In Name Only

by Linda Bindner

The day was bright and sunny and warm as Diego de la Vega dismounted from Esperanza's back and followed his father and Felipe up the step and on into the tavern. A congenial smile on his face, he greeted several fellow caballeros with friendly handshakes as he slowly wove through the crowd and settled onto a bench seat at the table his father had chosen from amongst those in the busy inn. It was a wonder that such a crowd had left one table free, and Diego looked carefully around the room as was his habit while his father ordered lunch from a serving girl he barely knew.

Two enchiladas, please, and Felipe? Don Alejandro turned towards his recently adopted grandson. For you? Some stew? Felipe nodded, and Alejandro turned then to his son. Diego? Chicken con Queso?

Diego was about to nod affably and voice his agreement for his father's lunch choice for him, but he was interrupted by a raised voice coming from the other side of the large room.

Please, Seņor! came a strong objection in what was unmistakably Victoria Escalante's voice. The young, beautiful tavern owner stood next to a table, tray in her right hand, while her left was firmly pinioned by white-gloved fingers wrapped around her wrist. Apparently, a male stranger, unused to the good behavior Victoria expected from her customers, had visited the tavern, and had propositioned the tavern owner, not knowing what kind of reply was in store for him.

Ah, here it comes - a furious, loud, set down! Diego thought to himself in some amusement. He turned to more fully watch the scene.

But something was wrong; Diego felt distinct unease the moment his eyes landed on Victoria's face. The stranger, a man who was obviously a caballero, judging by his ruffled shirt, sparkling trousers and jacket, not to mention his general bearing that denoted a wealthy, arrogant attitude, wasn't anything special to behold as opposed to the other caballeros currently in the tavern for lunch. Typically, Victoria was quick to throw his kind who behaved as blatant reprobates out of her tavern, caballero or not. Yet, instead of the cold expression of antipathy gracing her features that Diego anticipated, he saw her pale face schooled into a bland look of absolute disinterest. Victoria treated her rough handling and confinement at the hands of the stranger as a mere annoyance in a long line of annoyances meant to keep her from her work rather than excite her famous Escalante ire. Otherwise, the only thing about her entire carriage that protested the uncouth treatment towards her by the stranger was an extreme look of boredom laced with irritation at his behavior. It was as if she no longer cared about anything anymore.

Victoria had surely lost some sort of the biting edge to her personality in the last month. Diego had expected to see some dampening of spirits in Victoria; he had been a detached witness of sorts to her distress for an entire week after the death of his brother the month before. But before that death had come another 'death,' this one only rumored, caused by an explosion and its subsequent landslide in Diablo Canyon at the hands of the undeniably corrupt Emissary. And, ever since she'd heard the news of Zorro's resulting 'death 'in that landslide, Victoria had been just a shadow of her former self. It seemed that she was taking the news of Zorro's 'end' as hard as she possibly could, and as a result, had ceased to care about everything else as well.

Diego had no idea that she had become so distracted by the news of Zorro's 'death.' Though the truce the Emissary had promised and answered by that ensuing landslide had occurred three weeks earlier, Diego's following choice to travel to Santa Barbara to visit the bank and his lawyer now seemed ill conceived. His absence from Los Angeles had done more than protect any prospect of linking him to the masked bandit; with a sense of unease at causing anguish to Victoria, Diego purposefully hadn't been available to see how she took the intelligence of his alter ego's demise. Though his protracted absence had stopped him from being forced to witness her reception of such unpleasant news for almost two weeks, it had also kept him from helping Victoria from becoming overwhelmed by such emotionally strong information.

On the other hand, it was vital that Victoria believe in such an awful report as the revelation of her true love's death if she were to ultimately be protected from Alcalde Ignacio DeSoto. Diego fully expected the paranoid governmental man to think that the knowledge of his enemy's fate was a deception all along to the people of Los Angeles. DeSoto was therefore watching Victoria like the proverbial hawk for her to give away any clue to such anticipated subterfuge, and Diego wanted to protect her from the Alcalde's anger that he was certain would follow.

Yet, Diego hadn't quite expected her to fall to pieces in this horrible manner, either. Everything that Diego had planned for had backfired in the most appalling way possible. He was hurting Victoria with Zorro's faked death far more than he had intended. Watching the exchange between the strange caballero and the lovely tavern owner was more agony than Diego had ever thought he would ever feel in Victoria's presence.

Fortunately, Diego didn't have to endure it for very long. Victoria sighed a perturbed, resigned, sad exhalation of breath, and softly said, Please take your hand off my arm. There was no set-down, no ordering the stranger out of her tavern, no slap on his cheek for such impertinent behavior. Nothing. Just the sense of melancholy practically dripping from her monotone words. It sounded as if all the wild spirit that Diego secretly loved about her had been squeezed out of her personality, and now, she was just tired of dealing with the world. It was awful to see such a blank stare and hear such a voice devoid of emotion in the highly charged situation.

The strange caballero dropped his hand immediately, setting Victoria free. Pardon, he muttered. I thought... His glance around the main room of the tavern perfectly illustrated that he had been thinking Victoria's business establishment was like other taverns in the Territories, more bordello than a safe place to gather and eat.

Victoria said nothing, only turned, and, tray in hand, walked placidly to her kitchen as if nothing had happened.

Diego gaped openly, his eyes wide. He turned to regard his father. Has it been this bad the entire time I was away? he bluntly demanded to know.

Alejandro sighed unhappily. It has, he imparted. Victoria lost all her vim and verve the minute she heard the news of what... what happened to Zorro. His voice lowered in respect for the deceased hero. Then, he pointed at the busily talking patrons, filling each and every table in the tavern until it had reached its fullest capacity. They're all here because they want to be present to see if what we all fear will actually happen does actually happen.

What do you mean? Diego asked his father in puzzled innocence.

I mean, Alejandro said and heavily sighed again, They stay here to see if Victoria will just give in and change the reputation the tavern and herself currently hold.

This news made Diego's face go white. Do you mean..?

Don Alejandro lowered his head in a sad shake. Yes, that's exactly what I mean. Every day, someone comes up with something new that forces Victoria to deal with them and their rotten behavior, or capitulate. And she's close to just throwing in her towel, as the saying goes, and it shows. It's like she just doesn't care any longer how she or the tavern stand in the eyes of the people.

Diego was horrified. He didn't even attempt to cover his alarm. She hasn't..? He had been gone so long that he realized he had no idea what had happened lately.

No, not yet, Alejandro said in a low voice again. Once more, his sigh split through them. It was as if his reaction was the only one he could make to the situation. But just give her time, and she will give in, I guarantee it, and then we can say 'adios' to the clean reputation both she and her tavern hold.

Isn't there anything you can do to stop her, help her? Diego blurted next.

Alejandro laughed a bit bitterly. Just what do you suggest, Diego? Then, he went on. I've already talked to her. Padre Benitez has spoken to her. Even the Alcalde has made his usual threats. Nothing has worked. Mark my words, Son, she is just stubborn enough, and saddened enough at Zorro's death, to stop living and caring about her good reputation. She'll give in, eventually. They'll wear her down if they keep up the right kind of pressure day after day after day. I just hope that I'm here when she finally relinquishes her good name and am able to stop her before she does anything... regrettable, he finished.

That's awful! Diego hissed, not even bothering to lower his voice. There was so much ruckus going on among the tavern's patrons that no one noticed.

Alejandro shrugged. Well, what can we do for her? he asked rhetorically. She's an adult, her own person.

Can't you make her care? Diego inquired next.

Alejandro spluttered a laugh. This is Victoria we're talking about; we can't make her do anything, he said, and continued to chuckle bitterly, as if the idea of making Victoria do what he wanted her to do was beyond the realm of possibility for a mere normal human. The sarcasm was clear in his voice, now. We can't force her to keep up the reputation of the tavern or herself. We can't talk her into caring about a life without Zorro in it. We can't even threaten her - the Alcalde tried that tactic, and it had about as much effect on her as the words the rest of us said to her. No, the only thing we can do now is pray, and wait for the inevitable.

No! Diego expostulated with his brow so furrowed that its lines looked permanently etched into his skin. His posture exuded the aversion he was feeling at his father's suggestion. There must be something we can do, something...

Alejandro interrupted his son. Short of bringing Zorro back to life so he can fulfill his promise of marriage to her, I don't know what we can try.

That was one thing Diego couldn't do. A resurrection of the 'dead' hero meant furthering a life of escapes and protests and catching bandits for who knew how long? He might never be free to keep his promise to Victoria, might never be free to marry. And he wanted to marry, very much. If he didn't take this opportunity while he had it, he might never get another chance to lead a normal life again. Yet, he couldn't stand by and do nothing while Victoria did the hideous deeds his father had mentioned, either.

But you said... Diego halted his own protest. The germ of an idea suddenly squirmed its way through his mind, leaving roads and paths of thought to branch off and form new thoughts. He was instantly excited by his new idea, yet abhored the need for the idea in the first place.

He paused in his conversation with his father to more completely comprehend his new concept: why shouldn't he marry Victoria himself and take her away, physically as well as figuratively, from the confines of the tavern? If he acted before Victoria's capitulation, one that his father feared, but was certain would eventually occur, perhaps he could stop her from resigning her good name. For now, that good name and honest sense of integrity were intact. But, for how long?

At this point in time, a marriage between Diego and Victoria could be nothing but a match made strictly for convenience, a marriage for form's sake, for the de la Vega name, Diego realized. Victoria was still in love with Zorro, and bore nothing but a friendly, brotherly affection for the wealthy caballero. Diego knew that, but the alternative was utterly unthinkable. He gave a shiver at the very idea of seeing more of Victoria due to such a tie to him and his family, but he had to do something to save her from herself, and bodily removing her from the place of her highest temptation, the tavern and the suggestive behavior of its customers, was the best bet for her overall safeguarding. Feeling a new sense of purpose stealing over him, Diego pushed his plate full of Chicken con Queso aside, and he rose from the table.

Alejandro looked up at his son in surprise. What are you doing, Diego? He glanced at the plates scattered on the table. We haven't even finished our lunch yet.

I know, answered Diego in distraction as he wondered where the nearest jeweler was located. He would need an engagement ring if he planned to propose marriage. The ring Zorro had given Victoria on that fateful day that he had asked for her hand in marriage wouldn't do in this situation; besides the fact that she would immediately recognize such an unusual piece of jewelry and draw the proper connections between the two men who had given it to her, it was also unavailable to him in its current resting place in her room. Diego didn't see how he could create enough of a distraction to get up the stairs, into her room, obtain the ring, and get back to the de la Vega table without being missed. Therefore, he needed to buy a ring to denote such an engagement in case he could succeed in persuading Victoria to marry him. Even though the chance of that persuasion seemed slim at best right now, or at any time, really, he had to be prepared for any eventuality. So, he needed an engagement ring, as quickly as he could get one. Even a trip back to the hacienda to locate some jewelry that she wouldn't recognize would take too long. He needed to propose now if he was going to stop Victoria from ruining her life. So, in a sense of complete disorientation, he replied to his father's observation about their unfinished lunch. I have something to do.

Can't it wait? Alejandro asked next in astonishment.

No, this is too important, Diego said as he remembered the one and only, seldom used, but open jewelry shop belonging to Seņor Jalisco that Los Angeles had to offer. As much time as he had spent in town, both as editor for The Guardian and prowling around as Zorro, he still wasn't certain of the location of such a shop, never having need to patronize it before. The tiny store was located somewhere next to the blacksmith's... Father, Diego asked as he stood beside the table, his front to Felipe's back. The new position made the younger man crane his neck backwards just to see his adopted father and seemingly read his lips to ascertain just what Diego had to request. Do you know the location of that jewelry shop owned by Seņor Jalisco?

The question startled Alejandro. Well, yes, it's between the blacksmith's shop and the tailor's shop, in that low, little building that's almost hidden unless you know it's there... Why? Has something happened? Why do you need to know?

Diego smiled his thanks. It's all right, Father, he said, trying to put the older man's fears to rest. I'm not planning anything illegal, if that's what has you concerned.

Alejandro spluttered again. Well, no, I'm not worried about that, but now you have my curiosity all stirred up. What's going on?

But Diego had already left, aiming for the tavern's wide open double doors. The hot, summer sunshine swallowed him up before his father's questions could even be delivered.

Diego entered the jewelry shop belonging to Seņor Jalisco, a man Diego had never met before, as most of the jewelry he had bought in the past had been purchased under an assumed name in Monterey. He had wanted to keep his transactions, ones that would excite way too much interest in Los Angeles, far away from the prying eyes of the Alcalde. Victoria currently had half a box full of the odd piece of gold and silver jewelry, as well as a few precious stones, that she couldn't wear in public if she didn't want to face the Alcalde's wrath.

But this was different. This was an engagement ring that was for Victoria, but from Don Diego, not Zorro, as every other piece of jewelry had been over the years. This piece of jewelry had to be different, yet still beautiful, marked for a beautiful lady to be worn as, first an engagement ring, then a wedding ring, for as long as she lived. It had to be something special. Yet, Diego felt the urge to hurry as he heard his father's words echoing over and over in his mind. He had to do something, quickly, if he wanted to save Victoria from herself.

And that's just what he wanted to do. Hopefully by removing her availability from the other men in her tavern, he also hoped that they would leave her alone after his proposal. He had no delusions that Victoria would jump at the chance to marry him, or to marry anybody else, for that matter. But, on the other hand, he'd had no idea that Zorro's 'death' had affected her in such a profound way that she would even consider giving up her stainless reputation just because he wasn't around anymore to hug her, and caress her, and kiss her, and make her feel loved, make her feel safe.

Safety was what was on Diego's mind the most when, fifteen minutes later, he emerged from Seņor Jalisco's shop, where his father had done more business than he had done in the past. His father knew the jeweler best ue to buying adornments for his mother over the years, but the de la Vega name allowed his son to see more jewelry concoctions now than he would otherwise have seen. The 'special' pieces were reserved for the local caballeros only, and it was just his father's past good business that let Diego convince the old owner to show him the particular pieces of jewelry kept aside even now. Diego didn't like relying on his name for much, preferring a smooth manner of business to recommend him rather than a name that denoted wealth, but this was not the time to be choosy, either. He planned to use his name and all it stood for in order to consider the rings and bracelets and necklaces that marked each particular piece as coming from the Los Angeles collection kept aside for special customers. It was the only way to get something he felt that someone as unique as Victoria deserved.

Diego fingered the ring in his vest pocket, hoping it would exude enough tasteful wealth to deter any 'propositions' for Victoria in the future. He admitted to himself the he had yet to hear of a married woman who was also considered to be a woman of ill repute, and he hoped that the presence of a ring, such as the one bearing a white pearl surrounded by two sapphires that he had chosen and was, even now, in the pocket of his vest, was enough of a deterrent to men on the lookout for such entertainment to bring back some of their good sense. In this way, he would keep Victoria 'safe,' keep her waitressing in the tavern that she loved, but without the added attention of men bent on soliciting the tavern owner for business other than food or drink.

The ring was sliding around the watch in his pocket even now. As he walked across the plaza, its occasional clink and clang was a constant and pleasant reminder that he might be an engaged man in an hour. Of course, he was already an engaged man, but being engaged didn't do him much good, as the lady of his heart was completely unaware that it was he whom she was engaged to. And he had no intention of enlightening her of his 'buried' identity unless forced to. This action wasn't intended to be the unveiling that Victoria had waited for, for years. No, this proposal was only meant to mark Victoria as 'off limits' to the men she continually worked around, to keep her away from the debasement that his father had expounded on only moments before. She might not be able to have Zorro, as she would wish, but he could at least remove her from circulation so that no one else could have her, either, figuratively speaking.

The ring seemed to burn a hole inside his pocket as Diego strode to the front of the tavern. He only hoped he wasn't too late to keep Victoria from doing something that she might later regret. The idea of his lovely flower giving the gift of her innocence away to just any man like a common hustler was appalling in the extreme to Diego. The concept of any one else's hands on her was... Just the thought of such a thing made Diego shiver even as he walked toward his destination in the hot sunshine. The feeling of needing to put a halt to a new threat stayed with him as he stepped up on the porch and prepared to re-enter the tavern. But he was stopped by the Alcalde's voice.

Look who's returned - Don Diego, what's your hurry? DeSoto teased languidly. He glanced back and forth between Diego and his lunch companion, Sergeant Mendoza. You were gone so long that I forgot what you look like.

It looks like he's on a mission, Alcalde, Sergeant Mendoza helpfully answered him.

DeSoto stared at Diego in cold calculation, a feat in itself on such a warm day. You could be right, Sergeant. He took a drink from the contents of the mug resting in front of him, but kept his eyes trained on Diego.

Was there something you wanted, Alcalde? Diego asked. I'm in a hurry...

What's the rush? the Alcalde inquired. He took another drink.

Well, actually, Diego explained in distraction, eyeing the people inside the bustling tavern. I plan to use this time when everybody else is busy eating lunch to ask Victoria to marry me...

The Alcalde actually spit out his drink in surprise. Mendoza had to laugh even as he used his red-checked napkin to brush uselessly at the drink stains that now peppered his uniform tunic.

Did I hear you right? asked the Alcalde as soon as he had recovered. That you plan to ask for Seņorita Escalante's hand in...

Marriage. Yes, Diego replied. In name only, of course, but it's an old and time-honored name that I can offer.

True, DeSoto admitted as he placed his mug carefully before him on the table. But I still have to admit that I didn't see this coming...

No, Diego responded. Neither did I. But Father informed me just today of the rather precarious hold Victoria has on...

Her reputation? DeSoto ended for him. His voice, a bit smug in its questioning, carried all sorts of unpleasant innuendos in it.

Diego's eyes darkened in sudden anger, but all he said was, Yes. So, as you can imagine, I'm rather busy at the moment. If you'll excuse me. He entered the teeming inn, turning his back on the pueblo's own appointed law enforcer.

Sergeant Mendoza paused in his furious, but ineffectual, wiping to inquire, Did he really say that? He's going to ask Seņorita Victoria to..?

Yes, DeSoto said, his own face darkening with the insult that Diego had paid him; he didn't like being brushed off by the area dons in such unconcern. Only a momentous event such as a proposal of marriage could commute the slight given to him as Diego turned his back, and thus, his attention, without being dismissed from the government official's presence. You heard right, DeSoto continued. Then he snorted through his nose. I wish him luck, he said derisively under his breath, too low for the departing Diego to hear.

Aware of his friend, Don Diego's, sense of purpose, as well as of his superior officer's sense of... superiority.., Mendoza did the only thing he could do in the prevailing circumstances - he silently wished his friend success while he outwardly nodded to show agreement with the Alcalde. In that way, he supported the establishment that he had to advocate, while at the same time remaining true to the convictions in his heart. It was a convoluted game that he played, and he prayed that he would never be caught at playing it. At least, not by the Alcalde, who has a fondness for hangings at dawn, he thought to himself, and made the sign of the cross on his chest, just to be on the safe side.

But Diego missed hearing the Alcalde's snide comment as well as seeing Mendoza's answering assent. He strode through the press of Victoria's customers in attendance at the tavern that day, passed the table where his father was still enjoying his lunch, and on into the kitchen. He knocked softly on the wood of the doorframe that marked the area as out of bounds to the general patron. Even as Don Diego, he didn't bother Victoria in her kitchen very often unless the situation required it, as it did now. Victoria? he called. Can I speak to you for a moment?

Diego saw Victoria turn from her stance in front of the fireplace, a plate full of a burritos and red sauce in her hand. She relocated the dish to the counter at her side. Of course, Diego. It's good to see you back from your trip, all safe and sound and in one piece.

Her words, though solicitous, and the same as they would have been on any given day, were spoken in such a monotone that they sent chills snaking up Diego's spine. He entered Victoria's inner sanctum with a certain amount of trepidation, and glanced around. The stew bubbled like normal over the fire in the fireplace, and a stack of dishes sat beside a washtub on the counter. Besides the food clearly made for lunch, Victoria was alone in her kitchen; any waitresses she might have had working for her were either in the main room of the tavern, or absent altogether. What? No employees? he asked in return in a teasing manner, hoping to set her at ease.

I gave them the day off, Victoria responded. I didn't see the point of forcing them to watch me cry all day, she stated matter-of-factly.

It was her words, but said in such a no-nonsense tone, that spurred Diego on to voice his reason for being in her kitchen in the middle of the day. Yes, well, he said a bit uncomfortably as he fought off the pain he automatically felt at her words, and leaned against the counter as he attempted to appear nonchalant. In reality, his heart was thumping in double time inside his chest. That is sort of the reason I'm here right now.

His statement poked through some of Victoria's obvious melancholy and made her wrinkle her nose. You've come to make me cry? she asked in confusion.

Diego smiled. No, certainly not to do that, he announced, then stood away from the block in the center of her kitchen and crossed his arms. At least, I hope not. But I am here in a rather connected capacity, he replied.

Victoria's brow creased even further. Which is?

Diego's discomfort increased. I... I wish to speak to you.. he said brokenly.

Yes? she prodded, her brows now lifted in a show of support of the words he seemed to be having trouble uttering.

Diego shifted his weight to his other foot. He had never asked anything of Victoria as himself before; he was understandably nervous at the prospect. Yet, he plowed on, still determined. Victoria, I think you're in trouble, he stated, but by the look of surprise on her face that greeted his comment, knew that he had caught her unawares. He decided to be as blunt as he could be. I witnessed the scene made by the strange caballero just now, he said, and pointed with his thumb over his shoulder towards the large and busy common room.

But Victoria still didn't comprehend his point. And?

Diego went on, I admit that such a scene has me concerned.

Concerned about what? She leaned comfortably against the edge of the fireplace mantel behind her even as Diego stood more at attention before her than he ever had before.

Diego scratched his forehead. To be blunt, Victoria, I was worried enough about how you handled that caballero's suggestion to ask father about what's... what's been happening here the last few weeks

Victoria looked at him in suspicion. You spoke to Don Alejandro? she asked.

I did, Diego confirmed. I had to talk to him if I wanted to know what was going on.

Victoria eyed him with distrust. And what did you decide?

Diego took his life in his hands and said, That you've reached the point where you will do one of three things.

And what will I do, pray tell me? Victoria asked, and her words practically dripped the sarcasm she was feeling at his dictatorial tone.

Diego winced, noting that he sounded overbearing now, but she had to see that he only had her best interest at heart. Resolved, he went on, I say this only because I care about you, not because... because of any arrogance on my part, he began, and at her encouraging look to continue, went on, Let me be blunt, Victoria, please. One, you can go on as you have been doing, and eventually some gentleman, or, more likely, some male reprobate, with a less than chivalrous aim, will attack you in your own tavern, right when you least expect it.

You're right in that you mean to be blunt, Victoria answered with eyes as wide as they could open when she heard her polie friend, Diego, inferring such indecorous things.

I only hope that either my father or myself are around at the time to stop such an attack, Diego continued honestly.

The second option? Victoria asked next after a heartfelt sigh. She sounded tired, as if she'd heard this very warning so many times before that she had it memorized.

Two, that you'll accept that... that Zorro is... is gone, but go on as before, feeding your customers while still caring to speak out about the injustices you see. Diego watched Victoria's face darken at the mention of her hero's name, and knew that he only had moments before she exploded into a temper. So he rushed on, though he made certain to modulate his voice to sound as gentle as he could, given the circumstances. Or, three... since Zorro is unable to complete his promise to you and offer you marriage, I... I hope... you'll allow me, someone who definitely does care for you and your well-being, to fulfill his vow.

Victoria's features showed the clear astonishment that she was feeling when he murmured those words. You hope I'll what? she blurted.

Diego shuffled. Get married, he answered in a quiet voice that was only slightly louder than a whisper.

Victoria was not so restrained. To each other? she loudly blurted out.

Placating, Diego held his hands out before him. Please, listen to my reasons before you say anything. Then, he didn't quite know what to say, or rather, he didn't quite know how to continue. He raked a hand through his hair, then replaced that hand out in front of him beside his other one in as persuasive a manner as he could. Finally, he chose to go on in the same blunt way he had said his words so far. Victoria, you have to admit that days such as this one will continue happening, on and on, into the unforeseeable future.

It was obvious that she was puzzled. Days like this one?

Diego sighed; his father had raised him to always be delicate when around a lady, but he found that being delicate right now hindered his conversation with Victoria rather than helped it along. When that caballero... He was having trouble even giving voice to the scene that had transpired because of the caballero stranger. When he... propositioned... you.

Oh, that, said Victoria, the dawn of comprehension settling on her face as she finally understood. That happens all the time; this is, after all, a tavern, and I do serve mostly men clientele.

Yes, I know, Diego assured, But I understand that such a thing has been occurring with increasing regularity lately, and you have no one who can... can 'come to your rescue'... anymore.

Suddenly. Victoria looked suspicious. What are you saying, Diego?

Diego heard the note of antipathy in her voice, but he chose to ignore it. I'm saying that, no matter how much either you or I would like things to be otherwise, Zorro is not going to resurrect himself and save anyone at the last minute.

Victoria drew in a sharp breath at his second mention of the bandit's name. I know that, she refuted. If anyone is aware of such a situation, I am, Victoria emphatically stated.

Diego heard the distress in her voice this time, instead of her defensive sarcasm, and he hurried on, not wishing to cause her discomfort of any kind. If you can't have him, and you can't, then a marriage to me would do several things for you: Being married would keep you safe from such suggestions as the caballero's - no one has tried to proposition a married woman, that I know of; it would allow you to have more money than the tavern makes in a year, and...

You're right again; this is blunt, Victoria managed to say between his words.

But now that he had gotten going, Diego discovered that he couldn't stop. ... And a concept such as a marriage will keep you from being targeted, a bit unfairly, as Zorro's lady, waiting ceaselessly until his fight for justice has finally been won. I, for one, have to admit that I always had serious doubts as to seeing the end if that battle, he divulged, amused that he was giving an opinion about his own fight for justice. Plus, you will have the protection of the de la Vega name to heighten your standing in the pueblo, he ended saying. That can be nothing but good for business in the long run as well as being good for you on a personal level. Then, Diego looked slightly uncomfortable as he added, And I do care about you. That's a good reason for a marriage, as well.

Victoria stared at him, and ran her fingertips along the edge of the counter. Finally, she said, Let me be blunt with you as well, Diego.

Please do, he invited.

What do you think..? I mean, how could I..? She stared helplessly at the wall, obviously unable or unwilling to be as blunt as she said she wanted to be. At last, she closed her eyes and blurted, How can I marry you when I'm in love with another man?

Slowly, Diego let the corners of his mouth raise in gratification at her confession as to the state of her emotions. At least she's being honest, he thought, and had to admire her frankness. It took courage to point out her feelings for another man during a marriage proposal, he admitted to himself. I know that, he said gently. The entire pueblo knows that.

Well..? Victoria appeared to hesitate. She said, How can I marry you, then? How can I marry anyone?

Again came Diego's soft, enigmatic smile. I don't expect you to love me in the same way that you loved Zorro, Victoria. Then, he shrugged. The kind of marriage I'm offering is basically a marriage in name only.

Victoria appeared perplexed again. In name only? she parroted.

Diego began to be aware of his uneasiness again. He did his best to hide the shaking he was feeling. Yes. I'm under no delusions here, Victoria, and you shouldn't be, either. I merely wish to... to help you avoid more unpleasantness as we witnessed today over lunch. Please, will you at least consider my offer?

Victoria hesitated again. Then, after a prolonged moment of silence, asked, This is just to share your name, right?

Absolutely. Again Diego shrugged. But, that's just one of the reasons, he answered. It's no secret that we're both under a lot of pressure from outside sources to marry; you need someone to watch over and protect you from such gentleman as that caballero, who should have known better. I need a wife to help calm my father's fears, if nothing else. He shrugged one shoulder this time and smiled in resigned humor at his own remark; Don Alejandro had spoken to him about a married state many times in the tavern. We can help each other.

Victoria's eyes narrowed as she regarded him. And it doesn't bother you that I love someone else? Even if he is known to be... gone? Her voice broke on her final word.

Diego smiled softly. No, I don't have a problem with that, he assured her. As I said, I'm under no delusions, here, but if, in a year or two... Inwardly, he quailed; a year! How could he possibly wait a year for her without giving at least a hint as to his real and deep emotions? Swallowing, he went on, ... our mutual affection and regard for each other turns into something more, well, then, that's wonderful. If not, that's fine, too. He paused in his persuasions and held his breath while he waited for her to consider what he had said.

Victoria pensively regarded him, clearly thinking. She continued to run her fingers across the edge of her counter top, back and forth, but she also seemed to be seriously considering his proposal. Finally, she inquired, What do you have in mind for the logistics of a marriage?

What do you mean? he asked.

She closed her eyes, swallowed, then said, Will we share a bedroom?

Diego had to grin at her stark question. It was an important aspect of any marriage, but few people had the courage to ask about such a delicate topic of discussion. That was what he loved about her, he admitted to himself; Victoria seemed to be afraid of nothing and nobody. We can share a bedroom if you want to, he replied. Or we have several guest rooms that you can choose from, if you feel more comfortable with that option. It's your choice, he graciously conceded. But I don't plan to suddenly pressure you against your will into acting the part of the typical wife, he told her. It's up to you, he added, knowing that he courted total agony and total pleasure if she chose to share a room with him.

Victoria said nothing, though, making him wonder what she was thinking. At last, he asked, Well? What do you think?

Victoria stared at him. Do I have to give you an answer right now? Can I consider it, first?

Diego assured, You can think about it as long as you need to, but I admit to having little patience in such matters - I prefer your answer right now, though I'm certainly willing to wait for as long as it takes you to think over everything I've said. I mean, this is a big decision for you to have to make.

Victoria sighed, the sound echoing her sadness that it wasn't Zorro she was considering marrying, and she thoughtfully placed her hands on her hips. She still appeared to be thinking. At last she glanced his way, and his heart rate sped up again enough for him to ask himself if he fully understood what he was doing. But the thought of the alternative spurred on his courage. Well? he asked again.

Do you have a ring? she inquired next.

It was on odd question, and he wondered if Victoria would say 'yes' only if she liked the ring he had to offer. But still, he patted his vest, and said, It's in my pocket right now.

Can I see it? Please? she asked.

She had no idea how she turned his insides to sludge just by using the word 'please.' Diego tried hard to hide his natural and tender feelings for her, but, on the other hand, he couldn't deny her anything she wanted. He reached into his vest, fumbled, pushed aside his watch for a moment, then drew out the engagement ring he'd just purchased. Wordlessly, he held it out to her.

Again, Victoria drew in a sharp breath. How beautiful, she whispered, immediately reverent as she continued to stare at his ring.

It comes from Los Angeles, he told her in a quiet voice. It's not imported or anything; the stones are completely genuine.

Victoria's head jerked around so that she could stare at him. Of course they are, she insisted. You would offer nothing less than something completely real. The idea of the opposite... well, it's ridiculous, that's what! she exclaimed before she went back to staring at the ring in her fingers.

Diego wanted to prompt her once more, but held his tongue in suspense.

Victoria held the ring closer to her eyes, then put it on her finger. She was quiet, still thinking, as she regarded the ring on her hand. She removed it from her finger for a closer inspection again. It's so beautiful, she repeated, her voice nothing but a whisper.

Diego was almost beside himself at her continued pondering.

A marriage in name only? she ascertained again.

Diego promptly nodded. That's what I'm offering.

Again, Victoria seemed to consider. At last, clearly coming to some sort of a decision, she nodded her head once, and said, All right, Diego, if that's what you're offering, I accept. She made it sound as if they had just decided to clinch a business deal; cool and concise.

Yet, Diego couldn't suppress his smile of relief when she answered in the affirmative. Excellent! he expostulated. I can easily say that you won't regret this, Victoria, he promised.

A ghost of a smile flitted across Victoria's lips. As long as you know what you're getting, she warned. I won't be very good company for awhile.

Diego's exuberance was calming into a more sincere emotional response. I'm not marrying you for your entertainment value, Victoria, he said,

She sighed at the insistence he couldn't help but instill in his voice. It's a good thing, she admitted. I can't even imagine how I will live through a wedding reception party, but I guess I'll have to.

Diego was instantly solicitous. If you don't want a party, we won't have one. We don't need to have or do anything you don't want to do.

Victoria gazed at him, and finally admitted, I have to say that I don't particularly care right now for a big party, or for any party at all, for that matter.

Father will be disappointed, Diego said in some warning. But I certainly understand.

Victoria sighed again, this time in obvious regret. I know you do, even if your father won't. But I'm afraid that can't be helped right now. Again came the tiny smile. I doubt I would be a very gracious hostess at a party.

Once again Diego shrugged. We can have a party in a year or two, he suggested. Perhaps you'll feel more like being a hostess then.

Suddenly, Victoria stared at him, really stared at him. You're not getting very much out of this deal, Diego, she noted in a soft voice.

On the contrary, Diego said equally as softly, and took her hand in his. I tend to think that I'm making out like a bandit, he couldn't resist saying.

Victoria grinned, a broader smile than the one she had almost made a moment before, then glanced again at her ring. Yes, Diego. Yes, she said, and such a simple answer meant all the world to him.

Z Z Z

Diego joined his father and Felipe on the porch moments later. He had been forced to disappear again, but was present when his two companions chose to depart.

Alejandro pulled the reins of his favorite mount, Dulcinea, from the tavern's hitching rail. Felipe did the same with the reins holding his paint to the horizontal post. Diego... Don Alejandro started to say, then stopped himself as he looked around at the horses in the plaza. Where's Esperanza? he asked in clear concern.

Diego tried to appear unconcerned, and failed. She's... uh.. she's... he spluttered, trying to cover up a sudden nervousness he felt, then he relented, telling them his news. I sold her.

Alejandro's head whipped around so that he could stare in wide-eyed astonishment at Diego. You sold her?

Diego definitely appeared uncomfortable now. Yes. He gazed into Felipe's disbelieving eyes. Just now, when I had to pay for Victoria's engagement ring. I just came back from storing the saddle and bridle in the front room of The Guardian office to join you so you wouldn't wonder where I had gone off to.

Diego's father and son gaped at him even more.

Her what? Alejandro expostulated.

Diego answered, Her ring.

Alejandro could only stare in dumbfounded surprise at the son he had accepted was going to be the pueblo's oldest and most insistently confirmed bachelor. You're engaged?

Yes, Diego said. He shuffled his feet a bit, then looked hopefully at his two companions.

Alejandro went on, And you sold Esperanza, your horse of years?

Um... Yes, Diego said again. I had to sell her, he explained. Our account at the bank had only 100 Pesos in it -- we haven't sold the cattle or the horses yet. The ring was 300. With the 200 Pesos I got for selling Esperanza to Seņor Jalisco, I could buy the ring I wanted.

For Victoria, Alejandro finished for his son in a dumbfounded monotone.

Diego nodded. This way, what happened this afternoon with the stranger to the tavern will never happen again, and Victoria won't be 'worn down' by propositions she won't be able to answer.

Alejandro gasped a breath of hot outside air. You're marrying her?

Diego gazed vacantly at the pueblo's naming sign. I am... We are.... Getting married, he ended on a defeated sigh. Then he turned back to stare at his father. It seemed the least I could do, he tried to explain.

Alejandro blew out an amazed breath, but Felipe had yet to shut his mouth from his earlier astonishment at the news. He also had yet to blink. Don't be so astounded, Felipe, Diego admonished gently. Felipe instantly closed his mouth with an audible snap.

It was Diego who continued speaking. He pointed hesitantly over his shoulder with his thumb. I have some duties at The Guardian to take care of... Felipe, I wonder if you could come back to town in an hour with another horse for me? You won't need any tack, he reminded. Just a mount.

You're awfully cool, considering you just told your father you're finally getting married, Alejandro commented.

Diego wanly smiled. Father, this marriage is intended to be only for the convenience of both myself and Victoria. She doesn't even desire a wedding reception party.

Alejandro gaped anew a Diego. No party..? Then his eyes grew even wider. No grandchildren..! he realized.

Diego's smile disappeared, and he sighed once more. Father, Victoria's still in mourning for Zorro, deeply in mourning, as you pointed out not an hour ago. There's no call to further distress her by throwing a party meant to celebrate his death. Perhaps we can host a party in a year when she feels more up to one.

Alejandro continued to gape. So you're just getting married, just like that? No banns, no fanfare?

Oh, the banns - I forgot about the need to see the padre, Diego said with a snap of his fingers at the forgotten task. I'll take care of that right now. He moved off in the direction of the mission. Soon, he disappeared in the after-lunch crowd.

Alejandro and Felipe watched him go, expressions of shock on their faces.

Z Z Z

A week after the wedding ceremony, Diego wondered again at the wisdom of inviting such closeness as being married to Victoria automatically entailed. He'd managed to swallow his natural emotions at the wedding and only kiss her cheek at the end when he longed to do much more with her, even when she had such a look of sadness gracing her features. After a month, he knew he'd made a mistake. Not in marrying Victoria, but in putting himself in a position where he would be expected to deal with her on a daily and very personal basis. Her room was only across the hall from his, so he naturally had to see her every day, at least every time she entered her room. At other instances, she had taken to wandering quietly and softly around the hacienda on her time off from tending the tavern, like she was a ghost or shadow, a person with no substance. She still mourned for her lost love, but in insisting that they have a marriage that would be in name only in the first place, Diego had forced himself into a position where he could only pretend that he cared for the obvious pain she was in as much as a friend would care, not as someone who loved her as much as his own life would care. The anguished pleasure he had at watching Victoria, but being unable to touch her, to comfort her, to give the hugs that he was used to giving, was unbearable. The need to wrap his arms around her was practically more than he could stand.

All the constant denial was naturally taking its toll on his relationship with her. Diego started avoiding contact with her not long after the wedding, but the lack of that contact had the repercussion of not knowing when she needed to remain at the tavern and when she didn't. That brought on the act of continually worrying over her safety, but he didn't dare bring it up for fear that she would laugh at his idea that a bandit would find allurement in such a sorrowful creature as she had become. In the interim, he fretted that he had made a target of her simply by making her his wife and trying to take her away from the threat of danger.

As a reaction to all the self-imposed anxiety he was under, Diego had taken to painting as a way to force himself to relax whenever he had to deal with her, purely as a distraction to his natural instincts that made him want to wrap his fingers around the tempting strands of her dark hair instead of around his paintbrush. Surely, such a show of affection would terrorize her if it came from her good friend, Diego, instead of from her one, true love, Zorro.

However, all this pressure was damaging Diego's naturally attentive mind, and he had grown careless as a result. Not when he was entering or exiting his secret cavern, as he had the habit of being overly cautious from his days as the masked bandit, but when he knew he had to deal with his wife on a purely platonic level, such as when he planned to converse with her about her receipts from the tavern, or when they were discussing the newest acquisitions in the portfolio Diego kept on his desk with his collection of other art.

This added torment came even when Diego was painting, and he grew more careless, yet, in his distraction. It happened especially when he was painting. He tried to control his natural absentmindedness, but he had grown so hopeless that he now kept his paints and brushes with his picture portfolio or else he would lose them all, and then have to spend the entire evening hunting for them. Thus he might otherwise waste precious time that would have been spent in Victoria's sad, but nevertheless, attractive company, even when he didn't want to spend time with Victoria. It was a confusing existence, and he mentally cursed the day he'd gotten married at the same time he glorified that day in his past history. His resulting vacuity mixed with his sharp memory had the unfortunate effect of seriously puzzling Victoria with every encounter they had together. His inexplicable absences in the secret cavern didn't help to raise her estimation of her new husband in her perceptions, either. Victoria may have been married to Diego, but his name was the only thing they had in common as the fulfillment of their double and triple and secret realities tore at the thin thread connecting them together.

It all came to a rather unexpected end one night after Alejandro and Felipe had removed themselves from the lighted end of the hacienda and gone to bed. Diego hated to see them go, as their simple presence acted as a buffer between himself and Victoria, but he couldn't say that, as his pride wouldn't let him ruminate on the fact that he was slowly driving himself to utter ruin with his treatment of both Victoria and his 'marriage of convenience.' Instead, he tried to behave as if nothing were wrong, and he had set up his easel in front of the piano with what he hoped were languid movements. Victoria had tried to read a book that night, but it had failed to capture her interest, and she was now watching her husband paint as she sat beside him on the piano bench he was resting on.

Why did you stop? Victoria asked innocently of her husband as she gestured at the picture after Felipe and Don Alejandro had said good night and disappeared down the darkened hall that led to their bedrooms.

Diego thought about not responding to her question, since he didn't trust himself around her, but on second thought, he said, I'm giving my wrist a break from holding the paintbrush so tightly.

Not overly interested in wrists or their soreness, Victoria tried a new topic of conversation. You'll never believe what Paco told me while I was in the stables, putting my horse in its stall this evening before supper. She shifted on the piano bench, and the rustle from her wriggling made her thigh come in contact with Diego's leg, which sent waves of heat shooting through his chest. The sweat of holding back his thoughts that came instantly to his mind at the movement were extreme; forget about his wrist, now he had other body parts to worry about! Diego swallowed, his throat tight.

But Victoria was continuing, unaware of the effect she was having on her own husband. He said that he and the other vaqueros were counting all the horses in the stable the other day, you know, making sure they were all in the proper stalls, when they discovered something very interesting.

What? Diego managed to croak. He had a good idea where she was going with this seemingly idle conversation.

He said that Esperanza's stall was empty, and that he couldn't find her in the corral, either, when he looked. Diego, do you know where she is?

Diego's breath sounded dull with repressed emotion as he sighed. He swung his head around to regard his wife. The second he took in the curls framing her lovely face, he wished he hadn't. Thus, he was even more uncertain than usual, and he blurted the truth instead of telling her a friendlier and more comforting lie, as he had planned on doing. I sold her to Seņor Jalisco before we were married. I need to let Paco know that he can stop looking for Esperanza now. He knew that such a bald recitation of the information had to be startling to her, but he couldn't take the energy necessary to soften the intelligence at the time he delivered it. All his attention was on the touch of Victoria's thigh, and in resisting the thoughts that her artless behavior evoked.

Victoria was torn out of her constant state of melancholy to stare at him in astonishment, much the same as Don Alejandro's and Felipe's original reaction to the information had been. You what?

Half beside himself with tension now, Diego replied, I had to sell her in order to afford the ring I wanted to give to you. Yes, Esperanza meant a lot to me, and I'd had her for years, but your good name means more to me because you mean more. That was the end of the debate as far as I was concerned.

Victoria stared at him. You sold Esperanza for my ring? she asked.

I had to, Diego said in defense of his actions as he carefully laid aside his paintbrush so he wouldn't inadvertently jerk his arm and brush red paint across the canvas currently on his easel and ruin his painting. There wasn't enough money in our account that day. All of it was tied up here, in cattle and other horses that hadn't been sold, yet. And I had nothing else with me at the time to sell. But it was imperative that I propose when I did to keep you from... He stopped, now more nervous than before.

From... what? Victoria inquired with an interrogative shake of her head.

From... But Diego couldn't say the words. He cleared his throat and tried again. From... from giving in to the temptation of... of what that caballero was suggesting to you.

Victoria looked more than puzzled, now. She looked downright confused. The who? she asked, her eyebrows raised in mystification. The what?

Diego was more cautious when he looked at her this time. The stranger. She continued to blankly stare at him. The caballero. When she didn't react to this information, either, Diego went on with additional facts. On the day I proposed to you. You know, he prompted. Your ring?

Sudden understanding swept across Victoria's face. Oh, that day, she said. What about that day?

Father told me that... that you were considering... How should he vocalize such a delicate reference? ... considering... Diego paused once more, then opted to be blunt. ... considering his suggestion.

Victoria reacted in a way that he hadn't anticipated: she started to smile, even if the gesture was thin. To follow him to his room? she asked in incredulous amusement. You must be joking.

Diego could only shrug at this point to indicate that making a joke had been the last thing on his mind.

Victoria swiveled her head to gaze not at him, but at the empty entryway, instead. A look of revulsion and horror was on her features. That's what you thought? she asked in memory of that day. That I was thinking about..? She didn't finish her comment. No! Of course I wasn't!

You weren't? Diego inquired.

Victoria looked sick. No! she exclaimed. Whatever gave you that idea?

Diego shrugged. That's what father was worried would happen. His worry made me worry.

And that's why you proposed? Her voice held her amazement.

Once more, Diego shrugged. That, as well as other reasons. I did say that I care about you, and I didn't just mean at the time that I cared about your reputation on the whole. I meant that I cared about you as well, he said.

Victoria was thunderstruck, and opened her mouth to respond to that rather vague comment when her foot struck the corner of his art portfolio lying on the floor where he had thoughtlessly dropped it when he began painting the scene of the Los Angeles alcalde's office that he was currently working on. Squares of canvas rushed in scattered chaos across the floor. Victoria was immediately contrite, stalling her initial anger at what Diego had assumed about her. Oh, I'm sorry - I didn't mean to mess up your things like that. She sprang after the paintings and bent down to retrieve them. Here, let me help...

Diego hurried to stop her, No, I'll do it. It was all over if she found the portraits of her that he had painted over the years, then kept in his portfolio. If she discovered his hidden affection for her as a result, he didn't know what he would do. I'll... But it was already too late.

Victoria had a canvas in her hands. It was a representation of her tavern, a harmless enough picture, except when linked to the ones it led to, which Victoria would undoubtedly find. For the moment, she looked at the painting in her hands. This is quite good, Diego, she praised. I had no idea you were so talented.

Victoria.., Diego tried again to stop her with an upraised hand.

But she had already reached for another painting. She paused when she made note of the subject that the brush strokes had originally depicted on the canvas. What..? She stared at it, then rifled through the other pictures still on the floor. She internalized their subjects, as well. Actually, she was the only subject. Her mouth slowly dropped open in astonishment. Why... why, Diego, these are all of me, she exclaimed.

Diego tried hard to cover his embarrassment at her discovery. Er... um... yes, he finally answered.

Victoria sat down more comfortably on the floor, then reached for a third, then a fourth, a fifth, even more paintings. Her mouth continued to drop lower and lower as she perused each one. They were all of her, rendered in the delicate strokes of Diego's brush, in moments when his emotions had gotten the best of even the stalwart caballero. Diego... she began questioningly, her voice nothing more than a whisper.

He interrupted her. It's not what you think...

Victoria glanced up at him from her perusal of the portraits. What's going on? she gently inquired. Then her voice grew slightly more accusatory. Diego, have you always been this infatuated with me? she asked, though the memory of him once saying that he cared for her ghosted through her mind. She gave an uncomfortable little wriggle in her place on the floor.

Victoria.., he tried once again to explain the pictures away, then stopped at the look of quiet distress on her face. She was truly forlorn over her idea that he had spent his life pining for her, when in reality, she had been within his grasp all along. So, he began again, only this time he couldn't withstand the open gentleness on her face at what she thought she had learned. Victoria, listen to me for a moment. He slid down to sit next to her on the floor. His sigh sounded loud in the quiet of the room. The darkness and shadows pressed in on them from the corners; it seemed that they had always been surrounded by the dark and all its mysteries. Yes, these are all of you, but it's not what you think. I haven't spent a life of useless yearning while Zorro romanced you.

Then, what is this? she asked as she held aloft one of the incriminating paintings.

Renditions of affection, he assured her. Every single one of them. But, while Zorro...

Zorro is dead, Victoria said in a voice that sounded equally as barren.

Dios, I hate that tone, Diego suddenly exclaimed. He took her hand as she responded to his outburst in surprise. I hate it not because it comes from you, but because I'm responsible for putting it there.

Diego, you're not... Victoria scoffed.

Yes, I am, Diego insisted quietly. As responsible as I am for painting all these pictures.

Again, Victoria glanced at the canvas in her hand. It was a picture of her in the de la Vega garden as she sniffed a rose connected to a vine that was, in turn, connected to a wall. Diego, Victoria hesitated. You aren't... aren't in love with me, are you?

It was a straightforward question. He couldn't lie to such sincerity. Yes, I am, he responded in a resigned whisper, matching her honesty with his own.

Oh, my god, Victoria flatly stated in unequivocal amazement. You never said a word. Well, you said you cared when you proposed, but I never thought... She stopped herself again. But, Diego, it was no secret that I was always in love with Zorro, she protested.

Victoria, he imparted, and looked straight into her eyes, even though his thudding heart nearly begged him to look away. I'm him.

Victoria blinked helplessly in the dim firelight. You're... you're what?

Diego's heart continued to race inside his chest, and he had to swallow before he repeated, I'm him. Zorro, he clarified.

Victoria sat, stunned, for a moment. Then, in spite of the aura of gloom that had settled around her, she burst out laughing. That's absurd! she exclaimed. You're nothing like him! You can't even fence!

I know, Diego said as his hands briefly laced over his hair in regret for his need to lie to her as well as to everyone else in his past. That's what I wanted you to think, he added. But have you ever seen me lose a fight?

Victoria laughed again, then the action diminished to a snort, then disappeared altogether as she stared at him in amazement. Finally, she blinked once, and said in a voice that sounded stunned to softness, You're serious.

Diego stared her in the eye, but it took all of his control not to look away in paralyzing fear. I am, he replied in a soft voice, then went on as persuasively as he possibly could, Please, you have to believe... But, he could tell that his words were so incredible that they were hard for her to believe at all. So he repeated his question from a moment before. Have you ever seen me lose a fight, Victoria?

She answered promptly, still looking dazed, but more and more collected as the conversation wore on into the night. Diego, I've hardly ever seen you in a fight.

For good reason, he told her bluntly and quickly. I can only mask my actions for so long.

But, Diego, Victoria protested, what about that time you got angry and fought that Englishman? What was his name..?

Thackery, Diego supplied with a tiny smile. Sir Miles Thackery.

That's right, Victoria agreed. You didn't beat him, she pointed out. The fight ended before it was truly over.

Diego put a halt to her sense of superior knowledge. No, I... I faked a sprained ankle to get him to stop fencing right before he would have either killed me, or I would have had to to start fighting with my true abilities to protect myself.

Victoria smiled again, and made a growl that was almost a laugh. Recovering her sense of incredulity, she scoffed, Your true abilities... She almost laughed at him again. Diego, Are you sure you didn't sprain your brain that day? You're not...

Victoria, Diego quietly, softly interrupted, You have two engagement rings.

Victoria did stop that time. His information made her protests grind to a halt. How do you know about that?" she asked softly, immediately suspicious.

Diego sighed once more. He sounded sad and elated at the same time. Because I gave them both to you. I gave the first one to you as Seņor Zorro, he added, then continued, It was on a day bandits chased your wagon, and I wrapped the wounded ankle you received when a wheel fell off that wagon. I carried you to my secret cave in order to wrap it. You were unconscious at the time.

Victoria stared at him and didn't blink. He could have told you about that, she accused.

True, Diego acknowledged. But I told you my greatest fear that day, that I was afraid you would love a legend instead of me, instead of a man of flesh and blood. I even got down on one knee to ask you to... Victoria! Diego objected in sudden alarm.

Victoria had placed a hand over her open mouth so she wouldn't utter a sound of distress and bring Don Alejandro or Felipe running into the room where they were sitting near the piano. The action was the only movement she was capable of, making. A little squeak did work its way through her fingers, anyway, as tears quickly sprang to her eyes. Wet lashes did nothing to hinder the tracks that traced down her smooth, pale cheeks. Oh, Dios, she whispered suddenly.

What? inquired a confused Diego. His brow furrowed in puzzlement.

Sitting on the floor beside him, Victoria's face crumpled as she stared at him. Oh, my god, she said again, then went on staring at him.

What? Diego asked again, and he looked around them this time, expecting the house to be full of bandits bent on killing them both. But they were completely alone in the darkened hacienda, and it was getting so late that the possibility of seeing anyone new was very small. Don Alejandro's clock on the fireplace mantel at the end of the sitting room struck midnight.

Victoria sat on the floor and audibly swallowed her tears. You're alive, she whispered in between sobs, apparently having little trouble with accepting Diego's explanation. You're alive.

Yes, you said that.

My god, she repeated again. Is it really you? She stared through the rain of tears. You were dead! she accused. We all thought you were!

He gazed at her, hating to see the tear streaks on her face. Yes, well I had to do that, don't you understand? Diego explained pleadingly. I had to use this chance to my benefit, to end the need for the mask that's always kept us apart. This was the only way I could think of to make it benefit either of us. He slowly reached up a hand to her cheek, but didn't touch her. Unfortunately, I couldn't do anything without hurting everyone involved.

Victoria, not caring if she was involved, threw herself forward into his arms.

Victoria! What..? Diego began, but then shut his mouth as the incredibly familiar but long-denied sensation of holding her in his arms again momentarily defeated his questions. Sh! Please don't cry, he said softly in what he hoped was a soothing voice, but Victoria continued to sob and cling to him and mutter his name, along with the occasional epithet. I'm so sorry, Victoria. I never meant to hurt you when I came up with this disguise. Please, you have to believe that. I didn't mean to fall in love with you, and I'm so sorry I couldn't tell you - I'm so sorry for everything.

But Victoria didn't seem to be listening again. You're alive! she kept saying in a tone of astonishment. If you're alive and well, I can believe anything that you say! Her arms tightened against his back, and she was suddenly consumed with giving him frantic, warm kisses everywhere. Don't leave me, she whispered in desperation. Don't ever leave me!

Victoria! Diego slightly admonished, taken aback by the fierceness of her affection. I wanted to tell you everything. I swear! I hated to see you in pain like you have been in these last few weeks... but the Alcalde always watches you... You had to believe... You had to think it was real, or he would have...

She smiled. You're here! You're alive! You're you!

She sounded delighted at her discovery, but Diego continued to be suspicious. He was always suspicious of things that appeared too good to be true. Victoria, you need to hear me say... That was as far as he got when he was cut off by her insistent, warm, searing, loving kiss. It was as if she swallowed him, words and all, as she went on with her drastic gesture of affection. The kiss, just touching Victoria, made Diego's stomach tilt and swirl before it curled up and plunged to his toes. The sedond they parted, Diego was forced by his insistent emotions to whisper to her. Dios, Victoria, you don't know how good it feels to hold you again.

Victoria went right back to clinging to him as if she never planned to let him go. His white caballero shirt was wet and bedraggled in mere moments from her constant crying.

Victoria brushed at his damp shirt front and simultaneously apologized. I'm so sorry. I seem to have a well running over inside of me these days.

I know - I've heard you cry every night this week, Diego wryly informed her, and held out his handkerchief for her to take. His insides were shaking so badly that he was having trouble holding the handkerchief still.

Victoria laughed a somewhat hysterical little laugh, then pulled her own square of white linen out of her sash. I have my own - I carry one all the time these days in case I need one. She made the inelegant action of blowing her nose, then rolled her eyes in another wry movement of her own. Lately, I've needed one all the time.

Diego hung his head to rest on her shoulder and closed his eyes in distress. And that's my fault. He took a shuddering breath, his own tear tracks tracing streaks down each cheek. I'm so sorry for the necessity of making you think I was dead. But the Alcalde...

I know, she interrupted his excuses. Victoria took a shuddering breath of her own, but was mostly elated that he was alive and in her arms. She didn't care what lie he had told in order to get there in the first place. The fact that he was alive at all to be cradled by her was the only point that was important to her. The rest were like so many cloudy details to her. As long as you're here... that's all the matters now, she said and sobbed again.

Please, Victoria, please stop crying, Diego entreated as tears of is own stung his eyes once again.

I will if you will, she promised, but more shivers tore at her small frame, even as she grinned through the water drops on her face.

She had never looked more lovely to him, tears and all. I promise, he whispered, his voice sounding as waterlogged as his eyes.

Victoria laughed, finally, the sound mixing with her previous sorrow. I know what that means, coming from you, she whispered back to him.

Diego had to chuckle as well at her words. You do, he answered her, knowing that he would be in her arms for a long time, yet. But, then, that was right where he had always been meant to be.


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