The Quandary of Freedom

By Linda Bindner

Independence.

It was the one thing he'd been waiting for, and the one thing he didn't know what to do with.

It came suddenly, and without fanfare, as most important things do. But to Diego de la Vega, who it meant a new life for, a life longed for, but unknowable, therefore unthinkable, he didn't even recognize it for what it was. He thought the pueblo was under an Indian attack.

As most things did with him, it all began in the tavern on a sunny, hot, summer day. It was a Thursday, June 31, 1822, the day independence from the often tyrannical Spanish rule came to Los Angeles, to be replaced with the unknown; a Mexican government that was led by the man who was to become the new alcalde, Miguel de Garcitas. Head of the contingent of Mexican troops, they easily faced the Spanish lancers who were so famous. What the Mexican troops didn't realize was their reason for being so famous; they were also ill-trained because their Commandante, Ignacio DeSoto, was intent on capturing his arch enemy, Zorro, and returning to Spain as a hero. The new soldiers happened to march through the dust into Los Angeles during the lunch hour, so very few people saw Garcitas take DeSoto into custody for the Mexican government, and few saw the turnover of lancers sworn to Spain suddenly swear life and allegiance to Mexico.

But that wasn't the concern of those in the tavern. They were concerned about lunch. The decision between stew and burritos rancheros was a difficult one for most customers, and nearly impossible for a certain Sergeant in the royal brigades, who ordered both and whose love for burritos was as famous as his gentle nature. The only gentler, kinder man was sitting and eating stew, quietly listening to the chatter around him about the morning's adventure of Zorro, who had ridden into town on his big, black stallion to confront the Alcalde on the new horse tax.

Taxes were a necessity of life, but it was unfair to make the poor people of Los Angeles pay for the animal, only to have them turn around and pay fifty percent to DeSoto as a 'sales tax.' Everybody needed their horses, and used them, from putting crops in the ground to riding into town. Zorro had protested the fifty percent, an outrageous sum, and forced DeSoto to lower it to two percent with the end of his blade. Lancers lay scattered, DeSoto glowered, and once again the citizens of Los Angeles found justice in a man dressed in black. But that was about to change.

Diego sat quietly, chewing on a piece of Victoria's excellent bread, as the conversations went on around him. Everybody was talking about Zorro, and it seemed that he was largely regarded as a hero instead of the outlaw of the Spanish crown that he was also known as. True, he had helped the people by significantly lowering the tax, but what they really hungered for was gossip and culture, something to talk about with friends, something to wonder about as they surreptitiously watched Seņorita Escalante, the owner of the tavern, serve lunch. So they talked aloud and wondered silently if she had anything to do with their hero knowing about the tax in the first place.

Their hero was currently watching Victoria out of the corner of his blue eye, too, but not for the same reasons as most of the other customers watched. He watched Victoria because he always watched Victoria. It wasn't a habit. It was much bigger than a habit, much larger than simple wondering. Diego always watched Victoria because he was in love with her, helplessly, completely in love with her. He loved her hair, her beauty, her spirit and anger, the way she walked through the curtains, the way she climbed the stairs to the rooms she rented above, the way she stirred a pot over the fire with long fingers, callused from working too hard in the tavern she had inherited from her parents. He loved every bit of her, everything about her. Only one problem remained for them; she didn't know he existed. She had eyes only for the man hidden behind a mask. Diego was a friend but not a romantic courtier, and the thought of removing the mask and displaying his identity to her scared him senseless. So he bided his time, though he wanted nothing more than to wrap her up in his strong arms, and though his patience with his creation was wearing thin. Still, he ate bread and waited. But today...

There were confused shouts in the plaza, loud enough to filter through the lunch crowd conversations. What now, Diego thought to himself, as he stood and allowed the crowd to push him out the front doors, but kept his mind stubbornly fixed on Victoria. He had begun to enjoy his mental ramblings, and was secretly irritated by the interruption. Hopefully, Zorro would not be needed again, though he promised himself to stop and spend some time with Victoria if that was the case. Last time, spurred on by his grumbling belly, he had taken time only to acknowledge her. She would gladly feed him, but his guilt over taking charity usually got the better of him, and he had returned to the tavern for lunch as Diego. There he could eat and watch all he wanted to, and he wanted to, very much.

Diego stood next to his father and Felipe, while Victoria edged forward to get a better look at this stranger to the pueblo, dressed in military blue and white, surrounded by his own soldiers. She was highly surprised to see DeSoto in hand manacles and chains, standing beside the handsome, older stranger. Two foot soldiers stood with him, both without weapons, and both also surrounded.

Good people of Los Angeles, yelled a wearied and contrite DeSoto, I bring you news of somewhat astonishing import. Spain no longer wishes to govern the land of California. Ferdinand is no longer on the throne. And you are now Mexican citizens.

There was a stunned silence as the people tried to take this astounding information in. New citizenship wasn't accepted in a day, no matter how bloodless it came. The people stood in a semicircle, muttering, pointing rudely at the stranger. Even though he had seen some form of independence coming for a while, Diego was so stunned that he felt momentarily numb.

DeSoto's dark gray coat flapped in the wind, but otherwise it was absolutely silent. I've been allowed to give you this news because of your familiarity with me. The awful truth of the matter is that I and Lieutenants Manuel and Porforo will be put on a ship bound for Spain in the port of San Pedro tomorrow. We continue to harbor... shall we say... 'sentiments' for the Spanish rule.

His normal sneer was in evidence as he said the word 'sentiments,' but he was able to introduce his successor in fairly genial tones. This is Colonel Miguel de Garcitas, who will be your new alcalde. Here he sneered again. He comes to you from Mexico City, along with his soldiers. DeSoto paused to wave at the troops dressed in the blue and white of Mexico. They outnumbered the Spanish troops almost two to one. It was no wonder the scorn was evident in his tone of voice. Give him the same courtesy you have given me for several years now.

There was an eruption of general laughter, and Diego leaned down to Don Alejandro and whispered, He can't be any worse than DeSoto. But I wonder what Zorro will do with this 'courtesy?'

For once, Alejandro was wise and didn't reply. But as if the past alcalde could read Diego's mind, he postulated a request of his own. Though I may risk sounding somewhat selfish, I have a last request, if you will, to make to the man known as Zorro. Before I take my leave of you... Here there was more laughter. DeSoto was being forced to leave, and everybody knew it, including him. He ignored the laughter, but his tone was even more caustic. ... I was wondering if he could show himself as the true man he is. I want to know who I've been fighting all these years, and Garcitas has a pardon for him.

Diego couldn't help it; a hand went to his mouth in astonishment, then lowered lest anybody notice. The day he'd been waiting for for nearly five years had finally arrived, and all he could think about was that it could be a trap, an elaborate hoax to get him to divulge his identity. It wouldn't be the first time DeSoto had tried to capture him with such subterfuge. Which was pathetically paranoid and supremely smart at the same time. Diego always made it a point to think everything involving DeSoto was a trap until proven otherwise. It was one of the behaviors that had kept him alive for all those long years.

Victoria's back was to Diego, so he couldn't see how this news was affecting her. He supposed she was as shocked as he was. But as the second person present who most stood to gain from this news if it was real, she naturally was of interest to the crowd. No one moved, but instead they all looked to her, the only known part of Zorro, as if she would know what to do. But she had no idea. Nobody did. Everybody just stood still, numb. That is, until somebody said something.

It was the voice of Don Alejandro's closest friend, a kind man and a caballero, Don Carlos Cortillo. Why don't your soldiers put their weapons in the cuartel. Locked. Then maybe the man might feel confident in your offer.

Mutterings broke out again. At a nod from Garcitas, the soldiers immediately disposed of their rifles and swords inside the cuartel and locked the gates in a show of good faith. Good idea! DeSoto enthused.

Garcitas intruded. You be quiet. You're under our orders. It was such a surprise to see the former alcalde treated like any other man in the pueblo that the crowd grew immediately hushed without another word from Garcitas.

They waited, holding their collective breath. Garcitas spoke again in a ringing voice, Zorro, if you're here, you've committed no crime against the Mexican government yet and are therefor not considered a criminal, and this pardon remains valid. Your work is done. Please, show yourself.

Diego agonized. Should he or shouldn't he? The plaza was full of soldiers, but they were unarmed, just as he was. Of course, it wouldn't take many to jump him if this was all a hoax. On the other hand, the lure of a full pardon was tempting. Garcitas held the rolled up scroll in his hand, a blue ribbon tying it together, the mark of the Mexican government.

Then there was Victoria to consider. She was searching the plaza, an apprehensive look on her face as she turned around, scanning constantly for any sign of the man in black. She didn't want him to be caught, naturally, but she wanted to know his identity beyond anything else in the world. This was not the way Diego had intended for her to find out his identity. He had wanted to tell her first, in private, where she could rage if that was her reaction, instead of in this public setting. But he hadn't acted fast enough, it appeared, and 'in public' was what they seemed to be getting. Their romance had been public from the start. Not his first choice for a courtship, but the one offered nonetheless.

I don't think he's going to show. He doesn't trust us enough yet, muttered Garcitas, looking as though he didn't blame the outlaw. A lifetime in the military helped him to understand the man's mind, something the crowd didn't appear able to do.

Still, the people were quiet, hushed, scanning the plaza, searching. There was no movement. A fly could have had a good time on all those statuesque people.

Diego knew he was never going to discover if this was a trap until he took a chance. He leaned across his father to tap Felipe on the shoulder. The young man's upturned face held incredulity and terror. If nothing else came of this, the entire town would know of Felipe's steadfastness and loyalty. Diego would make sure of it. Come on, he whispered, barely audible even in that hush, appearing braver than he felt.

Don Alejandro was the first to register the shock, cluing Diego in to the reaction of the crowd. He left his father's somehow comforting side, pushing his way forward gently through the crush. The people were tightly packed together due to the smallness of the plaza and this being the lunch hour, but a tug aside and a few sideways steps were all it took to get Diego and Felipe to the inside of the circle.

Once inside, Diego resolutely did not look in Victoria's direction, though his entire being screamed at him to turn. If this was a trap, now is when they would spring it on him.

But the soldiers remained where they were standing, and Garcitas held the piece of parchment up. Diego stared at it like it was the saving line of rope thrown into the ocean and he was drowning. It was the one thing he wanted and the one thing that might lure him out. He was getting older, and was tired of all the hiding that Zorro required. With a pardon, he and Victoria could finally start a life together, be together, be open around one another. It was almost too much temptation to resist. In essence, he was doing this for her as much as for himself.

Frightened as he was, tears formed in his eyes and he had to blink rapidly to get them to go away. His heart beat like thunder in his chest. He had to stop halfway around the circle to force it to calm down. When his heart had slowed a little, he was able to glance around at the people he was passing. Incredulity met him at every turn, warring with disbelief. He wished he hadn't looked, and fixed his gaze firmly on the parchment in the new Alcalde's hand.

It shone in the sunshine, glaring white and cream against a backdrop of blue. The parchment became everything to Diego as he and Felipe slowly, trepidatiously made their way around the circle of people until finally they stood cautiously in front of the new Alcalde.

Diego held out his hand. It was shaking, and he fought to force it to stop. I believe that's mine, he said quietly, aiming for and getting a smooth voice that indicated a much calmer demeanor than the one he actually had. Once the paper was in his hand, he risked a glance at Victoria. If that parchment proved to be false, if the soldiers standing so solemnly nearby jumped him and Felipe, it was the only look he was likely to get. It might have to last him a long time.

Wide eyes met his glance, and tear streaks, and beautiful black hair blowing in the wind. Diego longed to pass his hand once across that creamy cheek, but she was too far away and the piece of parchment demanded his attention. He had to content himself with just a look, and then he felt Felipe sliding the blue ribbon aside, freeing the formerly bound paper to fall uncurled in his hand.

Diego looked down. The parchment opened at his requesting hands. The tension was enormous as he shook out the last curl, and quickly scanned the document.

It was indeed a pardon for the outlaw known as Zorro, and any accomplices he may have had over the years, to be awarded on the day the Alcalde arrived in Los Angeles and took office. Today. Tears threatened to blur Diego's vision again, and he had to blink quickly in order to see.

De la Vega? whispered DeSoto, his grating hiss cutting into the hush of the gathered crowd. Diego de la Vega? I don't believe this. You're Zorro? Is this some kind of joke?

But Diego ignored DeSoto's reaction and was again looking towards Victoria. The wind was loud in his ears as he noted her moving, slowly walking straight across the middle of the circle, an expression of wonder on her face, her skirt swaying in the wind. Not frightened, as he had been, she just as slowly reached out a clearly shaking hand for the pardon. Wordlessly, Diego gave it to her.

When she had read over the entire document, taking a closer look at it than even Diego had, she turned to completely face him. Her voice just as quiet as she was slow, said, You have a promise to deliver on. And after four years of wanting to do this next action, of dreaming of it, Diego wrapped his arms around her in a fierce, albeit public, embrace, and buried his face in her hair.

I love you, Diego whispered, his voice muffled by her hair and the sudden cheer of the crowd. Saying the words aloud gave him more freedom than the pardon did. He lifted her off her feet and swung her around, his eyes squeezed tightly shut against her imaginable anger and the sun he found himself in that acted like a spotlight on a stage. The crowd roared its approval and stomped their feet as Diego's arms tightened even further. He stopped his movement for one look of longing and affection before his lips descended on hers in a kiss that sealed his identity the way no piece of parchment ever could. Felipe tugged the parchment from her hand, and she concealed that hand in his hair, no longer prevented from doing that action by the presence of a mask as she had always been in the past, and her kiss deepened, not prevented by the presence of a crowd, either. She had waited four long years for this day, and a simple crowd wasn't going to deter her.

Wiping tears of happiness off his own cheeks that had gone suddenly hot, Garcitas quickly said to DeSoto's still shocked countenance, Well, now you know.

Yes, but... but... DeSoto was unable to finish in the disbelief and shock that warred openly on his face.

Garcitas bobbed his head once, and the soldiers quickly gathered around DeSoto and the two lieutenants prior to locking them in the jail. A conveyance for them to San Pedro would be found later. The official action gave Garcitas time to get control of his emotions as well as to act for the first time in an official capacity. The soldiers who answered his order were Mexican, and thus had very little trouble dealing with the Spanish political hopeful, or his two cohorts. Calling for the sergeant, Garcitas immediately opened himself and his office up for the rest of the afternoon.

Still, he was not loud enough to cover Diego's hushed voice, How about tomorrow morning? or Victoria's answering Yes, and he realized he had just heard the utterance of a wedding proposal. To cover up the fact, and to give the two at least the appearance of privacy, he marched, still highly emotional, to his new office for a quick look around.

You're certain? Diego asked next, his voice lulled to a whisper, low and husky after that very public kiss.

Victoria found it hard to speak, too emotional, too full of love, looking at the man who was her best friend in a different light, as if she'd never seen him before. She could only nod her head, her dark eyes full of unshed tears that Diego brushed away before they had the chance to fall. She looked at him again, and looked at him, as if she would never get enough. Maybe she wouldn't. Preciosa, he whispered, stunned, just as incredulous that he'd won such a prize as she was. The pardon hung, forgotten, in Felipe's loyal hand.

Then Don Alejandro was beside them, covering Diego in a tight, parental hug. It wasn't every day that he gained such a sacrificing son that he didn't know he had. Plus, he was getting a daughter with the package. He was going to take full advantage of the situation, holding onto the two of them like he never had before. Then he turned to hug Felipe, saying, I know you can hear and I'll get an explanation for all this on the way home. I've never been so excited and so blown over in my entire life!

Felipe smiled, and his stomach grumbled audibly, reminding them all that their lunch had been interrupted. Diego continued to hold Victoria tightly, as if he would never let her go, but Felipe refused to walk into the tavern alone, and the crowd had dispersed, going about its business, gulping down burritos and stew in the tavern owner's absence.

But even she couldn't be gone forever. Diego had to release her sometime, and he did, reluctantly, staring as well, promising among endearments to talk to the padre and hurry back, prepared for the rest of his life to start right away.

That night, things were not so calm at the de la Vega hacienda.

Don Alejandro had already told Maria, the cook, that they needed to prepare for a wedding reception by noon the next day. Her response had been to say, Yes, Patron, in her quiet way, but to wonder frantically what to serve. She didn't realize that anything she served would be wonderful. And one of her patrons didn't care what she served as long as tomorrow would only hurry up and come.

Don't be so hasty, my boy, commented a much calmer Don Alejandro in Diego's bedroom that night. Tomorrow will arrive no matter what you do to hurry it along. Do you know what you're wearing?

It was almost too practical of a question for the nervous Diego. This. If you approve. The tan suit snugly fit the contours of his muscular chest, clinging to him in a most un-Diego like manner. The gold thread in the weave shimmered in the candlelight. It was good to see that Diego wasn't hiding himself any longer. Downplaying the new suit, as Alejandro knew too much praise would only make his son more nervous, if that was possible, he said, It looks fine. Where did you get it? I don't think I've seen that one before.

Diego turned from his mirror to sit on the edge of his bed. The trousers of the new suit hardly rode up at all. Yep, thought Alejandro, this new suit was definitely fine!

I had it made five months ago, Diego answered briefly. I heard rumors of a rebellion in Mexico City and thought I just might get the chance to wear it.

Well, you knew more than I did. Alejandro moved to join Diego on the bed. Imagine, my son is Zorro, my servant can hear, and tomorrow there's going to be a wedding!

Father, please, intoned Diego, as any mention of the wedding just made him break out in a sweat. Imagine getting married in front of all those people!

Alejandro suggested, Maybe you should wear your mask.

Father!

Sorry, sorry, just trying to help.

Well, stop. Your kind of help is just making me more jumpy.

My apologies. Alejandro glanced at the pardon rolled up again, resting on Diego's dresser. He hadn't let it out of his sight after releasing Victoria that afternoon. How's Victoria holding up? he asked, reminded that a wedding took two.

The mention of his bride made Diego visibly shake. His father didn't know if that shake was from desire or nerves. He hoped it was nerves. About to be expected, Diego replied. She's nervous, too. Why? I haven't seen her since a little after lunch.

Good. It's bad luck to see too much of the bride beforehand.

Suddenly Diego smiled mischievously. Maybe I'll crawl through her bedroom window and ask her how she's doing.

Alejandro spluttered, You'll do no such thing!

Why not? I've done it before.

You've been in her bedroom? Alejandro muttered, shocked and outraged. Diego nodded. Alejandro just whistled. You have more control than I have, my son.

Diego only laughed. It wasn't easy, but we didn't get to see much of each other if I didn't. I've seen her in...

Alejandro interrupted. I don't want to know!

He sounded too shocked for words. Diego consoled him, saying, It's all right. You don't have any unknown grandchildren running around.

Then you and she..?

Diego was astonished this time. No!

Just checking, Alejandro said, defending his curiosity. You know, I don't know half the things you did with your time. During my younger years, being caught in a girl's bedroom was enough to demand marriage...

Victoria and I are getting married, reminded Diego, still surprised by the words. Just twenty-four hours before, he never would have dreamed this might happen to him. He shivered again.

Alejandro didn't miss the shiver, and knew what was on his son's mind. Attempting to distract him, he said, Tell me about your exploits as Zorro.

I told you to read my journals, countered Diego, mercilessly undistracted. They will give a far better account of Zorro's adventures than I can.

I notice that you mention yourself in the third person. Why?

Diego was a little calmer. How else could I keep my personas separated? he asked rhetorically. I had trouble enough as it was. Boy, was that an understatement! I preferred spending time with Victoria in her kitchen.

But that's when the tavern closes near midnight!

Diego shrugged. If that was when she was available... He didn't mention what Victoria was available for!

Although Alejandro had gotten a pretty good idea of things that afternoon. He was a fairly sly old dog himself. No wonder you always slept so late. And there I was, making fun of you for having to get your beauty sleep!

Diego shrugged again. You weren't the only one who made fun of me.

If you're referring to Victoria, she always accepted you no matter what you did.

I was referring to Victoria, but I was in love with her even when she was teasing me.

She just didn't know the whole you, argued Alejandro.

Diego snorted inelegantly. We're not fooling anybody; Victoria Escalante admires men of action, not inaction. I have no delusions about that.

Alejandro wondered how his son had gotten to be so wise, but all he said was, Well, I wish you both luck. He looked as if he thought they were going to need all the help they could get.

Diego shook his head. Victoria and I won't need luck, he said firmly.

You sound awfully certain of things.

Father, I've been in love with Victoria since I came home from Spain. We've been waiting to get married for nearly five years.

Spain! Alejandro spluttered again. Why didn't you just tell me?

That led to more complications than I wanted to deal with, Diego explained soothingly.

That reminded the father of other explanations from his son, but he didn't say anything about them. I had no idea! Alejandro protested. He sighed. And all I could do was make nasty comments about grandchildren. He shook his head, making his silver hair shake. I had no idea, he repeated.

I understood, Diego said resolutely.

Alejandro pursued the subject. But Victoria! How many children does she want?

Diego shook his head. I don't know.

Don't you think you should?

We never got around to discussing it, Diego said, indicating his rather strange courtship with his words. There's a lot of things we never got the chance to discuss, he added as an afterthought.

You should have.

Perhaps you would have preferred having a son who discussed such things, but was captured by the Alcalde and hung! Diego exclaimed.

Oh, come on, Alejandro scoffed, you had plenty of time for other things, or the kiss I saw this afternoon wouldn't have been so practiced.

Father!

Alejandro was teasing, but he was also adamant. Do I have to explain some things to you?

Embarrassed to be discussing such things with his own father, Diego violently shook his head. That's all right. I've been reading some books about it...

Books! I should have known! Alejandro shook his head again.

That's what Victoria said this afternoon. Diego was trying to shock his father off the subject, but it didn't work.

You've spoken to Victoria about this?

Well, it takes two, as you've always said, and she's the other participant. What Diego didn't say was that it had taken all their control not to consummate the marriage before the marriage. But what his father didn't know wouldn't kill him.

Is that the only thing on your mind?

Father! No, it was the only thing on her mind.

I just need to know if I should give you my paternal wisdom on the subject, since your mother's not here to do it...

Does that bother you? That I'm bringing a female into this house of men?

Heavens, no! I don't mind at all! I thought I had made that perfectly clear.

I was just checking, Diego said, echoing his father's earlier words.

Well, don't.

Why? You sound nervous.

Nervous? Me? No. I couldn't be happier in your choice of daughters-in-law.

Diego was cognizant of his father's tone. But..?

But are you sure you can handle her?

Here it comes, the famous de la Vega speech. Diego rolled his eyes, an action unseen in the dim fire and candlelight of the room.

I'm serious! Victoria Escalante has got quite a temper...

I love her temper, Diego stated, hanging his head contritely, but a smile appeared on his face nonetheless.

But can you handle it? Alejandro persisted.

Diego lifted his head, determination showing in the lines of his face. No one 'handles' Victoria. I love her, and she loves me. Yes, we'll have some blowups, but we'll solve them together.

At least, you know she loves Zorro.

Diego just looked at his father for a long minute. If only he knew what a fear this was for his son! But Diego didn't enlighten him. Father, I can't believe you just said that, he managed to choke out.

I'm sorry, but it has to be said. Alejandro at least had the decency to look uncomfortable. Victoria has never hidden her feelings for Zorro...

Father, I am Zorro. It was incredible how easy it was becoming to say those words.

I know. I simply want you to make sure that she also loves you, the studious side that she doesn't know nearly as well.

Diego sighed. I was at the tavern every day. I gave her plenty of opportunity to get to know Don Diego.

But does she love that part of you?

Diego hedged, unsure himself, but willing to live with it. Yes. I think so.

You better be more sure than, 'I think so!'

You saw us today.

Yes, and I hope you're a little more guarded around the hacienda.

A minute ago you were worried about the exact opposite, Diego pointed out.

I was. I just want you to be certain.

Diego hung his head again, shy about discussing this with his father. I am, he whispered at last.

Good, said Alejandro. It's good that you love each other.

We do. That statement Diego could say with compunction!

Good. Then you'll be just fine.

Father, Diego said, looking squarely at him. are you trying to drive me loco?

No, I...

Diego interrupted. I love Victoria very much. She loves me. Let's just leave it at that.

As you say, Son. I'll see you in the morning. With that, Alejandro left the room. He'd successfully managed to distract his son, the masked bandit known as Zorro. Not bad for a night's work.

Fine, but... What was that supposed to mean?

Stop fidgeting, suggested a nervous Diego. You look great.

Felipe tried to take the suggestion and stop moving. It wasn't so much how he looked, but how the rarely worn clothes itched! He would much rather be wearing his typical white baggy clothes from the hacienda.

Diego once again looked at the assembled people in the tiny mission church. I don't suppose you know of a way to get married without the presence of so many people, do you? Diego asked next, his voice still a whisper.

Felipe shook his head, mute as always. But he knew if Diego could do anything but swordplay in private, he would. In fact, the only reason he had agreed to a public wedding was because Seņorita Victoria had wanted it. And he knew what Diego was like when Victoria requested anything.

Stop fidgeting, Diego said again, even as he fidgeted in his new suit that sparkled in the morning sun streaming through the church's window.

But Felipe only had time for one more quick move before the familiar music started to play and there was no more time for anything, let alone fidgeting.

Victoria and Don Alejandro appeared, both looking radiant and overdressed for the occasion. Alejandro's face threatened to crack with his large smile, but that was no comparison to how Victoria looked. Her eyes were bright, and very wide, with a look of expectancy in them. A huge smile adorned her face, a noteworthy opposite of the expression on her last walk down this same aisle. Felipe remembered the day she had tried to marry Juan Ortiz, and he endeavored instantly to forget it. The differences between that day and this were too incredible to make.

Diego calmed the minute he caught sight of Victoria, as Felipe knew he would. Again, they had eyes only for each other in the mission church, and the sanctuary might as well have been empty for all the two of them noticed. Diego didn't even see that Miguel de Garcitas had put aside many of his new duties to attend this rather abrupt wedding of his unknown people. It was an honor that he even attended at all.

But for what Diego was aware of, the pueblo could be under attack and he wouldn't have noticed. His hand reached out for Victoria long before she was close enough to take it, so eager was he to get started on the rest of his life. His hand snuggled around her smaller one, and the ceremony began.

They stood. They knelt. They lit a candle. They passed flowers. Diego advanced his mother's ring to Victoria's left hand. They did everything right, but still Felipe fidgeted and Alejandro beamed. When it came time to say, I do, Diego's voice rang out too loudly in the silence of the church. But they both said it, and the kiss at the end left little doubt in everybody's mind that they were witnessing a wedding, and Victoria now belonged to Diego, and vice versa, no matter what occurred. His nuzzle of Victoria's cheek and jaw gave an idea as to what was planned to occur later, if he had anything to say about it.

The reception party went on too long, as such parties tend to do, but the light meal included was just the right thing to celebrate a wedding. Even Sergeant Mendoza commented on the meal, and he rarely thought anything could be as good as Victoria's cooking. He said so, many times, but he kept forgetting to call her 'Seņora.' Since the wedding trip wouldn't start until the next day, at nine o'clock the two retired to Diego's bedroom, probably the earliest he had gotten to bed in years.

Diego locked the door behind him, intent on keeping well-wishers and partiers out, and the quiet in.

My head is pounding, Victoria commented, raising one hand to her forehead. The wedding dress she still wore looked gray in the firelight, worn and bedraggled, but beautiful, all lace and satin.

Diego sighed, glad for the silence they had escaped to. The quiet should help with that, he said, ignoring the pounding of his own temples as well as the beating refrain from his emotions.

I hope so. That party was wonderful, but I think Don Alejandro went a little overboard.

It wouldn't be the first time, Diego said, and Victoria laughed at his implied joke.

Come here, she said then, with a seductive move of her arms. I have barely seen you all day.

Diego complied immediately, slipping into her embrace, realizing that only Victoria could expect that kind of reaction from the mighty Zorro. He also expected that now was the time they had been waiting all day for, waiting years to happen. He swallowed noisily, nervous, but the desire he felt was beginning to take its toll on his mood. He couldn't ignore it any longer. The nerves were disappearing as quickly as they showed themselves.

Though they were nervous as to what to expect to happen next, the contact between them sparked them both. She kissed him, then, knowing that they weren't on display for anybody anymore. Diego answered immediately, demanding entrance into her mouth, and Victoria yielded for the only man she would ever yield anything for. Passion, wild and hot, swept them both away, and it didn't matter that they didn't know what to expect. They were both willing in their own way to find out.

Now consumed with desire, Victoria attacked the coat hanging from his shoulders, tugging on it until it released its hold on his arms. It fell to the floor, unnoticed. His elaborate necktie and oddly simple shirt soon joined it.

Galvanized, Victoria ran her hands over his muscles as they kissed, ready to relinquish her constant control, ready to melt into this amazing body, ready to drown in the extravagant scent that was Diego's alone. Knowing that they were married and the church sanctioned such an act only intensified her longing. Victoria threw herself into the deed of joining with her husband, the man she had waited years for, with eager enthusiasm. This was no time to be a soft, nervous bride. This was the time to show her teeth to her new husband and finally come into her own. Victoria didn't plan to disappoint.

Inflamed himself, Diego wondered if he would make it long enough to remove the wedding dress. The fire warmed only one side of him, but all of his blood boiled with sudden desire as the act he'd long awaited seemed to suddenly be at his feet. Without thought, he kissed her, making demands, running his hands over her in a very un-Zorro like manner, not even being chivalrous anymore as his passions took over and his control slipped to ashes. Her skin was hot as he moved aside the buttons fastening Victoria's wedding dress, freeing her shoulders, wanting to feel her skin against his.

The dress landed in a forgotten puddle, cast aside as debris to be gathered up later. Diego moaned aloud, indistinguishably saying her name, and his lips burned her skin wherever they touched; her arms, her shoulders, her neck, her cheek. She met his caress with a rise of her chest, and their errant breathing sounded harsh in the quiet of the room. Diego couldn't help himself as he buried his face in her breasts, and Victoria ran fervid hands over his back and shoulders. Trousers, boots, undergarments all met the same fate as his coat when the frantic pitch of their passion entreated satisfaction. Victoria's dreams of this night were being realized and she was too caught up in emotions to know.

Diego pulled her to the top of the bed, too close to his own eruption to haul down his own coverlet. His lips met hers again, probing, demanding entrance to her mouth as her sweet breath mingled with his. Even as Zorro, he'd never been so reckless with her, so unprincipled. His passions called for fulfillment, and he had no choice but to answer, his skin glistening with sweat, completely conscious only of the woman in his arms.

He rested his weight on top of her, and the ache in his groin increased exponentially. Victoria, I don't want to hurt you, but I don't think I can wait! he whispered, and pushed into her without further warning. She tensed, but the fever increased for her and she couldn't resist the needful ache that permeated her being. She saw the hole in her soul, and rushed to it, arching her chest into him as she began to shudder, forcing him, wanting him deeper. Exquisite pleasure erupted, and she groaned his name as she tossed her head back into his red and gold covering.

The shudder was all it took to send Diego over a cliff of his own with the same pleasure, white-hot and intense, shivering through him until his senses dissolved into each other. He shrouded his face in her sweet-smelling hair, hanging on with tight arms, the pleasure that was almost painful twisting his insides like butter. He had wanted this for too long, for many years, and she was rewarded with the same sensations. Then it was over, the delight of denial leaving nothing behind but memories and a beloved ache that tingled without the need for touch.

Still merged as one, Diego kissed her and caught his breath. Such an explosion of emotion necessitated recovery, and they rested under Diego's coverlet, the red and gold giving nothing away with its blend of colors. Only a warm area even displayed where they had been once entangled in the throes of passion. It dissipated quickly as they caught their breath, satisfied and fulfilled, one of Victoria's legs draped enticingly over his. With a languid kiss and both hands cradling his head, she rolled over and then smiled and whispered, Marriage suits you, Diego de la Vega.

As it suits you, Diego whispered back, loath to break the quiet of the room. How's your headache now?

What headache? Victoria replied, her sauciness combining with her flirtatiousness to make her voice husky and quiet in the hushed room. She leaned over and kissed him again, her sleeping emotions awake once more. I love you, you know. All of you.

That reminded Diego of the previous night's conversation with his father. Victoria, he asked suddenly, how many children do you want?

Victoria smiled softly. As many as we can have, she replied, referring to the act of lovemaking they had just completed.

Wanting to do more, Diego kissed her, acknowledging the emotions that her endearment roused in him. Victoria wrapped her arms around his neck and responded contentedly, thinking that this was what she had always wanted.

The marriage worked into the routine of the house, and moved ahead like one of Diego's successful science experiments. Victoria often walked into the library to seduce him instead of talk to him, and he often found her in the kitchen where the same emotions were explored if they were alone. Topics were forgotten about in the demand of their emotions, and excited relinquishment took over when a simple conversation had been desired. But through the time, Victoria never forgot who he had been, and she enjoyed looking at him like she couldn't get enough. She looked at him all she wanted. She wanted to look a lot.

Their first argument was, on all things, the decision to adopt Felipe. Diego wanted to adopt the servant himself, and Victoria thought Diego was too young to give up his worldly goods to an heir unconnected with him by blood, and wanted Don Alejandro to adopt Felipe instead. They fought, then raged, for days until Diego finally gave in, the inevitable emotion for her cropping up to force the issue, whether they liked it or not. They both decided they liked it, considering they had been married for only four months.

Diego's first challenger came to him at the tavern when they had been married for six months. News traveled fast in the desolate California territory. It took Diego only one minute to disarm the boy from Monterey. He told the boy to go home while a watery-kneed and pregnant Victoria watched from her tavern's porch. But so life was when married to the man known as Zorro.

The challenges increased as time went on, but Diego never lost, until, tired of the pain it caused Victoria, he refused to meet the man standing in the plaza issuing the decree. Word spread like wildfire that Zorro had retired for good, and a year into his marriage, Diego had other things to think about as he played with his young son, delighted in his still-new wife, and emulated the best way he knew how the son of a respected caballero and ranch owner. Life was just too busy to give Zorro a second thought.


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