The Truth of the Secret

by Linda Bindner

Victoria racked on the outside panels of the double front doors gracing the de la Vega hacienda, scraping her knuckles in the process. The envelope containing the letter that had brought her to the sprawling house fluttered in the breeze she felt coming in from the ocean, though the sea was several miles distant. Don Alejandro may have always had wealthy relatives, but they had chosen to build their house on the grounds deeded to them instead of beside the rolling waves of the water. Victoria looked around at the landscape, something she rarely took time to do, and was pleased with the sight of brown grass, waving tall in the de la Vega pastures. It might not be the ocean, but it was still just as beautiful in its own way.

Then the sound of the opening door caught her attention, and the surrounding countryside slid from her mind. A hinge squeaked just a bit, then a familiar form filled the doorway. It wasn't the shorter, silver haired caballero who greeted her, but his tall, dark haired, mustachioed son who did.

Victoria! came Diego's enthusiastic welcome. He always seemed happy to see her, but then, he always seemed cheerful, period. Come in, come in! He pulled her inside and shut the front door on the morning sunshine. Father is away in Los Angeles, taking care of some business at the bank, he explained. What can I do for you?

Victoria indulged in a moment of friendly emotions for the young caballero. He was just always so... friendly... that everybody liked Don Diego. It was hard to resist the positive emotions that he evoked, though he found all forms of violence repulsive. That trait of his was annoying, especially when action was necessary, but the citizens of Los Angeles made allowances for him, she knew, because he was from such a wealthy family, and who could deny his cheerfulness, anyway? Diego was well liked, if not always respected.

But now, she could not produce a smile even for his happy greeting. Diego, she said in some bewilderment. The stage just went through and brought a letter for me from Felipe...

I know. Since he left for Spain and the University in August, the stage often brings his letters to us. They stopped here and I got a letter as well, though I haven't had time to read it yet, Diego interrupted, with a wave towards a small table beside the love seat in the library. The table obviously held an unopened letter, the envelope still sealed against intrusion of any kind.

You must miss him a lot, Victoria observed.

Yes, Diego affirmed, though the smile he now wore on his face didn't quite reach to his blue eyes. They looked rather empty instead.

Victoria broke the following silence by saying, It's already been three months since he left, but this is the first time he's written to me.

Diego seemed puzzled. And that concerns you?

No, no, Victoria was quick to refute. Just read the letter, please, and then you'll understand my confusion. Victoria held up the pristine, white envelope in her hands. I'm not sure what to make of such a letter... Perhaps you'd better just read it.

The look of affability fell from Diego's face, to be replaced with an expression of concern. He took the envelope containing the letter. Of course. Why don't you sit down while I read. Then we can decide what he meant. College often does funny things to the head, he explained, attempting a form of wry humor to put her at ease as he pulled the single creamy sheet of paper from the envelope with her name clearly written on it.

Diego read the letter while she sat on the love seat in the library, waiting for him to finish. He turned the sheet over, found nothing else written on the entire piece of paper, then slowly sank down next to her and read the letter again.

Thursday

November 16, 1822

Dear Victoria,

I know this may seem strange, but please do as I ask. Go to the de la Vega hacienda at once and ask for Don Diego. He'll know what to tell you.

Felipe

Do you know what it means, Diego? asked Victoria when she was certain he was finished reading the letter.

Diego let his hand fall to his lap, carrying her letter with it, and the confusion fell away from his demeanor just as quickly as his cheerfulness had.

Victoria could only watch from beside him on the love seat. Diego?

Diego sighed, making no attempt to hide the sad sound from her. He placed the letter and envelope respectfully on the tiny table, then lowered his head until his fingers laced through his hair, the perfect posture for sadness. Well, he said softly, there's no reason to read my letter now. I know exactly what's in it.

Victoria was instantly more concerned for her friend than in understanding Felipe's obscure message. It's all right, Diego. I know you greatly miss him; we all do.

Oh, it's not that, Diego confidently replied. He straightened up gradually, looking like a man who had aged ten years in the last minute. He looked old, and for some reason, that frightened Victoria. Not anymore. I thought I could do this without his help, but I can't, I just can't, was the first thing that Diego said.

His confession didn't make any sense to Victoria. Diego, I don't understand. First the strange letter, now this insane conversation. The de la Vegas were certainly working hard to make her loco, thought Victoria with amusement. What can't you do?

He turned towards her, his eyes suddenly haunted. I don't know how to say it. I haven't decided on any course of action for this eventuality; Felipe would know that.

This conversation was getting too strange for her. The little hairs on the back of her neck stood up in alarm. What occasion? What are you talking about?

Diego indicated the letter with his hand. You don't understand? He wants me to tell you the secret, and he's created the circumstances for it because he knew I never would. His head fell back to his hands.

Diego had secrets? Not predictable, dependable Diego, she argued with herself. For a moment, Victoria indulged in the thought that he was a little unbalanced, then banished such an idea quickly from her mind. Diego was being mentally tortured, not going through the motions of that torture for her benefit. He was a true picture of... despair, she decided. Nervous despair. What secret?

He took a deep breath and gazed at her again. That I... that...

Victoria took his hands and squeezed them in comfort, all the while consciously ignoring the fact that she couldn't help but notice how close they were now sitting to each other. It was almost as if they were romantically involved, which was a silly idea, even as her heart fluttered. Go ahead. You can tell me, she encouraged.

Diego looked at her out of those haunted blue eyes. He took a breath again and tried once more. I... that I... I'm Zorro, he finally finished on a whisper that was no louder than the breeze coming through the open library window behind them.

The world seemed to freeze for a moment to Victoria. She could hear the mantel clock ticking the seconds that passed, see the insect that flew through the open window, hear Diego's agitated breathing as her heart constricted inside her chest. You... you...you can't possibly be... she said haltingly, unable to say any more.

Diego then tightened his own fingers around hers. If you want proof, then I'll give it; you have my mother's ring, he whispered.

The heart that had just constricted fell to her toes, beginning to painfully throb where it had fallen. She gasped out the breath she didn't know she was holding. How... how did you know that? I haven't told a soul...

I know, Diego interrupted. And I knew you never would tell anybody. That's why I was comfortable enough to give it to you in the first place.

Victoria turned away from him on the love seat. This truth had not been what she had expected. She didn't know what she had expected, only not this! But you hate violence, action... she protested.

Diego sighed again. I don't hate it, he said in a lower voice than she was used to hearing from him. Instead, it was a voice that she knew very well, except it usually came from another. I just pretend I do. Actually, I'm quite good at it.

Pretend?

Diego looked at her once more, the haunting, tortuous expression gone now from his eyes. To avoid suspicion. To stay alive. He leaned forward a little now, being persuasive. Victoria, you have to understand how much danger knowing this secret puts you in.

She seemed capable of doing nothing more than repeating his words. Danger?

From the Alcalde, he explained. If I'm captured, I'll hang, along with anybody who knows my identity. Felipe is safe now, out of the country, but you aren't.

Victoria tried to force herself to think. It wasn't an easy task. Out of the country, or safe? she asked.

Diego eyed her in concern. Safe.

At last, the wheels in her brain started to work, finally, and she asked the first question that sprang to her mind, What about me? Was all that pretend, too?

You? Diego was initially confused, then he smiled, the light going all the way to his eyes this time. No, that was never pretend. All those visits to you and the compliments were real. Those weren't... pretend. He appeared full of hope even now, glowing with it. It practically emanated from him.

They weren't? Victoria asked in a soft voice.

No, Diego assured again, then, once more looking concerned, he asked, Victoria, aren't you going to be angry about all this?

I'm getting to that, I think, as soon as I stop feeling so dazed, she promised.

Diego now appeared vindicated, though he seemed to wish he wasn't. That's how I always thought you would feel, though a tiny part of me hoped I was wrong. That and... and ultimate rejection are the main reasons why I never told you, never said anything, he confessed.

Victoria attempted to shake her head, throwing her curls from side to side. She saw Diego turn white at the sight, almost as if he was too affected by the motion, and she was the detached observer of the scene; cold, analytical. So the dislike of violence, for swordplay, was all a pretense?

Yes. Diego stared at her now. Those feelings were assumed, the love of science and poetry enhanced, to protect me from reprisal of any kind, but you have to believe me, Victoria, when I say that I always loved you. There was nothing pretend in that.

She turned away from those probing blue eyes of his. I believe you, she said.

Diego gazed at her through narrowed slits. No, I don't think you do. His voice grew more persuasive, more desperate as the explanations continued. But you have to understand. Whoever I was at any given time, Diego or Zorro, the one thing that was constant, that I could always count on, was you. Felipe's presence certainly helped, but you always gave me hope. That was worth so much, Victoria, he insisted.

The dazed feeling was passing now and Victoria began feeling much more herself, but with it came the knowledge that her friend, the one man she could always depend on, was really her true love in secret. That he had kissed her and held her and whispered that he thought she was beautiful and had left roses on her pillow for her and... She blinked, stared at him, then stared harder, as if she had never seen him before now, as if she had never looked. You're really him? she asked, her voice now questioning, astonished.

Diego's hand snaked forward and he smoothed her hair, like he had done on countless occasions. He whispered, Yes, I really am.

The hand on her head felt wonderful, comforting, familiar. The familiarity caught her in the end. The natural pull towards him felt customary, too, and it was too strong to resist. Victoria found that she didn't want to resist. Even as she drew closer to him, pulled together by a feeling that she hardly dared put a name to, she had to protest, But you're my friend.

They drew closer yet. Diego's whisper cut through the room. Of course I'm your friend. But I also love you. His hand was on her other cheek, cradling her head in a gentle caress, brushing back her windswept curls, and there was love in his eyes, the same love that she had seen many times before. Victoria was sure that he was going to kiss her, wanted him to kiss her, wanted him to do so much...

Then they leaned together the rest of the way and his lips touched hers or hers touched his... Did it matter? She felt him hesitate at first, then melt as their love blossomed between them, mushrooming quickly into the passion that always sparked when he kissed her.

Immediately, they each had skin so hot, it practically boiled, demanding to be felt, touched, experienced in all its previously unexplored glory. Victoria circled her arms around his waist, still astonished that this had happened to her, but not so astonished that she wasn't aware of his hand running enticingly down her side, pausing to feel her waist before sliding along her back and into her hair, up along her cheek, and back down to start the whole process over again. She shivered, knowing that she wanted him to do more, to touch more, and she aided that wish by taking a moment to wrench her ruffled shirtwaist out of the confines of her skirt.

Diego noticed the precipitous move - who wouldn't? - but he stopped for a moment to gaze at her enchanting form. The bruise he'd given to her lips by pushing against her so hard in determination to express his true feelings was already forming, and her hair was in complete disarray. Part of that was because of him, part of it was from the wind on her ride to the hacienda. Yet, even with her hair a mess, Victoria looked radiant to him, emanating a deep glow that spoke of softness, invitation, brilliance, and love. How could he combat such temptation? Still, a piece of him was hesitant enough to caution, Once I start down that path, mi preciosa, I won't be able to stop. I won't want to.

I know, she said, her breathing coming in great gasps now. She brushed the straggling hair from his forehead. Neither will I.

It was all the invitation that he needed to continue. He placed his hands on the skin above her corset on her back, rubbing soothingly as his lips sought hers, ready to devour anything that might deter him. His desire was all-consuming, all-enshrouding, undiminished. Zorro had never touched her like this; he hadn't dared, for Diego knew that once he had tasted such a surrender, he wouldn't be content with anything but the entire forbidden act of lovemaking. Victoria, he whispered against her lips, standing and pulling her up with him. She slid the whole length of his body, and he groaned, too engaged to cover up anything anymore. Please allow me to indulge in a frequent dream of mine. I can answer all your questions later.

Much later, as it turned out.

He knew it wasn't right, knew his father would claim that he had been ungentlemanly, knew that their preferred religion prescribed denial, but Victoria and her new knowledge were now impossible to oppose, and he had been ignoring his desires for far too long. With no more words, they traversed the long corridor to his empty bedroom.

She had somehow pulled his own shirt from the waistline of his blue trousers and was running her own hands deliciously over his back and across the muscles of his chest by the time they had reached his room. Fully aware that such a deed would have results that they would both have to pay for later, Diego shut the door against any possibly prying eyes.

* * *

Don Alejandro held the paper he'd found aloft and pounded again on his son's closed bedroom door. It only figured that once he'd given Diego orders to take care of small jobs around the ranch that he had gone back to bed and slept the morning away. Now, none of the jobs had gotten done, the bank had refused a loan of money for another pasture from the Manuels next door, and Felipe was gone for the next four years and Diego hadn't bothered to replace him yet, meaning that all his household chores would go undone. It had been a bad morning all around for the caballero, and he pounded even louder on the door. Diego! Alejandro called, getting angry at the constant denial of his wish to enter.

Just as quickly as his anger had coalesced, the door suddenly stood open just enough to show a tousled Diego to Don Alejandro, who adjusted to the sudden change and held up the piece of paper in his hands. Diego, do you know anything about this? It's Victoria's.

Wide-eyed now and fully awake, Diego slowly took the paper from his father while it seemed as if he was thinking furiously. She was here a little while ago. She must have forgotten to take her letter with her when she left.

Alejandro looked annoyed. You say she left? Then why is her horse still tied to our front gate?

Diego's eyes grew even wider. Uh... because it threw a shoe on her way over here from the pueblo and I loaned her one of ours for the trip back. I must have forgotten to take care of her horse.

Alejandro appeared even more annoyed, irritated even. Honestly, Diego, when will you learn not to forget things so easily? It's a wonder you don't forget that your head's connected to your shoulders. He pushed reflexively on the door.

Diego held it firmly in his hand. Now, Father, please...

Alejandro seemed irritated even further. Don't you 'Now Father' me. None of your excuses. If we don't hurry to get you awake and dressed, we'll never make it to the tavern in time for lunch. He pushed open the door wide enough for him to walk through, yanking it clean out of Diego's grasp in his haste to encourage his son to dress. He entered the room through the open door. Now, why..?

Father, don't... Diego started to say, then stopped as his parent brushed past him and into the room. He came to a screeching halt when the bed came into view, bearing a very naked tavern owner, if her bare shoulders were any indication, propped up on her elbow, fully highlighted by the sun pouring through the window beside the bed. Alejandro turned to take in Diego's robe, then back again to look at Victoria obviously spread out under the blankets, waiting for the return of his son, and his hand raised to his mouth in obvious horror.

Victoria raised an eyebrow. It seems, Diego, that the consequences you just spoke about are here already.

The horror was fast mixing with anger. Alejandro whirled to take in Diego again, and his son sighed.

Father, we need to talk, he proposed in a low voice.

Alejandro didn't catch his tone. It seems so, he replied, with a hint of the anger showing in his own voice. The library, he commanded tersely. Five minutes. Dress first.

Then he was gone, walking woodenly down the hallway, his shoulders slumped, his head hanging low.

Diego sighed again and shut the door on any further intrusions. He returned to the side of the bed that Victoria currently occupied, and knelt. He took the hand that was laying outside the blankets into both of his and gave it a quick kiss. They both felt the jolt that the kiss initiated.

I still don't care what anybody says, Diego, Victoria whispered immediately. I don't have any regrets, and I still love you more than anything. She kissed the end of his nose as he leaned over her.

Diego laughed wryly. I love you too, and I have no regrets, either... that was amazing!.., but I think we should be concerned a bit about what others may think. With a shake of his head, he indicated the direction of the library and Don Alejandro, its only occupant so far. He stood and crossed to his wardrobe.

Victoria threw back the covers of his bed. I'm coming with you, she stated and started to dress in her clothes lying scattered on the floor.

Diego turned around after pulling on his brown trousers and the first white shirt that his fingers came across. There's no need for that. I'll explain things to him. Why don't you go back to bed?

And lay there, waiting to find out what happens? I don't think so, she replied decisively.

Diego smiled and paused in the act of brushing back his hair in the usual way that the pueblo's citizens were used to seeing on him. That's one of the things I love about you, Victoria; your spirit.

Victoria smiled, but continued to dress. Have you seen my other shoe? she asked instead of answering his compliment, hunting for it in the far corner of the room.

Diego gave her one last, lingering kiss. Try looking under the bed, he suggested, and caressed her only half-dressed form before opening the door again, closing it behind him, and heading down the hall.

Diego took a deep breath, then went past the plant that typically blocked him from view and entered the library, where Alejandro was seated, waiting, in a chair.

Diego dropped into the padded seat of the other chair, eyeing his father. He took another big breath. All right, Father, please, lecture me, he requested.

Don Alejandro shook his silvered head. I'm not going to lecture you, he began.

That's a first, Diego said, uncharacteristically argumentative.

The statement surprised Alejandro. What was that? he demanded.

Diego sighed once more, knowing that his comments weren't assisting the situation. Does it help to know that I'm Zorro? he asked, throwing caution completely to the wind.

Alejandro's eyes widened this time. You're who? he expostulated.

Zorro, Diego said again as his father gazed at him in half apoplectic rage, and half astonished surprise.

What? asked the caballero in a loud voice.

Father, please, the servants will hear you, Diego said, quieting down the older man with a cautionary hand.

Alejandro was much quieter, though no less astonished. You... You're not... you can't possibly be..!

Victoria suddenly appeared, looking beautiful, but no longer amazed by the news of Diego's hidden identity. That's what I thought, too. But it seems that we have quite a consummate actor on our hands.

Alejandro blustered, Yes, I should say so! He rose, turned around once, then fell more than sat in his chair. How... why... when..?

With Felipe's help. How? I had a black shirt in the drawers of my wardrobe at the time. When? Since the beginning. Diego looked at his disbelieving parent. Well, you did send me to Spain to train under Sir Edmund, after all. I guess I took the lessons a bit too much to heart.

Alejandro gazed at Diego as if he was re-evaluating his opinion of him. Since Spain? he asked incredulously. Then you and Victoria... He didn't finish what he wanted to ask.

Diego, though, had no trouble filling in the missing pieces for his father. I have loved Victoria since the minute I laid eyes on her once I returned. That affection hasn't wavered once.

Victoria smiled at Diego, now feeling shy at hearing a history of herself that she hadn't known existed an hour before. But she had to respond to Alejandro's reaction to what he thought of his scholastic son. And everybody already knows how I feel, she said.

Well..! Um... started Alejandro, then he clearly recalled the reason for this conversation. He sighed. Do you two know what you've just done? There's a special place in Hell reserved for sinners of your type!

Diego ruffled through his hair. Yes, I know, and if word about this gets out, then poor Zorro may have to contend with more than muskets the next time he's in town.

Victoria also stared at him quizzically. I thought you said you couldn't do this without Felipe's help.

The hand already in his hair halted in ruffling that hair. I can't. The last time proved that point completely.

Victoria's face suddenly looked concerned. What happened last time? she inquired.

Diego's sigh cut through the room. Nothing unusual, mi preciosa.

You mean you were shot at, endangered, and it all ended with a big sword fight? she asked again.

Diego had to smile at her interpretation of his actions over the last four years. No, he corrected, the sword fight came first. Then I was shot at.

Her eyes drew together. You forgot the endangered part, she reminded him.

Diego chuckled. There's always danger, each time I ride out on Toronado.

Victoria appeared terrified for a moment, then relief made her wilt. But you won't be riding anymore. You said so yourself; you can't go on alone.

But, Victoria, protested Diego, there will always be someone in danger. I heard you say that yourself!

Suddenly, Don Alejandro laughed. A first lover's spat? he questioned.

Diego considered, then grinned. A first disagreement, he amended. We've never had time to disagree before.

Victoria sat back in her chair, willing to concede the point for now. True. But I don't want to become a widow before I even get married, she warned.

Which brings the conversation back to the matter at hand, Alejandro interjected. You, and he turned to his son, are hopeless, and you, he gazed at Victoria, might be... expecting even as we speak. No matter how dire the situation was, he just couldn't say the word 'pregnant' to a lady. He was too polite. What are you going to do? Do I hear wedding bells somewhere in the future? The near future?

Diego now looked contrite as he turned his eyes on Victoria. We haven't exactly discussed any plans... His heart thumped excitedly in his chest, but he didn't dare give in to too much hope. He'd had his wishes dashed too many times before.

Well, Victoria conceded a little, seeming somewhat timid now that all eyes were on her, we are engaged.

Alejandro was even more surprised by this news. His eyebrows rose to his hairline. You are?

Diego turned his eyes to behold his parent. We are, he confirmed.

This news seemed to delight Alejandro, as he forgot what he was berating his son for in the excitement of the disclosure. I didn't know that!

Diego again regarded his father. There's a lot that you don't know. He paused, obviously thinking. There's a lot that Victoria doesn't know.

And you're going to rectify that situation, aren't you, Diego de la Vega? she asked immediately, before she could be distracted.

Alejandro laughed again. She's telling you, isn't she, Seņor Zorro? he commented wryly, realizing then how much Victoria reminded him of his own beloved wife, Elena.

Victoria shrugged, a smile on her face. You did say you like my spirit.

Diego smiled back. Did I say that? he asked, his tone now flirtatious.

All right, enough, Alejandro suddenly said with a wave of his hands, knowing that an angry interjection wouldn't allow him to say nearly as much as diplomacy would. This still doesn't solve anything. Diego, you may be the masked legend of the pueblo, but that doesn't mean I'm not shocked and appalled by your recent behavior.

Diego hung his head, his hands between his knees. Would it help to apologize? he asked.

No! his father quickly refuted. That doesn't turn back time and erase your actions!

Victoria saw Diego's eyes land squarely on her.

I wouldn't do that anyway, he said, and she glowed at the intention of his words.

Alejandro sighed. You couldn't have waited until you were married?

Diego turned his disbelieving gaze on Alejandro now. Father! We've been doing nothing but wait for almost five years! Waiting was not an option, he said decisively, his eyes now on Victoria.

Alejandro sighed again, as if he was the long-suffering parent of a child he just didn't know what to do with. But our religion tells us to behave differently, he gently pointed out.

Victoria was the one who interjected this time. Our religion isn't quite prepared to handle our case, is it?

I don't know, Alejandro admitted. Padre Benitez...

Padre Benitez already knows about Zorro, Diego told them, then softened his tone. Or he at least suspects.

How? Alejandro asked again.

Zorro.... uh... has gone to Confession a few times over the years, admitted Diego, his head hanging low again. I think he recognized my voice, even though it was always disguised.

Alejandro feigned astonishment. You? Go to Confession? What do you have to Confess, besides the obvious?

Well, I.., began Diego.

On second thought, Alejandro began, I don't want to know. His hands were out, and making a motion of denial before he'd even heard anything.

I've never had reason to kill anybody, Diego affirmed.

Alejandro wasn't as impressed as he should have been. Don't you want to end DeSoto's tyranny?

Diego didn't see the gleam of mischief in his father's eye. Yes, but not that way! Despite the meaning of his words, it felt wonderful to finally voice an opinion after all these years.

It's good to hear you say that, Alejandro related, then confessed, It's good to hear you have an opinion about anything, actually!

I have lots of opinions, Diego couldn't help but confirm.

Too bad your behavior doesn't reflect your fine opinions, Alejandro muttered.

Father, Diego said forcefully, but contritely. All you need to know is that I love Victoria with everything I have inside me, and that being married to her is one of my greatest dreams. If it happens sooner than everybody had planned, all the better, if you want to know what I think.

Victoria practically glowed at the implied compliment in that statement, but Alejandro appeared less than thrilled.

The sooner, the better, he said, accepting the situation even if he wasn't happy about it. And, no, I don't want to know what you think. On those words, he rose and walked out of the library without asking either Diego or Victoria what they thought of the future and what it held.

Diego's brows rose this time. I never thought I'd hear him say that, he said.

* * *

As it turned out, Diego and Victoria weren't quick enough about getting married to beat the takeover of the Mexican army. Without even the blink of an eye from the masked man, DeSoto was deposed and sent back to Spain in disgrace. The pueblo celebrated its good fortune by celebrating the marriage of Victoria Escalante and the man who surprised them all with his opinions, Diego de la Vega.

Exactly one month later, Diego finally had time to respond to his initial letter from Felipe.

Friday

December 16, 1822

Dear Felipe,

I know you'll understand the meaning behind the words I'm about to say. I'll start the story with 'you won't believe this, but...'"


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