The Promise

by Linda Bindner

Victoria Escalante wondered who he was. He said he came from Monterey, but his clothes were cut so well and fitted his short form so perfectly that she knew he had to be rich enough to afford to have them sent from Spain. No tailor in California or Mexico could make garments look so elegant on such a small man. She wished she knew how long he planned to stay in the pueblo; there was something about him, the way he walked and held his glass of wine, that made her suspicious. His arrival the night before had come at a bad time since she needed to travel to Santa Paula for supplies, but Maria was very good at watching the tavern in her absence. She knew nothing would happen with her trusted helper in charge, but she was anxious to get back nonetheless.

Her wagon jounced over rocks and through ruts on the winding

road, and she occasionally reached back to secure the blanket covering the load of supplies. The rain from the day before hadn't helped much to soften the hard, dry ground; it only made the ruts deeper. She took a deep breath and tried to relax her muscles so the jarring of the wagon wouldn't hurt quite as much, and she did her best to steer away from the bigger rocks, but it was impossible to miss them all.

The day was warm but not hot. A stiff wind blew heavy clouds in from the coast, and they hung over California like an evil black curtain.

Victoria smelled rain in the air, and she urged her tiny old horse a little faster on the winding road. The cart crawled out of the creek bottom and up on the plains again, around a hill, and in a minute she saw the de la Vega estate to her left.

Diego had not been to the tavern for several days now. Perhaps he was working on a new edition of the newspaper that kept him so busy, she thought. One never knew what might grab Diego's attention next. She felt a fondness for him that made her smile; he was a good friend.

Her thoughts were intercepted when the cart suddenly jolted over a particularly large rock, then tilted dangerously in the rut just beyond it. The frightened horse pulled with all the strength he had left in his tired body. Victoria held onto the reins tightly, doing more harm than good for the poor animal's fight, but the cart rolled clear just as thunder rumbled slowly across the sky.

Victoria's heart beat along with the thunder as she spoke softly to calm the horse. He tossed his head and pranced, the whites of his eyes glowing vividly in the darkening air. She had to climb down from the rough board seat and place a gentle hand on his head to calm him. There now, old friend, it's just a little thunder, nothing to be afraid of.

The little horse was calmer, but the thunder, a bit louder, a bit closer, made Victoria glance nervously at the sky. Rain would be welcome in California, but she didn't particularly want to get caught in it today. Unfortunately, she discovered the front wheel of her wagon had come loose, probably as the horse pulled it out of that rut. She looked at it, scowling. Maybe Diego or Don Alejandro would be able to fix it for her before the rain began. She held her long red skirt away from her legs with her left hand and grabbed onto the harness with her right. Carefully she picked her way over the rocks, the cart bouncing, the thunder rolling, and her horse trying his best to pull in the direction away from the hacienda. The wind blew her dark hair into her eyes and mouth, but she managed to guide the horse to the gates and tie the reins securely to a solid metal ring set into a post near the stone wall surrounding the hacienda. The broken wheel leaned dangerously aslant against the wagon, and as a further precaution, she unhitched the horse before entering the gates to knock on the front doors.

The servant boy Felipe answered, his customary homemade shirt and brown sash a welcome sight. Moments later the horse was led quietly to the stables and Diego was looking at the broken wheel with another hired man whom Victoria did not know.

Diego wiggled the wheel experimentally, then jumped back as it fell off in his hands and the wagon crashed to the ground, resting in the soft dirt on the axle and three remaining wheels. Well, that didn't take much encouragement to come off~ did it? he said, a wry note in his soft voice. It's a good thing you were so close to the hacienda.

Victoria leaned over him to look at the wheel he was supporting with his knee. Do you know what's wrong with it? I would like to get back to the tavern before the rain starts. Thunder rumbled almost directly over them, black clouds swirling thickly against each other.

Hmm, Diego said, glancing up. Your wheel needs a new pin. We'll do our best, but I don't think we can fashion one for such a small wagon before it rains. His voice and face were apologetic. The wind tossed his hair across his forehead and his eyes looked dull in the darkening air.

Victoria smiled and laid a hand on his shoulder. Thank you for your trouble, Diego. I appreciate it.

He smiled back as he stood. For a minute he just continued to smile and stare at her, but a large raindrop splashing between his eyes forced his attention back to the problem of Victoria's wagon. Why don't you go on inside, he suggested.

But... she protested, indicating her food-laden wagon.

Oh, don't worry. We'll put it in the barn and have it fixed before you know it. Now go on, Victoria, you're getting wet! He laughed and pushed her toward the front door as more drops joined the one that had crashed on his nose.

It took three men to lift the wagon up so Diego and Felipe could place the wheel back on its axle. They pushed the wagon toward the barn until the wheel threatened to fall off again, and they had to stop to push it back in place. Rain sprinkled the dry dust of the stable yard behind the hacienda, chasing the men as they gave the wagon one last shove into an open space in the storage area Don Alejandro used for his wagon and buggy.

Whew! Diego straightened up, stretching his work-strained back muscles. Felipe waved at the wagon, then at the hacienda, grinning widely. Yes, it does seem that women like to shop and Victoria's no exception. The men crowding around laughed heartily as they all wiped water from their faces and shoulders. Now, let's get this wheel fixed.

Under Diego's direction, the men carefully ground down a spare pin to a size small enough to fit through the tiny hole in the axle that kept the wheel in place. Then Diego generously greased all the wheels before rearranging the food and utensils that had slid around or upset in the wagon bed. Felipe helped spread the heavy cloth over everything and tack it down firmly to keep any wandering insects or animals out.

Rain had dripped steadily from the black clouds while they worked, and the men dodged drops as they escaped across the yard to their own separate houses and tenant farms on the de la Vega lands. But Felipe and Diego finished covering the supplies just as the dripping increased to a downpour that roared on the barn roof.

Diego looked out to the river that suddenly sprang up in the yard and wiped the grease from his hands with a rag. His blue trousers were covered in dust from the barn floor, and grease marked the right sleeve of his silk shirt. He glanced down at his dirty clothes, then back out at the pouring rain. Well, Felipe, how are you at swimming? he asked wryly, throwing the rag onto a shelf covered with tools and spare harness straps. Felipe smiled, then pulled him into the downpour. They were both soaked before they got halfway across the yard, and Felipe was doing his best to get even wetter by splashing his sandals through every puddle he could reach. Diego laughed, but water dripped from his hair into his mouth, strangling any words he tried to form until they reached the hacienda. The two rushed through a door, rain chasing them into the little hallway just off the kitchen. Alejandro met them with words of warning to leave their shoes on the tile rather than track water across his expensive rugs.

You've been telling me that since I was a child, Father, Diego said as he placed his wet boots against the wall next to Felipe's muddy sandals.

And you still haven't learned to stay out of the rain, have you, Diego? Alejandro pointed out.

Victoria appeared from the kitchen, carrying two large towels, and handed one to each of them.

Diego thanked her as water ran into his ear. He laughed, but at the same time noticed her concerned expression. He refrained from asking her in his father's presence if anything was troubling her. Alejandro only shook his head at the mess the two men were making and went off to find someone to clean the floor after his dripping son, muttering about rain and a bull auction in San Pedro that he had just learned about from Victoria. Diego only sighed.

I'm sorry you got so wet, Victoria said absentmindedly as she watched the rain from the open doorway.

Diego toweled his hair as dry as he could and watched the worried look on Victoria's face. What's on your mind, Victoria? he finally asked.

His question called her from the door. She smiled apologetically. I'm sorry, Diego, it's just that I need to get back to the tavern as soon as possible.

Trouble?

She shook her head no. There's a stranger staying for a few days. He says he's from Monterey but his clothes are definitely from Spain. I know most of the caballeros from Monterey at least by sight, and I don't recognize him at all.

Maybe he just recently moved into the area, Diego suggested.

Victoria considered the possibility with a tilt of her head Perhaps. But I'm thinking that he's one of the territorial governors.

Diego stopped drying off to give his full attention to Victoria. A governor? In Los Angeles? But why?

I don't know. Anyway, it's just an idea. But I would like to get back as soon as I can. I've been gone all day, and trouble has a way of starting without much warning since the arrival of our new alcalde.

Diego agreed. It has been suspiciously quiet lately.

Yes. Zorro hasn't been seen for several weeks. I'm sure the Alcalde is planning some new way to trap him. Victoria's eyes were still trained on the water falling from the roof, so she missed the lift of Diego's eyebrows and Felipe's amused smile. But her face glowed at the mention of Zorro.

Diego continued, Perhaps the Alcalde has finally seen reason and decided to stop his personal vendetta against Zorro. Who knows, the time for him to reveal...

It stopped raining! Victoria exclaimed in a rush. She stepped halfway out the door to watch the last few drops fall to the ground. A late afternoon sunbeam broke through the heavy clouds and slanted across the yard, making golden webs out of the puddles between the hacienda and the stable.

Victoria turned to Diego with a quick jerk. Thank you for everything, Diego. I really need to be getting back to the tavern. What if something happens while I'm gone? Zorro might need my help.

Diego's eyebrows rose again. I'm sure Zorro can take care of himself.

But Victoria was hardly listening. She slipped out the door before Diego could offer to hitch the little horse up for her. Women, he muttered as he struggled back into his mud splashed boots, then hurried toward the barn. Felipe smiled and followed him, shaking his head and laughing his silent laugh.

At Diego's insistence, Felipe accompanied Victoria the rest of the way to the pueblo, just in case the wheel gave her more problems. The rolling plains surrounding the hacienda steamed in the quiet heat as evening drew closer. Diego busied himself with helping one of the maids clean the watery mess from the floor in the hallway, and ended up in the small courtyard, a new book in hand, thoughts of Victoria pursuing each other through his mind. He wished she would smile for him the way she smiled for Zorro. He then smiled to himself, a little bitterness coloring his thoughts. Little did Victoria know who she was really in love with. He shuddered at the thought of telling her the truth; she might reject him completely, and his greatest hope for the future would disappear. Then again, she might not reject him at all. They could...

In his flustered thoughts of what his future might hold, he sat down on a small wooden rocker next to a matching table and instantly felt the rain water pooled on the seat soak into his dry trousers. His smile changed to amusement. That was what he should expect when he allowed himself to dwell on Victoria.

The sound of pounding hooves interrupted his meditation. He saw Felipe's horse charge past the high wall enclosing the courtyard. Diego met his silent friend just outside the hacienda's gates, and the look of excitement and urgency in Felipe's brown eyes told him all he needed to know. Nevertheless, Felipe signed the letter Z in the air, and Diego hurried with him into the hacienda, his wet trousers forgotten. It looks as if Victoria may get her wish after all, he said as he pushed the release for the door hidden in the library's hearth. Tell me all you know while I get ready. They entered the secret cavern together, the door closing silently behind them.

Felipe waved his arms quickly through the air, pointing in the direction of the pueblo while Diego changed to Zorro's black clothes. Alejandro, Felipe indicated, was already on his way to town.

Theo Alcalde's taxing the people for having an animal in the plaza? Even Diego was surprised at this ridiculous tactic by his chief adversary. That doesn't sound like the new Alcalde. Unlike our previous alcalde, Ignacio cares little for increasing his personal treasury. No, this sounds more like a trap for Zorro. Felipe's eyes stopped Diego long enough for him to place a hand on the younger man's shoulder. Don't worry, Felipe, I'll be careful. Adios. He sprang effortlessly into Toronado's saddle and was gone, his cape billowing with the speed of the great black horse.

Z Z Z

The Alcalde glanced at his pocket watch, then looked out the window. Yes, it was about time. He rose from his desk and stretched, grinning in anticipation; he just loved to spring a trap, especially if it helped in capturing Zorro. And he was sure this particular of his would do just that. I will love to watch Zorro hang, he said aloud, gloating.

He stroked his white goatee and straightened the new coat which had recently arrived from Madrid. The buttons gleamed brightly in the fading sunlight that slashed through the twin windows on either side of the green office door. His family crest stood out proudly on each button. The red braid on the shoulders and lapels were a sharp contrast to the deep blue of the coat. He breathed deeply. Yes, he was looking forward to a good hanging. He was about to call Mendoza to gather together the prisoners, thus preparing the bait, when...

I wouldn't say anything if I were you.

The sharp point of a sword pressing into the middle of his back helped the Alcalde to follow the directions he'd been given. The sound of Don Alejandro's angry voice arguing with Sergeant Mendoza floated in through the windows, but the office remained quiet.

Zorro! he muttered.

At your service, Alcalde.

The Alcalde's hand reached slowly towards his belt where he had placed his pistol only moments before, but Zorro stopped him again, saying in a reproachful tone, Alcalde, carrying a weapon in such civilized times. With a flick of his sword, he removed the pistol from the commandant's belt.

You are certainly not civilized, Zorro! snarled the Alcalde at his unseen attacker.

Zorro only laid the pistol on the Alcalde's desk and gestured for the other man to precede him outside. I believe you are illegally taxing the poor farmers of this pueblo. I saw Mendoza sitting at his table in the plaza. Shall we join him?

The Alcalde glared, but led him out the door to where a group of farmers sat in dejected silence in the mud. A group of blue-coated lancer's stood guarding them carefully. One of the young farmers jumped up when he caught sight of the Alcalde and the man in black.

Zorro! the prisoner breathed reverently, leaning against the splattered adobe wall. His face was dirty and the left leg of his pants was ripped and ragged, but he held his head high with dignity and confidence in his rescuer.

Zorro looked at the lancers, then at the crowd of onlookers. Victoria stood just outside her tavern door, watching with keen interest. A man with impeccable taste in clothes stood a bit removed from the group, the stranger Victoria had mentioned earlier. Zorro's attention returned quickly to the man he held at sword point. Alcalde, he said simply.

With another snarl, the Alcalde waved his arm stiffly at the prisoners. The lancers stepped back and lowered their muskets, allowing the farmers to rejoin their friends and family gathered in the plaza. The Alcalde tried to move away from the point of Zorro's sword, but the masked man reached out a gloved hand to stop him with a jerk.

What are the charges against these men, Alcalde? Zorro asked loudly, publicly, holding him steady in the mud from the recent rain.

Evading taxes, was all the Alcalde said. He smoothed his gloves onto his fingers and glared at Mendoza who stood in the presence of his commanding officer. The chair he had been sitting in fell over backwards with his haste. Now he hurried around the table to stand next to DeSoto.

What were the taxes for this time, Sergeant? Zorro's voice was persuasive, gentle, soothing to the nervous sergeant.

Mendoza fidgeted within the confines of his tunic despite the calm voice. He played with the top button of his uniform. The Alcalde has a new tax for animals in the plaza. He swallowed hard, his Adam's apple jumping.

Zorro slowly circled the Alcalde, always keeping the sword between himself and the Alcalde's handsome new coat. Now Sergeant, we both know that no such tax exists because just last week you read aloud a proclamation from the King himself, and Zorro's voice grew dangerously low, restricting taxes to land only, not the animals on the land

The Alcalde turned a harsh face to his sergeant. You read that out loud, Mendoza? he asked in quiet outrage.

Mendoza's nervousness forced him to lean from one foot to the other, a comical dance as he gulped and answered, Si, mi Alcalde, you ordered me to read everything. You were too busy, remember? The dance grew quicker until the Alcalde put his hand on Mendoza's shoulder to stop him.

Zorro pressed his sword a little harder against the Alcalde's chest and heard a sharp intake of breath. He glared at the Alcalde through his mask, aware of his blood pumping faster as his anger increased. It's funny, Alcalde, that you tax these poor farmers like this. It's not your style. Why don't you tell us what you really have in mind.

The Alcalde's head twitched. As though he had sprung from nowhere, a lancer drew his sword and charged Zorro in one fluid motion. Zorro sidestepped him easily, tripping him at the last minute with the toe of his black polished boot, sending the lancer sailing into a hitching post where he landed in a puddle of red and blue. The sword never wavered from the Alcalde's chest.

Mendoza, Zorro prompted.

The sergeant squeezed his eyes shut and blurted out, It was a trap to get you into the pueblo where we were to ambush you.

Mendoza! bellowed the Alcalde and reached for him.

The sword point moved from his chest to his throat, pressing hard. Zorro's breathing came quick and hot as he leaned in close to DeSoto's face. You should commend your sergeant for telling the truth, Alcalde. The air was tense as the sun's last rays blurred through the clouds left over from the storm. The crowd was quiet, hardly breathing, waiting for Zorro's next move.

Zorro lowered his sword and roughly grabbed hold of the Alcalde's new coat, hauling the man even closer. When he spoke, his voice was quiet The day you again use the poor people of this pueblo as bait to trap me will be your last. He stepped back suddenly and carved a Z on the coat so highly prized by the Alcalde.

How dare you, the Alcalde sputtered, but Zorro was over the railing nearest the tavern and had whistled for Toronado before the words left his mouth.

The black horse charged around the corner, the Alcalde yelled, Get him, to his lancers, and Zorro smoothly kissed Victoria's hand all at the same moment.

You are truly beautiful, Señorita, Zorro said, then kissed her hand again.

Victoria smiled and laid her palm momentarily on his cheek. Thank you, Zorro, for them, and she indicated the farmers and peasants grouped near her tavern entrance. He smiled, and winked at her, the tail of his mask swinging with the wind.

Effortlessly, he booted two lancers out of his way, fought two more off with his sword, and vaulted from the ground onto Toronado's waiting back. He saluted Victoria once more, the silver bridle jangling in the soft evening air. His cape rippled powerfully as the black horse plunged headlong for the road out of town.

Muskets cracked loudly after the hoofbeats. The Alcalde pulled a pistol out of Mendoza's belt and sent off as good a shot as he could, but Toronado only jumped a water-filled ditch, barely jarring his rider. All that was left were the cheers from the crowd and Victoria's slightly gloating smile.

The Alcalde lowered the pistol, growled, then called his men back into the garrison. The sun sank into the horizon as the crowd drifted away, the excitement past for the day.

The sky was now a sea of purple, gold, and blue waves of light. Victoria stood at the door of her tavern for several minutes to watch the play of colors. She still felt the press of his lips against her fingers, and her skin tingled with the contentment she felt.

Don Alejandro materialized next to her out of the growing crowd near her tavern. He stood to watch the setting sun with her in silence. He smiled, pleased with the glow of twilight and with the freeing of the peasants and farmers. Victoria absently rubbed the hand the masked man had recently kissed, and the Don remarked, He favors you a great deal.

Victoria looked at the older gentleman and smiled. He favors everybody, Don Alejandro.

With a twinkle in his eye, he said, Someday, Victoria, we'll be celebrating your wedding. Victoria blushed and Alejandro laughed. Before turning back to the present celebration, he asked, By the way, have you seen Diego? I told him there was trouble in the pueblo. That boy disappears at every important gathering.

Victoria stared dreamily at the horizon and only murmured that she hadn't seen him for quite some time, but she was sure he was around somewhere. The caballero nodded his thanks, then returned to his friends gathering inside the only public building in Los Angeles. Felipe watched from the corner and shook his head at Alejandro's reaction.

The western sky still had a sliver of pink shading the oncoming dark, but overhead the clouds were turning to a velvety black, like the silk of Zorro's mask. Victoria sighed at her foolishness, glanced once more at the direction he'd taken, and went in to the hungry crowd seated around the tables inside.

She gave directions to the gaily dressed Maria to keep everyone's glasses filled. She stopped to congratulate several of the farmers and to promise them that dinner would be ready shortly. Victoria smiled and laughed with her customers, but was glad to be alone in her kitchen where she could think freely about the possibility of her future without worrying that someone might guess her thoughts.

Thus she was very surprised to find Zorro standing near the door when she lit the lantern hanging on the wall. Her surprise quickly gave way to delight that he had come back to see her. Then she noticed that he was leaning against the door frame, holding his left arm strangely against his side. She stepped toward him.

It seems, Victoria, that my luck has finally run out, he said, his strong voice now low and faint. He took a step, then stumbled, jarring himself on the door. His hand went up to his left shoulder. When he pulled his hand away, blood dripped from his black glove to form a blacker pool on the floor. Sorry... about the... mess, he wheezed

Oh my God. Zorro! She pulled his cape aside. There was just enough light from the lantern to see the dark stain on the left side of his shirt, and the hole the bullet had made in his cape.

I think I need..the doctor. He leaned on his right arm, supported by the door. I believe I've lost a lot of...blood His eyes were calm beneath the mask as he looked at her. There was no one else I could trust...except you...that I could reach. I'm sorry...Victoria. He winced as he drew a breath.

Victoria fought the horror gripping her mind, pulling a crisp white towel from a shelf nearby. She pressed it against his shoulder. I'll need help, she said briefly, supporting him as best as she could.

Get Felipe...

Felipe? Of course, who could better keep a secret than a boy who couldn't talk? Hold it there, she said with a calm voice which hid the fear in her heart. Then, still thinking with surprising clarity, she walked into the other room, managed to smile and say a few words to those who spoke to her, but headed indirectly for Felipe, who had joined the celebration after Zorro's departure. She greeted him with a masking cheerfulness, then quickly whispered the urgent message to bring the doctor to the mission. As he slipped out the door, Victoria told Maria to finish cooking as she had some business to take care of. Then she was beside Zorro, helping him to stand, supporting as much of his weight as she could. It shocked her to see that a bullet wound in the shoulder could leave him so weakened.

I'm taking you to the mission where the Alcalde can't arrest you, she said quietly, struggling to hold him up and unlatch the door.

He steadied himself against her, his black-clad arm draped across her small shoulders, and waited for the dizziness to pass. Good thinking, he whispered hoarsely.

With one hand she held the now red towel in place, holding him up with the other. Fear pounded in her heart, numbing her brain as they stepped out the door and into the wide dirt alley between her tavern and the mission. Darkness assailed her eyes, and lights exploded behind her pupils. The mission's white adobe bricks gleamed like a beacon in the falling night, completely filling Victoria's narrowing vision. She was tired from bearing his weight already, and she had trouble keeping her knees steady enough to walk. Oh God, what if she met someone, a lancer or the Alcalde? Zorro would be lost. His labored breathing was the only thing which held her fear in check long enough to reach the mission. Please don't let him die, she prayed. Not him. Please, not him.

Crickets chirped noisily near the adobe walls, a harmony to Victoria's pounding heart. Padre Benitez, his brown robes shaking with his haste, answered her insistent knocking. The look of astonishment on his face turned to concern. Victoria, what is this...?

Tears had begun falling from her eyes the minute they had reached the mission, and now sobs tore through her throat in controllable bursts of fear. Somehow she managed to pant, Padre, I need your help! Please don't shut the door! She slipped and almost lost her hold on Zorro, who was doing his best to stand up and stay invisible to the garrison across the plaza.

Good Heavens, child! The priest put his shoulder under Zorro's arm to move him to a tiny room at the end of a narrow corridor.

Zorro took a slow breath and closed his eyes, leaning momentarily against Victoria. There's no need for such fear, Señorita. It's only a shoulder wound I'm just a little... dizzy... now. He stumbled again at the door to the small room, which contained only a tiny bed and a plain, rough desk. He looked about with glazed eyes, then groaned quietly as they lowered him carefully onto the bed

The padre lit a candle sitting on the desk, and put a calming hand on Victoria's shoulder. I'll take care of anything you need. You came from the tavern? At her nod, he said, I will clean up any trail I find between that and the mission. The doctor?

He'll be here soon, Victoria said shortly as she fell beside the bed, tears still on her cheeks; she didn't have enough energy left to explain any further. The padre nodded briskly and disappeared, bringing clean towels and water before beginning his job of erasing the traces of blood and footprints on the wooden floors and the ground.

Victoria put her hand to her head and indulged in one moment of pure, weak terror. She rocked back and forth, biting her lip hard to keep from trembling uncontrollably. When she felt calmer, she removed the black hat from his head and dropped it on the floor. Her hands were shaking and she took several deep breaths to calm her racing heart, but she could not stop her tears. Giving herself no time to think, she pulled his leather gloves off and dropped them inside the hat.

She balled her hands into fists and forced them to stop shaking. She needed steady hands to unclasp his cape and remove his shirt, but she couldn't see through her tears and it was so dark.

You...have to stop...the bleeding..

With his help, Victoria rolled him onto his right side and pulled the blood-soaked shirt aside. Her stomach lurched, but she grabbed one of the linen towels left for her use and wiped as much of the blood away as she could. Zorro watched her in fascinated silence, trying to speak but only coughing when he opened his mouth. Water helped clean away more blood, and soon she could see the hole where the bullet had entered just to left of his shoulder blade. If he'd only been leaning another inch to the right, it would have missed him completely.

Don't talk, Zorro, she said as he tried to speak again. She pressed a clean cloth against the small hole in his back. He flinched and groaned through gritted teeth, but amazingly remained conscious.

So much to tell you, he whispered. Sweat ran from under his mask to trickle onto his cheek, leaving a path on his dirty face.

She wiped it away with the edge of her skirt, then dried her tears. You mustn't talk. Please, save your strength. Please live, stay alive, she said to herself. Who will hold off the Alcalde if you die, Zorro? But you won't die. The doctor will be here any minute and you'll be fine. Her voice sounded high, hysterical in the tiny, stuffy room. You'll be better before you know it, back to fighting the Alcalde. His side heaved against her hands and she pressed harder as blood oozed steadily between her fingers. If I can survive a simple bullet, surely you can. The Alcalde will not beat us so easily. You'll see. You can't die. I won't let you. Not now. We'll marry someday and you can teach our children to fence and I'll prepare huge meals, everything you like. Victoria knew she was rambling, saying anything that came into her head, but it kept just enough of an edge off the horror for her to keep going. The room seemed smaller every minute. The candle sputtered, casting menacing shadows on the walls and ceiling. She was certain she heard lancers beyond the window half a dozen times. Fearful tears dripped down her cheeks, splashing occasionally onto his bare arm. She couldn't take her hands off the towels even to wipe them off.

He rolled onto his back and lifted his right hand to her shoulder with an effort. This is too dangerous. No one must know... who I am. Not even Father. Zorro breathed, the sound harsh on the plain wooden walls. His eyes vaguely searched the room, unable to focus. You don't know what can happen to them. Dangerous...to know. His eyes searched for hers through the holes in his mask. I've done this to you all.

She wiped away a tear that fell to his chest. Where were Felipe and the doctor? Victoria kept glancing at the door, waiting, hoping for anybody to come. But she had to keep pressure on his wound though she could no longer feel her arms, and her pretty blouse and skirt were covered with blood. His words barely registered in her mind at all. Where was the doctor?

I had to ride away...when you were shot, he muttered, shaking his head back and forth on the tiny pillow. You were in my arms...I couldn't even take care of you...had to escape.

Victoria remembered very well the afternoon she'd taken a bullet meant for Zorro.. I saved you. You were the important one. She paused, took in a strangled breath. I love you so much, she said, her voice still high and excited.

His hand touched her pale cheek. In a voice suddenly clear and intelligible, he said, I should never have let you love me.

The door opened and the doctor entered swiftly, followed by Felipe and the padre. The look of panic in Felipe's face took some of the paralyzing numbness out of Victoria's fear, and she was able to stand aside so the doctor could examine Zorro's wound. She wiped her hands as well as she could on her skirt, then stood beside Felipe, a hand on his arm.

The doctor's curt voice broke the hanging silence. I need more light. The padre hurried down the hall to get some lanterns while Dr. Hernandez peeled off towel after towel from Zorro's shoulder. You did a good job here, Señorita. But that bullet has to come out.

Felipe waved his arms incomprehensibly to Victoria, though she could guess what his question was. Is he going to be all right? Her voice trembled.

The doctor smiled reassuringly at them. We'll have to see. I'll need more water, Señorita, and as many clean rags as you can find. Young man, and he gestured for Felipe, take his shirt out where nobody will find it and burn it. You'll never get the blood out, and the Alcalde mustn't learn Zorro is wounded. The shirt was quickly in the arms of Felipe, who was

glad to have something to do.

The tiny room was soon awash in lantern light and tense silence as Victoria and the padre helped Dr. Hernandez as much as they could. Zorro watched in a strangely detached way, the lanterns creating a blurring halo over his vision. Each time the doctor touched his back, the pain burned over him like a fire, leaving him shaking and weak. He struggled to remain conscious, but his eyes would not stay open. He waved his hand to get Hernandez's attention and managed to whisper, Protect...Victoria from my... identity. Must not tell... Pain gripped him remorselessly and he couldn't see. He tossed his head wildly, fighting the darkness closing in on his mind, fear and shock blotting out the faces of the people leaning over him. Then everything receded and went dark.

In a surprisingly short time the bullet was out and in the hands of the padre, who immediately buried it in the herb garden behind the mission. He was taking no chances on the militia discovering the proceedings of this night.

While the padre was gone, the doctor cleaned the wound and bandaged it efficiently. Only a small red stain on the bandage indicated any bleeding, and Hernandez stood up, satisfied That young man has armor for bones, he said tiredly, wiping his hands before putting his instruments in the bag Victoria hadn't noticed he carried with him. Zorro lay quietly on his side, covered by a coarse, warm blanket, his eyes closed behind the ~concealing black mask.

A fog had invaded Victoria's brain, replacing the earlier fear, but making no easier for her to think. What do you mean? she asked when she could force her mouth to form the words.

The bullet entered here. Dr. Hernandez pointed to his own back in demonstration. Zorro must have been far enough away from the pistol for the bullet to be slowing down and his bones deflected it, stopping it from doing too much damage to his shoulder. After a time, he should regain full use of his arm. He's a lucky man. It really could have been much worse. He gave a comforting smile as relief flooded over Victoria. I am still concerned, though; he lost so much blood.

I tried to stop it.

You did fine, Senorita. He looked at the unconscious Zorro. You know, for an outlaw, Zorro has good friends. He nodded his head, then said, He should remain here until he regains consciousness. I'm worried about infection, but I don't dare come here to check on him more than once a night. He glanced at Victoria's stained clothes. You need to return to your tavern and act as if nothing has happened. For a change it is Zorro who must be protected.

I won't leave him, Victoria stated determinedly.

Dr. Hernandez sighed, then patted her shoulder. Stay with him tonight, Señorita, but please, for his safety as well as yours, return to the tavern before dawn.

She nodded. As long as he wilt be all right.

Hernandez turned at the door. We can only wait, he said before he left, silently slipping away from the mission.

Z Z Z

Zorro lay in bed at the mission for two days. He woke once on that first night to find Victoria sitting on the floor next to his bed, her head pillowed on the blanket, asleep. Dear Victoria, he thought. He tried to reach out for her with his left hand, momentarily forgetting the state recent events had placed on his shoulder. The bulk of bandage stopped him from doing too much damage, and he clenched his teeth to quiet the groan that escaped his lips. He lay stilt for a few minutes, his heart beating rapidly, beads of sweat forming under his mask. He thought about taking the silk mask off, but knew he couldn't, not with Victoria sleeping right there and the Alcalde only across the plaza. He needed to get away, go home, remove the danger his presence created. Leave Victoria? Impossible. He was too tired. He slowly inched his hand along the worn sheet until his finger rested against her forehead, then drifted off to sleep.

The next time he woke up, Victoria was gone. Sunlight slanted lazily through a shutter crack in the only tiny window set high on the room's west wall, and he surmised it was late afternoon. He heard Mendoza laugh loudly at a joke he was telling his men, and a horse cantered slowly past the mission to stop at the tavern hitching post. A door slammed. Children screamed in their play. A dove cooed from a rooftop nearby - pleasant sounds at the end of what must have been a lazy summer day. He smiled and turned his head to look around the room.

Felipe sat dozing in the desk chair, his head propped up by his elbow. His white pants were dirty at the knees, the brown sash hanging limply against his leg. He snored softly, deeply breathing the room's warm air.

Felipe, Zorro whispered. The boy continued snoring. Felipe, he said louder. This time Felipe jerked awake, nearly falling off the chair with the sudden movement. A smile of delight crossed his face when he noticed his friend was awake.

Zorro laughed weakly. I don't suppose you have any water? I'm very thirsty.

Felipe was more than happy to slip down the hall to the deserted kitchen for a small pitcher of water in a glass. The effort of sitting up and drinking half a glass brought a sweat to Zorro's cheeks, and he felt a drop streak down to his chin before he waved the glass away, settling gratefully on his back. His young friend's concerned expression prodded him to say, I'm all right, Felipe, just tired. Felipe asked if he could do anything

more for him; and he shook his head. What I really need to do is get away from Victoria and the Alcalde. Their curiosity could easily uncover my identity. Unfortunately I can't go home, either. It would be too much of a coincidence for both Zorro and Diego to have been shot in the same place. He looked at Felipe. And you can't be seen here. If anybody connects you to Zorro...

Felipe assured him that his presence in the mission was a secret. He brushed that danger aside and waved his arms to the north, making it clear that he wanted Zorro to travel.

Zorro's eyes slowly lit up. You told Father I am visiting friends in the North? Of course. There's an art show in Santa Barbara this month. It's a perfect excuse. I can stay there long enough to recover, and a wounded Diego never has to appear in Los Angeles or at home. No one will ever know. Well done, Felipe. In his excitement, he tried to sit up again, but fell back when pain lanced through his shoulder and arm. A minute passed before he could speak and his voice was weaker. But how will I get there? I'm so weak I can hardly move. I could never stay on a horse that long.

They were both quiet then, thinking. Suddenly Felipe jumped up, wildly waving his arms.

Why can't you drive me in the carriage? But how will you get it without my father noticing? You told him I was already in Santa Barbara. He paused to watch Felipe. Ah, he's going to the auction in San Pedro that Victoria mentioned yesterday. Lucky for us it's in the opposite direction from Santa Barbara. So it will have to be tomorrow. He sighed heavily. Getting out of town won't be so easy. But I'll manage somehow. Now hurry back to the hacienda and pack enough to last me several weeks. I have no idea how long this will take to heal, and he indicated his bandaged shoulder. With a smile Felipe was out the door, leaving Zorro alone with his escape plan and doubts as to its success.

He must have drifted off to sleep again, but the smell of warm food brought him out of his slumber. Night framed the room in darkness, though the lantern on the desk burned brightly. He blinked sleep from his eyes and his stomach growled as he slowly became more alert. Victoria leaned over him, the fringes of her shawl tickling his neck. Señorita, he said and smiled.

I brought you some soup left over from supper. Do you think you can eat some? She spoke in a hushed tone, her words low and unhurried.

He tried to sit up, and eventually managed to prop himself against the wall behind the bed. Right now I feel as if I could eat anything. This is most kind of you. .

She smiled shyly. You know I would do anything for you. The words sounded forward even to her, but she so rarely had a chance alone with the mysterious Zorro that she was not about to let mere convention come between her and the man she chose to love. She brought over a tray with a bowl of soup and some of her lightest biscuits to set on his lap, a smile still curving her lips.

Victoria, how on earth did you bring this tray without being seen? he asked in astonishment, and started eating.

She shrugged. It's two in the morning. Everyone's asleep.

He glanced reproachfully at her. It's very dangerous for you to come over here. He picked up the spoon with his good hand, but it was hard to eat and support himself at the same time. Victoria took the spoon from his hand and fed him as he watched her.

It's a good thing I did come, she said just as reproachfully. You can't even feed yourself. The smile she showered on him was full of affection and happiness that she could finally do something for this man who did so much for Los Angeles.

His brow puckered. Do you know who shot me? he asked curiously as he relaxed and contentedly chewed the potatoes from the soup.

She grimaced. Dr. Hernandez said the bullet was fired from a pistol, and only the Alcalde used such a weapon. But the bullet is out and Dr. Hernandez says you will be fine. That's all that matters.

He looked away, suddenly turning his head to the wall. Strange emotions were at work on his face. I put you all in such danger, he said quietly. It was wrong of me to come back.

She licked her lips before saying as gently as she could, We all knew the risks involved, and would gladly do the same again.

He looked at her with open admiration, the muscles in his face relaxing gradually under her loving smile. You said the doctor took a bullet out; what kind of damage did it do?

The change of subject removed the tension in the air and Victoria laughed softly. She settled herself comfortably beside him, continuing to spoon soup into his mouth, and told him everything that had happened, filling in the gaps in his memory with liberal descriptions.

Bones of armor, eh? He shifted painfully on the bed, unable to stop a grimace from showing on his face. Victoria poured some water and held the glass for him so he could drink. He had to rest before he could speak again. Does the doctor know my identity?

She shrugged her shoulders and absentmindedly rubbed her neck with her fingers. I don't think you need to worry about him.

I would trust him with anything, as I would the padre. You did well in bringing me here. He leaned back, still watching her lovely face in the lantern light. A problem rose before him, and he didn't know how to approach it. He decided honesty was best. Let me be candid for a moment, Victoria.

Victoria interrupted him. You want to know if I looked under your mask while you slept last night, she stated simply.

He cocked an eyebrow, a movement not completely lost on her despite the silk covering his head. Well, the thought had occurred to me.

Understanding flowed from his shadowed eyes. The situation must have been very tempting. You could discover my identity and I would never know.

Victoria sat back, her fingers playing with the hem of her skirt as she thought. I'll admit that I was tempted. Just to peek. Her sigh filled the room. But I was more worried about keeping you alive than discovering who you are. Victoria put a hand to her chest and took a halting breath. I've never been so scared in all my life as I was last night.

That's exactly how I felt when you were shot; completely helpless. His eyes clouded in thought and his heart gave a painful twist in his chest I learned how very much I need you during that time. Even Zorro's victories are empty if I don't have someone to share them with.

I will always be here to share anything with you, Zorro, she said with heartfelt sincerity.

He smiled softly. Thank you for respecting my wish to keep my identity secret. It's for the best. His voice grew determined as he continued. But I will reveal my identity someday, Victoria, I promise you. She closed her fingers on his hand resting on the bed. Carefully he lifted his right hand to her cheek. I'm a very lucky man.

She blushed and kissed his head through the silk mask.

He laughed quietly. Well, it's certainly different for me to be rescued by you instead of the other way around.

It was my pleasure. He finished his bowl of soup and Victoria prepared the tray for its stealthy journey back to the tavern. Now you need more rest. Dr. Hernandez said he will see you again tomorrow morning before anyone else is about. I'll try to bring something more for you to eat as well.

Victoria.

She turned to look at him, her eyes bright in the lantern light.

He struggled with his mind to form the words he wanted to say, and cursed the fact that he was still too weak to stand. He just looked at her beautiful oval face in silence, the agony of his indecision melting his blue eyes to hazel. There was too much to say for him to put his thoughts into words.

Victoria closed her eyes and sighed in understanding. She had become very adept at understanding this mysterious man she loved so fiercely. She settled onto the bed beside him, took his face in her hands, and gently kissed him. His good arm moved around her shoulders and his hand lost itself in the dark wavy hair. The feelings he worked so hard to control in daily life surged up until they reveled in the smoothness of her skin, the smell of her hair, the feel of her body leaning against his. She stayed with her cheek on his right shoulder for a long time, ignoring the slight chill of the night air.

You should go, he whispered eventually, though neither moved from their embrace.

But finally, reluctantly, she nodded and briskly climbed off the bed, gathered her tray, then left the room without a word or a backward glance. When she returned at six o'clock the next morning with his breakfast, the little mission room was empty. Zorro was gone.

Z Z Z

Diego sighed and stared at the page of his book. After sitting around for a month, not even his favorite novel could sufficiently entertain him anymore. Frustrated, he snapped the book shut and glared at his room. The now familiar curtains looked stale as they hung in the breezeless air at the open window, and the little wardrobe sitting in the corner blazed at him in cheap indignity. The bed, neatly made with a clean white spread, appeared as bored with the room as he felt. How he wished he had something useful to do!

He rose from the single chair the room had to offer and looked out the window at the plaza below. Farmers and peasants sold their goods from carts just as they did in Los Angeles and the food they peddled was excellent, but he found himself searching the crowd for a particular señorita with wavy black hair, a basket swinging freely on her arm. Though Santa Barbara was bigger than his own pueblo, it lacked the people that made the smaller town his home. This hub of activity seemed lifeless and empty to him. He sighed unhappily; maybe he could take a walk.

He tossed the book on his bed with his left hand and felt the twinge in his shoulder with angry satisfaction. Even pain was better than boredom at this point, so he pulled the door to his room open with his left hand and entered the hallway.

Downstairs, the restaurant which made Victoria's tavern seem ridiculously humble was full of caballeros and the men from the pueblo's garrison. Diego recognized the doctor as he sat eating his lunch with a beautiful young lady, and he moved to join them. Dr. Palo and Señorita Inez. May I join you?

The doctor waved him to the table's extra chair. Sit down, Don Diego, please. How's the shoulder today?

Keeping me from doing anything except being bored, Diego answered. How's the young boy who was trampled in the plaza yesterday? Will he be all right? The incident Diego spoke of galled him beyond even the injury to his shoulder. To stand aside and let other men rescue the boy from the plunging stagecoach horses had been harder than enduring the jolting two-day buggy ride from Los Angeles, but he'd been forced to accept a milder role since arriving in Santa Barbara due to his injured shoulder.

Dr. Palo smiled. He's going to make it after all. He'll never walk the same again, but he'll live a long and healthy life. Your concern does you credit, Don Diego.

Diego smiled, nodding his thanks.

Señorita Inez spoke then, her low voice slightly seductive as it had been ever since Diego had first met her, the day after his arrival. I don't understand why you are so interested in such a gruesome event, Don Diego. The boy is, after all, only a peon.

Diego retained his smile with an effort. He'd long since given up trying to open this beauty's eyes to the larger world around her, and its multitude of people. She was interested only in the few belonging to her class, and especially to Don Diego, since he was both of her station and so very eligible. But he only said, I just hate to see a young boy hurt like that.

Her high tinkling laugh rose above the murmur of the crowd. You're such a country gentleman, Don Diego; you care for everybody. Not at all like me. I'm far too busy to notice the peasants.

And that is the difference between you and Victoria, he thought to himself. Aloud he said, Los Angeles is so small that you can't help knowing everybody.

She glanced coyly at him through her long black lashes and said, I believe you prefer it that way.

Diego nodded enthusiastically, giving her his biggest, most innocent expression. Oh, I love living so far from any big town. It's much more peaceful. He knew she would not be excited about his response, and she didn't disappoint him.

It sounds very nice, she said unconvincingly, nodding her head.

The doctor laughed. Well, Señorita, I must leave you now. I have the rounds to make this afternoon. Please give your father my regards. He rose, the legs of his chair scraping softly on the polished floor boards. He kissed the lady's hand, nodded at Diego, and departed.

Diego rose soon after. I, too, must go, he said, reaching for the white gloved hand as the older man had done.

Instead Inez stood up and took his arm. But where are you going?

Diego looked down at her, amused. I was going for a walk.

You walk alone quite often. I know because I've been watching you. They strolled slowly out the wide-open doors of the inn and into the bustling, sunlit plaza.

Well, I have a lot on my mind, Diego said, evasively looking at the other people in the area except Inez with great interest. He poked at a few melons and even glanced at a booth of fabrics to distract her.

Such as? she prodded, mercilessly undistracted.

Oh, nothing you'd find very interesting.

Suddenly she stopped and looked at him for once through her eyes rather than her lashes. Don Diego, if I didn't know better, I'd say you were putting me off.

He looked at her with his full attention for the first time since leaving the inn. I'm truly sorry, Señorita. I guess I've been out of the social scene too long; I've grown rusty.

Yes, it's obvious your heart's not centered on me, she said with surprising frankness.

Diego answered with equal honesty. My heart belongs to a certain young lady back home. He smiled kindly at her.

Inez sighed. I hope for your sake she likes the country. Do you plan to marry?

Diego paused and looked off to the south, toward home. If she'll have me, he said quietly, his face suddenly serious.

As he seemed lost in his own thoughts, Inez said, Well, I'll leave you to your walk, Don Diego. Adios. He lightly kissed her gloved fingers and watched her walk away, her flowered summer dress blowing in the breeze. He soon heard her laugh rise above any other noise and knew she was assaulting another poor, unwary fellow in the inn. He smiled and shook his head.

A stronger wind ruffled his hair and white shirt in the open land beyond the pueblo. He followed a now familiar path stretching to the south and proceeding along a bright, bubbling creek. Inez's last question stuck in his mind and he found himself thinking of Victoria again. It would be a relief to get back home, to see the old familiar hacienda, the trails he'd known since he was a child, and the tavern he knew as an adult. He missed Felipe and his father more than he thought he would. He hated to lie to his father, but he'd written that he'd caught a cold while attending the art exhibition and planned to stay until he recovered. The exhibition had ended two weeks ago and he was still in Santa Barbara, waiting for his shoulder to heal enough so no one would ever know he'd been shot. Though he knew he was mending quickly, he was already tired of being such a bother to everybody, and of having to rely on others for anything he needed. He was not used to being weak. It made his established role seem too realistic somehow. It was one thing to pretend to be weak; to actually be so was something else entirely.

He wandered around some trees and played in the creek with a stick, absently flicking water over rocks and sand bars. How long had it taken Victoria to recover from her bullet wound? A month? Longer? All he remembered of her stay at the hacienda was the underlying feeling of frustration which had accompanied his every encounter with her. He was delighted to have her near him so much of the time, and he'd loved their long conversations, but not being able to reveal his true feelings day after day had weighed him down considerably. Finally he'd broken down and appeared before her as Zorro, forced to mask himself so he could unmask his love for her.

Now he found himself in practically the same situation again. He was tired of keeping the tight rein on his emotions that his position required. If he returned home now, he didn't know if he was strong enough to hold up the facade he'd always employed around Victoria.

To be completely honest with himself, he wasn't sure he wanted to keep up that facade any longer. He was very close to his thirtieth year; he wanted to get married and start a family. But the need for Zorro's blade might never diminish; he might never be free for his dreams to come true. And he couldn't expect Victoria to wait forever. She also needed to get on with her life.

He wondered how she felt about marrying a caballero. She was quite wealthy for an unmarried woman in such a small pueblo as Los Angeles. And what would she say if he ever gathered enough courage together to propose? He had never seriously thought of asking her. It was always a future event to be considered later. He remembered playing with her when they were children, but he had no idea what anybody would think of the two of them marrying. Would his father approve? Diego knew his father liked Victoria, but she wasn't the daughter of a caballero. Don Alejandro had many friends with very eligible daughters from whom Diego could choose. Most of them were pretty enough, like Inez, and understood the life of running an estate, but they seemed lifeless when compared with Victoria's fiery personality.

He recalled the promise he'd made to her that someday he'd take off his mask and reveal his true identity. He wondered gloomily what she would say if he were ever able to do that. She'd probably laugh, he thought to himself with a hint of bitterness. After all, she had no idea what Diego was really like. She saw only what he wanted her to see. No, he could never tell her; the risk would be too high, and if he gambled on her and lost, there would be nothing left for him. At least now he still had hope. And if the Alcalde ever found him out, he would surely die. Or if Ignacio DeSoto didn't kill him, other attempts were bound to occur; Victoria would always be in danger if she married the man known as Zorro. Diego angrily threw the stick he carried into the water, his spirits depressed beyond anything he'd ever felt before. His whole life was such a mess because he'd started a battle he could never finish. He headed back for the town, more discouraged than when he'd left.

Diego found a letter waiting for him at the inn when he returned. It was from Felipe and not his father, as he expected. He opened the letter when he was alone in his room. The message on the single sheet of paper made him drop slowly into the chair. In a scrawling hand was written a list of the schemes the Alcalde was implementing in order to lure Zorro into the open so he could be captured. New edicts on who could trade in Los Angeles and who could not had been posted, taxes had been raised to ridiculous highs, and innocent people were being jailed overnight for reasons that were flimsy at best.

Diego frowned at the letter when he finished. The situation at home must be bad indeed for Felipe to write so much. He reread the ending three times. You are missed very much, and so is Z.

Diego threw the letter down and pulled out his valise from the wardrobe with more energy than he'd had in days. His shoulder still bothered him, but he was unhappy in Santa Barbara and needed at home. On his way out of the inn, Inez stopped him, but he only smiled at her and said excitedly, I'm going home. Then he was gone.

Z Z Z

Diego left Santa Barbara immediately and rode hard, arriving at the hacienda just as night fell, two days later. He slipped unannounced through the front door. Father! he called to the empty room. When he received no immediate answer, he set his small traveling case on the tile in the entryway and went in search of Don Alejandro.

After finding nobody in the dining room, sala, or library he decided to take a chance on finding Felipe in the secret cave behind the hearth.

Felipe! he happily exclaimed when he saw his friend carefully grooming Toronado by lantern light. Felipe's face lit up and he answered Diego with a tight hug.

Diego smiled in return. Oh, it's good to be home. Where's Father?

Felipe's smile fell and he pointed in the direction of Los Angeles. A chill went through Diego. What is it? he asked. More trouble?

In quick fluid movements Felipe told Diego about the events of the past few days which had drawn Alejandro to the pueblo.

Even Diego was stunned. The Alcalde has jailed Victoria? On what charge? The answer did more than stun him; it made him angry. She's in jail because of her sympathies for Zorro, he repeated slowly. How did our esteemed Alcalde justify this? Felipe shook his head Has he been jailing everybody who openly follows Zorro? That's ridiculous. He must have... Felipe interrupted him by making an obvious sign of a knife being pulled across someone's throat. Diego nodded. More people will surely be persecuted unless Zorro turns himself in. I'm surprised that even Ignacio would stoop as low as that. Diego slumped against a wall, grimacing a little as he jarred his left shoulder against the cold stone. He felt tired and sore and defeated. The happiness he'd felt at arriving back home was gone.

Felipe asked a question, his eyebrows rising.

Diego laughed hollowly. What else can I do, Felipe? Zorro rides tonight whether my shoulder's healed or not. When he saw Felipe's worried face, he tried to shake off his sudden depression. He straightened up and patted the boy's arm. Don't worry, Felipe. I'll be careful. Now, let's make sure everything is ready. And I think I'll get something to eat before I do my rescuing. I'm starving. He smiled encouragingly at his friend and led the way through the secret entrance into the hacienda.

Don Alejandro slammed the front door on his way in just as the hidden door closed behind Felipe. He was delighted to see his son again, and he showed it by asking Diego how he liked the exhibition and if he was feeling better before starting his tirade against the Alcalde. Diego smiled; it was good to be home.

Ah, Diego, Don Alejandro said fretfully when he'd finished detailing the Alcalde's appalling behavior of the last few weeks while his son finished a light meal. Is there nothing this man won't do just to capture Zorro?

Diego snorted and shook his head. He absently played with his water glass, saying, It doesn't seem so. The jail must be overflowing with all the tax evaders and law breakers he's been holding. Mendoza should be a busy man.

Alejandro groaned Sergeant Mendoza is too busy tending the tavern while Señorita Victoria spends her token night in jail. Diego, that man was born to be a tavern keeper.

Diego's jaw tightened slightly at the thought of Victoria spending another night in prison. It wasn't the first time she'd been used as bait for Zorro, but that made it no easier for him to accept the situation. I'm surprised Zorro doesn't rescue her, he said and saw Felipe's threatening smile from the corners of his eyes.

Alejandro nodded tiredly. Zorro hasn't been seen for weeks. No one seems to know where he is. But now that Victoria is the bait, perhaps the Alcalde will get what he wants.

Which is? Diego asked as he fastidiously wiped his mouth with a white linen napkin.

To capture Zorro so that he will look good for Señor Ocultio. Alejandro waved the air with an irritated fist.

Diego gave his father a puzzled look. Señor Ocultio?

Alejandro made a sour expression. Ahh, that stranger who showed up about a month ago. He's some political figure from Monterey.

Diego said, I can tell you don't think too highly of this man. Tell me, Father, does he dress well?

Alejandro glanced in surprise at his son, but answered the question. Yes, he has excellent taste in clothes. I'll warrant he used political funding to add to his wardrobe. Or at least I wouldn't put it past him.

Diego's eyebrows rose. Victoria thought he might be a territorial governor.

Alejandro snorted Well, he's certainly not using his authority to get, Victoria released from prison. Diego, when will you ever learn you can't trust these new men in the government? He shot a scathing look toward his son and shook his head in disgust.

Diego only cocked his head. You can't always judge men so quickly. And who knows, perhaps Zorro will help Victoria.

The Alcalde thinks Zorro has been injured somehow, Alejandro said unhappily.

Injured? ,Diego feigned concern.

Why else would he allow the people of Los Angeles to suffer? Alejandro pushed his chair away from the table, shaking his head again. Maybe there is something to the Alcalde's supposition, he admitted It would explain Zorro's sudden disappearance. He stood up, still disgusted. I'm sorry, Diego. I'm in a foul mood from all this trouble in town. But I am glad you're home. He gripped Diego's shoulder affectionately. Fortunately, it was the right shoulder. Diego patted the tanned, wrinkled hand in return. However, I think I'll go to bed now, to be ready for whatever happens tomorrow. It might be my night in jail next. He laughed mirthlessly. Good night, Diego, Felipe. He smiled at them before departing for his bedroom.

Diego glanced at Felipe. You should get some sleep, too. Felipe shook his head. He pointed at Diego questioningly. Diego scoffed, Oh, I'm just thinking about Victoria. I'm sure she has not been a quiet, obedient prisoner for the Alcalde. Felipe smiled, shaking his head Diego laughed. Good for her. He sighed, his smile vanishing. At least she has other things to think about than charming every man she meets. At his friend's puzzled look, Diego said, Let me tell you about a certain Señorita Inez and you'll understand why I'm so glad to be home. He rose from the table as he began a vivid description of every man's nightmare. Felipe followed, listening in amazement.

Z Z Z

A coyote howled eerily at the moon. The echo died away and all was quiet. A dog barked, and a rusty hinge squeaked in the chilled night air. The lancer guarding the jail looked up suspiciously, taking care to cover his back with his drawn sword while carefully making his way into the outer office where another soldier stood guard by the heavy wooden door. The fact that this guard lay crumpled near the door barely registered in the lancer's mind before the painful blow struck his head. He was already unconscious when a low voice whispered, Sorry, but you chose to be a lancer. The man owning the voice replaced the heavy paperweight he'd borrowed from the Alcalde's desk, grabbing a tiny, ornate letter opener he found in its place. Quickly he slipped through the door connecting the jail to the Alcalde's office, the inky blackness enveloping him as he stood patiently in a shadow to let his eyes readjust to the darker cells. Only a streak of moonlight filtered through a slit between the bars in the window, giving off just enough light to put Victoria in relief against the rough wall she leaned on. She was the only prisoner.

Zorro stood still, breathing slowly, allowing himself to look at her a long time before moving toward the door. He rarely let himself become sentimental, but he was having a harder time remaining aloof from this woman with each encounter. She looked cold without a shawl to cover her bare arms and no blanket to drape about her shoulders, but the white moonlight glinted off her angry eyes, and he stepped forward on silent feet. She jerked her head, as if someone had briefly touched her shoulder. He put a finger to his lips to caution the need for silence, and she nodded in quick understanding, her anger forgotten in a brilliant smile.

Stealthily, Zorro attended to the lock with the letter opener and seconds later the door swung open, its hinges screaming noisily into the surrounding quiet. Victoria quickly caught the door with her white hand, easing it open far enough for her slender body to fit through.

Zorro! she whispered, her face radiating the joy she felt at seeing him again. I prayed you would come back, but I've been so worried since you disappeared.

He unclasped his long black cape to settle it around her shoulders. I missed you while I was recovering. As you can see, I'm much better now, though not quite ready for a confrontation with the Alcalde. Come. He moved silently over the unconscious bodies of the two lancers with Victoria following in her small shoes, the cape clutched warmly around her arms. Zorro deftly carved a 'Z' into the heavy wooden door leading to the plaza before he and Victoria were swallowed by the night.

The coyote howled again, but from far away, his cry carried on the cool wind that ruffled Victoria's hair.

When they were safe from spying ears, Zorro spoke first. I'm sorry you had to spend more time in jail on my account.

Victoria squared her shoulders under the satin cape. You know I gladly do anything that will thwart any plan of the Alcalde's.

Zorro smiled gently down at her. Heaven help the Alcalde. He laughed and put his arm comfortably around her shoulders. However, I do want you to be careful.

Victoria huddled further into the cloak. Though I am not as efficient as you, I oppose the oppression of this government in my own way.

Can you tell me what the Alcalde's plan is?

She sighed dispiritedly. All I know is that he refuses to acknowledge the rights of the citizens by using them to lay traps for you. She pointedly looked at his injured shoulder. He has been a very frustrated man.

But to what end, Victoria?

To curry favor with that man...that politician staying in my tavern. The scorn she felt was apparent.

Yes, I've heard a little of Señor Ocultio. Can you tell me anything about him?

Well, Victoria paused. He doesn't do much. He just sits around and watches people. It's very unnerving to turn and find him staring straight at you with his cold eyes. And he never does anything to stop the Alcalde in his tyrannical obsessions. Her voice grew hard. I do not trust him.

Zorro rubbed his chin thoughtfully with a gloved hand. Perhaps it's time I got to know this man a little better. The tail of his mask flapped in the wind and he saw Victoria shiver as the cape's material wrapped around her legs. You're cold. I'll see you home.

Wait, she said, then gestured at the jail where the faint glow of a lantern pierced the night.

The Alcalde's discovered my handiwork, I see. Soon they heard hoofbeats scattering away from the pueblo as lancers vainly searched for the outlaw who stood watching them ride away. It's safe now. He took her hand and led her back the way they had come. If the Alcalde's as smart as he thinks he is, he won't bother you again, at least not while...

Her hand tightened on his. Zorro, wait. She pulled him to a stop in the shadows of the cuartel walls. She could barely see his masked face without the help of the moon. You haven't told me where you've been or who's been taking care of you. Did you see a doctor? Will it hurt your shoulder more to come back now and possibly...

He lifted a hand to stop her questions. Your concern is welcome, Señorita, but I assure you, my shoulder will be fine. He gently touched her cheek. You always think of others, Victoria. You have a very kind heart indeed. He paused as his ears picked up a strange sound from behind him. Wouldn't you agree, Alcalde? Zorro whirled around, placing himself between Victoria and the Alcalde's drawn sword.

The man stepped from the shadows into the revealing light. Zorro did the same. So, you've come back, the Alcalde said, his sword swinging.

Zorro lifted his hands up, palms out. Are you so sure I've been somewhere, Alcalde? His tone was flippant, teasing, and irresistible to the other man.

The Alcalde laughed sardonically. I shot you, Zorro, he gloated. It's the only explanation for your absence. But I knew you'd take one of my baits and come back eventually. The señorita was the perfect mouse for the cat, don't you think? He chuckled malevolently and readied himself to attack.

Zorro smiled pleasantly and drew his sword Cats come in all forms, Alcalde. He saluted and struck quickly, forcing his opponent into the plaza in a few vicious strokes. Soon the two were battling around the water fountain, jumping back and forth with their lunges and parries, the Alcalde panting with the effort, but grinning all the while.

You must be injured, Zorro. It's never taken you this long to defeat me. The Alcalde backpedaled from a clever swing of the Toledo blade, then answered with a strong attack of his own.

Really? Zorro said Actually, I was enjoying an interesting fight, but since you're so anxious to get it over with... He smoothly backed the Alcalde against his office wall, flicked his wrist, and sent the other man's sword spiraling away. I see you're up to your usual appalling skill, Alcalde. He held his sword against DeSoto's throat.

Despite the danger he was in, the Alcalde laughed harshly. Why do you fight, Zorro? What real hopes do you have for a future?

I wish only for justice in this pueblo.

Ah, the Alcalde grunted, no hopes of marriage, a family? Ha! You have your dreams like every other man.

Zorro pressed his sword harder, giving the Alcalde a puzzled look. What's your point?

DeSoto's moonlit teeth glittered behind his wicked smile. You'll never have a normal life! You're an outlaw, Zorro! Even if I don't hang you, once your identity is discovered, you'll be a target for every bounty hunter in California. He lowered his voice menacingly, his eyes two shining slits of steely light. In or out of that mask, you're a dead man.

Zorro cocked his head, and with his sword still in his hand, grabbed the Alcalde's wide collar, hauling him close. We shall see, Alcalde. In the meantime, I suggest you leave the people of Los Angeles alone, or you may be the dead man. He flipped his sword to his left hand, then smashed his right fist into the Alcalde's face. He left his opponent lying on his back across his doorstep, a neat 'Z' carved in the tail of his coat.

Victoria hurried forward to stand over the unconscious man. What did he say to you?

Zorro stood back to watch her, the truth of the Alcalde's words twisting his stomach like a knife. The thoughts he'd had in Santa Barbara came back to him in force, but as he saw Victoria's open, beautiful face, he knew he could not tell her of the fear numbing his emotions-that he would never have a future with her, a normal life filled with love and happiness. He looked away rather than tell her the truth, and said, He made his usual threats. But come, show me where to find the mysterious Señor Ocultio. I have a few questions for him.

Z Z Z

That was the last chance Victoria had to talk to Zorro in private, away from the prying eyes of Los Angeles and its Alcalde. Her masked man was in town often, for the Alcalde was relentless in his increased tyranny, and the jail was full almost every night. Poor farmers became even poorer, and several families had to leave the area when the Alcalde foreclosed on their farms. Like the jail, the tavern was full of homeless people who had no place to go. Victoria worked as hard as Zorro did, tending to sick children and giving away as much food as she could afford, but the Alcalde must have believed Zorro's threats, for he left her and her tavern alone.

Even Don Diego, who had returned suddenly from his trip to the art show in Santa Barbara, was helping Zorro's cause by poring over law books and obscure government and royal documents every day in the tavern. He read ceaselessly, taking breaks only for meals, to say an occasional word to her, or to stop the Alcalde's new edicts from going into effect by explaining how they went against the decrees of King Ferdinand. He was not always successful, but when he was not, Zorro somehow managed to arrive just as he was needed to stop the Alcalde. And the Alcalde could not catch him, no matter how clever he tried to be. Zorro is a fox and will not be caught, Victoria often thought to herself as she watched him ride away accompanied by the cloud of dust and cheers from the gathered crowd. She looked at the people on the streets and in her tavern with sadness, wondering if the fight would ever be over, if Zorro would ever be free.

Only Señor Ocultio remained completely aloof, watching and waiting for something particular to happen. He was always present when Zorro rescued citizens from floorings or unfair-taxation, but he never said anything. She often felt his cold eyes on her when Zorro gallantly kissed her hand before saying 'adios' to the people of Los Angeles. Ocultio spoke rarely, and only to the Alcalde when he did. It was frustrating for Victoria to watch, but there was little else she could do except wonder if Zorro had ever spoken to the gentleman and if so, what he had discovered.

But Zorro never stayed long enough for her to ask him. She always returned to her emptied tavern, Diego's books and papers spread over one table, almost covering his uneaten lunch or dinner plate while he watched Zorro's rescues from somewhere in the plaza. She often puzzled over the fact that he was the last customer to return to the relative coolness of the tavern after Zorro's departures, but she could not think of where he might go or who he could be talking to.

She finally asked him a week after he'd returned from Santa Barbara and become the pueblo's unofficial lawyer.

Diego? Victoria asked as she placed a plate of hot food next to his elbow where she was sure he wouldn't miss it. Where do you go every time Zorro disappears?

He shuffled some papers and looked up, vaguely aware of her presence. The dull throb in his shoulder caused by excessive use of his left arm was distracting him from his thoughts too much to spare any attention even for Victoria. What do you mean? Now where was that passage about citizenship? He had just had it in his hand a moment ago.

She set her tray down and took a seat next to him on the bench. Keeping her voice low under the other customers' noise, she said, Well, after Zorro stops the Alcalde from his floggings or ridiculous tax collecting, you are always the last to return to the tavern.

Diego moved the hair hanging over his forehead out of his eyes before going back to a large book lying open on one corner of the table. His shoulder ached again, yet he used his left arm to move the plate of food to reach the book. His stomach growled. How long had it been since he'd eaten? He couldn't remember, but he ignored the demands from his empty stomach and abandoned his current search to concentrate on finding anything he could on taxing animals in the pueblo. The Alcalde was very ingenious at twisting the words of his edicts until they seemed to follow the royal orders of Spain's monarch. Diego needed to find any possible loopholes before the Alcalde posted his edicts, not after. His head hurt with all the reading he'd been doing, and he grew more tired every day. Yet he knew he couldn't stop now. Zorro and Diego's work was actually holding the Alcalde at bay, though Diego didn't know how much longer he could keep up his double life.

Victoria brought him out of his thoughts when she prodded, Well?

Well what? Diego pushed the book aside and once again tried to remember where he'd seen either the passage on taxing animals or the one concerning citizenship. He couldn't find either of them now. Maybe in Ocultio s papers....

Diego! Victoria said, a smile of amazement on her face. Have you even been listening to me?

Frustrated with her interruptions and his own ignorance of the task he'd chosen for himself, Diego slammed down the papers he was holding, his hand hitting the table with a thud. Then he did something he'd never done before. He turned to her and roared, What is it, Victoria? What do you want?

She blinked in surprise. Her smile immediately vanished and the customers sitting near Diego's work table grew silent. She'd never heard Diego raise his voice to anyone before. She felt unreasonably hurt as she stood up and gathered her tray from the table. I don't want anything, Diego, she said, her throat strangely tight. I can see you're busy. I'll talk to you later.

Diego hung his head, his eyes smarting from overwork as well as seeing the hurt on Victoria's face. What was he doing? Had he really just yelled at Victoria? He drew a deep breath and ran his fingers through his uncombed hair. For some reason he felt like curling up on his bed to cry on his mother's lap as he'd done as a child. He was so tired, so afraid of loosing Victoria as he'd lost his mother... Victoria, wait. He reached out to catch her bare arm with his hand. She turned to look at him, her facial muscles under tight control. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have yelled at you. He gestured at the document-covered table. I just don't quite know what I'm doing here. I'm very frustrated.

A softer expression came to Victoria's eyes. I can see you are also very tired. How many days have you been at this?

Diego gave a low laugh and released her arm. Too many. I'm afraid I'm just not a lawyer. He pushed the papers away to rest his elbows on the table.

Without thinking, Victoria put her freed arm around his shoulders, giving what comfort she could. But you are doing an excellent job, Diego. Didn't you force the Alcalde to rescind that new curfew just yesterday?

Diego groaned. He simply replaced it with some new form of trouble today. I can't keep up with him. He moved his left shoulder uncomfortably under Victoria's hand. It's hard fighting a corrupt official with documents that are so unclear and ambiguous. He sighed.

Victoria patted his back. What you need is a break. Why don't you eat some dinner, and she moved the plate to sit right in front of him, and I'll get you a good, stiff drink to relax you. She rose again from the table.

Diego waved a hand to stop her. No drinks for me. I need a clear head more than I need to relax. Just coffee, please.

When she returned with his coffee, she brought another plate of steaming food to replace the one he'd quickly emptied. He ate as if he hadn't seen food in days. She sat across the table from him to watch him eat. His eyes had dark circles under them and his skin was pale in the afternoon light. In all the time she'd known Diego, he'd never seemed cross or unhappy. She hardly knew what to say to make him feel better now.

At least you're trying to stop the Alcalde, Diego, she said sympathetically.

Perhaps he'd be better off if he stopped trying.

Victoria looked up in surprise and fear at the Alcalde hovering over her. She moved to stand up, but DeSoto lowered a gloved hand to her shoulder, holding her on the bench. His other hand did the same to Diego.

You're lucky I haven't arrested you, de la Vega. You've certainly given me enough cause these last few weeks. But I've rather enjoyed watching you fumble around your law documents all day long, just to see what conventional excuses you come up with to thwart me. You're much more clever than I thought.

Diego let his eyes meet those of his university acquaintance. I'm only trying to keep you from breaking the law, Ignacio. You know, you do allow your temper to take precedence over your common sense at times.

The fingers constricted on Diego's shoulder and DeSoto's eyes narrowed. Be very careful, Señor, he warned, his voice low. Then he shook his head. Fortunately, I'm after a much bigger fish than you, Diego. His narrowed eyes glazed over with fury at the thought of his nemesis, and he unknowingly leaned on Diego, his lingers still digging into Diego's hidden bullet wound.

Diego felt the blood drain from his face and his left arm go numb. He knew he must keep the Alcalde from discovering his wound at all costs,but pain fuzzed across his mind and he couldn't think clearly. A black fog was descending over his eyes as he reached up with his good arm to push weakly at the Alcalde's hand.

You're hurting him! Victoria shoved the Alcalde back a step until she was able to stand up. She then threw her entire weight against him, forcing him to release Diego's shoulder. She would have lost her balance too, but the Alcalde seemed to regain his senses and caught her in time. She glared at him and quickly moved to help Diego, who was leaning heavily against the table, his right hand grasping his shoulder, his breathing labored.

Diego, she said in concern. What's wrong? What happened to your shoulder?

Suddenly Felipe was standing at Diego's other side, a glass of water in his hand.

Diego waved them away, smiling wanly. I'm all right. I'm fine. Thank you, Felipe. He gratefully took the water from his friend and drank it slowly.

When the color returned to Diego's face, the Alcalde came forward. What happened to you?

Diego sheepishly looked at him and smiled thinly. Thinking fast, he pointed in Felipe's direction and said, I was giving Felipe some lessons in swordplay and he caught me off guard. Unfortunately, he had better aim than I thought. Before I knew it there was a nasty gash on my shoulder. He looked up at Felipe reproachfully. Felipe grinned.

The Alcalde laughed. You were teaching swordplay? he asked in disbelief.

Diego nodded. The lessons have been progressing quite nicely... until now.

The Alcalde held his hand up over his mouth and snickered, The blind leading the blind.

Victoria ignored him. Have you seen a doctor for this? The concern in her voice would have thrilled Diego at any other time, but he had to push her probing fingers away from the bandage under his shirt; she was as much a threat to him as the Alcalde.

Diego smiled at Victoria, saying, Yes, the doctor in Santa Barbara said it's fine. Really, Victoria. He held her hand away from his shoulder, guardedly watching her expression. I'll be stronger in a minute.

She looked at him out of shrewd eyes, not even noticing that he still held her hand. It's funny that you should be hurt in your left shoulder...

Well, it's a good thing you saw the doctor in Santa Barbara, interrupted the Alcalde, because Dr. Hernandez isn't going to be able to help anyone anymore.

The gloating tone of his voice made Diego glance up and say, What do you mean by that? He straightened his shirt over the bandage on his shoulder.

The Alcalde's arms spread out wide. It's simple. I arrested the good doctor for treating a sworn enemy of the Spanish crown. Treating such criminals is treason.

Diego's jaw tightened in anger. Forgetting his aching shoulder, he stood and confronted the Alcalde. You can't just arrest the only doctor in this entire section of the territory!

The Alcalde's eyes narrowed again. He jabbed a finger at Diego. I can and I did. You can look in your books all you want, but you'll never find anything that can commute his death sentence.

Victoria gasped. Death sentence!

That's right, DeSoto said slowly, relishing the shock on both their faces. Treason is punishable by death. He hangs tomorrow morning. He turned away from them, satisfaction showing in every movement.

Victoria stopped him. Just who is this outlaw the doctor so unwisely treated?

He turned back, one side of his lip lifted in a sneer. Why, Zorro, of course.

Victoria laughed. Zorro is far from needing a doctor's attention.

The Alcalde snorted softly. Señorita, either you are not paying very close attention to your... 'friend'... or you know more than you're telling. Zorro most definitely needs a doctor, or has needed one. You see, he leaned in closer to stare them down, I've been watching him closely, very, very closely. Zorro has a wounded left arm. Lately he hasn't done much climbing. He never uses his left arm to hold that horse of his, and he always dismounts to fight. He protects his left side as if it was a precious baby. He nodded. I'm convinced he's been wounded somehow, and the only doctor to treat him is Hernandez...

That's ridiculous! Victoria said angrily, though Diego could see the fear in her eyes. He put a calming hand on her arm and she turned to him. Diego, do something!

Holding tightly to his temper, Diego said to the Alcalde, You got a signed confession from the doctor, of course.

Ignacio smugly stroked his beard. I don't need one. All I need are my suspicions. Not even Señor Ocultio's papers can help you this time. He flipped several of the documents over with a swing of his gloved hand. This is, after all, treason. He walked away, laughing softly to himself.

Zorro won't let the doctor hang, Victoria stated simply, confident only in the ability of the man she loved so much.

That's what the Alcalde wants, Diego said, glancing at Felipe, his mind racing through possible solutions to this new problem. Victoria, why don't you go to the jail and see if our doctor needs anything. I'll be along in a minute.

Victoria hesitated. There's nothing you can do, Diego?

Diego's face turned grim. I'll look, but I think I've been outsmarted this time. He smiled reassuringly at her then. Don't worry, Victoria. Everything will be all right. However, his look to Felipe was anything but reassuring. His voice low, he said, It seems the Alcalde has left Zorro little choice but to play his game tomorrow morning. He sighed in resignation before returning to his books, but his hopes of stopping DeSoto without the help of a sword were small.

Z Z Z

Midmorning sunshine splashed warmth across the crowded, dusty plaza as Sergeant Mendoza led the entourage of lancers escorting the aging doctor out of the garrison. Boos and catcalls accompanied the small detachment as the men slowly wound through the onlookers, heading for the gallows set up in the plaza's center. The Alcalde, wearing full military dress, shouted orders to another group of men to move the people well away from the wooden construction, clearing a semicircle for his best lancers to stand. Two guards quickly dragged Dr. Hernandez to the foot of the steps and marched him up, forcing him to face the crowd and the row of blue coated men standing below. Each lancer carried a loaded musket discreetly pointed at the ground. A hush fell on the crowd as the Alcalde ordered the two men on the platform with the doctor to get ready.

Alcalde! You can't do this! The voice of Victoria rose loud in the suddenly quiet plaza. She stepped forward, her cream colored blouse and brown sash a soft contrast to her black hair and angry face.

The Alcalde merely looked at her over his shoulder. Oh, can't I? he asked sarcastically. Just be careful, Señorita, or you'll be next. He laughed and couldn't help but take an anticipatory glance over the rooftops surrounding the plaza, looking for the familiar black cape of the adversary he was sure would come. DeSoto chuckled low again, returning his attention to the lancers still standing ready. Lancers! Ready!

The lancers stood tall, rigidly holding their muskets. One of the blue-coated men placed the noose around the doctor's neck and secured the knot, his face expressionless as he performed his task.

Dr. Hernandez looked calmly at the Alcalde and muttered, You fool, under his breath.

Victoria surged forward, only to be held back by the sergeant and a private waiting for her. Let go of me! she ordered vainly.

The Alcalde laughed again and prepared to give the final order, savoring every moment he could, appearing to wait for exactly the right second.

He appeared to wait too long.

Toronado's earsplitting scream shattered the lancers concentration, and they lowered their weapons in sudden confusion. Pounding hooves flashed past the tavern and the long black tail blew crazily with his speed as a riderless Toronado ran between the lancers and their innocent target on the gallows. He reared, striking out with his hooves, the empty stirrups swinging wildly with the horse's movement. The lancers scattered into the crowd, pressing away from the big black stallion, and the Alcalde backpedaled in fear until a wooden support forced him to stop.

DeSoto ground his teeth in anger. Zorro! he bellowed at the top of his lungs.

Yes, Alcalde, came the mild reply from above.

The Alcalde's head jerked up, but not before Zorro jumped from the edge of the tavern roof, falling to the ground in a blur of his flowing satin cape.

Zorro heard Victoria call his name happily and the crowd murmur among themselves, but he paid them no attention. He drew his sword in midair and disarmed two lancers as he reached the ground, then laid his sword against the Alcalde's throat before the evil man even thought to move. A raised hand and a soft, Settle down, boy, calmed Toronado, who moved off sedately to chomp some flowers hanging in pots from the mission roof.

The Alcalde spoke first. What do you think you're doing? he spluttered, more furious at himself for not anticipating the quickness of Zorro's moves sooner. He had not even had time to draw the saber resting at his hip.

Zorro merely shrugged. I'm waiting, he answered, smiling, pressing his blade harder into the Alcalde's collar.

The Alcalde gulped, but retained some of his former dignity. Waiting for what? he sneered.

Zorro sighed dramatically. For you to kill Dr. Hernandez.

The Alcalde looked at him in surprise. Zorro continued in a strong, steady tone. Because when you do kill him, you'll know how sharp this blade of mine really is. And who will tend to your wounds then, Alcalde? You will have killed the only doctor for forty miles. He smiled menacingly. So please continue. I'm ready when you are.

The Alcalde stared shrewdly at him. Zorro glared back.

Lancers! DeSoto suddenly shouted.

The scattered lancers managed to remember the orders given to them while still in the cuartel, and followed them quickly. Instantly each lancer chose one person in the crowd to train his musket on. The private holding Victoria soon had his gun pointed at her chest, and Don Alejandro and Padre Benitez found themselves in similar situations. Felipe, a mere servant, farmers, peasants, caballeros, and even children were targets now as Zorro stood undecided, his sword unmoved from the Alcalde's throat.

Another laugh started low in the Alcalde's chest. A little insurance - just to make things interesting. Zorro's eyes darted from Dr. Hernandez, still standing on the scaffold, to Victoria, her rebellious eyes showing outrage, to Don Alejandro with his hand angrily pushing the lancer's barrel aside. He paused, indecision now defining his usually arrogant expression. The Alcalde continued, My lancers have orders to kill one person each if I'm harmed. Are you prepared to sacrifice the lives of all these people, just to get me? Another laugh. even you can't save everybody, Zorro.

A long moment passed. Everyone stood waiting, and only a flock of doves flying overhead made any noise.The horror in Zorro's eyes flashed like lightning, then suddenly turned to rage. He seized the Alcalde's vest, his mouth a thin line of hate... and twenty muskets cocked simultaneously, arresting Zorro's blade and fist. The Alcalde grinned and said, So. I have finally captured the mighty Zorro! His laugh rang across the frozen crowd.

Stop!

The voice unexpectedly carried to the two men from the back of the crowd, startling them both. The battle of wills halted long enough for them to look up and search the plaza for the source of the interruption.

A short man, well-dressed and with hair aged well beyond its original black, stood out a little from the crowd. Like the Alcalde's, his coat flashed in the sun with buttons and gold braid, but the military cut was missing. His face was weathered brown and hard, with tiny blue eyes squinting at the morning sun. Zorro knew him as the stranger, Señor Ocultio, who had stopped in Los Angeles more than a month ago.

I have no quarrel with you, Señor, Zorro said shortly, refusing to lower his blade quite yet. Though he had talked to this man privately on the night of Victoria's escape from jail, he still did not completely trust any man connected to the government.

The man bowed his head slightly. Nor I you. But I implore you both to stop this feud. Please, lower your sword and call off the lancers. There's no need for further violence in this pueblo. His voice was kind and a little tired, as if he'd been waiting to say that exact thing for a long time and was glad the opportunity had finally presented itself.

This has nothing to do with you, Zorro tried again, but the man beckoned to the shadows near the mission where Toronado still stood. Two men carrying swords and pistols stepped out. They worked their way around the horse to stand on either side of the Alcalde.

I'm afraid this has much to do with me, Zorro. He pulled a folded paper from his inside coat pocket and said, My name is Don Enrique de Confianza. I am here on the official business of His Majesty, King Ferdinand of Spain.

The King? Surprised, the Alcalde signaled for the lancers to lower their muskets. Zorro then lowered his sword, but the two armed men stepped close, their hands on their undrawn pistols. The unpleasantness in their aggressive stance was obvious, and the Alcalde remained still. Confianza handed the paper he held to Zorro, who quickly read it through before handing it back. His eyes behind the mask were quiet as he sought out Victoria in the crowd. She looked at him in bewilderment, the private's restraining hand still on her arm. Then even the hand dropped away.

Ignacio DeSoto, the man's voice boomed out, surprising in such a small person, you are hereby charged with criminal actions against the subjects of His Majesty, King Ferdinand of Spain, and are removed from your post as Alcalde of the pueblo de Los Angeles, effective immediately. He stopped and settled his eyes on DeSoto. You have used these people as bait to capture the outlaw Zorro, placing them in extreme danger and inciting them to riot with your obsessive behavior.

This is preposterous! DeSoto yelled, glaring at Confianza. Zorro is an outlaw, for Heaven's sakes. Can't you see what I was doing, man? I was...

I saw what you did, Señor DeSoto. You threw innocent people in jail, you illegally created laws so these loyal subjects would break them, you made up nonexistent taxes, and you planned to murder several innocent people. You even foolishly tried to bribe me, a mistake you will pay for, back in Spain.

DeSoto stuttered, I didn't know you were a... but... but I... I didn't intend to actually kill anybody.

Confianza turned away and called to the crowd. Sergeant Mendoza, I believe, is the man I want. The sergeant hurried up.

Si, he said nervously.

I will be remaining in Los Angeles for a time as acting Alcalde, and I will need your assistance. A smile softened his authoritative words.

Mendoza smiled. Oh, si, Señor, I can help you with anything you need.

Good. Your first duty will be to lead Señor DeSoto to the jail, please.

Mendoza looked at Zorro, wondering what he should do. Ignacio's retort, Don't you dare listen to him, Mendoza, confused him more.

Zorro rescued the soldier. Though visibly shaken by the events happening so quickly, he still managed to lean casually on his sword and say, Take a look at the document Don Enrique carries, Sergeant. Remember the water mark found on all the King's official documents?

Mendoza smiled. Of course! The water mark! The folded document was handed over for the sergeant's scrutiny and he soon exclaimed, There it is! You were right, Zorro! He turned to Confianza. I am at your complete disposal, Don Enrique.

Wait just a minute! DeSoto barked.

Confianza exhaled in exasperation and slowly said, Señor, you have abused your privileges as an appointed official while serving His Majesty, the King. You will be returned to Spain, and if I were you, I'd pray the King is in a good mood.

Ignacio pointed at Zorro as the two men pulled him after the sergeant. But that man is an outlaw! Mendoza led the three men to the jail, the ex-Alcalde yelling and struggling the whole way.

Zorro stood still and watched them go while Victoria hurried forward until she was standing protectively between Confianza and the masked man. What about Zorro? she asked, her anger clipping off her words. What will happen to him, now?

Zorro placed a hand on Victoria's shoulder. The Alcalde is right. I am an outlaw. I should be treated as such.

Confianza turned a serious face to the two standing before him. I've been considering my options concerning you since I arrived in this pueblo. As an outlaw, you should be tried. He paused, watching Victoria's face tense, her brows furrowing. But I think your case is a little different from that of a common criminal's.

I fight only for justice and the good people of this pueblo, Zorro said quietly. He realized his life was in the hands of this man, and he was powerless to control any decisions which might be made. His hand gripped Victoria's shoulder tighter.

Just so, Señor Zorro. I can only advise you to leave Los Angeles and never return. I cannot guarantee your protection in the future from men like Ignacio DeSoto. It is in my power to give temporary clemency on occasion. But the King would not award a full pardon.

Zorro let out a breath he was not aware he was holding. Your decision is most lenient. But like you, I cannot guarantee that I will stay away from Los Angeles as long as these people suffer from the tyranny and oppression of Spanish rule. He watched Confianza's face until the man bobbed his head in agreement before turning to Dr. Hernandez, who was gravely descending the scaffold's uneven. steps. I am in your debt, Doctor.

Dr. Hernandez stared calmly at Zorro and, in a voice hushed with emotion, said, Young man, you have done more for the people of this pueblo than I have done in all my years as a doctor. I'm only glad that I was able to repay as much for you now.

Zorro smiled and clasped the doctor's hand. Then he whistled for Toronado. For what could possibly be the last time, the black stallion trotted up to his master and stood waiting patiently beside him. Zorro grabbed the reins, then stopped to look at the pueblo through his mask one more time.

The crowd remained unmoving in the warm morning sunshine. A fly buzzed lazily nearby, the drone ignored as the peasants watched their masked friend. Don Alejandro stepped forward, always the spokesman for many of the town's citizens; he offered his hand, and happily shook Zorro's gloved hand in return. We thank you from our hearts, Zorro. You've done so much for us all.

Zorro's eyes looked at Alejandro and with deep sincerity he said, Don Alejandro, you have often given me the courage to go on. I owe you much as well.

Good luck, my friend. One more shake and Alejandro released the black glove. Zorro saluted him with his sword before returning it to its sheath. Then he turned to Victoria as several people drifted away to stand in clumps, discussing this latest event.

Señorita, he said, his voice sad.

You knew of Señor Confianza, didn't you? she asked him.

Subdued, he slowly nodded his head. Yes, I did, but I had no idea he could stop the Alcalde as he did. He revealed few things about himself during our talk.

He has been a mystery for a long time, she agreed. Then she dropped the subject, her face turning bright as her thoughts moved to more relevant things. She smiled expectantly. Do you remember your promise? Her face glowed with excitement. Now you can remove your mask and...

He interrupted her, his eyes as mournful as his voice when he said, Victoria, I've had a lot of time to think while my shoulder healed.

She smiled patiently. I know. You think I should marry and start a family. Now we can. Her voice rose and she placed her hand on his silken sleeve.

He paused and quietly put his hand over hers. I can never marry, Victoria, he said gently, sadly, and looked in her eyes.

Confusion flitted across her pretty face and she shook her head. But you always said...

I know what I said. It just... He stopped to take a deep breath, calming his racing heart. He hated to do this, to hurt her like this; he would rather take another bullet, but he had no choice. He went on. Victoria, I'm an outlaw. The clemency given to me today is only temporary, lasting long enough for me to get out of Los Angeles. If I were to reveal my true identity, I would be followed by rogues, thieves, possibly even our Alcalde until,someday, someone will kill me. He watched the hurt and anger flow through her eyes, and he softly touched her cheek. Knowledge of my identity can only place those I love in danger. That's no life for either of us.

Victoria blinked. The sun was too bright and it hurt her eyes. A lump in her throat made speaking almost impossible; she looked down at her tiny black shoes in the dirt to keep her composure. This can't be happening, she thought, but as much as she hated it, she could see the logic behind what he said. She smiled weakly and shrugged a shoulder as the first tear escaped her eye. He wiped it away with a gloved finger. When she could speak, it was hardly above a whisper. I'm not afraid of any danger, Zorro. After all this time...

I'm truly sorry, Señorita. He looked down at her unhappy face. Toronado nibbled at the back of his shirt, distracting him enough to look up at the bright blue sky of summer. The plaza blurred momentarily. So very sorry. His voice caught in his throat; he saw more tears flow down her cheeks when he could look at her again. He took a deep breath. You'll not see me again, but I will never forget you. He gave her a quick kiss on the forehead, said, Adios, then vaulted nimbly into the saddle.

Toronado reared excitedly, and Zorro waved his arm at the crowds still standing in the plaza. They cheered loudly, and Confianza saluted him. The dust created by his abrupt departure settled slowly to the ground. Amidst the sudden celebration, only Alejandro noticed Victoria, standing alone and unmoving where Zorro had left her.

Z Z Z

Victoria stood in her kitchen, her mind encased in a fog. What had she come in here to do? Ah, yes, to slice tomatoes for Sergeant Mendoza. He had taken a fancy to tomato slices with his enchiladas lately. The haze in her mind remained, as it had for the past several hours, but the tears had stopped soon after Zorro's unexpected disappearance. Yet her face felt drawn and tight, and her eyes burned constantly. A knot of depression sat like a lead ball in her stomach, which turned severely every time she looked at food. It was hard for her to work, but she simply didn't know what else to do, and the noontime crowd brought out the habit that saved her from complete despair.

It's not possible, her mind kept repeating. It's a bad dream. Just a dream. She laughed hollowly. She had been dreaming of this day for so many long years. She had put her life on hold, not married Juan Ortiz when she'd had the chance, all because there was the hope that someday....

But she'd been a fool and today proved it. Victoria angrily chopped tomatoes on the old scarred block in the center of the kitchen, slicing dangerously close to her fingers, and throwing the waste into a bucket at her feet. He never even asked me what I wanted, she thought. Maybe he never cared. But no, that wasn't possible. Zorro was the noblest man in California; he would not have played a game with her all this time.

Then a thought struck her and she paused in her chopping, the knife still in her hand. Perhaps wherever he was right now, he, too, was unhappy. The thought sobered her anger, but that anger also justified the thought. His unhappiness was his own decision.

Laughter roared from the other room, bringing her thoughts back to the job at hand. She quickly finished slicing the tomato, arranging the slices on a plate, grabbed a pitcher of water with her other hand, and headed back to the dining room. Five minutes later, she returned to slice some bread for the doctor, who certainly had not expected to be alive to eat anything that afternoon. He was celebrating the removal of the Alcalde with a large group of peasants, caballeros, farmers, and whoever else wanted to have a good time. The tavern was full, but Victoria felt so empty.

A sound, a boot scraping on the floor, made her look up, the loaf of bread in her hand. A familiar tall figure stood uneasily in one shadowed corner of her kitchen.

Zorro, she said in surprise. Her heart leapt in her chest, but she forced it to calm down. A vision of the last time he'd stood in her kitchen came unbidden to her mind - he'd been shot and blood had run down his arm to drip on her floor. He'd come to her for help and she'd risked her life because she loved him.

Angrily Victoria pushed the thoughts away, She, dropped the bread on the block and picked up her knife again. I have nothing to say to you, she said. She expertly sliced even pieces from the loaf while her heart beat erratically. She refused to let herself look up at him; she wished he would go away.

The hand that stopped the furious knife was not covered in the customary black glove. The pale, naked hand seemed so out of place that it stopped her heart from beating altogether. She studied the hand in wonderment, looking at its white skin and fine, elegant bones.

Please, Victoria. I need to talk to you. The whisper floated to her ear, gentle yet not insistent.

Victoria slammed the knife down and looked up. Please hurry. I have hungry customers, she said, the anger still strong in her voice, a protection from further pain. He smelled of fresh air and sunshine, and she forced herself to ignore the pleasant aura, to concentrate on her anger.

I don't blame you for being angry, he started, and would have continued, but she interrupted first, lashing at him with a

morning's supply of stored hurt.

Angry? she blazed, clenching her teeth. I am much more than angry. 'Humiliated' is a better word! What was I to think? You vanished two days after the Alcalde shot you. A month goes by and not a word comes to me! I worried that you were dead. Then you suddenly reappeared, and things are back to normal, as if nothing had happened. And now this morning you talk to me as if I mean nothing to you! How could you? And why? I thought this was what we were waiting for.

He spread his hands in a gesture of surrender. Please, listen to me for just a moment. Then I'll be gone. He waited until she crossed her arms, her mouth closed in a thin line of controlled silence. Her eyes told him she was listening. He said, What I did this morning was the hardest thing I've ever done, but it was all I could think of. He watched her facial muscles twitch, and her eyes softened slightly. What I said about being hunted the rest of my life is true, and it's not how I plan to spend my future.

She managed to glare at him and say, Then what do you plan, Zorro? What could you not tell me in the plaza this morning?

He smiled and quietly said, To begin, I don't plan on being called Zorro any longer. He pulled the wide-brimmed hat from his head and tossed it aside. If I ever want to have a normal life with the woman I love, a life free of danger, then it has to appear that Zorro has left here forever. He's disappeared, gone. It was the only plan I could come up with last night, to keep in my mind until the day came when I would no longer be needed in Los Angeles. I wanted to tell you, but I didn't have enough time, he explained gently. I didn't expect my chance to arrive so quickly.

Well, your plan worked perfectly. She picked up the knife and started cutting again, though her anger was gone. His words whirled around in her mind, confusing her concentration so that she could hardly cut the bread.

He freed the knife again, retaining her hand in his and said, It was wrong of me to hurt you. I'm sorry, Victoria. I certainly didn't enjoy it. But I also know that I can never win you away from this... this image of Zorro that you carry if you don't know my real identity. He sighed deeply. You are a very stubborn and loyal woman. Zorro released her hand to touch her face. I owe you this, at least His eyes met hers and, after an agonizing second, he slowly pulled the black mask away, revealing the dark hair lying flat on his high forehead and the blue eyes staring uncovered at her, fear, love, and hope burning bright behind the dark lashes.

Her breath caught Diego, she whispered in taut amazement. The moment stopped, hanging loosely between the tavern owner and the unmasked man.

Mendoza's laugh burst above the noise in the other room, wrenching their eyes apart. Diego glanced nervously at the flimsy curtain hanging between his freedom and certain death. Chairs scraped on the floor and footsteps came dangerously near the kitchen entrance.

Quickly Diego said, Now you understand why I guard my identity so fiercely. I have much to lose were I ever discovered. He took her limp hand and kissed the palm; she was too stunned to either resist or encourage him. I must go. My being here places you in too much danger. He replaced the mask with practiced ease and reached for his hat. Please, Victoria... He paused again, but footsteps pushed him on. Please forgive me. He leaned close to her, touching her temple in a fleeting kiss. I love you, Victoria. Then he jumped in an unmistakably Zorro-like spring to the square window high in the west wall, slipping away as quietly as he'd come.

Victoria stood leaning against the cutting block, dazed. A soft feeling that she'd known everything he'd told her all along eased her heart. The anger and depression from before were gone; instead she suddenly felt light, and she closed her eyes briefly against the tavern noises assailing her from all sides. Diego, she said to herself, and breathed with a sigh of relief.

Z Z Z

Diego turned the page of his book, then looked up at the clock sitting sedately on the library mantel as it chimed the hour. Eight o'clock. He waited until the last chime faded away, then returned to his book. Don Alejandro interrupted him again a few minutes later when he walked through on his way outside.

Diego! I'm surprised you're still inside. I thought you'd be out, watching the sunset.

Diego gestured at his book. I got interested in this new volume of Keats' poetry... I'll be along in awhile.

Alejandro nodded and turned to go, but then hesitated. Diego, he said again. A look of amazement crossed his face. I was very proud of the way you handled the Alcalde these last two weeks. You frustrated him with your knowledge of the law as much as Zorro did with his sword. You were excellent. I can only say again that you should take up the law.

His son smiled graciously. Well, telling the Alcalde he was wrong was one thing. Stopping him was quite another. But my tactics worked pretty well.

Alejandro shook his head, his silvery hair shining in the evening light. I don't think Zorro could have done it without you. Son, you give yourself too little credit. He fondly patted Diego's shoulder. Zorro was lucky to have you on his side.

Surprised at his father's words, Diego could think of nothing to say. Don Alejandro was so rarely proud of his son's more academic accomplishments that Diego had no practice at accepting his compliments. Yet he was more pleased now than when Alejandro had shaken Zorro's gloved hand that morning, thanking him for his services to Los Angeles.

But before he could thank his father, a light knock on the door broke the quiet of the evening. Alejandro answered the knock, calling, Diego, it's Señorita Escalante. What a surprise!

So she had come after all. Diego rose instantly from his chair, the book of poetry falling forgotten to the floor. Victoria. She stood in the entry way, her hair mussed by the wind, still falling elegantly over the shoulders of her cream blouse. Is something wrong?

Her cheeks were red from the brisk ride, and her confused eyes flitted quickly from Alejandro to Diego and back again. No, nothing is wrong, she assured them. But I would like to speak to Diego if I could.

In a concerned voice Alejandro said, Are you sure everything's all right? No problems at the tavern?

Victoria smiled. No, Don Alejandro. I just need to talk. She looked at the floor, then back up, the brave smile again displayed on her flushed face.

Of course. Of course. Alejandro waved them into the library.

The two of you can talk all you want. I'm off to bed.

Diego's eyebrows rose. At eight o'clock, Father?

Alejandro gestured at Victoria with his head, his eyes saying the things his tongue would not. It's been a long day, was all he said aloud. Good night. Then he entered the hall and passed out of sight.

Diego stood back silently to watch Victoria as she wandered around the familiar room. She stopped when she found his new book on the floor. Stooping, she lifted it up and glanced through a few pages. A tired but genuine smile complemented the last rays of sunlight coming through the windows. Poetry. I should have known.

He reached down to help her to her feet. Victoria...

Can we talk outside? She broke in before he could say anything more. I feel as if I need some fresh air.

Diego shrugged. Why not? He absentmindedly rubbed the ache in his shoulder as he led her out the front door and into the dwindling light.

Does your shoulder hurt you very much?

Not so much anymore. I just forget about it until I move too much, then I'm reminded quickly enough, he answered conversationally.

A long silence followed while Victoria breathed deeply several times and Diego watched her emotions chase each other across her face. Neither of them moved. The only sound was the stabled horses settling down for the night. A bird flew across the red disk of the sun, then vanished in the purple hue of the creek bottom. The fading sunlight highlighted red strands in Victoria's black hair. Strong emotions tore through Diego's

heart, urging him to speak; she was so beautiful, so strong and dependable, and he loved her so much.

The sun washed sky turned pink, then bluish purple as the sun sank further down the sky, finally disappearing under the horizon for the night.

Diego blinked.

Victoria breathed. I want you to know that I've been thinking about what you said in the plaza this morning. That Zorro could never marry. Diego's brow darkened. She went on, I had thought of that before - I guess I just hoped that... that he would find a way for us to be together despite the danger. I... I guess I was disappointed.

And later? he hazarded to ask.

She laughed a little. I really should have known before you told me. You always gave me plenty of hints. And you muttered something about hiding your identity from your father at the mission while waiting for Dr. Hernandez to arrive. I was too scared to understand what you meant at the time. She became silent then, watching the encroaching darkness and rubbing her arms through the thin summer blouse as the sunset left a chill in the air.

You're cold, Diego said presently. Wait here. I'll bring you a shawl. He returned quickly from inside, carrying a warm black fringed shawl with heavy gold thread running across the colorful design. Different words cluttered through his mind as he settled the material carefully around her shoulders. She smiled at him gratefully. He managed to smile back, but the corners of his mouth cracked from the tension between them. He'd never felt tense with her before; it was the fear of this very thing happening which had kept him quiet for so long. Diego sighed deeply and turned his back to her, hiding the distress he knew must be showing on his face. His hand pressed tightly to his head didn't help to order his thoughts either, and he suddenly felt very tired.

Finally he couldn't stand it any longer. He had to know what she was thinking.

Disappointed? he asked as mildly as he could.

She didn't answer right away. But she looked at him and the confusion he saw in her eyes made him smile warmly and pat her shoulder, sympathetically.

She said, I don't understand, Diego. Zorro is a man of bravery and action. She shrugged her shoulders gracefully, sending the shawl askew. But you are so... She hesitated, looking at Diego's ruffled shirt.

Diego righted the shawl, pulling it more snugly about her. Suddenly he was happier and his depression lifted a bit. Here he was, finally alone with the woman he'd loved for years, yet he wasn't taking advantage of the situation. He didn't worry about her reaction to it all; he was glad she knew.

Weak? he supplied cheerfully.

She looked severely at him. Diego, you shouldn't be so hard on yourself. She placed a small hand on his arm. She was surprised to feel muscles under his white silk shirt; the arm felt reassuringly familiar. Suddenly her thoughts turned to the way Diego was never around when Zorro made an appearance, how he was such a contrast to the legendary swordsman, why he was so... Yes, weak is a good word.

He startled her by laughing heartily at her admission, and the joy he felt glowed through his bright eyes. Victoria couldn't help but laugh, too, though her emotions were still a jumble inside her.

I planned it very carefully so that nobody would suspect Don Diego as being Zorro. I had to make the idea so ludicrous that it would seem impossible, even for our two despotic alcaldes. He looked at the last pink in the sky, then offered his hand to her. Come, my beautiful señorita, let's walk. It will be a little more convenient for talking.

She shyly took his hand, marveling at the strength she'd never seen in it before. She looked at it so closely that he laughed again. I'm sorry, Diego, she apologized. It's just that I've never looked at your hands before. They're very capable and strong.

He squeezed her hand, then took a chance and lifted it to his lips, brushing it softly with his mustache, his eyes sparkling devilishly in the twilight. There are many things about me you've never noticed.

Victoria laughed nervously, gently pulling her hand away. This whole thing was just too familiar and too strange for her; it seemed unreal at this hour between day and night. But the hurt she saw cross Diego's eyes was very real, though he only turned and led her up a rolling hill, away from the hacienda.

His movements were jerky, he knew, and he tried to relax, but Victoria's reaction to him stung worse than any sword point he'd encountered. He should have expected it, and he readied himself as best he could for more rejection, but the hurt remained just the same.

Victoria could only say, I'm sorry, Diego, I... Her voice trailed off, flat in the fresh evening air. I don't know who you are anymore, she said at last. It's very confusing.

I understand, Victoria. Please believe me when I say that. He gazed down at her, his eyes shadowed by the bushes and stubby trees dotting the de la Vega land.

She looked into that face and really saw the features for perhaps the first time in years. This was a very dear man standing so gravely before her, she realized. She took his hand in both of hers, wrapping her fingers around his palm. She said, Yes, I believe you are the only man who would understand.

Diego looked across the ocean of shadows swelling up before them.

He shook his head, amazed. There is so much I want to tell you, Victoria, that I don't know where to begin.

She answered, Then I will ask you questions so you don't have to begin. She felt the soft dirt and grass beneath her thin-soled slippers, a trampled path made by animals. Night descended suddenly and stars lit the sky and earth just enough to make out the open landscape surrounding the hacienda.

Listen to that night owl, Diego said quietly, pausing. I've heard him for the past three nights.

The hooting echoed lazily over the hill on their right; a horse's whinny accompanied it from the stables behind the house. The two sounds were lonely in the wide open land.

Where do you keep Toronado? she asked suddenly, breaking the natural stillness of the night.

The change of subject caught him off guard, but he told her of the secret entrance in the fireplace and the cave. She listened with arrested interest, not commenting until he finished.

No one has discovered this cavern? she asked in disbelief.

There have been some close calls, he admitted. In fact, you have almost caught me several times. It's amazing how people fail to notice the obvious things they see every day.

Victoria blushed at his allusion, but only asked, Is the other entrance far from the hacienda?

Diego pointed in the general direction to where the outside doorway was located, saying, It's far enough from the hacienda so my father didn't get suspicious of the hideout.

He would never suspect that you were Zorro.

No. I made sure of that. Diego laughed forgivingly. I'm afraid he's not very proud of the sleepy, studious son he thinks he has.

Victoria was quick to protest, But he's very proud of your accomplishments, Diego. The Guardian is a great success. And you learned so much while at the university.

Diego took her hand again and led her into the clearing over the hill. I never graduated from the university, you know. Father wrote of the troubles with the Alcalde and I came home immediately. He turned to her and she could just see his warm, sad smile in the fading light. I met you again not long after my return.

She blushed. I remember. You stared at me like a young schoolboy.

Yes, I'm afraid I wasn't so refined then as I am now, he admitted. Learning to be Zorro wasn't the easiest thing to do. We learned a lot from trial and error.

She paused in their slow walk. We?

Diego nodded. If she was to know his identity, she needed to know everything. Felipe has known from the beginning. He was more help to me than he realizes. I couldn't have done it alone. He chuckled softly. It's truly ironic. He's my best friend though I'm more than ten years his senior. His voice grew serious as he said, He's like a son to me. And he's helped to keep me going when I thought I couldn't stand even to look at that black hat again.

They continued walking, holding hands, the silence between them becoming more comfortable with time.

Finally Victoria asked, Does anybody else know who is Zorro?

Yes, two people, Diego admitted reluctantly. Those memories were always painful for him. He couldn't justify them, even to himself. I've never intentionally killed a man, Victoria. I've threatened to, but... He hung his head and kicked at a rock. I was unmasked by Luis Ramon just before he died.

She stared at him incredulously. At Devil's Fortress? she managed to ask.

Yes. He paused, staring off past the hacienda, not really seeing the shadows of the outbuildings. I do regret his death; I tried to catch him, but I couldn't reach him. I watched him fall all the way from the tower and I couldn't save him. Diego shuddered. He carried my mask with him to the ground.

Victoria wanted to comfort him, but she knew from experience that she couldn't remove the pain from such a memory; her father's revolutionary tendencies had taught her that. She only placed a sympathetic hand on his arm and said, He was a foolish, evil man.

Diego breathed in, pushing the memory from his mind. Our second alcalde was also very foolish.

Victoria agreed. Yes, he did seem bent on your capture. Then she added, But no one can ever truly capture Zorro.

Hmpf, Diego snorted at her words. You captured him easily enough.

Victoria smiled as the wind tossed her hair around her eyes. She asked, Who is the other man you spoke of?

Diego's face took on a reverent expression as he said, My fencing master from the university, Sir Edmund Kendall. He knew my style of swordplay too well for me to hide it from him. He ran an aggravated hand through his hair. I can't get over the idea that I could have done more for him, for the Alcalde... I don't know.

Victoria's quiet, I'm sorry, Diego, rose to his ear on the soft breeze.

Diego shook himself and began their walk back down the hill. Perhaps now you can understand why I've always been reluctant to tell you my secret; the two previous recipients have died.

Well, I do not plan on dying after all that has happened, Victoria said with spirit and the confidence of the faithful.

Diego smiled and tilted his head. Hopefully your confidence is well-placed and Zorro does not have to make any more appearances. Are you sad to hear that?

Victoria looked up, trying to gauge his intentions by asking such a question; she was sure he was drawing her out. She watched the breeze play with his hair and billowy shirt sleeves. He wore the familiar blue pants that she'd seen him wear to town a hundred times, and instead of answering his question, she commented, I never actually realized it before, but you are a very handsome man. A smile softened her analytical eye.

He gestured at the dark sky and the moon just now rising in a half arc. It's the moonlight, he joked, walking slowly, his heart easing from the renewed pain of his memories. You know, Victoria, it's interesting how people can treat a man so differently depending on what he's wearing. The irony rang very clear in his voice. The respect I never received while wearing these blue trousers was always readily given when I put on a black hat and a cape. It's as ridiculous as me saying you are unworthy to walk with me because your hair has a few strands of red mixed in with the black.

Victoria's forehead wrinkled minutely. It does? she asked, surprised, her free hand rising to her hair.

Diego nodded. When the sunlight touches it at just the right angle, as it did this evening, it shines as red as the sea at sunset. He wanted to reach out and run his hand through those thick, wavy black strands now, but he restrained himself as he had done for so long, still unsure, a little shy in this new role he played with her.

Victoria could almost feel him holding back, and she wished he wouldn't, because it would make her decision easier. But that would be unfair to Diego. After all, he'd waited for her as long as she'd waited for him. She considered the many times they'd been together and she'd treated him as less a man than his secret counterpart. If she'd known who he was, how hard would it have been for her to keep control of her emotions as Diego was doing now? She beheld him under the kindness of the moon, and just for a moment, their eyes met, catching as they had done that morning in the tavern. Even in moonlight, she felt the electricity in his gaze. She could never doubt his identity after looking into his eyes, those blue eyes full of everything she'd ever wanted out of life.

She shook her head. But I treated you so badly, Diego. How could you...

She stopped, her brows furrowed enough to almost meet above the bridge of her nose. He thoughtfully straightened a fold in the shawl's material laying around her smooth neck. When he spoke, his voice was hushed and peaceful. I was as much in love with you as you were with Zorro. He sighed. Zorro did not always treat you with unending kindness either. He put a finger up to stop the protest already on her tongue. He was charming, dashing, and I certainly enjoyed being him where you were concerned. He rested his arm on her shoulders as they walked. But you have to understand that I played the studious role much more for you than for anybody else. You see, you saw me the most as both Diego and Zorro, so I had to make the connection between the two even more unbelievable than it already was. You were the biggest danger I had to face.

Me?

He nodded, keeping quiet to listen for the owl, its lonely hooting blending with the sighing of the trees near the creek.

By now they had retraced their steps to the darkened hacienda and he led her around to the walled-in garden. He released the narrow gate in the wall and let her pass through, shutting it behind him. Diego sat down on one of the two wooden chairs and Victoria seated herself in the other, the small round table between them. Short green bushes covered the walls near the chairs, making a tiny alcove in the sea of leaves. He stretched his long legs out before him and leaned his head back, staring up at the stars. His head ached a bit and he felt feverish from all the emotions and memories he'd worked through in the past hour. He lightly rubbed his forehead with his fingers. My head aches, he said with a slow smile, and he glanced at Victoria. It seems the mighty Zorro isn't so mighty after all.

At his joke, Victoria rose again to wander the tiny enclosed space. Roses clung to the walls in vines and she fingered the delicate petals. This garden was the very spot she'd first kissed Zorro - Diego, she corrected herself. She sighed in confusion. What should she do? She didn't want to hurt her friend, but did she love him as she loved Zorro?

Quietly Diego asked, Victoria, why did you promise to marry Juan?

Her thoughts paused for a second in their mad whirlwind. We were childhood sweethearts, she finally said before sinking down on the chair again, snuggling more securely into her shawl. He said he loved me. He offered me a more secure life. She sighed unhappily. And it seemed as if your fight for justice would go on forever. She stopped, thinking of those two turbulent, unhappy days when she'd almost married Lieutenant Ortiz. Her voice, when she spoke again, was almost too low for Diego to hear. The padre said Zorro is like a priest - he doesn't have time to be a good husband. Diego gave a short laugh. I felt that waiting was so hopeless. But I found that to wait helplessly was better than to have nothing to wait for at all.

Diego gave a long, melancholy sigh. I sometimes think you should have married when you had the chance. You deserve an easier life than the tavern gives you.

I want the life I have now, she said quietly, stubbornly.

The conversation drifted to a stop again. The leaves rustled and the stars twinkled in the heavy darkness. They sat still, neither moving or reaching to touch the other. The silence wore on. Diego was thinking, still wondering about one point tugging at his mind. He knew he would always have doubts if he didn't ask her. He took a deep breath to steady his nervously beating heart and said, Victoria, you never told me if you're disappointed by your discovery.

She hesitated, turning her head ever so slightly to see him better, looking out of the corners of her dark eyes. No, she shook her head, adjusting the shawl wrapped around her arms. A little surprised, she drew her eyes down, still indecisive, then plunged on, and very relieved.

Relieved? Her unexpected answer stunned his doubts away. He leaned forward, his arm lying across the table, his hair falling on his forehead with the movement. That's not quite what I thought you...

What you thought? she repeated, gently chastising. That's the problem with you, Diego. You're so busy thinking, you're blind to half of what goes on around you.

He thought on her words for a minute before shaking his head, I don't follow you, Victoria.

Her eyes widened and her forehead puckered as she pointed out, Did it never occur to you, Diego, that I was worried about what might happen when I discovered Zorro's identity? What if I didn't like him at all when he removed his mask? Zorro could easily have been someone from another pueblo, far away. If I were to marry such a man, I would have to leave my friends, my tavern; so many things would change.

Diego asked, Wouldn't your love have been enough? His voice was kind and gentle, not reproachful.

Victoria smiled reflectively at him, explaining, I have learned much about myself in the past month. I no longer have those romantic schoolgirl ideas anymore. I never knew if love would be enough for me if I lost all my friends... She stopped herself, calming her worried mind. Finally she said, I hardly know what to think. Her voice was quiet but still intense. She looked at her hands, her head bent to throw her face in shadow. It's as if you are two different men and I don't know either one of them very well. Her breath caught in her chest and she had to struggle to keep her voice steady. I know I love Zorro more than anything, but I'm so confused. I never considered that Zorro could be a caballero. I like you, Diego, but...

She was stopped by a sudden flurry of action. Diego slipped off the chair to kneel before her, placing his strong hands over her warm, slender fingers. She was compelled to look at him. Her heart shook when she saw that only his startling blue eyes were visible in his shadowed face. Tears formed under her eyelids, but she forced them back with a ragged breath.

Listen to me, Victoria, he began. I know you must be confused. I'm just as confused as you are. I was... I was not sure that revealing Zorro's identity was the best thing to do. Neither was I prepared to tell you quite so soon.

But you mustn't look at me as two separate men, he went on. The Diego you know is an act to keep away suspicion. The man you know as Zorro is certainly more heroic than a typical caballero, but he is a part of me, as is the studious nature of Diego. Meld the two together and you have the real me, a composite of the best of both. All I ask is that you give me a chance, Victoria. A gust of wind swept over the wall, and Diego shivered. And no matter which part I was playing at any given time, I always loved you, Victoria. I still love you. He heard a sob escape her lips and he placed his hand along her cheek, letting her tears run under his palm. If I lost you, my life would become pointless. She locked her hand over his on her cheek and pulled it down to kiss the palm. Her eyes never left his. Justice for all people is an important, noble cause. Without love, it is an empty obsession. I will not sacrifice my love for an obsession. I will not hold it back any longer. Please, Victoria... His own emotions caught his words, stopping them in his tight throat. All he could do was look at her out of eyes filled with the love and pain he felt burning within. Victoria reached out impulsively, her free hand straying from his high forehead along his cheekbones. She shrugged, smiled a little, a tear dripping off her nose. Then don't hold back, she said.

His mind froze. He had feared this moment for so long that he could not accept it when it finally arrived. It was Victoria who leaned forward to place her arms around him and draw him to his feet. Tears continued to run from her eyes, but her cheek pressed into the ruffles of his open shirt and she breathed in the familiar scent of him. She whispered his name in amazement, sinking tighter against him, unable to explain all the mixed sensations she was feeling. Then Diego's shaking fingers were gently moving wet strands of her dark hair out of her face, and he bent down to kiss her lips hesitantly. One hand curled under her hair to caress her cheek, and he wrapped his other arm tightly around her small frame. He stopped thinking and let his

emotions run wild for the first time in his life.

He felt her arms circle his neck and their kiss deepened. He touched her back, her hair, his arms shaking with the release of his long repressed emotions. Victoria, he murmured against her neck, the thudding of his heart covering any reply she might have made. His lips touched the soft skin along her shoulders, and he thrilled in the scent of her hair so close to his face. The breeze played with his shirt sleeves as her long skirt wrapped around his legs. Her fingers moved to his chest, along the curve of his neck to thread into his short hair. His eyes closed out the moonlight drifting over them, and he was aware only of the woman he held in his arms. He had her and he could not stop loving her.

Victoria slowly kissed his eyes, his chin, his cheeks, the day's growth of beard scratching her lips. His skin was hot, and she could feel his hands on her back, heavy and safe. She calmly looked up at him, the night not quite hiding the serious, intense look on his face and in his eyes. The open, trusting expression she was used to seeing in him was gone. Now unmistakable passion burned down on her. Doubts and hesitations pushed at her mind, but she ignored them, following instead the pull of her heart and desire, losing herself again as her lips found his throat, traveling a slow path across his arched neck to his lips. She kissed him lovingly, her body close to his. The black shawl fell from her shoulders to lie in a bundle on the ground. Victoria noticed the pile of cloth much later, and laughed at a memory the black puddle brought to mind.

Diego fought to regain control of his emotions, and slowly he calmed his wildly beating heart. What are you laughing at? he finally asked as he rested his chin against her head, one hand playing with her curling black hair.

I was thinking of the matchmaker, Doña Maria. She said you don't have a romantic bone in your body.

Diego laughed too as his heart calmed. I remember. Well, you had better not tell her otherwise; she might try to marry me off to some rich condesa. Suddenly Victoria glanced at him. Concern covered her dimly lit features, and Diego's happy smile vanished. What is it?

What are we going to do? she asked abruptly. I can't just begin to notice you all of a sudden, and I don't want to ignore you either.

Diego shook his head. There's nothing subtle about you, is there, Victoria? he said with admiration. But that is a dilemma. I suggest we go on as before, at first anyway. Nothing should change or somebody might notice the difference. That would place both of us in danger. He leaned back to look at her, his breathing harsh in the serene courtyard. He held her tear-streaked face gently in his hands, and he contradicted himself, But I don't want to go on as before. I want a wife, a family. I want to know that you will be with me, always... we've waited so long...

Diego, Victoria took hold of his hands and held them to her lips, stopping his struggle for words. A long silence followed, broken when she shyly smiled and said, Are you asking what I think you're asking?

He nodded and smiled back in amazement, the movement barely visible in the shadowy garden. Will you marry me?

A tiny laugh broke from her throat. I would be a fool not to say yes. She had to catch her breath, her heart pounding as hard as Diego's.

Well?

She smiled and nodded happily. Then, yes, Diego, I will. She giggled like a young girl and threw her arms around his neck, her laughter growing. I can't believe this! she exclaimed. I've been waiting for this days for years, and now that it's here, I don't know what to say.

He laughed as well and impulsively swung her around; a pain in his shoulder forced him to set her down. He only laughed again and said, Well, then, tell me all about yourself. What did you do while I was at the university? Have you heard from your brothers? What did you have for lunch yesterday? Victoria smiled and he swung her around again, this time ignoring his shoulder, his heels grinding softly on the stone walkway spread before the table. I want to know everything about you; what you think, what you feel. He set her down and kissed her.

When they both calmed a little, Victoria began talking softly. Diego sat, holding her on his lap, and listened, commenting occasionally, holding tightly to her hand. Before they knew it they were both half frozen from sitting still for so long with the chill of night stealing around them. They moved to the library, where Diego built a fire that crackled in the silent hacienda. He pulled two chairs close to the warming flames and they settled down gratefully on the cushioned seats. Their talk centered around the possible honesty of the temporary Alcalde, and what Diego would do if Zorro were ever needed again. They talked about babies and children, Sergeant Mendoza's military career, Felipe's orphan state, taxation, America, and when the topics grew thin, Diego read to her from his new book of poetry. The sun was slipping over the horizon, showing itself a piece at a time, when Diego stopped his quiet recitation and looked up to notice that Victoria was asleep, her head resting lightly on the high cushioned back of the chair.

He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and gazed at her. She looked different in sleep, younger somehow, more peaceful without the demands of the tavern weighing her down. The night animals were quiet this close to sunrise, and he could hear her even breathing clearly in the silence of dawn. It was a wonderful thing to watch her, and as he sat quietly in his chair, he became aware of something he had not noticed earlier in the night. For the first time in his life, he felt complete; nothing lacked to bring him happiness. He felt that life was perfect. He knew, of course, that things would not always be so untroubled; he was sure that Victoria and he would fight, or things might not work out so smoothly in a year. But for now, he wanted nothing more than his home, the presence of his father, his friends, and the love of this one woman. He reached out to touch her forehead where her hair swept back in a wave, smoothing his fingers across her soft skin.

How can I be so very lucky? he asked quietly. Only he would every truly know how much her acceptance of him meant.

Diego closed his book and leaned back in his chair to watch the dawn creep over the hacienda as Victoria slept, curled under the warm shawl he'd given her. The fire burned low, only the embers left glowing in a bed of ashes, and Diego fell asleep just as the first bird broke into its cheerful morning song.

Z Z Z

The morning was far advanced when Diego woke. The hacienda was quiet, but he could hear his father's voice from somewhere outside giving instructions to one of the servants. Diego stifled a yawn, then noticed that Victoria was gone and Felipe now sat in the chair across from him. The boy's young face was split into a wide grin and Diego had to think fast to catch the gestures Felipe made with his arms and hands. Then the boy batted his eyes and wrapped his arms around his shoulders, and Diego couldn't help but understand him.

He rose quickly, stretching his protesting muscles, and Felipe rose with him. The teenager smiled at his friend's obvious discomfort. Diego glared at Felipe, who only stared calmly back and blinked, then made his sign representing Victoria and batted his eyes again. Diego groaned and fell back into his cushioned chair.

You saw us in the courtyard, didn't you? he asked reluctantly. Felipe nodded, still hugging himself, and Diego slapped him playfully on the shoulder. All right, Felipe. Someday you won't think it's so funny. He paused while the mute gestured some more. Diego sighed Yes. Victoria knows that I am Zorro. It was Felipe's turn to glare at Diego. Well, you saw what happened yesterday in the plaza. It was all I could think of to do, he said in answer to the look on his friend's face. What was I supposed to do? And Señorita Escalante is a very persistent woman... I didn't want her to be hurt or unhappy any longer than she had to be.

Felipe's smile at Diego's story faded as another thought crossed his mind. He gestured, then pointed to his left hand Diego chuckled and put a reassuring hand on Felipe's arm. Yes, I did ask her to marry me, but nothing will change until the memory of Zorro fades from the pueblo. You're kind to worry though, Felipe.

But the worried look did not leave Felipe's face, and his next gestures were agitated and so fast that Diego had to ask him to slow down or start over. Felipe's sudden unhappiness increased with the repetition.

Will I want you to leave after the marriage ceremony? Diego interpreted, a look of horror on his face. Of course not, Felipe! You're part of our family. Whatever gave you that idea? Felipe gestured some more. No, you'll never be in the way here. This is your home, Felipe. Diego stood up to place his hand on the boy's shoulders. I would never want to lose my best friend.

Felipe smiled sheepishly and hung his head, nodding that he felt better. Diego grinned. That's better.

The conversation was stopped by the entrance of Don Alejandro through the front door. He pulled off his work gloves, then spotted the two in the library. There you are, Diego. You're finally up, I see. Over half the morning's gone. Victoria got that start on you hours ago.

Diego's eyes widened in surprise. Victoria's gone back to town already?

Alejandro snorted. Already? It's almost noon! She had work to do at the tavern. But it's a good thing you talked to her last night. She was so pale when she arrived here. He gestured toward his face, and she was... I don't know... different somehow when she left this morning.

Different? Diego raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms. Alejandro smiled. You should have seen her, Diego. She was radiant.

Diego glanced sideways at Felipe. Well, that is good news. It must have been the sleep she got last night. It's so much quieter out here than in town.

Alejandro waved his gloves at his son. At least you had the sense to show her to the guest room for the night. But you, you stay up all night reading poetry.

Diego decided it would be best not to tell his father exactly how he and Victoria had spent the night, so, feigning hurt feelings, he only said, Victoria liked the poetry. She was much more relaxed after I read some to her.

Alejandro nodded. Well, whatever you said to her worked wonders. He turned to leave, then reconsidered, looking at his son. You know, Diego, with Zorro gone from this area, maybe you and Victoria could...

Diego shot his father a glance and said, Oh, Father, please, while Felipe tried his best to cover the grin threatening to erupt on his face.

Alejandro motioned Diego to silence with his gloves. No, Diego, I'm serious. Zorro as much as said she's a free woman... now, I know it will take time for her to get over him, but you and she have been friends for years. In a few months, perhaps. He stopped, exasperated at Diego's arched eyebrows. All I can say is that I would like to be a grandfather before I'm too old to appreciate children, and Victoria is as eligible as you are...

Diego clapped his left hand on his father's back, grimacing at the twinge of pain that shot down his arm. I'll think about it, Father, was all he would say. Felipe finally finally had to let the grin spread over his face. Now, how about coming with me to the tavern for some lunch. I'm starving. We'll pay our respects to the temporary Alcalde.., and yes, Father, I'll talk with Victoria.

Alejandro smiled in satisfaction and followed the two out the front door, happy that his son was for once taking an

interest in something besides his books.

Epilogue

One Year Later

Diego took another drink of orange juice from his glass and carefully watched Victoria out of the corner of his eye. She set her tray onto the bar with a thump and began to pile it full of dirty dishes, glasses, and eating utensils. Don Carlos followed her to a recently vacated table where she did her best to ignore his incessant talking and go on with her work. Carlos, a caballero only in the strictest sense of the word, waited while Victoria escaped to her kitchen long enough to unload her tray and fill it with plates of her delicate tamales and bowls of stew. He accosted her immediately after she walked through the curtain, following at her heels and still talking as she served several amused customers. Diego laughed softly at the angry flush on her face.

It seems Don Carlos has a new interest in your fiancée, Don Diego.

Diego turned to find Ricardo de Cristo, the new Alcalde of Los Angeles, seating himself across the table. Oh, Carlos is an old suitor of Victoria's from a few years ago. He's fairly harmless.

Don Carlos, if you do not let me work, this stew will be in your lap! Victoria's voice carried over to the two men and every ear turned to see the tavern owner smile sweetly at Carlos before charging back to the relative safety of the kitchen.

Ricardo laughed and poured himself a glass of water from the brown glazed pitcher on the table. Señorita Escalante has quite a temper. I do not envy you, Señor, if the time ever comes when you have to cross her.

Diego shrugged, saying, We'll see, before changing the subject I received a letter today from Enrique de Confianza. He told me about Ignacio DeSoto's trial.

Ah, yes, found guilty of fraud and embezzlement. The last I heard, he was going to jail. What does Don Enrique say about it?

Diego said, Apparently there was some kind of misunderstanding, and his family managed to buy his freedom. Who knows what he'll do next? Enrique said he might come back to California.

To hunt for Zorro. The Alcalde motioned to a waitress and ordered a meal and a drink. I need something heavier than water if I have to deal with Ignacio DeSoto. That man lives on his obsession.

Well, Zorro hasn't been seen since the day Ignacio was taken into custody. There's no need for him any longer, which is a blessing to us even if not to our former Alcalde.

Laughter caused Diego to look up again, and he watched Victoria skirt around Don Carlos, her face no longer wearing the sweet smile from before. She glared angrily at the annoying caballero, then shot an equally angry look in Diego's direction. He winked at her conspiratorially, and she drew back, her features softening considerably as her lips curved up in a little smile.

A year ago Diego would not have dared to even look at Victoria for fear of letting his feelings show to anybody happening to watch him. But as the weeks passed and Zorro remained absent, the citizens of Los Angeles began forgetting to talk about him and turned to other events of interest. Confianza set up office as acting Alcalde for six months, long enough for a replacement to arrive from Spain. In the meantime, he sent his two men, who were actually officers in the King's army, on the long voyage back to the homeland with the prisoner DeSoto for his trial. The pueblo's financial situation was a mess and he spent the rest of his stay in Los Angeles trying to unwind the trail of mistakes made by his predecessors. But whenever he grew too aggressive or self-important, Don Alejandro inevitably set him back on the right path.

Fortunately, Diego had things other than pueblo politics to hold his interest. With his secret life ended, he could spend more time on his other hobbies. He'd started by spending his evenings sitting at one of Victoria's outside tables, reading, talking, or just watching the town life go by. He was very careful not to spend too much time with Victoria at first, and she did her best to look unhappy as a jilted woman should.

However, not a day went by that he didn't sneak into her kitchen, wrap his arms around her slender body, and steal a kiss.

With the passing weeks, he began to be more forward and open around her, and Victoria found herself often riding to the hacienda in the afternoons. Alejandro was a most trusting chaperon and left them alone much of the time, sometimes being ridiculously encouraging to both his son and the newfound interest he believed Diego had discovered. So they took long walks in the open California countryside and ate berries in the sitting room when it rained and read Shakespeare or played chess. It didn't matter much what they did, just so long as Los Angeles believed that Victoria was forgetting Zorro ever existed.

She helped these conclusions along as much as she could, and one day while talking to Sergeant Mendoza in the tavern, said, Once I got to know Zorro, he wasn't so dashing or charming after all. Mendoza had replied that Zorro was not the kind of man to offer a woman the security she needed anyway, and Victoria had nodded thoughtfully in agreement. Not long after that, Diego started courting Victoria in earnest for all the happy eyes of Los Angeles to see. And Victoria found that the studious Don Diego could be much more romantic than he'd ever led anybody to believe. He arranged private picnics for the two of them, spirited her away for quiet, moonlit walks, brought her flowers, and left poetry for her on her pillow at night. Only Victoria knew that Zorro was not completely gone from Los Angeles.

Felipe still remained Diego's constant companion, and Diego never forgot his friend's earlier fears of becoming unwanted. Felipe continued to care for Toronado and helped Diego exercise him at night, and there were always experiments to assist in. He watched in genuine amusement while Victoria gave Diego cooking lessons. Both Victoria and Felipe had laughed at the idea of Diego in a kitchen, but he had insisted, saying he wanted to learn about every part of Victoria's life. Since she spent so much time cooking for the tavern's customers, he decided cooking lessons were a perfect way to spend time with Victoria without exciting too much gossip. He had limited success.

Diego chuckled aloud at the memory of his first attempt at baking bread.

The Alcalde glanced up from his meal to ask, What's so amusing?

I was merely thinking about my cooking lessons.

Ricardo took a long drink from his glass. It takes a brave man to enter a woman's kitchen. You're a man of many talents, Don Diego.

Diego grimaced. Well, cooking's not one of them. Victoria threw my first disaster to the birds just last week.

Ricardo laughed heartily, shaking his brown hair in anticipation. I can't wait to see how you two will be getting along a year from now. You'll be fighting over who gets to make dinner!

Diego smiled. You seem to have a rather cynical, experienced, view of marriage.

The Alcalde grunted. Yes, two experiences. I hope you fare better than I did. Your señorita seems to be very strong-willed and independent, so I wish you luck.

Diego's eyes widened in surprise. Thank you, but I don't think we'll need luck.

Ricardo waved a piece of bread at him. That's what I thought when it happened to me, and nodded his head.

You make it sound like a disease!

Don't let her fool you; that's what it is. Diego laughed at Ricardo's certainty. And I bet she put up quite a fuss about giving up this tavern.

Diego's answer surprised Ricardo. Oh, but Victoria's keeping the tavern. It's what makes her happy, and I would certainly never stand in the way of anyone's happiness.

You're letting her keep a business? the Alcalde exclaimed. That's preposterous! However will you control her later if you don't make her act like a wife now, at the beginning?

Diego's typically friendly smile froze on his face, and a biting retort lay on his tongue, when he felt Padre Benitez's restraining hand descend on his brown-coated shoulder.

That is why your own marriages failed, my son, said the padre, his brown eyes looking kindly at the new Alcalde. Where there is love, there is a miracle. God has given us that gift. But where there is power and control... well, here you are, my son, eating a meal in a tavern, surrounded by men. Diego's anger vanished, and he laughed at the look of consternation on Ricardo's face. Then Padre Benitez turned to him, saying, Victoria has many special gifts, Diego, much love for a family and husband. You love her a great deal. Always treat her with love and respect, and she will work miracles every day.

Diego smiled widely and shook the priest's hand. I will, Padre. You can depend on that.

The padre called Maria over then and ordered his own lunch just as men and women standing outside were forced inside by the dust from the departing noon coach. It seems I beat the noon rush, he laughed, then said, Diego, I need to speak to both you and Victoria about a few things concerning the ceremony. I'm free after lunch if you have the time. He seated himself on a bench next to Ricardo and poured out a glass of water, the strongest drink he would condone at the tavern.

Diego nodded and rose to intercept Victoria as she came from the kitchen, only a few steps in front of Carlos. He stayed between the caballero and the señorita until the other man drifted away, beaten for the moment.

That was very smooth, Victoria said, breathlessly surprised out of another encounter with Don Carlos. Thank you for finally rescuing me.

Well, it's not the first time I've rescued you. I thought I might keep up the practice. He winked wickedly at her just to watch her blush. I can't keep sharing you with all the men in Los Angeles, he mocked.

What was the problem with our new Alcalde earlier? I saw that you were angry, she said, ignoring his previous jab.

Diego brushed it off. Oh, he just had some unfriendly advice on how I should handle my future wife. The padre set him straight before my own temper got the best of me. Victoria nodded understandingly, but moved away for a moment to take care of a customer. When she returned, he said, I got a letter from Confianza today. Ignacio DeSoto was freed some time ago. It appears he's returning to California.

But he hated California, Victoria commented while she arranged clean glasses on the counter top.

The chance for victory over Zorro must be more appealing than his love for Madrid, he said.

Victoria looked at him purposefully, pausing for just a second in her work. What will Zorro do if he comes here?

Diego looked up at the ceiling nonchalantly. Probably nothing. Ignacio can hunt in the hills of Southern California for years and never see what's directly under his nose. Victoria smiled reproachfully at him. Speaking of letters, have you heard from your brothers?

Victoria's brows furrowed. Ramon, of course, sent a letter from Venezuela saying he will come back to Los Angeles for the wedding. But it's been almost three months since I sent word to Francisco in Mexico City. I'm beginning to worry that he won't arrive in time for the wedding. I want him to be here so badly; they are the only family I have left.

Diego placed a reassuring hand on her fingers. I have a great regard for Francisco. He has a few days left. If he can come, he will. Then, with a mischievous light in his eye, he raised her hand to his lips, saying, However, I have an even greater regard for his sister.

Diego de la Vega! she admonished, looking quickly around to see if anybody was watching, but then smiled at him as wickedly as he had and kissed his own hand briefly. They both laughed.

They were interrupted as Sergeant Mendoza rushed into the tavern and quickly crossed to them. Is it safe in here? Is she here?

Is who here, Sergeant? Victoria continued to hold Diego's hand.

When Mendoza realized they were alone, he breathed a sigh of relief, then suddenly noticed their clasped hands. I'm terribly sorry. Am I interrupting something?

Victoria smiled and leaned happily onto her counter. Not at all, Mendoza. Would you like something to eat? It will help calm you down.

The sergeant smiled broadly. Some of your hot tamales would nice, Señorita, and a glass of your fresh lemonade. He beamed his appreciation as Victoria released Diego's hand to fill Mendoza's order.

Mendoza clapped Diego on the arm, still grinning. Only two more days left of freedom, eh, Don Diego? He guffawed loudly.

Diego cocked his head thoughtfully. Only two days until I begin the rest of my life, he corrected.

Mendoza smiled and patted his upset stomach. Someday I will be as happy as you, Don Diego.

Yes, as soon as you get something to eat.

The sergeant nodded Si, I have to keep up my strength. Who knows when I will meet the right woman?

Diego smiled encouragingly. That's a healthy attitude, Sergeant. Before you know it you'll... He suddenly stopped as a chillingly familiar sound rang over the noise inside and outside the tavern. ...laugh? he finished his sentence.

Oh, what I delightful little inn! trilled a feminine voice over the noise of the other customers. Can somebody please tell me if Diego de la Vega is present? The woman's smile flashed seductively at the caballeros gathered around tables for their noon meals.

Madre de Dios! Mendoza tried to shrink into the bar. She's here!

Ricardo de Cristo rose and pointed an accusing finger at Diego. He's right over there, Señorita. Looking as if he was enjoying himself tremendously, he went on, I knew there was more to you than met the eye, Don Diego. How many more women do you have hidden in the back rooms, eh? He grinned mischievously.

Diego had no choice but to turn from the sergeant and great the woman bearing quickly down on him. His hands extended to take the gloved fingers of the new arrival. Señorita Inez! What on earth are you doing in Los Angeles?

Inez smiled coyly. Why, looking for you, of course.

Diego drew back a little, his guard up. Really?

She batted her lashes, then took a quick, calculating look around the tavern, taking in the lunch crowd of country gentlemen, farmers, and military personnel. Why, it's exactly as you described it, Don Diego. She squeezed the hand that still held her glove. I already feel as if I know my way around.

Diego smiled, but he had to pull his hand away in order to release hers. She instantly took his arm. You didn't say why you left home, Señorita, he said, uncomfortably aware of the spectacle he was being forced to create.

Her laugh shrilled across the room. To see your charming pueblo. It's the perfect place for people like us to settle down, don't you think, Señor? And I thought that a year or so was long enough to wait, so I told Father I was taking a little trip just to see you... why, Diego, whatever is that matter?

Diego's face had frozen into a mask of pleasant uneasiness. Why did you want to see me? he croaked, trying his best to remove her hand from his arm.

Inez looked puzzled. What do I always do? she asked rhetorically. I'm looking for a good man to be my husband. Aren't you over that girl you told me about by now?

Diego hedged uncomfortably, Well, not exactly.

She laughed and waved her fan at him. Oh, you won't even remember her name in a few days, Don Diego. I knew I wouldn't be disappointed by coming to see you, she said confidently. Please, introduce me to everyone here. I want to meet all your friends. Her skirts whirled exuberantly. And do you think it's possible Zorro might drop in today? We've heard so much about him at home and I'm just dying to meet him! Her laugh rippled across the room again. Diego grimaced. I'm so happy to be here in such a quaint little town!

Diego smothered a laugh of his own. Despite the charm being poured on him so liberally, he was more aware of the amusement coming from Felipe standing near the door. He ignored it as best he could and obligingly introduced the smiling lady to Alejandro and his friends, trying to melt back into the crowd before Victoria emerged from the kitchen again. But Inez clung to him tenaciously, and he soon lost any hope of escaping an embarrassing situation. Every time he removed her hand from his arm, she merely twirled around him and hooked her fingers onto his other arm. She was in the process of just such a twirl when suddenly Victoria's hand caught hold of him before Inez could get a good grip on his brown sleeve. She planted herself firmly between Diego and his seductress, a friendly expression on her otherwise taut face.

Inez stepped back in surprise, but she was thrown off balance for only a minute. Don Diego, is this beautiful lady a friend of yours? she asked graciously, preparing to present herself.

Diego took a breath of relief. Placing his hands on Victoria's shoulders, Diego said, Señorita Inez, may I present my fiancé, Victoria Escalante.

Victoria smiled and said, Buenos dias.

Inez's surprise showed through her flirtatious gaze. Is this the one you were telling me about, Don Diego? The young lady to whom your heart belonged?

Diego smiled, awkwardly aware of his father's interested glance in his direction. Then he noticed Dom Carlos sidling toward them and grabbed at the opportunity. He ignored Inez's question and the trite expression on Victoria's face. Señorita, this is Don Carlos Perdillo, a local caballero. And without giving either one of them a chance to speak, continued, Señorita Inez is visiting from Santa Barbara and would love to see our pueblo.

Don Carlos smiled encouragingly at Inez. I would love to show it to you, Señorita. He offered his arm; Diego smoothly transferred Inez to Carlos and sent them on their way, laughing silently at the confusion on Inez's pretty face.

That was a close one, he said in a low voice for Victoria to hear.

She turned so she could see him, crossing her arms stubbornly. I think you have some explaining to do. The jealousy in her voice was unmistakable.

Ricardo de Cristo's laugh rang out, accompanied by a devilish, I told you so!

Diego smiled at Ricardo and said, I can explain everything.

Victoria's anger receded a bit as she glanced once more at Inez, who was flirting easily with two men near the open tavern doors. Diego, who is that woman? Did something happen in Santa Barbara that you're not telling me? Her tone was only slightly accusatory now.

He linked her hand on his arm and strolled casually away from the crowd and the Alcalde's gleeful smile. All I can tell you, Señorita, is that you've rescued me in more ways than you can ever know.


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