Out of the Frying Pan...

by Linda Bindner

The kitchen was quiet except for the occasional moan from Zorro, the man of action known to the entire pueblo of Los Angeles. In actuality, he was the stumbling student, Diego de la Vega, recently made a student of cooking with Señorita Escalante, the alluring lady held currently in his arms and who had completely captured his heart. If only she knew who he really was.... But revealing his identity, even to her, was complicated.

Though things should not be complicated now. It was obvious from her kisses that she loved him... him, as she had proclaimed during his sudden proposal of marriage, the man beneath the mask that kept them apart as effectively as a locked door. Though very little was keeping them apart at the moment.

He always tried to be the gentleman with her, but Victoria often made that hard if not impossible. Now was one of those times. She had the top button of his shirt undone, and the next would soon follow if he could determine by the look on her face. There weren't that many buttons on this shirt, certainly not enough to withstand the emotions of Victoria Escalante. He felt himself spiral with insanity as Victoria kissed him again. She was the only thing that kept his feet firmly grounded while he enjoyed the intoxicating pleasure of kissing her back, keeping his head reeling even though his head was probably the most normal and intelligent in the pueblo. Yet resistance was difficult.

We should stop, murmured Zorro breathlessly, even at a time when he didn't want to stop, when he simply wanted to give in to the craving of his heart at last, and stop fighting himself all the time. Normal men his age had long since married and fathered children; he had to constantly remind himself that he was far from normal, and thus could hardly expect to have a normal relationship.

The fact that Victoria is in love with a legend might have something to do with that, he thought wryly to himself, though he had simply refused to listen to her assurances to the contrary and had never compromised her safety by telling her his identity. There had been times when he'd come close, and he'd given her plenty of hints, but her safety had always stopped him, coming near to an obsession with him. Felipe thought he was afraid, and the young man might have a point. As much as he was enjoying himself at the moment, he loved her too much to reveal who he was, and her lack of knowledge kept her safe and out of the Alcalde's hands. Zorro shuddered at the thought of Victoria at the mercy of that evil man, even as he shuddered from her endearments.

Victoria, always bright herself, caught the shudder astutely. She looked at the fire and the pot of stew she kept bubbling there. Are you cold? she whispered, cognizant of their precarious position with a full tavern on the other side of the curtains separating off her kitchen, and the lancers only across the plaza. Yet they got to see each other so rarely that the danger was worth it.

Zorro laughed low. No, mí preciosa, only in love too much, he replied. He couldn't resist the temptation to bury his face in her hair. But I should leave before....

The sound of Sergeant Mendoza's voice suddenly broke them apart as if they had been doused with a bucket of cold water. This is the last place to search, mí Alcalde. But I don't think Zorro is still in town. He would not be so foolish.

We'll see, mumbled a second voice, and clearly the man who owned that voice had his mind on something else as he barely remembered to answer the sergeant. Alcalde Ignacio DeSoto quickly gave an order, Lancers, hold the back door and the kitchen window against entry and exit of any kind. Some seal the front door as well. The rest of you, come with me. Booted steps sounded as he crossed the tavern with his men.

Except Zorro had been as foolish as the sergeant suggested. The lure of a few stolen moments with Victoria had tempted him, and now it looked as if he was going to pay for that temptation with his life.

Zorro looked around and noticed the door to the pantry closet. It didn't lock, but it would have to do to hide him until the lancers either went away or discovered his hiding place. Spending time with hanging peppers might cool his blood, too, an advantage to a cool head. He turned quickly to give instructions to Victoria.

But she was terrified. That was obvious to him just by the expression on her face, and he felt amazement that her feelings for him ran so deep. Mí preciosa, please, you have to create a distraction in the main room to keep them there as long as you can.

She nodded, then asked in a whisper, What are you going to do?

What could he do in a situation like this? Hide, he answered back, his voice also low, wanting to give comfort from her fears, but knowing there wasn't time. Well, that's one way to break up a dangerous situation, thought Zorro with a small, wry smile. He would much rather have continued kissing Victoria than hide in her kitchen. But he had learned long ago that he didn't always get what he wanted.

With a sense of purpose, he strode on silent feet to the door to the pantry closet and yanked it open. Like he thought it would, it had the remains of market day scattered on its tiered shelves. Trembling at the thought of getting caught, and from Victoria's kisses, he turned to her. Zorro kissed her cheek and said, Remember to be convincing, before he closed the door, blocking out the noise if not the light of midmorning.

Foolish indeed, he berated himself. This type of situation was exactly what he wanted to keep Victoria out of, and he might as well have called to the Alcalde and told him where they were. He condemned himself again, his head hanging down at the self-condemnation when he noticed a scrap of white on the floor.

His heart surged. It couldn't be! But it was. Zorro bent as best he could in the cramped closet and pulled out Don Diego's old clothes from a pile of rags under some hanging shawls. The shawls practically hid them from sight, and what the shawls didn't do, the rags accomplished easily. It was a miracle that Zorro saw them at all. Which was why Felipe had chosen this spot during the Children's Festival to hide them in, then he and Diego had forgotten their existence, even if he recalled the day very well. The clothes were even still a little damp, a testament to the festival they had served in.

Don Diego had sat on a board rigged above a full rain barrel, allowing child after child to attempt at hitting the lever with a ball to drop the young don into the water. The children couldn't resist the chance to soak him, and he had been repeatedly dropped into the barrel of water. Even Padre Benitez couldn't seem to resist such an opportunity, soaking Diego a minute before his shift was up, leaving a shivering don and a group of happy children.

Rather than ride all the way back home to change clothes, Diego had ducked into the tavern kitchen and changed to dry clothes, leaving the wet ones rolled in a ball to collect later. Only the later never came, and after three months, the festival was dimming even in Diego's memory.

Grabbing the slightly damp, now moldy clothes, Zorro paused. Dressing as Diego meant another escape from the lancers and the Alcalde, but it would surely mean discovery at Victoria's hands. She was an intelligent, thoughtful woman, and it wouldn't take her long to figure out that leaving Zorro in an inescapable kitchen and finding Don Diego in that same kitchen a moment later meant that the masked bandit and the don were one and the same. Yet not appearing as Don Diego meant capture and certain death. The Alcalde would not wait to hang his arch enemy after all these years of trying to catch him. He would hang him immediately and ask questions later.

To Zorro, it was an easy choice. Well Victoria, you're about to find out the biggest secret of the pueblo, he whispered aloud, then unfolded the clothes and started changing.

Diego had just squatted down in front of the large pot of stew that Victoria always kept simmering on her kitchen fire when the Alcalde and his men entered.

Check the pan.... the Alcalde was saying when he interrupted himself at the sight of Don Diego.

Diego rose, a wooden stirring spoon in hand. Alcalde! You found Victoria. I was about to call her and ask what I need to add next since our stew is bubbling so well.

Diego! spluttered the Alcalde. Then he held a handkerchief delicately to his nose. What is that smell? And what are you doing here? He looked around at the empty kitchen, a confused expression on his face.

Me? Oh, I'm just getting another cooking lesson from the señorita. Things are going much better than the last lesson, he said sarcastically, reminding everybody of his attempt to make bread pudding. He smiled. As to the smell, I think it's also me. He thought fast. I fell into Garcia's pond on my way over here. I'm almost dry now, but you know what Garcia's pond is full of. He gave a quick wrinkle of his nose, being the quintessential Diego. Hopefully that would be enough to distract the Alcalde.

But it wasn't enough to distract Victoria. She stood at the back of the rather large group of uniformed men, close to the cupboard and Zorro's hiding place if she was suddenly needed, and looked at Diego with horror in her eyes. Then, like a shutter closing, something fell across her eyes a second later, sealing the effect of her new knowledge from the Alcalde and his men. She looked deceptively normal again.

But not normal enough. She knows, thought Diego, and took a shuddering breath that DeSoto missed. It was out now, no matter how afraid he might be. But Victoria kept her cool, and convincingly moved to the pot of stew. It looks good. Now we wait while it cooks. Anybody have something they want to talk about? Her cheeriness belied her thoughts. She purposefully didn't look at Diego.

But I thought Zorro was here, DeSoto stated, still confused.

Diego spoke calmly. Zorro! Is he still in town?

We thought he was hiding somewhere nearby, Don Diego, but it's clear that he left town right after his confrontation with the Alcalde, Sergeant Mendoza said.

Diego spoke again, Well, he's not here, Sergeant, but I'll be sure to let you know if I see him again.

Sergeant Mendoza bobbed his head. Gracias, Don Diego, but I don't think that will be any time soon. He's obviously not here. Back to the cuartel. Vamanos, muchachos!

The sergeant left the kitchen without a second glance for anything but the stew, and DeSoto trailed behind, a puzzled look on his otherwise handsome face. But he left the kitchen with the others, leaving Victoria alone with Diego and the stew. A moment later, they heard the scuffling at the back door that indicated the dismissal of the lancers, who left with their unseen companions. Soon, Victoria and Diego were completely alone. The only sound was the slight simmering as the stew continued to cook.

His mind still on capture, Diego moved cautiously to the curtains, incongruous spoon still in hand. A peak through the sliver between the curtains showed what he wanted to see; no lancers in sight. Behind him, he heard rather than saw the pantry door open quietly and close just as soundlessly, as if someone was checking its occupancy. When he turned back around, Victoria was standing by the old chopping block she used to cut vegetables on, nowhere near the pantry door, an enigmatic look on her face.

For a split second, Diego thought of running through the curtains, escaping without hearing the certain scolding he was about to receive, but a desire to 'get it over with' and face his fears won out in the end, and he only returned the wooden spoon to the side of the fireplace, looking guilty the entire time. Victoria began quietly, but Diego knew her temper was famous for a reason. He expected it to get much worse very soon.

I don't know what to say, she said softly, but with an underlying venom in her words that made her meaning clear.

Don't say anything yet. Let me explain, Diego said in a much lower voice than he normally used and with hands raised in a soothing motion. But he knew it was hopeless; her face was a thundercloud of grief and incredulity. She wouldn't hear what he had to say, even if he could think of something to say with his mushy mind, which he couldn't.

Explain? Victoria asked, suddenly shrill and resonant. Oh, you'll be explaining until next year! She slammed a knife down on the carving block. Diego winced at the noise. Noise was sure to attract attention, something neither of them wanted right now.

It was as he had always feared; she was angry at him for keeping such a volatile secret from her. He could hardly blame her. After all, three words from him could have started their lives years ago. But his fear had kept him silent.

I don't believe.... Oh, come on! she suddenly said, pulling him out the back door without a word to anyone that she expected to be involved with any errands and be gone from the tavern. Somehow, that hardly seemed important right now. Still, he was strangely aware of the fingers of her right hand curled around his left. It was an odd sensation to be aware of when she felt so clearly angry.

Diego had no choice but to follow her, habitually ducking his head so he wouldn't club it on her doorframe. Sometimes being so tall wasn't the advantage that most people thought it was. Victoria recognized the movement as something he had done many times as Zorro, and she seemed to grow angrier, if that was possible. A pain in his head was preferable to a certain señorita's anger any day.

When they were alone on the grassy prairie between the two miles interrupting the pueblo and the de la Vega hacienda, hidden from the road, the quiet descending on them like a living thing, Victoria finally acted.

Instead of lashing out, like he expected and was prepared for, she raised a hand to her forehead. I don't believe this, she said again, treacherously quiet. But much of her anger showed in that one little statement.

Diego raised his own hands. He realized now that he should have told her years ago. Please, before you say anything....

She again interrupted him with her soft, How long?

He knew what she was asking about, but.... How long? How long had he loved her and only her? Nothing about being Zorro? Since I was twelve, with a few bumps here and there, but none since I came home from Spain, he answered grimly, his mouth a tight, thin line, though feeling suddenly light at the honesty of it. It felt good to finally unburden his soul.

Twelve? Her eyes closed at the confession, and he couldn't tell if she was still feeling angry or something else. Why didn't you say anything?

This was more like it, more expected. She was asking the correct questions. Then why was his heart still beating so hard against his ribs? Because I was afraid.

Of what?

He tried to ignore the surroundings and concentrate on her. Of this, he replied. Why was it so quiet out here? Only birdcalls broke the silence. Of you being angry, of you giving up the wait, of having to go on... alone. There, he'd managed to say it, but speaking it didn't erase the anger he felt pouring from her in waves. I didn't want you to get involved. If you were hurt because of your association with me, I couldn't live with myself.

But you had no problem living with yourself as the holder of the greatest secret in the century? Her voice was quiet, free from accusation.

He took a step closer, but was careful not to touch her. He didn't think she would let him touch her at this point. Victoria, you have to believe that this was never what I wanted, never what I anticipated.

At least you were free to want something, she said, and his heart shriveled at her words. His worst fear was coming true. She wasn't able to get passed Zorro's identity and love Diego.

Despair engulfed him. Diego suddenly sat, unable to support himself any longer. He hung his head in his hands, propped on his bent knees, staring at the dried grass that almost obliterated his sitting form. When he spoke, his words mixed with a sob. Does it help to know that I'm sorry?

Victoria glanced at him at the sound of the sob and her anger dissolved, just like that. She could never cause that much unhappiness. He seemed to be taking this harder than she was. He had obviously debated every possible reaction, thinking about everything to death over the years, like the Diego she knew. But looking at him again made her heart lurch. Yes, it helps, she said softly, remembering that just last hour she had kissed this man with all her inbred passion, and now all she felt was sadness.

Victoria knelt in the grass beside him. You didn't give me a choice, and I wish you had.

I didn't mean for it to go this long, he explained, quiet himself. So quiet that Victoria almost didn't hear him. He sobbed again.

Well, it has, and we're both caught in this web of deceit and lies and greed whether we wanted it or not. If only we could have had a just alcalde, she said, leaving her thought hanging between them.

That stopped the sobbing. He lifted his head. There would have been no need for Zorro, said Diego, finally mentioning the name that stood between the two.

Victoria really looked at him for the first time since leaving the tavern. She was struck by how familiar his blue eyes were, by how unfamiliar was the high forehead, the dark eyebrows, the dark hair, things she hadn't seen before because of the mask. She had never thought about it before, but he was actually a very handsome man. Then I might not have met you, she protested lightly.

He sighed, suddenly tired of going around and around with her. It did no good not to ask, What do you want now, Victoria?

She looked to the horizon. What do I want? She smiled suddenly, and played with the grass stems that surrounded them. I think I want justice finally for the people, I want a fair alcalde, which I can't have, I want to live a normal life for a change, I want to finish what we started in the tavern, and I want all this waiting to end. What do you want?

He seemed surprised by her question, as if he didn't think he deserved to answer, but endeavored to answer her as honestly as possible. I also want justice and I also want the waiting to end. And I want you.

Victoria hardly dared look at him. Had she heard him correctly? It was more than she merited, after the way she had treated his fears so lightly, especially since she knew they existed. Shame engulfed her. Why did she always greet things with anger first and thought second? But could she learn to love Diego instead of Zorro? She looked at him again, and knew that she could at the sudden leap from her heart. She probably already did. She wished she had been given the opportunity to learn to love him, but she wasn't about to squander this occasion when it knocked on her door, either. She had to face this situation because of Zorro, but then, she got to face this situation because of Zorro. It depended on how she looked at it. And the man she loved was all Zorro, there was no doubting that.

Without thinking her actions through to death, the way Diego would have, she impetuously leaned forward and kissed his cheek, smooth under her caressing lips. She felt it was the least she could do, considering how much he had secretly done for the pueblo, as Zorro and as Diego, since she now understood that he was always wearing a mask, and that he was far more capable than any had been led to believe, including his father and herself. But what she really longed to do was much more intimate than kiss a simple cheek.

Diego accepted the endearment, unused to receiving accolades for his work, blushing a little under the attention, tears still streaking that cheek. He brushed at the streaks in agitation, then wrapped his arms around her. I'm so sorry, Victoria, he said into her hair, his hushed words caressing her ear. The strength in his arms was tremendous, but Victoria was determined not to say anything and break the spell of solitude that had fallen over them. She simply held him, knowing that he needed comfort in the wake of his own forgiveness. I'm so sorry, he repeated.

Before she knew it or understood how it happened, his lips were on hers, restrainedly at first, then more firmly, as if he didn't want her to escape, as if she would. She felt her mind go numb as he kissed her; Zorro had never kissed her this way! She wondered if perhaps he had always been holding back as his tongue wrapped around hers, prodding and exploring with a freedom he had never expressed. Victoria found him exhilarating in a way that she had never found Zorro, she admitted to herself as his lips moved to the pulse in her neck, sending delicate tingles up her arms. His amazing tongue was quick to follow, and she melted even further into his embrace.

Not caring about being caught acted like sudden immunity to Diego, and he found that he couldn't stop, didn't want to stop what he was doing to Victoria, not caring about being a gentleman any longer. She had accepted him for her own, and the knowledge was the headwaters for more daring acts than he'd ever allowed himself as Zorro. He laid her in the grass, his mouth never leaving her hot skin, and lay beside her as he kissed her again full on the lips, his mind reeling with the unexpected freedom as she answered the movement, easily keeping up with the change in him, seeming to glory in his lips on hers in a clear abandonment of protocol.

Her skin was so hot! The heat acted as a temptation to surrender as he suddenly found his caballero shirt unbuttoned and felt her skin on his for the first time. Victoria was as abandoned as he was when she voluntarily removed her shirtwaist and undergarments, exposing more of her skin than he had ever seen or felt. He moaned her name, and she groaned his as she kissed him frantically wherever she could reach. Pent up emotions exploded, and being outside merely acted as a stimulant to those emotions. But in reality, her acceptance of the truth was more of a stimulant than the open air could ever be.


They lay together, panting and catching their breath, both amazed at the boldness of how they had just reacted, both exhausted by those actions, yet both feeling strangely relaxed and free under a forgiving autumn sun. The sunlight was warm now, even if the air was cooler to their exposed skin. The heat trapped in the grass acted as the final blanket to their impulsive and unexpected lovemaking. No one had discovered them, and no one had even driven by on the road far to their left. It was as if they were the only two people still in the world.

Diego turned his head to look at Victoria. Her unanticipated acceptance was incredible to him, making him love her all the more, even now when he was as worried about her as he had ever been. Sudden questions and concerns for the future hit him, but Victoria knew instinctively what was happening and wrapped her arms tighter about him, warding off those worries for a little while longer. She didn't want to be logical yet, didn't want to deal with the actuality of the real world. She was enjoying herself and their newfound freedom far too much to have it all end now. Later she would be practical. But not now.

That wasn't ever supposed to happen. I'm sorry, Victoria, Diego's voice drifted over to her, soft as the autumn wind.

I'm not, she said, equally as quiet. The only thing I regret is my initial reaction of anger. I should have been more accepting. I need to stop being angry first all the time.

Diego's eyebrows rose. Indeed? I don't see how, but if you intend to, you should see if you can change. But my guess is you can't, and it would be a waste of energy to try, and I love you just the way you are, said Diego with a quick cuddle. Your anger is a great temperance to my natural inclination to worry about everything. Like right now, for example.

Why? What are you thinking about right now?

Sunburn, he admitted.

She laughed then, a relieved sound that rang over the ground. Sunburn - how unromantic! she exclaimed.

He smiled. I can hardly help it; being unromantic is part of my 'Diego' nature. You of all people should know that.

She smiled as well, though her gesture was far more flirtatious than his. She was more wanton than he had ever given her credit for. Oh, I don't know about you being unromantic. I think you're more romantic than you or others expect.

He rolled over then and propped himself up on his elbows so he could see her face. You know, today wasn't at all planned, but I'm glad it happened. Being discovered was never so... extraordinary... in my mind.

Your worries kept you imprisoned. She played with his chest as she spoke, running her finger tantalizingly up and down it.

Diego wasn't unaware of the action, or of his reaction to her endearment. True. But fear can be very powerful. He caught her hand in his, suddenly serious, and kissed it as lovingly as he ever had. Victoria, will you wait a little while longer for me? I want to court you for everybody to see, I'd like the pueblo to know what love I feel for you, that I want you. Do you think you can love me for being Diego?

Victoria snuggled in closer, despite the itchy grass and the creases she felt herself getting on her skin. I already do, she replied softly, securing her vow with a languorous kiss that held the promise of other discoveries to come. Yep, this was much better than being mad all the time, she decided.

And that night, she took out her engagement ring, a ring that Zorro had given her one special day, now a promise of the time spent with Diego, and placed it on her finger for everyone to see.


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