by Linda Bindner

It was still very early in the morning. Meadowlarks sang their peculiar song, darting in and out of the high grass of summer in front of Esperanza's hooves as the sign for the pueblo finally came into sight. It creaked and swung in the breeze, adding its own kind of special squeal to the early morning symphony of sounds.

Added to those sounds were the rattle of the odd cart, the snap of the rug Seņorita Escalante was shaking off the edge of her porch, and faint mumbling as Sergeant Mendoza made his way across the plaza from the cuartel to the tavern. Diego nodded to Victoria from in front of the mission, but didn't move to his regular place at the tavern for tying his horse. Instead, the young de la Vega heir reined in at the mission, leaving a confused Victoria to wonder about his business with the church at this hour in the morning. It must have been pressing business for Diego, who usually slept until noon, to come to town at such an early hour.

Diego tied his mount to the rail, then dropped a few odd coins that he pulled from his sash into the poor box affixed to the church wall. Private Quero, one of the new Mexican soldiers assigned to guard the town, opened the cuartel gate to follow Mendoza across the plaza to the tavern; Victoria's cooking was known to be much better than that of the cuartel cook, and it was clearly nearing the time for breakfast, since two such reputably indolent soldiers were up and about. Diego took a deep breath of the dusty, dry, hot California air, the air he'd loved since childhood, and then crossed into the cooler shadow cast by the sanctuary of the church.

Silently, Victoria watched him go. She briefly wondered if he was going to Confession, as it seemed unlike him to attend the early morning mass offered. But he didn't look like a man going to Confession. He looked like a man with another goal in mind. Curious, Victoria entered the tavern and headed for the kitchen, still wondering. But she was obviously going to have hungry customers to feed, so she pulled plates from the shelves as she went to stir the sauce for breakfast burritos that she had bubbling over a fire. The fireplace was warm already, but not as hot as it would surely become before the day was over.

Curiosity may have won the day, but Victoria would never have guessed the purpose of Diego's visit to the church that morning. He stood just inside the door, his eyes adjusting slowly to the gloom of the sanctuary. Nobody else was about this early in the day, and for that Diego was grateful. His mission was hard enough to perform when the sanctuary was empty; it promised to be much harder in front of prying ears.

Diego! sang out the rough and hazy voice of Padre Benitez from the front of the church. I'll be out in just a moment.

Quiet himself in the hush of the church, Diego only nodded, squashing a habit to wince at the use of his given name. But it really didn't matter anymore if someone inadvertently figured out his secret identity by hearing his name. He had to remember that, but almost five years of habits were hard to break. Only the arrival of the Mexican army, prior to the ousting of Ignacio DeSoto from the post of alcalde, would convince Diego to try to break his habits even now. Before, his very life depended on them. Now, his happiness depended on his ending them. Yet they died hard.

Diego, said a smiling Benitez as he pulled at the rope holding together his brown priest's robes. He was forever tugging at that rope. Diego thought it was nerves, nothing more, but, of course, he'd never asked the kindly priest. What can I do for you this fine morning?

I'm sorry about seeing you so early... Diego started to say, but was interrupted by the priest.

Nonsense! bellowed Benitez. That's what I'm here for, and besides, the help already had me out of bed. Anyway, I needed to rise before the morning mass. Is there something specific you wanted?

Diego was hesitant to answer. There was a morning mass? Then he would have to hurry; this was no time to be guided by being rushed. He forced himself to say, Yes, Padre. There is something specific. I'd like you to hear my Confession, even as I ask your advice. You'll understand more when I Confess.

Benitez frowned. Diego was speaking his words, which were ordinary enough, in a voice that was several keys lower than he typically used, which wasn't normal at all. Suppressing a shiver, almost a premonition, the padre nodded and gestured with his arm to the Confessional boxes. After you, my Son.

Again Diego paused. I wonder if we could talk right here? He pointed at the wooden pews.

Benitez shrugged. Why not? It's your Confession, and we're unlikely to be interrupted so early in the morning. But what can I do for you, Diego?

After taking a reluctant seat, even though he had asked to talk there, Diego sighed. This is difficult to say, but it's not likely to get much easier without practice. So you can consider this practice as well as a divulgence. But I need to talk to somebody about this or I'll burst. I was up half the night, thinking about what to do. I should do something. I think it's time. After all, it's been a week since the revolution, and more than a month since the Emissary... He couldn't finish.

Padre Benitez's lined face grew grave at these words. You can't talk to your father?

Diego snorted inelegantly. But at least he was laughing. No. Father would be busy spreading the news around the pueblo, and I want to keep this quiet for as long as possible, until I've had the chance to tell Victoria.

That surprised the old priest. Seņorita Escalante? What does she have to do with this?

Diego looked uncomfortable for a moment, then steeled himself to continue. That's what I wanted to talk to you about.

Go on, I'm listening, invited the padre.

Diego sighed again, then threw away his restraint. I'm Zorro, he whispered into the cool sanctuary air.

The lit candles sputtered on a sudden breeze. What? asked an astounded Benitez.

Diego shifted against the wooden bench at his back. I'm Zorro, he repeated, and I want to know your opinion about telling Victoria and, perhaps, getting married.

Benitez was dumbfounded. To her?

Diego smiled then, unable to resist a little humor. Well, not to the altar boy.

Amazed to silence, Benitez could only stare out into the empty church. He completely missed Diego's attempt at humor. At last, he turned back to the young man he was sitting beside. Why have you decided to tell me this now?

Diego squirmed again, but answered, Because the Mexican army has moved in to Los Angeles, putting an end to the tyrannical Spanish rule. DeSoto has gone back to Spain. Here's my chance if I'll ever get one.

Benitez slowly nodded his head in comprehension. But he then decided to return to the previous topic under discussion. You've already spoken to Victoria about this?

In a roundabout way, shrugged Diego. Zorro asked her to marry me, and she said 'yes' to the man under the mask. But, no, she hasn't said 'yes' to me specifically, if that's what you mean.

The padre nodded. The entire pueblo knows of her love for el Zorro...

Yes, she doesn't exactly hide it.

... and that you have been her best friend for years, continued the padre. But you haven't asked her as yourself?

This was the part that had kept Diego awake until the early hours of the morning. Not exactly, he hedged. At the padre's look of consternation, he hurried to explain, That's what I'm worried about.

That she'll refuse you?

That she'll despise me. Even though I'm Zorro. Diego nodded, lowering his head to his hands in concern, hiding his features from the padre.

Padre Benitez sighed. My Son, if you have so much trouble telling me, I can't imagine how hard it will be to tell Victoria.

That's why I wanted to think of this as practice, Diego said from behind his fingers.

Suddenly, Padre Benitez began to laugh.

The sound was so at odds to the serious topic of conversation that Diego was prodded to ask, What's so funny?

That you're the one who has been climbing on the rooftops of the pueblo, explained Benitez. You, the most even tempered man in the pueblo, are the hero... He couldn't go on for the laughter.

Diego smiled, not lost to the irony of the subject. It is a bit humorous, isn't it?

Yes, a bit. Padre Benitez went on laughing, chuckling out loud, giggling about the very idea of Diego being Zorro, until finally he stopped on a choke and settled down in the pew. So, you think she'll be angry? he asked, returning to the conversation of interest.

Oh, I know she'll be angry, insisted Diego.

But Victoria will quickly come around.

Padre Benitez sounded so certain that Diego found himself believing him. But he wasn't sure if he truly believed the words, or if he only wanted to believe them. Do you think so?

Yes, I think so. Benitez hoped he was as certain as he sounded. Victoria's as smart as she is beautiful. And I've often encouraged the beautiful seņorita to marry.

Diego raised his eyebrows in irony again. Yes, I know. The padre had been his biggest stumbling block in the past, his largest anti-encourager.

Suddenly the padre recalled who he was talking to, and nodded in remembrance. I bet you do, he said. Then, as a more positive incentive, he asked, What kind of wedding mass do you think you might want?

Such ease of acceptance surprised Diego, but for the first time ever he felt hopeful. We get to choose? I haven't exactly asked Victoria about wedding masses. I don't know what she'll want.

Then aren't you speaking to the wrong person? asked Padre Benitez, lending the only advice that he could give in the situation.

Diego gazed at him, his blue eyes dark and sparking, like an idea had just ignited in his mind. Perhaps one had. Comprehension lit like a candle.

Without further comment, Diego rose and left the church.

* * *

Victoria was busy sweeping the floor in front of the green bar when Diego walked in. Sergeant Mendoza and Private Quero were the only customers the tavern had at the moment, and both of the soldiers had opted to sit outside on the porch to enjoy the breeze before it grew too hot to enjoy anything. Thus the main room of the tavern was empty when he walked in.

Diego! Victoria exclaimed with an accompanying smile. She paused in her sweeping, leaning on the broom instead. What are you doing in the pueblo so early?

Actually, said Diego, taking the padre's advice, giving his eyes time to adjust to the dimmer, inside light, I came to speak to you. He leaned comfortably on the bar, appearing nonchalant as his heart beat a steady rhythm against his rib cage.

Me? Nothing could have surprised Victoria more. Why me?

If you only knew, thought Diego, but chose to say aloud, Can you get away for a few moments? The tavern is a bit too unpredictable for interruptions, and I have something important to tell you.

Important? Victoria's eyes grew wide. I have to watch the tavern...

Your girls can do that, interjected Diego. This was too meaningful not to interrupt her. Can we go to the hacienda, perhaps?


Now if you can get away. Later if you can't.

Victoria shrugged. I suppose I can get away now.

Diego straightened. Good. I'll get my horse and meet you out front in five minutes. He turned as if to leave.

She stopped him. Diego, why the rush? Abruptly, inspiration struck her. You aren't getting married, are you?

Diego turned back around. He had the strangest expression on his face, as if he wished to say 'yes' with all his heart, but would only enigmatically reply, Not here. It will be too crowded in here. I promise to tell you the minute we get home.

Victoria had no choice but to agree, and by now she was burning with curiosity. All right. At the hacienda. I'll get my horse.

Diego nodded, his eyes burning bright with... what? Excitement? Passion? Victoria couldn't be certain in the shadowy tavern, but she was determined to find out once they arrived at the de la Vega hacienda.

The two mile ride from town came and went uneventfully. Victoria had spoken to Maria, her helper for the day, and didn't have to worry about the tavern, though that was the only thing she wasn't worried about. Diego had met her like he said he would, but hadn't said a word as they rode under the sign bearing the name of Los Angeles. If she didn't know better, she might suspect that he was suffering from the constraints of an arranged marriage, but she knew Don Alejandro better than that. He would never force Diego to marry someone for the sake of being married, no matter how often he talked of wanting grandchildren. She also didn't know why she was stuck on this idea of Diego marrying suddenly, but something had to have him so closed-lipped, and it was clear the secret was something of great import. If it wasn't marriage, then what could it be?

They arrived at Diego's home among the quiet calling of the birds in the grass. The horses snorted through their noses, and jangled their bridles, but nothing else made a sound. Even the birds were hushed at the noise from the horses. Diego offered a hand to help Victoria down, though she didn't need help and he had never offered it before, then he silently opened the front door, calling, Father? Are you in here?

Silence greeted his call. That was when he found the note left for him on a library chair. He frowned in concentration, then smiled, still reading. Father has ridden out with the vaqueros to check the cattle. Good. That means we'll have the place to ourselves.

When he said that, Victoria began to get worried. He was, after all, a single man, alone with an unmarried woman... Then she would have laughed if she'd been alone; fortunately, the single man was Diego, and she knew she had nothing to worry about.

So when he abruptly took her hands in an unprecedented gesture, she went willingly enough into the library, following the gentle yet insistent tug of his fingers.

Diego, what is this all about? she asked. He was acting very mysterious.

In a moment, he promised, and led her over to the love seat in front of the full bookcase.

When they were seated at last, side by side, Victoria asked, Are you going to tell me what this is all about now, Diego? Her tone was slightly accusatory, as if she didn't have any real patience for him, as if she was simply humoring him. She cleared her throat, trying to get rid of that tone.

Instead of answering her, like she hoped, he rose again, as if he was truly afraid, but forced himself to sit, and as he sat, he lowered himself heavily beside her, like there was a boulder in his stomach. He took her hands again, and his sigh echoed to the far corners of the room. He scrutinized her calculatingly, then began speaking.

Victoria, I don't want to frighten you or...

Do I look frightened? I'm not, she assured.

That's good. But knowing that I don't frighten you doesn't help me to say... what I need to tell you.

Why don't you just spit it out? Victoria suggested. That's what I always do.

Diego smiled, refusing to meet her eyes, looking at their linked fingers instead. You and my father - you're so much alike, so spontaneous.

How would you know? Victoria laughed.

Only Diego was so serious, he wasn't laughing with her. Straight faced, gazing at the far corner of the room, he quietly said, Because I'm Zorro.

The smile slowly faded from Victoria's face. What?

Still looking down, Diego said, I'm sorry, but there isn't a way to soften this news; I'm Zorro.

Diego? That was impossible. You're..? Victoria abruptly stood up, though Diego clutched tightly to her hands and wouldn't release her. She looked off, across the room, as if she was remembering something. She eventually did appear to recall his confession, and became angry that he'd never said a word about this before. Let me go! she demanded.

In an unforeseen show of spunk on his part, Diego said, No.

Victoria was incensed. No? She couldn't believe that. It was so unlike the Diego she knew, that she could anticipate. Just like that, you tell me you're Zorro and you won't let me go? She pulled on her hands. Diego increased his strength as she did. Let me go! she repeated. She had to get away, back to her tavern where she could be alone to think...

No, he also repeated, just as stubborn as she had ever been, even if his tone was still quiet. I suspected you would react this way...

This way? What way? she asked angrily.

Angrily, he said.

Still struggling, she said, You got that right, at least!

Just as quickly as she had risen, Diego stood up beside her. His tall form cast hers into shadow. She pulled, he resisted. Then he spoke, Victoria, please understand why I can't let you go like this.

But she was incensed, embarrassed, humiliated. I understand nothing!

If I let you go, you'll return to the tavern, alone, to cry. I'd rather you cry on my shoulder than to an empty room.

But Victoria wasn't ready to cry. She was still too angry. She leaned toward him and hissed, We don't always get what we want!

I know! I know better than anybody.

His words, while hastily spoken, did have a calming effect on her. Suddenly, Victoria stopped her exertions. She seemed to wilt before him.

Diego sighed again. Now are you ready to listen?

Victoria suddenly yanked on her hands, surprising Diego, though he still didn't release her. She renewed her struggles. Let go of me!

No. Not until you've listened to me.

Again Victoria ceased her wriggling, but she wouldn't look at him. Her eyes began watering and her nose began running. Will you please let go of me? She tugged ineffectually on her hands, but even the tugs were only halfhearted.

It broke his heart to see her so angry, but now that he had started on his explanations, he had to finish, and she had to listen. No, I won't, and if you're thinking that you don't want to cry in front of me, you can just forget that; I don't care if you cry. I even have a handkerchief for you. So go ahead and cry. And now will you sit down before you fall down?

Slowly, almost reluctantly, she nodded.

They sat again. Diego accepted her acquiescence for what it was, and slowly released one hand. Victoria didn't try to jump up immediately to get away, but raised her hand to her forehead instead, like she had a headache. I don't believe this, she said with a little shake.

What don't you believe, that I am Zorro, or that I could be Zorro? he asked gently.

Rather then answer him, Victoria said, That any of this is happening to me. Your promise... She didn't finish.

Diego noticed that she seemed to respond to a gentle tone, so he made certain to maintain one. He asked, What about my promise?

She sniffled, then recited as if she had her words memorized. You said when your mask could be removed forever, we would declare our love for each other... She would have gone on, but a sob halted any more words.

And so it has been, so we can. He wanted to scoot closer to her on the love seat, to comfort her, but didn't dare.

What he said seemed to surprise her enough to make her stop crying. She looked at him for the first time since he told her. Zorro's going to retire?

Diego shrugged, but what he really wanted to do was pull her into his arms. He finally can. The arrival of the Mexican army, DeSoto's departure... It all means that the oppression is at an end. It seems like a good time to retire.

But we don't have a new alcalde yet, she pointed out. You don't know if the oppression is really over. The sobs started afresh.

Once more came the sigh. Victoria, this is an opportunity, he said, trying to explain his thoughts from the night before, and if I don't take this opportunity while I get it, I feel I might never get the chance again.

So you're just going to stand by and do nothing, no matter what happens?

He smiled once more, a soft, gentle gesture. No. I plan to speak out against any unforeseen cruelties as a caballero, as myself. It's time to become the son my father wants to have, I think.

Tears streaked down her cheeks, and she brushed them away, but they were only replaced by new ones. She sobbed out an exhalation. But what about... She couldn't go on.

He could no longer bear the tears on her cheeks. He pulled ever so slightly, and she didn't resist. On a new sob, one that racked through her entire body and made her shiver, she slid into his arms, her head landing on his shoulder, as he had said he wanted what seemed like ages ago. More tears streaked down her cheeks. His arms slid around her, making her blouse wrinkle in a quiet, careful embrace, but an embrace nonetheless. What are you trying to say?

Another shiver coursed though her, and soon his blue jacket was as wet as her face. What about... What about..? She couldn't finish; she was crying too hard by then.

By instinct, Diego rocked her and ran a hand up and down her hair. He gently kissed that hair even as it tickled his nose. Her hair smelled so good! He whispered, Sh. I'm sorry, Victoria. I'm so sorry that I kept this secret from you, but it guaranteed your safety; it kept you alive if you didn't know who I was. That was the most important thing.

But your father..! she protested tearfully.

What about him? Diego asked. You're more important to me, perhaps the most important. More laments issued from her after that statement, and he felt her shake, but he couldn't understand what she was saying for the tears. But I will tell him, you can count on that. I no longer want to pretend, even around him.

You were pretending? Finally he could understand.

He explained. I pretended when I was Diego. To be myself meant too much danger. But I never pretended as Zorro. Never. His arms tightened almost imperceptibly around her.

This was the important issue, the reason for her tears. She shook again under a fresh onslaught. You never pretended... That was real?

His arms tightened again out of habit as emotion flooded him. His large hand cradled her head in support and he fiercely whispered again, Of course I wasn't pretending. I love you. I love you so much! Feeling more daring, that she wouldn't outright reject him now, he kissed her again and laid his cheek on the top of her head. It was habit that made him employ the familiar gesture, and he was too overwhelmed with emotion not to express himself in some way.

Victoria sniffled again, and Diego handed her a handkerchief from his sash, feeling silent relief. As he had suspected in the early hours of the morning, this scene was necessary, but harrowing. He truly hated to cause her unhappiness. However, he had to tell her his secret, too. If he didn't tell her, and life went on as before, he thought he would surely explode if he had to pretend he was the timid Diego anymore. He regretted that she had to wake up to a suddenly new, suddenly capable best friend, but he literally had no choice.

Victoria swiped at the tears sill streaming from her eyes. I'm sorry, I don't know what's come over me...

Sh. Don't talk, comforted Diego. This must come as quite a shock to you. For a third time, his arms tightened across her back.

Then, miracle of miracles, her arms squeezed a little too. The embrace was more secure, more of an embrace than a one-sided gesture of support. Without thinking, Diego gently kissed the top of her head again, and Victoria slowly, still muddled, raised a tear-streaked face until she could see him. You love me?

Oh, yes, Diego whispered as he pushed at the strands of hair clinging to her cheeks because of the tears. Even with puffy eyes and a runny nose, he loved her. I always have. Sometimes more than I can stand.

That's why you occasionally left the tavern in such a hurry?

Diego threw any more caution he felt aside and said, Yes. I had to leave or risk displaying more emotion than was prudent at the time.

Victoria exhaled a large breath of air, more than a sigh. She wiped again at her cheeks, ineffectively. I don't know what's wrong with me...

Diego took the handkerchief from her and wiped at her tears. He hazarded to say, There's nothing wrong with you, only wrong with me for creating such a trap in the first place. I'm sorry again, Victoria. I didn't mean for it to go on this long, to fall in love... He stopped, his voice fading to silence. Neither of them moved. Diego whispered, I'm sorry.

They breathed, in and out, but otherwise seemed frozen for a moment. Gradually, deliberately, Victoria's hand rose until it cupped one of his cheeks. Don't be sorry. You did what you had to do, what you thought was best. It's me who's sorry. Sorry for being angry in the first place, sorry for crying...

You couldn't help yourself. Any other reaction wouldn't be from the woman I love... She broke out into fresh sobs and raised her hand now to her teary eyes. Victoria, please stop crying! he entreated. It truly does break my heart, he said softly.

I know and I'm sorry, she wailed softly and hiccuped simultaneously, trying to be calmer. The storm of tears ended as quickly as it had begun. She also brushed at the wet stains on his jacket. I'm sorry for getting you so wet.

Don't worry about it... Again without thought, he gingerly kissed her hand on his shoulder.

The endearment, while not on purpose, acted like the catalyst that they needed to get beyond this point of tears and sorrow. Regret for lost time would always overshadow their moves, their decisions, but that didn't necessarily have to be a bad thing. Right now, it exploited the feelings of love the two felt for each other, and a delicious sensation of anticipation coursed through each of them as they looked at the other, then drew suddenly closer together.

Diego brushed at the tears on her cheeks and Victoria again lifted her hand to stroke his mustache twice before her lips touched his as carefully as the summer air would touch his high forehead. This first unmasked kiss felt hesitant, exploratory, and so tender, like they had never kissed before. It made him ache for more. Diego couldn't help himself as he deepened the kiss, his hand going to the back of her neck, under her hair, rubbing softly at the knots caused by carrying heavy plates and dishes at the tavern. Her arms curled around his neck and habit made her gently finger the bottom of his hair in a quiet reminder of her emotions for him.

That was how Don Alejandro found them when he slammed shut the front door and halted, stock still in astonishment, his eyes as wide as his mouth.

The noise of the slamming door caused them both to jump, and they broke apart, though neither looked guilty at what they'd been caught doing. Victoria drew a hand away to wipe at the tears still trembling on her eyelashes, and Diego cleared his throat.

Don Alejandro wasn't so calm. He exploded. What's the meaning of this? He looked at them, deciding heavily against the kiss, if they could judge by the expression on his face. Diego, don't you know any better than to try to steal..? And Victoria; what about your pledge to Zorro? Does that mean so little to you? he expostulated scathingly.

Diego felt it was his place to solicitously hold up his hands, warding off any further scathing retributions from his father. Please, Father, why don't you sit down and let me explain?

But Don Alejandro wasn't about to sit down like a good little boy. Oh no, I've listened to all the excuses from you that I'm going to. I will not sit down and be calm while you once more try to worm your way out of...

Diego tried again. Father, please, just sit down and listen. I'm not going to tell you...

You're right, you're not going to tell me some pathetic excuse this time. I don't want to hear it, not when you should show more sense, or at least deference to... someone else who is not here to defend his honor...

Father, please, don't be angry... began Diego again.

Victoria piped up, in spite of Diego's wishes to keep her out of the sudden argument. Don Alejandro, it's not what you think.

It's exactly what I think. I'm sorry, Victoria, but I'm sure you are not to blame. If only my son would be an honorable man for a change...

Diego had had enough. Since you refuse to sit down, I'll just tell you. Father, what you saw was fairly innocent by our usual standards.

Innocent? repudiated Don Alejandro, and Diego put a hand to his forehead at this further interruption. Why did he have so much trouble telling his secret identity? His other hand was possessively on Victoria's shoulder, and he intended to leave it there for once. The contact, while being extremely nice, was wonderful support, whether she knew it or not.

Not completely over crying, Victoria hiccuped, and Alejandro jumped at the sound. Diego, what did you say that would make Victoria..?

Alejandro could infer whatever he wanted about Diego, and often had. Diego took the hand down from his forehead and gestured towards his father with it, saying, All right, that's enough. You're about to hear some shocking news, and you have the choice to stand or to sit like a sensible human. Don Alejandro didn't budge from his place on the floor by the front entryway. Fine, stand then. You remember asking about my sword skills after I fought with Gilberto. It was a statement rather than a question.

And you told me some ridiculous story about hiding your skills with a sword...

Father, I'm Zorro.

The statement sounded bald and ringing, even to his ears, blurted out like that. Don Alejandro's eyes grew wide again, then wider, and he swayed so that Diego had a fleeting, panicked, moment where he thought he'd given his father a seizure. But Alejandro crossed over to a chair and sat down, his mouth now matching his eyes in roundness.

Diego continued, I'm sorry you had to find out this way. It's probably quite a shock. But I'm not stealing anybody's anything. I've loved Victoria for a long time, and she's agreed to become my wife if she'll still have me...

Of course I will, Diego, Victoria interrupted, and no one would ever know about the rush of relief that Diego felt at her encouraging words. Denying his emotions on a daily basis for so many years pushed him to wrap Victoria in his arms, pulling her back to touch his chest, and kiss her hair, father or no father. For her part, Victoria placed a hand on his joined fingers and squeezed, then more noticeably laid her cheek against his sleeve with a contented sigh.

Seeing how it was between them, noticing the love and rightness of having her in his hacienda, Alejandro could only exclaim, Madre de Dios, in a reverent whisper, too overwhelmed with the sudden turnings in his family to take everything in right away.

Then Diego was kneeling on the rug beside his feet. Are you all right, Father?

Softly, Alejandro could only mutter, Fine, fine.

Because for a minute you turned white. And because there's more.

Alejandro turned blank eyes to the son that he thought he knew so well. More? He felt rather than saw Diego glance back at Victoria.

I haven't had the chance to tell Victoria yet...

You were... Alejandro was going to say 'busy,' but somehow that didn't seem appropriate, so he landed on, ...otherwise occupied at the time.

Diego grinned, and this time Alejandro did see him turn and flash a look at Victoria. Very... proper. Yes, I was otherwise occupied or I would have told Victoria... and you... that Felipe can hear, and there's a secret cave where I keep Toronado just over there, and the entrance is in the fireplace. He nodded towards the fireplace on one wall, and it occurred to him that he didn't know where Felipe was. It was a good bet that the young servant was even now in the cave, cleaning up the work table while he waited for Victoria and Alejandro to leave the library. He didn't know yet that their lives had irrevocably changed in the last hour.

A cave? Alejandro repeated vaguely.

To keep the occupants of the house safe from Indian attack, Diego explained.

Alejandro looked flabbergasted. Who told you that?

You did. Years ago. Diego stood back up now that his father appeared to feel far better than he had. At least he didn't look so close to fainting anymore. Victoria didn't react to his news, having already seen the cave when he proposed marriage.

I told you? Alejandro asked in surprise. Oh, I did. Ashamed that he had forgotten even that small detail, he shook his head. The shake didn't help to order his thoughts any. Look, Diego, I know you're the man DeSoto has hunted for years. I've accepted that, but it's going to take this old man some time to come to terms with all this new information.

Diego smiled and said with a shake of his own head, You're no old man. You have a lot of years left in you, or I'm very much mistaken, and I'm not mistaken very often.

Remembering who his son claimed to be, Alejandro once more shook his head. No, I imagine you're not. But I think some time to assimilate this new information is in order. He still sounded vague, as if he'd recently undergone a shock. I'll be in my room.

I need to see Victoria back to the tavern, Diego said a bit hesitantly, shy suddenly now that his secret was disclosed. Seeing Victoria anywhere seemed so normal that he wanted to smile at the prospect and simultaneously felt he didn't know how to behave, what to do. He hadn't thought much about this part of their relationship before now. It was such a dream that he hadn't dared. He was nervous at the prospect and hoped his new, befuddling emotions wouldn't last too long.

Alejandro stood and wandered in the direction of his room, shaking his head, mumbling to himself under his breath the entire way. Diego would have laughed if his father's departure hadn't left him alone, in a room, with Victoria. It occurred to him that he didn't know how to behave in this situation, either.

Clearly shy herself, according to how her arms hung at her sides, then were crossed, Victoria asked, Is he going to be all right?

Diego stared at the direction his father had gone so he wouldn't have to stare at her, but he could stare at something. Oh, he'll be fine.

I don't know, Diego, he looked awfully odd there for a moment.

Diego halted. Should he be concerned? He didn't know, never having divulged his secret to anybody before. He'll be fine, he repeated, hoping his words were true. If it will make you feel better, I'll check on him later. Or Felipe will do it.

Yes, it would make me feel better, but I know something that would make me feel best of all.

A chill of... something coursed through him at her flirtatious tone. Was it excitement? dread? desire? love? Diego wasn't sure, but he could no more stop himself from looking at her than he could keep the seasons from coming, and even he wasn't that powerful.

She looked beautiful standing where he had left her next to the love seat. Her innate beauty made him suddenly want to do indecent things.

I should get you back... said Diego, letting his voice trail off as he approached her.

We really didn't finish our talk, she said in disappointment.

We didn't? Diego was surprised.

If I remember right, I was crying, and then...

He wrapped his arms around her, kissed her on the forehead, luxuriating in the feel of being able to do that finally, and leaned his forehead onto hers. You were still crying.

She argued even as she enjoyed the sensation of touching him, feeling him against her. I was not, not when we...

It was at that time that Diego recalled the words of Padre Benitez. What kind of wedding mass would you like? he asked, getting the words out just before she raised herself up again and brushed her lips across his. The light contact was enough to make Diego groan, and even though he hadn't thought much about this part of their relationship, he found he didn't want to think at all.

Victoria deepened the kiss this time, sending his mind spinning as his hands moved to her back, then up to snug alongside her smooth cheek, his large hand almost too big to fit against that incredible skin. His lips moved to that cheek and trailed down the side of her neck, across her throat, her hot skin almost driving him beyond the possibility of coherence. He panted for breath in between his endearments, glad that she had stretched her neck in yearning, glad to feel the smooth skin slide under his lips. He moved back up to find her soft, velvety lips open and seductively inviting.

Victoria placed her hands on the back of his head, holding it in her desire, letting his mustache tickle her upper lip before giving in to the passion that swept over her. She loved the feel of his roaming hands, and wished that they would roam over her entire body.

But instead, Diego pulled back. Victoria looked into his blue eyes, and saw his desire already at war with his strong sense of propriety, the manners that had kept them respectable on more than one occasion in his disguise as Zorro. He tenderly nuzzled her cheek. How do you feel about short engagements? Very short engagements?

His skin and lips and mustache felt so good! Victoria still found herself wanting more, but agreed with him that to do any more would lead them down a dangerous road. I think if you know you've met the right person, then you know, and why wait to start the rest of your life?

She was no longer resisting him in the least. That's what I think, too, whispered Diego, now enjoying the skin stretched along her neck, her throat. He moaned. I don't think I can resist you for the long, extended engagement that is necessary to plan a big wedding.

Victoria now delighted in the feel of his lips caressing her chest left free by the neckline of her blouse. Her eyes closed, cherishing the sensation, she whispered, Neither can I.

As suddenly as he had begun, Diego stopped his administrations, that expression of an explosion going off in his mind on his face again. Still whispering, he said, There's no real reason to wait. We could get married today, now, and it would be over before we become trapped in plans and invitations. He didn't say what could be over. He didn't need to.

Victoria hugged him, hard, and also whispered, I think that's a grand idea. She kissed his chest through the caballero shirt in the way. Diego sucked in his breath and gasped it out. Consider that punishment for making me wait all those years.

That was punishment? I can't wait for a reward, then. Whispering still, his voice low and rumbling in his chest, Diego tilted her head up with a finger under her chin, and lowered his mouth to hers. Attacking hungrily, discarding any pretense, then, not acting his normal, chivalrous self, ready quite quickly to move forward, ready for that new life she had spoken about to start, he kissed her like he had never kissed her before, slow, languorous, soft as velvet.

God, I love you, she said when she could speak again, her head falling against his arm, her voice as soft as his. Marry me quickly, Diego, or I might do something that I can't help, but is looked on by the church as a sin.

Let's go, then, encouraged Diego, though he didn't want to seem pushy, just agreeable. She felt so wonderful in his arms, so right. You know that I've already spoken to the padre today. He won't be surprised. He led her to the front door and the patient horses.

Wait, Victoria requested suddenly, pulling him to a halt with her hand in his.

Diego turned. Was she having second thoughts? What? What is it?

I just want to look. Then we can go. But I want this moment to be perfect, just you and me. The real you, not pretend. No mask.

She looked, and Diego couldn't stop the smile that split his face. You will have a lifetime to look, he said, his voice still low, his hand still cradling her cheek.

You promise?

His smile grew wider, if that was possible, at her serious, yet teasing flirtation. I promise, he whispered, then led her out the door.

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