By Linda Bindner

Felipe made the familiar slash with his hand, forming a letter 'Z' into the cave's cool air.

Yes, Zorro rides today to end this new tax initiative of the Alcalde's, Diego said, rising slowly, too angry for more words. What was wrong with him? True, it had been awhile since Zorro had struck out against a new tax, but it was the main reason Diego had created Zorro to begin with. A new tax had never made him angry before. But now there was no denying the rush of blood and adrenaline in his veins. So what was so wrong this time?

Diego donned the customary black uniform, and found the hate for it boiling in his heart. That was odd. He had never hated the costume before, only loathed what it stood for, and that the mask he always wore kept him from his life's desire as surely as a closed door; Victoria. He tried coming at this new dilemma from a logical standpoint, but found even more loathing pounding through his veins as he methodically recalled the past alcalde, Luis Ramone, and the current scourge of the pueblo, Ignacio DeSoto, his recent schoolmate.

It was all he could do to tie the mask around his head and glance into the mirror to make certain it was straight. The tie bound his hair and hid everything except his eyes, but that, too, was familiar and expected. The anger he saw burning in the mirror was not. So he thought back to the previous night spent with Victoria, but that didn't help. Now passion and desire obviously warred in that expression.

He was tired of the mask keeping them apart. He was tired of the Alcalde's new schemes to get more money out of the peons under his control. He was tired of always riding out at all hours of the day or night to stop the Alcalde's various plans. He was just plain tired.

But there was nothing he could do about it now. Zorro had to protect the poor, had to stop this ridiculous idea of DeSoto's to charge a 'fee' to keep money in his bank. Bank's were a good idea on the whole, but fees were just too much. And so Diego found himself riding Toronado, halfway to Los Angeles before a good plan to deal with this new threat had formed in his head. And for the first time, Diego considered using violence to deter the Alcalde. Embarrassing didn't seem to work on DeSoto, clearly, but maybe force would. Besides, that would give him something to do with this unaccustomed anger he was feeling in his blood, even though he had sworn to himself never to use the full strength of his burning passion for justice. It was simply too dangerous.

A plan still hadn't fully formed in his head by the time Los Angeles came into view, and he could hear the angry voices of the peasants even above Toronado's pounding hooves. He considered using the roof of the church for his dramatic entrance, but that would take unnecessary time, and besides, he wasn't in the mood for drama today. He was in the mood for results, and he knew just how to get them.

Riding on Toronado through the plaza, he aimed straight for DeSoto, but stayed on his mount. I'm not in the mood for your silly taxation today. Repeal the fees or I'll be back, he threatened to DeSoto, and before the armed lancers could raise their rifles to their shoulders, he had leveled one well-aimed punch to the Alcalde's bemused expression, ending any argument on his part before it began. He felt supreme satisfaction as DeSoto slumped to the ground, like he knew he would, and amid the cheers from the peasants, sought out Victoria in the crowd.

There she was, standing on her tavern's porch, dressed in her usual green skirt and white shirtwaist, watching his moves closely, also as usual. Her beauty shone from those around her, singling her out, and again it was all he could do not to take her away from the tavern right then and there. Take her bodily back to the hacienda, to his room, where he wanted to kiss her sweet lips and make violent love to her for the rest of the day...

That's what was wrong with him, he ruminated as he wove Toronado through the crowd and up to Victoria. He wanted to keep her for himself for once instead of sharing her with the peasants that he'd sworn to protect. Maybe I have cabin fever, he thought. Whatever the reason, he gallantly swooped over the horse's neck and kissed her hand even as these thoughts raced through his intelligent mind. Bad thoughts, lascivious thoughts, new and enlightening thoughts. He couldn't give in to them, naturally, but he couldn't deny them, either. He'd never been so bombarded with ideas before, even as she looked up at him out of dark eyes and quietly said, Thank you, on their account.

He couldn't restrain his answer, though, try as he might. Always, mi preciosa. There was more emotion in those words than there was hot sauce on her tamales. He usually showed better control, but today he was lucky to show common sense as he wheeled Toronado suddenly around, knocking two unlucky lancers to the dust, and steered the great black horse out of town. He passed the smiling Don Alejandro on his way, but that wasn't the sight he wanted to see. It was Victoria's lovely form that he wanted in his sights, not his father's.

A few rifles cracked, but no bullets came close to the receding man in black, and the useless order to chase him was abandoned before it began as Sergeant Mendoza forgot the order to hunt him down and instead headed towards the tavern. New taxes or fees or whatever didn't sit very well with him, anyway. Why couldn't they have a nice Alcalde who left him alone to eat in peace?

Zorro rode recklessly on his way back to the cave, glorying in the feel of the warm wind in his shirt and stroking like a lover across his cape. The image of the lover stayed in his mind, since that's where his mood was, anyway, and he reveled in the first really warm day of Spring, breathing in the odor of blossoms and mud, the obvious signs of the earth he was traveling over. All too soon, it seemed, the secret entrance to the cave wove into sight, closed but waiting for his return.

He didn't want to go in yet, though. He pulled Toronado to a stop and guided him to some sparse grass near the cave entrance so he could think as the horse ate. Thoughts were spinning in his head already, half formed and almost coherent.

What had happened today? He'd given in to his anger and nothing bad had happened. DeSoto hadn't had time to arrest him, the lancers hadn't caught him, and no one had shot him. In short, Zorro had protested something and suffered no retribution of any kind. He'd gotten away again, safe, and it hadn't taken a fight. He hadn't even dismounted from Toronado to do it. The lancers weren't trained well enough to handle him, and he knew it, and they knew it, and he knew they knew it. DeSoto may have led armies in the past, but he didn't know how to better train the garrison he had won with hard work and luck. He wasn't creative enough for it.

So was he creative enough to capture Zorro? Slowly Diego pulled the mask away, revealing his face, too stunned by the traitorous thought to care that he was still in the open. Was DeSoto creative enough and skilled enough to capture Diego right now?

No, Diego didn't think so. Without his lancers to back him up and keep him in power, he was just another ambitious politician, like many others before him. The way Zorro had easily handled him that day proved DeSoto's weakness beyond a doubt. As long as he had surprise on his side, he would never be found, never be beaten.

But Diego was cautious of feeling overconfident. He had made that mistake before, and swore not to make the same mistake again. He'd almost been killed by Emissary Risendo because of his over-confidence, and he had too much to lose now.

What made him think that? He didn't have anything now that he didn't have the day of Gilberto's death, so how could he lose what he didn't have? He wouldn't lose Victoria, for sure, because she didn't know he existed beyond the comfort of a friend. And his father suffered under a severe misrepresentation of him, thinking him a weak coward instead of the strong fighter that he was. Diego didn't have a fraction of the respect that Zorro did. So how could he lose the respect he didn't even have?

Suddenly, without warning, he felt tired of the secret life that he had started those many years ago. He was tired of not having the respect he deserved, he was tired of DeSoto, and he was tired of not having Victoria's love except when he was wearing his mask to hide his face from her. Be careful, Diego, he cautioned himself, knowing that he was thinking treacherous thoughts. You're just tired, he told himself.

Abruptly he wondered what would happen if he rode into the pueblo on Toronado, but without the mask, and swept Victoria up in his arms and carried her away from the tavern? She'd probably faint from shock, he told himself with a rueful laugh. Remember, she doesn't know who you really are. But what if he made it obvious, so that even she couldn't refuse to recognize him? Hmph, Victoria Escalante could do and think what she wanted, he reminded himself. She was no weak kitten without a will of her own. He may love her because of it, but she knew her mind, and there was no guarantee that she would forget it just because an unmasked Zorro kidnapped her from the only home she had known and made passionate love to her in his bedroom. The thought was ridiculous even as it was appealing.

Kidnapping her to make passionate love to her might ruin her reputation, too, and Diego didn't want to do that. The only way out of such a quandary was to convince her to get married, and he didn't know if he could convince her to climb aboard Toronado let alone to marry her weak friend. Desire stirred as his stomach churned deliciously at the thought, but fear of ultimate rejection kept these sensations at bay, as it had done for many years now.

But what was he so afraid of? Though Victoria may initially reject him, could she live without kisses from the man known as Zorro? Could she really go through life without his love to look forward to and cover the unsavory parts about running a tavern in the colonies? Could she?

The thought was so revolutionary that it took Diego's breath away. He felt amazed, befuddled, and awed as he sat there, allowing Toronado to eat his fill while the thoughts assaulted his conscience. What if he did it? What could really happen? For one, the Alcalde would definitely come looking for him at the hacienda. Because his father would then be used to lure the son out, Diego couldn't hide, and he didn't want to. He wanted to fight, alongside his father and the other caballeros at last, openly protesting the thoughtless cruelty that currently besieged the pueblo. He was tired of hiding all the time.

So was the creation of Zorro a bad idea? No, Diego didn't think so, at least only where Victoria was concerned. He could take the harassment from the townspeople and his father, but he could no longer take the open disrespect from Victoria. She may not know who she was in love with, but she could show Diego more respect than she did, and the way to gain respect in her eyes was to finally lower the mask and carry her away, determined to pay the consequences later.

And there would be consequences. An action such as walking into a crowded tavern, dressed as Zorro but without the mask, and carrying off the owner of the establishment was sure to have consequences. But Diego found that he was more than willing to sincerely protect her as himself if he was assured of her love.

But what if she were killed in that protection, he asked himself? How could he live with himself then? Though, to be honest, Victoria suffered just as much from Zorro's love with the mask as without it. She was frequently jailed, assaulted, and terrorized because of the mask, and her passion singled her out rather than protected her. Yes, Diego was certain he could protect her, especially against DeSoto and his various schemes.

But did he have enough surprise on his side to get into town, into the tavern, sweep up Victoria, and leave before one or both of them were shot and possibly killed? Then Diego pictured how long it usually took the Sergeant, who was undoubtedly eating at the tavern, to finish his meal and muster the men. He had more than enough time to disappear with Victoria before a reaction from the garrison could be rounded up. He laughed at the very thought of immediate reprisal, even if they would know right where to find her.

But what if she fought him? Victoria had plenty of verve to put up a good fight if she wanted to. What was he going to do if she did? Knock her out? No, the thought of an unconscious Victoria wasn't appealing, even if it promised to be quiet. And an unconscious lady love would not help his ultimate plan, anyway. She would just have to agree to go with him. And if she didn't? She would have to contend with their eventual capture, torture, and death, for DeSoto was cruel enough to carry out his threats to Zorro, no matter how they came about. She didn't want that any more than he did.

With no more thought, Diego pulled up on Toronado's reins and started at a gallop back towards the pueblo. Part of him felt astonished that he would even consider such a thing and the fear that typically kept him in check mounted, making hash of his insides. Another part reveled in the feel of the warm wind in his hair. Victoria would love that, he knew, as well as the smell of the fresh wild flowers that he was riding through on the way to town. He had to make sure to come back this way so she could see the field of flowers and all its glory.

He was amazed that he was doing this, but he was sick of the deception at the same time. He worked at removing the black gauntlets he always wore, intent on putting them in the saddlebag with the mask so he could be sure to feel Victoria right away. He might be captured, no matter how slim the chance was, and he might have only memories of her touch to console him in the future. She might outright reject him, and he would need the freedom of his touch if he was to remember the sensation of feeling her in the future. At any rate, the warm wind felt good on his naked skin, and that alone was enough reason to store the gloves away. He fumbled with the saddlebag, but determination won out in the end and they slipped into their new home, keeping the bag warm and safe while his hands kissed the air for the first time. Then Los Angeles came into view, and he no longer had time to think of anything other than his destination.

Amid stares of complete incredulity, he steered Toronado up to the tavern hitching rail, but didn't tie him up. He might need a fast escape, and he let the reins droop over the saddle horn, with a terse command to, Stay here, given to the horse before he entered the tavern.

Diego walked right in, even though the place was crowded with customers discussing the latest adventure of Zorro. He stopped briefly by his father's table, and commanded, Go home please. Go to the library; I'll leave instructions with Felipe as to what to do next. Alejandro was so surprised that all he could say was, Uh...

Victoria came out of the kitchen as Diego spoke, carrying a full plate of enchiladas for somebody. Not allowing himself to be distracted or to get carried away by her beauty, which was considerable, he crossed to her, and they met next to a table in the middle of the room.

Still in denial that he was actually doing this, Diego noted the sudden silence of the tavern's patrons as they watched the familiar man in the black suit but without the black mask walk straight up to the tavern owner. Without a word passing between them, he took the plate gently from her hand and set it on the table. He didn't even know who was sitting there, watching. All he saw was Victoria's stunned expression as he bent down to lift her easily in his arms, aware only of her innate loveliness and of what he was doing. She felt like a feather in his embrace, all light and soft.

Not forgetting how big he was, he carefully turned, still without uttering a word, and the two passed an amazed Don Alejandro, who probably thought that this was some kind of joke played by his weak-willed, cowardly son. Only this was the truth, right before his eyes, believable or not. He didn't question Diego's previous orders, but remained too surprised to say anything. As Diego turned, he also caught sight of the large eyes of Sergeant Mendoza, sitting predictably in front of an even larger plate of tamales, doing nothing to either polish off the plate or call his lancers to initiate an arrest. He, too, had an astonished look on his face.

In fact, astonishment unsurprisingly met his gaze no matter where he looked. He had been careful not to take note of anything from Victoria besides her initial reaction, but he glanced at her now to know what to expect later. Apart from the initial shock, she was holding up quite well. She didn't faint, or turn to hysterics, as other rich ladies of his acquaintance were likely to do. She didn't seem to be angry, either, as he hefted her more securely in his arms. Strong though he might be, it would take someone of stronger character than himself to withstand the temper of Seņorita Escalante. In a fog of calm that was dishonest, he carried her out of the tavern. Only she would be aware of his pounding heart, and she was giving nothing away with her serene expression that promised more, as if she had been expecting this behavior all along, as if it was her due. She said nothing about his identity, and he was glad of the silence. It gave him reason to hope.

He put one foot in Toronado's stirrup, and climbed the rest of the way up with grace even though she was still in his arms. He wouldn't let her go for a moment now that he had her. She seemed content with that idea if he could judge by the tiny smile lighting her face. With a salute to the astounded townspeople they ran across, he and Victoria headed out of town at a lope. Toronado reared under the sign of Los Angeles to show his wild spirit, and Diego held on to Victoria tightly until the great black stallion settled into a controlled gallop back in the direction of the cave. In no time, they were almost there.

Not a word had passed between them during the ride, though Diego made sure to bring her home by way of the field of flowers. According to her expression of delight, he knew she enjoyed it. As to him and how he was feeling now, he was much calmer than on his previous ride from the pueblo. She was responsible for that, and though she could still reject him, his arms tightened even further around her waist. In case there was still doubt in her mind, he gingerly kissed the top of her head in a very good imitation of something Zorro had done many times in the past. She reacted by leaning back into him and covering his hands gripping the reins with her own, leaving little doubt that she accepted him unconditionally. With that small action, his heart leapt and she couldn't help but feel it pounding against her back.

Emboldened, he kissed her neck when they automatically slowed at the cave entrance. She said nothing as Diego pushed the horse passed the cave and on to the de la Vega stables, but she did turn in the saddle to face him. Then, after a long assessing look full of fear, hope, and trepidation, she kissed him, extensive and hot and promising more, and he knew he'd done the right thing, no matter the consequences. Helpless, he responded, and felt more stirrings in his stomach, stirrings of love and desire, as his embrace tightened. But these feelings would have to wait for more indulgence. Diego broke the kiss, though he was reluctant to release such a siren, and entered the stables.

Once there, he slid off Toronado and saddled another horse, leaving the bridle off until absolutely necessary. With any luck, he wouldn't have need of a second horse, but it was better to be prepared for the worst. When done, Diego climbed again on Toronado, though it made more sense to ride the other horse. He selfishly wanted to feel Victoria in his arms again. They then hurried the valiant stallion and the other horse on through the bush covering the hidden back entrance and into the cave. Felipe waited patiently for his return, one of his books propped open on his desk. The young man rose, his mouth hanging open when they entered the open stall and Diego pulled a still surprised Victoria to the ground.

Diego spoke. Felipe... things are going to be a trifle different, I think. Can you watch over Victoria and for my father for now? DeSoto and his lancers won't be far behind, I fear, and I'll be too busy fighting to do any protecting. Whatever you do, keep them here unless you see lancers in the hacienda. Then, I'm dead, and you are to take my father and Victoria to Monterey and the governor. You'll be safe enough there, at least for awhile.

What are you going to do? Victoria asked, the first words she had spoken since this whole escapade had begun.

Diego looked at he grimly, and shrugged. Fight. Then, without allowing himself to think too hard about his recent actions, he made certain his sword left its sheath smoothly, kissed Victoria once for luck, and hurried into the library and outside.

He had just settled into a chair beyond the wall by the gate, book in hand, ready to wait, when Don Alejandro rode up to the hacienda, looking like a banshee was on his tail. He jumped off his horse at the gate, then turned to his son, who seemed incongruous still dressed all in black, but without a mask.

Is it DeSoto? Diego asked without salutation or polite conversation.

Don Alejandro answered, knowing the danger of the situation, that explanations would wait, and that Diego would have thought of a way to keep him safe. Yes. About five minutes behind.

Diego nodded. Doesn't look like I'll have much time to read, he joked. Better get to the library while it's still safe.

Saying nothing more, Alejandro left the horse out of the way at the side of the house, then hurried to the library and the promised safety. He would have been stunned to see Felipe walk out of the fireplace, but the situation was too grim for such emotions. He simply followed the servant and trusted that he would be alive to hear the explanations.

Diego didn't have to wait long. Within a few minutes, there was dust on the horizon, coalescing into the Alcalde, followed by his soldier's, only moments later. Diego stood, tossed the book and the chair inside the gate, and planted his feet on the ground, hoping he would have time later to finish the book; it had been an interesting story. And he also hoped he would be able to kiss Victoria again. Reminiscently, he smiled.

DeSoto didn't waste any time. De la Vega, you are under arrest.

Diego had expected that. Calmly, he said, I don't think so, Alcalde.

Then I'll have my men arrest those who have aided you in the past, including your father and Seņorita Escalante, and put them in jail.

You're mistaken, Alcalde. Despite his words of bravado, Diego's heart beat painfully hard inside his chest. He eyed the soldiers, some on horseback, some on foot, all holding their muskets and swords, and who looked prepared for a fight or a long siege.

DeSoto blinked. Oh?

This situation can end one of two ways. You leave Los Angeles voluntarily, now, or you leave in a pine box, quite dead. It's your choice. Either way, this ends.

Wrong! yelled the Alcalde as his horse suddenly shied at the sound of many muskets cocking simultaneously. It's you who are deluded of the truth. There are three ways this little drama can end. The two you mentioned, and with you arrested, hung, and quite dead yourself. You'll be out of my hair for good anyway, de la Vega.

Diego snorted and drew his sword. And you have such nice hair, Alcalde. In spite of his challenge, he didn't know how he was going to defeat so many men with muskets. A whip and a sword only reached so far. He took a firmer stance and sized up the men on foot standing in front of him, but knowing that any confrontation was destined to leave him badly wounded, with bullet holes all over his body.

So you don't surrender? asked the Alcalde.

Never, said Diego.

Then I'll be forced to arrest your father for conspiracy.

Diego stretched to his full, frightening height. His voice was low as he promised, Touch one hair on his head, and you'll feel the bite of this blade. He hefted his sword for better understanding.

You won't catch me, DeSoto laughed. You'll be dead of multiple gunshot wounds.

Diego glanced again at the soldiers. It will take all these soldiers to kill me if you lay one finger on my father.

DeSoto chuckled again. I think I'm safe; everybody knows Zorro doesn't kill. It was the first time he'd named his arch nemesis.

I'm not the Zorro you know, perhaps, Diego threatened with his lowest voice possible, and he lifted his sword high. The guns took better aim at him.

DeSoto laughed yet again. He appeared highly amused at the situation. What, are you challenging me?

Scared of a little game to even the odds? Diego asked, knowing that DeSoto could never refuse a challenge of a fight, or the anger that went with it.

He wasn't disappointed. Anger clearly flashed in DeSoto's light eyes as he agreed. If it's a fight you want, it's a fight you'll get. But it will be on my terms, not yours. You see, the price on your head is far too valuable to Spain for me to simply ignore or accept your challenge.

Diego thought a curse word, but all he said was, We'll see about that.

The black whip snaked out to knock the nearest lancer's gun into its neighbors. They all discharged harmlessly into the prairie. The sword flashed out, meeting another bayonet at the end of a rifle, spurring other soldiers to action as the sword dispatched the first opponent and came around. A second set of soldiers and their rifles immediately followed the first as Diego struck out again. But the prize, DeSoto, remained elusive as a group of lancers surrounded him and his horse. Diego couldn't even touch him with his whip. Maybe he would have better luck with taunting.

Too afraid to do your own fighting, Alcalde? asked Diego as the whip and the sword struck out alternately with the fist he threw in every now and then. Too afraid I'll beat you?

DeSoto added a sneer. I'll not fall prey to your insipid barbs this time, de la Vega. So you can insult all you want.

Insults? Isn't that more like your style, Alcalde? Diego parried a blow, then side stepped a lunge. But he was destined to lose this fight. There were simply too many soldiers, and he was already starting to pant for breath.

Apparently DeSoto thought the same thing. You'll never make it; my men are too well-trained to lose.

Your men are nothing more than ignorant buffoons with a leader who refuses to train them properly, Diego stated, holding back nothing now as he beat his way through the soldiers and swung up his sword to hold DeSoto with it.

The other rifles cocked ominously. Buffoons, are we? I think you're getting a bit overconfident, Diego.

Diego eyed the soldiers carefully, but didn't lower his weapon yet. How can I be overconfident when I'm not fighting the best of this bunch; you?

Nice try, Diego, said DeSoto. But I'm not giving in to your taunts this time, remember? Why don't you just give up?

Diego's sword didn't waver. I'd die first.

I was hoping you'd say something like that. A patrol of lancers cocked their guns when he spoke.

And just as suddenly, more guns cocked from around the hacienda.

Diego looked behind him, surprised by the sound of the guns. As far as he knew, no caballero had had time to get there to help. Diego had fought well, but even he couldn't fight so many men at once.

Still, barrels of guns were unmistakably pointed at the soldiers from every vantage point afforded by the house and its surrounding wall. He saw Alejandro's head for just a second lifting over a low point in the wall, and Felipe's was soon to follow. Victoria's pistol aimed at the Alcalde. Silence hung on the air as Diego caught sight of several vaqueros aiming guns from around the side of the house.

What's this; an army of your own? DeSoto's derisive disdain stirred Diego's hate from that afternoon.

Leave, Diego ordered. Before I change my mind about that pine box.

DeSoto stared at him, completely dumbfounded, realizing for the first time that Diego was serious. He blustered, You're just bluffing.

Try me, said Diego, with an expression that said he hoped for more resistance. Remember Alcalde, a box full of tiny, little pieces.

I'll be back, warned DeSoto grudgingly.

You don't seem to understand. Either you leave, or these fine men will open fire.

DeSoto glanced at the vaqueros, and knew he was outnumbered and outgunned. A long, quiet moment went by until DeSoto appeared to come to a decision. A tactical retreat seemed to be his best bet. At least give me time to pack.

No. You'll be leaving for Spain, now. Sergeant Mendoza can send your belongings later. Including that famous collection of neckties. Diego could hear laughter from behind him.

Go back to Spain and leave you free? DeSoto blanched at the thought. I don't think so.

Diego gave a mock look of disappointment. Alcalde, you haven't been listening. Either you send the soldiers back to the garrison and you leave on the first ship to Spain, or I cut you into a million pieces and you go back to Spain anyway. You choose.

DeSoto was silent for awhile as he digested Diego's words. He stayed away from the tip of the sword as he decided. The men kept their rifles up, but clearly did not know what to do without an order. At last he wilted.

All right, all right, you win. Being on the wrong end of a sword is most persuasive, he muttered, then, in a last ditch attempt to save himself and the situation, hatefully added, I just hope your tavern wench is equally as persuasive as your sword.

The sword tip pushed a little harder, biting into the skin of his neck. What did you call her? Diego asked, a look of thunder on his face.

Nothing. I'll be going now.

A wise decision, Alcalde, Diego admitted, agreeing with that conclusion. The port's are that way. With that, he slapped the horse on the rump, and laughed as the Alcalde was jerked away when the horse bolted off, at least going in the correct direction. The lancers lowered their rifles slowly, waiting for someone to give the order to return to the cuartel.

That someone was Sergeant Mendoza. Back to the garrison. Vamanos! he ordered, and soon the men were marching back, trailing dust on the road. As they went, Mendoza smiled at Diego quietly, clandestinely, so no one would notice.

Just as slowly Diego lowered his sword and carefully returned it to its sheath. His arms were starting to shake with extra adrenaline.

But then Alejandro was at his side. Good riddance, he said. If it took your unmasking to get rid of him, it was worth it.

Studiously avoiding the topic of his sudden appearance in the pueblo, Diego said, Thank you for mustering the men. I guess I owe you my life now.

Don't thank me, thank Victoria. It was her idea. Alejandro smiled. Guess you owe her that life, not me.

Among other things.

The feminine voice was so different in this house full of men that it immediately stuck out. Diego turned, then crushed Victoria in his strong arms, followed by an embrace for a grinning Felipe. You two! he exclaimed. I don't know what I would do without you.

First of all, you'd be old and unmarried, predicted Victoria, settling in for another hug.

Arms linked, the three of them turned back to the hacienda. Diego discreetly began to talk, explaining everything to Victoria before taking Toronado from where Felipe had left him out of danger beside the house to meet the mares in the stables. He continued to talk as he and Victoria entered the building, still arm in arm, unable to sever the link connecting them now that it had been established. It was time to put Toronado with the other horses, and the animal didn't quite know how to react to this break in routine. Diego pulled him to a stop before the horse could make up his mind and react negatively, leading him, the well-trained second horse, and a strangely docile Victoria to the building housing the famous de la Vega steeds, though the one he led promised to be the most famous of all of them.

Still looking calm, Diego began to unsaddle his mount, aware that the vaqueros who were in the stable and readying for a siesta after the fight were watching him with smiles. Toronado sniffed everything in sight, and Victoria waited with a calm that belied a coming storm of questions. She waited until they were inside the hacienda, out of sight of the vaqueros, before she made a move.

Prior to being able to prepare himself, Victoria took his face in her hands, one on each side of his head, and kissed him in a rising stream of passion. Diego answered the endearment, feeling both weak and relieved. His arms twisted around her small frame and her fingers wrapped in his unmasked hair with obvious acceptance and desire. The emotions that had been temporarily supplanted by his unexpected ride into the pueblo and encounter with DeSoto reasserted themselves, and he found himself dreaming languidly about his bedroom again.

Do you think this is all right? he asked when he could talk, just to be sure.

Oh yes, Diego.

Do you understand what it means if you stay?

Yes, I understand, and yes, I want to stay. Now be quiet and kiss me like you have in my daydreams.

So Diego stood obediently, dressed in the black of Zorro but free for the first time, and kissed her deeply, promising more, then strode with her purposefully down the hallway towards his bedroom, the sword clanging incongruously on the wall as they went, too wrapped up in each other's eyes to notice. It was the end of one thing and the beginning of another. With Victoria by his side, Diego was sure to like the 'other' certainly as well as he had liked the first. How could he help it?

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