by Linda Bindner

The hot afternoon sun beat unmercifully down on the plaza, baking the hard dust into clay that was barely stirred by the passing of a lone rider on a roan horse. The mount tossed her tail as it was stirred by a sudden gust of wind, the head toss the only other movement from either the horse or her rider. Still, he noticed the agitation immediately.

Diego de la Vega patted his mount on her sweaty neck. Hot, isn't it, old girl? Well, you probably won't have to endure the afternoon sunshine for long. Not if I know Victoria, he groused sheepishly, certain that the tavern owner would already be asleep for the next few hours and his request of an audience with her would go unheeded. He patted Esperanza on her neck again, the motion prompted by nerves as he guided her back over to the hitching rail next to the tavern porch. It was the second time she had been there that day.

Not only was the tavern still open, but Victoria was standing, prepared for customers, behind her green bar. Don Diego! Weren't you already in here for lunch today?

Yes, I was, with Father and Felipe, but I wonder if I could talk to you alone for a moment? he asked, agitation clear in the quaking hands that he laid against the top of the counter.

For some reason, Victoria couldn't take her eyes off those large, shaking hands. At odds with how they typically appeared, they still looked gentle, soft, almost like the hands belonging to... She shook her head to banish the thought. I don't have much time right now. It's almost siesta...

That's actually what brought me here, interrupted Diego, the nervousness now traveling in a wave to his arms encased in the ruffled, white shirt of a caballero. Beneath the flowing, white material, his shoulders practically shook. I would like to talk to you during siesta, when no one is awake, if you don't mind, but I can always come back later if...

She cut him off this time. No, no, that's all right. I was going to wash some dishes anyway. You can have whatever attention the dishes don't take. Victoria smiled at him, though her puzzlement showed through the more pleasant expression, and went to clear out her remaining two customers for a much needed rest.

When the two men were gone, Victoria shut and bolted her double front doors against any further intrusions for the next few hours. She planned to reopen the tavern in the hopefully cooler evening hours just before supper. The heat would encourage a good sleep, which would also leave people hungry, which would ultimately be good for the tavern.

But right at this moment, the dishes called out to her. She wouldn't get a rest until the dirty dishes were cleaned, and until Don Diego had had his say. The quiet caballero looked fitful as he leaned against the bar. Suddenly, curiosity as to his dilemma washed over her, because only a problem could have him trembling so seriously before her. Usually, he was the most composed man she knew.

Now, if you'll follow me, Diego, we can talk all you want, Victoria invited affably, heading for her kitchen and the pile of dirty dishes that awaited her. She parted the curtains and entered, calm in her naivete. Unfortunately, her companion wasn't nearly so collected.

Diego swallowed, gathered himself together, then followed her to the relative privacy of her kitchen. Victoria was already at the pump in the corner, washbasin in hand. This is it, he thought, then crossed to stand in front of the fireplace, deliberately putting off any future thoughts, putting off the telling of his secret. For a moment, he remained silent. This confession was much harder than he'd thought it would be while safe at home in the hacienda. He didn't know where to begin. Still, he felt compelled to explain.

She crossed back to the kitchen counter, carrying a bucket of water, which she dumped into the already warmed water in the washbasin. What is it, Diego? You look like someone just killed your favorite horse. Victoria smiled, but sank her arms into the tub before her while she spoke.

Diego laughed, glad for the distraction. No one injured my favorite horse, I can tell you that. But perhaps you had better sit down, he cautioned her, abruptly serious.

Victoria was a bit taken aback. She pulled her arms out of the washbasin, drying them on a convenient towel. All right. Sitting in this heat would be most welcome. She sat on a bench pushed against the kitchen wall, and sighed. He didn't join her, but instead remained by the fire, oblivious to how hot it was in that corner of the room. All right, I'm sitting. Now, what is this big news of yours? Suddenly, inspiration struck her. Diego, are you getting married? Could he not tell her about it?

Diego laughed mirthlessly, ironic in his disclosure. Yes, I would like to get married. I guess that's the point of this visit.

So he was getting married? Astounded, she wondered who the lucky girl was. For a girl would surely be lucky to snag the intense, scientific, though extremely gentle Don Diego. He would make a wonderful husband; she had always thought so. She might consider him for herself if it wasn't for Zorro.

But those thoughts, while intriguing, were impossible. There was no conceivable way that Diego could be Zorro. Was there? If he turned out to be her masked bandit, then... Victoria took in a sharp breath, pulling Diego's attention from the fire to her face. He gazed at her with abnormally strong intensity.

You know, don't you? he asked quietly.

Victoria sat on the bench, too stunned for anything that required motion. She'd never thought that he could be the one... I just now thought of... How could this be happening to her? She leaned forward until her head almost touched her hands. But that's impossible.

Diego snorted a laugh once more, harsh in his unmasking. Impossible? I made sure it was impossible. That 'impossibility' has kept me alive all these years. He was quiet for a moment, a pondering look now on his face. His hands shook as he straightened a spoon hanging from the wall beside the fireplace, and he balled the fingers into fists so he, or she, wouldn't see the shaking. Just as suddenly, he hung his head. I'm sorry I couldn't tell you before now.

Could this be happening to her? Had she as recently as last night declared her love for..? Unbidden, memories came to mind, swamping her in their untimely fashion:

It had been after midnight, past closing time for the tavern. As per his usual way of ending the day, Zorro had been waiting for her in a dark corner of her kitchen, waiting for a kiss to welcome him from his lonely ride to Los Angeles.

Buenos noches, he said in a whisper the minute she arrived in the kitchen, carrying last-minute orders full of only half-eaten food, drink cups also half full, and an empty pitcher that had once held beer. Victoria wrinkled her nose at the smell of the liquid's remnants before hearing his low voice that cleared everything but a smile from her features. She deposited the tray with the dirty dishes onto the kitchen's counter and immediately threw herself into his waiting arms.

Buenos noches yourself, she said, her voice muffled by his black silk shirt, but doing little to hide her smile of joy. She couldn't help feeling happier just being in his presence.

You know, you light this kitchen up like a lantern every night, mi preciosa, he continued. His gloved hand rubbed up and down her back and into her hair in a soothing pattern of fondness and affection.

Victoria's smile grew broader yet. Thank you, she said at the compliment, her voice low as well. They didn't wish to attract attention by drawing someone to the kitchen with something as simple as overly loud voices.

He pulled his gloves from his hands and tucked them into the sash at his waist so he could sense everything about her with his smooth fingertips. They tingled from sensing too much already. It's nothing, but it's true, he said about the compliment he'd just given. You do light up a room each time you enter one. I've noticed.

She smiled again. And what else have you noticed, Seņor Zorro?

Many things, he said, smiling down at her. How careful you are when you place a bowl of soup on a table, how you can become incensed so quickly over an injustice to somebody, how you do the dishes before allowing yourself to take a siesta, the way you stand, half-listening, behind your bar...

Victoria leaned back in sudden curiosity. You would have to be a patron of my tavern every day to notice such things.

So I would have to be, Zorro carefully agreed with her, but after almost half a decade of lies and leading her on, only to leave her unsatisfied and yearning for more, a deeper commitment between the two seemed necessary. Even an engagement to be married hadn't satisfied him or her. He longed for the deception to end. And so I am. Often, he divulged with his heart in his throat. What would she do with such eye-opening information?

Victoria appeared surprised at the confession. Her eyebrows rose. Then you would have to be one of very few customers, all of which I know well. What are you doing? Giving yourself away? she asked, half joking and half serious.

Zorro considered, aware of the disbelief not quite hidden by her attempted amusement. However, his inner wonderings were hampered by involuntary mental ramblings that suddenly made his blood spurt to life. His heart started to race and he was very aware of the woman in his embrace. Perhaps I want you to figure me out, finally, to uncover the man beneath the mask.

You're not serious! she declared, forgetting to keep her voice hushed, but all potential listeners had disappeared to the upper floor hours before.

Again Zorro thought about her words. Perhaps I am serious, he whispered to her while cradling her in his strong arms. Perhaps I'm getting too old for secrets. Then his voice turned wry. Perhaps I just want to feel every one of your attributes. He kissed her forehead then.

Victoria chuckled quietly. No one's stopping you, she lured.

True, he settled back, cognizant of the fact that she was trying to seduce him from his more gentlemanly ways, and knowing that it wouldn't take much persuasion on her part in that seduction. What was wrong with him? he asked himself, all the while appreciating the thundering of the blood in his temples. I could start my appreciation with a kiss? he suggested, realizing he courted danger just by making such a suggestion, and not really caring if he did. To be honest with himself, he found himself wanting to do much more than kiss her.

Victoria smiled once again, her endearment inviting and coy. That would be... appropriate, she said, only half in jest.

Zorro laughed this time, thoughts of an indecent nature rising behind his eyes at her offer. That would be my pleasure. His whisper sliced the air between them as he leaned down and she looked up until their lips met in the middle and fire flew.

He recognized the fact that he instantly wanted to run his hands all over her body, on every secret place, take inventory of all her 'attributes' at once. It was downright indecent to think those kinds of thoughts, especially about a woman he highly respected, but he couldn't pretend not to recognize the draw of those actions and the unchivalrous behavior that they would undoubtedly lead to. With his fingers spread across her cheek and into her tumbled hair, he lovingly kissed her lips, her eyes, her nose, her neck, and was helpless not to solicit the danger.

Victoria sighed in pure ecstasy, unable to miss the sensations of love and affection pouring from him. She would have to be dead not to feel his attraction to her. In an answer to his emotions, she kissed his chest through the silk shirt that he always wore, wanting nothing more than to tug that shirt from his sash and to feel the warmth of the bare flesh underneath.

Her fingers dragged across his abdomen. The movement made fire creep along his veins, creating a twist of pain and pleasure to mix in his racing heart. Dios, Victoria, he whispered, almost lost in the sensations and emotions that she was eliciting. I'd better leave now, while I can, and before we do something that will mightily disappoint the padre.

I'm all for disappointing the padre, she encouraged, right before his second kiss ended the possibility of more conversation. His kiss was demanding, cajoling, loving, all at once, and with the suddenness of a bucket of water thrown in her face, Victoria knew in every fiber of her body that she loved and wanted this man who held her so tight, even if she didn't know who he really was. That seemed unimportant in the face of such strong desire.

That incredible, amazing kiss ended, slowly, enticingly, promising so much more for sometime in the future.

His firm grip of control came into play then. I should be going, should leave now, while I can. His harsh breathing echoed through the air.

Victoria couldn't let him leave such a scene so frigidly. She said the first thing that popped into her mind, whispered against his ear as his endearments continued despite his intention to leave. I love you. It was the initiation of those words between them, whispered almost as softly as an afterthought, even if the sentiment was as true as the rain that occasionally fell from the sky.

Victoria, he affirmed, the feelings mutual, God knows it is, and if I could, I would stay, and kiss you until neither of us can see straight, but it's not a good idea, no matter how we look at it. I want better for you, so much more than spontaneous endearments.

I'm all for being spontaneous, she whispered.

But his sense of nobility reared upright, coming between them like a physical force. He drew back from his kiss, then away to hold her with his hands on her elbows. He somehow found it within himself to step back from her trembling form. He was trembling now with the effort. Goodbye, mi preciosa. Until next time, he promised, his whisper cutting through the hiss and pops from the fire in the grate. With one hand touching her cheek in a final caress, he slipped out her back door and into the night.

In reaction to her memories, Victoria also began to shake as she recalled his ardor, her answering affection, their shared fondness and desire. It had been a long time before she could come down from such an emotional high and think about such common things as doing dishes or sleeping. Still stunned, she choked, What do you plan to do now?

For a third time, Diego laughed in irony, though his voice was soft and gentle, a little sad. Do? I don't know. I didn't have a plan when I came here today. I only know that after last night and this afternoon, I had to do something before I inadvertently gave myself away. His voice grew quieter yet. That would have been awful for you.

He was speaking of the imagined fallout to his identity, she knew, but even that could not possibly be worse... Then, Victoria pictured the Alcalde's reaction to the news, and she realized that the fallout could be much worse. Worse for him, certainly.

In a hushed voice, Diego continued, All I know is that I've loved you for a long time, and that, even though I'm scared, terrified, I had to say something at last, before I exploded.

Quiet as well, Victoria asked, What kept you silent all this time?

Fear, Diego answered instantly, still staring at the yellows and reds of her hot fire. I was frightened that you would be angry and learn to hate me. You might yet. But anger and hate would be better than wondering about your reaction to it all, he confessed.

What happened today to make you want to be discovered? she managed to ask in something resembling a croak.

Diego shrugged. I'm not sure. Perhaps I'm tired of the subterfuge. Perhaps I want to kiss you senseless. Perhaps I'm tired of having you, but not having you, if you know what I mean. Perhaps I'm just tired.

Victoria leaned back, considering a storm of tears, then rejecting that reaction as quickly as it came to mind. If she was honest with herself, she comprehended that a storm of tears wasn't what she wanted.

Diego spoke before she could say anything. I want you to love me, not some mystery hero in a mask.

For a moment, she couldn't move. Then an explosion of thought went off in her mind, of detection. Hadn't she just imagined that Diego would someday make a wonderful husband? Couldn't he make her a wonderful husband?

But was she suitable for him? Wasn't her temperament so different from his that the two of them weren't fitting?

She guessed the important question ought to be, did she love him?

Diego sighed and took a seat next to her on the bench. The pile off dishes were forgotten. Say something, please. Do you hate me then?

No, Victoria burst out. I don't hate you. I could never hate you.

But do you love me? he wanted to know, his voice now so soft that she almost didn't hear him. It was haunted with the possibility of her future answer. He sounded almost lost, like the children sounded at First Confession; unsure.

Victoria hesitated for a moment, thinking about his words, pondering her reaction. Did she even know him, since she now realized that the demeanor he always showed to the pueblo was a fake, a lie to cover up his more clandestine activities? What are you actually like? she asked instead of answering his question.

What am I like? he burst out in stunned repetition. What do you mean?

Victoria squirmed a little next to him on the bench. His leg was pressed up against hers, and though hers was covered by a skirt, it was flaring with his touch. She wondered if that was love or merely lust. She could probably be accused of showing both in the past. As much as she hadn't wanted it to be too obvious, she had been as excited as he had been the previous night. Are you truly interested in science and poetry, in sword fights and riding half-wild horses, or was all that an act, too? Which part is pretend?

Diego smiled, the first truly genuine expression she had seen on his face. Behind the amusement, she could also clearly see anguish, pain, torture, and hope. Victoria knew she couldn't avoid an answer for long, or he might succumb to the suspense and do something drastic, though hardly anything could be as drastic as this... unveiling.

No, that was never part of the subterfuge, he explained patiently. I'm very much interested in all those things, but I'm mostly interested in you. He gazed hopefully down at her. Say something, Victoria. I have to know how you feel.

I don't despise you, she emphatically denied. His skin must be burning a hole through her skirt, she suspected. In fact, I'm wondering if I feel quite the opposite.

Those words gave Diego pause. You might love me, then?

His voice sounded so hopeful, she wondered how she could deny him anything. However, she covered those feelings. Victoria snorted this time, an inelegant explosion of sound. I don't think 'might' comes into the question at all, she admitted. In fact, she could see herself encased in his arms, in his hacienda, in his bed, quite easily.

Diego was now looking at her, his eyes riveted to her face in surprise. What are you saying? he asked softly, slowly. Only the readjusting of a log in her fireplace was quieter. He held his breath.

This may take some getting used to, she predicted, staring at him, her eyes trapped by his blue ones. Why had she never noticed how handsome he was before, how his blue eyes snared unwary lovers? Because, all at once, she knew how she felt about him. Her fingers strayed almost against her will to stroke his high forehead, something she had previously never done. She had to feel his skin on hers. Why had she never noticed that necessity until now? It was a raging need inside her. I think there's a lot of things I've never noticed about you before now, she said, because she had to say something, even as they drew closer together. Loving you is only one of them.

Dios, Victoria, I love you so much, he said in a burst of affirmation that practically sounded wrung from him as his cool, soft lips descended on hers.

Her heart ached at the sound of his acknowledgment, and suddenly she wanted nothing more than to soothe away that pain from his fevered mind. For he had to be feverish, as hot as he was, as warm as his skin was to her touch. Only, she was equally as feverish, becoming so rapidly, as just his touch could set her skin on fire with longing and desire.

Father would say that this isn't good, isn't right, he whispered as they stood, and their shared desire plainly pushed them in one direction as precipitously as their mutual feelings had been discovered. That this isn't chivalrous at all.

She whispered back as his lips seemed locked to her cheek, creating amazing and intense feelings to roil around in her. How can he say that when he knows how long we've waited already? We've probably waited far longer than most anybody. Then coherent thought was beyond her when he pulled her towards the divide in her curtains. I don't think I can resist you anymore.

That's good, because I know I can't resist you any longer. Still hushed, Diego imparted, I can't even be around you without wanting you desperately. It was true; she could feel his desire as evidenced by his hardness even now. He kissed her again, promising glory. Zorro had never kissed her like this before! He hadn't dared. Victoria, make love to me, please.

Overcome with emotion, Victoria could only nod and barely say, That's funny; I was going to ask the same thing of you.

Then there was no more time for words as the passion that was always between them flared instantly to life at her admission. They could no more ignore it than Sergeant Mendoza could ignore a table full of fresh tamales.

It was almost inevitable. The stairs, the balcony, were mere impediments to them, as they aimed for Victoria's private quarters and the bed that they knew was awaiting them once they got there. As much as they had refused themselves in the past, now the emotions burst into flame, demanding, frantic, indisputable, and undeniable, too fierce to disregard. This fulfillment had been a long time in coming. Only the sound of their arduous breathing cut the silence of the tavern at siesta.

* * *

When the wild fever was over, spent, deliciously eliminated, they both lay back, side by side, heaving in air as they were amazed at what they had just done and discovered in each other.

Diego slowly kissed her on her temple. Do you still love me? he had the temerity to ask.

Victoria was astounded that he had to ask such a question. Do I still love you? she repeated in amazement. After that incredible display? I should say so. She sounded like his father when she spoke.

He kissed her shoulder in a light endearment, his affection obvious in the gesture. I don't want to ever leave you, he declared after careful examination of his feelings, acting like the scientist he was.

Caught up with herself, finally, she rolled over and embraced him with one arm around his chest as she laid a head on his shoulder. She didn't care if it was hot. Try not to be too analytical, she cautioned. Suddenly, allowing her emotions to flow to the surface, she buried her face in his shoulder, reveling in the feel of his skin, his smell, the sensation of touching him. I don't want you to leave, either, she whispered.

He returned her embrace with an arm across her, and fingered the ends of her hair. I know I love you so much, Victoria, that I can't go back to the way things were.

And I don't want to, she whispered. I love you too much to be satisfied with that. Her hand wandered down to his thigh, rubbing appreciatively at anything she found on the way. She languidly kissed his chest.

Diego lovingly pushed her hair off her face. He kissed her forehead. Then what do you want to do? Experiencing you just once isn't an option, and neither is hiding.

Or discovery, she added.

Or discovery, he agreed, thinking that they sounded cold, looking at their love so dispassionately, but he felt a tight, hot, glow inside his chest, where his heart would be. The constricting sensation from before was gone.

A courtship. It's really the only answer, Victoria was saying. Or we could start a rumor that I've been ruined, and you plan to marry me to save my reputation.

Diego laughed in amusement at that statement. Such a rumor is awful enough that people will believe it. He kissed her again, slowly, on the lips as he became aware of where her hand was now. A shiver of excitement cut his torpidity short. He rolled over until he was on top of her again. I think a courtship might be more palatable.

She held him off for just a few more moments. Plus it has the added benefit of assured success.

Diego smiled down at her at her certitude. I can hardly wait, he predicted, then gave himself up entirely to their shared embrace. Desire gushed anew into their minds as the siesta continued on, and, unaware, the town slept.

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