Truth and Consequences

by Linda Bindner

Victoria Escalante closed, then bolted the door to her tavern. Simultaneously tired and scared, she leaned her head against the hard grain of the wood and wondered again if she had the nerve to go through with it. But the sensation was only momentary; it left like the breeze currently blowing through the pueblo. Any further misgivings flew when she thought of Zorro's kiss. They had been waiting for so long.

She recalled yesterday when she had discovered his secret, Well, 'discovered' was a strong word for her uncovering of the mystery. 'Deduced' might be more descriptive. The solution to the puzzle was so obvious that she had discounted it at first as impossible, but the more she thought, the more possible it had become until Diego de la Vega was the only candidate left. He had to be Zorro, though the idea seemed ridiculous. He was nothing like Zorro. The calm, unruffled exterior he showed to Los Angeles on a daily basis must be an act.

At least, she hoped it was an act.

If the side of Diego that he showed to the public wasn't an act, then Zorro was the act. And she was part of Zorro. Which meant she could be part of the act. It could all be a facade, even their love.

That was the part of the deduction that Victoria was struggling with. It was hard to believe that his kisses and declarations and proposal could possibly be part of a lie, but if Diego was Zorro, anything could be true, and she could be the victim of a clever and constant deception. She had to find out which part was true and which part was lie. Because she didn't think she could stop loving him, even if he didn't love her back.

Of course, there was the possibility that she wasn't part of a lie at all and Diego really did love her. Could she fall in love with Diego? Absolutely. Victoria had thought of little else for the day and a half since she had deduced the truth, and after feeling the sensations just seeing him awoke in her, she was very sure that she could love Diego. She was relatively certain that she already did.

There was only one way to find out. With a final pat to the wood, Victoria flung her rag and apron at the bar with a practiced swing and entered the kitchen, the one room at her tavern he felt safe in, hidden from prying eyes by the curtains and the gloom of darkness. The one window he habitually vaulted through remained empty, however, and she wondered if she would be forced to carry the secret another day.

The radiance of a starry night is nothing compared to your beauty, he whispered, the sound of his voice carrying out of the corner shrouded in shadow. He'd beaten her to the kitchen.

She startled, glad she wasn't carrying anything breakable at the time, and couldn't help her smile as she said, Seņor Zorro! before running into his outstretched, waiting arms. He held her close, his nose buried in her hair.

Oh, I've missed you, Victoria, he whispered. I've missed your smell, your feel, your everything. But especially your love.

You always have that, Zorro, she whispered back into his chest, the highest place on him that she could reach.

I know, he said. Someday, when this mask is gone, I will tell everyone of that love. And I'll do it through this. He lowered his head to hers and kissed her thoroughly on the lips. But he felt something was wrong....

He drew back. What is it, Preciosa?

This was it, the time to confess or find out she was part of a lie. Did she have what it took to divulge the truth? Apparently she did. I know, she whispered.

At first he didn't understand what she was talking about. He chuckled, and whispered back, Know what?

Your secret identity, she whispered again, playing distractingly with the edges of the mask. Her voice was swallowed up by the many utensils hanging in her kitchen so that it sounded hollow, accusing. She hadn't meant for it to sound so bold and cutting like that.

It was then that he finally understood. The smile slowly disappeared. His face blanched, or what she could see of it, and his fingers tightened suddenly on her waist. His deep, shuddering breath sounded ragged in the quiet room. He didn't pretend to dissemble, to his credit, when he asked, How long?

Day before yesterday, she answered. I narrowed it down to... the person you are, she said, careful not to mention any names. You should be proud of me for figuring out this puzzle after so long.

He stood unmoving, his arms still wrapped around her waist, and she wondered if this was the last time she would ever feel that action. Oh, I am proud, he assured unemotionally, as if he didn't quite know what to say, and was therefore saying anything that popped into his head. Yet there were important things to discuss. Can you love predictable, old me? he asked quietly, deliberately, with held breath.

That depends, she said, though her pounding heart varnished the under tones of her voice.

On what?

She briefly wondered where she got her bravery from. It was an insane thing to say, full of risk because it was so personal in nature. His serene attitude gave her the courage to continue, On whether or not you still love me. Or am I part of the image?

There was a sizable pause as he thought about what to do. He could deny her claims, call her crazy, or own up to them. No matter what he did, he had to comprehend the enormous chance she was taking. He was too intelligent not to understand. His expression was serious, his eyes full of desire. No, you're not part of the image, I assure you. Yes, I do love you, mi preciosa. You're the one part of the image that's real, he whispered, using his pet name for her, his hands once again tightening on her waist. That hasn't changed since the beginning.

You've been in love with me that long?

I've always been in love with you, he assured. Then he closed his eyes, his lips descended, and he claimed her with a kiss full of passion and love, letting loose on his feelings for perhaps the first time in his life, leaving her mind reeling.

Victoria would have protested her new knowledge if she could have, but she'd had a day and a half to get used to it, and he was just too close to ignore any longer. Besides, her feelings were sent into overload just by his smell. She suddenly understood how someone could melt into another person. With the way Diego kissed her, so passionately, Victoria was certainly melting into him. His gloved hands wove into her hair, pulling her head closer still.

Victoria thought she was going to faint. Diego kissed her with a frantic fervor that Zorro had never shown. His tongue probed and demanded things that Zorro had not ever demanded, and Victoria wondered vaguely if he would make love to her right there on the kitchen floor. It was a good thing she had scrubbed it yesterday, she thought in a fog of desire that was so deep she couldn't even laugh at the ridiculous thought. Her body responded to him immediately, wanting more, and she could feel his hardness without trying. She pushed into him, helpless against the rage of desire that swept through her.

Leaving the mask intact, he broke the kiss and said in a voice filled with love, desire, and passion, Come on, I'm taking you home. With those few words, he told her that he was suddenly considering the unthinkable.

One more kiss left her mind spinning, and abruptly she found herself on Toronado, the cool air of night only heightening her awareness of him. She turned, unable to keep her hands to herself, and kissed him longingly.

Zorro seemed to be having the same troubles she was. He gathered the reins together, yet couldn't help but respond to her kiss. He moaned somewhere in the back of his throat, and kissed her eyes, her collar bone, her neck. Not here, not like this. Hold on to that thought, he whispered huskily, not sounding tentative now at all, but certain that he knew what he was doing. He started Toronado on the way to the de la Vega hacienda.

It was a good thing the lancers were all asleep, because he couldn't have fought them off with his body all mushy like it was, if hers was any indication as to the state of his. Victoria fought the urge to kiss him again as Toronado broke into a gallop that required all of his attention to control. Toronado set a mile-eating pace, and in almost no time, they found themselves at the back entrance to the cave that she had been in before. He put his hand on her head to force it down, and she felt tree leaves scrape the top of her hair.

Victoria would have been astonished at the sudden discoveries about her hero, but she was too enamored of her emotions to notice, and Zorro must have felt the same as he ripped off his gloves and pulled her down from the saddle into another searing kiss. Pent up emotions exploded as desire again swept through both of them. She ripped off his mask, unnoticed, and let it lay forgotten where it landed on the floor, a seemingly unimportant reminder of his alter-ego. Her hands strayed under his shirt as he kissed her soundly, his lips and mustache nearly making her heart explode with emotion. Of the two ways the evening could have turned out, this was promising to be more memorable than the alternative.

Diego took her hand in his, panting loudly in the otherwise intimidating silence of the empty cave. He remembered to glance through a peep hole in the wall before stealthily entering a quiet library, through, of all cliches, the fireplace. He looked odd in the light of the single candle, but the black clothes of Zorro only excited her as she gently touched the silk, caressing what had been next to his body and was still warm. Without another word, he pulled her through a darkened hacienda and into his room, where he had the presence of mind to shut the door. It was the last intelligent thing he did before releasing the shutters he apparently always wore and letting the passion blossom again.

Light slowly filtered through the curtained windows as dawn approached, gilding the hills surrounding the hacienda with a warm glow. Diego noted that light, then rolled off Victoria to take its measure more fully, letting her make her own estimation, too. By the light that filtered from the sun, she guessed it to be about six o'clock.

He smiled tenderly at her, but whispered, I think it's time for you to go. At least I need to saddle a horse from the stables if I'm going to see you back. He kissed her, slowly and deeply, love stealing over them to replace the passion of moments before.

You don't have to see me home.

He cocked his head and joked, Oh, I think it's the gentlemanly thing to do. There was nothing gentlemanly about his position, and he knew it.

Cognizant of the time and the need to get away, she nevertheless said, I don't want to go, ever, though I see the need.

He smiled again, and smoothed her cheek with a finger. At least we have the ride back to the tavern - two more miles to be together.

I wish it were ten, she whispered, then, used to rising early, she nevertheless reluctantly crawled out from under the warm covers. With a look that said he was enjoying himself, Diego watched Victoria dress, staring unashamedly, watching the object of his desires do something as normal as dressing. They had been apart for so long that mundane actions were coveted.

He whispered what was on his mind. You're beautiful.

Flattered beyond belief by the compliment, she covered at the last minute. Responding flippantly, she joked as well, That's what they all say the next morning. Now you'd better get up if you're going to ride into town before breakfast.

What? I don't get breakfast before I leave the tavern? Diego joshed, but rose from the bed and crossed to his wardrobe, where he pulled out the white shirt and blue trousers of a caballero that she had seen him wear a hundred times. The black clothes of Zorro were shoved into the wardrobe to be retrieved later. Unfazed by her watchful eyes, he pulled on the trousers, then the shirt, trying to do the action quietly so as not to disturb anyone. The servants would be up soon.

There's no time for breakfast, Victoria chided. Not if you don't want to alert the entire house of the occurrences of last night.

Pants on, shirt unbuttoned, he paused. Suddenly serious, he whispered, I love you, Victoria, before reaching out to pull her into his arms for one more breathtaking kiss.

Victoria responded without thought, her desire for him exploding immediately. She struggled to push the feeling down. But we don't have time for another 'last night,' she protested at last.

He gazed at her tousled state. Last night was amazing.

She blushed, but again fought the sensation down.

I don't feel guilty about that, you know. I'm only glad I thought to send Felipe to bed before I left the cave.

Felipe? she questioned.

He nodded, and released her from his embrace. He's known since the beginning. But you're right, we better go, or I'll be explaining things to my father that I would rather not explain. He gathered her in his arms for a quick embrace, despite his words, then released her and peaked out the door.

When nobody greeted him, he turned back to her, behind and off to the side. He pulled the door open wider, motioning her to precede him when the sudden and extremely unexpected appearance of the Alcalde stopped him. The unlocked front door suddenly sprang to her mind, as well as the fact that he must have been watching her and had her followed.

Well, what have we here? A romantic tryst in the bedroom?

Victoria's heart froze. She felt the loveliness of the night before collapse and turn sullied at DeSoto's words and subsequent laugh. She and Diego had done something, perhaps created something, that had more far reaching consequences than either of them had imagined. But she was more focused on Diego than the love they had expressed the previous night. Everything moved in slow motion as her heart plunged to her toes.

Ah, this is much warmer than the dining room, DeSoto said and looked past Diego's shoulder to the room beyond. A bit masculine, but then, my tastes have always been different than yours. Zorro.

The last he flung as a challenge, as lancers he'd brought with him suddenly appeared in the room, their guns trained on the stunned Diego and Victoria. I don't know what you're talking about, Alcalde, but I do know my father won't appreciate guns in his house, Diego said, ignoring the obvious jibe to the state they'd left the bed, and she could hear the familiar lilt of his voice as he tried to fool the Alcalde with the act he'd always played before. Instinctively, Victoria cringed. But she didn't know how they were going to talk their way out of this scene. The evidence was very incriminating.

Apparently DeSoto thought so, too. Oh, come on, Diego. We're men of the world. We both know what happened here, so let's not pretend when the evidence is so clearly right in front of us. Abruptly he looked at her out of eyes that seemed to know everything.

Victoria felt her world shrivel as the sound of a drawn sword cut the silence.

Diego's voice was uncharacteristically low but no less sincere as he said, You leave her out of this.

And you are under arrest, Seņor Zorro.

Before Victoria could react, the lancer nearest to Diego tried to overpower him with a raised fist, only to end up falling in a puddle of blue and red at the Alcalde's feet. DeSoto laughed, a quiet wheeze in the room, then calmly trained his pistol on her. I believe I'm very well protected, he said confidently.

Diego stepped out of the way of the second lancer to charge, who ended up falling into the Alcalde and out of the room. That's what you think, Diego said and backed into the bedroom where there was more space to fight in than the doorway. With a grunt of energy, he used another miscreant lancer's own sword to parry the next attack. I thought I told you to leave her out of this.

They sounded too polite to be about to kill each other. But the pistol was still leveled at Victoria, acting as insurance to Diego's eventual cooperation, as she fumbled with her skirt. She knew he would never be able to fight off the advance of so many men, and inwardly cursed the very feelings that had brought her here to be so used against him. The Alcalde's laugh sounded harsh in the quiet.

A bit tousled this morning, wouldn't you say, eh, Seņorita? Because we both know you're no seņora.

The way he said that left her feeling dirtier than she had ever felt. And that's not how she wanted to feel about the man she loved. DeSoto was truly despicable in his thinking, even if he was right. At last grasping the pocket sewn as insurance inside her skirt, she pulled out the tiny pistol shrouded in the red material. Because you could never be too safe. She aimed directly at the Alcalde, knowing what she had to do. But could she be hard enough? Call them off, she demanded.

Victoria, no! Diego shouted, which brought the entrance of Don Alejandro from his room and onto the ugly scene. His eyes couldn't have gotten any bigger at the sight of her in his hacienda so early in the morning. Felipe followed, looking confused yet somehow wise for so early in the morning, their presence adding to the chaos already in the room.

Call them off! she repeated, glaring at the Alcalde and gesturing with the small but deadly pistol. She knew how accurate it was, having practiced with it in the uninhabited lands to the east of the pueblo. It may have been small, but it was a firearm to be respected.

You don't have the nerve, DeSoto mumbled, taking a firmer grip on his own pistol.

I have the nerve and the knowhow, she said, her voice low, sounding like a female bobcat protecting her young. She cleared her throat. And if it will get rid of you once and for all, I'll gladly pay the consequences. Now tell the lancers to go!

His hair falling wildly into his eyes, Diego adeptly dodged a lunge from one of the lancers. Victoria, don't!

The Alcalde continued to wheeze, though his voice sounded strong and sure in the quiet room. All right. I'll send them away. But it won't change anything. You see, I left Sergeant Mendoza behind with the orders to spread the news that Don Diego is that outlaw Zorro if I don't return by seven o'clock. He should be in the tavern for breakfast about now. He risked a glance at the sun, taking his eyes only momentarily off Victoria.

Diego looked towards Felipe in horror, then glanced at her, but Victoria only laughed mirthlessly. The entire pueblo already knows that. He won't be expounding on anything new but his love for chile rellenos, Victoria predicted, and took better aim with her pistol.

They do? asked a momentarily stunned Alcalde.

They do? echoed Diego.

What do you think gave me the idea to uncover Diego in the first place? People have been talking about that for days, she scoffed. And now you're going to take that confirmation to the grave with a pistol ball right between the eyes. With that she cocked the pistol. You always did underestimate women, she added as an afterthought. Plenty of other cocked guns sounded with her pistol.

You're more formidable than I thought, Seņorita. Imagine, a woman who can bite. DeSoto motioned towards the front of the house with his head, but not before scornfully saying, as if he had just discovered the idea and found it disgusting, A mere tavern wench.

It was difficult to know what happened next. Victoria heard the insult, and instantly angry, fired her pistol. At the same time, someone grabbed her around the middle and pulled her aside, towards the lancer nearest her so that she brushed up against his arm before being thrown towards the bed she'd just left. There was so much pent up emotion in her shaking arms, that for the first time, she missed her target when she fired, the shot burying itself in the wall. Fortunately, that lancer behind her also missed.

Aiming at Diego, a known threat to the Crown and hoping to take him by surprise, the lancer pulled his own trigger suddenly, but was horrified by the result when the smoke cleared. Diego was still standing in his place by the door, but the Alcalde was slumped on the floor, a rifle shot clearly lodged in his chest. He was just as obviously dead.

Madre de Dios! exclaimed the young lancer, completely horrified at what he'd just done. That's not where I aimed. Humor invaded the dramatic moment and Victoria found that she wanted to laugh.

But there wasn't time. As wrong as it was, relief poured through her that the boy's aim wasn't better than it was. If he had aimed true, Diego would now be dead and she would be a widow before she even got married. She lowered her smoking pistol with arms that still shook, now with leftover emotion, and rose from the bed.

Diego leaned back against the wall, unable to support himself. The look of horror, mixed undeniably with gratitude, sat uncomfortably on his features. Without a word, he simply held out his arm and she hurried forward to be enveloped in a comforting hug. Equally as horrified, the lancers slowly began to withdraw, following the Alcalde's final order, glad to get away from the strange scene, its accusations, and undeniably abnormal retribution. The last four heaved up the body of the Alcalde, who looked for all the world like he had simply fallen asleep, and lumbered along behind their companions. The blood leaking out to trail along on the floor gave a different ending to the horrific scene. Servants, awakened by the noise, hurried to clean the mess with rags. Discreet to the end, no one questioned the young don about Victoria's presence in his room.

Let's go to the library so we can talk, whispered Don Alejandro. In the library they would hopefully not give the explanation that she knew he was worried about. Safe in Diego's arms, she still shook at the strange twist of fate that had played out in the room that only hours before had been the home of such incredible emotions. Dismayed at what she had almost done, Victoria gave another shiver and tried to calm her jumping stomach.

I think you have some explaining to do, Alejandro said as they tensely sat down in the library.

Only the explanation was not one he liked. Diego sighed largely and released her to hang his head in his hands, aghast and in shock at the Alcalde's sudden death. Someone had died because of his creation of Zorro. It was the last thing he had wanted. I'm sorry you had to find out that way, he said at last, his head still in his hands to cover up his treacherous eyes. Victoria and his father would see his pain through his eyes.

Find out what? That my only son has a secret life, or that he surprised me by ruining a woman's reputation all in one blow? Alejandro asked.

That comment brought Diego's head up with a snap. Don't be so melodramatic, Diego said in a much lower voice than he usually used. Victoria's reputation isn't ruined.

But it's pretty tarnished, you have to admit! Don Alejandro continued in a much louder voice than they all deemed wise. He sat forward and linked his fingers together in agitation. The roughness of his tone hinted at the blind aversion he was feeling. I thought I taught you better than that.

You did, Diego began, head once again hanging low in a vain attempt to curb the famous de la Vega temper. But Victoria and I have been waiting for a long time....

That's no excuse!

Diego must have decided honesty was the best thing, because he said, Father, I can't say I care right now for your wounded pride. I'm not sorry for what we did, and I would do it again if given the opportunity.

Alejandro stood up in righteous indignation. You most certainly will not! Do you realize that she could be... pregnant now? he gasped in a scandalized whisper, outraged at their seemingly careless disregard for protocol.

Diego held out his hands in a gesture of calm. Yes, I realize that, and this is not the way you want to get grandchildren, but it was the only way open to us last night....

Alejandro moaned. The only way.... he began with a little incredulous laugh that held no humor in it. Once is all it takes to ruin your life! I know: I was married at one time.

Victoria finally interjected from her seat next to Diego, her tone calm and devoid of the emotions that had ruled the conversation so far. Don Alejandro, we know you're angry....

Angry doesn't even begin to describe what I feel!

But, Victoria resolutely went on, since you were once married, you know how it feels to love someone with all your heart. That's how it is for Diego and me. I love him with my entire soul, and that's what last night stands for. She looked at Diego then, and he would have had to be blind not to see the love in her eyes.

Don Alejandro took a deep breath at her admittance. That may be, but that still doesn't make your actions from last night right.

It doesn't make them wrong, either. Victoria could tell that Diego was impressed with her use of logic.

In the eyes of the church, it is! Alejandro interrupted.

In the eyes of my heart, it isn't, Victoria debated.

Diego intervened then, knowing that it did no good to argue with his father. Besides, he was much more a man of solutions than the violence of the fight. How about this, Father. Victoria and I can get married secretly in the church, since we are engaged....

Alejandro interrupted again, You are?

.... and then I court her, even though that scares me to death.

It does? It was Victoria who interrupted this time.

Diego nodded, refusing to look into her eyes. It always has, he admitted quietly. I can't hide my feelings from the pueblo or from you if I openly court you, he explained.

Victoria knew what his admittance cost him. To admit to a fear was for him akin to having knives stuck underneath his fingernails. Pure torture. She would have waited a long time if she expected him to have made the first move that ultimately brought them together. You're scared of me? she asked, one hand on his shoulder for confirmation. She saw Felipe vigorously nod his head, the first time he had spoken since the exchange began, though he didn't look happy with the revelations being voiced in the room.

Diego looked at her, and there was naked fear shining in his eyes. She couldn't get used to the way he so quickly unmasked his emotions, with such ease and practice, as if he'd been doing it all along. Yes, he answered succinctly, but tragically, as if the confession was wrung from him. Felipe vigorously nodded his head again, making his sign for the mask Diego had always worn, as if the mask had hidden his fears, too.

Victoria couldn't believe that. Zorro wasn't afraid of anything, a voice inside her protested. Then she laughed at herself. She'd gone so long she was starting to believe the legend, too, she realized wryly.

The confession hung between them, threatening to become everything, when Alejandro softly intervened. What about the Alcalde?

Silence greeted his inquiry. This topic was far less enjoyable than explaining Victoria's presence in his house.

Diego didn't say anything, only hung his head.

Well, Alejandro began, he's dead. Dead in your bedroom, and as evil as he was with his random taxation, that will take some kind of explanation. What can we expect people to say about that?

What can people say? Victoria asked rhetorically. His death is sad, but it's his own fault that he was even here at all.

Abruptly she found herself under the scrutiny of those striking blue eyes. That's a technicality, and you know it.

Feeling less numb as time passed, she snorted. I won't feel guilty about his death, and I won't let you feel guilty either. Only his greed to catch Zorro led to his downfall, not Zorro himself.

Diego put his hands on her arms. The warmth was unexpected and intrusive enough for her to notice. How could this have happened? How could he be responsible for another alcalde's death? No, Victoria just didn't understand. I will never forgive myself, he said simply.

Quoting him, she smiled wanly and whispered, a hand on his cheek, There's nothing to forgive.

Without warning, he wilted then, unable to hold up his grieving emotions when reminded of his alter-ego and their subsequent relationship that came starkly to mind with her words. Looking anguished, he nevertheless embraced her with strangling, tight arms. Her back cracked under the strain. He sobbed, unable to hold his emotions back any longer. Dios, I love you, was all he said, but it sounded loud in the quiet room.

The others glanced at her, surprised by the enormity of his unknown emotions. Don Alejandro cleared his throat, clearly remembering similar emotions that he had held.

At last he said to her, It will be rough out there for awhile. Those lancers heard what DeSoto said. Do you think you'll be all right alone in town? And how do we keep the lancers quiet?

Meaning could she withstand the rumors that were bound to surface over the proceedings at the hacienda that morning? How sweet; he was worried about her.

Diego's sobbing had stopped, but he still rested an arm around her shoulders. Now Victoria brought it around for a quick kiss to his fingers, a kiss full of love and understanding. I can threaten not to feed them if they say anything, she suggested, bringing a smile to Alejandro's lips.

It might take that to guarantee their silence, he agreed darkly, but showing the sudden humor of this situation. He fully realized what that fight in his own hacienda meant; his son was Zorro. But he didn't have time right at the moment to go through his feelings on the matter. Alejandro heaved another sigh into the quiet room, then opened his mouth to air his thoughts. Diego, have you thought about what this could mean for you?

Diego spoke, though his voice broke and grated. You mean no more Alcalde to fight?

Alejandro shook his silver head. I mean no more Zorro.

Victoria sat up straighter, turning to Diego. That's right. And if everyone already knows your identity....

... but we don't say anything.... Alejandro suggested.

... then you and I can get married whenever we want, Diego finished, as if the idea had just hit him, showing the first spark of interest since the conversation began. That is, if people already accept the rumor.

I think you can be sure of that, Victoria comforted, placing a hand on his arm. People always seem to believe the worst of others, and they have wanted Zorro's identity as much as I have.

He rubbed at his face, the first action he'd taken since they began discussing the Alcalde's death. He would have to come to terms with his feelings over that on his own. There's still the problem of rumors that might hurt you, he reminded Victoria.

There have always been these kinds of rumors.

There have? he asked, obviously quite surprised, unable to hide his emotions in time.

She nodded, playing absently with the material of her skirt. People had always believed that, like a regular tavern wench, she had slept with Zorro in the past, though she would never tell that to the proper Diego. She wouldn't see their emotions so dirtied, though now, after the previous incredible night, she supposed it was true. But that was such an unhappy way to describe the amazing feelings she and Diego had expressed the night before. She knew how that kind of information hurt, to be thought of and talked about as if a person was less than human. She spoke lightly, but her words were very important because chosen so carefully, People were always quiet around you, hoping not to offend, but they were plenty vocal when you weren't near. But I want you to know that I'll gladly marry you. That is, if you want what everybody sees as damaged goods.

Diego turned to her then, forcing her to look at him. I will always want you, he said, sounding amazed that she had even voiced such an idea. I don't see you as damaged goods at all. What a crazy thing to say. And he crushed her again in a fierce hug that solidified her place in his family.

Alejandro was equally as welcoming, doing a complete turnaround from his earlier concerns and threats now that the danger of innuendo seemed to have passed. He held out his arms to her. My daughter, welcome to the family!

Victoria was unnerved by the sudden feelings of fellowship. She didn't know how to handle such good will. You don't mind being known as Zorro?

Diego saddened. No. I came to terms with my possible capture and discovery years ago.

But not with your unmasking? she asked, curious.

Not where you're concerned, he said honestly. I always expected it to come later, not now. But I can get used to it if you can. If you still want to marry me, that is.

She nodded, then felt herself pulled into an embrace so tight that she again wondered if he'd been restraining himself even on his hugs. Now he was holding back no longer.

That's settled then, Alejandro declared, sounding much happier now that decisions were being made. He was, typically, a man of action. He slapped his hands together. Anybody up for some breakfast?

As one, they laughed, though Victoria was still lost in Diego's embrace, probably as she always would be.

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