, Victoria said the second he entered the golden glow of the firelight, holding up the innocent, glaring white square of paper. Her name and the pueblo if Los Angeles were clearly written on the envelope in bold, easy to read print. The return address claimed it was from a law firm in Monterey, but Victoria had no idea what that person could possibly want with her. She held the envelope out towards him as if he would make it disappear.

Zorro took it from her, his black glove brushing her hand in the process. Even that little contact left them both trembling for more of the other's touch. He nodded appreciatively when he read the return address. Gonzales. Even he had heard of this attorney, though the man lived in Monterey. His reputation for being the best in California had been earned for a reason. Very impressive, he went on. You may have an important document here, Victoria. He handed it back as it had been handed to him; still unopened.

Victoria took the letter back and turned it over to look at the front again; she had saved opening it until she saw him that night. I don't know what it could be; I don't know anybody in Monterey.

He gestured, somewhat impatiently, at the letter. Well, open it. See what's inside.

She grabbed a letter opener on the counter and made a slit in the white surface. Then she paused. What if it's the news of someone passing? I may not want to open it.

Strangely irate at her hesitation, he asked, Do you know of anybody who might have died? Where are your brothers right now?

She looked at him, half in fear and half in excitement. Mexico, she replied. Both of them.

Then it's not about your brothers, he instantly calmed using logic. This letter says it's from Monterey, not Mexico. Wouldn't it be from Mexico if it contained bad news of the death of someone close to you?

Victoria paused again, staring at the letter. Then she set the opener down on the fireplace mantel and ripped it open by hand. You're right. It can't be about death. I would have known before this. Besides, both Francisco and Ramón deal with lawyers in Mexico. I have they're addresses in case anything happens to either of them, and this address isn't right.

So you know it's not about your brothers, he soothed, just a touch of flippancy laced with impatience in his voice.

Victoria paused again with the folded letter in her hand. Who acts as your lawyer? she asked, suddenly curious. I assume you have one.

He smiled, catching on to her game immediately. She was trying to fish around for another clue as to his identity. Nice try, Señorita, but I don't wish to reveal his name. Such knowledge could prove to be dangerous.

Victoria grimaced. That's what you always say.

He dropped a light kiss onto her forehead. With good reason, he murmured. Anyone with an understanding as to my identity is just playing with death. I don't want that for you.

She frowned again. Is that what you tell Felipe?

His blood congealed. For a moment, he thought she had deduced his identity and was keeping such a deduction a secret. But he could tell by the benign, questioning light in her eyes that she knew nothing more than what she had already admitted to. Felipe? he asked in puzzlement.

She let the letter drop to her counter. I've seen you wink at him while you were in the pueblo. Something's been going on between you two for months. Is he your spy or something?

Zorro stayed silent while his brain whirled, looking for an answer, any answer, and he finally settled on a bit of the truth. He had been thinking of revealing his secret to her as of late, after all, though he still didn't want her to discover him. But now, such a divulgence wouldn't implicate Felipe, would it? He hadn't thought of a way to explain the deception without mentioning the young man's part in it. But this particular tidbit of knowledge couldn't hurt the servant too much.

Zorro gave a half nod. He's fed me information on occasion, he hedged.

Such as? she inquired.

Her curiosity was rampant tonight. Troop movements, plans for taxes, that sort of thing, he lied, hating the need for the lie even as he said it. He keeps his eyes open. He'd remembered not to say 'ears' at the last second. Inwardly, he berated himself for almost slipping. He would have to be more careful in her presence if he didn't want to give himself away, unless that was exactly what he wanted to do, he mused.

Ahhh, she voiced in comprehension. What better source of information than a deaf teenager?

He sighed in relief. She missed the gesture that would have made her wonder about his admittance all the more. Exactly. Then her brow wrinkled in puzzlement. He nuzzled her forehead for a second, thinking that an unsettled air became her. Be careful of such curiosity, he cautioned.

Her eyebrows raised. It's just that I was wondering how you communicate with him, she said. He is deaf and can't speak, after all.

He momentarily quailed. Through sign language, he claimed eventually. There's much that can be said in sign language.

Sign language? she asked doubtfully. Did Don Diego teach you how to read his signs?

Zorro knew she was getting too close to the truth with her questions and searched his mind for a deterrent. Uh, no, we developed our own system. It's slow and sometimes frustrating, but it gets the job done.

I bet it's frustrating, she replied sympathetically, yet knowing that anything Zorro set his hand, or glove, to, he accomplished well.

At her tone of sympathy and admiration, his dislike of the need to lie to her tripled.

I can only get him to read my lips, and he's in my tavern almost every day, she groused.

He shrugged, glad that the crisis of her guessing the truth had passed, but still feeling as if he wished to tell her everything. As I said, it's only every now and then, and it's only been over a few months. There are times that I miss important information, I know. There, that admitted the truth, or part of it, but didn't give her insight into the whole story. It implicated no one.

Suddenly, Victoria narrowed her eyes in suspicion. I thought you worked alone, she accused.

Zorro' eyes widened in mock surprise. I do.

Then why use Felipe at all? she asked. And does Don Diego know about your meetings?

He had to admit the curling of his toes was caused by the stress of her inquiries. He remained silent for only a second this time, as too much silence would indicate hurried thinking, which would indicate guilt. He smiled at her. So inquisitive, he said with another nuzzle meant to derail her from her line of questioning. Though it was a nice distraction, he admitted to himself. Unfortunately, it also ignited his own desire. He tried to think of anything that would calm his raging blood. To answer your questions, only a fool turns down free information, and no, Don Diego doesn't know of mine and Felipe's relationship. It would be too...

... dangerous for him to know, she finished with him on a giggle of laughter.

Aren't you going to open your letter? Zorro prompted her as a means to distract her... and him.

The plans of distraction worked. Victoria glanced down at the folded piece of paper. Oh, I forgot all about it. Let me look. She spread out the single sheet of the letter, followed by several more legal-looking sheaves of paper, and began to read. Then, before she had even gotten very far, her mouth dropped open into another perfect 'oh.'

It would have been enchanting if not for the need to know what had caused such a reaction in the usually unflappable señorita. Zorro quickly tensed. What is it?

Oh, my... Victoria breathed quietly.

What? What's happened? he asked.

I'm an heiress, she stated bluntly.

Zorro's eyes squinched together and skewed out the light. You're a what? he asked again.

An heiress, she breathed once more.

Had he heard her right? An heiress? he questioned in disbelief.

Wordlessly, she nodded, then handed the piece of paper to him. Here, it's all explained, she said in somewhat of a daze.

Zorro took the offered letter and began reading.

Gonzales Law Firm

1212 Mission St.

Monterey, California

Señorita Victoria Escalante

Pueblo de Los Angeles,

Los Angeles, California

June 13, 1822

Dear Madam,

I regret to inform you that your Great-aunt, Hortensia Escalante, has recently passed away in Barcelona, Spain. All her worldly possessions revert to the person she mentions in her will, and as she never married, she names you as that person. The slow progress of informing you of this windfall is due to your family's move from Mexico to California in 1790. The better part of the month has been spent in locating you in California.

It is now my greatest pleasure to familiarize you with the contents of your great-aunt's will, a copy which is enclosed for your personal perusal at your convenience. As there are no nearer other relations mentioned as heirs, you are the sole beneficiary. You inherit the sum of the remainder of her estate, coming to the total of 10,000 pesos, less my fee of 30 pesos deducted from the capital sum forthwith. Any questions you have about the inheritance, which will be retained in Monterey for proof of your identity prior to release, should be directed to the owner of a trusted bank in Los Angeles. Any other questions should be directed to me. I remain respectfully yours,

Don Pedro Gonzolas, Attorney At Law.

I'm sorry about your... Zorro checked the letter again. ... Your great-aunt, he finished quietly, a respect due to deceased member of the family evident in his voice, even if he'd never heard of... he checked the letter again... a Great-aunt Hortensia.

Victoria numbly took the letter back from him. I never met Aunt Hortensia, she admitted.

Then such news doesn't bother you? he asked delicately.

Victoria was still a little dazed. 10,000 pesos! That was worth more than the King made in five years! That sum would have paid the mortgage for the tavern over tenfold if she hadn't already paid it. No, she responded. I'm just a little overwhelmed right now. What am I supposed to do with 10,000 pesos?

He shrugged a smile. Buy a very nice wardrobe? he suggested.

Victoria quickly shook her head. What do I know of such things?

Then buy Maria that wardrobe. He laughed then at her hazy expression. Victoria, this is wonderful news. Surely you have more to say than declaring no knowledge of the whole affair.

Suddenly, she smiled. 10,000 pesos.

That's a lot of money, he noted.

She grinned again and finally looked straight up at him. I'm worth more than you are.

He wrapped his black-clad arms around her tiny waist. You always were, he said.

She lifted her arms to encircle his neck, maintaining her hold on the letter and will in her hand. It was the only proof she had as to her inheritance. Now there's no reason not to confess your identity.

Zorro immediately froze. How does that follow? he asked carefully.

You're too finely bred to be anything but a caballero, she said. though I don't know your name yet. That means you're wealthy. Now I have as much money as you do. My poorer class standing can't be used as an excuse to avoid marriage any longer. You've hesitated on getting married before, but all that's going to change, she predicted.

He remained frozen. Again, what does that have to do with my identity?

She smiled once more like a child at Christmas; she fairly blazed with good will. If you've been hesitant about naming yourself because of my working-class status, that's not the case any longer with the help of 10,000 pesos.

I've never been hesitant because we're from different classes, he claimed instantly.

Then you admit it? He said nothing, and she continued, Maybe not, she reported back, but now, such a thing doesn't even exist as a problem for anyone living in Spain. No one can complain about our classes if we get married.

Married! he exclaimed, setting her back onto her heels as he quickly released his hold on her. We can't get married. It's still too dangerous for that. Nothing's changed it that category.

Victoria looked puzzled again. But it has, she argued. This inheritance changes everything.

No, it doesn't, he argued back.

A frown of impatience bordering on anger settled over her features. Yes, it does, she insisted. Now I can buy your release.

Zorro immediately recognized her expression; it was one he had seen hundreds of times as Diego in real life. It was most often used in a situation where injustice ran rampant, but still, he knew he had to be careful. However, he couldn't resist her last comment. Nobody's going to buy anything for me, least of all a release! he bit back in incredulity.

With no warning, her face hardened. You mean 'no woman.'

Zorro laughed his amazement. No, I mean 'no one.'

Her arms dropped back to her sides. No marriage? You won't use this excuse to your benefit?

The amazement grew. Victoria, he said as if explaining a difficult concept to a small child. it's not a reason for a marriage between us.

Victoria drew back so she could look at him. Will it ever be? she inquired softly.

Zorro was stunned. Victoria, you know that there's nothing I would like better than to a marry you, but it can't happen until I take this mask off for the last time. You know that.

She searched his face. You're lying, she stated unequivocally.

This time, Zorro gaped. He withdrew from her embrace in his shock. Lying? How can you say that?

Very easily, she answered. If you won't let me buy your release with the money from this inheritance, then it must be for a reason, and the only reason I can think of is that you secretly don't wish to marry, even marry me. Ever.

Zorro stood rooted to his spot on the floor. That's not... he started to protest.

If you're not serious about us, I'll have to ask you to leave. It's not descent for you to be here, alone with me, in my kitchen, at... She glanced at the clock she kept on the mantel. It stood beside her letter opener. ... fifteen minutes after eleven o'clock. Her voice was cold, devoid of its usual warmth.

Again, Zorro gaped. She wasn't serious, was she? You can't be..?

Victoria interrupted him. I thought I asked you to leave.

Now Zorro had moved to an unsettled questioning with his eyes. Victoria, let's not quarrel about this so late at night. Besides, you know that buying a release is not how the system works...

With our crooked Alcalde? she asked in her own astonishment. Of course it does, and if anybody knows it, you do.

Zorro gazed at her in mystification at her behavior. You know that's not the case. No man can be bought, even Ignacio DeSoto.

She snorted. With 10,000 pesos? That's too high of a sum for even Ignacio DeSoto to ignore.

Aghast, he could only stare at her. You know that's not true! And such a sum of money would go straight to DeSoto's head! No one would be safe from him then!

Her voice was brittle when it came out next. I don't care what he does with the money. I only care that my twenty-fifth birthday has come and gone, and I'm no closer to having a family and children to call my own, no closer to marriage, than I was last year! I can only assume that since you won't accept the money from me for a release, then you must not wish to marry me at all and I'm wasting my time waiting for a day that will never happen.

Zorro's gaze had turned to one of amazed horror. That's not true at all. You know that's not true!

Victoria took a step back. I know nothing of the kind, she said coldly in a tone of voice that he had heard, but one she had never used on him. Typically, it was reserved for dire situations and Ignacio DeSoto. He had never expected to have it aimed at him. Please leave, before someone walks in and catches us here; I do have boarders tonight, she warned.

Now his look had turned to desperation. Victoria, you can't... Don't... He couldn't make his throat work properly.

I can do anything the situation calls for, she said, the sound of unhappiness now creeping into her voice to hide under the frigidity. And this situation is simple. Either you want to marry me or you don't.

Victoria, I... He stopped in utter bewilderment and just looked at her. This can't be happening, he reflected dispassionately.

That's what I thought, she said, taking his silence for denial. You don't wish to marry me or anyone, ever. In that case, Señor Zorro, I have to ask you to leave. The unhappiness in her voice was clearly evident by then.

That loosened up his throat! Victoria, wait, don't do anything hasty or...

She opened the back door wide enough to let the firelight brighten a square of dust on the ground outside. After being sited by the patrol of lancers who walked around the pueblo every night, every soldier in town should soon be alerted to his presence if he didn't leave right now. You can't... he tried again.

I said to leave! she ordered, and opened the door even wider.

Zorro had no choice but to disappear into the darkness that had always protected him. He moved to the door. Please...

Out! Unless you want to change your mind. Again she took his short silence as acquiescence. I only plan to see men who are serious about marriage.

I'm as serious as you are, he claimed, but the whistle of a bullet that whistled around the corner of the tavern encouraged him to take her advice to leave her kitchen. The lancers on patrol had seen them and raised the alarm. He couldn't stay and risk one of those bullets finding their target in her slight form standing silhouetted perfectly in the firelight. I must go. But this conversation isn't over yet. Another bullet cut off her reply, and with an angry growl at the lancers, he disappeared into the night. Two more bullets missed their objective in the poor lighting, but by then, Victoria had dejectedly swung the door shut. She was as mournful to see him go, now, as she was to order him to leave. But that doesn't change the facts, she reminded herself. If he has no plans to marry in the future, I have to get used to that and move on, too. With that thought accompanied by a will of iron, she managed to bank the fire for the night and climb to her room before her will crumbled and the first tear fell to her blouse.

Diego was almost hysterical by the time he reached the hidden cave. If not for the presence of Felipe, who listened to him talk for two whole hours, his hysterics would have continued indefinitely. The only thing that he was capable of doing was to think over and over again, like a litany, that he had lost Victoria, that his life had to go on somehow without her when all he wanted to do was sit down in someone's lap and cry. It was a humbling emotion, especially considering who he was.

The following day he wanted nothing better than to stay in bed all day, too depressed about his promised future to rise at all, but to be too depressed would look suspicious, Felipe pointed out. Diego wasn't certain he cared any longer, and it was still only at the gentle prodding of the servant that made him get out of bed at all. Then his father wanted o go to town, and as Diego couldn't think of a plausible excuse that didn't spread light on his argument with Victoria, he was obliged to go with him. And once they reached the pueblo before lunch, even the news of an unexpected strike from the Ramirez gang didn't excite Diego's sense of justice very much.

When Don Alejandro began leading them all in the direction of the tavern, Diego decided that he had taken enough bullying for the day. He was going to stay as far away as he possibly could from the tavern, and hence Victoria, that day. He claimed he had too much work to do to spend time eating lunch at the tavern, and he would have something to eat sent over to him in an hour. Secretly, he planned to avoid food almost as heavily as he avoided the tavern. Food, any food, sounded like eating something that would taste like dust in his mouth, promising only to make his stomach heave and roll unmercifully. Eating lunch like it was any old day and unimportant when it was the most agonizing day of his life was simply out of the question.

Alejandro watched his son go beyond the mission church and on into The Guardian office. It was no news that he thought that his son hid behind the well-run newspaper, and now he was certain of it, but he had no idea what Diego could possibly want to hide from. He didn't know that Diego wished to stay out of sight of the tavern owner. It's just as well that he's not eating with us, he said to Felipe as he watched the closed Guardian office door. He was in a bad mood anyway. He wouldn't have been very good company today.

Felipe nodded, not knowing what else he was supposed to do. Should he leave Diego alone or go after him? But on second thought, he decided to leave the grieving man to himself. His own company for a few hours couldn't darken his mood any further. It was already as dark as Felipe had ever seen it, and that included when Señorita Victoria had been shot and clung to life by nothing more than a thread and Diego's prayers. But, he supposed, Diego'd had hope then. Now he had no hope at all, no hope of a reconciliation between him and Victoria, and it made all the difference in the world. So, cautiously, Felipe watched Diego look once at the tavern, once at the mission, then disappear into his office. He refused to flinch at the sound of the slamming door.

Do you know what's gotten in to him? asked Alejandro in confusion. It's like he's lost the love of a pretty señorita, though I know that's not the case. Puzzled, he silently wondered what could cause his even-tempered, studious son to behave so poorly.

Felipe just shrugged, unable to tell is patrón how close he was to the truth. He just hoped that Diego did more with his solitude than sit and stare at the wall.

Diego did nothing more than sit in his chair and stare at the wall. Felipe would have been completely disgusted with him, but even the threat of a disgruntled Felipe didn't deter Diego's tears. They flowed freely down his cheeks and he made no move to end their slow descent. Movement seemed too painful right then. In fact, it was a miracle he was in Los Angeles at all. However, even if he had been forced into the pueblo by the overbearing encouragement of his father, he would not spend the afternoon only feet away from Victoria. He refused to go into the tavern. Even the weak-willed Diego de la Vega had his limits.

So Diego sat, going over and over in his mind his conversation with Victoria from the night before, wondering what he had said or done that had been so wrong. How had a sizable inheritance led to an argument that ended a relationship that had gone on for so many years? And what could he do to get her back?

It was the first time Diego had been coherent enough to ask himself any questions. He disregarded the first three ideas that came to his mind as he sat and struggled to come up with a reason why Victoria shouldn't give up on him. It was only after he had rejected the fourth plot as wishful fantasy that he realized he was still trying to come up with a way to keep Victoria without revealing his identity. Except he didn't care about his identity any longer. Without Victoria, he might as well be dead. Suddenly, the invitation of the Alcalde's gallows didn't seem as repulsive as it had before.

At that thought, Diego abruptly knew that he had fallen into a depression so deep that only kind words from Victoria would ever get him out again, and kind words from Victoria were as likely to happen as a complete turnaround in the behavior patterns of the Alcalde. In other words, not at all.

Diego was so deeply lost in a haze of thoughts about Victoria, the gallows, and death that he almost didn't recognize the change offered when the new idea hit him like a thunderbolt out of a blue sky. He was so amazed, he sat silent for a moment, thinking how perfect the idea was and surprised that he hadn't thought of it before. But he had to admit that he'd been far too depressed to see much of anything, that he had been busy reacting instead of acting on any new idea. Victoria has done all the thinking of this couple, he groused to himself, and had to take a moment to react once again to the awful thought of life without Victoria in it before he could go on with his concept. Even with his blood frozen almost to a halt, he let the new idea he'd had run around and around in his mind.

Why not offer Victoria exactly what she wanted; marriage?

Slowly, trying to comprehend all of his idea's possible eventualities, Diego went on with his contemplations. The first thing he had to consider was if he could be married to Victoria while Ignacio DeSoto was the Alcalde of Los Angeles.

Diego supposed the question ought to be whether or not he could carry out the disguise of Zorro if DeSoto was Alcalde of Los Angeles? And did he, Diego, even care about Zorro anymore?

Diego thought about that as he stared at the wall, and he decided that no, as things were right at this moment, he didn't care if he never donned the black clothes of Zorro again. But if he married Victoria, he might feel differently, so he mentally left open the option of keeping the legend going. He didn't know yet what he might want to do in the future, if he had one.

Diego briefly wondered if he should try to continue his conversation with Victoria from the night before, but he believed they had said everything to each other they could say under the circumstances. Even though he had actually said relatively little, he didn't think there was much more to say. No, Zorro couldn't help in this situation, he decided. He would have to make his offer for Victoria's hand as Diego. For the first time that day, he felt relieved that he had come into the pueblo as himself. It was the first positive emotion he had felt since he had been standing in her kitchen the night before. It hadn't been very long ago, admittedly, but to him it seemed like a lifetime had gone by.

Diego comprehended just how much the thought of seeing Victoria had meant to him for the first time in his entire life. Without the hope she offered for a future at her side, there was no drive to go on. Simply the promise of holding her in his arms was too loud of a call to deny. Even if they had to live through several weeks of not seeing each other as Zorro and Victoria, the hope had been alive. And if there was little need for Zorro to show himself in the pueblo, he could always count on seeing Victoria as Diego to keep him content, even if he had no hope of contact.

That made Diego consider a life as Diego, married to Victoria, with DeSoto as Alcalde, and it didn't take him long to decide that yes, he could be married to Victoria while DeSoto was Alcalde. Could he resume the disguise of Zorro under the same conditions? He supposed he could, but he tried to envision how Victoria might feel, spending days and nights alone, worrying for his safety. He decided again to leave his options open there, too, but to offer to give up the masked bandit if she wished. There was no Zorro without Victoria anyway, so the thought of Diego without a Zorro wasn't such a long stretch of the imagination.

Moodily, Diego stared out of The Guardian's one window and followed the figure of the man so prominently on his mind stride across the plaza in the direction of the tavern, obviously in the hopes of an early lunch. Idly, Diego wondered where Sergeant Mendoza was if not with his superior officer, but then he recalled that Mendoza was often in the tavern already, with Diego, keeping him company as he pumped the well-fed sergeant for information. He had been buying Mendoza food in exchange for information for years and the military officer he never guessed that anything clandestine was actually going on.

Diego decided to continue buying lunches for Mendoza whether Zorro remained active or not. It was a simple enough diversion, and Diego could easily picture the lunchtime of most days spent buying food while visiting his wife in her tavern.

Of course, he was assuming that he could convince Victoria that she should marry him, a slim possibility, now. He quickly discounted a life spent married to anyone else but Victoria, as well as a Victoria who remained ignorant of his identity as the masked crusader. They could never endure the stress of keeping secrets from each other, and Diego was sure he didn't want to. Victoria had the largest right to know his identity, after all, and it had suddenly become very appealing to reveal himself to her, if only he could convince her to marry him.

But what of his fear of rejection? What if Victoria really was finished with him?

The concept was so awful that Diego didn't even want to think about it. So he didn't.

Suddenly, without warning, all the inactivity of the day and the night before caught up with him, and he found he was tired of such behavior. He jumped up, tipping his desk chair over in his haste to move around. Unlike the typical, quiet, well-mannered nature of the past, he left the chair lying askew on the floor. Ironically enough, it had taken the threat of Victoria leaving him forever into pushing him into the very thing he thought he had to avoid at all costs. It was amazing what a little of the right incentive could do to 'encourage' a man. Just then, Diego imagined himself being the most encouraged person on the planet, but even he admitted that he could use all the help he could get.

With a tiny jump anyway, Diego headed for the tavern and his possible destiny.

Fifteen minutes earlier, Alejandro and Felipe entered the tavern alone, and the first thing they saw was Victoria, crying silently behind the bar. Can I get anything for you? she asked as silent tears raced down her cheeks.

Alejandro looked on in concern as a fascinated Felipe just stared at her, seeing the anguish of loss easily enough, though he had listened to the longing for Victoria from Diego for years. However, he was having a difficult time believing what he was seeing; the strongest woman he knew, reduced to tears because of the breakup with his mentor and friend. He felt blatant astonishment that Diego had meant so much to her. He continued to openly stare as his patrón spoke.

My dear, said Alejandro, what's wrong?

Victoria sniffled. Finally, she explained, Well, if you must know, Don Alejandro, Zorro and I had a parting of the ways, and it's all my fault! A fresh barrage of tears traced down her cheeks, only now, they weren't so silent. Victoria sobbed openly.

You're joking! Alejandro exclaimed. Their romance had been whispered about for years. It was almost part of the legend.

Victoria sniffled again and stifled a sob that tore at her chest. I wish I were joking, Don Alejandro, but I'm not. We had a big argument, the first one we've ever had, and then I told him to leave. Her shoulders shook. Returning to work seems to be the only thing I could do, but now I'm not sure it was a good idea.

Victoria! Alejandro commented, you'll see; Zorro will understand that you...

No, Don Alejandro! Victoria insisted. Zorro won't be understanding anything because I'll never see him again. And now I would do almost anything to say how stupid I was, and apologize, but there's no way to get word to him. You're my last hope. Do you know where he is?

Alejandro reached a comforting hand across the green countertop between them. I wish I did, Victoria, but no, I don't.

Victoria just sighed, her breath rattling with the sound of her misery. I've been telling everybody, hoping word gets back to him, but I'm almost out of hope of ever finding him, she said quietly, then hid puffy eyes momentarily behind her hands in defeat.

Good riddance, that's what I say, said a new voice from behind them.

Alejandro whirled around, and found himself face to face with the only man who dared to publicly mock the pain Victoria was quite obviously in at the moment. To do so with a smile on his face was unfeasible to the older caballero. Alejandro was amazed. You can't mean that, Alcalde.

Mean it? Of course I mean it! stated DeSoto as he wiped his hands on the napkin that one of the tavern's girls had provided with his meal. If it means that we've seen the last of that black fiend, then I'll mock fifty señoritas!

You would treat with contempt a pain such as Victoria's? inquired an astonished Alejandro.

Yes, answered DeSoto readily, if it would mean the last of him.

But this is about Victoria we're talking about! protested an outraged Alejandro.

DeSoto eyed the crying señorita over Alejandro's shoulders. She only got what she deserved for falling in love with an outlaw in the first place, he stated with unequivocal venom.

Alejandro grunted at the other man's words. You're just sore that he didn't say goodbye to his old enemy, he predicted.

DeSoto blanched, surprised at how close Alejandro had come to the twisted truth. You wish! he said, attempting to cover that truth. Then, still hiding, but with a face schooled into a grimace of distaste at Alejandro's prediction, he turned to Victoria. Señorita, I'd like another glass of wine, if you please.

Victoria eyed him coldly as the tears continued to run down her cheeks. I wouldn't bet on it, Alcalde, she answered, threw down the towel she was carrying in a disgust of her own, then walked off to the kitchen with as much dignity as she could muster. Given the circumstances, it wasn't much.

Alejandro couldn't help himself; he chuckled. She certainly told you.

DeSoto grimaced at Victoria's defiance. He thought momentarily about arresting her, but then decided that she was in plenty of pain without adding the notoriety of the jail cells to it.

However, her behavior was enough to make DeSoto growl in annoyance. The Alcalde reached behind Alejandro and down until he felt the neck of the wine bottle he was searching for and poured a glass. The purple liquid filled his crystal goblet.

Alejandro shook his head. Happy to see the man bested at something, he looked over the crowd until he found an empty table. He faced insultingly away from the Alcalde, and led Felipe over to a wooden bench. The Alcalde disappeared back to his table, alone.

Alejandro shook his head again. Isn't it odd, Felipe, that both Diego and Victoria share the same mood? Ah, well, they'll get over it soon enough, and he turned to the young tavern waitress who was ready to take his lunch order while Felipe just covered his face with his hand and groaned. It wouldn't take too much imagination for the older gentleman to comprehend that Diego was the man Victoria was looking for. He hoped that Diego knew what to do in such a situation.

Such a situation was far from Diego's mind at the moment. With a single-minded intensity that wasn't so foreign to him, he jolted up the one step onto the tavern's wooden porch and entered the establishment. Once there, he headed towards the swaying curtains that led to Victoria's kitchen.

Son, Alejandro immediately cautioned as Diego prepared to stride past. Victoria's very distraught right now.

Diego miraculously had the presence of mind to say, I heard, Father.

I wouldn't bother her right now if I were you, Alejandro warned next.

Briefly, Diego wondered what constituted 'distraught'. But it was as if he hadn't heard his father. I promise not to bother her in any way, but she shouldn't be alone at a time like this, either. Diego turned back towards the curtains.

Alejandro had never seen such determination as what he glimpsed at that moment in the face of his son. It was as if Diego were a different person. It was as if Diego were Zorro. Which h was ridiculous, Alejandro continued to think.

Diego wrapped on the door frame leading into the kitchen just as a new concept burst into his father's mind, yet it was so inconceivable as to almost be impossible. It's not so ridiculous, Alejandro thought to himself. He remained silent as he watched his only son vanish through the curtains, his mouth an 'oh' of surprise.

Felipe watched his patrón's face show apparent shock for a second, then shutter his hew knowledge until he looked the standard country gentleman that he was. Such a complete shutting down was amazing to behold, but Alejandro was too devoted to Diego to react any other way.

With eyebrows raised to his hairline, contemplating silently, Felipe began eating his lunch as nonchalantly as he could; he simply didn't know what else to do. It seemed that he never knew what to do anymore, he complained to himself.

Diego slowly entered the realms of the kitchen he was so familiar with, wondering what kind of reception he would find. But, even so, he was wholly unprepared for what he did encounter beyond the curtain.

Maria and a girl Diego didn't know rushed from the fireplace to the shelves on the walls, pulling down what items they needed, concentrating on keeping the tavern's patrons happy, hence keeping the tavern full no matter the cost. Victoria, the owner of that tavern, who should have been bustling around with the girls, sat hunched over on a long bench stored by the fireplace, utterly helpless and crying so hard that she was shaking.

Diego was immediately horrified.

A crying woman. Not only that, but the woman, sobbing hard enough that she was shaking the bench. Her head was flung forward, resting on arms bent on her knees, hiding under black hair grown long since Zorro had first met her. And she was sobbing so hard that he almost didn't recognize her.

Diego couldn't stand it. He had been trained to react in a horrified manner when any woman was crying, and the crying of this woman proved to be more than he could handle. Ignoring the warning bells clanging in his mind, he instantly slid beside her onto the bench, and reached up to softly run his hand down her hair.

Victoria! he whispered, Stop crying! To his credit, he didn't pretend that something wasn't terribly wrong as he continued to try to comfort her.

But Victoria refused to be comforted. Oh, Diego, my life is such a mess! she insisted loudly. I can't stop crying!

Next, he tried to give relief by wrapping his arm around her heaving shoulders. What happened? he asked.

Victoria shivered once more. We argued! she said. About something stupid, and then I ordered him out of my tavern!

You and Zorro, you mean? Diego asked, though he was perfectly aware of the truth.

Victoria wailed anew at the mention of her masked man's name. With an effort, she collected herself. And now, there's nothing I want more that to apologize, and it's too late; I have no idea how to find him! She hiccuped, then more tears and sobs tore through her.

Victoria wished to apologize? Diego couldn't be more stunned than if Mendoza had turned down the enticement of an extra meal. He didn't think he had ever witnessed an apologizing Victoria before, had only heard about such an incident. Since it was so rare, he didn't know how to react.

But one thing he did understand was that he and Victoria needed privacy. He turned to Maria and the girl who was acting the part of a harried waitress, and suggested, Why don't you leave us alone for a moment. I'll take care of her for awhile.

Diego's suggestion was met with looks of relief from both women, and they grabbed what they thought they would need to tide them over for several minutes, then disappeared through the curtain.

As soon as the hanging material fluttered shut behind them, leaving Diego alone in the room with a crying Victoria and no audience to pretend in front of, Diego's voice dropped an entire octave as he centered all his attention on the woman beside him. Even more astonishingly, he kissed her hair as he spoke. It's all right, you've found me.

Victoria's head jerked up at the sound of his words more so than at the words themselves. Many people had told her that everything would be better soon, but no one had spoken in the tones she so wished to hear, until now. Besides that, his kiss was burning a hole through the top of her head.

Knowing that he was giving himself away, and not particularly caring if he did, Diego pushed Victoria's hair away from where it stuck to her wet cheeks, and kissed her head again. Don't cry, please. It will just break my heart if you do.

Not being careful or cautious at all now, Victoria abruptly stopped her sobbing and openly drew in a sharp hiss of breath and expectantly looked up at him as he gazed down at her. Tears continued to streak her cheeks and hang from her lashes.

He met her shock with a caress of her exposed cheeks. I'm so sorry, he said, his voice still low and now one laced with answering pain. If I could take the whole argument back, I would in an instant. Please, Victoria... But he couldn't finish, and his voice trailed off to silence, though he was still thoughtful enough to pull his linen handkerchief from the pocket of his trousers and start mopping at the tear tracks under his fingers. Please don't do anything rash, he whispered.

Too stunned to move or react much, Victoria only looked at him, though the deluge of fresh tears had halted. Aghast beyond her ability to take in everything around her, Victoria could only shudder out her held breath and whisper, You!

Making no attempt to hide anything any longer, Diego wiped at her cheek and kissed her again. I'm so sorry, Victoria, he said again, letting his words mean everything from their argument the night before to the deception he had been leading for the last several years. But now I know that a life without you isn't a life worth living, he claimed. Please, you have to... If you don't... Please, Victoria, he began again, if you don't let me apologize, I promise I'll walk right out of that curtain and turn myself over to the Alcalde. I can't stand this torture any longer.

Victoria looked at him again, ignoring the wet streaks that were still on her face. You? she asked reverently, quietly. All this time, every day in my tavern, it's been you?

Just as quiet, Diego nodded with a final caress to her hair. Please don't be angry that I didn't tell you before. I've been so afraid for years, he told her. But last night... The torment of losing you was worse than death. I don't want to go through anything like that ever again. Hanging has to feel better.

No! said a stunned Victoria. She felt the cold lump in her chest that was a surprised heart, and knew intuitively that having a surprised heart was better than having a devastated one. Don't die. Not now. Not ever. With those words, she clutched at his hand with both of hers. I'm so sorry, too, and all I could think about all night was to hope that you might say that you will take me back, but I had no idea how to leave a message for you... Her voice trailed off as well into the silence of the kitchen.

Then Diego recalled his reason for coming to the kitchen in the first place. Not ashamed of his outpouring of affection, holding nothing back now, he said, Victoria, there's nothing I would like better except to get married to you as soon as possible.

Again, Victoria hissed in a breath that reverberated throughout the kitchen. She hiccuped for a moment, and fresh tears traced down her cheeks, but she was calm enough to whisper in wonder, Do you mean that?

Diego brushed her dark hair aside once more. I've never meant anything more. He stroked the back of her head with his hand. Just as long as I don't have to live through another night like the one last night turned out to be. That was awful, as Felipe can tell you.

Felipe? she inquired.

Diego looked contrite. I wasn't exactly forthcoming about how much our relationship has grown when I spoke of him last night, he said.

Victoria was quiet for a few moments as Diego not-so-cautiosly pulled her into his comforting arms. He rested his chin on the top of her head and closed his eyes.

Finally, Victoria said, I should be furious with you, but last night was so terrible... She shuddered in the safe comfort of his arms, then went on. I want you to know how sorry I am, for everything, and that I do want to get married, as soon as we can. I've always wanted to. That's why I'm so upset today.

Diego tightened his hold on her. I don't want you to ever be so upset again, he vowed.

Completely unphased at knowing the truth, Victoria embraced him right back. You won't, she promised. A moment went by before she spoke again, I don't believe this; I've finally found out who you are.

Diego lowered his head until his cheek touched hers. I should have told you last night, he admitted regretfully. But I didn't know yet, I didn't understand how awful it can be.

Another silent moment went by while they just held each other tightly. At last, Victoria whispered, I don't think we should tell anyone more than they need to know.

I agree, Diego whispered readily. I plan to let Zorro slowly disappear. I could never put you through the worry he's sure to cause. I don't want to do that to you.

Disappear? she asked incredulously.

Diego grazed her forehead with his lips while the skin on his own forehead felt tight and hot. He sensed his own tear streaks as he said, I could never do to you what it would take to keep him going, and last night I learned that life without you in it is no life at all. It was either one or the other.

I don't want you to choose, she whispered as goosepimples erupted all over her skin at his quick endearment.

Diego repeated the gesture. There is nothing to chose between as far as I'm concerned. Then he kissed her, sweeping her away on the sensations of love and seduction that made him give up his struggle for justice without a second thought. It was exhilarating how quickly his emotions had changed from only this morning's ride into the pueblo.

With a crazily beating heart, Victoria drew back, amazed at how her life had altered in only a few moments. I can't believe you thought I would be angry, she scoffed later.

Diego shrugged. I'll make no apologies for a feeling that kept me quiet for years, but I've never been more happy in my entire life to be wrong than I am right at this moment. He hugged her tight.

There's nothing so irrational as fear, Victoria said, remembering their conversation from the night before.

Suddenly Diego leaned away from her. What about your inheritance? Have you told anyone about that?

Victoria blankly stared at him. Oh, I forgot about that, she said softly.

A smile slowly crept over his features. Won't they be surprised? he guessed.

An answering smile lit her face. About that and a few other things, as well, she predicted right back.

Back to [Zorro Stories]. Send comments to

This page has been accessed 3042 times since 2005 Jul 30.