About a month later: Yes, the point of view problem in the original of this story is corrected. (I think I've written too many stories from Diego's point of view to successfully write one from Victoria's.) So this is the right version of my version of the ending of 'Courtship.' Confused yet?

Note: This story is a new ending to my original story written in 1993 called 'Courtship.' That particular story was written one week when I had imminent marriage jitters to contend with. I initially wrote it in longhand, and after discovering the first version again more than a decade later, I found a bunch of pages that were crossed out, but the content still intrigued me, so I had to write a new ending to see what might have happened. 'Courtship' should be read first, or else you'll have no idea what's going on. 'Secrets' starts in the middle of Ch 4, right after Victoria inadvertently ends up in Diego's room.


by Linda Bindner

Several hours later Victoria finished with washing her hair in her own room, and thinking about what she had seen until she literally couldn't see straight any longer. Unable to sleep, She threw a shawl over her long-sleeved white nightgown with a calmness that belied her quaking nerves and padded quietly in bare feet along the passage to the kitchen. Perhaps she only needed a glass of water to help settle her down enough to sleep. It took her a few moments to find where LaRosa kept the clean glasses, and the flame of the single candle she'd lit didn't afford her much light to search by. But eventually she had the glass of water she desired and was heading slowly back to her room when a noise from the front hall stopped her.

The shadows cast by the single candle danced unevenly across the tile floor of the corridor as she made her way to the sitting room to investigate the sound. Perhaps Don Alejandro was packing a last minute item for his trip south. What she discovered near the front doors made her halt in astonishment, the glass of water wobbling in one hand, the candle dripping wax to the floor in the other, and eyes wide in disbelief.

Diego stood, his back to her as he pushed the bolt for the front door firmly into its slot. The tails of his white shirt hung untucked just as they had on their wedding night so many months ago. His blue jacket was slung over one arm while he fiddled with the bolt, and when he turned to find her watching him, water glass in hand, she noticed that his hair was tousled across his forehead and his shirt hung open except for the bottom two buttons, indicating haste when he'd last put it on. She caught a good view if his tanned neck and smooth chest and stomach. Victoria might have turned red at the sight of so much skin, her prevalent reaction to her husband in the past months, except for the one, small, detail that she observed as he turned around; his wedding ring was missing.

Victoria! he exclaimed, his features lighting up at the sight of her. I thought you'd gone to bed long ago.

Victoria stood unmoving on the cold tile in the front hallway. Diego. What are you doing?

He gestured at the doors with his thumb. I was just locking up for the night. He looked at her more closely, then, in the yellow light. Are you all right?

I'm fine, she automatically answered. Her voice had risen just a notch above her normal pitch while thoughts largely suspicious in nature ran amuck in her mind. The first idea that singled itself out was: who was she? Who was he seeing in these late-night appointments that would encourage him to take off that incriminating band of gold that had caused such talk when he had had first worn it? According to his state of dress, it looked like whoever it was had had a fairly good time with this particular encounter in the tall, academic Don Diego.

Diego took a few hesitant steps forward, the hand not encumbered by his blue coat reaching out to her. Victoria, you're feet must be frozen. Come on, I'll see you to your room.

Where is your wedding ring, Diego?

He paused. My what?

Your ring. You're not wearing it. Where is it? Her tone was demanding, suspicious, and irritated. In short, she sounded jealous, and she was jealous, very jealous, irrationally disappointed that he obviously wasn't courting her after all. Suddenly, she felt very afraid.

My ring? His quick, casual, glance at his left hand didn't quite hide the horrified expression he wore underneath it. That look precluded the need for any inventive excuses on his part to soothe her rising anger. I must have forgotten to put it back on after supper, he said glibly, and would have continued, but her evident anger stopped him.

Diego, where have you been? What's going on? I would appreciate an explanation this time. She went on, her tone low, yet full of her seething, absurd, offense. I realize that we do not have a typical marriage, but I never thought you would sneak around like this. She set the glass and candle on top of the escritoire sitting by the wall, forced to free her shaking hands.

He stared at her, his forehead creased in confusion, the happy light fading slowly from his eyes. 'Like this?' Victoria, what are you..?

She cut him off. I always thought we were at least friends enough to have an honest relationship, but... She hadn't thought out what she was going to say to him ahead of time, and the result was a tremendously garbled lecture. She gathered her thoughts and tried again. You didn't even need to concern yourself about not hurting my feelings, not really. But instead, you go slinking off behind my back as if you don't trust me enough to tell me about...

He put his hands on her arms. Victoria, calm down...

Suddenly furious, she threw his hands off her shoulders. Don't tell me to calm down! It appears I've been calm too long already. The shawl she wore slid off her arms with her jerky movements. She caught it and kept talking. Clearly I was wrong; we don't have a strong enough friendship for you to tell me about your life.

Diego's face, now completely devoid of any of its previously positive emotions, hardened like a rock. I've told you everything that you wanted to know. I've always been honest with you...

Victoria laughed, a short, humorless sound. Is that so? Then why can't you tell me where you disappear to all the time? Why can't you be honest about your ring? When were you going to tell me about this other woman you've been seeing?

His face hardened even further, but not so much that Victoria couldn't see the hurt disbelief blazing at her through the dim light. Another woman? Is that what you think? That I'm seeing someone else?

What am I supposed to think? You go off at odd times for hours on end, you show up tonight half undressed, minus the ring that you made such a fuss over... This whole marriage, the ring, the way you've been treating me... It's all an elaborate cover, isn't it?

Victoria, stop! This is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard!

You won't even confide in me as your friend, she rushed on, ignoring him. And I thought that after all this time, I knew you so well! Ha!

Diego paused, breathing deeply, making a valiant attempt to beat back his instant anger. No, he said, his voice full of icy calm and his face displaying what she could only describe as overpowering disappointment. He shook his head. No, after all this time... you... you don't know a thing about me, Victoria Escalante. He shook his head again, this time in painful defeat. Clutching his coat fiercely in his fist, hurt, yet with a determined air, his face a tight, glazed mask of pain, he walked purposefully back to the door, snapped the bolt aside, pulled it open, and yanked the door closed behind him.

For a moment, Victoria's anger was all-consuming. Then, it, too, disappeared, leaving her standing still, letting his last words sink in. He had called her by her former name. It sounded strange even as she repeated it to herself - Victoria Escalante. Always he had been so thoughtful about calling her Señora de la Vega, and even occasionally Doña de la Vega. Now she felt hurtfully excluded again, denounced by her own husband. And though, realistically, her marriage was in name only, that name suddenly meant a great deal to her. She sat down on the love seat in the sitting room, more shaken than she would have cared to admit. She felt worse now than she had before.

The questions she'd asked had not led to any answers, only introduced more questions. Why won't he tell me? she screamed to herself in frustration. Why did she care so much? Why had any of this even happened?

Why, why, why, why?

Victoria groaned, thinking of the hurt in his eyes as he had stared at her. She would never forget that disappointed look as long as she lived, or the feeling that she had somehow been missing something very important.

She forced herself to take a drink of water as she sat on the love seat, thinking. Oddly enough, her thoughts turned to the scene in her kitchen that morning when Diego had so tenderly kissed her on the forehead. The warm feeling that flooded through her at the memory no longer annoyed her, and she wouldn't have cared if she blushed.

But she didn't. She remained the same cold, empty, lump of stupidity that she had always been. Through all the months of her marriage it had never occurred to her that, besides Zorro, Diego was the only man in the whole world who took the time to make her feel special and cherished as she had felt every time he kissed her. Causing him pain was the last thing she had wanted.

Her heart ached with the thought of the last expression on his face. It twisted in her chest until it felt like it had to be dripping sadness, congealing with the indictments that she had inflicted on him. She had wounded him and there was no hiding from it, or from the horror she felt at causing him to feel that way. She wanted to take everything she had said back if it would only erase that look of rejection in his eyes.

Victoria groaned, and slowly lowered her head into her hands. She recognized how she was currently feeling. These thoughts rampaging through her mind, the desire to smooth away the harm to his soul that blazed through his eyes even as she had caused it with her hateful words... Now she knew what she had done, what it all meant, and she wished heartily for anything else.

She was such a fool. Without a hint or a struggle on her part, she had fallen in love with her own husband, and to illustrate that love, she had mistreated him beyond comprehension.

Instead of trusting him, and listening calmly to his explanation, her voice had risen until she had yelled the awful things she had yelled, not trusting him in even this little incident. It didn't matter who he was spending his time with. He had the right to do whatever he pleased. She wasn't his jailer, or his one, true love; she could do nothing outside the bounds of the friendship she felt for him, and their shared friendship dictated that she shouldn't care what he did with his free time.

But she did care. She cared very much.

Feeling frightened, embarrassed, and mortified all at once, she sat for two hours on the love seat in the dark hacienda, thinking about Diego, thinking of what she wanted to do to him compared to what she was going to do be allowed to him because she had little choice; he didn't love her as she loved him.

Feeling slightly ill, she pondered her options as to what to do next. She could pretend nothing had happened. She could deal with her feelings and what had happened like an adult, owning up to her mistakes with the strong fortitude that was known to people. She could behave sorrowfully, asking his forgiveness, though she doubted he would give such a thing after a fight like theirs. She could even throw herself at him and beg for mercy.

However, looked at calmly and analytically, she had to admit to herself that, after a shrewish scene like she had just forced him to live through, he could ask for a divorce, even being a Catholic, and she would have to grant him one, as she was clearly the person at fault in this mess. The allegations she had hurled at him showed a distrustful nature in the extreme, and who would blame Diego for wanting to get away from that? He had no idea of how she felt, and her recent, appalling behavior hardly put her in a good light. A divorce might be his only option, especially if he had fallen in love with someone else, though the thought of him in somebody else's arms made Victoria shiver in revulsion.

She took a trembling breath for courage to face what she saw as a coming typhoon. She had accused Diego of cheating on his marriage vows, showing her lack of respect for the match. If he wasn't involved with someone else, and there was no fault but her own in the case, and she had shown her distrust of her husband, then Diego might feel forced to divorce her just so he could demand the same respect of the citizens' of the pueblo again that his name had demanded for generations once word of her behavior got out. And the truth would certainly leak out, no matter what she and Diego did, she had no doubt about that. She had talked quite loud enough to cause a stir, or to at least wake Don Alejandro. She had very little hope of coming through such a scene unscathed. Diego would have no choice but to forgive her, or divorce her. It was as simple as that.

There were already divorced women in the Spanish Empire, Victoria knew. She had grown aware of them when one occasionally stopped in Los Angeles to stay overnight at the tavern. Those women rarely received any type of kindness or regard from the pueblo's citizens, and were generally ostracized individuals on the whole, though men were considered above reproach and would not be treated as the women, Victoria knew. She was also certain that she didn't want to spend the rest of her life as an ostracized woman, but she may not have any choice now.

At last, when the answer to her next move continued to elude her, she rose stiffly to her feet and was about to go to bed when the door was quietly pushed open, allowing Diego to slip inside.

Victoria didn't know where he had gone or what he had done, but she did immediately note several things about his appearance: his shirt was now properly buttoned and tucked into his trousers, the coat to his caballero suit was missing, but his wedding ring was once again circling his finger. Did that mean something significant, that he didn't plan to drop her at this admittedly convenient opportunity? For the first time Victoria felt hope beat a painful rhythm in her chest, and she had to sit down as her knees shook enough to make it difficult to continue to stand upright.

Diego heard the sound of her rustling nightgown right away. What are you doing still up? he asked in a well-modulated voice of reason. I thought you would have wanted to go to bed hours ago.

He didn't look like he was still angry. In fact, he looked like he wanted to forget that the dreadful scene with her had ever happened. Yet Victoria wasn't fooled by calm behavior; he could be furious with her and pretending his current tranquillity. Her mind a jumble of thoughts and ideas that were more harmful than helpful in her current situation, Victoria next did something next that would embarrass her for the rest of her life. Without a hint of warning, the second he spoke to her, she suddenly burst into tears.

Despite his former hurt and anger, he reacted instinctively. Victoria, stop, he begged, instantly attempting to soothe away her tears, and moved straight to her side on the love seat, sitting close enough so that he could put a calming hand on her arm. Please don't cry! He pulled out his linen handkerchief from his trouser pocket and dabbed at the tear tracks on her cheeks and chin.

Victoria hiccuped. I'm so sorry, Diego! I shouldn't have said all those things. She hiccuped again. You... you have the... the right to see anybody you want. She could barely speak coherently through the rain of tears. Such a reaction as crying was odd, as she never cried, but the uncertainty of the situation mixed with the late hour made her far more susceptible to tears than she had previously been in her married life. She simply couldn't stop herself at this point. Although, she said through a fresh deluge. I hope this person isn't anybody like Carmen Saragosa. She's not intelligent enough for you. She had to pause momentarily then, to blow her nose, an inelegant movement, but one that cloaked her nervousness. However, such a flippant retort, if it was meant to hide that nervousness, failed miserably. She was scared, so scared that the retort, light as it might have been in its delivery, was true. The sensation of fear was new, and uncomfortable, and terrifying because of it. Please... please don't divorce me, she was forced to entreat in a whisper.

Diego's brow creased in confusion for the second time that evening. Of course I don't want a divorce. Whatever gave you that idea? He gently wiped at her tears. Now, stop crying; that disagreement wasn't worth it. Many couples disagree every now and then. Such a fight certainly shouldn't cause so much fuss.

But I behaved so... Victoria stopped, not sure if she should divulge her secret affection to him now, then decided that honesty was definitely a new thing to strive for in her marriage. ... so jealously.

Jealous? asked Diego in amazement. What could you possibly be jealous of?

Victoria turned her head briefly away, so that she gazed fixedly into the library. Of... of another woman.


But Victoria doggedly went on. I can't stand the thought of you with someone else. I know that's not my right, and that it will be the outcome of your life eventually, anyway - I mean, you will meet someone someday. I know we've talked of that before now. But the idea... it pricked my pride, to be honest.

Diego smiled a little smile. Your pride is substantial, I know.

And... Victoria twisted the piece of linen in her hands, suddenly apprehensive about the idea that had come to her mind as she talked. Yet complete honesty, which she felt determined that she would henceforth strive for in her life, was difficult in the best of circumstances, and these weren't the best of circumstances, she had to admit. She had to literally force herself to continue. ... and... and I... These words were much harder to say than they had been when she had first uttered them to Zorro's ears.

Diego was getting curious by now, though he hid his feelings well. And?

Victoria drew in a deep breath for courage. And... You know that I don't expect anything out of this, but to be honest...

Victoria, what is it that has you so flustered? Diego gently prompted.

Victoria smiled a bit sadly. He was always so kind, kinder than she deserved. The emotion she felt for him overwhelmed her for a moment, and in the remnants that the feelings left behind, found the courage to go on. That's what I love about you, Diego; you're always so concerned about others. But that's the problem, sort of.

He was lost by her mysterious references. What is?

Victoria turned her head away from his stare again, and even closed her eyes to block out his familiar features. She sighed, and with her eyes still closed, said, I love you. I mean, I think I'm in love with you.

Diego reacted as he would have been expected to; his eyes got wide and he drew back a little. You what? he asked incredulously.

She sighed again, glad that she'd had the courage to speak of her feelings at last, glad that her emotions were at least not a secret any longer, even if she didn't anticipate this divulgence to change anything in their strange, friendly, and more than friendly, relationship. I'm in love with you, she repeated with resolve. I only just figured it out tonight; that's the reason why I behaved with so much jealousy. I... I know that many men find the thought of keeping someone on the side as acceptable, but I hadn't considered that you might be one of them...

Victoria, stop, Diego commanded quietly. I'm not seeing any other woman - there's no one but you. Diego dropped his head into a sag that made his hair swing wildly and his chin to hit his chest. There could never be anyone but you, he finished incomprehensibly on a whisper.

What did he mean by that? He wasn't..? He wasn't the victim of a strange accident that made him..? Could the end of the noble de la Vegas have nothing to do with her one way or the other? Diego, you're not..? She couldn't articulate her recent worry. You're not... impotent... are you?

Diego jumped in before she even had the opportunity to voice such a foolish concern. No! No, he repeated less vigorously. In fact, I think I might suffer from the opposite problem.

Victoria nodded, though her heart still beat an erratic rhythm on her rib cage. Yes, it's something of a pity that things didn't work out between you and Sofira while you were in Spain, but didn't Don Alejandro call you home a bit too early for you to..?

Diego interrupted. That's not exactly what I'm talking about.

Victoria stared at him again, dazed by his evasions. Then what are you talking about, Diego?

He sighed, and it sounded much more frustrated than she had felt moments before. Victoria, he began, I personally believe that integrity is the most important aspect of a marriage...

So do I. That's why I felt it was so important to tell you... what I discovered about myself tonight, not that I expect any favors because of it, she said, wanting to make sure he understood that point.

He understood it perfectly; he smiled, amused in spite of the heavy topic of conversation. I realize that, but... perhaps you should expect favors for it.

What? she asked for clarification. Diego, I don't...

Diego again stopped her by continuing in a soft voice. I've loved you for years, he said, steadfastly looking at the candlelight flickering its shadows on the floor. Perhaps since we were children and first met, but certainly since I returned home from the University in Madrid. He continued to gaze at the carpet on the floor.

For some reason, this news surprised her more than her own insight had only moments earlier. But he was going on.

I know that, until tonight, you never proclaimed such feelings in return. You always had a certain regard for the outlaw of the pueblo, and didn't hide it, I'll admit...

She halted him. Diego you don't have to... You don't have to be so...

He looked at her, his blue eyes turning dark and impenetrable in the dim light. But, as I said, honesty is very important in a marriage, even one meant for convenience, like ours originally was.

Yes, she agreed, but not to the extent that you should risk embarrassing yourself by bringing up... my previous... previous relationships, she stuttered.

I'm not embarrassed, Diego assured, turning his body more towards her on the love seat.

Victoria stared at him, her eyes meeting his. Then what are you feeling?

He smiled that sad smile of his again. Besides feeling amazed, in love, and terrified?

Finding the humor is such a statement wasn't hard. She laughed. Yes, besides that.

Torn, he answered enigmatically.

Her brow furrowed. What secret could he possibly have to feel upset over? Torn? About what?

For a moment, he sat, silent. She watched the thoughts and ideas chase each other around the familiar features of his face. Even though nothing could be expected to come of her failings for him, Victoria loved him. She knew that nothing could come of her feelings, despite what he proclaimed, and had accepted that. But she still loved him, and always would.

Then, the moment passed, and he seemed to come to some decision. With a determined air that was unusual for him, he took her hands and spoke in a much lower voice than usual. A chill coursed up Victoria's spine under her nightgown; she recognized that voice. Victoria, I just said that I think integrity is one of the most important aspects of any relationship, he began by mentioning. She nodded, too stunned not to. This seems to be a night for the confession of secrets, he went on.

Yes? she prodded, still reeling from his revelation as to the state of his emotions for her, the sound of his voice... It was all too much to handle.

Diego looked uncomfortable. He shifted and leaned against the arm of the love seat. Honesty; it's a good policy to have. And you've already begun to ask questions...

Her brow furrowed even deeper. She swallowed the bile suddenly in her throat. What do you mean to say, Diego?

He looked into her dark eyes again. I mean... I mean... He tried to take a different angle. I knew where my ring was tonight.

She stared at him in befuddlement. What do you mean you knew?

He continued in a strangled whisper, almost as if he was forcing the words through a barrier of some kind. The minute you asked about my wedding ring... I hadn't taken it off tonight for any assignation with someone else, as you assumed. She blushed a deep scarlet at his words and he could see her reaction even in the dimness of the sitting room. You were right to some degree; I had taken it off. I knew right where to look for it the minute you asked where it was. In fact, seeing it where I'd left it broke me out of the anger that I was feeling.

Where was it? In your bedroom?

Once more he sighed. No, I had taken it off in order to wash my hands when I was finished tonight. I laid it on... the work table.

Work table? She couldn't recall any work table in the hacienda. Even in the stables, the tools hung on the walls. What work table?

Here he looked more than uncomfortable. He fidgeted, then blurted. In my laboratory. In the cave.

Cave? What was he talking about? What...? she asked, uncomprehendingly.

Victoria, he interrupted again, assiduously neglecting to look at her. I'm... I'm... He took a breath and made another attempt. I'm Zorro.

The change in her demeanor was instantaneous. Her eyes grew wide and saucer-shaped. Her mouth dropped open in a soundless 'oh.' Most frighteningly, the blood drained from her cheeks until their whiteness matched the nightgown she was wearing. How..? Her voice was a croak that she didn't clear away.

He shook his head back and forth. I'm sorry, Victoria, he went on in the same agonized whisper. I never meant to hurt you like this. I just wanted to keep you safe. That was the most important thing to me.

How? she repeated, unable to continue.

How could I be Zorro? he asked, guessing her question. He displayed that smile again, poking fun at himself, yet there was just a hint of Zorro in his gesture that he couldn't or didn't bother to cover up. Things were untenable when I came home from school. My own father was in jail. You were in jail. I had to do something, but the threat to the lives of those I cared about the most - my father, you - was still very real. Rescue from a previously unknown savior was the only way I could think of at the time to guarantee both your lives as well as my own. His sigh whirled around the room. Things... got away from me when the Alcalde placed a price on my head before I could do anything to stop him. The vengeance of Luis Ramone was more substantial than I anticipated, he admitted. By then, it was too late; I was already more in love with you than I could hope to control, and you... you seemed eager to be returning such feelings. However, at the same time, I could see the necessity for the use of my sword in the pueblo, so I continued. He shrugged. For years. You know the rest.

For a moment, she did nothing, had no reaction at all. Then she didn't get angry, as he expected her to. She gaped in astonishment. And the wedding..?

Diego lowered his head even more. The wedding was a way to finally guarantee your safety from the Alcalde. As the wife of Diego de la Vega, who was above suspicion, you would be ignored. He sighed and rubbed dispiritedly at his face with his hands. I'm sorry, Victoria, but I just couldn't resist you. It was like the answer to my prayers when you came to the hacienda and proposed that night. He shuddered, a shiver that crawled up his body from his toes to the top of his head. But marriage to you turned out to be harder than I ever thought it would be. You seemed oblivious of any courtship attempt on my part. You couldn't fall in love with a friend, no matter the circumstances. By marrying you, I thought I had lost you forever. It was the end of the romance of the pueblo. Only being Zorro has kept me going these long eight months.

Victoria twisted the linen handkerchief in her fingers. You sound so blasé about it.

Diego rather grunted his own bitter laugh. There's nothing blasé about being shot at, I assure you.

No, I don't suppose there is, Victoria answered without answering anything. She jerked her head forward to look out into the sitting room, down at her feet, at the front door to the hacienda... anywhere but at his face. She didn't trust herself to look at his face, not yet. She studiously avoided looking at him. He noticed.

Victoria, you're not feeling... angry... about all this? he asked in a whisper.

She shook her head, and the quick, lurching movement felt good. No. I'm not angry.

They were silent as that information sank in. Finally, Diego asked in curiosity, Why not? Why aren't you furious? It's what I've always expected you to be, so much so that you never wanted to see me again in most of the scenarios I played out in my mind.

This time it was Victoria's turn to snort a laugh. Never see you again? How could I do that? You're the man I'm married to. How could I not see you again?

Silence ensued once more. Then Diego whispered, But I never said a word, not one word, before the wedding, and afterwards... I so badly wanted to tell you, but I was so afraid by then that you would be angry.

And she should be, angry enough for two or even ten individuals. But she wasn't. It's strange, but I don't feel angry at all.

That's not like the Victoria I know.

He didn't say 'know and love,' she noticed. Perhaps I'm no longer the Victoria everybody knows, she replied wonderingly.

His brow furrowed now. So you're saying you've changed sometime since... He did a quick tally of the last time he'd seen her behave normally. ... since supper?

Perhaps, was all she'd enigmatically respond.

Diego gazed out into the sitting room as well. Oh.

Victoria stirred finally beside him, though she still could not meet his gaze. I wasn't in love with you at supper. Or I didn't know it yet, she added blithely.

More silence. Then Diego did look at her. So you're saying that you still love me?

Victoria nodded to the front doors. Well, you can't turn such a feeling on and off, like the water pump in my kitchen. So, yes, that's what I'm saying.

There was still more quiet time. She gazed at the front doors. He stared at the floor. She glanced at him out of the corners of her eyes. He watched her through his lashes. She nervously played with the material of her nightgown. He distractedly stretched his arm. Then Diego rubbed his knee, looking very much like his father for a moment, stood up, and tugged a stunned Victoria into his arms.

At least, she was stunned until she met his chest covered by the white caballero shirt. Then she just couldn't help herself. She melted at the familiar sensation. It was as if the eight months after the wedding, the wedding itself, had never happened, and she was back, in the kitchen of her tavern, with Zorro.

She tightened the embrace of her arms around his back. He tightened his grip on her as well. He hugged her. No, he clung to her. Diego didn't kiss her, but encircled her instead, and she felt treasured, cherished, in his arms. The white nightgown she was wearing brushed against the floor.

Suddenly, Victoria realized something in her emotion-flooded mind. She was wearing a nightgown, only a thin nightgown. I'm not wearing anything underneath, she comprehended. And I haven't thrown myself at him yet? Have I gone loco?

Victoria snuggled into his arms a little more. He squeezed until the breath was practically squeezed out of her. If she had been wearing a corset at the time, he would have succeeded. His arms showed the strength of a fencer, not the weak, soft, muscles that she had always expected. If she needed proof that he was who he said he was, that strength was all she needed to be made aware of. It felt as strong as metal, except warm and familiar, even after all this time.

Dios, Victoria, but I love you, he whispered into her hair. It was rather funny, actually, that this mighty defender of justice was near tears because of a tavern owner.

A very lucky tavern owner, she thought to herself.

Then she lifted her head to ask a simple, benign question about who else knew of his secret identity, but it was hopeless within half a second. Diego touched his lips to hers, and it was as if no time at all had elapsed. They picked up right where they had left off.

With one tiny exception.

They were married now, and had been for almost a year.

They both realized the truth of the matter at almost the same exact instant. Passion exploded. Hands flew to heads, hair, and cheeks in an attempt to illustrate the depth of their emotions.

And what do married people often do?

They acknowledged the new state of affairs instantly. Hands slid to places much more unmentionable. Skin burned at the touch of the other. Bodies yearned to feel, to experience. Hearts glorified in the sensation.

Diego... But she was unable to finish her sentence.

Acting almost as if it was against his will, his fingers slid up her side to wrap around one perfect breast. It felt as exquisite to be in his hand as she had always dreamed it would. His lips slid off hers, down her throat, and on to the smooth skin of her shoulder as he held aside the collar of her nightgown.

Victoria shivered as a result of the warmth of his hands compared to the coolness of the material. Dios mio... she stuttered in a fog enshrouded whisper.

Diego felt intoxicating next to the silky feel of her skin glided under his sensitive hands. Her pulse point at the side of her neck beat rapidly as he flicked his tongue over it to taste the salty remnants of her tears.

She sighed a little sigh that showed her contentment with the change in their situation. Victoria felt warm and alive under the pass of his fingers. His breath came in faster and faster gasps, his chest heaved, his heart beat swiftly against her own chest, desire clouded his eyes when she looked at him... In quick, decisive movements that were more like Zorro than Diego, he lifted her into his arms even as he kissed her.

Diego.., she muttered between his endearments, I'm quite sure that I can't wait a moment longer to make love to you.

He stopped kissing her for only an instant, long enough to nuzzle her ear and whisper, Yes, I think that we've waited plenty long enough.

His hot breath washed over the tear tracks still on her cheeks as he gently carried her down the hall and to his room, shutting the door gingerly, but firmly, behind them.

The next morning dawned sunny, yet slowly. Victoria woke, but wanted to fight off the call of the sun for awhile longer yet; she wasn't ready to face a day full of the needy customers at the tavern.

Victoria, whispered Diego's voice out of the faint light. Are you asleep, or are awake while pretending to be asleep?

She smiled, despite her desire to remain burrowed in the comfortable pile of blankets. I'm awake. Unfortunately.

Unfortunately? came Diego's whisper again. Am I so awful to see this early in the morning?

That question held her attention. Of course you aren't. Victoria stretched her hands over her head, and Diego enticingly ran a finger lightly down the underside of one of her arms. If you don't stop that, I'll never make it back to the tavern this morning.

Diego continued to run his hand lightly over every part of skin that appeared over the sheet. His voice came from much closer now. That's the idea.

She smiled again, delighted at the prospect he was suggesting. Yet she still felt she had to object, But what if Felipe comes in for something? I'll be totally embarrassed. He'll be embarrassed.

Diego stayed as close to her as he could without climbing on top of her. His whisper once again cut through the early light. I sent Felipe to San Diego with my father. I thought we needed some time to ourselves. Well, as much time to ourselves as we can possibly have with a houseful of servants at our beck and call. Father and Felipe left ten minutes ago.

So we have the house to ourselves?

As much privacy as we want, he assured.

Victoria smiled again. No interruptions?

Not unless we call for one.

Victoria reached for him. In that case, come here. I know precisely how we should celebrate such emptiness... She pulled him over, feeling his nakedness and warmth. How had she missed such warmth? It seemed to radiate off him, circling her in a cocoon of his natural heat.

It didn't matter how she had never noticed it before. She noticed it now. Diego slid on top of her without missing a beat. I'm all ears, Doña de la Vega, he said, right before the feel of his lips on hers shut out any other conscious thought.

Chapter 5

It was two days before Victoria returned to the tavern, two days of sun, warm weather, and no calls for the need of Zorro's justice in the pueblo. Diego and Victoria spent every minute with each other, often discovering the hidden delights of the de la Vega rancho from horseback, the secrets of private conversation, and the joy of quiet, shared meals prepared by somebody else's hands.

But the morning of the third day brought Victoria back to her customers at the tavern, the center of her livelihood if not quite the center of her life. By now, Diego easily rivaled the tavern in importance.

By seven o'clock in the morning, Victoria was starting her preparations for breakfast when Maria asked her about the change in her suddenly smiling demeanor. Victoria gave a noncommittal shrug. Diego and I fought one night about the possibility of Diego seeing someone else, she explained even as she smiled contentedly.

Maria gaped. Don Diego? Seeing someone else? I never would have guessed that!

Victoria tilted her head to the side, remembering. He wasn't. It was all a big misunderstanding. He had disappeared for the entire evening while doing an experiment.

Maria gazed curiously at her. If it was a misunderstanding, and he was doing experiments, as you say, then why did you fight at all?

I was jealous, Victoria explained. Then we talked. Then we... well, it doesn't matter what we did. Just know that we reconciled.

For two days? Maria asked. Long reconciliation.

Victoria grinned again. He can be very... energetic... when he wants to be.

Maria couldn't help grinning in return. And you said he wasn't courting you!

Victoria looked stunned for a moment. I said that?

You did, retorted Maria.

Victoria smiled one more time, and the kitchen of her tavern lit with more than sunlight for a moment. Again she tilted her head. Well, I don't think that anymore. I know it!

And both women giggled like they were still schoolgirls on a vacation.

By eleven-thirty, Diego obviously couldn't stand the quiet of the hacienda any longer and he entered the tavern amid an influx of the lunch crowd. Victoria was standing serenely behind the bar when she saw him stroll in, and her heart jumped inside her chest, but she made no outward sign except for allowing a large smile of greeting to grace her featuress. She hadn't seen him for only one morning, true, but to her it suddenly felt like her entire life had gone by instead of only a few hours, and they had been emptier without his presence.

Diego claimed a table immediately by setting his book down on the wooden table top. To Victoria's delight, he claimed his wife just as quickly by heading in a definitive walk over to her place as she stood behind the bar. Her face lit up again at the sight of him, but before she could react more to his presence, he had grabbed her hand and kissed it in the largest display of affection he had ever shown to the people of Los Angeles. The people currently in the tavern stopped their conversations and watched.

Señora, Diego said in a soft voice, facing only her as he spoke.

Victoria blushed, though she secretly liked his open attentons. Yet, she couldn't let him know that. Diego, you're making a scene.

His eyes twinkled mischievously. I've wanted to make a scene for years, he said in a whisper.

Victoria's cheeks reddened again. Well, you're certainly making one now. Why don't you let me get something for you from the kitchen so people won't stare so much?

The mischievous look in his eyes increased and her attempt to waylay the pueblo's citizens from witnessing the change in hers and Diego's relationship was ignored by him as well as everyone currently in the tavern. He said in a low voice, Know that I would like to do so much more than just create a scene. And he raised his eyebrows in a suggestive manner. But to save you from complete embarrassment, I'll take some of the best soup in the territory. He turned her hand over to plant a kiss on her palm.

Victoria squelched her answering smile, but had a difficult time in doing it. Despite the stranglehold she had on her emotions, she still felt a tingle course slowly down the length of her spine, setting her skin on fire. As you wish.

Again Diego suggestively whispered, You know what I wish for. He held her hand wrapped in his, the only gesture of affection he would allow himself to disply, though his eyes suggested all manner of impropriety.

Victoria's indrawn breath was quick and witnessed only by her husband, who was having decidedly too much fun at her reaction to his endearments. She had to escape, now. I'll go and get your soup before you starve to death, was all she could reply as her heart fluttered. Who would have guessed a year ago that Don Diego would be the one to make her heart flutter?

But his blue eyes continued to openly stare at her in flirtation. I look forward to it. He didn't say what else he was looking forward to as well.

Victoria sighed, amazed that he could make her feel so... cherished... with just a look. Quietly, she disappeared beyond the curtain, right before she melted onto the extra bench she'd pushed next to the wall, out of the way, thinking that he could turn her into a puddle faster than Maria could roll burritos. And she loved every minute of it.

Three days later, Don Alejandro and Felipe returned to the hacienda to find a very different household than the one they had left behind at sunrise that fateful morning. Now, laughter and joy seemed to grow in abundance right between the hacienda's walls.

Victoria caught Felipe being distressed over the change that had come over Diego that evening while standing alone in the library, but she was only told that Diego was looking for her instead of searching for the band of desperadoes who had escaped from prison that very afternoon. Zorro seemed to have disappeared overnight, and Diego was behaving like he didn't even care. Victoria quietly felt a sense of sadness for the young man's plight, but was far too ecstatic with the change in her own life to feel too badly about his loss.

Still, it must have been a shock when, the very next day, Don Alejandro and Felipe saw the complete turnaround that Diego had demonstrated several times to the tavern's customers concerning his affections for his wife. Diego's eyes practically smoldered as he gave her fingers what was becomming a customary kiss the minute he entered her business establishment.

Don Alejandro could only stare for a second, then he dazedly pulled on his son's arm. Come on, Son, stop creating a scene, he said, then went on to warn, People will talk about you for days.

They can go ahead and talk, Diego commented, but his eyes rested only on Victoria as she stared helplessly back.

Don Alejandro gave a slight grimace, as if he didn't know how to react to this new son he seemed to have acquired almost overnight. You'll see Victoria again when she returns to the hacienda before supper. Let's have lunch now.

But Diego looked like he was enjoying himself immensely if they could all judge by the broad smile plastere on his face. He lowered his voice, but replied, I like creating scenes, and I don't plan to stop unless Señor Zorro taps me on the shoulder and orders me to.

Felipe suddenly choked and coughed, distracting his patrón enough to cause Don Alejandro to wack the servant on the back.

But Diego only continued, As I'm fairly certain that's not going to happen anytime soon, I'm perfectly comfortable in continuing my behavior for the unforeseeable future.

Alejandro just groaned and rolled his eyes, clearly wondering what had transpired between his son and daughter-in-law while he and Felipe had been in San Pedro. Victoria didn't plan to give any explanations to cease his curiosity, however.

Two days after that, Diego dropped a revolutionary idea as he and Victoria were sitting next to each other on his bed, reading before a night spent in bouts of sleep, interrupted by bouts of equally as desired passion. Victoria liked the way her marriage had turned out, she ruminated happily as she read a copy of Robin Hood at Diego's suggestion. He claimed that it was certainly worth a read, and she was inclined to agree with him.

But now, Diego broke the silence. You know what I would like to do? he asked, as a way to lead into the conversation he really wanted to have.

What? she inquired as she put a finger in her book to save her page while she gave him her undivided attention. She loved spending her evenings at the hacienda, but she particularly liked spending them alone with Diego. She snuggled in closer to his side and asked again, What would you like?

Well, you remember on the night we got married that you said you had always thought your wedding would at least be held in daylight?

Victoria stared at him in open astonishment. You remember that?

Among other things, he said, smoothly suggestive. We can re-create those things, if you want.

Victoria blushed again, and maddeningly wondered if she was going to spend the rest of her life with red cheeks. I want. But that's for later. What do you want to do now?

Diego grinned at her comment, and what it promised. Not now; in a few weeks or months. Whenever it's the most convenient.

Victoria rolled her eyes. Diego, would you please just tell me?

He laughed. I love it when you're mad at me. He kissed the tip of her nose. But, seriously, he continued in a more solemn voice, I wondered if you would like to get married again, properly, during the day, and in front of people this time. No Alcalde to threaten us.

Victoria lost the page in her book in her surprise. Can you do that?

Yes, Diego nodded. I asked the padre about it today. He wasn't truly surprised, given our recent behavior in public.

You mean you're recent behavior, Victoria snorted.

Diego shrugged. I don't care. At least no one's angry about it. His brow furrowed in a thundercloud. Are they?

Not that I've heard, Victoria muttered. But you really want to get married again?

If you do. You do, don't you? If you don't, we can just forget I said anything. Diego's old lack of confidence with her was showing in his uncertain manner.

Victoria swiped playfully at him. Of course I think that's a fine idea. As long as you want to, and it's all right with the padre...

As I said, I already talked to him this afternoon, right after lunch. I wanted to make certain it was all right with him first. It is. Then he grinned devilishly. We can invite the Alcalde.

Suddenly Victoria laughed at his diabolical statement.

What is it? Diego asked.

Victoria laughed harder. The... the Alcalde! She was lost for a moment in peels of laughter.

What about the Alcalde?

Victoria had to take a deep breath before she could answer. He's... he's the reason we had to get married in the first place, which forced us together, making us both happier than we've ever been before, and you're... you're... She couldn't go on.

Diego smiled now, too. I'm what?

Victoria buried her face in her book. You're the last person he'd ever want to see happy! The irony of the situation just slays me! I'll never be able to look at him again without laughing!

Diego chuckled. True. It is ironic when you look at it that way.

Victoria laughed yet again. Oh, Diego, marry me and invite the Alcalde. This is too good of an opportunity to pass up.

Diego leaned over, and grinned. I think I will, Doña de la Vega. Then, for good measure, he kissed her.

Their shared desire burst upon them, though Victoria's giggles occasionally melted through. The servants were too well trained to notice anything further, except to hear Victoria's laughter ring at random through the halls of the house. And they smiled, even if they determined not to say a thing.

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