by Linda Bindner

Diego de la Vega stared at the well-lit cavern before him, but saw nothing except his own thoughts as he stared. The worktables were gone to him, the horse had disappeared, even the coat-rack with the familiar black clothing hanging from it had vanished. In their place, ideas had formed, haphazard and frightening, but Diego forced himself to contemplate them for the first time.

Perhaps he should tell her? Perhaps he shouldn't. Was it time to just let it all out, including his worst fears? He didn't know how much longer he could go on like this, snatching a moment here, grabbing a moment there. A courtship wasn't supposed to be like that, scary and quick, but enjoyable and enlightening, fun for both parties involved. He didn't know about Victoria, but he was getting tired of this kind of fun.

Wouldn't such knowledge as his identity put her in too much danger? Was he willing to risk her death just to let her know? Without his Victoria, there would no longer be a reason for the fight. Zorro would cease to exist, the will no longer in him to fight the Alcalde or to hide. Despite the hole that opened up at the very thought of her demise, he refused to be so selfish concerning her. The possibility of her death was always present, a reminder that none of them were really safe, none of them, not even him, could predict the future and what it may hold. He could be shot and killed the next time he went into town, and his current ramblings would be nothing more than a waste of time.

So was Victoria a waste of time? Was she too much for him to deal with? No, he couldn't believe that. The time he had spent with her over the years had been the best part of his disguise, and his love had only blossomed with those clandestine visits. The endearments had not been for nothing, for pretend. They were as real as this cave, and demanding attention from the young don. But was it wise to face his fears and tell her the truth?

And wouldn't she just be angry at him if he divulged the secret? He had lied to her for years, and nothing could remove the falsehood, even if she understood that it had been for her own protection. Oh, who was he fooling: he was afraid of her reaction. He was scared she might be angry. He would be. All those lost years, wasted. When she could have known and they could have been married and had a family, she had been the most eligible maiden in the territory, but a dry one nonetheless because of her love for a known bandit with a price on his head. That information caused her to pay a high price in freedom and personal time spent in jail. Though that had been the Alcalde's fault, she would never be treated so negligently if she was a caballero's wife. The promised retribution would be swift and relentless on the side of the other caballeros in the territory, too high a price even for both their greedy Alcaldes to pay.

But the promise of capturing Zorro was almost too tempting, too. With Victoria as the bait, that temptation was almost sure to succeed. She would be used against him in the future, of that he could be certain.

But wasn't she already used against him, he questioned himself? Hadn't her life already been on the line for him more than once? Hadn't he already caused her enough suffering?

She would say it was all worth it, of course. The pain, the jail time, the kidnappings, all worth the reward of his sweet kiss. Wasn't she then in love with him, Diego, and not Zorro?

Who am I trying to kid? he thought with a wry snort. Victoria Escalante was in love with Zorro and barely knew that Diego de la Vega was alive. They might be the best of friends, but she didn't love him in that way...

Diego shook his head and forced himself to stop. He could argue with himself along those lines for hours and never get anywhere. He knew. He had done it before. He rose with a groan, tired of sitting so long, tired of the old arguments, tired of trying to find a solution for his dilemma when there was none. As Diego, he exited the cave to prepare himself for another trip to Los Angeles and the tavern, prepare himself to hide the heartache when she didn't react to the sight of him. He just wanted too much from the world, he decided and went to saddle his own horse in the stable. But his life seemed so empty.

By the next day he still had found no solution, but he didn't let that stop him from dreaming or from inviting Victoria to join him on an unscheduled ride and a picnic for the midday meal. There would be plenty of food for two in Toronado's saddlebags, and he could easily strap a blanket on behind the saddle's usual tow. Things could be so normal for a few hours between them, and that was almost too inviting for Zorro.

Golden, crisp tamales, dates, and a jar of nuts later led to conversation, as honest as conversation could get for him. Victoria drew closer, the nuts dumped on the blanket between them, both munching unhesitatingly as she asked questions, trying to force him to uncover his secret. But he stymied her at every turn, leaving a tired don and a frustrated seņorita to lounge on the blanket as the danger of siesta time approached. He was far too relaxed in her presence for his comfort.

Perhaps we should return to the tavern, he suggested, and was met with such a cold stare that he laughed.

Don't even think about it, Victoria said. I haven't discovered who you are, yet. She took another nut and popped it in her mouth.

Zorro laughed, but heard the trepidation in the gesture. She was always trying to figure out his identity, and perhaps he should actually be worried this time. The truth should divert her for a moment. Maybe I'm too frightened to tell you.

That seemed to stun Victoria for a moment. You? Frightened? You're not afraid of anything, Zorro, especially of me. The very idea is ridiculous.

He shook his head in denial and grabbed another nut himself. When he'd had time to swallow, he said, But you can be used against me. Maybe even killed. The thought of that stays my hand when I become too tempted.

You've been tempted? She sounded surprised.

He looked at her. Many times, he answered. And for many reasons.

Why didn't you say something?

What was the point? You don't love me as I love you, except in my disguise as Zorro. So, for now, I have to be content with that. He quietly chewed another nut, waiting to see what she would say, his heart beating loud in his chest at the challenge, despite the nonchalant tone of his voice.

How do you know I don't love you if you don't trust me and take off the mask? she wheedled.

He laughed again, a light chuckle that hid his true feelings. Oh, I know, he assured.

How? Do I see you every day? she asked, coming alarmingly close to the truth much quicker than he anticipated.

What makes you think that? he hedged, prepared to play his last card and kiss her, even though the invitation of the situation was dangerously large: a blanket, alone in the wilderness, a full belly, siesta time right around the corner, the threat of discovery at a minimum, and her loveliness shining like a beacon to him, drawing him closer, glowing only for him, was almost too much to resist. Only the knowledge of the real identity that she sought kept him on the opposite side of the blanket.

Oh, I don't know, she hedged as well, sounding much more flirtatious than he did. I would have to see you every day to keep the fear alive over the years, she informed him. That wouldn't happen unless I saw you every day. Now who do I see every single day?

He was right; she was getting dangerously close. To distract her, even though he enjoyed watching her play such games as guessing his identity, he leaned in close to her and touched his lips to hers, communicating love and desire in that simple gesture. Before he knew it, he had rolled onto the blanket and his fingers were buried in her hair as the danger of the situation increased to the point that he forgot what they were talking about as years worth of compunction fell away in seconds. The kiss ended with them panting and staring at each other out of honest eyes.

It has nothing to do with trust, he whispered, aware of his pounding heart. It has to do with your safety and keeping you out of harm's way. If something were to happen to you because of me... He left the threat hanging between them as he pulled her into a tight embrace, his love for her refusing to relinquish her so soon.

But I've already been used against you, she reminded in a quiet whisper equal to his. How could knowing your identity make it any worse?

Because I couldn't keep away from you as myself. The Alcalde's not stupid, as much as it pains me to say that, and he would easily put two and two together and have my identity before we know it. Then it would be a simple matter to throw you in prison to convince me to give myself up. The threat is too great, he explained.

She shivered, not from the sea breeze playing in the leaves of the tree or the blanket that was spread beside it. I'm willing to take that chance.

But I'm not.

Yes, you are. You're just scared of what could happen.

He was surprised by the candor and honesty in her reply. Perhaps. But the 'what-ifs' of life usually come to pass, I've learned. Besides, I'm scared of your reaction.

My reaction? she questioned, puzzled. A puzzled air became her so much that Diego almost gave himself away then and there.

You don't love me, not the real me. Remember?

But when you proposed, I said I love the man beneath the mask as much as Zorro, she protested, though his endearments were working to distract her. Her breathing was as erratic as his.

Maybe it was time to divulge the truth and tell her everything, he thought, swayed by her arguments and lulled by the situation. However, he had to hold up one finger and say, You'll be angry that I hid myself from you all these years.

Angry? I'll only be sad at the lost time, she promised, caressing his chin encouragingly with her finger.

You're sure? he asked, amazed at her emotional response, not at all what he expected from her. He was so surprised that he mentioned it again. You won't be angry at me?

No, she promised a second time, her whisper sounding harsh in the silence of the surroundings. She could feel her heart beating quickly against his chest.

His own heartbeat wasn't much slower. Was he really considering unmasking for her, finally, after all these years? Even he was amazed at his boldness as he sat up, holding Victoria close in his strong arms. You're serious? He had to know.

She looked at him out of eyes as solemn as her request. I've never been more serious about anything, she said, her voice still a whisper, persuasive, demanding, cajoling. Share your identity with me. Please.

It was the 'please' that did it. He'd never had anybody beg him for something before, and he couldn't stand to have her beg for something that he could give her. He sighed, wishing that he was stronger but knowing how weak he was where she was concerned. You won't be disappointed that it's just me?

I doubt it, she promised. I love you. How can I be disappointed?

Easily, he joked, though his heart threatened to beat right out of his chest. I'm so frightened, maybe you should do it to save my shaking arms. He chuckled wryly, but was perfectly serious in his request. If only Felipe could see him now, he'd know what a coward he was!

My arms are shaking just as badly as yours, she said, but she lifted them, and pulled the ties slowly from his back. With trembling fingers, there was the sound of cloth on cloth as she first undid the knot, then pulled the two ties through. She never removed her eyes from his face as she loosened the second tie.

A bird called from the tree top, breaking the agonizing silence when she pulled the freed mask away, revealing his features for the first time. He looked terrified, yet ready to deal with an angry lunge from her when she got in position to deliver it.

Diego! she exclaimed, the surprise evident in her voice, the expected lunge never coming.

He sighed, an explosion of air from his massive chest. You are disappointed.

No! she was quick to say, just surprised. What did..? How..? She couldn't finish, her heart kept beating quickly, and she was afraid she might keel over from it.

He was in equal danger of keeling over. The mask lay between them as a bold reminder of their actions, though he hardly needed a reminder. He gazed at her, so imposing and dignified, though he didn't know about his reaction to her reaction. He only wanted to be loved, like any other man wanted, and the sensation poured from him in waves. He hoped she could sense it. Say something.

Instead of giving in to that command, she did something that took him completely by surprise, not what he expected at all. Victoria leaned forward and kissed him, squarely on the lips, the passion evident as her tongue darted out. She tasted irresistibly of nuts and fresh air.

He couldn't help but respond to her, having learned nothing in the past few minutes except how much he loved her. She had insinuated herself into his very being, and he could no more deny her than he could himself. Even though he was scared to death, his hands buried themselves in her hair, he pulled her closer, and he thrilled at kissing her without the constraining sensation of the mask. The wind tousled his hair as much as Victoria did, and the excitement was incredible as he gently lowered them both to the blanket, aware of his heightened sensations without the mask.

She moaned, very aware of his growing passion, very aware of his trust to divulge something that scared him so much, as she was aware of her own feelings suddenly, her passion climbing from the depths of her soul to attack her muscles until she felt languid and loose in his embrace. Warmth spread through her, the desire building until she could barely repress it. When he broke away unexpectedly, that famous control of his coming into play, she was almost disappointed that he hadn't made love to her right there on the blanket.

Don't tempt me to think about such things, he said, almost as if she had spoken aloud, rubbing her cheek with a finger. It's hard to remain in control with your alluring beauty to resist.

Then don't resist, she suggested, leaning over him, one shoulder bared as an enticing reminder of what he'd given up. The sight of her shoulder was almost too much for him. He shuddered.

Oh, Seņorita, you're almost impossible to defy, he agreed, and pulled her in for another kiss. I want to kiss you all day long.

You can, she said, her voice still a husky whisper full of unmistakable passion. Her hands strayed very near his shirt and sash, to say nothing of his erection she must be aware of. Those silk clothes didn't hide anything, and with her, he usually had the most to hide.

That prompted him to ask, Will you marry me? Will you stay by my side, forever, promising to love boring, predictable Diego?

Flirtatiously, she pretended to consider. Ask me again in a month...

He gazed at her, admiring what he could see. I don't think I'll make it a month.

... and I'll think about it after a sudden and very public courtship. And you may be an expert horseman, you may be an expert swordsman, but you've never been predictable. The last she said as her incredible mouth descended on his, sweeping away any resistance, making it even harder to say no.

But Padre Benitez would have been proud of their control. To sway any temptation, they talked, the conversation honest and full of dreams and hopes with only the occasional endearment to get in the way.

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