For my twin sister, who pointed out the right details and gave me the idea in the first place.

To set the stage: this is an AU (Alternate Universe, for those who don't know. I decided to just tell you, as I spent years wondering what the heck those initials could possibly mean), so treat it as such by knowing that it does follow the episode 'A New Lease On Love,' then doesn't even remotely follow it, but is only based around that episode's events. To understand this story, you have to know the episode, and to know the episode, I need to give a brief synopsis, so here it is: while sitting in the mission at the wedding of Juan and Benita, whom we never see again, the matchmaker, Doņa Maria, tells Victoria that she must marry: what she doesn't tell her is that it will bring her business if she represents the highly visible and very marriageable Victoria Escalante. Then, while in the tavern, a humble suitor, Pepito (whose not so humble, in my opinion), serenades Victoria, who only threatens to break his guitar into firewood. However, it's enough to make Diego think, and worry, and wonder at Victoria's sudden need to marry. He tries to talk to her, but she brushes him off, saying that she has lunch to prepare. Enter Juan Ortiz, a childhood sweetheart of Victoria's and a Lieutenant in the King's Navy, to be stationed in Monterey in two days. Apparently, he's come all the way to Los Angeles just to propose to Victoria, who he claims has been in his heart for all his years at sea. Victoria promises to think about his proposal.

In the meantime, Zorro is busy trying to discover the contents of a crate, Alcalde DeSoto's supposed statue of King Ferdinand, meant for the plaza. However, each mention DeSoto makes of the statue only causes the Alcalde to laugh, telling Diego and viewers alike that the crate doesn't hold a statue of King Ferdinand at all. But what does it hold? Diego, as Zorro, determines to find out, but only finds the pit the lancers dug to capture him. Quoting proverbs from the Bible, Zorro uses his whip to pull the lancers into the pit, climbs on their backs, and escapes into the night without having a chance to look into the crate. Back to Victoria, and Juan who, that night, watches, but can't see, Zorro ride off, ironically enough. Victoria accepts Juan's proposal, they kiss, and Victoria claims that she must be the luckiest woman in the world to have made Juan the happiest man in the world. Only she doesn't look too happy. Commercial break.

The de la Vegas receive Victoria and Juan's wedding invitation the next day, but it comes right after Diego has left as Zorro, telling Felipe to tell his father that he had to ride to the bank in Santa Paula, thus explaining his absence. Instead, he rides straight to the site of the sitting crate, surrounded by bandaged lancers, whom he defeats again in no time. Sergeant Mendoza rides up, but is told by Zorro not to bother drawing his sword, as it will only be a waste of time. This is when Mendoza tells Zorro of Victoria's wedding and whom she is marrying. Zorro strangely doesn't look heartbroken as he tries to hurry Toronado into breaking open the crate, where he and Mendoza discover Sir Henry Shrapnel's new invention - a cannon, complete with cannonballs, meant to be used for Zorro's capture, of course, something DeSoto has longed for.

Mendoza and Zorro ride quickly to Los Angeles. They make it in time to see Victoria walked down the aisle by Alejandro, who laments the absence of Diego, not knowing that Diego, as Zorro, is watching the entire thing. Juan says, I do, but Victoria can't, claiming she loves Zorro so much that.., whereupon Zorro calls to her and meets her for a romantic - and very public - embrace. Zorro and Victoria are forced out of the mission by Juan, who has been self-coerced, as a member of the military, to place Zorro under arrest. Once outside, Zorro squints into the sunshine at DeSoto, who has his cannon primed and ready while standing on its platform. Victoria joins Zorro, who is apparently supposed to just stand in one place as DeSoto blows him sky high. (Right! The only unbelievable point in the entire episode.) Only Zorro has rigged the cannon to explode in on itself, and he then destroys the cannonballs in one big blast. The last scene is Zorro and Victoria, clearly posed on Toronado, where Zorro tells her that he basically can't live without her. They kiss. The last scene is Diego carrying wine for Victoria, who finally asks him what it was that he meant to ask her the day before. Diego says he no longer recalls, but that today is a new day, and therefore clean, uncluttered, and Victoria isn't married to some other guy. Victoria agrees. End of episode.

My story, 'Panic Attack,' starts right at the point where Diego is supposed to ride off to get a look at what's inside the (Alcalde's) crate being guarded by armed lancers, an obviously unusual situation. That reason gets him into the cave, where he does run into Felipe, but my story starts with Diego entering the cave a few crucial minutes later than the episode has him enter.

Panic Attack

by Linda Bindner

So completely lost in his thoughts was he that Diego really didn't even pay attention to where he was going; he sauntered down the passageway and to the steps leading down into the secret cave. His mind wasn't on the necessary secrecy of Zorro's lair so much as it was bent on discovering this new mischief of the Alcalde's. Mendoza had said just yesterday that the Alcalde's mysterious package was a statue of King Ferdinand, but each mention of the stone construction made DeSoto laugh, which meant that it was definitely not a statue of King Ferdinand. So... what could he be hiding? Diego pondered on and tried hard to think what it could be.

His thoughts were interrupted when he heard the scuffling noises of footsteps as he entered the passageway from the fireplace, and he had assumed that Felipe was inside the cave's main cavern room, dusting the scientific beakers or polishing the candlesticks on the worktables, or some other such everyday chore.

Diego was right in that Felipe was in the cave. However, the young man wasn't involved in some benign chore, as Diego had originally assumed. From the moment he rounded the corner and descended the steps, Diego could tell by the anxious expression on Felipe's face that something was wrong. He had time to ask, Felipe, what's..? and meant to continue with saying the words, 'the matter,' but Felipe spun to rush to his side, holding out a piece of cream-colored paper in his hand.

Diego took the offering; Felipe clearly meant it for him. What..? Again, he didn't have the chance to finish his question. Felipe started gesturing and pushing at him the second he took the paper.

We have to hurry! Felipe signed without giving his mentor time to read the words on the paper that had been practically thrust into his hand.

Wait a moment, Felipe, laughed Diego in what he hoped was calming jocularity. He had the paper in his hand, but it was upside down. He turned it, using the fingers on both hands. Let me read...

Diego read. But he'd only made it to the seventh word before his blood had frozen over completely.

Please attend the wedding of Victoria Escalante...

Diego's mouth fell open into a round 'oh' of astonishment and unwelcome surprise, but no sound escaped his lips. Instead, his frozen blood congealed, and his heart skipped a beat.

You aren't getting married, are you? Felipe asked via his hand signals.

Not that I know of, Diego answered, his voice sounding thin and shocked.

Then what is she doing? asked Felipe next, the question clearly meant to be an accusation according to the thunderous frown on his face. Who is she marrying? Not Zorro?

Slowly Diego lowered the paper, now clearly known as a wedding invitation. No, not Zorro, he answered.

Then who? Felipe repeated. Your father said it was to Lieutenant Juan Ortiz, but I couldn't believe it. I don't even know him, and...

It was Felipe's turn not to finish a statement. Diego kept staring at the invitation he held in his hands, as if the why was to be answered by the thin, cream piece of paper. The who was written in bold script right on the invitation, right after the 'and.' You're right, said Diego, still stunned, but with a mind that was sluggish, yet starting to stir to life. It says Lieutenant Juan Ortiz.

Who is he? inquired Felipe, holding out his hands in an interrogatory gesture.

Diego lowered the invitation. Juan. He's been away at sea for years, I think... He doesn't even live here anymore, Diego began to explain, then raised his hand and the invitation again, as if to make certain he was reading it correctly. Victoria's never mentioned him...

I thought she was in love with Zorro, with you, Felipe said in a silently confused manner.

Diego looked down, then glanced sadly at Felipe. She is. She was, he asserted. Then he shook his head as if to clear it of a fog. I mean, I thought she was. She seemed very much in love with me just last week. But with the matchmaker hanging over her head and all this latest pressure to marry, then Juan must have come back to Los Angeles yesterday...

You have to stop her! Felipe said next, clearly agitated.

Diego sank down on the cold stone step, flabbergasted and astonished. How can I do that? She's obviously made her choice...

No! Felipe signed, and the horrified energy of his statement couldn't be louder than if he'd spoken it instead of signed the statement. Now is not the time to be shy, Diego! It was a crisis, indeed, if Felipe was calling his mentor by his given name.

That's what I've been; shy Diego, Diego repeated, giving the words a slightly different twist, sounding as if he was trapped in a web of swirling haze. What do you mean by that?

Shy... um... retiring... um... pretend! Felipe signed, grasping for the exact word he could use to describe what he meant. You can't pretend any longer. Tell her! You have to stop her!

Diego gave a start. Tell her? he half said, half yelled in his surprise. I can't tell her!

You can if it will stop her from marrying someone else.

But you can see this invitation. Victoria plainly thinks she wants... Diego paused to read Felipe's continued, wild signing. An arranged... He grimaced like he was going to be sick as the words rolled off his tongue.

Do you love her?

What?

Do you love her?

Diego only hesitated a second. Well... Yes.

Then what are you waiting for? Go! Felipe was insistent, and shoved on Diego's shoulder.

Diego practically rolled over with the force of Felipe's shove. He leaned on one elbow for a quiet moment. Internally, a war raged in his mind: She loves me. *No, she loves Zorro.* Same thing. You'll lose her if she marries another man, even if you once knew that man. *She deserves to make her own choice.* How can she do that if she doesn't know who you really are? Tell her!

Then, the last few thoughts were strictly coercive in nature: a marriage cannot be broken. It cannot be cut. She cannot be freed. You'll lose her, and there will be no hope of a brighter future, a brighter tomorrow. There will be Diego, and there will be Zorro. There will be no Victoria.

*No Victoria!?*

Diego's heart skipped a beat again, and the pain he felt upon its resuming a natural rhythm once more was deep. It pierced through him, chilling him like the cold of the floor could never do. It, mixed with Felipe's words, galvanized him to action.

Diego jumped up. If only he could rid himself of this agony! You're right. Of course you're right. Esperanza... Where? He sounded as befuddled as he was.

The stables. Go! Now! Felipe shoved again, once, for good measure.

Diego turned, and stumbled up the steps, then once he found his balance, sprinted up the passageway. He had to stop her, tell her, anything! What had the invitation said? 3:00? It was already 1:30! His heart skipped another beat.

It was a sign of his sudden, urgent need to hurry that showed in the fact that Diego didn't even look through the peephole before he swept through the fireplace panel and ran with a speed he was not known to possess through the library and out the front door. It was simply by luck that no one was walking into the entryway to get to the dining-room at that moment, or Zorro's secret identity would have been seriously compromised. Not that Diego was even thinking about his secret at the moment. His thoughts were solely on the idea of getting to the tavern at any cost; he had to stop her.

Diego left the door open and leapt off the steps, being uncharacteristically athletic. But no one saw him take the leap and rush through the gate towards the stables, since it was nearly time for siesta and the ranch hands were settling down to nap. For them, it was a normal day, but for Diego...

He skidded to a halt by the tack room, jumped inside and grabbed the first saddle he came to. He didn't even spend time to wonder if it would fit Esperanza, and it was only fortune that made it suitable for a larger horse that could carry his tall weight fairly easily. Next, he grabbed the bridle in his other hand, trailing the reins out of the tiny tack room and down the aisle between the stalls that housed the de la Vega horses. He ran, as fast as the bulk of a saddle would allow him to, and stopped at the appropriate stall. Esperanza peeked at him over the door from where her head had been, buried in the hay on her floor, too interested in eating her food to spare much time for her heedless owner.

Diego threw the tack onto the patient Esperanza. Saddle. Cinch strap. Force her back a step to deal with her habit of filling her stomach with air so the strap could not be buckled tightly, leaving the saddle free to slide all over her back. Now for the bridle. Next, the chin strap. Buckle the head strap at the side of her left cheek.

It was the fastest Diego had ever tacked his mount. Esperanza was calm and unconcerned, more interested in the hay she was missing out on as he pulled her down the aisle and into the California sunshine, aiming towards Los Angeles. She had been through a tacking and a proposed ride into the pueblo too many times before to be too intrigued, but perhaps she hadn't been previously prepared for that ride in such a rushed manner. Before she had time to thoroughly think about that, they were out of the stable and Diego was free to vault into the saddle, using no stirrups and leaping like Zorro did onto Toronado, but he didn't care any longer at the spectacle he made. The only thing repeating in his mind, like a litany, over and over again, was that he had to, he must, reach the tavern now. He wheeled his horse out of the yard and kicked her into a gallop that was nothing less than stunning to the horse; her rider never used his heels. But she followed his commands and ran headlong in the direction of Los Angeles.

Then, much faster than on a normal ride, Diego was at the tavern. He yanked Esperanza to a halt, spraying dirt onto the porch step, grabbed hold of the horse's mane with his left hand, and used it as leverage to spill him out of the saddle and onto his feet on the ground. He didn't take the time to wrap the ends of Esperanza's reins around the hitching rail just a little to his left, but bound up the single porch step in one tempestuous move.

The tavern had a white sign, swinging in the breeze, that declared it was closed at the moment, but Diego disregarded the message. He pounded on the door, panting, gasping, heaving in air, testament to how he'd held his breath through most of the wildest ride of his life, and that included those he'd made on the back of Toronado.

Victoria! The call was far too quiet to penetrate all the way to her room, where she must be at this time, only a little over an hour before her wedding to Juan. She would surely be getting prepared for that event just now. He tried again. Taking a breath that filled his abdomen, he called, Victoria!

Diego banged again on the wooden door, roughening up his smooth hand, but he didn't care about the pain of a few scrapes. He rattled the door handle, found it locked to any outside guests, and went back to pounding. Victoria!

Diego was just thinking that he would spring through the kitchen window, thus getting into the tavern that way, when the door opened a crack, enough for Victoria's voice to filter through, saying, I'm closed, as the sign says. Her voice held impatience, tinged with a need to explain; she had to know that some of her customers couldn't read, hence her rather obvious words.

Diego pushed on the door, widening the crack enough to allow him to enter. He hurried in, too terrified to bother with good manners now or he would have never displayed such rude behavior.

Victoria was dressed in a thin, nondescript robe tied over what was distinctly a skirt and blouse; the bottom ruffle of the cream skirt showed under what was obviously an ancient dressing gown. Her hair was just still damp enough from a bath that her curls were a mass of tangles framing her surprised face. She held a wooden spoon in her hand, but had leaned back, spoon and all, when Diego frantically shoved open the door so the wood and her face did not suddenly collide. Diego! What..? Then she got a good look at the dark, thunderous expression on his face. Is something wrong?

Victoria, thank God! Diego began, not bothering with any pleasantries or explanations. He didn't even respond to her question. You're here, downstairs!

Victoria started to elucidate, I was cooking... The reception... but he interrupted her.

You can't marry him! You can't marry Juan Ortiz!

Victoria laughed a bit in the beginnings of amazement. Diego, what are you..?

But Diego only grabbed her arm in his hand and repeated, You can't marry him. Promise me!

Diego, I...

Promise! he demanded, squeezing her arms, beyond the point of rationality.

Victoria looked at him as if he'd lost his mind. Diego...

But Diego was more than ready to do almost anything to stop her. He held his secret safe, in the back of his mind, a trump card, left for telling her if he had to, but he wouldn't play it unless they faced the moment of no return, a moment where persuasive words weren't enough any longer to convince her of the sincerity in his wish for her not to marry Juan Ortiz. He did shut the tavern door and soften his voice, but he was no less earnest because of those actions. Say it! That you promise! Please, don't marry him...

Victoria looked like she was about to object to his outburst once again, but swallowed her retort at the last moment. Without saying anything, she led him over to the nearest table and sat down, finally able to relinquish her hold on the spoon as she set it purposefully on the table top. It rocked slowly back and forth, an incongruous sign of something as normal as cooking when her best friend clearly looked so concerned. She took his hands in hers and held them tightly, comfortingly, and pulled him down to the single bench resting next to hers. Now, slowly, Diego. Please tell me what's wrong. Is it Don Alejandro?

Diego shook his head hurriedly, the motion jerky and quick. He was momentarily distracted by the feel of her skin touching his; it wasn't often that he was allowed by events to touch her. No, it's not Father, he breathed, still heaving in air. He's fine. Felipe's fine. We're all fine. Gasp. It's not them.

Victoria's forehead screwed up and she grimaced. Then what is it?

Diego tried to answer, but he couldn't seem to get enough air into his lungs. You... you can't... He sucked in a breath and exploded, You can't marry him!

Victoria barked a laugh that held no humor in it. Diego! she exclaimed in exasperation. I can marry whomever I want, and it's no concern of yours! The look on her face was far from the typical friendly expression she reserved for her friend. It was much more antagonistic. And right now I want to marry...

But the protests were already on Diego's lips. No! he insisted. You love Zorro! I know you do! I can tell...

Again Victoria looked surprised, and partially disbelieving. How can you tell? What do you know about..?

I know! he yelled, then fought to calm himself enough to be able to breathe and sound coherent. Proof. She needed proof. He quickly forced his leaden mind to work, turning it back over recent events, but all he could think about was the upcoming wedding and trying to convince her... The mission!

A month ago, in the mission, in the sanctuary, you were praying for your father, and you asked Zorro to watch over Don Diego... Again he sucked in a loud inhalation of air. Zorro said that Don Diego would never be out of his sight...

It was true, everything that he said had transpired just as he claimed it had. However... Victoria laughed again, incredulous. How..? You were listening in on us... she accused.

When you were at the church altar? Diego desperately interrupted, equally as incredulous. There's nowhere to hide at the altar, no where to listen from.

But... she began, protesting naturally.

Victoria, please, don't do this thing, don't marry someone else...

She reared back again. Someone else..? Juan is not someone else. Juan has stayed true to me since childhood.

Do you love him? Diego inquired, his voice sounding far more commanding then he felt.

What?

Diego repeated what he'd asked. It seemed a normal enough question on a woman's wedding day. Do you love him?

Diego, protested Victoria. I...

Do you? he entreated. It came out like a statement instead of a question, harsh and commanding.

His tone made Victoria pause. Well, I...

Do you?

Again came the hesitation. She was clearly thinking, her mind racing for impressive reasons to justify her actions, according to the expression of calculation on her features. Then, all at once, and with no warning, her face seemed to crumble and fall into despair. No, she whispered, and shook her head. I did once, but then I was very young and... She couldn't go on with her explanations. Not any more, was all she said.

But it was enough for Diego, more than enough. He closed his eyes, offering up a silent prayer of gratitude as he whispered, Thank God.

But Victoria couldn't give in so easily; it wasn't in her nature. She still had to protest, Diego, what..? How..? Then she gathered herself together. It was exactly what Diego had always feared she'd do. What difference could it possibly make to you who I love, who I marry? Even if I finally marry Zorro, what..?

The moment had arrived, the time for confession, or at least, partial confession. Oddly, Diego didn't feel even a hint of trepidation. Because I love you, he announced. I always have, and I always will. I can't stay quiet anymore and let you ruin your life by...

Victoria appeared astounded at the divulgence of the such an unheralded intelligence. Diego, you never said anything, never indicated... She stopped herself, swallowed again, then insisted, That still doesn't change anything about today. I'm sorry, but... I promised...

She wasn't convinced? A vow of love hadn't stopped her? She was yet planning to disregard his declaration and go through with a marriage to a man she didn't love? How dogged of her, yet how typical. This stubbornness was so like her. Even as he admired it, treasured that quirk of her personality, he knew he had to divulge the entire truth to mollify her, to stop her. Diego readied himself to play his last effort at persuasion. I'm Zorro, he whispered, at last admitting the truth.

But Victoria didn't believe him, or hear him, or something. You're who? she asked.

Diego made his announcement again, his voice still a whisper, but a little stronger. I'm Zorro, your masked man, the legend of the pueblo, the defender of justice... I'm him, the man who has whispered sweet promises to you in your kitchen or your bedroom, and I love you so much, too much to let you be ridiculously persistent to a vow to belong to someone else... I'm so sorry, Victoria, I know I should have said something before now...

Victoria looked stunned. She had to clear her throat of the lump that obstructed it. You're... you're.., she exploded on an exhalation of breath. You're really..? But she couldn't talk, only sit there like a disbelieving statue with an astonished, wholly suspicious expression on her face.

Diego bent over slightly and pressed his hand to his forehead, oblivious of the fact that his fingers were still encased in her grasp. Because of that, he carried both hands to his head, and looked as if he were in torment. I'm so sorry, he burst out, tears in his ragged voice. So sorry, Victoria! But I didn't mean to fall in love so much... It wasn't like that at the beginning, then it happened, but by then, it was too late to say anything... He straightened, the perfect picture of agony, and looked at her.

Victoria continued to sit, the same look of disbelief on her face, the same amazement.

The same distrust, Diego thought cynically, but hope flowered in his heart despite his natural pessimism as he continued to look at Victoria.

There was so much communication apparent in just that look. It dumbfounded Victoria even further that a simple expression could be so loaded. The expectancy she also saw on his face encouraged her thoughts to race, not that they needed any help. At the moment her mind felt like a shower of ideas had burst into life inside her head.

First was the disbelief, followed closely by anger, that her best friend had never trusted her enough to tell her this secret. She'd seen Diego every day, but he had never said anything, never hinted...

Then the anger disappeared as more images quickly filled her head: most prominently was the situation from his perspective. Didn't she know that he couldn't tell her? That by doing so, he understood that someday she might inadvertently slip, that she could give him away with just a look if that look happened in front of the Alcalde? He could hang, and she would hang beside him. By not telling her of his secret identity, he was simply protecting her from herself...

That made her consider what it had been like for him since he arrived in Los Angeles from Spain; to take on the visage of masked enforcer of justice, to discourage the Alcalde's more outrageous tax schemes, to humiliate both Ramone and DeSoto and their lancers, to go out at night in search of bandits because those lancers had become far too complacent over the years and would rather spend time in her tavern than out doing what they had chosen to do when they first donned King Ferdinand's military uniform...

And that's when the rest washed over her subconscious in a wave of the knowledge that came with the knowing: he was risking his life each time he entered the pueblo; his life, his life! Whenever he came to deliver bandits to the cuartel or stop the Alcalde in his endless oppression or halt the lancers from apprehending yet another innocent citizen, he was threatened and shot at and endlessly bruised... And each time he came to see her, to kiss her, to declare his love for her, he was risking everything just to be with her... And she had only been able to repay him so far by promising to marry another man...

Victoria halted this eruption of thoughts by doing something that Diego had never anticipated; she threw herself toward him, into his chest, his embrace. Stop me! she ordered, her voice just as torn as his. Don't let me do it! Don't let marry the wrong man just because I feel an overdeveloped sense of honor!

Now it was his turn to be shocked. Victoria..! Diego didn't know what to say to her, what to do... The feel of her in his arms almost precluded his normal amount of common sense.

I can't do it, can't go through with it! she went on, the desperation in her voice growing. I love Zorro... love you... too much to...

Had he heard her correctly? Diego's heart soared up at her words. You can't..? he gasped.

No! she answered, crying now against the white silk of his caballero shirt. It's you, only you! I thought I could finish... I made this promise, but... No.

Victoria, I... His embrace made out of the inclination to halt her forward behavior - even as Zorro, he had no experience with having someone throw themselves into his arms - turned into something more pliant, more welcoming, something softer. Then he breathed. The rush of air burned away the rest of his shock, halted his surprise, and he changed, did a turnaround, altered in the space of a second. He clutched at her, desperate, as she clutched at him. Oh, thank Dios! he whispered, and laid his cheek to the top of her head. Thank the heavens and the stars I wasn't too late. He kissed her smooth hair before it tangled into the web of taut curls that he had always loved. He kissed the curls, too, still damp and almost unmanageable. Then he moved his lips to her cheek, clinging to the skin, ignoring the last remaining tears, awash in his emotions so much that he was shaking by the time he possessively wrapped her cheeks in his hands and slid his lips to hers in a kiss so deep, so honest, communicating so much love, like none they had ever shared in the past... His days of hiding, of lying to serve as concealment, were over. He loved her, only her. She was everything to him.

Diego kissed her, and she kissed him, the emptiness of the tavern echoing around them, sounding loud in its silence...

Suddenly, Victoria drew back. Oh, no! she exclaimed. What time is it? She whipped her head around to see the clock hanging above the bar.

2:45, fifteen minutes till three, Diego answered, still befuddled by the power of the endearment they'd just shared.

Victoria jumped up, standing next to Diego. She draped an arm around his shoulders, but proclaimed, I have to tell him, have to keep him from...

Tell him what? Diego didn't have to ask whom she meant. Juan Ortiz, standing in the church, waiting for the woman of his dreams, literally.

Wait here! Victoria said in a tight, strained voice. She dropped a kiss on the top of his head. Somehow I have to explain... Then her hands moved to the tie on her robe. This was the first thing I grabbed to protect my clothes from cooking splashes this morning... Jerking it open, the thin material finally ripped in protest of the rough treatment. She ignored the sound by pulling it off and throwing it over the table. A brown blouse and cream skirt were revealed to the sunlight streaming in through the windows. Oh, my god! What will I say..? She left her plans unvoiced as she prepared to throw herself towards the door.

The back way! Diego stopped her, placing his hands on her shoulders, whirling her around to face the back end of her tavern. So you don't have to go through the plaza!

Oh, Good thinking! She ran, but paused at the red and blue barrier to her kitchen. I'd say it was an idea worthy of Zorro, but you already know that it is! Then she was gone. A second later he heard the faint slam of the back door.

Quiet descended on the tavern, at odds to the fervor of a moment before. The torrid emotions hung thickly on the air to settle over its lone occupant, who stayed in his seat to wait for her return, a little shocked, certainly stunned, and wholly alive as his insides sang to him. The strength of such an emotional overload made Diego's hand shake as he reached out to pull Victoria's discarded robe closer to examine the tear in the material while she was gone.

Z Z Z

In the end, there was nothing Victoria could say to the man she had promised herself to in marriage except that she was sorry, that she loved another man, that it wouldn't be fair to either of them, that she couldn't live out her days being married to Juan, yet pining for someone else. It just wasn't fair, and she couldn't go through with it.

A recently-arrived Sergeant Mendoza whispered of the broken nuptial agreement to Padre Benitez, who scowled and frowned, but accepted the news as graciously as he could. It was his dearest wish to see a daughter of his flock marry and enfold herself in the security offered by a husband's income, to leave the burdens of the tavern behind....

But it was not to be. The whispers and rumors began at once, some so small as to be unbelievable, others so ludicrous as to instantly reach the breadth of the pueblo and beyond; Victoria had, for some unknown reason, changed her mind; Victoria was pregnant; Victoria had no wish to leave her childhood home in the end; she was in love with another man, and rather than make someone she cared about a cuckold, she stopped the wedding three minutes before it was to have started.

However, every citizen in the pueblo recognized the sight of Diego de la Vega's horse still standing where he had left her, only feet from the hitching rail of the tavern. And they silently wondered...

The following week, long after the rumors about Victoria had abated, long after the citizens overcame their shock at the seemingly forward behavior of the most modest man in town as he slowly started to court the tavern owner, long after the sensation of the wedding that wasn't had died, Victoria wearily climbed the stairs to the tavern's second floor and, ignoring a compulsion to double-check the rooms she had rented to paying travelers, pushed open her own bedroom door...

... to find her bed strewn with crushed rose petals, surrounding a package wrapped in brown paper and twine, enfolding an envelope with her name written on it in clear, black letters. Victoria recognized the handwriting immediately, and felt a thrill of tingly emotion shoot through her from her toes to the top of her head, despite her exhaustion. Diego. Zorro. The same man.

As she looked at the present, then glanced at the shuttered window that was left askew just a hair, she suddenly felt the diminishing of her fatigue. A smile on her face blossomed to light up the small room in the dim glow of a single candle that she had carried from the kitchen to light her way. She reached for the gift on her bed. It had to be from Diego... from Zorro... from them both. Only he was ostentatious enough to leave her roses and a gift. Even the paper of the envelope smelled like Spring. She slowly peeled open the note that was inside.

Sweet Victoria,

I hope you don't think me too forward in this gift, or in the flowers. Please accept them both as offerings straight from my heart to yours. I love you, only you.

Diego

It was the first time he had ever given her a gift with his own name linked to it. It was also the first time he had written words of love; he'd said them, in the misty shroud of steaming vegetables in her kitchen, yet it had always been too dangerous to say the longed-for words before. It was ironic, really, that he had to expose himself before he could find the freedom to express feelings that he'd kept hidden for so many years. But with the obvious suggestion of his horse left waiting outside her very tavern on the day of her wedding to the unfortunate (or was it fortunate?) Juan Ortiz, and his subsequent courting behavior, she wondered how she could help things along by 'accidentally' leaving this message downstairs, in her kitchen, where it would be certain to be read and gossiped about, thus helping speed Diego's unexpected though apparently not unwelcome suit. Zorro, she discovered, as she told anyone who would stand still long enough to listen, was more shadow than substance and her growing love for Diego was undeniably real.

The fortuitous leaving of the message, however, did not mean that Victoria planned to actually explain the contents of the mysterious package that was still lying so enticingly on the cover of her bed. With no delay now, she pulled at the twine ties, and managed to free up the paper-covered package. The second the gift became unencumbered, it tumbled out on her quilt, glaring white to match the color of the bed covering. She unfolded the material, and found that he had given her a warm, long, thick, daringly low-cut, downy, robe.


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