This story is a sequel to the story called 'Letters.'

Matters Of Engagement

by Linda Bindner

Victoria sat, unmoving, on the edge of her bed. The darkness wrapped around her like a safety net of black silk. She could hardly help thinking of Zorro's inky, dark mask while she contemplated what she planned to do now with her new knowledge while the parchment bearing Diego's single word letter dangled, forgotten, from her fingers.

Victoria supposed she could run away; she had always played with images of leaving the tavern, its customers, its demands, behind as she traveled to some exotic place like San Bernardino or Monterey.

Then she laughed at herself. The visualization of Diego watching placidly as she left Los Angeles stymied her dreams almost the second they materialized; he would never be so unresponsive in real life as to let her leave without a word of explanation just because she wanted to run away from the demands of making a decision about whether to accept or reject him as both a suitor in general and the masked man known as Zorro in particular. The idea of him letting her just slip away was ludicrous.

Victoria didn't know what else to do, however. She next tried to imagine herself as telling him her response to his statement in the letter, but she didn't know which way that response of hers would be; yes, she accepted him unconditionally, or no, she rejected him out of turn. Did she feel something that was in the middle of the two responses? How would she behave towards him in the future?

Victoria wished there was someone in her bedroom with her right at that instant who would tell her what to think, what to feel. It was difficult for her to know what was going on inside her when she felt so numb at the outset.

To start off with, Victoria tried to force herself to see her friend, Don Diego, performing the daring, athletic exploits that she had seen Zorro achieve in the past. She couldn't, which was the point of the deception, she guessed. Next, she attempted to see the hero, Zorro, in the languid, indolent movements of Don Diego, and failed again. Each time she tried to picture her proclaimed love doing something as normal as eating lunch in her tavern, something she had seen Diego do on a number of occasions, she couldn't quite imagine it. The image always coalesced into a masked man jumping to her defense or a book-reading individual who looked like he wanted to crawl under the table each time danger was mentioned. It was a reaction to the hidden identity that she hadn't anticipated in her pre-unmasking daydreams.

Victoria then endeavored to picture the two men, Diego and Zorro, as one person. She was more successful at this action, but was still not entirely satisfied with the image her imagination presented for her. But this likeness was the closest she had come all night to the reality she knew she held in her hand. What that letter indicated, that Diego was Zorro, was so amazing that it was almost impossible to believe, even though she held the proof in her hands.

Diego was Zorro.

Zorro was Diego.

Did it matter who was who? The man she loved was her best friend. Of course, it made sense that she would love the man whom she had befriended, and he had ensured that friendship just by being close to his chosen love. It all made a sort of twisted, amazing sense when she looked at the events of the past four years in a logical, dispassionate light.

The single candle that she had taken the time to light in her kitchen what seemed like years ago now fluttered in the breeze that slipped around the edge of her shutters. They were closed tight against the darkness, but even in the closed position, they had bent over the years just enough at the repeated handling by Zorro as he pulled himself into the room from the tavern roof that now they met, but left a gap in the middle.

That indentation left behind by his gloved fingers brought her out of her numbness with a jolt. Victoria had no trouble visualizing the masked hero of the pueblo crawling into her room, sometimes with an intent of innocence, more often lately with anything but an unawareness of her femininity in mind. Now she knew even the identity of that man under the mask. Diego had kissed her, caressed her, made sweet promises to her, loved her, all under the cover of darkness and in the name of a man dressed in black...

So, with that stirring representation in mind, she had to ask herself the question she had been avoiding ever since she had first discovered that piece if parchment surrounded by rose petals on her pillow several hours before - could she, did she, love Don Diego?

Willingly now, she was able to call a vision of the caballero in question to mind as she had frequently seen him, eating, riding into the pueblo, entertaining children with magic tricks, striding into her kitchen, leaning on her bar to ostensibly read a book but instead to watch her surreptitiously through his eyelashes as he drank coffee so often in the morning... And Victoria couldn't help it; she glowed under all the memory of all the extra attention she had received from him in the past.

For the first time in her deliberations, she considered what a risk he was taking by writing down an answer, any answer, to her original question as to his identity. She'd noticed that he hadn't include a salutation, thus not naming her in case his letter fell into the wrong hands, thus giving proof of nothing to the wrong person. Nor had he included his own name in the disclosure, thus not naming himself in the deception, though she knew inherently that the one-word letter was from him. Who else was she currently writing to? This letter couldn't even be mixed up as a correspondence from one of her brothers; they were both presently undercover operatives in Mexico, in a prison there, one as a guard and one as a prisoner with frequent reminders to her before the incarceration began that it was all part of an elaborate hoax on the king of Spain to showcase his torrid dealings in the more seamy side of prison life.

Victoria smiled then at that thought; she was destined to be surrounded by men bent on tricking someone, no matter what she did. Either those men were her brothers, relatives by birth, or she had chosen to love that particular individual in an event that had happened as quickly as it had changed her life.

For a moment, Victoria allowed herself the indulgence of remembering her reintroduction to Diego when he had returned from Spain. He had immediately challenged a man of the military for her honor, something that few had the courage to do. He had even stood up to the Alcalde, something that no one did at the time. Then she had been arrested, Zorro had rescued her from jail, and the recently returned caballero had faded from her mind as a man in black took his place. Only that man in black had been that caballero...

It was all very confusing if Victoria let it become so. She had only to try to picture Diego doing anything heroic, or Zorro reading a book of poetry, to become mentally overwhelmed by the information that the one-word letter indicated. But she banished this image, concentrating instead on the picture of the man who had entered her tavern four years before, behaving with all the vitality of several men, and she had no trouble seeing the real Diego in her mind. Now, if she could just hang on to that notion...

Victoria sighed, and the sound reverberated through the dimly lit room. She rose, crossed to her desk, slipped aside the secret panel behind one drawer on the right, and pulled out the engagement ring that Zorro had given her the year before. The emerald winked at her and the diamonds blinked in the candle light. She put that beautiful piece of jewelry onto her finger and looked at it again. She could hear his voice in her mind saying, 'This was my mother's.' Now that 'mother' grew into a woman only partially remembered in the young Victoria's mind; Elena de la Vega. The mythic mother-in-law who was never meant to be, but who haunted Victoria now in spirit; she watched Victoria, wondering if this chosen daughter was good enough for a son of hers or not.

Victoria lifted her chin in an unconscious answer to the imagined question; of course she was good enough for Diego de la Vega. The fact that he loved her more than life itself ought to be enough to convince anybody of his affection; the letters he had recently written to her were evidence of his feelings. And the letters she had written to him in response to his messages were also confirmation of her regard for him... There was no doubt as to his emotions in respect to her or her disposition concerning him; it had been written down for all eternity in the communications they had been writing to each other for the past two weeks...

So what was her problem, then? What was she spending all this time deliberating about? Didn't she love him? Hadn't she just confirmed that notion and her suspicions as to his identity in the letters to him that she had poured hours of sweat into writing? Wasn't there nothing to do but accept his reply like the acknowledgment that it was?

Suddenly, a smile slowly crept across Victoria's features. Only partially in a daze now, she walked the few steps to the trunk at the foot of her bed, and opened it. After scrabbling through linens and pillowcases that were meant for her dowry, she found what she was looking for; three quilts, all folded neatly, all smelling like the cedar of the trunk cover, and all in need of a good washing. She pulled on the one that depicted a double wedding ring design, and tugged it from the middle of the pile onto the floor.

Dust hadn't reached the material, though it had been packed away and forgotten since her early teen years. The mistakes she had made while creating it glared at her when she unfolded the covering to critique her work, but she decided the mistakes weren't so bad that anybody else would notice. The double wedding ring design now looped and swirled, mocking her more romantic notions, even though a young Victoria Escalante had clearly been equally as romantic as the older, wiser, version. Try as she might, she couldn't rid herself of those more tender yearnings of the heart. Now, years later, she kind of appreciated those feelings in the innocent girl she had been.

Experimentally, Victoria took a sniff, then wrinkled her nose at the odor of old material, despite the cedar of the trunk it had been stored in all these years. It needed a good washing, among a few repairs, and she didn't hesitate, now, as she headed for the door to her room, the quilt dragging behind her along the floor. If it needed a good washing, that was what she intended to give it. The fact that it was after three in the morning did not act as a deterrent at all.

Z Z Z

To Victoria's satisfaction, the quilt was dry by the next morning. She quickly grabbed a needle and some strong thread to fix the worst mistakes, returned the stools she had used to spread the quilt on to the tables in the main room, folded the quilt, and placed it in a safe location among her extra bedding before she had to start breakfast for the hungry stage coach driver who was due to arrive at the tavern at any moment to collect the patrons who had spent the night at the only inn Los Angeles had to offer. With a small smile to herself, she glanced at the emerald ring on her finger before starting to prepare breakfast burritos for her hungry customers, then readied herself to look sad and withdrawn for those very patrons.

Z Z Z

Victoria was sweeping the plaza dust off the tavern porch at 10;00 that morning when she finally saw him. Diego was standing still as a statue, his arms crossed, leaning in the shade against The Guardian's office building, watching her. The staring was much more open than it had ever been in the past, and such regard from him would have been slightly intimidating if not for the week and a half worth of letters that he had sent to her that had helped her get used to the idea that she was in love with Diego, that he was Zorro, and that her future was no longer just about her as she contemplated being truly united to the de la Vegas in reality and what such a union might mean to the pueblo as a whole and that family in particular.

With that thought spreading pleasantly through her mind, his eyes moved lazily to her right hand, where the ring winked green and white in the sun. Slowly, like the dawn light spreading across the ocean, he grinned at her across the dust. He actually grinned! Victoria didn't think she had ever seen Diego grin before. Only as Zorro did he allow the more saucy expression to creep across his features. But now, Zorro was dead, Diego had revealed himself both as the masked bandit and alive instead of gone, had exposed himself to her to answer one of her greatest dreams, and she was supposed to look destroyed instead of like a woman completely in love.

Victoria beckoned to him to join her at the tavern porch by crooking her index finger at him. But he held up a finger to halt her invitation for a moment, and continued to stare quite openly at her. In response to his obvious attentions, she blushed profusely. Then he winked wickedly at her across the plaza, and her insides did a summersault that would have astonished the citizens of the town. This is going to be hard, she thought as she turned away from his eyes and moved into her tavern in a move that was completely self-preservation.

She returned to her kitchen, poured two cups of coffee, added sugar to one, put the cups on a tray, and carried them back out to the porch before Diego arrived to stand next to her. A palpable wave of energy shot between them, but she could do nothing to acknowledge such a strong sense of attachment other than smile thinly at him and offer him one of the cups of coffee, the one without the sugar sweetening it. Here, she said, her voice quiet as she held out one cup containing the hot beverage. Black, just the way you like it.

Diego gave her an appreciative look of his own. His voice was low, as well. You know how I drink my coffee in the morning? He sank down on the edge of the porch, his feet still resting in the dust in the shade of the building that would hold off the intense heat of the sun for a few more hours.

Of course I do, Victoria answered and sat beside him after smoothing her skirt. There are a lot of things about you that I know.

Such as? he asked with a side long look that could have become a smile.

Victoria lifted her eyes to stare up at the sky, pretending to think. Oh, there are so many things, I can't possibly go into all of them now. But I do know about your love of watching a good sunset.

This time he didn't bother to hide his smile; he fairly beamed his good will. Everybody knows that, he claimed.

Precisely, she said, and smiled back. Then she quickly schooled her face into a doleful expression and took a sip of the coffee after blowing on the heat it promised.

Her look must have reminded Diego of what he intended to say, for he cleared his throat and looked away towards the cuartel, suddenly nervous. I've been thinking, Victoria...

How scary, she interrupted him, sounding sarcastic in spite of the subdued tone of her voice.

His grin returned. I know. My father would be amazed at me. But seriously, I think I've come up with a solution to all our problems, he added on a whisper, though no one was near their position on the porch.

Yes? she eagerly whispered back. She couldn't help herself; she knew she was supposed to appear gloomy and oppressed by life, grieving at the death of her masked love, but she found it was almost impossible to deny the zip of energy that radiated from him. She briefly wondered how he had suppressed it for four long years. Or how she had missed it. Go on.

Since you seem okay with this... you are okay with this, aren't you? he asked hesitantly.

Remembering the quilt she had stayed up half the night to wash, Victoria nodded, and felt her heart squeeze with joy inside her chest. She would have to be a fool not to be okay with these new developments. And she was many things, but no fool.

Diego went on, his voice still so low that she almost didn't hear it, In light of recent... changes... he said, cautiously at first, gazing at her from the corner of his blue eyes to judge her reaction to his idea, and following what I said about how every man in town is now hounding your every footstep...

And that's most annoying, I assure you, she informed him.

He continued as if she hadn't said anything, though his grin got a little wider, ... we can say that I proposed to you in order to keep you safe, now that Zorro isn't around to do it. You can wear your ring, everyone can know that this is to be a marriage of convenience, as it were, and you can go on loving a man who is not your husband...

... But I soon see the error of my ways and start to show an enduring affection for my new husband, she suggested.

Diego nodded and rubbed his thumb suggestively along her thigh where no one could see the gesture of endearment. ... and I will 'explain' my constant softness for you very soon after the wedding. What do you think?

Victoria hardly paused for a moment. I think, she said, that it shouldn't take Don Alejandro long to plan the wedding he's been talking about for years.

Then you accept?

With all my heart. Do I get to kiss you now?

A look of longing that had been too often held in check crossed his face. Please don't offer the temptation, he said.

All right, she agreed, but ran her hand along his own thigh like he had to hers in retaliation for having to pretend to keep his secret. But don't expect me to hold to that when I have you alone.

Diego smiled again. Never, he sighed.

Victoria thought for a moment that she had imagined his answer and that he intended to jump up and leave her alone to drink her coffee, but the sudden and unexpected appearance of the Alcalde stayed his feet.

Well, stated DeSoto as he paused beside them instead of leaping up the porch step as he clearly planned to do according to the expression of anticipation on his face. Handing out bereavements, I see. He gazed superiorly at Diego just before he ran an appreciative eye down Victoria's frame, something he had never done when Zorro was reputed to be alive. It seemed that his hatred of the masked outlaw had grown into esteem for his señorita now that he was dead. Diego's hand tightened almost imperceptibly on Victoria's fingers still out of sight between their legs.

Not exactly, Diego replied aloud in the higher, affected tones that everyone associated with the kind caballero.

What do you mean? DeSoto tore his gaze away from relishing Victoria to settle more firmly on his young schoolmate while she quietly seethed at his assumptions.

Diego sighed. This was it. You're the first to know, he said in an offhand way, as if the intelligence made no difference to him. I've just asked Victoria to marry me, and she's accepted.

What? DeSoto looked stunned.

Diego gestured nonchalantly with his free hand holding the coffee cup. The black liquid came dangerously close to sloshing over the rim of the cup, and Victoria realized that he had made the move on purpose and was in control of his actions the entire time. Her amazement for Diego increased even as he went on to explain, As a safety precaution, He carefully took a sip of coffee. Something I've noticed since Zorro's death last week... He paused to watch the Alcalde's face grow dark at the mention of his most pernicious foe.

That brigand, DeSoto offered. As you've probably also noticed, we're much better off without him.

Victoria's own fingers tightened at the comment, and Diego's hand responded in commiseration, but he continued to allay the Alcalde's curiosity. Yes, well, you could say that his death has also had a rather... Diego seemed to mentally grope for the right word to describe what he had witnessed in the tavern. ...unforeseen effect in the men of the pueblo.

You can say that again. Victoria thought of the many times she had been forced to step around men just to reach her kitchen in the last week alone.

Oh? politely inquired the Alcalde. He didn't have any suspicions that he might be interested in what Diego de la Vega had to say. He even sounded uninterested. What's that?

Fool, Victoria considered, but kept the opinion to herself.

Diego continued. That every single man in the territory has stopped in Los Angeles to pay court to Victoria and keep her from completing her work.

DeSoto snorted. And this is a problem?

Diego sighed as if he didn't want to be bothered to explain. It is a problem if Victoria can't run her tavern at her usual high standards. He shrugged. As Father has said so often in the past... Here he gave the impression of a long-suffering man. ... I need to marry sometime soon, and Victoria needs the protection a marriage can offer. I'm just the first person in the pueblo to have thought of such an idea, he stated.

The Alcalde looked like he wanted to snort in derision again, but swallowed the unkind gesture. Instead, he appeared as if he had eaten the wrong thing for breakfast. And this doesn't bother you? Being second choice?

Victoria saw Diego's face darken out of the corner of her brown eye. I don't look at it as being second choice. Just a lucky man who is getting to marry a good friend.

The Alcalde spluttered, blinked, then blinked again. Finally, he was able to collect himself enough to say, Forgive me. Of course, how thoughtless of me. Let me be the first to offer my congratulations.

Thank you, Victoria said with a small smile that easily conveyed how lukewarm the marriage was meant to be perceived.

DeSoto placed his hand respectfully on the handle of his ceremonial sword. Now that Zorro was not around to challenge him on an almost daily basis, he had taken to wearing the more ornate and less useful weapon. Señorita. Señor. He nodded his farewell. Then he disappeared into the tavern for what promised to be a late breakfast or an early lunch.

Hmmpf, Victoria growled, but the hold Diego had on her hand, hidden under the billowing material of her skirt, was the only thing that stopped her from following him to swat him with her tray.

When the Alcalde had gone, Diego waited a moment, looked around at the emptiness surrounding them, then whispered, You were admirable in holding yourself back. Well done.

Victoria followed his gaze to eye the empty tavern doors. Thank you, she whispered back. But I hate how timid you have to be around him.

It's only until he leaves, Diego reminded her.

The reminder did little to soften her ire. I still don't like it. You're ten times the man he'll ever be.

Diego grinned once more. I value your opinion more than you know, but we can't say a word about it if one of us doesn't want to end up getting killed. He halted, then went on, And I've already been dead. I can assure you that it's not all it's cracked up to be.

Victoria flicked her thumbnail against the gold band of her ring to distract herself from smiling. Even if I can't show it every time I see you, you can act out such a 'rescue' anytime you want.

Diego glanced at her, and his eyes smoldered for just a second before he covered up the emotion. I hope I don't have to do any rescuing in the future, but know you're the most beautiful person I've ever rescued in the past, he noted with a catch in his voice.

Victoria really did smile this time, but dimmed the expression immediately. And you've saved plenty of people, she noted. A quiet moment went by, certainly long enough for DeSoto to either order some food or to get drawn into a conversation with one of Victoria's other patrons. She tugged on Diego's hand and jumped up. Come on. I have something to show you.

Diego surreptitiously dumped the rest of his coffee into the dirt beside the tavern, far enough back that no one would notice such a wet spot in the dust. I find myself wanting another cup of coffee, anyway. Lead on, oh precious fiancée, he quipped.

Victoria smiled at his deception with the coffee, then led him to the back door to her tavern. She pushed it open, knowing that the kitchen behind the door would be empty, as her helper, Maria, wasn't due to appear for work until 11:30.

She was right; the kitchen was just an empty room with a fire, vegetables on the counter, and...

What's this? Diego asked softly after he had picked up a corner of the quilt to gaze at.

It's a quilt, Victoria answered, her voice still barely a murmur.

Diego grimaced at her. I can see that. Then he noticed how old the bed covering in his hands was, and he looked more closely. This isn't..?

Victoria couldn't hold back her smile now. It should brighten up your room, don't you think?

Without saying anything more, Diego pulled it apart from its folds. The twists of the style she'd chosen met his eye. Quite suddenly, he smiled. I like the pattern, he said to her.

I thought you would. Victoria crossed her arms and leaned her hip against the block of wood in the center of her kitchen. Take it now, please, and think of me every time you lay down.

Good choice, and I will, Diego told her in a voice hushed now with love and desire instead of the need to avoid acquiring attention. He furtively glanced towards the curtains through which they could hear the sound of patron conversations, then towards the closed pantry door. He refolded the quilt and set it back among the extra bedding, pulled her to the pantry, yanked the door shut on them after they had squeezed into the tiny opening before the rows of shelves holding food and vegetables began, then buried his hands in her hair as he devoured her features with his eyes. On a whisper, he said, I love you. Please give me tons of quilts in the future. Whatever you want.

I will if you promise to shut up and kiss me before I explode.

Diego sorrowfully shook his head. That would be an unfortunate mess. Then he leaned down to softly, gently, kiss her lips three times before he sighed, a sound so full of love and home and longing, and kissed her so completely and so fully that she barely had time to prepare herself for the sensitive feelings that followed.

Victoria's head swam and her emotions spiked as he kissed her deeper, more desperately, in such a heartfelt, sincere way that she was helpless not to respond in kind. She wrapped her fingers around his neck, then grazed his back with her soothing, burning touch, as his kiss gave her a sense of yearning, of wonderment, that she had never felt from Zorro. It was only through a strict hold on her affections that she was able to remind herself that this man was Zorro. With that thought still in her head, she responded with equal desire and pushed into him as if she hadn't seen him for a year.

My sweet Victoria. My preciosa, he whispered before losing himself in the free strands of hair that always fell over her left shoulder and kissed her on the neck.

Mine, she couldn't stop herself from thinking. All mine. To value, and treasure, forever. She buried her head in the white shirt encasing his chest. Oh, Diego, I love you so much. How could I have been so unaware of what was right in front of me for so long?

Diego enveloped her in his arms. You saw what I wanted you to see. He tightened his grip. But now I will not let go of you. Not for my protection from my father's questions, no matter how uncomfortable they get, not for your temper, not for anything. He rested his head on the top of hers. Not even if you yell at me.

Victoria took a deep breath, an inhalation that was full of his specific scent, and grinned. I can't promise not to get angry at you in the future, but my temper tantrums will always be colored with my love for you; that will always hold my anger back.

Diego squeezed her one last time. You have no idea how frightened I was all last night. I don't think I got a wink of sleep while I waited for your answer.

Victoria giggled. Serves you right. Keeping me up that way, with just one word on a piece of paper... But even her whisper sounded more sardonic than angry as she held him.

I'm sorry, he said anyway. I have always wanted to marry you, and if I had to give away my identity to do it, I wouldn't, and didn't, hesitate.

Victoria looked up him so she could see his face. Always? she inquired.

Diego glanced down at her. Always. Since we were children. Since I left for Spain. Since I got on the boat heading home from Madrid. Since I met you again as a young lady in your tavern.

What about Sofira? Victoria asked before she could force her mouth to remain closed against the touchy subject. But now that she had broached it, she felt she had to go on. Yet her tone was not condemnatory as, still whispering, she asked, How could you be in love with me if at one time you wanted to marry her? Almost did, in fact.

Diego grimaced and groaned, but responded, That was a mistake on my part. I was infatuated with her, not in love with her, though it certainly seemed real at the time. He paused to remember. In fact, she reminded me of you. He smiled and rubbed her nose affectionately with his.

But this confession did not stop Victoria from asking, How do I know you're not infatuated with me?

Diego dropped his arms to gaze at her. At last, he shrugged. I guess you don't. This feels practically the same, although I highly doubt that what I felt for Sofira would have lasted four years, like it has with you. Again he shrugged thoughtfully. I guess you just have to believe me when I say that I love you more than anything or else I wouldn't have given away my identity like I did. And by the same side of the coin, how do I know that you love me? he asked with a quizzical expression on his face.

Victoria paused, herself, to think through her answer before she opened her mouth to reply. It was a rare moment for her. Because, in this case, I know the difference between infatuation and love. With infatuation, you're never certain of what you feel. With love, you know. And I know, she said with a voice of sureness that was easily communicated, even though her voice was so hushed.

Diego didn't argue. Thank goodness, he said, and leaned down for another kiss that made both of their heads spin.

A blissful minute went by where they each fulfilled the other's soul in a way that only a person in love can complete. The heady sensations zinged around the tiny pantry cupboard until it filled up the space. Diego held Victoria close, and Victoria held Diego in an embrace that only she could perform. But they couldn't stay in the pantry all day - Diego had to tell his father of the proceedings on that morning.

Preciosa? Diego whispered a last. I need to leave before Father sends out the entire garrison to look for me.

All right. Victoria reluctantly released him. But I'll come out to the hacienda at siesta...

Don't come too often, cautioned Diego. Remember, you have to look like you're in mourning.

I won't come out too often, Victoria promised, then she grinned. But I do want to see what the quilt does for your room.

Diego grinned back. Then I'll be sure to show it to you. He was equally as indisposed to withdraw himself from her arms as she had been. I'll be back, he pledged.

Is that a promise I hear in your voice? she teased.

Isn't it always with me? he inquired back, kissed her cheek, then softly pulled the door of the pantry open large enough for a peek through, then widened the crack. A moment later, he had collected the quilt, shifted through the back door, and was gone.

Victoria sighed. She had the feeling that it was going to be a long day until siesta time rolled around.

Z Z Z

Siesta finally came, but it didn't bring with it any news that Victoria wanted to hear.

Did you tell your father? asked Victoria the second she was alone with Diego in the shaded de la Vega garden, just after innocently enjoying the sight of the what the quilt did for his room.

Diego sat down on the empty chair across from hers and beside the small, iron table provided for maximum comfort. He seemed almost reluctant as he performed the innocuous motion. I did. And - you're not going to like this much - and he said the soonest we can expect the rest of the family to arrive from Spain is in three months.

Victoria gasped. Three months? Her face fell as she looked at the roses climbing up the garden wall so that he wouldn't be able to see how badly the news dismayed her. Eventually, after sitting quite still for several minutes while she did her utmost to control her immediate and predictable rise of frustration and anger at the news, she swallowed shakily, then asked, Do you have to invite them?

Diego sighed. Victoria, they're family, people I saw when I was in Madrid. They'll expect to be invited and feel snubbed if we don't. He sighed again, a sad sound that was equally as frustrated as she was. I didn't see what choice I had when Father announced his ideas about the wedding except to agree. I know it's a long time, but I was hoping you would understand.

Victoria did understand, and tried to smile. I do, she answered, her smile wavering, but she was determined that he not see how important it was to her to hold the wedding much sooner than three months. Lying, she decisively said, Three months isn't so long to wait, But the time seemed to stretch to infinity where she would be unable to treat her fiancée with the natural affection she wanted to. It felt as if they had been waiting so long already... Victoria swallowed again, tasting the bitterness of her anger. It will fly by and be gone before we know it. She nodded. That... She took a deep breath, feeling her displeasure at the information, but trying her best to put on a bright expression. That's fine with me. I guess we'll have to just keep pretending that we don't care about each other.

Diego appeared content at her low voice and what she said, but he looked closely at the tightness of her face, and he suddenly narrowed his eyes in suspicion.

Z Z Z

Victoria didn't say anything more about the proposed timing of the wedding, and only her bedroom at the tavern witnessed the tears she let rain down her cheeks in severe disappointment at the news versus her expectations. But when she dried her eyes, she was determined to change those expectations to something that was more in line with reality, and her gloomy behavior expressed what she was supposed to be feeling at the 'death' of her hero. It wasn't very hard to continually pretend; the depression she was displaying wasn't too far from her surface and reality.

The following day, Victoria didn't see Diego until before the influx of a typically hungry lunch crowd. The tavern was quiet for now, devoid of the many people who would order the enchiladas and burritos that she even now had sitting, warming, near the fire in the kitchen. But, for the moment, the tavern was in the lull before the anticipated storm, and Victoria was taking the only break she'd had all morning as she sat at a table with her employee, Maria, and Sergeant Mendoza, drinking a glass of juice and examining her engagement ring.

It's very beautiful, Maria was saying as she gently held Victoria's hand in her fingers and eyed the ring. You say that Don Diego has had this ring in his family for generations?

Victoria answered, I don't know about generations, but it was his mother's before he gave it to me.

Maria sighed in ecstasy. Though some people may think differently, I think that's so romantic.

Victoria's brow puckered in sudden confusion. What do you mean, 'some people may think differently?'

Maria hastened to explain, Some see the ring as only a convenience, but I like to look at it as if he was just waiting for the right moment...

Si, Mendoza piped up. Everyone knows that Diego has been in love with you for years.

Victoria couldn't dampen the snort that exploded out of her mouth. It was a very expected reaction from her to that suggestion. He's not in love with me, she argued. This is going to be a marriage that has arisen due to the situation, nothing more.

Mendoza hesitated. If you say so, Señorita. But there are some people who are saying that he was just waiting until something happened, and now with Zorro gone...

Victoria let her face blanch white. At last, she said, Diego was not waiting around all these years, Sergeant...

Mendoza was quick to defend himself. I'm only repeating the story I've heard, Señorita Victoria.

Conflicting emotions mangled Victoria's features. On one hand, she had to pretend that she was terribly saddened at any mention of the masked man's 'death.' On the opposing end, she knew that Diego was that masked man in secret, and he was very much alive, having given away his secret identity in a desire to finally marry her and have a normal life, and she was overly happy about that, but she couldn't display her true feelings on the subject. She found that acting the part of the depressed and lonely paramour was exacting more of a price than she had expected. She wanted to show her true affections for Diego, couldn't, and was completely frustrated by that.

Still, Victoria responded appropriately to Mendoza. Well, there's not enough happening in Los Angeles, then, to keep people's attention. Diego doesn't have any tender feelings for me. And Zorro is dead. She allowed the blood to drain from her face again. Despite a moment where she looked a bit longingly at her engagement ring, she whispered, It's time to move on in my life. She raised the glass of refreshing orange juice to her lips and took a drink.

Maria was not convinced. She replied, Why don't you ask him right now what he feels? Then we'll all know.

Ask him? Victoria inquired as she choked on her drink.

Yes, Maria answered, then pointed. I saw him come in about ten minutes ago. He's sitting right over there, reading.

Victoria whipped her head around, dangerously sloshing the juice remaining in her glass. Behind her, where the tavern room opened up at her back, near the door and the bar, sat Diego seemingly absorbed in the book held in front of him. He sat comfortably, relaxing in the warmth of the tavern.

He's here? Victoria asked, and couldn't stop the thought that wondered why he hadn't approached her right away, the minute he entered the tavern. It was as if he had avoided her only to further conceal his secret identity from the town. Victoria felt abused at the outset, and wasn't sure she could control her emotions much longer. But she calmly rose and headed in his direction. No matter what it was reputed that Diego had always felt, it was expected that Victoria show some regard for the man she had chosen to marry.

Diego glanced up from his book when her shadow fell across his table. Victoria, Buenos Dias! he said.

His greeting was so enthusiastic that she couldn't tell for sure if he was being sincere or if he was only pretending to be sincere. Because of the circumstances, she viewed his comment with suspicion. Diego, she said evenly. I didn't see you sitting here.

Diego waved towards the table where Maria and Mendoza were still relaxing. You looked like you were enjoying your talk. I didn't want to interrupt.

There would have been no interruption, she said back. It doesn't bother me to see you so unexpectedly like this.

I'll keep that in mind, Diego responded enigmatically.

Is there something I can get for you? she asked automatically.

Just juice, he answered. They both sounded so bland that no one who didn't already know about the engagement would have anticipated that they were anything more than the friends they declared they were.

Victoria turned around and took a step towards her bar, intending to fill Diego's request, but an unexpected swirl in her mind made her feet pause. Actually, she said, I need to ask you something. Do you mind if we go to the kitchen first?

Diego glanced up at her from his book. Lead the way, he said mildly and waved again, this time towards the colorful curtain hiding the kitchen from the rest of the tavern.

Victoria gave him a smile that was a little strained at the corners of her mouth, but didn't say another word as she turned again and left him to go to her kitchen.

Yes? he inquired when they were alone. What is it?

Victoria lifted a hand to her forehead in consternation. Diego, I don't think I can do this, she whispered.

Do what?

This! Her hand came down at the same time as her anger climbed up. This pretending! I mean, you came into my tavern and didn't even say 'hello.'

Diego's congenial smile slowly faded to be replaced by an expression of confusion. What do you mean?

Victoria felt her blood pound against her temples. I mean all this acting. I'm not sure I can do it for...

He interrupted with his own whisper, Victoria, when all this started, you said...

I know what I said, she shot back, letting her anger and frustration with the situation come out in her voice. I was wrong. Pretending to be sad and depressed when I actually want to throw myself in your arms isn't enough anymore.

It has to be. Diego's responding whisper was as harsh now as her voice sounded in the kitchen's silence. That's what we both decided on.

No, you decided, she said. And now I'm not sure I can do this for three more months.

Diego placed calming hands on her shoulders. Victoria, I'm sorry, but there's no other option if...

There's always another option, Victoria negated. Don't you want to stop this charade before it takes over our lives?

Now Diego's whisper was as defensive as hers. Of course I do! he hissed. But each time I get that image in my head, I have to envision what's going to happen to my father and Felipe...

She gestured impatiently. What about me? What about what I want?

Victoria, keeping up the pretense is a small price to pay to keep them from being hung!

The sound of scathing anger filled her voice even at a whisper. Nothing will happen just by changing a few ways we behave in public! There are already rumors about...

How can I take that chance? Diego insisted.

Victoria's furor grew at his words. Is that all you can think about? We've been waiting for years to...

I don't have a choice but to think about it! Diego responded, cutting her off.

Neither do I, and that's the problem! spat Victoria.

With the suddenness of a summer storm, Diego took a deep breath, doing his best to calm his racing heart. His time spent at playing Zorro, where the luxury of losing his temper often meant death, served him well now. I don't want to argue, he said in a much softer voice. Now, where did these feelings come from?

But Victoria was much more reluctant to calm down. Where did they come from? she asked rhetorically. From the fact that it took you ten minutes to even notice that I was in the tavern!

Victoria, Diego began, his arm raised in a soothing motion. We both know that's not true. I had my eyes pinned on you the moment I walked into the tavern, but to show such regard can do nothing besides get both of us killed.

That's not true, either, Victoria insisted, and despite herself, her voice responded to his quieter tone by growing softer as well. Sergeant Mendoza just said that the entire pueblo has known that Diego has been hung up on me for years. It would hurt no one if you acted on such emotions right now.

This made Diego take a step back. What? The entire..? That I'm what? he asked.

That confusion of his ended Victoria's anger. A smile suddenly erupted across her face. She couldn't help but think that for once he was the puzzled one instead of her, that an indecisive air became him, and that he seemed abruptly more handsome to her when he was confused. It was a dangerous feeling to have, as the raw magnetism he employed on her tripled when he was sheepish. It was also lucky for her that it happened so rarely. Mendoza said that...

I heard, I heard, he declared. That's really what he thinks? Victoria nodded. For how long?

He didn't say, but he mentioned the word 'years.'

Years? Diego blinked. And I always thought that no one saw me staring through my lashes.

Victoria smiled again, enjoying the image of Diego gazing at her out of the corners of his eyes when he thought she wasn't looking. Perhaps you thought wrong, she suggested.

All he could say was a thoughtful, Perhaps.

Now might be the time for you to take advantage of such an opinion, Victoria further implied. She did her best to look coy and flirtatious, as she had seen her overnight guests appear to occasionally flirt with her regulars as they ate supper, but she failed utterly. She simply hadn't had enough practice at it. The expression she finally managed was more endearing than flirty.

Still, Diego could hardly stand to do anything other then melt at the sight of even an attempt at a bewitchment coming from Victoria. He took another deep breath, but knew it was only a matter of time before either he was in her arms or she was in his. He hurried to finish voicing his idea before he lost it altogether in the feeling of the familiar tug of his heart, an answer to any time Victoria was simply herself. This could work to our advantage.

Victoria replied immediately, I'd thought of that already.

And? You thought... what?

That kissing my hand and saying 'hola' wouldn't be such a crime. The Alcalde doesn't necessarily have to think you and Zorro are one and the same just because you show me some affection, Victoria said. He can't, now that I think of it, because Zorro is supposed to be dead. That outlaw won't bother him ever again. And who says that I have to think that anyone's affections besides El Zorro's would be unwelcome?

Diego sighed, trying hard to cover up the sound of fear that oozed into the action. Because you always showed such devotion for Zorro, the entire pueblo thinks...

The entire pueblo... Victoria started to say in an overly emphatic voice, would love it if I might fall in love with someone else, someone real.

They would? Diego's tone was as disbelieving as he was.

Victoria nodded again.

Diego sighed once more, and looked nervous now. I don't know, Victoria. I've been hiding for a long time...

Then it's time to stop hiding, she advised with just a hint of a smile showing through the leading expression on her face.

Diego stared at her. He glanced away, but his gaze quickly returned to her face. He appeared unwilling. The truth is that I'm not sure that once I start showing any fondness for you, that I'll be able to stop. Or that I'll even want to.

Her brow crinkled. You mean you've held yourself aloof for so long that you don't know how to be any other way?

He squirmed. Yes. He hesitated some more.

Victoria understood his plight without him having to say one word more. I know what you're thinking, she said.

Oh? he asked in doubt. What am I thinking?

That we've been so secretive for so many years that you're not sure that you can even be more open - am I close? she inquired.

Diego's gaze turned from one of hesitance to one of appreciation. You're right; you do know what I'm thinking.

Behaving more openly is easier than you think it is, she went on. All you have to do is give in to your emotions. That is, she added, if you feel anything at all. I guess I'm assuming a great deal in this.

Diego shook his head with a laugh that sounded more like a snort of incredulity. You're not imagining how I feel, he told her. I'm just worried that if I give in to all my feelings that my father might be disappointed in how forward I behave.

Well, Victoria hemmed, Maybe you shouldn't give in to everything you feel. At least, not right away, she continued. Her hand placed purposefully on his arm was doing more to send tingles down his spine than her spiciest meatball soup did.

He closed his eyes against her lovely face, this time in conjunction with the deep breath he took. The spices in her kitchen filled his nose, and he reveled in the smell, for he had always linked that particular odor to her. My insides do a little dance every time you do that, you know.

Yes, I know, she admitted softly. Your mouth crinkles a bit at the corner each time I touch you. She went on to admit to more. I like it so much that I've always been sure to touch you a lot.

What?

Victoria shrugged. I can't seem to help it. She continued, Add to the fact that I never knew when I was going to see you again, or even if I was going to see you again, and... You understand.

I'm beginning to, Diego noted with obvious enjoyment. She raised her eyebrows at him, and he gazed down at her in trepidation. I don't know, Victoria... he started to say again.

Can you try?

A silent moment passed. Then at last he agreed. I can try. It will be difficult, but not too difficult, I think. Besides, he said pensively, any opportunity to appear enthralled by you has to be a good thing. Just ask Felipe; I've been waiting for something like this to happen for years. I'm sure not about to let such a good chance slip right by me.

Victoria laughed. Truce? she asked.

Truce... Then he shook his head in awe. If only the Alcalde would agree to a respite in our hostilities so easily...

Victoria rolled her eyes. We can't have everything...

Diego shrugged his well concealed shoulder muscles. Hug?

Victoria's face lit up at the suggestion. My pleasure. She slid into his embrace like she had been made to fit there. His arms curled around her in familiarity. It was all she could do not to add a kiss to his handsome face. She sighed, content, her anger of a moment before banished under his gentle touch.

It was at that moment that Maria chose to return to work. She saw Diego, Victoria, the embrace, and then she saw her employer smile just the tiniest bit and put a finger to her lips to indicate that she wanted to keep this behavior a secret.

Diego? Diego hugging... Victoria? Maria blinked her eyes to make sure they were clear enough to be seeing the right thing. They were, so she shook her head. Nothing had changed. It was so unbelievable, yet wholly anticipated, hat she blinked again.

Diego? The confirmed bachelor of the entire town? The richest, biggest catch to ever wander over the road into Los Angeles was standing in the kitchen hugging his fiancé? Then this wasn't a marriage of convenience, as some people thought. Had Diego..?

Maria was so surprised at the sight of her boss of many years clearly happy with the attentions of reputedly the shiest man in the pueblo that the bangs she always wore over her forehead were smoothed up to the top of her head in one great motion of astonishment. Victoria obviously wanted the other woman's discretion as to the reporting of this unprecedented action on Diego's part.

Well, Maria wouldn't tell just anybody.


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