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
Pardon, he muttered.
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
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
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.
Don Alejandro lowered his head in a sad shake.
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
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.
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
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
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.
Well, what can we do for her? he
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
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
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.
planning anything illegal, if that's what has you
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
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
That you plan to ask for Seņorita Escalante's
Marriage. Yes, Diego replied.
In name only, of
course, but it's an old and time-honored name that I can
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
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.
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
Victoria? he called.
Can I speak to you for
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
But Victoria still didn't comprehend his point.
Diego went on,
I admit that such a scene has me
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
Diego took his life in his hands and said,
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
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,
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Suddenly. Victoria looked suspicious.
What are you
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
I know that, she refuted.
If anyone is
aware of such a situation, I am, Victoria emphatically
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
... 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.
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
Well..? Victoria appeared to hesitate. She said,
How can I marry you, then? How can I marry
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
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
Victoria hesitated again. Then, after a prolonged moment of
This is just to share your name,
Absolutely. Again Diego shrugged.
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
Victoria's eyes narrowed as she regarded him.
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
... 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
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.
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
Victoria stared at him.
Do I have to give you an answer
right now? Can I consider it, first?
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
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
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
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.
beautiful, she whispered, immediately reverent as she
continued to stare at his ring.
It comes from Los Angeles, he told her in a quiet
It's not imported or anything; the stones are
Victoria's head jerked around so that she could stare at
Of course they are, she insisted.
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
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
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
A ghost of a smile flitted across Victoria's lips.
long as you know what you're getting, she warned.
be very good company for awhile.
Diego's exuberance was calming into a more sincere emotional
I'm not marrying you for your entertainment value,
Victoria, he said,
She sighed at the insistence he couldn't help but instill in
It's a good thing, she admitted.
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
But I certainly understand.
Victoria sighed again, this time in obvious regret.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
Alejandro gasped a breath of hot outside air.
Diego gazed vacantly at the pueblo's naming sign.
am... We are.... Getting married, he ended on a defeated
sigh. Then he turned back to stare at his father.
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.
You're awfully cool, considering you just told your
father you're finally getting married, Alejandro
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
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
I'll take care of that right now. He moved off in
the direction of the mission. Soon, he disappeared in the
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
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.
Half beside himself with tension now, Diego replied,
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
Victoria looked more than puzzled, now. She looked
The who? she asked, her eyebrows
raised in mystification.
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.
Sudden understanding swept across Victoria's face.
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
... considering his suggestion.
Victoria reacted in a way that he hadn't anticipated: she
started to smile, even if the gesture was thin.
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
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?
That's what father was worried would
happen. His worry made me worry.
And that's why you proposed? Her voice held her
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
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.
quite good, Diego, she praised.
I had no idea you were so
Victoria.., Diego tried again to stop her with an
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.
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
Why... why, Diego, these are all of
me, she exclaimed.
Diego tried hard to cover his embarrassment at her
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Yes, I am, he responded in a resigned whisper,
matching her honesty with his own.
Oh, my god, Victoria flatly stated in unequivocal
You never said a word. Well, you said you cared
when you proposed, but I never thought... She stopped
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
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
Victoria sat, stunned, for a moment. Then, in spite of the
aura of gloom that had settled around her, she burst out
That's absurd! she exclaimed.
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
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,
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
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
Thackery, Diego supplied with a tiny smile.
That's right, Victoria agreed.
You didn't beat
him, she pointed out.
The fight ended before it was truly
Diego put a halt to her sense of superior knowledge.
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,
true abilities... She almost laughed at him again.
Diego, Are you sure you didn't sprain your brain that day?
Victoria, Diego quietly, softly interrupted,
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
Because I gave them both to you. I gave the first
one to you as Seņor Zorro, he added, then continued,
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
Oh, Dios, she whispered suddenly.
What? inquired a confused Diego. His brow furrowed
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
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.
Yes, you said that.
My god, she repeated again.
Is it really you?
She stared through the rain of tears.
You were dead! she
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.
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.
alive! she kept saying in a tone of astonishment.
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.
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...
You're here! You're alive! You're
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
I know what that means, coming from you,
she whispered back to him.
Diego had to chuckle as well at her words.
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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