Passion Vs. Sainthood

by Linda Bindner

Five years.

Five long years.

Diego couldn't believe it had been that long. Since starting what became the legend of Zorro, Felipe had grown tall and was almost a man now, and he had been so young when it all started. He himself had fallen in love. Even Toronado was getting older. Diego had noticed some grey hairs in the horse's mane on Wednesday, when they had brought the Melendez Gang in for questioning. Of course, it had been a bright day, and it had been a long time since they'd last gone after banditos in the daylight, but the grey hairs had surprised Diego all the same. They were all getting older, and for some silly reason, that surprised Diego. There wasn't much that might surprise Diego these days.

He continued thinking, ruminating on the sudden turn in his life five years ago, taking up the empty spaces in the ride into town for lunch. Five years since he'd donned the mask of Zorro, about four years since he'd made his intentions clear to Victoria. Or, at least, he'd made Zorro's intentions clear. His own intentions were much more ambiguous. He'd made sure of that.

Diego glanced at his father riding his own horse with ease. Just that morning he had made another plea to Diego for grandchildren, and Diego had necessarily excused his actions yet again. 'Plea' wasn't the right word, Diego decided. More like 'ordered.' He'd been ordered to produce grandchildren or else. It was an old argument, one that came up at least once a month, and Diego was experienced at putting off the older de la Vega. But the argument was getting new life in its old age.

What would Victoria think of all this, he wondered. Did she want to settle down and raise a family? He didn't know, having only a few moments with her every now and then. The subject had never come up, and they both knew that it was all a dream until Zorro could reveal his identity anyway.

And the way things are going, that won't be any time soon, Diego groused to himself as the family members rode under the jagged board proudly bearing the name of the pueblo of Los Angeles. They turned immediately right, heading for the tavern and the only place in town to serve a decent meal. The tavern, owned and operated by Victoria, stood huddled between two buildings, brown and dirty from too much plaza dust, looking bedraggled and mean compared to its more inviting predecessors in Spain. Still, Victoria Escalante served the best carne asada in the territory, and that was saying something. It was a big territory. Diego ought to know, as he had seen it all. Which brought his thoughts back to Zorro, as if he needed any help. His thoughts were rarely far from the masked bandit these days.

Actually, that wasn't quite true, Diego corrected himself. His thoughts of Zorro often led his thoughts to Victoria, not Zorro. More and more often he found himself dwelling on the tavern owner, and where those thoughts led him made him blush when he found himself in company and alone. He decided what to say to her next if given the chance, he thought of how he loved her, of how he wanted her to be the mother of those grandchildren.... Actually, he thought about what he wanted to do to her. He wanted to wrap his arms around her, to bury himself in her hair, to kiss her until she couldn't see straight, and to take her away from the hard days spent tending the tavern. She deserved an easier life than the one she lived, even if it was by her own choice. Sometimes choices were made not by options, but because one knew nothing else. Diego had always wondered if Victoria chose to run the tavern because she really wanted to or because her family had always run the tavern.

Yet another subject they had never discussed. Diego sighed quietly as they dismounted and his father tied his horse to the empty hitching rail next to the tavern. The dismount covered his sigh. It was a good thing, too, as there appeared to be nothing about the tavern that could make him sigh like that, a sound of infinite sadness. He was tired of waiting for someone to do something bad just to get a hug. Don Alejandro would be sure to catch such a sigh and ask about it, and Diego would be forced to concoct yet another lie to his father, and one thing he didn't want to do was lie again if he could help it. It didn't matter anyway, as the lady currently in Diego's thoughts hardly knew he existed. Sure, she knew Zorro existed, but not her friend Diego.

The interior of the tavern was dark in comparison to the outside, even for October. The colder weather was welcome, though it wasn't so cold that it kept the local bandits out of trouble. They had been keeping Zorro very busy lately, busy enough that he'd had to bring some bandits into town the night before, prompting a visit to Victoria, prompting the thoughts currently in Diego's head. But he was getting tired of visiting Victoria only when the opportunity presented itself. He wanted to be around her all the time, yet the only thing he could do was wait. He only hoped she wouldn't get tired of waiting, too.

Buenos Dias, Don Alejandro, Diego, Felipe. What can I get for you? asked Victoria, meeting them at the door as was her habit. She held a jug of juice in one hand, but otherwise her hands were empty.

Diego longed to set her hand free of the juice and wrap his arms tightly around her. But he shook his head and squashed the thought when it was only half formed. That would be suicide, he knew, and there was no guarantee that she would accept his embraces, even without the mask. Where were these thoughts coming from, anyway? He usually had such good control of himself that lascivious thoughts were not a problem. Yet, lascivious thoughts continued to play in his mind despite his best intentions.

A few of your tamales and some bread, Señorita, por favor. And for Felipe, some enchiladas if you have some ready, I think, Alejandro responded.

We do, said Victoria with a smile.

What about me? Diego asked quietly to her back.

Carne asada, Diego. I know what you want. Victoria smiled at him easily over her shoulder, preparing to disappear behind her kitchen curtain before filling their order. Her dark hair swung saucily against the back of her flowered shirtwaist as he wondered if he and Felipe had been eating too often in the tavern lately. She came back with three plates of steaming food, all of which she set down before her hungry customers. The material of her brown shirtwaist accidentally brushed against Diego's arm as she set down his plate, making him groan to himself, and he knew he was spending too much time at the tavern.

What do you think of the coming auction, Diego? asked Alejandro, and Diego had to turn his attention to answering, though he really didn't care as much about livestock as his father wanted him to.

The lascivious thoughts continued to plague him while they ate. His father wanted to talk about the auction, and Diego wanted to talk about Victoria. His father won, naturally, until about half way through their meal, a masculine voice made even boring conversation impossible.

Tequila! What does it take to get a drink around here? Barkeeper!

Don't you think you've had enough? Victoria asked, coming from around the bar where she'd been wiping the green counter with a cloth.

I'll tell you when I've had enough, and it's not until another bottle is empty. The man stood up to display grubby, unshaven cheeks and dirty trousers. An equally dirty sombrero hung down his dusty back.

A vaquero turned unemployed, Diego decided as the man drunkenly waved his empty glass. He prepared to come to Victoria's defense if the man made it necessary.

He did. A hand on his sword, he wildly demanded, More tequila!

Victoria reached for the stick she kept behind the counter for just such situations. And I want you out of my tavern! she said.

Over my dead body, replied the man, leering threateningly.

That was when Diego and Alejandro both stood up. The sound of scraping stools arrested the man's attention for a moment, and the sight of two obviously angry caballeros changed his mind, to say nothing of his behavior. His hands raised in the air and he smiled disarmingly. We don't want any trouble, pretty señorita. We'll be going now, he said, and with a swipe to his friends, he and two other men disappeared through the front door.

A collective sigh went up before everybody resumed their conversation. As Diego and Alejandro took their seats again, Diego uncharitably wondered why some of the other caballeros in the tavern for lunch hadn't risen as well if the sigh at the men's departure was so big. But nobody except the de la Vegas had come to Victoria's defense. It was almost as if everybody was used to seeing her friends rise to the occasion, as if the de la Vegas were their afternoon entertainment. The caballeros really needed to start sticking up for themselves, Diego decided.

Victoria, are you all right? Alejandro asked the minute she appeared at their table.

Victoria looked surprised at the question. Oh, sí, she answered. What with all the Alcalde's new taxes, more and more vaqueros are out of work and showing up here. It's nothing that hasn't happened before. She shrugged, then took their empty plates and refilled their glasses before asking, Is there anything else?

But Alejandro wasn't finished discussing the men, apparently, because he asked, You mean to tell me this has happened before?

Of course, Victoria replied in an offhand manner. But it wasn't something I couldn't handle.

Well it's a good thing Diego and I were here today. There's no telling what might have happened! Alejandro exclaimed.

Heaven knows what we could have done, but I'm glad it all turned out for the best, Diego explained after taking a drink of juice.

What we would have done! Alejandro spluttered indignantly.

Don't worry, Don Alejandro, Victoria said, saving Diego the trouble of replying. If they come back, I know Zorro will teach them some manners.

If they come back, Zorro might be too late, Alejandro predicted.

Why? Victoria responded. He never has been before.

But even Zorro can't be everywhere, Alejandro said.

Father, please... Diego started with his hands raised in supplication, but he was interrupted.

Not that I expect you to act like Zorro, heaven forbid, Alejandro said, but we could have done something, Diego, and I expect you to back me up at times like this.

That would be foolish, Diego started, irritated at looking weak in front of Victoria, but keeping his voice light just the same. All we would have accomplished is someone possibly getting hurt, and there's no point in that. No, I'll leave the heroics to Zorro when I can. Felipe smiled, but the expression quickly disappeared.

You, heroic like Zorro? Victoria asked, an expression of disbelief on her pretty face. Don't be silly, Diego.

That's my point, Diego said, when what he really longed to do was plop her in his lap and....

Alejandro interrupted again, And we know you aren't silly, Diego. His tone indicated the disgust and disappointment he would not say.

Diego sighed. Why was it that he always looked like an idiot when he least wanted to? He had walked right into that trap, even if it was one of his own making. Alejandro's disappointment in what he thought was his mild-mannered son was nothing new. But it still hurt. He sighed at the injustice of it all, but the others misinterpreted the sound, not being privy to his thoughts. Would it make you feel better if we came to lunch, Father?

Yes! Alejandro said.

How about you, Victoria?

Diego expected her to say no or something equally as independent, but instead she replied, Now that you mention it....

Diego was suddenly alarmed, her hesitant tone driving his lascivious thoughts away. Has it been that bad? he asked, suddenly concerned.

Well, I would feel better if you and Felipe were here, Victoria declared quietly.

You would? Diego asked in surprise.

She nodded and looked pointedly at the table the three men had been sitting at. Everybody behaves better with you around.

They do?

They do, she admitted.

He couldn't believe his luck. When do we start?

Alejandro held up his hand. Don't do anything hasty, Diego. Men like that are desperate enough to do anything.

Diego turned to Alejandro. It's just lunch, Father. What could possibly go wrong?

Z Z Z

The next day was the most boring of his life. Diego arrived at the tavern promptly at eleven o'clock just as he had promised Victoria, and he stayed until two. He cursed himself for not bringing a book or something to entertain himself with, and ended up reading the four pages of the current Guardian three times, just to keep himself from falling asleep while most of the time casting loving glances at Victoria when he was certain no one was looking.

She was the best thing that had ever happened to him, he mused. While there were some things about Zorro that he would willingly give up, Victoria Escalante wasn't one of them. She worked while he sat, occasionally smiling at him, and her smiles were like icing on a hot day. They made him melt on the inside, and he had trouble keeping more thoughts at bay. He had rarely thought of Victoria in a sexual light, but he was thinking it now. The thoughts troubled him even while a wilder side gloried in them. The white shirtwaist and cream skirt she was wearing were the primmest clothing she owned, he knew, having seen her in just about everything in her wardrobe, but they were beautiful to him. For the first time, Diego wondered if this wasn't the wisest move he'd made in his life.

Nothing happened. The entire time Diego sat at his table by the pillar, everyone behaved perfectly. They all ate their lunches without fuss, then left the tavern. No one even tried to leave without paying, a problem Victoria had from time to time. Everyone was cordial, polite, and nothing happened at all.

Wednesday was a different story. Diego arrived at the prescribed time, but he was tired due to a night spent tracking and catching a band of horse thieves, three of the gang being the men at the tavern on Monday, he was pleased to see. It was always a plus to bring such men to justice.

And once he was in town, it was so easy to double back to the tavern and climb in Victoria's open window. She was asleep at this time of night, which was good, as he didn't know how far his control could go, especially after spending three hours in her presence, surreptitiously watching her. He spent another few minutes watching her sleep, his emotions stampeding away with him, before he left, so quietly that she never knew he was there.

The visit, while calming some of his feelings, excited others. And since he didn't trust those emotions any longer, he brought Felipe and a chess set along the next day. While he guarded Victoria and her establishment, Felipe guarded him. He knew what a dear friend Felipe was being to watch him so carefully, as the young man was destined to grow very bored, but he didn't know what else to do.

One man bothered Victoria while he was there, and Diego intervened, asking a rather dumb question about the man's clothing as a distraction. He'd used that subterfuge before, and he knew that Victoria knew what he was doing, but the man had no idea and it worked like a charm. No one got hurt, which was the point, and the man left Victoria alone after that. The thanks he got from Victoria made the boredom of the day before worth it.

Thursday was yet another different story, and Diego was beginning to get the idea that running a tavern was not as easy as it looked. Each customer was distinct, and each attack needed varied solutions, it turned out. It was just that Diego wished he'd thought of a different solution than the one he employed.

He strolled into the tavern with his father and Felipe at exactly eleven o'clock, like he'd promised, and placed his lunch order, feeling oddly restless, knocking the poetry book he'd brought for entertainment softly against his leg. He took his seat on the bench by the pillar, resting his back against the stone and reading his book while waiting for their order. Victoria's carne asada was excellent, as always, but not everybody behaved as always.

Right off he noticed the three men at the second table on the right near the door. They were drinking hard liquor, not eating like everybody else, and Victoria whispered that they had been at it for several hours when she served them their food. These men looked particularly rough and unrefined. Alejandro talked loudly about a future trip to San Diego to sell some cows, like normal, when the men made their move.

One of them said something to Victoria, and Diego stiffened, but the man went away cheerfully enough. Diego had time to relax, eat his meal, push the empty plate aside, and begin reading again before the second man accosted Victoria.

Why don't you and me find a quiet place for ourselves? he suggested before reaching a rough hand out to Victoria. He sidled quietly along with her as he spoke. Unlike his companion, he wasn't drunk at all, and there was no bobbing and weaving in his step. He was deliberately provoking the señorita.

This is not that kind of establishment, Señor, Victoria said.

Why don't we make it one, the man answered, trapping her by the bar and running a finger up and down her bare arm. Watching let Diego feel her revulsion.

Let go of me!

He smiled and softly said in a sultry voice, Why don't you make me?

Victoria's response was to yell angrily, I want you all out of my tavern, now!

As an answer to her statement, the man slapped her.

Victoria covered her face with a pale hand too late.

A stunned quiet descended on the crowd.

Without thinking, Diego slammed the book down onto the table. That's it! I've had it! he growled in a deeper voice than he normally used, sick of the detestable dance he'd been forced to watch, sick of not having Victoria, sick of the personal jabs from his father, suddenly sick of the whole business of being Diego sans Diego's skills. Still without a clear plan in his mind, he stood to hold out his hand to the man sitting behind him. Don Carlos, may I borrow your sword, por favor?

The caballero gave him a curious look, but unsheathed his sword and handed it over in dutiful compliance. Diego held the sword lightly as he traversed his way to the counter. Victoria had just come from her kitchen, and the curtains still waved from her passing.

Don't do anything rash, Diego, he heard his father say as he laid the sword on the counter top and leaned amicably against the bar, standing between the man and Victoria, his blood singing as he did so, feeling free for the first time in years. Rash, he thought. He didn't plan to do anything rash. In fact, he had been thinking of doing this very thing for several years. There wasn't anything rash about it. And he refused to see Victoria treated so badly.

I hear you're bothering the señorita, he said pleasantly in lieu of an introduction, everybody in the tavern quiet and watching the scene unfold.

Mind your own business, the man answered, reaching around Diego for a frightened Victoria.

Diego physically stopped the man with a hand placed lightly on his chest. You need a lesson in manners.

The man slapped the hand aside. And I suppose you're the man to teach me? he replied derisively and with an arrogant laugh over his shoulder for his two friends' benefits.

A muscle twitched in Diego's cheek. Oh, I am, he said quietly, though his voice carried easily over the crowd.

Why don't you just go away? the man asked. The only way you're going to stop me is if we duel, and I'm sure you don't want to do that. He laughed gutturally at the thought, then reached again for Victoria, who'd moved back, out of his grasping reach.

Diego suddenly grinned. I'd be delighted, he responded in his best Zorro-like voice, and he heard Alejandro groan.

What? asked the offending man, who had not expected that particular reply. He halted in his pursuit of Victoria and finally looked straight at Diego.

I said you're bothering the señorita and I'd be delighted to duel with a sword, Diego said, his grin growing to a smile on his otherwise taut face.

Victoria spoke for the first time. Diego, you don't have to....

Yes, I do, Diego said mildly, his eyes never leaving the man's. Shall we fight outside in the plaza or in here?

Ah, a pretty caballero, defending the woman's honor, sneered the man, one hand reaching for his sword as he eyed Diego's ruffled caballero shirt, finding it rather fussy for his taste and hence the wearer lacking any true fighting abilities. Not the plaza; it's too dusty and you might get your boots dirty.

Finally, thought Diego and reached for his borrowed sword. As you wish, he said quietly, yet congenially.

Diego.... Victoria said warningly as the man's sword came down in a sudden arc.

Diego parried easily. It's alright, Victoria, he said, not wanting her to feel ignored. Then to the man, he softly intoned, Don't bore me, before saluting. And don't be a boar. Oh, but that's right. Men like you don't know how to be anything else.

Angry now, the man threatened, Damn you, I'll carve you into little pieces!

Diego tsked. Cursing already? Not in front of the lady, he cautioned, then attacked.

Diego and the man fought in a blur of swords. The blue caballero pants were a bit tighter than Zorro's black outfit, but that only added to the challenge for Diego. The ruffled caballero shirt was no problem to his swinging arm, as he currently had his white silk sleeves rolled up in the warmer afternoon weather. Fortunately he wasn't wearing his coat at the moment, as he didn't know how that would restrict his movements, never having fought in it before.

Diego fought like he'd done so many times as Zorro, going cautiously, looking for the man's weaknesses so he could exploit them. He and the man danced around the tavern, trading blows, until Diego was able to smash the man's head into a convenient pillar. And you were going to carve me into little pieces, he reminded the man as the first refrains began whispering from the crowd, Zorro! He's Zorro! They'd finally recognized his fighting style.

It took them long enough, Diego thought in irritation as the man said, Zorro! I'm not fighting Zorro!

I'm afraid you already are, Diego said, then ended the fight abruptly with a fist to the man's face. He was getting so tired of thoughtless, cruel men like this one that he hit him a little harder than was necessary. The man flipped over a table. Diego grabbed a collar of the dirty shirt, and half carrying him, said, You and your friends will leave Los Angeles permanently. To help you on your way.... He heaved the man effortlessly off the tavern's porch to land on his face in the plaza dust. Don't get dirty, he quietly reminded the man as he was followed closely by his friends, who stepped off the porch rather than be brutally thrown out. Diego, on the other hand, hadn't even broken a sweat.

Calmly, Diego walked back into the tavern to face a stunned noonday crowd, energetically bouncing the sword in a Zorro-like spring the entire way. Are you all right? he asked Victoria with concern, and at her astonished nod, bobbed his head once in acknowledgment, then turned to Don Carlos to return the sword. Thank you, though mine handles just a bit better. The balance is off in yours.

Don Carlos only took his sword back with trembling fingers and whispered, You're welcome.

Diego calmly resumed his seat as if he revealed his identity every day and opened his book to read.

The stunned silence lasted a bit longer, long enough for Diego to start trembling and wonder at what he had done. From the corner of his eye, he noticed Felipe's disappointed look and his father's amazed expression. He didn't know what Victoria was thinking, as he had his back to her and couldn't see her.

Diego, said his father in a low voice, but with his mouth hanging open, that was amazing! Where did you learn to fence like that?

At the University, Diego answered breathlessly.

That... that was like when you fought for your life against the Emissary!

Don't remind me, Diego responded pleadingly.

You being Zorro explains a lot. But Alejandro wasn't finished. To think that my son is Zorro!

That's enough, Father. Diego didn't want the older man to get carried away in his pride. Neither did he want to hear about Zorro. He was beginning to wish he had never heard the name. Don't you have an auction to go to? he reminded, wanting nothing more than to be alone so he could think.

Ah yes. A stool scraped against the floor. We'll talk later, Alejandro promised. Come on, Felipe.

Diego didn't look up. Goodbye, Felipe, Father. I'll see you in a few hours.

Somehow I don't think Victoria will have any more problems today, Alejandro said. But if you think it's necessary.... He left the rest unsaid and headed for the door, Felipe right behind.

The moment Diego was alone, his thoughts spun out of control. What had he done? Was he crazy? Had he just alienated Victoria for life by revealing his true identity? One thing she didn't like was being lied to, and he had lied for a long time. It's true, they were engaged thanks to Zorro, but she could easily give back the ring if she couldn't get over his real identity, breaking off any relationship with him, or with who he'd turned out to be.

At the same time, he'd felt truly free while he was fighting that man. There had been no mask over his face, and for the first time he'd felt the wind in his hair. It had been a giddy sensation, one he wanted to repeat. But was it worth possibly losing Victoria over? Now he wished he'd thought before reacting like that. Perhaps his father was right; maybe revealing his true self had been a bit rash.

Diego's thoughts ran around and around like that for the next few hours. He sat motionless, but bounced from pros to cons and back faster than the storm that Toronado was named for. It was a good thing that Victoria had no more trouble with her customers, as Alejandro had predicted; Diego's mind was so scattered that he wasn't sure he would be of much help.

When he had half an hour left of his self-imposed guard duty, he looked up to find Victoria standing next to his table.

It was clear from her red eyes that she had been crying. His heart instantly clenched at the thought of causing her pain. She wasn't even looking at him, gazing instead out her open tavern doors. He didn't blame her. He'd be unable to meet her gaze, too. Diego, can we please talk somewhere private? she whispered.

She wants to give the ring back! This first thought exploded in his head, followed by calmer meditations. He didn't think it was a good idea to be alone with her right now.

But she was ahead of him even on that. My room? she mumbled aloud to herself, then rejected the idea. No. I might not be able to keep in control. The kitchen?

At her admission, his heart surged, and he struggled to maintain his emotions. But he didn't look at her again, either, staring steadfastly at the page in front of him instead.

What about right here?

With no more need for an invitation, she slid onto his bench, her leg pressed into his leg, and he groaned silently again. Did she know what she did to him?

With her arms cradled on the tabletop, they both sat in mute silence, their legs glued together, waiting for the other to speak first. But they weren't fooling anybody.

This is worse than what poor Felipe must feel, Diego thought to himself, confused and unsure of what to say.

Suddenly and firmly, Victoria reached out and turned the poetry book in his hands. He'd had it upside down the entire time but hadn't noticed, a testimony to his scrambled thoughts. Slowly and deliberately, he closed the book and laid it aside, wanting to focus his whole attention on her. But as she brought back her hands, her fingers scraped across his wrist.

The result was electric. Diego instantly felt his insides turn to mush and the thoughts that his actions had created were pushed aside, to make room for different and inconvenient thoughts to come back in force. No matter the consequences, he wanted to run his hands in her hair, down her skirt, on her shirtwaist; her leg pressed into his was driving him crazy.

He cleared his throat. But before he could say anything, Victoria spoke.

Diego, she whispered, what should we do?

Ah, he said, unsure how to proceed. That had been an unexpected question.

You always decided everything before.

That was true, though he hadn't meant it to be that way. Others automatically let him take control of any given situation. Suddenly he knew what to say. He felt tired of the game they'd been playing, and the truth was the only thing he was interested in. After all, this entire situation was for her and because of her. Or because of his thoughts centered around her. He was very aware of her and his feelings for her as she sat, strangely quiet and demure, on the bench. But dare he say it out loud? Bravely he whispered, I know I love you, I need you, and I want to marry you.

She smiled slowly, like the sunset at the end of the day. Beautiful. You do?

Part of him couldn't believe what he'd just declared, but another part reveled in the truth. He nodded, unable to speak.

Still not looking at him, not wanting to attract attention, she gripped her hands tightly and stared at the tabletop. She whispered back, I know now that I love you, too. Her hands disappeared into her lap to twine into her skirt, nervous at such a statement. After all, she didn't make a declaration of love every day.

He tried to set her more at ease by bringing his own hands into his lap as well, but his heart beat too loudly in his chest to answer her. He wanted to kiss her, but he wouldn't in the tavern, in public, in front of the snooping lunch crowd. Besides, he wasn't sure he'd be able to stop.

Diego, what you've done....

I've done nothing over the years except use my talents and answer my calling, he interrupted her. Now I've created a dangerous situation with you in the middle. And for that I apologize.

That's not what I meant, she quietly giggled. I was talking about your proposal.

Oh.

I still have your ring. I've kept it hidden all these months, but....

He sighed, determined not to repeat his mistakes. His own eyes discovered the fascination of the tabletop. You don't have to keep it if you don't want to.

Victoria sighed as well. She secretly took his hand in hers under the table, and held it just as tightly as she'd been holding her own hands. If his insides hadn't already melted, they'd melt now at her extraordinary touch. She whispered, No, I meant to ask if you still mean that? What you said in the cave?

He'd misunderstood again. Being this new Diego would take some practice, he realized. But it was hard to think when his insides were spinning. Yes. I still mean it, he said, his heart continuing to pound in his ears.

I figured you were just playing a game with me. Are you sure you want to marry me? she asked, her tone an even quieter whisper.

Yes. That is, if you still want to. Get married, he finished inelegantly. He was glad she held onto his hand as tightly as she did. It offered him an anchor in a continuously tilting world. At the same time, he couldn't believe she would think that; he would never play a game with her emotions. She was his Victoria, his lifeline and reason for existence in a diabolical and ever confusing world.

Yes! she whispered excitedly. Victoria squeezed his hand in response to her answering whisper. Her hands of calluses and chipped nails were incredible. When had a simple hand squeeze become so suggestive? When?

When? When did he want the rest of his life to start? How about tomorrow afternoon?

Tomorrow? she whispered a little incredulously. Isn't that a bit soon?

He glanced at her for the first time. His heart almost exploded. He would never tell her how frightened he was at the possibility of rejection. Too soon?

No. Not for me. I was thinking of the citizens and the pueblo.... She also looked at him for the first time. He saw unmistakable passion in her eyes and realized that was what he had been trying to hide from her. Afraid that she could see right through him, he turned back around.

But he gave her hand a squeeze of his own. Don't you think we have thought about the pueblo long enough?

She didn't answer at first, and Diego wondered if he had pushed too hard. Then she whispered, Yes, I do, and I don't care if that makes me wicked. Tomorrow afternoon would be fine.

So that was what was on her mind. Good, he whispered back in sudden relief. I can talk to the padre today. Oh, and I can get a wedding ring then.

Victoria tightened her hand in agreement and reaction to what they were proposing to do. Size five, she answered, even though she must feel scared to death.

I know, he whispered back, preparing to stand up.

Diego? She refused to look at him again, staring instead out the front doors.

What?

Meet me behind the tavern when you're done?

His heart pounded again. It might take me a long time to finish my errands, he cautioned, as if he was contemplating gathering food on market day.

I can wait.

I'll be there when I can, he whispered, then walked out of the tavern as if he didn't have a care in the world.

Victoria remained sitting for another few minutes, then rose and surreptitiously made for the stairs to her room.

When they were both gone, the buzz of conversation increased. Despite their whispers, the entire crowd had noticed the two holding hands, and wondered what it could mean.

Z Z Z

The talk with the padre went about as well as could be expected.

Tomorrow! Padre Benitez said in surprise. Even if the news that Diego was Zorro had already spread throughout the pueblo, it was still a shock that he and Señorita Escalante wanted to get married. But how can I sanction such a hasty union?

Hasty? We've been waiting for four years. There's nothing hasty about this, I assure you.

Yes, but....

He wouldn't do it? Padre, I've already asked her, and everything is done but this, Diego pleaded.

Padre Benitez sighed, aggrieved but willing. What time did you have in mind? he asked.

Diego stared unseeingly at the white walls surrounding him. Was he really talking so logically about something as incredible as marriage? He felt a sense of disassociation as he said, No specific time. As long as it's in the afternoon.

The padre halted their discussion. You know, I would feel better about this if you waited a month or two.

A month! Diego suddenly looked away from the white walls. He didn't think he could wait a whole month. He wanted the rest of his life to start as soon as possible. Besides, if he was honest with himself, he didn't know if he could keep his hands off Victoria for a month. When had he become like this? he wondered absently.

The padre held up his own hands in understanding. But I know that waiting is not possible in this case. Benitez scowled, but instead of continuing his warnings, consulted a little book he held in his hand. I find that I forget my promises if I don't write them down, he explained. The fact that neither of you cares about the time makes things somewhat easier. You said tomorrow afternoon? How about one o'clock?

Diego unclenched his teeth. He was unaware how tense he'd been. Now he knew. One o'clock would suit us perfectly. De nada. He stood to go, thinking that running all these errands wasn't going to take as long as he'd feared, knowing what was waiting for him, when the padre stopped him.

And Diego.

Yes? Diego turned back.

Thank you, he said simply.

Z Z Z

Still thinking over the padre's unexpected gratitude, Diego missed the waving arms from Felipe until the teenager was right beside him.

Felipe looked guiltily towards the auction pen that had been set to one side of the plaza, surrounding, of all things, livestock. Don Alejandro stood with his back to them, leaning on a fence rail to better survey the cattle. Felipe gestured with just one hand, holding the other behind his back, as if he was hiding something from the Alcalde's office. Everything looked so ordinary, though because of the conversation he'd just had, Diego felt so extraordinary.

You want me to take your present, interpreted Diego, in case I'm not safe. Felipe, why wouldn't I be safe in town?

With his head, Felipe gestured towards the Alcalde's office. Then he brought his hand from behind his back, offering Zorro's sword to Diego.

Diego took one voluble breath. My sword! You think I should be protected from the Alcalde.

Felipe gestured some more.

And any other hotheads who want to challenge me now that I've publicly announced Zorro's identity. Good thinking, Felipe. Diego took the outstretched sword belt and secretly strapped it on. It looked incongruous over his blue caballero trousers.

A small, disapproving frown began to pull down the corners of Felipe's mouth.

You think I made a mistake, Diego guessed.

Felipe tilted his head dispassionately to the side and ran his fingers around his neck. Then he gave the barest of nods, indicating his opinion as if he had proclaimed it out loud.

Diego grimaced. Maybe it was a mistake, he conceded, looking away to the southern prairie that led ultimately to the ocean. But this way I get to keep Victoria, and that's worth any number of challenges, he stated decisively.

Again the gestures came, thick and fast.

What do I mean by keeping Victoria? Diego interpreted. A soft smile lit his own face. Stick around tomorrow and you'll see, he answered enigmatically. Now hurry back to my father. We don't want him to realize you're missing.

With one last nod of his head to Diego, Felipe rushed off, heading for Don Alejandro.

Diego shook his head in amazement, and was so struck by Felipe's concern that he completely missed the Alcalde's approach until the man in uniform was right behind him. He was surrounded by noticeable red-and-blue dressed lancers, all bearing guns pointed in readiness at the dust.

De la Vega? Has Sergeant Mendoza been telling the truth? That you're Zorro? DeSoto barked.

Diego stopped walking. A cold fist circled his heart. Suddenly the revelation of his identity didn't seem like such a good idea. He didn't care about himself so much, but Victoria! How could he have treated her so lightly? He turned slowly to face the Alcalde.

Diego took a deep breath. He had no idea what to say, but knew it would have to be something big, something threatening, in order to stop the military man from hanging him on the spot. So he pointed a finger at DeSoto and used the best Zorro voice that he knew how. Considering who he was protecting, it wasn't hard.

I'm only going to say this once, Ignacio. Leave us alone. Leave my family alone. I am the better swordsman, and I have been holding back on you. Nothing either of us can do will change that fact. If a lancer or you so much as breathes on my family or Victoria, I will know it, and I will hunt you down, and I will kill you. Comprendé? Now if you will excuse me, I have a wedding ring to buy.

With that said, he turned on his heals and walked calmly to the jeweler's shop across the plaza. But his heart was pounding again, this time in fear. Everybody knew that Zorro never killed, but he really was prepared to make good on his threat if the Alcalde didn't believe him. That discovery about himself shocked him, even while he liked the sudden fear he had seen in the Alcalde's eyes.

The lancers and DeSoto watched him go.

Z Z Z

Diego spent an enjoyable hour then, thinking about Victoria, buying her something he decided she would like. All thoughts about the Alcalde left his head, as well as the terrible threat he'd made. The ring safely nestled in the pocket of his trousers, he went to meet Victoria behind the tavern, aroused at just the thought of meeting her. This would never do! He simply had to get control of these wayward emotions!

He knew the second he saw her that meeting her wasn't a good idea. This kind of a meeting could only go one way, and he was pretty certain neither of them wanted that. To think, how disappointed his father would be! At the same time, Diego wasn't sure he cared. He knew what he wanted, and he couldn't help it. And right now he wanted Victoria. He would really have to stop leading a double life, he decided. Later.

Victoria was beautiful, the wind gently blowing her hair across her back. She was wearing the same clothes she'd worn before, and nothing had outwardly changed except she wore a ring on her right hand, an emerald ring surrounded by white diamonds. It was Diego's mother's ring, Victoria's engagement ring. This was really happening. He was really getting married. The breath unexpectedly caught in Diego's chest.

Victoria heard the in-drawn breath, and turned. Immediately on catching sight of him, she drew closer until she stood right next to him, gazing into his blue eyes, seeing him for maybe the first time. This was it, the time for yes or no. He gathered her in his arms just to see what she would do, and she didn't resist. The electric current that passed between them was unmistakable.

He never remembered which one of them moved first. Either he leaned down, or she looked up, but the next thing he knew he was being kissed like there was no tomorrow afternoon, like this was their one chance, and neither of them was going to waste it.

Instantly excited, he breathed her name, and kissed the hot skin along her collar bone. The wind and the fact that they were out in the open only excited him more. He kissed her eyes, her cheeks, her jaw, and had no idea what he mumbled to her. Then he kissed her soft, inviting lips once more. If this meeting would go only one way, then so be it. He would accept the consequences later.

Suddenly he felt himself torn away from her. His ardor barely cooled, he looked around dumbly to see who would dare to interrupt such an obviously romantic scene.

Don Alejandro pulled on his shirt collar again, as if he was still a little boy. The auction! He had forgotten. Diego had seen the pen set up to one side when he was on his way to the jeweler's, but had ignored it, thinking just of the Alcalde. Only the sight of his angry father could separate him from Victoria. There was just enough of that little boy still in him to allow him to do it.

Come on, Son, let's get you home, Alejandro said sarcastically, not letting go of the collar in his hand. Say goodbye for now.

One o'clock! Diego called back to her before Alejandro jerked him to the front of the building where their horses were tethered. Diego, I thought you had more sense than that. Have I not raised you to treat a lady with more respect?

Felipe met them at the front of the tavern, already mounted on his pony, a smile at witnessing Diego's dressing down plastered on his face. Several head of cattle also greeted them.

Diego, aren't they magnificent? Alejandro asked as he mounted and began herding the cattle out of town. I just bought them at the auction, he said, rather unnecessarily. Where else would he have bought them? I hope you don't have any plans for tomorrow, because it will take some time to acclimate them to the herd.

Well, Father.... Diego began when his father stopped him.

And I don't want any of your excuses. Whatever you have planned can be canceled.

I don't think you want to cancel this, Diego tried again.

Nonsense! Alejandro blustered. Whatever you and Victoria are doing at one o'clock, it can be postponed. I'm sure she'll understand.

I'm not so sure, Diego said and sheepishly rubbed at his ear, a nervous habit that had started when he was very young. I've yet to meet a woman who will cancel a wedding.

Don Alejandro was still speaking and it took a few moments for Diego's announcement to reach his brain. You may be Zorro, but you're still my son, and I expect you to work.... What did you say? he asked, his lecture and his horse suddenly halted.

I'm getting married tomorrow at one o'clock. If you have the time, we would like you both to be there. If you're busy, of course.... He held out his free hand in understanding.

Busy? Don Alejandro echoed dumbly. Then he smiled, slow and big, though even that couldn't hold a candle to Victoria's smile. No, of course not! He quietly threw a fist into the air in triumph. The cattle will have to wait a day, I think. Married! he said on a breath of expelled air, delighted at the sudden turn of events. He repeated in wonderment, Married!

Z Z Z

Diego was standing next to his wardrobe, completely dressed at ten o'clock at night, trying to decide what suit to wear the next day, letting the fire burn down as he went back and forth, first contemplating a black suit, then his regular old brown. The brown fit better, but the black was definitely more dashing. He was still staring at them, weighing the merits of each, when his concentration was interrupted by the sound of something tapping on the glass covering the window to his bedroom. He left the wardrobe and hurried to the window. He was quite surprised to see an outline of Victoria standing in the yard on the outside of his window, hesitantly scratching on the glass with a fingernail, looking out of place in the sumptuous yard.

Quickly raising the glass, Diego felt shriveled by the cold that greeted him, but knelt in front of the window anyway. Señorita Escalante! Victoria! he corrected himself, for perhaps the last time, recalling that he no longer had a secret to hide from anyone and thus didn't have to pretend anymore. There was no one he had to call her 'Señorita Escalante' for. From now on, she was Victoria. His Victoria. Unconsciously, he shivered suddenly, but it had nothing to do with the cold. What are you doing here? Is something wrong?

No, nothing's wrong, she hurried to assure him, though the expression on her face would indicate otherwise. I just wanted to see you, she whispered, now looking guilty.

She wanted to see him? Why? Diego's imagination overflowed with worry, and he was forced to squash his thoughts. Do you want to come in? he asked, suddenly remembering his manners, and rubbed his hands together for warmth. It's awfully cold outside. I would hate to be without a fire tonight.

She pulled the shawl she wore tighter across her arms and said primly, If you think it's all right.

Of course! He stood aside, giving her plenty of room, and watched as she awkwardly climbed through the window.

At least you're not fighting skirts when you do this, she exclaimed in a whisper, her foot becoming tangled in the long material.

True, he answered, hurrying forward to help her.

Gracias, she said just as awkwardly when she was nervously standing beside him, staring at what remained of the fire in the fireplace, too wrapped up in her thoughts to look anywhere else. There was no embrace for him this time. She didn't even look at him, despite her words earlier.

Finally Diego couldn't stand her silence anymore. Was there something you wanted? he asked, very aware of the fact that they were standing alone, completely unchaperoned, in his bedroom. He felt himself growing excited at just the thought. Which was ridiculous, given her overtures, or lack of them.

Victoria seemed to start at the sound of his voice. He'd given up his usual 'Diego sound' and adopted what he called his Zorro-voice permanently. It made sense, he'd decided, since he'd given away the identity of the masked bandit that afternoon. It seemed silly to continue playing the game of subterfuge when he wasn't fooling anyone.

Without warning, Victoria suddenly looked at him, a serious expression marring her otherwise beautiful features. She gave a nervous gesture with her hand.

What is on her mind? he wondered. What is it? he asked again, persuasively.

Just as suddenly, she sat down on the foot of his bed, her face covered in her fingers, and groaned into her hands.

Victoria! Diego exclaimed, kneeling in front of her, distraught at her unexpected crisis. Whatever's wrong, we'll handle it together. Victoria groaned again at his words, and her hands pushed tighter. He sat next to her on the bed, thinking that would help, wrapping an arm around her shoulder in comfort. He didn't think about what such an action would do. He just wanted to solve whatever seemed to be her problem.

Unfortunately, his actions appeared to compound that problem. Diego, you don't understand, Victoria whispered, shivering under the shawl she wore.

He decisively turned toward her on the bed. Taking both of her arms, he turned her towards him and pulled her hands down. What is it? What don't I understand?

As suddenly as it appeared, the serious expression lifted from her features. She seemed to come to some decision then.

Diego, I... I.... Without warning, without preamble, Victoria leaned in and kissed him longingly, lovingly, passionately. Diego responded before he had time to think that they shouldn't be kissing in his bedroom, sitting on his bed. The situation was too inviting. As if she could read his mind, her lips opened in obvious invitation, her arms twining around his neck in seduction.

Diego, Victoria said in a low voice, her mouth right beside his ear and her words mingled with kisses as she discarded the shawl. Make love to me? she asked next.

Desire erupted like a volcano.

But still Diego held his surging emotions in check. You know I want you badly enough to. He kissed her like he was drowning. But are you sure? he murmured, his voice also low. Once I start, I don't think I'll be able to stop.

Yes, Diego, I want this more than anything. This afternoon taught me that, she replied. Again her mouth caught his to sweep him away in desire.

He knew she referred to the scene behind the tavern. He still held his passion in check, though he continued to respond to her kisses. What about the wedding? We should wait.

I don't think I can wait, Victoria told him.

That was all he needed to hear. Within seconds, he was kissing her for real, knowing he'd be unable to stop, knowing there was nothing and no one to stop for. There was only Victoria, the empty room, and the passion they held for each other.

She was intoxicating. He wondered if she knew that, or if she thought insanely that she was like ordinary women. She leaned into him, and Diego groaned out loud. He didn't stop kissing whatever skin he could reach, her cheeks, her ears, her neck, her shoulders, and they fumbled with the covers of the bed. She paused only long enough to yank off his caballero jacket and unbutton his silk shirt, happy to let the fire he'd built earlier to crackle and burn on its own, letting the coat fall to the floor. Victoria instantly buried her warm hands inside his open shirt.

Running her fingers over his chest, Victoria stood, her breathing growing erratic in the stillness. He stood with her, cradling her head with one large hand, then touched her cheek with the other. He thrilled at finally feeling the naked skin, and any doubts he harbored about revealing Zorro's identity were forgotten. He pushed at the sleeves of her shirtwaist, desperately wanting to feel what he had not been allowed to touch for years. He slowly dropped to his knees, laying his face almost worshipfully on her stomach, kissing the exposed skin in agonizingly lazy circles as Victoria ran her fingers slowly through his hair.

But Victoria wasn't content with just his hair, and he gasped when her hand brushed alongside one breast. Emboldened, she knelt, too, and took the nipple in her mouth, letting her tongue do what her fingers alone could not. Delighted at his response, she pressed into him and wrapped her arms sensuously around him. It was all he could do to remain kneeling on the floor.

Another gasp escaped Diego's lips, and he knew he couldn't remain where he knelt for much longer. The ache in his groin was consuming him as it was. With no prompting from her, he had no choice but to stand and lift her in his shaking arms and lay her gently on the bed, joining her a second later, both of them earning a brief respite from their stampeding emotions.

During that respite, he looked into her eyes, seeing undisguised passion and love there. Love for him, for Diego. Despite the fact that he was overwhelmed by her emotional display, he would not have continued if she didn't want to. Somehow, he would have stopped. But he only saw her invitation to finish what they'd started earlier behind the tavern. And he couldn't stop then for anything.

In a fog, he pulled off their remaining clothes, letting even her skirt and shirtwaist fall where they may as he explored what her body had to offer. Her breathing was definitely as erratic as his own, and he first slowly kissed her breast then lay on top of her to finally bury his face in her hair. The sweet smell was at odds to her amazing hands and hot skin. Flushed cheeks greeted him at his second glance, and she whispered one word, Please. It was a cry and a call of desire all wrapped up in one, and her hands worked in patterns over his flushed skin. He couldn't withstand her any longer. With no more hesitation, he entered her, his excited emotions threatening to overwhelm him the second he felt her heat.

But he withheld, waiting for Victoria, yet wanting her in a blinding passion. She arched her back as he moved deeper inside her. With no idea how he came to be this way, his passion was out of control. When he felt her begin to shudder beneath him, he couldn't hold back any longer. In one searingly hot moment, his emotions ripped open, and he groaned softly into her hair, the first time threatening to be the end as the two of them fused for one brief moment, both of them wanting to become part of the other. Sensation and sound exploded together at the same moment in time. They held on to each other tightly, like they were facing a menagerie of light together. Then it was over. Somehow an exhausted Diego managed to pull the covers over them both, the room cold now despite the dying fire.

As they rested, their legs entwined together, their breathing becoming calmer, Diego looked at her. Even now, with the blankets piled haphazardly around her and her skin soaked in sweat, she looked beautiful to him. He wrapped his arms around her, not caring that they weren't properly married yet and not wanting this wonderful feeling to end. He suddenly smiled, feeling only love now, but the happy and glowing kind. He just wanted to hold her, his love for her stealing over him like a warm blanket.

Her whisper acted like a knife to the mood. Diego, can I ask you a question?

He lifted his head, concerned at her tone. What is it? Did I hurt you?

No, she quickly assured. Well, yes, but that can't be helped, she amended. I was wondering something else.

Yes?

What made you change your mind? Why today?

Diego smiled and stretched. He felt wonderfully relaxed. He placed a hand on her cheek and rubbed it with his thumb. You, he answered simply. After watching what you put up with every day, I just couldn't stand the secrecy anymore, he explained. I wanted to love you in the open, and I wanted to protect you.

She grinned, and wrapped her own arms around him in an answering embrace.

Now it's my turn, Diego grunted at her display of affection, and hugged her tight. After the fight, my back was to you, so I have no idea what you were thinking. Where did you go, and why did you cry? He would never be able to rest easy if he didn't know for sure. They had not really talked about him being Zorro before.

For a moment Victoria remained silent, until he thought she wasn't going to answer. His old fears about his sudden revelation that afternoon resurfaced, and he, suddenly shy, unconsciously tightened his arms. Victoria responded with a tighter embrace, too. I went into the kitchen to be alone for a moment, to think. The tears came about twenty minutes later. I felt so mad, then sad, then relieved, I couldn't help it.

Relieved?

She shifted against him. Yes, she explained. I was relieved that it was you and not some stranger, that you were from Los Angeles, that I wouldn't have to give up my tavern and all my friends... and that my feelings for you finally made sense, she admitted.

But you had my identity and my love, he insisted, running his hand gently through a wave in her hair.

Yes, but would it be enough? And you are my best friend, Diego. How could I not be falling in love with you? But I had to be certain, so I invited you out behind the tavern.

He was amazed at such a stupid yet brave action. Victoria, we were alone. I could have attacked you....

You? She shook her head vigorously against the pillow as she spoke. I knew right away. All I had to do was look in your eyes. It was like the shutters were gone. I could see your love and passion so clearly. But the kitchen door was unlocked and open if I got into trouble. All I had to do was call out.

You trusted me that little?

No, Diego. I trusted you that much.

At her words, he felt his passion for her grow again, warm and tingly inside his belly, and in one swift movement he rolled on top of her, letting the concerns of the daytime take care of themselves. Right now, he was busy.

They made love once more that night, and Victoria cooked cheese enchiladas in the de la Vega kitchen when they got hungry. They talked about Sergeant Mendoza sneaking into her tavern in the past to steal a bite of her tamales, and he told her about his encounter with DeSoto. Then he explained all about Zorro, describing the cave entrances, and how he conducted his experiments, and that Felipe could hear. They talked about children, businesses, premarital relations, and Zorro again. But no matter what they were doing, Diego never forgot her words, or her faith in him that directed her actions.

The next morning, after she had left as quietly as she had come, Diego found his bedroom window still wide open. Not feeling guilty for one second, he softly slid it closed.

Z Z Z

The wedding itself was something to remember. Victoria was resplendent in a gown of white lace borrowed from Maria, her helper at the tavern. And if Don Alejandro's smile got any larger as he escorted her down the aisle, his jaw would surely crack. Felipe stood to one side, acting as best man, looking ill at ease in his tan suit, as if wishing he was herding cattle at home. Diego once more tried to settle the knot in his stomach, then tugged nervously one last time on his good black suit coat and rested a hand on his sword. Felipe had assured him that morning that nobody would remember the suit from his father's last party. Diego had laughed ironically at the color, but there wasn't time to commission a new one to be made, and he assumed it would have to do. The color was fitting, he decided, considering who was getting married.

Then Victoria was being passed from Alejandro to Diego's waiting arm, and thoughts about suit color were instantly driven from his head. The ceremony started in earnest. He turned in time to hear Padre Benitez say:

It is my pleasure to be uniting this couple in holy matrimony. Do you, Diego Alejandro de la Vega, take....

Z Z Z

Several hours later, Diego sat once again in the tavern, only this time everything was quiet. He sighed, the sound echoing in the room, tired, but feeling good. At least he wasn't hungry, he thought sardonically to himself. He'd eaten so much at the wedding reception party that he'd almost not had room for the cake. But Maria had made his favorite, and he could never resist.... At least he'd only eaten one piece. This time.

But everyone had departed by now. It was already five o'clock, and he felt as worn out from all the well-wishing as if he'd run a complete marathon. Now he understood why Zorro never stuck around for any praise; it was exhausting.

Victoria suddenly appeared from behind the kitchen curtain, still wearing the beautiful wedding dress, though looking a bit bedraggled, too. But even bedraggled, she was beautiful to him. It was still daylight, but not for many hours, and she had already lit the candles inside the large main room. Though it looked odd in its emptiness, Diego was glad he didn't have to smile and bow anymore. His face was sore.

He held out a hand for Victoria, pulling her down beside him at the table. Do you mind if we just sit for a moment? It's so quiet in here, and a person can regroup a little. She nodded her acquiescence, then sat down next to him on the bench.

Are you tired? she asked solicitously. It is quiet in here, and I know that you're one of those people who needs some quiet every day.

When did you become so observant? Diego asked.

Oh, a certain someone told me about you, she said and smiled flirtatiously.

Does this wise person have a name? he asked, smiling as well in spite of his sore jaw.

She smiled back impishly. Me.

Remind me to thank her when I see her again, he teased, and rubbed her cheek affectionately.

It was loud, she agreed, taking his hand comfortably in hers. She was getting used to showing affection for him, and the hand-holding was only one way she showed it. And it is nice to just sit in some quiet for a change.

He glanced at her from the corner of his eyes. I can think of a few quiet things we could do instead, he replied, gauging her reaction to his words and their not-so-hidden meaning. As the tavern was so empty, it was hard not to feel the spark in the air between them.

Diego de la Vega, she chided in mock anger, Are you asking what I think you're asking?

Yes.

Nice women don't do things like you're suggesting.

He replied, You're not a nice woman. I know. She looked at him then, as if she was seeing him for the first time. And she liked what she saw. His heart pounded. Come here. Let me give the bride a hug for old time's sake. He opened his arms, and she slid into them as if they'd been made to hold her. He rested his head on her hair and whispered, I love you, Victoria. Then he gently kissed her forehead and sighed happily.

And I love you, too, Diego, she said, closing her eyes in order to feel him better.

But he wasn't done. Diego drew away from her to say, I got something for you yesterday while I bought your ring.

Diego, began Victoria while she violently shook her head, you don't have to give....

He interrupted her. Shhhh. You are such a stubborn woman. Besides, I like to give things to you. It makes me happy.

We did get married today. All right, just this once, she conceded, looking tentative, then alight, like a child at Christmas.

You're a doña now of one of the wealthiest families in the California territory, he reminded her. Let me spend some of it on you.

I can think of other things I'd rather do, Victoria replied seductively.

Diego smiled. Un momento. I just have one thing for you.... He interrupted himself and reached into his pocket to bring out a necklace with a string of three stones, one an emerald, dangling from a chain. To match your ring, he said, and clasped it around her neck.

Diego! It's beautiful. Victoria kissed him quickly in thanks, then at the sudden jolt of desire and emotion she felt, kissed him again much more slowly.

Diego breathed in her scent and quietly asked into her hair, Do you think this is a good idea? What if the Alcalde comes for me? Even a threat to his life won't keep him away for long.

Victoria inclined against him in clear seduction. We'll worry about that when it happens, she whispered, and softly kissed him yet again. He was quickly lost in the pounding of his heart.

Z Z Z

I think you'll like living at the hacienda once you get used to it, Diego said the next morning as they made their way to the de la Vega hacienda to pick up his clothes. They were both on horseback, walking the horses, companionably holding hands over the empty space created between the mounts. A bag containing Victoria's few possessions was already slung over her horse's back.

It might take me awhile, Diego, Victoria warned. I've lived in the tavern for a long time.

Now you only have to work there, and only then for as long as you want. He kissed her quickly as the horse's nearness would allow. I only have to pack some clothes and get Toronado before we can head for Santa Paula.

Why do you need Toronado for such a short distance? she asked in curiosity.

Diego nodded. He's my favorite mount. And wouldn't you use Toronado if you could?

Absolutely, she replied in complete understanding. That's what was so perfect about her, Diego decided, she always understood. At least until he wanted to do his first smelly science experiment.

A cloud of dust on the horizon caught his attention then. He had been Zorro for so many years that seeing a dust cloud was significant. The dust swirled until a horse and rider emerged into sight on the plain. Felipe halted yards from Diego's mount.

Felipe! Diego said in delight. Did you come to see us off?

Felipe shook his head in the negative, and gave his sign for the Alcalde. Then came the sign for Sergeant Mendoza, followed by a sign representing the hacienda and everyone in it.

Diego had expected something like this. But he spoke out loud for Victoria's sake. DeSoto has surrounded the hacienda and taken everyone hostage? He has armed lancers? And the sergeant? Felipe, where's my father?

Diego expected to hear the worst, but he was still unprepared for what Felipe told him. He was out with the new cattle at the time? And he's mustering the men to form an attack? Good God, they'll be slaughtered! A bunch of men armed with pitchforks are no match for military muskets! Diego ran a hand through his hair in aggravation. Felipe sat, mute, on his pony, apparently used to Diego deciding what to do.

He wasn't disappointed. All right, Felipe, here's what we're going to do. You're going to take Victoria....

That was as far as he got before Victoria overrode him. No! I won't go! I'm coming with you.

Victoria, use your sense! I can't watch the Alcalde and protect you from armed lancers at the same time! Reacting to the worried tone of his voice, Diego's horse suddenly shied, sidling up to Victoria's gelding.

Diego, it doesn't matter what you say.... It was her turn to be interrupted.

Diego took her hand. Will you do this for us? he pleaded. For me? I couldn't bear it if you got hurt. Had he married her only to lose her the next day?

She looked in his eyes for a long moment. She saw worry there, but also love and warmth and desire, all for her. Coming to a quick decision, she nodded once. All right. For you, I will go with Felipe, she said, and looked at him meaningfully one more time.

That dilemma solved, Diego automatically moved onto the next problem. But he gave her hand a squeeze. All right, Felipe, take Victoria to the cave by way of the back entrance. No matter what happens, keep her there even if you have to tie her up. If you see lancers in the hacienda, I'm probably dead. He shuddered at that thought but it had to be said. If that happens, take Toronado and Victoria to Monterey. The Alcalde there is a friend of my father's; he'll give you protection until you don't need it anymore. Don't be a hero, Felipe, warned Diego. Remember, I know you. Get to Monterey as fast as you can.

Felipe nodded, then reached for his pony's reins.

What about you? Victoria asked.

I'll give you some time. If I have to, I'll challenge the Alcalde to a duel. He never could resist a good challenge. Diego smiled.

Be careful! cautioned Victoria.

Diego softly laid a hand on her cheek. I will. After all, I have a lot to live for now. He dropped his hand and gathered his reins. Adi¢s, he called as he and his horse created a dust cloud of their own.

Victoria watched him go, a worried look in her beautiful eyes as the cloud of dust settled slowly around them. Then Felipe was tugging her horse in the opposite direction and there was no more time for looking.

A tight hand suddenly clenched around Victoria's heart.

When Diego reached the hacienda, he found the Alcalde easily enough, and twenty lancers, but the situation wasn't quite the way Felipe had described it. As he rode up, the Alcalde and his men were being threatened by a group of rough-looking men carrying guns and knives. The fact that he recognized the knives as coming from the de la Vega kitchen had little to do with their effectiveness.

Father! yelled Diego the minute he was in hearing range, stopping the older de la Vega from continuing his threat. I have to ask you to stand aside. This is my fight.

A man who threatens one de la Vega threatens us all! Don Alejandro called back.

A noble sentiment, Father, but misguided in this situation, I think. Please step aside before someone gets hurt. Diego stopped his horse to confront a mounted Alcalde with his father.

The trousers Alejandro wore stunk and were covered with cow manure. But there was still a certain regalness about him as he punched towards the Alcalde with his knife. I came to fight this trespasser!

Don't worry. You'll get your chance.

But despite all his bravado, Diego wondered how he was going to take on so many armed men by himself. As he was thinking, a group of about one hundred and fifty men rode up on horses of their own, a group of caballeros come to watch the fight and to defend an old friend. You may have a quarrel with a de la Vega, Alcalde, yelled Don Carlos, hailing from the neighboring hacienda, but you'll have to fight us, too. He nervously drew his sword, unused to fighting such a high government official.

I don't have a quarrel with you, Don Carlos, the Alcalde called back, I have a huge grudge that's been wearing on my soul for years with a certain outlaw. Where's the little woman?

Diego replied. By that I take it you mean my wife? It was the first time he'd had the opportunity to use that word. It was a pity it had to be in such dangerous circumstances. At a nod from the Alcalde, Diego continued. She's safe, Alcalde. I made sure you won't find her no matter how hard you look.

Well, replied DeSoto, she can't stay hidden forever. I'll get her when she comes out of hiding.

You'll do no such thing. If I'm killed, she has orders to ride to Monterey to Don Pablo Vicente. Remember him? The old family friend who happens to run the garrison at Monterey?

I don't care if he's the king of Spain, DeSoto growled. All I want is you, Diego, also known as Zorro. No alcalde will stop the man who captures you. He sniggered at the very thought.

Don't gloat yet, Alcalde, Diego warned. You have to capture me first.

As they talked, a third cloud of dust from the pueblo grew larger and larger until it dissolved into a rather big group of very angry-looking citizens, armed with everything from old muskets to pistols to swords. The group of about fifty joined Alejandro's men and the caballeros to form a huge semicircle around Diego and their Alcalde.

Say your last words, Diego. Get him, men! the Alcalde ordered and had his horse step back.

Instead of shooting towards Diego, more than half the red-coated lancers stepped back as well and lowered their weapons.

What are you doing? Shoot him!

Sergeant Mendoza took one step forward. I'm sorry, Alcalde, but I've talked to the men and this isn't right. We don't shoot at our own citizens.

The Alcalde was practically apoplectic with rage. Since when do you think, Sergeant? he asked. I order you to shoot!

No, responded Mendoza in a quiet voice, looking clearly distressed. We won't interfere in a fair fight, but we will not fire upon a person we're sworn to protect. Several of the lancers, fifteen in all, nodded their heads in agreement with the sergeant.

The Alcalde drew his sword. Ahh! he grunted before dismounting. Then I'll do it myself. He made his way over to Diego and his horse. I challenge you to a duel! he yelled up to Diego. You coward!

I am no coward, replied Diego. He deliberately dismounted, took off his black caballero jacket, and drew his sword, glad that he'd remembered to put it on that morning. His mind had been a bit foggy at the time.

Only a coward hides behind other people! DeSoto yelled.

These good people have done nothing more than defend a friend. I will not hide behind anybody, Diego promised in a low, calm voice. But today I will make you a happy man, Alcalde. I accept your challenge.

Diego... warned Alejandro. Be careful.

Don't worry, Father, I will. He calmly saluted, then readied the blade of Toledo steel for position in a duel.

How touching! A family tableau for the outlaw Zorro, sneered DeSoto. It will be your last, I promise you that. He attacked suddenly and without prevarication, nor did he salute.

Diego parried, having expected the man to change the rules. Cheating already, Alcalde? It's a good thing I expected it. It's also a good thing I've been holding back, or I would have nothing to show our good friends here. In one swift flick of his wrist, he pushed DeSoto's sword aside and disarmed the man, sending the sword flying through the gate to impale itself on the front door. It swung noiselessly in a soft ocean breeze.

I'm not through with you! DeSoto pulled a loaded pistol from his boot and pointed it directly at Diego.

Instantly about one hundred and fifty muskets, guns, and pistols cocked. The crowd trained their weapons on the Alcalde.

DeSoto hesitated.

Diego gave another flick of the wrist, and the Alcalde's pistol went flying. Learning from Emissary Risendo? What a pity it is to be outnumbered, isn't it, Alcalde? Diego called, standing at ease in front of his old schoolmate.

DeSoto fell to his knees. What are you going to do, Diego? asked DeSoto, a tiny whine creeping into his voice. It sounded like the insect he was.

What am I going to do? asked Diego rhetorically, the blood pounding through his veins, the anger mixing dangerously with his heart beat. Why, I'm going to draw blood, Ignacio. Though the sword had never killed a soul, had never even drawn blood, Diego slowly pointed it at DeSoto's heart.

You're not going to kill me, are you? DeSoto begged.

No, Diego ground out through the clenched teeth holding back his anger. Diego took a step closer, still holding his sword steady. I'm not going to kill you. Everyone knows that Zorro doesn't kill. But I am going to leave you with something to remember me by. The last he said in a grating whisper that he hoped later to never produce again. And he quickly carved a 'Z' into DeSoto's heavily-cravatted neck. Then he reached down and hauled the screaming and pained DeSoto up, careful not to get the maroon blood on his white shirt. I believe there will soon be a ship leaving for Spain. Make sure you're on it, and if you set foot on any land belonging to any Los Angeleno again, I swear I'll finish what you started today, Ignacio, I swear it. Then Diego threw DeSoto in the dirt outside the hacienda and turned to the waiting crowd.

Gracias, my friends! he yelled. I think I'll be leaving Los Angeles in good hands. Then he turned his back on DeSoto and calmly walked through his front door, shutting it quietly behind him.

The second it was closed and he was out of sight, Diego slid down it to the floor and began trembling. He dropped the sword onto the Grecian tiles and watched the red tip in fascination as the sword rolled to lay on its side.

Diego! Suddenly Victoria was there, her arms supporting him, though he hadn't gone near the library entrance to the cave. How did she get out? Are you hurt?

Diego grabbed at her arm and took the support offered him. Soon he stopped shaking so much. Victoria! What are you doing here? he asked. Where's Felipe?

Felipe? she questioned. Let's just say he got a little tied up. Are you injured?

What? asked Diego, dazed. Oh, no, I'm just having a bad... a bad reaction to the... the fight I had with Ignacio, he stuttered, his teeth chattering in sudden release of his anger. That was odd; he'd rarely been angry over a sword fight before. It'll pass, he assured. He awkwardly patted her shoulder in a friendly gesture, then bent in to kiss her. Guess I'll have to get used to doing that, he joshed.

I know I'm used to it already, she said, indicating with her eyes that she was also used to something else. But I should release poor Felipe. I'm afraid that when he went in search of Don Alejandro, I watched while he opened the inside door. Then I hid and hit him over the head with a book sitting on your desk. He's tied up next to the stairs where he fell. Well, I got the idea from you! she said at the sudden disapproval on his face. You know the rest, she explained a bit guiltily.

But Diego was looking at her with admiration now. He shook his head. Remind me never to turn my back on you, Doña de la Vega, he teased. We'd better untie Felipe, don't you think? Diego whispered.

But Victoria made him swear, As long as you promise that we'll fight all our future battles together. None of this keeping me 'safe.'

He shakily rose to his feet and smiled. I promise. Now tell me every detail of your escape while we untie Felipe, Diego said as they made their way into the library.

Ten minutes later, a contrite Victoria and a free Felipe walked back through the same opening. Diego followed, looking none the worse for his duel. I'll only be a minute to get packed, and then we can be off to Santa Paula, he promised, leaving her alone as he and Felipe disappeared in the corridors of the house.

Fifteen minutes later they were on their way outside, trying to convince Don Alejandro to return their horses to town for them in order to finally retrieve Toronado. It was a simple request, but they couldn't get a word in edgewise with him. Don Alejandro kept holding things up. Finally he said to Dons Carlos and Miguel, two of his closest friends, I think Zorro, my son, has a wedding trip to take!

DeSoto was nowhere to be found. His shame was complete, all at the hands of Zorro.

Three weeks afterwards, while Diego and Victoria were still getting used to each other beside the ocean in that lovely town, the Mexican army moved into Los Angeles, bearing soldiers, guns, a new Alcalde, and a full pardon for the outlaw known as Zorro. And nobody said a word.


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