Second Chances

by Linda Bindner

Chapter 2 - Diego

Two days later, Diego was beginning to despair.

Victoria hadn't woken. Well, she had, technically, but she hadn't been lucid during those times. She lay where he had first gently placed her, in a bed in one of the guest rooms at the de la Vega hacienda. He remembered the scene of bringing her home even now as he closed his eyes, sighed sadly, and stared at the wall.

Don Alejandro had met them as they pulled up to the front of the hacienda, highly suspicious himself when he heard someone draw a rattling wagon up to the door of his house. The minute Diego carefully hefted his precious charge into his arms, his father had become more businesslike as he had become more concerned. To behave in an enhanced manner of understanding was a defense mechanism for him, Diego knew, but even his father was beginning to drive him crazy with his 'It makes more sense to...' statements. Diego was starting to wish for his father to do something wild, just once, in order to relieve the pressure the members of the household felt they were under from his solicitude.

The days had quickly fallen into a routine of sorts. Diego was in and out of Victoria's guest room all the time, and Felipe was sure to be available in case Victoria awoke if he had to be absent for a longer period of time. Alejandro spent the night hours at Victoria's side, relieved at 2:00 in the morning by Maria, the de la Vega's cook and most trusted servant. A cot had been set up so Diego could also sleep in the same room as Victoria, since he simply refused to leave her side to even snatch a few hours of rest. Right away, on the first day of Victoria's stay, he noticed his father watching him with a curious look in his eyes, but Diego wasn't certain if the older man didn't approve of his son's devotion to someone who was supposed to be just a friend, or if he wondered about Diego's secret identity as Zorro. Personally, Diego no longer cared who thought what, just as long as Victoria awakened. However, he got his chance to explain his actions on the very same day as Victoria's injury.

Evening had approached, but it was so warm during the daylight hours of a California summer, that after supper, work at the hacienda didn't cease until Don Alejandro said it had to stop. Though he had frequently tried to put a halt to this habit of working during the evening hours, most of the hands preferred the coolness of the darkening end of the day to the heat of midday, and left their chores until then. But they were not the only ones who seemed to prefer the evening hours in Los Angeles - the Alcalde and his lancers rode up to the hacienda in a cloud of dust shaded violet by the shadows of the setting sun the first night Victoria spent at the hacienda.

His pounding on the front door reverberated throughout the adobe house, and it was Diego who yanked open the door with the intent to quiet the pounder, even if he had to insult that person in order to do it. Insulting someone seemed far less important when compared to the day's events he'd suffered through already.

Diego was still quite surprised to see the Alcalde standing on his father's front step. Alcalde! he exclaimed before he thought better of announcing the man's presence. Yet, Don Alejandro must have heard his son's exclamation, for he joined Diego at the door.

Can we help you, Alcalde? Don Alejandro politely inquired, though the tone of his voice was more caustic than courteous.

Actually, Don Alejandro, you can, replied the man with his famous love for Madrid. I came here tonight in order to check on the condition of Seņorita Escalante. How is she?

She's still asleep, Diego informed shortly. We need to be as quiet as we can so as not to disturb her.

She's still asleep? DeSoto ascertained.

Diego sighed, angry at the administrator's barely concealed ulterior interest. She hasn't mentioned Zorro's identity, if that's what has you so intrigued, Alcalde.

The Alcalde scowled, irritated that his obvious purpose had been uncovered so quickly. Is that so?

Yes, that's so, answered Diego. I told you that I would keep you informed if she mumbles anything incriminating in her sleep, he reminded. If that's all...

And how long have you carried a tender affection for her, Diego, the Alcalde shot back, his irritation overpowering his own common sense for a moment.

Diego stood on the doorstep, not moving an inch. How had the Alcalde known about that? he wondered, but the discovery of one his most guarded secrets didn't bother him as much as he'd always thought it would. Worry about Victoria seemed so much more consuming right now.

Again, Diego sighed. But it was a sigh of annoyance instead of embarrassment. What does that have to do with anything? he asked.

Oh, I think it has plenty to do with this situation, answered the Alcalde.

Don Alejandro wrinkled his nose in confusion and disbelief. What's he talking about, Diego?

Diego... said some rather... rather 'illuminating' things this morning, Don Alejandro, DeSoto responded.

You sound rather pleased to be the one informing on me, Alcalde, Diego noted in a deadpan voice.

No, not at all, DeSoto mumbled in an attempt to hide the obvious. It's just that the revelation of your affections came as quite a surprise, Don Diego, the Alcalde said.

I bet they do, Diego muttered under his breath at the same time his father asked,

Affections? What affections? He turned to regard Diego. Do you know what he's talking about?

DeSoto answered again. Only that Diego called the seņorita his... what was it?

One of the lancers DeSoto had brought with him supplied a response. He called her his precious girl, Alcalde.

That's right, DeSoto said with a twisted smile. So he did.

Diego found his annoyance rising with every word the Alcalde said. And so what if I did? he asked. Victoria was bleeding from a cut to her head; she could hardly hear anything I had to say. And besides, Diego continued, I was worried sick at the time. What would you have said? he asked in exasperation.

The Alcalde glared at Diego. I wouldn't have announced the affections I had hidden from the entire pueblo for years in front of every customer at the tavern, that's what!

Oh, Ignacio! scoffed Diego. Am I supposed to be embarrassed by this form of interview? Diego asked next. Because it really doesn't matter to me anymore who knows... It's far more important to see to Victoria's comfort than to worry what someone said while she was bleeding all over my hands!

Zorro might care, warned the Alcalde with disconcerting alacrity.

Diego replied with another sigh, I somehow think that what Zorro does or does not care about may be beside the point, Alcalde. Victoria may not remember a thing about him. And if Diego were honest with himself, he had to admit that this little tidbit was the concern that overshadowed everything he did now. Yet, he went on, not voicing that concern. She may not remember me, either, Alcalde. Diego sighed dramatically, doing his best to distract his audience. Considering the reason he was aiming for that distraction, it wasn't hard to steer his father and he Alcalde away from a discussion about Zorro's identity! And I have to say that the idea of losing her friendship because Victoria doesn't know who I am is far more distressing to me than wondering what Zorro has planned for me if she doesn't remember him. Now... is that all you wanted to know? Diego was trying to be forthright and open, and it was clear that neither his father nor the Alcalde knew how to take such honesty from a man they thought they had known well for years.

The Alcalde spluttered for a moment, then finally managed to say, That's all I desire to know this evening, Don Diego. I'll take my leave then. He bowed, too.

Diego took the gesture for the 'falling back on the social graces' that it was. I'll let you know if anything whatsoever happens, he promised.

That will be fine - I'm just concerned, Don Diego, the Alcalde hesitantly said.

I'm sure you are, Diego answered and followed the Alcalde's kind words with the command, Have a good night. Then he shut the door before the Alcalde could even retreat down the hacienda's front steps.

Don Alejandro stared at his son, and when Diego tried to step away from the door, arrested him with a hand on his arm. Diego... He sighed in resignation, then. I think we need to talk.

Diego's own sigh was even more resigned. Perhaps you're right. He led the way into the sitting room and took a seat on the sofa in front of the window. Alejandro sat across from him in a chair by the wall, but a moment later, he had risen to stand in front of the fireplace. Diego noted the agitation in his father's stance, and sighed again. What is it you wish to talk about? he asked.

Alejandro turned to regard his son. Oh, I think you know what I want to talk about, he said, his voice low and thick with emotion.

The tone of that voice made Diego pause for a moment. Finally, he said, I think I do.

Alejandro returned to his chair and sat down. Diego, is what the Alcalde said true?

The Alcalde said many things. Can you be more specific?

Alejandro scowled. I want to know if you're in love with Victoria, Diego. It isn't a hard question to answer.

That's what you think, was the idea that shot through Diego's mind, but he did his best to be more honest with such a direct question and with his father. Are you certain you wish to hear such information, Father, or is this just another case of the Alcalde cooking up a story to suit his own purposes?

Alejandro's scowl deepened. What would be the point of the Alcalde doing that? he asked rhetorically. He's been trying to capture Zorro for the last few years, not you.

True.

No, Alejandro said as he leaned forward towards Diego. The expression on his face was a familiar one to Diego, one that said the don would put up with no amount of prevarication any longer. I asked a simple question, and I want a simple answer. When Diego didn't immediately respond, Alejandro repeated, Are you in love with Victoria?

What was the point of lying at this late date? Diego wondered. Besides, if his father didn't hear it from him, he was sure to hear rumors concerning his own son's affections in the pueblo, especially after the things Diego had said to Victoria while in the throes of worry at the tavern. Yes, I am, Diego responded on a sigh of both guilt for covering up this secret from his own father, and relief at finally admitting to the truth. I have been since I came home on the ship from Spain.

Alejandro remained silent for a moment, letting such incredible news infiltrate his thoughts. Then, he sat back in his chair. And you never thought to tell me about it? he inquired smoothly, in a low voice again, as if the question was as much a threat as an inquiry.

Diego defended, What was the point of saying anything? He gestured with his hand towards his father. There was nothing you, or anybody, could have done - Victoria was still going to be in love with Zorro and not know I was even alive, so hiding the way I felt seemed to make more sense than creating a scene about it and embarrassing her. Diego rolled his eyes. That would have done nothing to ingratiate Victoria to me. No, if that had happened instead, I would be the one lying in a bed right now with a wound to the back of my head!

Alejandro scowled again. Oh, Diego, you give yourself far too little credit! And you know that wasn't what I meant! He sat back hard in his chair with a bounce.

Then perhaps you will tell me exactly what you did mean? Diego was fast losing patience with this interview, and he strove not to let it show in his voice. But his emotions had taken a beating that day, and he didn't know how much longer he could control them.

Alejandro sighed. Diego, he said in a much softer tone, please, don't take this the wrong way. I'm only worried about my son, especially since he claims to love a woman who has been his best friend for years, and is even now lying in one of my own beds with a head injury. The fact that she may wake and have no idea who you even are only compounds the concern I'm feeling.

Suddenly, tears swam in Diego's eyes, and he rested his head in his hands as all the fight and anger and natural defensiveness he was feeling drained out of him. I've already thought of that, he said, letting his misery snake through the tough hold he always maintained on his emotions.

For a moment, Alejandro remained silent while Diego struggled to push back his fear yet again so that he could speak. Diego stared through his fingers at the carpet, took a deep, if watery, breath, before his father gently asked, Have you thought about what you're going to do if Victoria doesn't even remember you, to say nothing about returning your affections?

I don't know, Diego admitted, responding to the softer tone in his father's voice. It's no secret that she's loved Zorro for years, and I have no desire to compete for her affections with another man. Diego peered gravely at his father. I think I'd rather lose her than do that.

It was a testimony to the depth of Diego's feelings for Alejandro to hear Diego say that he would rather have Victoria die than oppose someone else's feelings for her. Alejandro was dutifully impressed, and the expression of astonishment on his face showed it.

However, Diego knew he wasn't finished. There's more that you have to know.

This surprised Alejandro. There's more than finding out that my only son has secretly loved his best friend for years?

Diego nodded in abject misery. Do you know about the new law?

Alejandro appeared to be thinking hard. Unless the Alcalde has created some new tax for the pueblo, I can't even begin to imagine a new law.

Diego sighed. It's a law from King Ferdinand himself that states that anyone over the age of twenty-five who holds property needs to marry in one month, pay a steep fine, or go to jail for a year.

What? Alejandro exploded. That's preposterous! he declared, thinking instantly of his own situation, The idea that I should marry again, or that anyone can compare to your mother..!

Widow's and people who inherit property are exempt, which means both you and I have nothing to worry about, Diego went on to explain. Victoria, on the other hand, needs to find a husband before a month goes by.

Alejandro blankly regarded Diego while his mouth hung open. Uh.., he finally managed to say. A moment later, he tried again to sound more collected. Well, this changes things, I think. He sat in his chair, unmoving, and at last, blew out a breath of air. Diego, I have to be candid and honest here, and I don't mean any disrespect for Victoria by saying it, but, disregarding Zorro's claim on her affections, have you thought about what will happen to Victoria if she never wakes up?

Diego couldn't meet his father's gaze for the burning ache that was already in his chest, and, he feared, his eyes. Yes, he whispered his answer. She'll die unless we can figure out a way for her to eat.

Alejandro was just as honest when he said, And I don't know how we're going to do that. Have you... He paused. Have you accepted what will happen then?

I would rather spend my energies on believing that she'll wake up and be just fine, Diego responded, But, yes, I have considered the alternative as a... This was so hard to say out loud! ... a possibility.

But Alejandro wasn't finished with his projections, even though Diego had voiced one of his greatest fears. On the other side of the problem, have you considered what happens if she does wake up, if she remains alive, but isn't the same Victoria we know and love, who might not be able to do things for herself? Who is going to want to marry a girl who's nothing but a burden? And what happens to her in just a month if she doesn't marry?

I know, Diego said immediately, holding up his hand to ensure his father's silence. I know. I've already thought of all those things, as well, and though I think we're jumping ahead of ourselves just a bit, I want you to know that I've already considered... He paused while he closed his eyes in order to better collect his thoughts. ... considered what I'll do in that eventuality.

Diego, Alejandro said with a shake of his head, I have no wish to sound cold hearted, but what happens if it does come to that? Victoria could go to jail for a reason that she won't even understand!

I won't let that happen, Diego said in finality. If it comes to that, I'll marry her myself and keep her out of jail. But it hasn't come about, yet, and it may not ever happen.

But, Diego, Alejandro protested, what kind of a marriage will that be? he went on in a demanding tone of voice. How can I sanction a union like that, one that I will know from the outset will never be anything more than a marriage of convenience?

Diego's face turned hard. How can you not sanction it? he asked in a biting voice. I can't let Victoria go to jail, not when I've wanted to marry her more than anything for years! What kind of person would I be if I disregarded her just because she doesn't remember me, or can't move, or has impaired coordination? Diego sat back hard on his own chair. Again, I'd rather lose her than release her into those kinds of conditions.

Alejandro stared again at Diego for a moment, clearly pondering all that his son had declared, understanding for the first time just how deeply his own son loved Victoria. At last, he said, I see. And Zorro can do nothing for her?

Diego's sad sigh chiseled through the room. Even she explained that to me before the fight that caused her head injury today. She fully understands her predicament concerning Zorro and this new law; she can't marry him without discovering his true identity, due to the fact that he would have to sign his real name in the church registry if he married her, and the Alcalde would simply demand to see the registry and find out the bandit's identity prior to hanging the masked man. And even if DeSoto doesn't do that, Victoria herself would be known to know Zorro's identity, and the Alcalde would then simply arrest her until she revealed the identity of her own husband, after which the Alcalde will hang whomever she decides to condemn to death. Diego stared at his father with a comprehending expression on his face. She's doomed no matter what she does.

So Zorro can't help her out of this problem, Alejandro stated thoughtfully. Then he perked up and stood beside the fireplace again. This may be your chance to press your own suit...

Father! Diego instantly negated. How can you think of such a thing?

Girls aren't courted by thin air, Diego, Alejandro suggested.

I know that only too well, Diego answered, knowing that he was also responding to one of Alejandro's favorite phrases at the same time, something he'd heard many times in the past. But I refuse to take advantage of this situation, no matter what happens, he continued. If Victoria wants to change the state of our relationship, fine, but if not, I won't put pressure on her to accept what she doesn't want.

Alejandro sighed once more. That's a noble sentiment, Diego, but if the month-long grace period disappears while she recovers, you, and she, may not have any other choice but to marry each other.

Discerning Alejandro's meaning all too clearly, Diego gazed grimly back at his father. He realized the truth of the situation as a whole, but had not had his choices stated so baldly before. And, already, time was running out for the young woman asleep in one of the hacienda's guest rooms. All they anyone could do now was wait.

Go on to Chapter 3


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