Second Chances

by Linda Bindner

Chapter 14 - Conclusion

The next morning was sunny and bright, and the light woke Victoria and kept her awake even when she wished to be asleep. Irritated, she got up, got dressed, ate an enchilada for breakfast, then ventured onto the tavern's front porch to see what was happening in the tiny coastal town of Los Angeles. The tavern was to remain closed for the day, one of Diego's final suggestions the night before, allowing her to have a much deserved break from the constant demands of her customers. Even the overnight guests had been seen to by Maria, so Victoria had nothing to do all day but sleep.

Except sleep is the one thing I can't seem to get, Victoria grumbled to herself as she sat down on the porch's single step to drink the remains of her orange juice, and to watch the return of a group of lancers, Sergeant Mendoza, and the three kidnappers of the night before. Victoria grinned to note the the three outlaws were still bound with their hands behind their backs, tied with the knots Diego had used to secure them when he and Victoria had left the small cabin. She shrugged at the sight before her; Diego had said that the knots would be intricate ones, and he had been correct in that assessment. As Alcalde DeSoto joined the group of men and prisoners just outside the cuartel gates, Victoria admitted to herself that Diego, as Zorro, probably had a great deal of practice at tying up hands and knocking out men, and he hadn't disappointed anyone with his performance this time. It was just a pity that she couldn't tell anyone about his heroic behavior of the previous night.

But Victoria knew she could comment about the knots being good and tight, as well as Diego's knowledge of knots to begin with. It made her feel somewhat better to know that she could pay Zorro a roundabout compliment by drawing attention to the excellent knots that Don Diego had created the night before. And complimenting Diego was certainly not out of the realm of the believable for her this morning. Plus, the Alcalde was coming directly towards her, as if he was making himself available just for her purpose. She smiled again, but made the gesture look as if she were squinting into the sun.

Are these the men who rifled through your cash box and took you and de la Vega prisoner last night? DeSoto asked, pointing his finger at the men across the plaza.

Refusing to accord the bandits even as much honor as standing in their presence would represent, Victoria eyed them from her seat on the porch. Yes, they're names are Luis, Alsergio, and Jose, Victoria informed the Alcalde. I see they're still nicely detained, thanks to the knots that Diego knew about and used to bind them up with last night...

DeSoto gave a snorting chuckle. I have a hard time imagining that any of de la Vega's scientific knowledge would ever be useful, but I have to admit that he did a good job last night against these bandits... Then he gave a start, as if a new thought was occurring to him, and he stared at her as he abruptly changed the subject. You never did tell me just what Diego was doing in your tavern at eleven o'clock at night when these bandits tried to rob you?

Victoria thought quickly... She couldn't possibly tell DeSoto of how Diego had caught her in her room, for how would he possibly have been able to climb to the second floor without being seen going up the inside stairs? Unless, of course, he was able to climb into her room at will, across the roofs of Los Angeles, which would mean that he had climbed to her room through her window, something that Victoria herself had often said that Zorro did, which could lead the Alcalde into believing that Diego was secretly Zorro... He... uh... stayed to help me close the tavern and to talk, Victoria said with a slight tinge of pink creeping over her cheeks as she blushed. The color that washed over her was because of her lie, not due to embarrassment at the imagined situation she was building, though the Alcalde took it to mean she was fairly distressed about her admittance and that his 'imagination' was quite accurate.

Diego? Still awake at eleven at night? That was strange... What did he want to talk about? asked a suspicious Alcalde.

Victoria blushed again for good measure. He... uh... we... This excuse didn't sound particularly plausible, she knew.

You what? DeSoto impatiently asked for further details.

Victoria did her best imitation at appearing mortified. It's a bit personal, if you don't mind, she finally said, the color still staining her cheeks.

Slowly, the Alcalde grinned. Then he laughed, sounding truly delighted, if in a malevolent way. Diego? he questioned incredulously. The man I've known for... He laughed again. The one who can't seem to find any energy for anything besides writing poetry... He did..? The Alcalde wheezed a laugh once more. Oh, this is good, he muttered to himself, though loud enough for Victoria to hear. This is soooo good.

Victoria was both glad that the Alcalde had been cooperative enough to assume something that led him far from the actual truth about Diego's secret identity, but, at the same time, was incensed that what the Alcalde was assuming put another smear on Diego's indolent image as the lazy caballero. Diego had come to her to talk, to try to figure out what was causing her to behave the way she had behaved when she had broken off their engagement, and here the Alcalde stood, laughing at what he obviously believed had been a lover's tryst... It was galling! Victoria wondered how Diego had withstood such unpleasant criticism for so long even as she blushed one final time, cementing in DeSoto's mind what he had already assumed had transpired the night before.

The Alcalde laughed one last chuckle, then wiped his eyes on the sleeve of his caballero coat. Well, we won't exactly publicize that, will we? We'll just say that you were closing the tavern together when you interrupted the thieves, and leave it at that... Again, the Alcalde chuckled, while Victoria tried to look unconcerned when she really wanted to throttle the man before her...

What's all the excitement? inquired a familiar voice, then, coming from the direction of the mission.

Victoria glanced up quickly, and the Alcalde strangled his laughter, looked once, then laughed again. It's nothing, Diego, Victoria instantly said. The Alcalde was just confirming the identities of the three outlaws who kidnapped us last night... She indicated the three men who were being ringed by lancers holding rifles as they were unceremoniously pulled off their horses. But now that I've given him the information that he's after, he's wants to be returning to his duties...

The Alcalde nodded his head at them both in an informal salute. Seņor, Seņorita... He left to cross the plaza and take charge of the new prisoners, but was interrupted again when a man wearing a military uniform rode into the small town at breakneck speed. The man on horseback handed a rolled document to DeSoto, and was talking with him in an undertone when DeSoto had to turn from him and yell, No, take them into the jail, Sergeant, and we'll have their trial in a couple of days...

Mendoza replied something, but a gust of wind carried the words away, and Diego and Victoria lost the thread of the conversation, though they still watched the excitement across the plaza until even that was obscured by the people of the pueblo moving in and out of the center of town. So Diego turned instead to face Victoria.

Is next week all right with you to hold the wedding? he asked quietly, sitting down next to her on the empty tavern porch. Padre Benitez says that this marriage law has kept him so busy that next Sunday is the earliest he can perform a wedding for us, and even then, he doesn't have time for a normal wedding Mass, but only for the ceremony itself.

That will make the entire proceeding awfully short, warned Victoria. And we'll be cutting it rather close if we get married on the 14th and the marriage law is enacted on the 15th, won't we? What if something happens?

Diego had to smile at her worrying. Nothing will happen between now and then, though I don't blame a woman who was just kidnapped and held prisoner for several hours to be a bit... concerned, he finally ended. Then, he smiled down on her. But marriage to you is still marriage to you... There's no place I'd rather be, he said.

Victoria grinned up at him. Then Sunday is when it will have to be, and the sooner the better, I say. Then, her voice changed to a whisper, and she endeavored to keep the pitch below the noise level naturally produced by the people of the town, yet still audible to him sitting beside her. And I have to say that it's about time, too! You have a promise to keep.

Diego smiled, but he didn't trust himself to look at her after she said such a thing; a tingle crept down his spine just at the sound of her suddenly seductive voice. So, he remained facing the town instead of looking at her, but his grin could not hide the sparkle that crept into his eyes. That's one promise that I look forward to keeping, he whispered back to her.

Victoria flushed again before she could stop her reaction to his words. But, she too, was smiling at the people of the town. Yet, she and Diego were so innocuous while sitting on the porch of a tavern not open for business that no one noticed them or the expressions on their faces.

Still not wholly convinced that the promise of what she thought she saw reflected in Diego's eyes was real or just her tired imagination at work, she whispered, I can't wait.

Z Z Z

It turned out that she had to wait, almost an entire week, which, at this point, and after doing little but waiting for four long years, seemed an interminably long time to her. Yet, wait she and Diego did, and only Alejandro objected to the chosen day when he bustled into her tavern the next morning, cornered her by one of the tables, kissed her hand, told her how delighted he was to be welcoming her to his family, then wrinkled his nose in distaste and blurted, But on a Sunday?

A Sunday may not be a traditional day for a wedding, but with the marriage law going into effect the very next day, and with the padre so busy that we're lucky he's performing a wedding at all, we can't be picky, Victoria insisted.

But Victoria, Alejandro spluttered, what about all this time you've been waiting? What about Zorro? he asked in some anxiety.

Victoria hesitated to answer, and in the time she spent mentally preparing her response to him, every conversation in the tavern grew quiet as everyone listened to her reply. Don Alejandro, she gently began. Have you ever lost years worth of memories? she asked.

Alejandro had to answer in the negative. He swung his head, and said, You know that I haven't.

Then, Victoria said slowly, still thinking, you know that personalities and tastes seem to be affected by memory loss... She sighed, then, and put her hand to her head in a show of defeat, and went on with a slight sense of exasperation. All right, I'm only going to say this once, so please, feel free to spread gossip about this around the pueblo: For years I claimed to love Zorro. But Zorro can't help me now. To marry him would be tantamount to admitting to the Alcalde who he secretly is under his mask, whereupon he would be hung, and it would, in effect, all be my fault. And I can't do that. Now, Diego has been my good friend for years - he's very steady and dependable, where Zorro is none of those things, and lately I've come to really appreciate those qualities, not to mention that Diego is here, while Zorro often has to leave me alone... Oh, Don Alejandro, please don't make me compare them when they're really not in competition with each other...

Alejandro said slowly, trying to understand someone else's emotions when he was, in truth, not an overly sympathetic man himself. So, what you're saying, is that you love both of them?

Victoria pretended to consider Alejandro's assessment. I guess you could say that I love qualities in both of them, and always will, she said thoughtfully after a few silent moments where she appeared to think about the situation.

I know that you have to marry someone under these circumstances, Victoria, Alejandro said. Then he took her hand in fingers roughened by years of working on a ranch in the colonies. I just want to be sure... You do love him, don't you?

Victoria smiled softly, genuinely touched by the older man's concern. He took care of me so affectionately when I had my head injury, Don Alejandro, and then the feelings that event woke inside me seemed to... to... cause a panic, she explained. I had been so used to loving Zorro that to love anything in anybody else was unthinkable. But Diego and I had a nice long talk the night we were kidnapped... And, now, I couldn't be happier about how things have turned out, she said with an affirming nod of her head.

Alejandro appeared convinced. Well, then, he said slowly. I think we have a wedding to attend on Sunday. It was all he said, but it was enough.

Z Z Z

That last week slipped by quietly, in a flurry of preparations, surrounded by both Diego's and Victoria's attempts to keep things as normal as possible. Only the Alcalde often behaved strangely; he entered the tavern, drank coffee or juice or nothing at all, carefully scrutinized the men of the pueblo, Diego, Alejandro, Sergeant Mendoza, Don Ernesto, Paco Sanchez... Then, he rose from his chosen table to leave without saying a word to anybody. Victoria would have sworn that he was trying to deduce Zorro's identity, except that several of the subjects he perused lacked the familiar mustache that was a necessary part of that hidden identity. So, his covert actions made no sense! It was as maddening as it was mysterious.

But Victoria had more to think about than idle speculation about what the Alcalde was up to. Whatever it was, it was sure to be horrible, sure to be unveiled at the most inconvenient of times, and sure to be unchangeable; one thing Ignacio DeSoto made certain of was to have every detail in place before instituting a new plan. The trick was to find where he had overlooked a tiny, unimportant detail, and exploit it. Diego had always been extremely good at that particular kind of exploitation, but still, Victoria wasn't afraid to admit that the Alcalde's rather erratic behavior of the past week was beginning to make her nervous.

But Victoria had no time for nerves. Before she knew what was going on, it was Sunday morning, she was wearing her borrowed wedding dress, and Don Alejandro was holding her arm as they slowly, reverently, solemnly traversed the mission sanctuary's worn, stone aisle leading to Diego, to a marriage ceremony, to the future. If only she could stop the frantic beating of her heart long enough to reach out for that future with both hands...

My very dearly beloved.., intoned Padre Benitez as he lifted the Bible he held open in his hands, pretending to need it so as not to make a mistake during the wedding ceremony. But Victoria knew differently, as the padre forgot to glance down at the words in front of him, proving that all the weddings he had performed in the last weeks had enabled him to memorize the ceremony right down to the last prayer. Even the benediction was only slightly personal as the padre splayed his large, rough hands, one on each of Victoria's and Diego's bowed heads as his voice wore on in the low mumble that he used exclusively for his prayers and homilies every week, delivering their souls into the sanctified union that would guide them and be part of them for the rest of their lives.

Yet, Victoria was fairly surprised that the entire ceremony seemed to be something of a performance at the same time it was one of the holiest of sacraments that she had heard about and revered her entire life. Even kneeling on the padded kneeler seemed a bit overdramatic as she joined Diego in standing at the front of the tiny mission church, and dutifully crossed herself at the end of the ceremony. It seemed that hardly fifteen minutes had passed, and the congregation was just beginning to get restless by the time Padre Benitez lifted his hands, smiled at all of the people gathered in the sanctuary, and softly, though happily, said the words that she knew Diego had been waiting to hear for as long as he'd known her...

Padre Benitez started to say, You may..

The padre was interrupted by the sudden slamming open of the door and the appearance in the aisle of the foot soldier who, upon closer inspection, turned out to be Infantryman Gomez, whom, Victoria knew, had pulled guard duty during the wedding ceremony. The Alcalde was so certain that Zorro would appear during the wedding where the bandit's advertised love became the wife of another man, that DeSoto had assigned every lancer on duty to stand either in the church or on guard duty surrounding the mission... Gomez, along with several other lancers, had been loudly complaining of the duty they had been relegated to perform outside in the plaza while patrons of the tavern the day before...

However, they hadn't missed as much as either she or they had expected, Victoria ruminated to herself as she looked into Diego's blue eyes at the moment the padre had begun to speak. She was just thinking that the best thing about the entire wedding was that she was finally married to Diego, when even that thought was cut off by Gomez's unexpected arrival.

The lancer stood awkwardly on one foot as he cleared his throat. But whatever he wanted to say would not permit him to remain silent for another two seconds, so he said, Forgive me, Don Diego, Doņa Victoria, but I think you should come and take a look at this.

The crowd sitting on the pews spread to the back of the church started to murmur, but Diego's voice was calm and collected as he answered, Forgive me, but if you'll wait for just another second or two... Then he leaned forward and just opened his arms to Victoria, who gratefully went into them in a willing bundle of nerves and tightly strung heartstrings. He hugged her tight and whispered into her ear, You look more beautiful in that dress then you ever have before. And I want to tell you that I love you, and always have loved you, since I first met you when we were children, and always will. Then he very deliberately kissed her on the forehead like he had just been awarded a great prize.

The gesture of devotion almost covered up her own response. You have to know, Diego, how much I love you back, and I am so glad to finally be your wife and have you for my husband... Then, to prove her claim of pride, she kissed him enticingly on his lips, promising that more was to come when they were alone after the reception party.

Diego didn't pretend not to understand her unspoken message, ad he grinned at her. I can't wait, he quoted to her, repeating the very words that she had said only a week before. His eyes sparkled with unveiled love and affection.

Then, with an astonishingly fast sense of speed that always amazed Victoria, Diego became all business as he turned away from her, but clung to her hand like a lifeline even as he invited, Lead on, soldier, please, and feel free to tell us all of the daring exploits you were involved in at capturing Zorro, for surely you apprehended him? And where is the man of the hour, our esteemed Alcalde?

Gomez grimaced in his own humor. That's what I want to talk to you about. But come on; The note will explain everything.

Diego wrinkled his brow. Note?

The one tacked onto the Alcalde's office door, said Gomez. But come on. This way.

It was Victoria's turn to wrinkle her brow as they followed Gomez down the aisle, passed the tavern where they had planned to hold the reception party, and on towards the Alcalde's office.

Is something wrong? asked Diego as he continued to cling to Victoria's fingers. His warm hand was making a nice nest around hers, and he refused to release those fingers as the group of wedding guests and lancers made their way across the plaza and into the shade of the cuartel walls.

What is it? Victoria inquired as mildly as her overwrought curiosity would allow her to. In her mind, she was remembering DeSoto's strange behavior all week, and when coupled with a reason strong enough to interrupt her wedding, was beginning to wonder just what was in the note tacked to the door and fluttering on the cool, ocean breeze that scoured across the pueblo. A document beside the hastily written note also edged back and forth on the green office door, and Victoria was reminded of how the marriage law had shivered in the wind on that day, a month ago, when it had first appeared in her tavern.

Diego's voice soothed the crowd as he read the words on the note and on the document without having to be asked. I'll read the document first... But, he paused in surprise.

What does it say, Diego? Victoria asked from behind him, where his hold on her kept her from clearly seeing the tiny, spidery printing.

Diego spoke. This is a document from King Ferdinand...

Another one? someone in the crowd asked in slight disbelief.

Diego grinned at the words. Apparently, he answered.

What does he want this time? came the same voice. It sounded weary and not overly excited at the prospect of whatever the King wanted according to this second proclamation in four weeks.

Diego went on, It's a royal document, calling DeSoto back to his office in Madrid.

There was a collected gasp as this new and unusual news item was disseminated among the crowd.

Diego went on reading, It says here that the front military office can no longer afford to go on with the French war without DeSoto's particular brand of strategic expertise...

A farmer sniggered. Which means that Spain is losing, he stated in a loud whisper.

Laughter rippled through the gathering.

Read the note, Don Diego, boldly ordered the farmer, after the seeming success of his last statement.

Diego would have complied, but he was so astonished when he glanced at the letter tacked beside the document that he was speechless.

Victoria squirmed between him and the round form of Sergeant Mendoza; if only this dress would not be so cumbersome! she groused to herself. Then the words on the note were swimming before her eyes.

What is it? the farmer asked as he craned his neck, trying to get a better look.

Victoria swallowed, but translated the writing on the note. It says that... I can hardly believe it myself... She gathered her wits together and tried again. It says that DeSoto was told to name his own successor for the office of alcalde, as he would know more of what the position requires instead of the King...

The first voice explained, You mean that Ferdinand didn't want to be bothered.

Laughter again filled the plaza.

Victoria went on, And, after careful deliberation on the Alcalde's part...

So that's what DeSoto was doing all week! exclaimed the voice. I wondered!

Victoria did her best to ignore the interruption. He... He carefully considered... all... all the men in the... the pueblo, and finally decided to name...

Who? Who? came the voice again, interrupting Victoria in an untimely fashion.

But it was the question that was on the lips of everyone gathered in the sunshine beating down on the small village. On Diego and his knowledge of... what does it say..? Victoria asked aloud. Oh... And his knowledge of tying knots... 'May that knowledge prove useful to the office of alcalde.' she read in a tone of wonder and astonishment. 'It will undoubtedly prove useful when capturing outlaws in the future.' she finished.

Gomez piped up, Yes, that's what I wanted you to see!

Where is DeSoto? Diego asked next, looking around the plaza, shading his eyes with his free hand. Maybe we can ask him about this note.

That's just it, Gomez said then, the urgency in his voice making it loud. His horse is missing from the garrison stable, and his quarters and the office are all cleared out...

He's gone? blurted Alejandro, the first words that he had spoken since he had answered the question of who gave Victoria to his son during the wedding ceremony only moments before.

It looks like he is, Gomez responded in an equally as astonished voice as Diego's. That's what I was trying to tell you!

Suddenly, Diego turned to Victoria standing at his side. If this is true, and he really is gone, leaving the job of Alcalde to me... Then, he paused, and a low chuckle burst forth from his belly. This is extremely ironic... he started to say, before another chuckle of appreciation cut him off.

Alejandro couldn't remain quiet after his earlier question. What's ironic? What are you talking about?

Victoria was laughing with her new husband, then, practically engulfed by her giggling.

Diego stopped laughing long enough to say, Well, Father, that's a bit of a story...

I have all day to hear it, Alejandro invited, a small smile brightening his face.

It's a good thing, Diego said then, and turned towards him. Father, do you remember the day I came home from the university?

Alejandro nodded. If I recall, you asked about a certain seņorita... he teased, with a pointed look at Victoria.

Diego continued, So I did. He gazed in smiling adoration at the woman beside him. Victoria couldn't help it; under the obvious love twinkling in Diego's eyes, she blushed. Then he went on, There's a reason why I asked, he explained, squeezed Victoria, and then went on with his story.

The cool morning breeze continued blowing to mix with Diego's soft words as he continued to explain, carrying those words to all who stood, gathered in the plaza, listening intently to a story of great adventure, and great sacrifice, all due to the two standing gravely before the alcalde's green office door, grinning in the morning sunshine.


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