A 'Real' Marriage

by Linda Bindner

The evening wasn't far advanced when Alejandro de la Vega found his son sitting in the library, reading a poetry book. The birds sang their good night songs as Alejandro wondered just how he had sired a son who could read poetry, of all things, but there sat Diego, book in hand, looking as content as the proverbial cat who caught the mouse. Alejandro shook his head; no, he just didn't understand it.

Diego, Alejandro solemnly said as he entered the library and took a seat. I wonder if I might have a word with you? His serious voice cut through the quiet like a knife.

Certainly, Diego answered, affable as always, putting his book down in his lap, but hiding the fact that his father's tone raised the hair on the back of his neck, and he hadn't liked the way his father had stared at him in cold calculation during supper, either. But he was excellent at hiding his emotions; any man who was secretly the masked bandit, Zorro, would have to be.

Alejandro took a seat near the window and didn't beat around the bush as he explained his current mission, You'll have to hear about this sooner or later, and I prefer sooner.

He couldn't help himself; Diego leaned forward, showing the interest he felt at his father's mysterious words despite the fact that fear simultaneously bit through him. What had happened to make Alejandro appear so serious? Was it something to do with the pueblo, perhaps? With one of its citizens? With, god forbid, Victoria? An unbidden chill coursed up Diego's spine.

Alejandro obviously didn't like his 'mission,' either, judging by the expression on his face, but seemed determined to go through with it now that he had 'opened the bag,' as the saying went. He continued in an equally serious tone, Diego, it's time that you started a family. He raised a hand to ward off the protests that Diego automatically began. Now, I know that I've brought this subject up before, and that I promised not to push, but you're nearing your thirtieth year, you're not getting any younger, and you don't seem to be interested in any of the young women of the pueblo. With that in mind, I made a deal with my friend, Don Jose Martinez, that if you haven't decided on a choice for a wife in a week, you will marry Don Jose's daughter, Teresa, who...

Diego finally got a word in edgewise to deter his enthusiastic parent. I'm sure Teresa is wonderful, Father, but you know that I have no wish to marry... Actually, he was thinking about Victoria, Zorro, the need to keep his secret intact at all costs, and of the engagement he had made to Victoria, despite the risks, the fact that she didn't know who he was, and the leap of faith that such an engagement required. He also thought of the fact that he loved Victoria, loved her at least as much as his own life. However, he couldn't tell his father that information, not if he wanted his father to remain alive. Diego grimaced, annoyed.

Alejandro interrupted his son, misinterpreting the expression as to illustrate Diego's disinterest in this subject. That's just the point; you aren't interested in marriage, but I'm not getting any younger, Diego, and I want to see the hacienda filled with little ones before I die...

Father, Diego cut in, a tiny bit desperate now, you aren't going to die before...

Alejandro frowned, and looked like he'd just eaten something disagreeable, but was determined as he plowed on, That's not the point here. The point is that you don't seem interested in the opposite... gender, he settled on, being naturally too polite for this conversation, and I've made a deal with Don Jose that will force the issue a little...

Father, my unmarried state hasn't been a problem before, began Diego, but Alejandro interjected.

Well, I have a problem now, Diego, and you know that I don't want to force this issue, but you leave me no choice. Now, I am giving you a week from today to decide, after all, but if you can't make a choice for a wife by then, Don Jose and I have made a deal for his daughter's hand. He's very agreeable...

But, Father, I don't want to get married right now. You know that, interjected Diego, whose desperation was growing by the minute.

I do know that, Son, but you seem to get more enjoyment out of reading poetry than in making babies...

If truth be told, there was nothing that Diego would like better to do, but Zorro kind of stood in the way of his dreams. Yet he couldn't say that to Don Alejandro. Father!

Alejandro held up his hands again. I realize that I'm being blunt here, but I think we're passed the point for the necessity of bluntness. Diego, please, humor me in this. I'm an old man...

Diego had risen in his irritation, taking the volume of poetry with him. Father, I can't get married now! he exclaimed, finally forced to raise his voice to be heard over the explanations of the other man.

Why? asked Alejandro. Why can't you get married now? Please, tell me.

I... Diego began, but hadn't thought his protests through enough to come up with a plausible excuse. I can't tell you, he finally and very lamely ended. Even he heard the whininess of his voice as he quietly argued.

Then realize that you are hereby put on notice, said Alejandro relentlessly. One week, Diego, or it's Teresa, and that's final. I've waited as long as I can...

Father, listen to me, Diego tried once more.

But again Alejandro interjected, No, no more listening. I've listened to your excuses for five years, ever since you came home from the University. I'm sorry, Diego, but I can't listen anymore. Now, I don't wish to be heavy-handed in this, but you have one week, and it's an arranged marriage with Teresa for a wife... or else.

Diego was suddenly wary as he listened to the warning bells peeling in his mind. Or else what?

Alejandro looked acutely uncomfortable, but his determination won out again. Or else you find alternative lodgings.

Diego reeled, thinking of the cave and Zorro and the previous ease he'd had in entering that secret cave through the library fireplace. If he wasn't already standing, he would have slowly stood in incredulity. You would ask me to leave over this?

Alejandro looked down at the floor, but softly said, I would. And it's final, a done deal. It's your choice, but for now that's all I'm going to say on the subject. I'm going to bed. Good night, Diego.

Relieved to get out of the room, Alejandro beat a hasty retreat to his bedroom, glad for once that it wasn't situated any closer to Diego's chosen room; there had been enough animosity in the house for one evening. Still, he next he did was something he rarely had the need to do; feeling like a heal, but still determined, he closed the doors on his room to shut out any further recrimination from Diego.

For Diego's part, he still stood where his father had left him, in front of the fireplace that had always been so dear to his heart, since it led the way to the cave that housed Zorro's gear. He was too stunned to make a move. It was perhaps the first time in his life that he felt incapable of action of any kind.

Then, Diego seemed to wake up to the awful truth of his father's 'deal,' and it was as if he was staring into the barrel of a gun about to explode. Or, worse, the gun was pointed at Victoria and it was about to explode.

That thought brought Victoria into the issue of a forced need to marry, and Diego groaned. How was he going to explain this to Victoria so she would understand when he could barely understand it himself? And what about Zorro? How could he possibly keep the caped crusader going if he had a wife to contend with, or had to live someplace else?

A wife? A chill traveled down his back, having nothing to do with the cold spell that currently besieged Los Angeles. How could he possibly decide on a wife in a week? And what about Victoria? Where did she fit into this scenario cooked up by his father?

Again, Diego took a shuddering breath as a second chill dashed up his back. He dropped the book of poetry into the chair he'd just vacated as the truth of the matter hit him. The truth was that Victoria didn't fit anywhere into this issue. Alejandro didn't even know about her, about his son's love, so Diego's reluctance to marry had always appeared to be about disinterest. Now he had taken care of that with his new edict, his 'deal.'

A week, his father had said. For the first time, Diego considered running away from home to avoid final capitulation to this 'deal.' But he was a little old to be thinking of that, and besides, where would he go? He couldn't bear to leave Los Angeles, and his entire life was at the hacienda. True, he could still enter the cave through the triggered back door, but it would take time to reach, time he didn't always have. Yet, the hacienda was his father's house, and he could do anything he wanted in it until Diego inherited it upon his father's death. Diego shook, thinking of that death. No, he had to stay and try to talk sense into his father. Yet how could he do that without revealing Zorro's secret, without hurting Victoria?

What was he going to do?

For a moment, despair engulfed him and he put his head in his hands. He shoved the despair aside, but the reality represented by his thoughts came back to haunt him immediately, until his eyes rested on the decanter of wine his father always kept handy for visitors to every room, and the library was no exception. It was an almost full decanter, sparkling, and compelling. The glass beside it was clean and empty, calling to him as strongly as the wine seemed to be. For a moment, just a moment, Diego resisted the call, remembering his University days when friends came home reeking of liquor and reeling drunk for him, the one sober man in the bunch, to care for. But he couldn't resist the call forever. He was already resisting so much.

Slightly astonished at himself, but beyond blame as the situation of his impending marriage whirled around and around in his mind, one hand reached for the decanter as the other reached for the glass.

Before he knew it, he was on his sixth glass, and the decanter was empty. But the wine hadn't helped. The impossibilities continued to whirl in his mind, and the longer they whirled, the more impossible a marriage, to anyone, seemed to get, and the harder to overcome his father's 'deal' became. That was when Felipe found him, slowly wending his way to complete intoxication, and a way around the 'deal' seemed as far away as it ever had.

The evening was advanced, and the birds had gone to bed when Felipe slowly approached Diego, wary for once in his life of his mentor, afraid of the strength that could be unleashed in the drunken haze Diego now found himself in. Carefully, Felipe lifted the glass from Diego's hand and set it on the mantel, still half full. Then he signed a question at Diego.

Huh? asked Diego, slurring the sound so that it came out more like a grunt than the question it was. Felipe repeated his hand signals, and Diego's face, already drained, whitened even further. No, my friend, Victoria's not dead, though she might as well be. No, my father, my in... ines... He paused, too drunk to say the word without taking a deep breath first. ... inestimable father has just ruined my life by giving me a decree to marry or else leave the hacienda.

Felipe was wide-eyed for a moment, then signed something more, but in his inebriated state, the hand waving was beyond Diego. He didn't even understand the question of how many glasses he'd had, but he perfectly understood what was happening when Felipe lifted him from the chair he'd been sitting in, and helped him on unsteady legs towards his bedroom.

There was a scary moment when Diego almost rolled off the bed while he was getting into his nightshirt, but finally he was under the blankets, cozy and warm, and sound asleep. Felipe just shook his head; Diego was going to have one dandy of a headache the next day. With luck, Zorro would not be needed to swing his blade somewhere in the Los Angeles territory.

Quietly, the servant closed the door and simply let his friend sleep it off.

Day One

Felipe was right; Diego had one heck of a headache the next day. Solemnly, Diego swore not to go near alcohol again as he drank his tenth glass of water for the day and tried to sleep away the pain. Fortunately, there was no need for Zorro during that long day.

Day Two

Diego, this is Teresa. Don Alejandro held out his hand in a gesture of introduction, though his voice was more familiar than formal.

Diego wished Don Jose had chosen anywhere besides the tavern for this meeting; he preferred to have Teresa and Victoria as far from each other as possible to keep any potential anger to a minimum. But he hadn't been consulted, and what had been a promise of an early lunch and watching Victoria for several hours from the corners of his eyes had turned into an impromptu introduction scene. The entire thing was highly embarrassing, especially considering the interest Victoria was showing her best friend from her place behind the bar. Diego wished the floor would open up and swallow him.

Still, Diego had to be polite. Buenos tardes. It's a pleasure to meet you. He briefly kissed the girl on her gloved hand.

Buenos tardes. It's such a pleasure to meet you, too, Don Diego, said Teresa, appearing happy to have her hand so gallantly kissed. Diego, however, was simply behaving as his father had taught him to behave. But according to Teresa's lowered voice, she had other designs. I've been told so much about you.

Oh? asked Diego as father and daughter joined the de la Vegas at their chosen table for lunch. The two older compadres immediately began talking about cattle and prices and other ranch business, leaving Diego and Teresa alone to get to know each other. What have you heard? he inquired, playing along with this charade even though he wasn't happy about it.

Oh, said Teresa while Diego tried to keep one eye on Victoria. I've heard that you like science, which suits me just fine, as half our hacienda is full of past and present experiments.

That information caught Diego's attention. How could there be a scientist in the pueblo and him not know about? For a second, he trained both eyes on Teresa. Victoria appeared ready to come out from behind her bar, and, forgetting about the information of a new scientist living in Los Angeles, Diego forced himself to reply carefully. Really?

Face it, Don Diego, your reputation has preceded you. Teresa smiled with just a hint of coyness behind the gesture.

Only Victoria had never been coy, not once in the many years that Diego had known her. He saw that the gesture was not reflected in Teresa's eyes, and he continued in a guarded fashion. What do you know about the arts? Poetry, pictures, novels, plays, and the like? he asked. He'd never had trouble talking to Victoria about art before, but he wasn't speaking to Victoria right now; he had to remember that.

Teresa shrugged her shoulders under carefully laid, dark ringlets. I haven't thought much about the arts before. I'm usually too busy doing experiments to worry much about them. I've lived the last ten years with me aunt in Spain. We didn't spend much time going to plays and such; she always said that she didn't have any use for them.

Diego was aware that Teresa must have spent at least some time on her hair and dress for his sake, as she was wearing the latest of European fashions, and he felt manipulated again, like he had since the conversation with his father concerning the announcement of this 'deal.' He didn't like feeling manipulated, even if that feeling wasn't fair to Teresa. His emotions made him sound gruffer than he might otherwise have sounded. I would have thought that my reputation would have showed me as something of a Renaissance man; art has always had an important place in my life, like science has. Now Diego noted that Victoria was ambling towards their table, and he mentally prepared himself for the encounter.

Victoria arrived. She asked, Can I get you anything? It was a fairly innocuous, safe question. Diego was relieved it wasn't more personal.

Diego nodded, hiding everything, including his relief. What are you serving for lunch today? He wanted to take Victoria's hand, but even in just a friendly gesture, he knew that wasn't a good idea, not while he was meeting his possible wife for the first time. He shivered when he thought that Teresa might end up as his wife.

Carne asada, enchiladas, tamales, albundiga soup, a roast beef stew... the usual. Victoria smiled, and Diego couldn't help but notice that the gesture went all the way to her eyes.

Carne asada sounds wonderful today. Nobody makes it as well as you do, he said, smiling up at Victoria, but wondering why he suddenly felt determined not to like Teresa now that Victoria was standing so close to the table. It didn't make any sense.

Teresa spoke up, Yes, carne asada does sound good on such a cold day. Make that two, please.

Diego knew he wasn't being fair. He internally argued with his conscience, noting how polite Teresa was, and reminding himself that she had an interest in science. How many unmarried girls had an interest in science? So she didn't know much about art. Big deal. She had many attributes to appeal to any man, including her obviously pleasing... figure; she was really quite beautiful. What isn't to like? Diego asked himself. Still, he couldn't help but notice how Victoria's hair curled naturally, to tumble about in a haphazard jumble, while Teresa's hair looked very... arranged, he finally decided. He preferred a jumbled mess, he acknowledged, all the while knowing that his preference wasn't fair at all.

I'll get your orders right up, stated Victoria, with a final, puzzled glance at Diego before she hurried away toward the kitchen.

Diego sighed quietly; he had lived through that encounter. He didn't know how, but sparks hadn't flown between the two women. In fact, they had all but ignored each other. Even Victoria hadn't suddenly dissolved into a temper. How amazing.

Now, where were we? asked Teresa, sounding polite yet businesslike. I have my own horses, and my own dowry. I think I might make an excellent wife for a caballero, she told him.

Diego did his best not to blanch.

Teresa looked a bit surprised at his reaction. Isn't that what this meeting is all about? To see if we're compatible for a marriage?

Even Diego was surprised by her forward, open behavior. He protested, Well, yes, but that doesn't mean...

Teresa interrupted him. Shouldn't we treat this like the business contract it is?

That was the problem; this was a marriage they were discussing, not a business! But, it was unlike any marriage Diego had envisioned for himself. Don't you think we should become friends first?

But I thought things were going rather well, stated Teresa in her own confusion. After all, we're both interested in the same things, or claim to be. What more could we want?

What more indeed?

At that moment, Victoria appeared, bearing a tray full of dishes and clean utensils and napkins. It was the lunch they had all ordered.

Lunch is here, said Diego with fake cheerfulness while Victoria carefully served the hot food to Teresa. Then she turned to Diego.

I knew my carne asada was your favorite, what with you being in here for lunch so often, Victoria teased, serving a second plate of the hot food.

Diego had the decency to shrug affably. Thank you, Victoria, it looks delicious, as always, he said, and couldn't help himself as he took Victoria's hand for a friendly pat. How have you been, Victoria?

Victoria almost blushed at the direct question. It was so rare for Diego to directly ask her anything, and even more unusual for him to look her straight in the eyes like he was. Oh, I've been the same as always, Don Diego; busy. They chuckled together, as if they were sharing an old joke. Victoria disappeared to bring out the remainder of their lunch. Diego idly watched her go.

Because he was staring at Victoria, not an uncommon practice of his, he wasn't aware of the abrupt look of calculation that came suddenly into Teresa's eyes.

Later that same day:

The second evening came on even colder yet. Nobody would have guessed that it was April and not February as the air grew colder as the day grew older. Pretty soon, only a few customers besides the de la Vegas held on at the tavern that night for supper. Two meals at the tavern in one day was a bit unusual, but it had happened a few times in the past. Besides, this unaccustomed visit gave Diego more time to stare at Victoria. At least, he hoped he would get the opportunity to stare instead of entertain the daughters of neighboring caballeros.

Diego squinted at the soft light of sunset that spilled through the doors, glad that his head no longer ached, but sad because of the unseasonable chill to the weather. He had to ride out after the Domingez gang that night, since the lancers hadn't found them yet and tracking wasn't their strength. Oh, why did a group of men have to escape from jail now? Diego asked himself, happier to stay in the tavern and watch Victoria from the corner of his eye than in riding through that biting wind after escaped outlaws. The fact that a full moon would help in his endeavors didn't do much to improve his mood.

The second day is almost over, Diego. What are you going to do now? asked Alejandro, who still had the checkered napkin served with supper covering the front of his vest and white shirt.

Diego didn't know how his father could be warm enough without a jacket. He wrapped his arms more firmly around himself and groused, I know what day it is, Father. You don't have to remind me.

Victoria stopped beside the younger man, a serving tray in one hand and a jug of juice in the other. She refilled their glasses, though it was clear from her demeanor that she hadn't heard Don Alejandro's comment or Diego's reply. I'll be closing soon because of the cold, Señores. I hope you have your coat with you, Don Alejandro, or you'll be positively frozen by the time you reach home.

Diego broke in, then, wanting to control the conversation before his father had the chance to do more than hold up his jacket. Oh, he'll be fine. There's no need to worry, Victoria.

Victoria blithely went on, I'm not worried. Don Alejandro can take care of himself, like Zorro can. He's not like you, is he, Diego? She giggled rather helplessly, softening her words with the sound.

Diego was still having trouble following a simple conversation, but he had no trouble picking out the masked bandit's name. Zorro? What does he have to do with anything?

Victoria shrugged. Oh, nothing. But I think he would not be content with studies and experiments, as you are, Diego. Something tells me that he's somewhere, out there, tracking those escaped criminals while we're all in here, warm and comfortable.

Maybe Zorro just wants to stay warm on a night like this, too, Diego answered, just barely keeping the typical cheerfulness in his voice as he considered what a cold night was in store for him. Why did Victoria have to compare him to Zorro all the time, anyway? He conveniently ignored the fact that he had compared Teresa to Victoria that same morning. Thinking of the tavern owner reminded him that he often came out on the losing side of Victoria's barbs, even if they were unintentional on her part. The current conversation was just another such example.

I didn't mean anything by my comment, Don Diego. In fact, if Zorro wants to warm himself up tonight, he knows the way to my kitchen, she said with a smile lighting up her lovely face.

Suddenly, the foul mood that had descended on Diego soon after his father had made known his proclamation lifted, and he reached out again in a friendly fashion for Victoria's hand. A thrill went up his arm at the contact, but he pretended to ignore it. I'm sure he'll be fine, Victoria, Diego comforted, and the señorita sidled away after a friendly pat on the hand, duly comforted.

However, a friendly pat didn't help Diego's other debacle, and time was running out.

Day Three

The third day of the 'deal' found Diego busy fixing the corral fence with Alejandro and the other vaqueros. They didn't finish the fence, and Diego had to send Felipe into town to fetch supper. Another day had gone by, and Diego was no closer to a chosen marriage partner than he had been on the first day, in spite of his lunch with his intended bride the day before.

Thus Diego was extremely surprised to see Teresa trotting towards them on a rather docile mount, one of her many horses, he mused. He broke apart from the group to meet her.

Señorita, to what do we owe the pleasure of this visit? asked Diego, grabbing the horse's bridle so she could dismount.

I came over to talk to you, if that's all right, answered Teresa, coming directly to the point of her presence at the hacienda. She was wearing a day dress of plain muslin, not a riding habit, and her hair was much more logically arranged for a day spent on science experiments. It all leant a sense of last minute mystery to her purpose in wishing to see him.

Diego was surprised at her request, but he waved his right hand towards the creek bottom behind the hacienda. What can I do for you? he asked politely.

Teresa didn't pretend or prevaricate as they walked away from the large group of men watching them. I'll be quick and blunt, Don Diego. What's going on between you and that waitress at the tavern? Because I noticed your interest in her.

Diego almost choked, but managed to keep his calm. Victoria? he asked in an only slightly squeaky voice. Why, nothing's going on between us, Diego protested. We've been friends for years, and I hope we'll remain so for many more years yet to come.

Teresa acted a little mollified by Diego's reply, for she asked her next question with more care. Are you certain that nothing is between you two?

Diego gave what he hoped was a convincing laugh. I assure you, Señorita, that nothing besides friendship exists between Victoria Escalante and Diego de la Vega. There, he hadn't lied by making that statement. Not exactly.

Suddenly Teresa stopped walking and grabbed Diego's arm to make him halt as well. The mein of artifice that Teresa seemed to wear fell away and she was openly honest in her forthcoming statement. Come now, Diego, we both know you're not telling the truth.

Diego carefully kept his face schooled to appear neutral. And everyone in Los Angeles knows of Victoria's feelings for the bandit called Zorro. Any man who tries to win her affections would have fierce competition, and I'm afraid that's not me. Victoria and I are good friends, but that's all, he explained regretfully.

Teresa eyed him carefully, then knowingly shook her head. Nice try, Don Diego, but your behavior yesterday tells a different story. I saw you watch her when she wasn't looking. Your eyes didn't show the concerns of a friend, she accused.

Diego's face blanched then as all the blood drained out of it. Just in one day, she'd figured him out. The deception that he'd been employing for years was up; he'd been caught. He chuckled a bit defensively, embarrassed, and scuffed his boot back and forth in the dust of a current cattle trail. But he softly confessed, I don't quite know what to say, Señorita. I've never said or done anything to indicate...

Teresa looked honestly surprised at that. Why not? she interrupted to say. How can she choose between you and this bandit Zorro if she thinks you're just a friend?

Diego swallowed noisily and looked off towards the road that went past his father's property. He'd traveled to town many times on that road. He'd even navigated by it to go to the tavern before. Thoughts of the tavern immediately reminded him that Teresa had quickly discovered one of his secrets. He didn't know how it had happened, but this woman had seen through him in moments. I don't want Victoria to have to choose, Diego said quietly. I'd rather be her friend than lose to... to the hero of the pueblo.

Teresa resumed their amble through the trees. Well, at least you were honest with me. She halted again to look straight at him. And I think you're selling yourself short; any woman would be honored to call you her husband, even this... Victoria, did you say her name was?

Diego smiled, and nodded. Yes, that's her name, and thank you for the compliment. He didn't say that it would take a great deal of... something... to win the hand of Victoria Escalante away from Zorro. I'll keep your advice in mind, promised Diego aloud.

Teresa looked at him appraisingly. Diego felt like one of his father's prize bulls. Now we know where each of us stands, she said. I'm glad you were so honest. Thank you.

The pleasure is all mine, Diego answered back, being polite again, and took the hand she offered to give another gallant kiss to it, even though it was encased in a black riding glove.

Goodbye, Don Diego. I'll look forward to hearing from you again. It was the same thing she had said when they parted the day before, noncommittal, yet putting an end to nothing. It was a good way to take leave of the man she might soon marry, especially since she viewed the entire process as a business arrangement.

Diego hurried to say, I'm glad we understand one another. Goodbye.

Goodbye, she said once more, then climbed on her own back to the corral fence where she'd left her horse.

Diego sighed and looked once more at the creek bottom. So Teresa knew about his tender feelings for Victoria, yet she hadn't said aloud that she refused to enter into this 'deal' created by their parents. It was odd for a woman not to show animosity over her intended's feelings for another woman.

Diego sighed again before resuming his duties with the vaqueros on the fence; this marriage 'deal' was becoming more troublesome by the minute.

Three more days, Diego. Alejandro paused in his fixing duties as soon as Diego rejoined the group of men by the fence. The vaqueros stood nearby, ready to help, and listening.

Diego sobered at his father's words. I know, Father, he replied. Neither de la Vega enlightened the vaqueros of the 'deal' or the toll it was taking on their patróns' relationship. What had always been private remained private.

Day Four

The evening of the fourth day came on downright frigid, but that just gave more of an excuse for the de la Vegas to build fires in their fireplaces in preparation for the supper party Don Alejandro had planned to hold. He'd invited ten couples, and the Martinezes were among them. Unfortunately for Diego, so was Victoria.

Diego kept one ear trained on Victoria's voice the entire night, no matter who he was talking to. Still, he was caught by surprise when that voice was raised in anger. He was even more surprised when the target of that anger turned out to be Teresa Martinez. As politely as possible, he excused himself from one of his father's guests and crept closer to intervene if he had to.

It does not! Victoria expostulated, her hands on her hips, surrounded by amused though wary guests. You take that back!

Teresa looked stunned under her careful arrangement of ringlets. But it's the truth, plain and simple. The tavern may be the one public building in the pueblo, but it's still a low, base place if I ever saw one.

Ladies, interjected Diego calmly, setting his customary glass of water on a small table. He saw immediately that intervention was necessary. There's no need to argue, surely... He had to distract Victoria from such an insult, and fast.

Victoria cut him off. There's surely a need to argue! Don't you try to sweeten this outrage, Diego de la Vega!

Diego tried for peace again. He held up his hands in solicitation. Victoria, please...

But Teresa seemed determined to upset Victoria. What would a simple waitress know about her patrons, anyway, especially if they're from a class of caballeros?

Waitress, huh? That does it! Victoria yelled, and pulled back an arm as if to punch the other girl right between her eyes.

Diego, stunned at the height of Victoria's anger, caught the arm as it drew back. It's clearly not the time for this conversation, he commented, and bodily hoisted Victoria into his arms and carried her struggling form out into the garden. As much as he wanted to get Victoria into his arms, this was not what he intended.

Victoria writhed and wriggled against the strangely strong arms that held her. Let me go! I'll get her back for that comment!

Diego set her down, but refused to completely release her. That is exactly why I can't let you go, he informed as they both stood beside the rose vines covering the wall. Now, do you want to tell me what that was all about? asked Diego.

Victoria made an immediate try for freedom. Diego restrained her by holding on to her wrist.

Now stop it! he entreated and sat her down in one of the two iron chairs next to one wall. Victoria was breathing as hard as he was. Do you want me to tie your feet so you can't walk? he asked, threatening.

Victoria seemed much calmer, now that she was seated and under his restraining hand. She shook her head. No, she replied. You don't have to do that. I'll be fine now.


Promise. She resolutely bobbed her head.

Slowly, Diego released the hold he had on her arm. Despite the cold air of the night, his hand burned from touching her. He stood back, unafraid, yet cautious. Now, suppose you tell me what happened? Why would you interrupt one of my father's special parties with such an argument?

Victoria colored a little when he referred to her interruption of Don Alejandro's party, the red in her face matching the color of her best skirt. It's nothing, Diego. I apologize for...

It's not nothing, Diego insisted. You're angry. Something had to rouse the famous Escalante fighting spirit; what was it? Certain that she wouldn't bolt for the door now, Diego dropped into the second chair and heaved a sigh of relief. Victoria was rarely angry while a guest at his father's hacienda, but tonight had raised her instinct to fight. Diego was very glad the crisis was over and she didn't appear to be angry any longer. However, he was fully aware of how splendid he thought she was when her temper was completely engaged. He sighed again. His breath misted into the cold night air.

Nothing, Diego. It's... Victoria halted at the look of admonishment on his face. All right, she said, giving in to his well-trained features. She called me a waitress and my tavern unfit for more genteel customers.

Diego laughed a bit. But, Victoria, you are a waitress. What's so horrible about that?

Victoria played thoughtfully with the edge of her skirt, embarrassed now that the fight was taken out of context. That may be, but she didn't have to say it in such a... oh, I don't know... satirical way.

Again he laughed. It wasn't satirical. Now, Victoria...

But she interrupted him. Why are you taking her side? Her voice was dangerously low.

That statement stopped the laughter. I'm not taking her side.

Yes, you are, Victoria argued. Then she smiled, comprehending. Oh, I understand; caballeros must stick together in anything...

Diego groaned, not bothering to cover his emotions. We all have to stick together. It doesn't make any difference what class we're from.

Victoria stopped in mid-protest. Do you really believe that?

Once more Diego was also stopped. That the classes should stick together? You know I do, Victoria.

For a moment, Victoria just studied him, gauging whether or not she should trust his statement. At last she said, But she insulted my tavern, too.

Then, by all means, go inside and hit her, Diego surprisingly invited.

What? I can't do that.

Why not? You were ready to a moment ago, Diego noted dispassionately. When she didn't answer, he said, Think how many times people expect a person to be soft just because of his class. Of how many times this hacienda has been insulted.

But, Diego..!

He wasn't through. The trick is to let those insults slide off like so much rain.

Not to care? she asked. How can I do that when my tavern is the point of so many snide remarks?

No, not to care, but to take the insults with a grain of salt.

To roll with the punches? Victoria asked, then shook her head. That may work for someone as mild-mannered as you are, but my instincts tell me to...

He gazed at her in earnest. Fight those instincts, Victoria. It's the only way to show your good breeding.

Again Victoria shook her head. I don't have any breeding.

That's not true. Wasn't your father the younger son of somebody? Diego tried to recall everything he knew about Alfonso Escalante, but his knowledge revealed precious little. Don Alejandro rarely spoke about his old friend. And your breeding shows in many other ways, Diego said, though saying such a personal observation made him uncomfortable.

What do you mean? Victoria asked, confused. Her brow puckered very becomingly.

Diego could not afford to get distracted by her puzzled expression and how it looked. He thoughtfully imparted, You may run a tavern, Victoria, and your higher class status may not be obvious when you're working, but good breeding shows in other ways; in each time you give to the poor, house the transient, feed the hungry... You're much more generous than most ignorant caballeros give you credit for.

Victoria considered, then shook her head again. I'm not as genteel as you are, she argued with a laugh.

Diego stared straight into her eyes. I've always considered you an equal, he said, his voice full of the emotion that he couldn't display with his actions, no matter how much he wanted to.

Victoria was momentarily arrested by his tone. But she still insulted me and my place of business, Victoria insisted. And no matter what you say, such an insult must be answered. It's a good thing she doesn't come into my tavern very often. Her tone indicated the threat she would not voice.

Secretly, Diego agreed with her opinion about fighting off insults, but he couldn't risk giving it or he would surely be discovered. Teresa Martinez belongs to a group of people who don't get out much and who stick to the old ways of Europe. I suggest you just ignore anything she says.

Victoria was shocked. But, Diego, she's one of your important guests! she protested.

He went ahead and risked everything when he replied, You're more important.

But she misunderstood his comment. Not according to typical class standings. Because of who she is, or who's daughter she is, she comes first. I'm just a typical barmaid from a very small town.

Diego glanced at her out of eyes gone completely soft. There's nothing typical about you, Victoria. Now, you're probably cold. Why don't you go inside and warm yourself? I'll be along in a moment.

Victoria rose, but hesitated. Thank you for dragging me out here, Diego. Literally!

He chuckled with her and shooed her into the hacienda. When she was gone, he heaved a sigh of relief. Never before had he felt such a strong need to divulge his secret, to protect and support her, to take her in his arms and refuse to let her go. In fact, his arms could still feel her curves from when he had carried her bodily into the garden, and desire sprang up in him totally unbidden, but he squashed those sensations. However, he could do nothing about squashing his roaming thoughts, and for the next few minutes, was a helpless prisoner to them as they wandered from scenario to scenario, from scene to scene. Horrified, but helpless, he cradled his head in his hands and took deep breaths of the frigid, calming air. Then, thoroughly chilled, he returned to the hacienda.

Day Five

The fifth day found Diego once again in Los Angeles. It was market day, and the bright colors of all the vendors, farmers, and merchants in town met him the minute he and his father cantered under the gates. Both spoke greetings to Padre Benitez as the man returned to the mission, then carefully threaded their way through the shoppers already between them and the tavern. They both spied Victoria doing her weekly purchasing before they had the chance to tie up their horses to the tavern's hitching rail. Don Alejandro was immediately accosted by three caballero friends who he hadn't seen all month, and Diego couldn't help himself as he sauntered in Victoria's direction.

Hola, Don Diego, she greeted right away, then looked behind him with an expression of mock surprise on her beautiful face. What? No señorita following you today? Honestly, Diego, I think you're losing your touch. She regarded him with raised eyebrows.

Diego laughed lightly. No, the Martinezes are friends of my father's. They weren't invited to partake of the lovely pueblo of Los Angeles, although we didn't know it was market day. The last sentence saved the entire statement from being a bit sarcastic, making it apologetic instead.

Victoria eyed him playfully, her basket swinging from her arm. I thought all caballeros stuck together, she teased.

Diego responded without thinking of the impact of his reply. Only at parties, Señorita.

The smile that had adorned Victoria's face until now faded and was replaced by consternation. I'm sorry about my behavior at your father's party, Diego, she apologized, a rare occurrence for her.

Diego knew how unusual her contrition was. Don't be sorry, he said, critically eyeing a bolt of silk so he wouldn't have to look at her. He didn't want her to see the memories of that night played out in his blue eyes, or the emotions those memories unexpectedly caused. Actually, I'm glad of your argument. It highlighted some very interesting points. I've been thinking about what you said ever since, he confessed softly, now nervously feeling some shawls spread out in the back of a wagon.

Hearing this news surprised Victoria, who could only think of her poor behavior. Such as what? she asked cautiously.

Oh, I've been thinking about what you said on classes and their respective standings, and on insults and how we should handle them. And I believe I've changed my mind as to how I think. Aren't these shawls lovely? he asked quickly, hoping to distract Victoria from his opinion. Why had he divulged such personal information, anyway? The supposed change was true enough, but it was dangerous even in the best of circumstances to express his views, and around Victoria was never the best of circumstances.

Victoria stopped beside him, stunned this time that her words had such a strong impact on him. I had no idea you even remembered what I said, she acknowledged, too surprised to speak loudly.

Something, some spark of rebellion towards his father and his edicts, lit momentarily through Diego. He glanced at her. Of course I remember what you said. Actually, he vividly recalled everything spoken that night by the enchanting señorita. But he couldn't tell her that.

Victoria paused right next to him and the wagon, also playing with the silk of a black shawl shot through with gold thread. I never thought that my opinions, once spoken, affected anybody.

Diego looked at her then, staring her straight in the dark, familiar eyes. The power of a word is amazing, he agreed, honest for once despite his need to constantly be on guard when near her. He cleared his throat. then noticed the shawl in Victoria's hands. What a beautiful choice, he commented.

Victoria laughed somewhat deprecatingly through her nose. It is, isn't it? Unfortunately, I couldn't possibly afford such a luxury. Although it is cold today for April. She rubbed the long sleeves of her white blouse and stared at the gray clouds that dotted the sky overhead. It does look like it might rain. Perhaps I should have worn something when I decided to go out today.

Nonsense, Diego heard himself say, and he turned to the tailor, the maker of the shawl, an older gentleman named Garcia, who stood beside the wagon. How much are you bartering for that shawl? he asked.

Thirty pesos, replied the tailor immediately, always on the lookout to make a bargain.

Diego eyed the man with lowered brows. If I wanted to be taken advantage of, Señor, I'd walk over to The Alcalde's office. He heard Victoria bark a laugh. Fifteen pesos, he offered, being uncharacteristically gallant. Perhaps my father's 'deal' has made my head turn soft, he thought to himself with a sense of irony.

Victoria glanced up at him, uncomfortable, though amused by his comments. Diego, you don't have to...

Diego turned towards her with a smile on his face. He regarded the lovely señorita standing with him. Hush, Victoria. It's been ages since we've given you anything, you're cold, and the opportunity is available. He shrugged. Now, would you deny a friend his simple pleasures?

Disgruntled a bit by not catching a man who was willing to spend some money on a sweetheart, Señor Garcia worked to recover the wandering attention belonging to the tall caballero. Twenty-five pesos, he said.

Diego's attention wasn't wandering, unless glancing swiftly at Victoria through his lowered eyes counted. Then he turned back to Garcia and the matter at hand. Twenty, answered Diego without a wisp of interest in his voice to indicate any desire for the shawl at all.

Twenty, sighed the tailor.

Sold, replied Diego quickly, and pulled some money from his sash. He then wagged his finger at the man as he pulled the shawl from the bundle of material in the bottom of the wagon. And don't think that I don't know what this shawl is worth, he said with a sudden teasing quality in his voice. You're getting every centavo you deserve.

Victoria laughed in spite of herself as Diego spread the shawl's material almost reverently across her shoulders and took her basket. Diego was rarely so gallant, she thought as she snuggled under the new shawl's sudden warmth; she didn't think she had ever owned anything so fine. Thank you, Diego. And be sure to thank your father as well.

Diego allowed himself the luxury of a smile at her. My pleasure, he said simply, though his gaze threatened to swirl and become mired in her intense, lovely eyes. He blinked to shut out the sight, aware of the danger he had placed himself and Victoria in. The sight of the two lancers standing noncommittally at the fringe of the crowd nearby alerted him as to the folly of his acts. He promised himself that he would soon leave the charming señorita's side.

But Victoria was blissfully oblivious to the sudden look of longing in his eyes, as she was involved in settling her new shawl more firmly around her shoulders. Now I'm prepared for anything.

You always are. Diego didn't explain his cryptic words, only led her away from the tailor's wagon, hoping to forestall the string of questions that she would ask after only one look at the naked love in his eyes. He didn't want her to see that for anything.

What was wrong with him today? He usually had such good control of his emotions. He was beginning to suffer the effects of his father's 'deal,' he decided. After all, the outcome was only two days away.

Determined to enjoy himself and Victoria's company for the time being, Diego still wandered bleakly through the market.

Alejandro confronted his son in the library that evening as the sun was setting. What's this I hear about a dustup between Victoria and Señorita Teresa last night?

Diego laughed nervously, remembering, and put his volume of poetry aside. Oh, it was nothing, Father.

One more day, Diego, Alejandro suddenly warned.

Diego dropped all pretenses of hiding his nerves. I know, Father. I know.

Day Six - the final day

The morning was empty on the de la Vega calendar - a rarity in itself. The two dons usually had ranch business to conduct, with a late lunch in the tavern, depending on the day and its activities. On this particular day, the business was put off until the afternoon hours and the two men spent their morning at the tavern, both nursing cups of coffee.

Even your mother helped to separate the cattle, Alejandro argued.

Diego was quick to refute, Mother was an exceptional lady. He remembered a woman, short in stature, dressed in Alejandro's breeches from when he was a teenager and expected to help out at the hacienda, yelling and waving her hat right along with the vaqueros. He laughed at the memory.

His father agreed with a resounding sigh. You're right, Diego.

Of course I am, Diego reminded.

Then Alejandro noticed Victoria as she stopped beside their table, intent on collecting their empty dishes. Victoria, Don Alejandro asked her as she carefully stacked their cups and set them on a tray in preparation to taking them out of sight before washing them in her kitchen. Diego groaned to himself at the sight, as he wasn't sure how many more times he would be allowed to see her stack dishes while he was an unmarried man. The thought sent despair and an opposing desire through his heart.

Yes, Don Alejandro? Victoria paused in her self-appointed chore. She stood next to Diego, who moaned again to himself, this time in definite desire. What was he going to do?

Alejandro gestured around the tavern with the red-checked napkin still in his hand. Diego and I were just talking about the afternoon's activity. He says it holds no appeal to women and...

Diego was sure to interrupt. That's not what I said, Father. I said most women.

Whatever, Alejandro waved his hand again.

Victoria spoke up. I won't know what I think if you never tell me what this conversation is all about. There was a smile on her face to soften her words.

Branding cattle, Alejandro answered immediately.

Well, isn't that just a part of ranch business? Victoria inquired, and Diego was glad to hear that she thought so. A rather noisy part, but a part nonetheless, she said.

There, Alejandro said triumphantly, waving at Diego this time. I told you. Some women don't mind.

Diego smiled. I'm glad to hear it.

Victoria suddenly laughed. As long as I don't have to do it.

Of course not, replied Diego with a comforting hand on her arm, when actually he simply wanted to connect with her. That's what vaqueros are for. Though you have to admit that it doesn't smell very good. He wrinkled his nose in distaste.

She giggled. I don't know. The smell of burning cattle flesh always set my heart to fluttering.

Alejandro gestured again at Victoria. See, here's one women who doesn't find it completely awful.

Diego released Victoria. I think she's joking, Father.

Victoria finished collecting their coffee cups. I am, she said. Although the wood smell from the fire is nice. She paused before heading back to her kitchen, tray already in hand. I can't believe we're talking about this subject in a tavern, around food. It's a good thing you two have had your drinks already. She hefted the tray up further, indicating their recent coffee break.

Diego smiled at her. And it was wonderful, as always, he said.

Two compliments in the same week! Victoria didn't know what to think. She left the table and Diego openly watched her go. He couldn't help himself.

Only this afternoon left, Diego. Alejandro suddenly reminded, And I don't know where you'll find another woman who doesn't seem to mind cattle branding.

Father! remonstrated an embarrassed Diego, but he knew his father was right. If it wasn't for the masked bandit, Zorro, he realized Victoria would make the perfect rancher's wife. Unfortunately, Zorro had the tendency to get in the way of everything.

The vaqueros had the cattle separated out by the time they arrived at the hacienda, and the noise could be heard about a mile away. The cacophony was so loud that they missed the arrival of Señorita Teresa, the sound her horse made on the scattered rocks of the drive impossible to hear over the bellowing and bawling of the cows.

Teresa leaned on the fence of the front corral until Diego noticed her.

Knowing that there was no way his father would hear him yelling that they had a visitor, he sauntered over to her in no enthusiasm, but hid his feelings behind a big smile.

Teresa had to shout to be heard over the ruckus. Don Diego, Buenos tardes! I came to see your father, but what's going on?

Propriety dictated that he continue to smile at her through the corral fence, but he didn't have to enjoy it, and he didn't. Buenos tardes, Señorita! Diego greeted. Sorry for the noise, but we're branding cattle today. He was gratified when he saw her frown.

The worst part about running a ranch, Teresa suggested.

I don't know, said Diego, suddenly glad that Victoria wasn't there, as he recited her words, It's just part of ranch business.

Yes, the most unpleasant part! Teresa objected.

Diego tried not to show his embarrassment at her embarrassment. He wasn't certain how successful he was. I take it you're not here to help?

Teresa laughed. Oh, no! she made sure to refute right away. I came to apologize to your father. Actually, she thought, her own father had suggested she ride over to apologize in person for her argument the other night, but she had agreed that it was a good idea, considering the 'deal' in the works with his son.

The son leaned on the fence, belying his thoughts; he was spending the unexpected free time daydreaming about leaning against the fence with Victoria on the other side. The sudden arrival of Alejandro cut the daydream short.

Teresa smiled. Don Alejandro! Just the person I want to see.

Alejandro grinned, What can I do for you?

I've come to apologize for the other night, she said.

Alejandro seemed puzzled. Diego knew just what the woman was referring to, but he didn't enlighten his father. Anything he could do to deter a marriage to Señorita Martinez, he did. The other night? asked Alejandro.

Yes, the argument with Señorita Escalante. I was certain that Diego had told you. Teresa looked uncertainly toward Diego.

Diego turned on his brightest smile. In all the excitement, I forgot all about it, he explained, knowing the entire time how his father hated not knowing exactly what went on in his own house.

Teresa knew nothing about what was going on between father and son. Well, I apologize for interrupting your party, she said with as bright a smile as she could possibly produce.

Diego jumped into the conversation then. Father, he said, arresting the older man's attention, Teresa was just telling me how she doesn't care for branding cattle. She isn't here to lend a hand.

Alejandro wasn't as shy as Diego had been about using Victoria's words. It's all part of ranch business, isn't it, Señorita?

Teresa pretended to laugh. The pretense didn't escape Diego's notice. Why was he so determined to find fault with the woman? he wondered. It's not very pleasant, she repeated. I would rather not lend a helping hand, no matter how neighborly it might be. My own father requested my help to brand our cattle not two days after my return to California, and I haven't cared for such an unwomanly thing since. She laughed again.

Alejandro was immediately understanding, though Diego comprehended how the older caballero didn't like to have any part of ranching criticized by anybody. Silently, Diego scratched his ear, refusing to get involved in the conversation now, thinking of the 'deal.' Teresa was digging her own grave.

When she had left, riding sidesaddle like a proper woman should, but like no other female rancher bothered to do in the entire territory, as Diego knew his father would notice, Alejandro said, sounding rather bewildered, But Victoria didn't seem to mind such a nasty business when we brought up the subject at the tavern. He shook his head, befuddled.

Really? asked Diego noncommittally. I hadn't noticed. Inside, he smiled.

Well, Alejandro said as he turned back to the corral and the patient cattle. Come on Diego. No use waiting. Once again he looked at the departing figure of Teresa Martinez. Perhaps she isn't the perfect wife for a ranchero after all, he muttered, and it heartened Diego to hear it.

Diego's good mood lasted through a supper of sizzling fajitas and on into the languid evening hours. Then darkness set in, Alejandro went to bed, and Diego was left alone with his thoughts for company. He couldn't pretend any longer; he was simply going to have to take his father's 'deal' seriously, or else he'd find himself married to Teresa before he knew what was happening. Where would that leave him? Where would that leave Victoria? He certainly preferred being married to her, no matter who she showed her temper to at his father's parties. No, he had no choice but to believe his father meant what he had said in earnest, ever since Don Alejandro had reiterated his challenge yet again to an unhappy Diego, who still didn't know what to do.

The despair had set in again, and looking for nothing more than comfort, he dressed as Zorro and rode into Los Angeles to visit Victoria. However, even the warmth of her kitchen didn't dispel his dark mood. He sat on a bench pushed back against her wall to wait, thinking. He had far too much time to think these days, and not enough time to come up with a solution. That was his problem.

She found him there, a big, black, hulk huddled over his knees, supported by his elbows, obviously thinking. By the expression in his eyes and on what she could see of his face, he had been thinking for a long time.

Zorro? she questioned when he didn't say anything to her as she came through the curtains. Usually, he said something poetic or romantic, and he came out of the shadows in a superbly dramatic way, but tonight he simply stared at his black gloves, pensive. Is something wrong?

He glanced up at the sound of her voice, then glanced at the curtains. They were still swaying from her passage. He glanced back to her, smiled, and straightened. I was so lost in thought that I completely missed seeing you come in, Señorita. I apologize.

Lost in thought? Victoria asked. That's more like Diego than you. Are you sure that nothing's wrong?

Zorro smiled again. Everything's perfect now that you're here, Victoria. I assure you, nothing's wrong.

Looking like she wasn't convinced, Victoria set the tray of glazed jugs she was carrying onto the counter. Nothing could take her attention away from her legendary masked man for a minute.

She stared at him, finding that he hadn't moved. Instead, his eyes were trained on her, watching as she went about the business of closing the tavern early due to the cold and few customers. He looked like he was enjoying himself as he patted the bench next to him. Come here, please, and let me watch you up close for awhile.

That seemed more like something he'd say, and she obligingly sat down on the bench. But there was a sound, an undercurrent of sadness, in his tone. Are you sure there's nothing the matter? she asked again, just to be on the safe side.

What was it lately with women discovering his secrets? As abruptly as she asked her question, Zorro suddenly couldn't bear to restrain himself anymore. He sighed then, a huge explosion of air from deep inside his chest. He pulled off his gloves and took her hands in his. Victoria, I can always count on you to see through to the heart of any matter. Yes, there's something wrong and it has been on my mind for days, and though I've thought of little else, I can't seem to find a way out of it.

She was instantly concerned, as he knew she would be, which was why he was loathe to mention anything about the 'deal.' He didn't wish to bother her with his problems. But she said, Maybe if you tell me about it, I can help.

Hiding nothing now, ending any pretense, he barked a short, sardonic laugh. I hope so, but I doubt it. I doubt anybody can help.

What's troubling you? she asked. I've never seen you uneasy before.

Falling pray to her persuasion, and wanting to talk about what was on his mind, he said, Perhaps I will tell you about it. That might air out my mind a little. Perhaps I'll see a way out of my predicament.

But he didn't talk, only resumed his thinking pose until Victoria kissed his fingers, and the jolt he felt woke him up a bit. My goodness, your fingers are icy! she exclaimed. It must be getting very cold outside.

Yes, it's rather uncomfortable, he agreed absently. But that's not why I came to see you.

Then why did you come? Her voice held only interest in his quandary.

He was convinced. Let me tell you the story, Victoria, and then you can decide if my trip into the pueblo was worth it. No, please, don't kiss me until I'm done. He laughed then. Your lips have the tendency to make me very lightheaded, and I need to think clearly for the moment. His drinking the other day had certainly taught him that!

Victoria drew back, disappointment on her face, but agreed to listen intently.

Zorro began, Someone... I live with and care for a great deal...

Victoria interrupted. You live with this person? It's not a female, is it? she inquired, the jealousy clear in her voice.

He smiled again. After her 'discussion' with Teresa, he didn't blame her for feeling a teeny bit jealous. No, it's a male, part of my family, he told her.

Her relief was as obvious as her jealousy had been. Well, that's good.

You have no reason to be jealous, mi preciosa, he assured her, the most sincere thing he'd said all week. Anyway, this... person... has made an... 'ultimatum,' I guess you can call it, to 'encourage' me to get married. I don't really want to marry, but all my protests have fallen on deaf ears, shall we say.

Married! she exclaimed, horrified.

Married, he repeated grimly. I haven't any days left anymore to choose a wife for myself. The only option I seem to have is that I can suffer an arranged marriage, or I can leave home. I don't know what I can do that I haven't already tried...

Perhaps talking to this person...

Zorro laughed mirthlessly. I've tried that. I've tried reasoning, argument, ignoring him, raging, persuasion... You name it, I've tried it. But nothing works. This... person... is determined that I get married and nothing will dissuade him.


Nothing. And each time we talk about this dilemma, I think of you, and I shudder, but I can't tell him about you, because that would give away my secret identity, and that is not an option, and I certainly can't marry anybody else...

No, she said forcefully. I can see your problem. It's almost as if you're trapped by your identity, by me, by concern for our safety...

Like she had interrupted him, now he interrupted her. Squeezing her hands in his, he stared at her, meeting her eyes for the first time all night, and admitted, The thing is, Victoria, you're the only person I would ever want to marry, but we can't...

She looked at him, yet saw nothing as her attention was suddenly turned internal by a new idea. Her eyes widened. But we could...

He knew what she was going to say, and he leapt on her words. No, Victoria, I can't let you do that! You don't even know who I am, and I can't let you know, or the Alcalde will surely hunt you until...

We can say it is a marriage among friends. You know, one friend helping out another.

He was quick to refute her, But this is to be a true marriage, Victoria, with expected children and, he swallowed, helplessly considering what that might mean, and everything that pertains to children, he ended, just as powerlessly. I can't let you do that for me.

But I would, Victoria argued decisively. You know I would.

However, Zorro was adamant. No, Victoria, that's not why I'm telling you this, not what I meant at all!

But Victoria turned towards him on the bench, still clenching his hands in hers. I can't sit quietly by and just let this happen, either, let you marry someone else because your family thinks it's a good idea. I have to do something!

But I can't let you go through with this insane idea! You don't even know who I am, and you love Zorro, not me, the real person...

Didn't I say that I love the real you when you asked me to marry you? she argued.

Well, yes, but...

There are no buts to this, and you have no choice.

Again, he tried to persuade her to see reason, but she was insistent and wouldn't listen to his arguments. Her main point, that she couldn't endure to see him married to someone else, was repeated often, and finally she hauled at his shirt front until he was forced to stand from the bench or fall on the floor. Listen, Zorro, do you love me? she asked bravely, though he'd never mentioned loving anybody before. She stepped forward until she was cradled against him. She was close enough so that he could smell the soap she used to wash her shirtwaist.

Groaning, his hands wrapped in hers, cuddled between them, he said, You know I do. But don't you see....

Then what's the problem? I love you, you love me; let's show your... your family member... that we won't be pushed around by doing exactly what he's forcing you to do.

Victoria, Zorro said, his voice low, I can't do that to you. You don't even know who I am... He was adamant in his argument.

Victoria ignored his arguments in single-minded intensity. Stay right here. I'm going to get my ring, unless you already have one...

Victoria, don't! Zorro argued again, his desperation sounding loud in her quiet kitchen. I can't let you do this...

Serious, she lowered her voice to match his. If you marry someone else, I'll... I'll... I don't know what I'll do. I've spent years, years, waiting for you. I've built an entire life around that dream I've had of you. I'm not about to lose you now.

She spoke with an open honesty that frightened him, but freed him at the same time. If he was equally as honest with her, she would know that he could never marry someone else, and the alternative, to make her his mistress, was impossible to even consider. Either he had to tell Victoria his identity and marry her, risk losing her forever, marry Teresa, or leave the hacienda. It was not a choice he wanted to make, but he had been maneuvered into revealing himself whether he wanted to or not. He would rather reveal himself to Victoria than to anybody else. However, revealing himself to anybody made him shiver in apprehension.

At last he acquiesced. I don't like this, but I also don't see what other choice I have. But listen well, Victoria, I... He was having trouble putting into words the problem that was on his mind. After thinking for a moment, he added, This marriage is to save many things, most notably you, though I think it puts you at greater risk than you already are. I won't blame you if at any time you want to back out, and I... This was the hard part. I won't lay a finger on you just because of the wedding. I'm being forced to get married; I won't be forced to do... other things as well.

For a second, Victoria stood and gazed up at him. He watched the torrid emotions chase each other around on her face, until she swallowed loudly, but forced herself to ask, You mean consummation?

Uncomfortable, hesitant, Zorro finally replied, Yes. keeping his answer short so that he could at least speak. His heart was beating so hard at her words that he felt lucky to be able to speak at all. I promise.

Still gazing, thoughtfully, longingly, she nodded once, and that was all it took to convince Zorro, who wrapped her in his arms.

Relief washed over him. Thank you, Victoria, he said simply. You don't know what kind of life you've just saved me from.

I can guess, Victoria answered, her voice muffled by his shirt, but her sarcasm came through despite the impediment. However, this life won't be much easier.

She was talking about his new promise, he realized, and he wondered how in the world he was going to keep it. Already, he wanted to kiss her everywhere, just for agreeing to marry him. Not consummating that marriage, even if it would make his father feel sour at not getting any grandchildren, was certainly not the kind of marriage he had expected, but he wouldn't force his attentions on Victoria for anything; ironically enough, he loved her too well.

Give me thirty minutes, and I'll be back, then we can talk to the padre, Zorro said, thinking of the necessary witness, thinking of collecting Felipe, who was still waiting patiently for his return in the cave. Thank you again for doing this, Victoria. Then he was gone, slipping out through her back door as quietly as he had come.

It was only then that Victoria realized that he hadn't even kissed her.

Day Seven

It was already after eight o'clock the next morning when Diego awoke, at first a little disoriented, then remembering everything from the night before. He rolled over in his bed to contemplate his ceiling, and sighed sadly.

He was married, and to Victoria, but very little had changed because of the wedding. He was still alone in bed, as he had promised, and Victoria was probably serving breakfast at the tavern, just like always. Nothing had changed at all besides his marital status, he realized.

However, he understood perfectly well that he would now have to tell his father everything. He probably should have told him earlier and begged for mercy, but he couldn't resist Victoria's arguments, as he found he could often not resist anything she wanted. Except consummation of the marriage, which today wouldn't be too hard to resist, he said to himself. Victoria was surely spending the day feeling very angry about his eventual unmasking right before the wedding ceremony. She had anticipated marrying Zorro, not her good friend, Diego, but hadn't backed out like he had expected her to. Instead, she hadn't said a word, and the kiss at the end of the ceremony had been rather cold, unlike anything he'd ever received from her. For the first time in his life, he couldn't anticipate what she was thinking, and that idea terrified him. He hoped that he hadn't lost her permanently, either as Diego or as Zorro. That hadn't been his intention at all when he went off, riding to visit her the night before.

But there was his father to tell first. He would have to worry about Victoria after breakfast. Right now, he had an appointment with his wheeling-and-dealing father. Funny how he wasn't looking forward to that conversation, either.

Feeling a little depressed at the mess his life was now in, he rolled out of bed and dressed, prior to heading for the dining room. When he didn't find his father there, he searched the hacienda until he discovered Alejandro at his desk, surrounded by papers and scrolls. He had been busy writing up his son's marriage contract. Alejandro immediately admonished Diego for rising so late; he had spent an hour with the papers already.

Actually, that's not what I wanted to talk to you about, Diego said, pushing aside the remonstration as he was so used to doing.

Well, then, and Alejandro rotated a bit in his chair, giving Diego his undivided attention, out with it, Son. Then an inspiration suddenly seemed to hit him. Does this have to do with our 'deal?'

Diego tilted his head. Yes and no, he replied slowly, trying to buy some time, falling into a chair, but not seeing how he could soften this news for his father. Last night I married Victoria, and I'm the outlaw, Zorro.

Don Alejandro looked dumbfounded for an entire minute. Then he half asked, half shouted, What?

Diego sighed once more, then repeated his earlier statement, noting that his secret didn't get any easier in the second telling than it had been in the first.

Alejandro was still quiet, especially for him. Diego worried that he'd over-stressed his parent with his confession, making him incapable of internalizing such tremendous and unexpected news. Alejandro sat, unmoving, in his chair, and gaped. At last, he managed to ask in a more civilized tone, You what?

Diego repeated his statement for the third time, and it seemed more incredible every time he said it, even to him.

Alejandro finally appeared to be able to handle the news. At least enough to ask a question. You and Victoria are..?

Diego nodded. Married, like you 'ordered'.

And you're..?


Alejandro whistled lightly in respect. Then this 'deal' I had thought up...

Was impossible, to put it bluntly, Diego finished for him. The only reason I agreed to get married at all was that Victoria was quite persuasive when I told her about my problem. Plus, I was afraid I was going to lose her, he softly divulged. I didn't think I could live with that. Diego hung his head, staring at the floor, feeling more depressed than ever at his declaration.

Alejandro whistled again. Then you must have felt intensely coerced last night, both you and Victoria. Where is she? Still sleeping? he asked with a glance in the direction of Diego's room.

Actually, said Diego uncomfortably, I imagine she's at the tavern right now, feeling very angry, and betrayed.

For a second, Alejandro looked confused. Then you and she..?

I refuse to consummate a marriage that was forced upon me, Diego stated, making his more conservative father wince at the word 'consummate.' But I also refused to lose someone as perfect as Victoria over this as well. Marrying someone... anyone... else was unthinkable.

Then I shouldn't expect grandchildren?

Diego ground out, How you can even think about having grandchildren now is beyond me. I can't even think about how I'm going to get Victoria to talk to me again, let alone how I'm going to convince her to be the mother of my children.

Diego! exclaimed his more delicate father.

Diego was too tired and heart sore to feel very contrite. You should have thought of that when you were creating this 'deal.'

I'm... Alejandro stopped in apparent astonishment. Eventually, he tried again. I'm... I'm sorry, Diego, I had no idea that... He sat in astonishment again. The 'deal' was never meant to force... I mean, I always thought you had no interest in women, not that you...

Diego snorted, but already felt himself softening at his father's words. No, I can assure you that hasn't been the case at all. I've always been in love with Victoria.

And now you're married to her. The incredulity of that truth was just starting to seep through Alejandro's voice.

In name only, Diego was certain to emphasize.

Alejandro wilted a little in his chair. Madre de Dios. To think, one morning I wake up to find that my son is married and that he's secretly the outlaw, Zorro. The incredulity of that truth was also starting to seep into his tone.

You can't tell anybody what you know, cautioned Diego. I only told you to explain the reason for this seemingly unplanned marriage. I shudder when I wonder what the Alcalde will do to you if he knew, Diego admitted, now looking horrified himself.

Alejandro appeared to be assimilating his new knowledge. But he asked once again, No grandchildren?

Diego gave him a disbelieving look. Father!

Alejandro didn't look very sorry. You can't stop an old man from dreaming, he said. Look, Diego, I'll do all the explaining to Don Jose. I won't say a word about Zorro, just that you're married and that our agreement is off, he said. Don Jose is looking for a husband for his daughter.

I'm so happy I fit the bill, Diego said dryly, then rose to eat breakfast, or at least, our money did.

Again, Alejandro said, I'm sorry I did this to both you and Victoria. That was never my intention.

I know, Father, Diego said softly.

I had no idea. I'm sorry. And Alejandro really did look apologetic.

So am I, whispered Diego, thinking about Victoria and how she must feel. Sensing his own depression again, he made his way slowly to the dining room. So am I.

Later that same day:

Diego spent all of the morning and several hours of the afternoon fixing the corral fence again. His thoughts were seldom far from Victoria as he worked, but even he couldn't find a way out of this new problem. Which was a problem in itself, he admitted internally, as he often imagined kissing her everywhere whenever he considered the quandary of his marriage. But there was little he could do except stay away from town and give her time to come to terms with his identity on her own. He imagined that he might be staying away from the pueblo for quite some time.

Consequently, he was very surprised when Victoria arrived at the hacienda to visit just before supper that night. After finally finishing the fence, Diego had retired to the library and his poetry book, but found he couldn't read as images of Victoria kept coming between him and the words. Swimming in thoughts of her, and pondering what to do about her, Diego was a little stunned when his father announced that she was at the door requesting to see him. All thoughts of poetry flew from his mind as he rose from his chair by the fireplace.

Please, come on in, he said, snapping his book shut and giving her his complete attention. Quietly, Alejandro disappeared from the room, leaving the two troubled souls alone together, but Diego hardly noticed his disappearance. What can I do for you? His tone was formal, after the reaction he had received the night before, and he endeavored to lighten his voice.

Victoria, too, appeared nervous, though she and Diego had never been nervous around each other before. With a loud swallow, she said, No, I didn't come to get anything, but to give something. I have something to give to you, she explained, rambling. Reaching out quickly with her hand, she offered him something glittering on her palm. I didn't know if you would like this, but I couldn't help... I mean, I saw this later on today and... Her voice trailed off ineffectually, but her hand remained outstretched towards him.

Not expecting a gift, Diego transferred his book to his other hand, then reached out before he thought better of the action. He plucked the glittering object from her palm and managed not to touch her. Then, when he realized what it was, he almost wished he hadn't accepted anything. For in his fingers was a simple, circular, wedding band.

I had to guess about sizes, and I've never noticed how big your hands are, Victoria fussed. If it doesn't fit, or you don't like it, I can always take it back.

But Diego had already slipped the ring on his finger, where it rested perfectly against his pinkie. She had guessed his size just right. No, it fits fine, he protested, still a little amazed at receiving any gift, and particularly at receiving this gift. I like it.

I bought it this afternoon during siesta...

In Los Angeles?

Yes. At the little jewelry shop on the plaza.

The one owned by Don Miguel, Diego mentioned agreeably, but inside, he was reeling; she had bought a wedding band, and for him! It could only mean one thing - she's thinking about me, he insisted to himself. That thought stunned and delighted him.

I thought... She halted, and then Victoria's hand suddenly went to her forehead as her nervousness vanished. Can I talk to you for a minute, Diego? she asked.

At the same time, Diego stared at his new ring and found the courage to simultaneously relate, Victoria, I meant to say... But he chuckled lightly at their clashing voices and said gallantly, You first.

Victoria looked almost apologetic as she drew in a deep breath and cut right to the heart of the matter on both their minds. I can't seem to be very angry for very long, can I? she muttered to herself, but loud enough for him, with his keen hearing, to pick up. That information delighted him even further, but he was thoroughly stunned when she closed her eyes and said, I'm sorry.

For what? he managed to ask over his disbelief. He didn't think he'd ever heard her apologize for something before, and now he had heard her apologize twice in one week!

For thinking of you in such a poor light, for being angry at you until about noon, then feeling too confused to think straight at all, then having such indecent thoughts... She paused, and took another deep breath. Diego, do you feel it's truly necessary, and I'll follow your lead if you do, not to... She trailed off again and closed her eyes.

Diego had to finish her thought. His heart began pounding hard as he said in a slightly strangled voice, To consummate our marriage?

Victoria nodded, her eyes still closed. It was as if she felt too frightened to open them.

His heart pounding even harder, Diego tossed his book on the chair he'd just vacated and slowly took one step closer to her. When she didn't retreat, or even open her eyes to notice where he was standing, he took another step. His heart pounded like thunder. I have to admit that nothing would please me more. I thought to protect you, he disclosed in a whisper.

Victoria's eyes flew open. I thought you didn't want me anymore.

He extended his large hand towards her cheek. Of course I do. There's nothing I want more, he whispered, then, still with little thought, he bent down and claimed her mouth with his. His arms stole around her waist even as hers lifted to encircle his neck in a comforting caress. She seemed to simultaneously wilt and match his demands with her own as her tongue felt his and passion rose in each of them. The passion quickly became hot and demanding. Hands roamed in hair, under shirts, on skin, as they both became oblivious to anything but each other. The need to touch, to feel, the other, was overpowering. Still with little thought, emotions running rampant, Diego gently lifted Victoria into his embracing arms and carried her quietly down the hall to his bedroom.

* * *

Alejandro strode purposefully from the dining room to Diego's bedroom the next morning; he and the vaqueros had found another fence that needed repairing while on the morning's ride around the ranch, but it wasn't something that should be left to the other men while he and Diego spent a nice, cozy morning in town, especially after the way Diego had disappeared the night before, not even bothering to show up for supper. Alejandro knew that he couldn't shirk his part of the work, and neither could Diego. This was a problem that could only be solved by strong backs and some sweat. With that in mind, he pushed open the door to Diego's room to wake up his sleeping son.

Then he froze in his tracks and lifted his hand in front of his eyes. He slowly began to work his way back out of the room.

How embarrassing! to walk right in on his son, lying on his back, sound asleep, with Victoria resting her head on his well-muscled chest, also sound asleep. They were both obviously content, and both obviously naked, judging by the arm Diego had wrapped around her and the hand she had reaching up for his shoulder.

Carefully, Alejandro closed the door and turned away. The fence would have to wait. But as the father turned and began walking down the hall, he smiled.

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