Diego twirled the twig in his fingers again while he sat at the top of the pile of rocks a half mile outside the pueblo. The March sun splashed down on him from an impossibly blue sky, suffusing him with its midday warmth, though lacking in the heat of the coming summer. He had several books on the English language sitting at his side, and his upraised legs easily cradled his elbows as his idle twisting continued. He looked every inch the image of the scholastic caballero he wished to convey.
He casually watched as Victoria's horse ambled out of the pueblo and over the wedges of dirt and gopher holes marking the road that led eventually to the port of San Diego. He'd always felt a strange affinity for the town that shared his name, and he considered his feelings towards that pueblo now while Victoria sauntered ever nearer.
He was just wondering what it would be like to live in that coastal village when Victoria dismounted close to where he'd left Esperanza, tied her horse, then began the slow climb to join him. Diego could hear her soft slippers scuffing on the large footholds on what the pueblo citizens often called 'Seventh Heaven at the Top of the World.'
In spite of its impressive name and large footholds, few ventured to the top of the boulders, so Diego had known ahead of time that they'd have the rock pile to themselves. It was one of those ignored treasures of the pueblo, much like the woman coming towards him. Diego just wished he understood why the thought of being married to her - or to anyone - frightened him so much. Marriage now seemed as rocky a prospect as this boulder pile. Besides, Diego wasn't used to being frightened by things - Zorro seemed to never be afraid.
And considering Zorro - this boulder pile had also served Zorro many times as a way to scout the terrain around Los Angeles, since one could see for miles in every direction from the top of this rock pile. He felt calm and safe here, second only to the calmness he felt in the cave. It was why he had suggested it as a meeting place. He and Victoria were unlikely to be interrupted here, and Diego instinctively knew that he would need the calmness that the rocks exuded if he was to make it through the conversation he proposed to have.
So, deceptively languid, he kept twirling his twig until Victoria joined him.
Diego tossed the twig aside as she eyed the books snuggled near his knee. “You're not really going to give me an English lesson, are you?”
Diego smiled warmly at her. “Today, no, though if you are interested in learning, I have several books that I thought might help a beginning student.”
She gave a wry smile as she settled near him on the sun-warmed rocks. “Leave it to you to carry books to the top of a pile of rocks.”
Diego couldn't quite squash the grin that wanted to explode out of him as he stared at her. She looked so welcoming in the strong sunlight, so happy to be with him. For a moment, he let himself just be happy to be with her, too. “I figured that books would only help convey my soft image - did it work?”
Victoria gave a thoughtful hum, then playfully poked him in the arm where nothing but a mass of hard muscles met her probe. “A little softness never hurt anyone.”
“Then I'm doing the right thing.” Diego laughed with her, all the while wondering how he could possibly be afraid of her?
Victoria shrugged, clearly unaware of his newer concerns. “I've never thought about learning English before. I never thought I was capable of it.”
“You're more than capable,” Diego instantly argued, thinking of the way she'd so easily uncovered his disguise. “You simply haven't had the chance.”
Victoria gave a nervous snort. “What you really mean is that I haven't had your schooling.”
“That's due more to lack of opportunity than intellectual ability,” he gently argued back. “You're more capable of learning new things than many of the students I knew in Madrid.” His easy defensive manner dropped abruptly away. “But that isn't why I asked you out here today.”
“I didn't think it was.”
Diego smiled at her dry comment. “I do want to talk to you,” he affirmed, using his lower 'Zorro' tones without even thinking about it. “We can pretend we're having an English lesson in case anyone gets curious, though if you really are interested, I'll be happy to continue meeting you.”
Victoria drew back just a bit. “Meeting like this, without a chaperon?” Her smile held just a hint of mischievous humor in it. “I don't think...”
“Good - don't think,” Diego hastily interrupted. “Just listen.” Without considering any consequences for perhaps the first time in years, he lowered his legs and spread a book out on his lap in order to further their disguise, then grabbed her fingers to pull her close, and in a soft voice that was sure not to carry on the wind, filled her in on the startling revelations of the day before. “I want to know what you think about all this, and what I should do,” he ended on a pleading note.
However, if he was hoping for a quick answer to all his problems, he was in for a big disappointment. Victoria reared back again, glaring at him, askance. “The Alcalde knows?”
“And hasn't done anything.”
Her glare intensified, making Diego suddenly nervous. “And you have to ask me what to do?” Her incredulous voice carried to him, if not across the plain to Los Angeles.
“Shouldn't I ask?” Diego wanted to know, growing even more nervous at her reaction. “This does concern you, doesn't it?”
“Well... yes!” Victoria spluttered. “At least, I hope it does!”
“Well then...” Diego prompted.
She huffed once. “I should think that what you should do is obvious!”
Why did Diego feel like it was obvious to everyone but him?
As his brows raised in question, Victoria huffed a second time while rising to her feet. “Diego de la Vega, if you can't figure this out, then I have nothing more to say to you!”
It was then that Diego realized he hadn't told Victoria about his paralyzing fear from just moments before, hadn't mentioned his sudden and insane worries about marriage, hadn't really said anything to her. Before she could hurry down the rock face and away from him, Diego lunged after her, grabbing her left hand. “Victoria, wait! I forgot to tell you..! There's so much..! Stop!”
His desperate command halted her flight away from him. Pebbles skittered down the side of the boulders, and Victoria grabbed at Diego's hand again to regain her balance that her precipitate turn had ruined. Teetering for a second, her look turned to one of irritation. “Diego! How could you be so..! Ugh!”
Diego pulled on her hand, yanking her back towards him. “You have to listen!”
“I don't just have to listen to anything you say!” she growled, her voice low, but her anger heightened, staining her cheeks a rosy red. “Do I mean nothing to you? Are we engaged, or was that just..?”
“Will you listen!” Diego growled back, his voice equally low and angry. “Last night, I was able to think about our future at a time when it could truly happen - and you know what? Today that future scares me to death!
Victoria's anger dissipated, replaced by a puzzled expression. “Nothing frightens Zorro,” she uselessly pointed out.
“I'm not Zorro!” Diego hissed before he could think better of what he was saying. Once he paused and thought, he backtracked. “Well, yes, I am, but I wasn't being Zorro just then - I was Diego - just Diego - and I've never been so confused in my life!”
Her puzzlement deepened - her natural sense of empathy was engaged in spite of herself. “You're frightened?”
Diego's brows furrowed so much that they became a single line over hazy blue eyes. “Of you! And I've never been afraid of you! What is this - some new kind of mind control from the Alcalde?”
Victoria spluttered with laughter at that comment. “Not likely. But it is curious - you being afraid.”
Diego scowled. “I don't like being frightened of something you represent.”
“I can't say that I like it, either,” she exclaimed on a low note. “But what exactly worries you so much? If not me, then..?”
“It is you,” Diego broke in to argue, “and it isn't you.”
At a loss, Victoria asked, “Is it marriage? You do still want to get married, don't you?”
Diego hesitated, trying to pinpoint exactly what was bothering him.
She took his hesitation as confirmation of her worst fears. “You don't, do you?” She tugged on her hand still trapped in his grasp. “That's it! Let me go!”
She pulled at his hand, but Diego refused to release his grasp. For the first time, she had an inkling of the raw strength in Diego as he used his muscles against her.
“Please, Victoria - listen to me!”
But her tugging increased. “All these years, all that time, and I thought you actually wanted to marry me - HA!”
“Victoria, I love you!”
“Then why are you afraid to marry me?”
“I don't know! That's what I'm trying to find out!”
“You don't love me! You've just been using me to..!”
Diego next did the most improper thing he'd ever done: he deliberately yanked Victoria forward till she landed in his lap in a heap of tangled arms and legs and lost balance. He caught her, pinning her arms to her sides so that she couldn't strike him.
That did nothing to stop her from wiggling, though. She fought him like a wild cat. “I can't believe that I bought everything you said! I can't believe that I...”
“Will you listen for just a minute?!” Diego struggled with her, his balance threatened by her jerky movements. “I love you! I want more than anything to marry you! I have wanted that for years!”
“So you say!” she scathingly hissed at him. “I..”
“If you don't stop acting like a child, we're both going to fall over the edge!” Diego hung onto his tenuous balance by one lone muscle in his right leg.
“If you think insulting me is going to stop me, you are sadly mistaken, Señor!”
Unable to think of anything else to do, he kissed her.
Which did nothing but give Victoria the chance to bite his bottom lip. “Stop that!”
“If anybody sees us up here with you in my arms, your reputation is ruined, and there will be no Zorro to save you this time!”
The hissed warning finally penetrated her temper. She stopped in mid writhe, both of them breathing hard.
Diego lowered his head till it innocently met her shoulder. “Why won't you believe me? Have you ever known Zorro to lie?”
“You just said it yourself - you're not Zorro.”
“Zorro... Diego... it doesn't matter who I am. I still love you.”
“Then why are you afraid to marry me?” Her question was so quiet, it barely reached his ear.
“I'm not afraid to marry you,” Diego protested. “I'm afraid to marry anybody. I've never been in the position to be able to marry before.”
“Yes you have,” she instantly argued. “Or have you conveniently forgotten Zafira like you obviously wish to forget me?”
“I haven't forgotten Zafira!” came Diego's second protest. “She's just not the important one right now - you are! I just want to figure out why I'm so afraid!”
“That's easy!” Victoria scoffed. “You're afraid of Real Life, not of getting married!”
Diego instantly stilled. “What did you say?”
Even more scathing, Victoria sneered, “You're afraid you'll be bored with just me! No one to fight, no one to use your clever tricks against, no one to outwit! Just me, and you can't stand that!”
He grew as quiet as if she had slapped him. “Afraid of...” This was an idea he had never considered before. “Why do you think that?”
Victoria scoffed again. “I've always worried about that. Haven't you?”
Diego's voice took on a note of wonder as he replied, “No, this is the first... I've been so busy thinking that you would be angry when I told you my secret - it never occurred to me that I would be the problem!”
Victoria's eyes narrowed. “Just like an arrogant man to assume any problems will be caused by the female!” She strained against his hold, still clearly intent on leaving him.
Diego's hold on her tightened. “Sh! I've got you, but you need to be still while I think.”
Victoria stilled in his arms for a second, but the way she leaned close to him was hardly conciliatory. Her face had never blazed with anger like it did now. “You think all you want, but I have better things to do - let me go!”
And just like that, Diego's hold on her vanished. She would have jerked off balance over the side if he hadn't retained his hold on her till the last second, saving her from a nasty fall. She was less than grateful - more like confused and suspicious. “What are you doing?”
Diego blinked at her, amazed at how mercurial her moods were - he'd never noticed that about her before. “You obviously can't stand the sight of me, so I'm letting you go.” He imitated her gaping expression. “It's clearly what you want - and you know that I'll always give you what you want if I can. So go.”
But instead of leaving, Victoria simply stood unmoving on the rock face, eyeing him suspiciously, heaving as if the air was thin so high off the ground. “What if I don't want to go?”
Diego laughed a maniacal laugh. “You've been telling me since you got here that you want to leave me - and I'm not stopping you. So go!”
Diego sighed in exasperation. “Victoria, I don't know what you want. I'm afraid of something - you claim that it's Real Life, and that you want to leave me if that's the case. I'd rather discuss this with you like adults, but if you want to go, I won't stop you - as I've told you before, I love you too much.” His whisper didn't sound angry anymore, just tired. “So go. Being alone is something I'm used to.”
That plaintive remark sparked her sympathy. “I haven't thought of that before - you being alone.”
Diego snorted a laugh of incredulity. “What did you think I was all this time?” He peered up at her outline that was bathed in sunlight. “Felipe might have helped me - a lot - but he's the strong, silent type - we didn't discuss a lot over the years.”
Now she appeared confused again. “Felipe?”
Diego's own confusion grew at her puzzled tone. “Yes. I thought you knew.”
She just shook her head. “I knew about you - but there's more?”
Diego gave a dismissive wave. “You know the important piece of information. The rest...”
His voice trailed into the air - he was simply too tired to explain right now. The wind whistled around them in the following silence, a living thing, waiting for him to add more. At last he obliged by saying, “I always said that Zorro worked alone, and he did. Not that I want to dismiss all that Felipe has done for me - he's saved my life more than once! But we didn't discuss things very often.” The wryness in his voice was heavy even at a whisper. “It's rather difficult to discuss more than the general problems with a mute, no matter how much I knew about his signing.”
Victoria stood still, considering him. Her obviously puzzled stare unnerved him until he asked, “What?”
She shook her head, her hair blowing crazily in the wind. “I just never thought of you as being so alone before, even with Felipe. I assumed that your father knew everything.”
Diego snorted once more. “If I thought the danger to you was too high to say anything, the danger to my father was just as unimaginable. Of course I couldn't tell anybody.”
“But you just said you told Felipe,” she mulishly protested.
Diego groaned at her inability to grasp what he thought of as a simple concept. “He knew because I showed him the cave before I thought to keep Zorro a secret from everyone. But it wasn't because I told him.”
That surprised Victoria - she jumped. “You've never told anybody?”
Diego shrugged. “No, I didn't dare. But if it makes you feel better, I almost told you everything so many times. Only the fact that I assumed you would be in danger stopped me - angry, and in danger.” His snort of laughter was self-directed this time. “Now you've figured me out, and you're angry anyway.” His own sigh was a lot more regretful than Victoria's had been. “I thought it would be so wonderful if someone knew, especially you, but this isn't turning out at all like I expected.” An ironic thought twisted his lips. “I suppose it's a good lesson for me: don't assume.” The twist to his lips was definitely self-condemnatory now. “That has always worked for Zorro - I guess it should become Diego's mantra as well.”
Surprisingly, Victoria dropped down beside him as soon as he spoke, taking his hand in hers. For some reason, seeing his large, long fingers cradled in her smaller ones sent a jolt of longing through Diego that was so strong, it surprised him; he hadn't felt that strongly for quite some time. But he suddenly wanted what those fingers represented, wanted it with every fiber in him. At the same time, that intense longing frightened him - and it was his experience that what you wanted often came at a high price.
Diego glanced up in time to catch the earnest look in her dark eyes. “We'll figure this out together - I promise,” she announced.
But her turnaround only confused Diego more. “You just said...”
“I know what I just said. But...” Her shrug enthralled him. “You sound like you need me.”
“I do.” His whisper grew husky at the sudden light in her eyes. “I always have.”
She closed her eyes for a moment, shutting out their welcome expression. Opening them again, she firmly said, “Then we'll just have to put our heads together with Felipe's - there must be some way out of this, and we'll find it.”
Diego's gaze raked across her features, feverish. “Victoria, I want to understand.”
She pressed her forehead to his, her skin cool on his hot brow. “Diego, there's got to be a way out for you. I want to be part of it - no matter what I said - I'm sorry.” She shrugged again. “I've never thought of you as so alone before. I don't want you to be alone.”
Diego grasped her hand to his chest, the beating of his heart making it jump. “I don't want to be alone, either, but I've also never been so scared of not being alone. I don't know what to do.”
“I'll help.” Victoria was so earnest now that her eyes sparkled with the depths of her emotions. “I want us to be together.”
“I want that too - you know I do. But I need to think...”
“Let me help you,” she suddenly entreated. “Felipe and I will help you, and so will Don Alejandro. We all have good heads on our shoulders. There must be some reason why you're so afraid. We'll find it.”
“It's not you, I swear, Victoria. I'm just so confused that I...”
“Stop thinking so much,” Victoria suggested in a whisper. “Thinking and talking. I can't kiss you when you won't stop talking.”
She wanted to kiss him? In spite of his feelings, that thrilled him. “But Victoria, I think...”
“There you go again. Stop it.”
And she kissed him before he could say another word. The action took him by surprise for a moment. The wind buffeted them from all sides as she wound her arms around his neck, soothing his worries at the same time she awoke his passion. Unthinkingly, Diego buried his hands in her hair, doing more now than just holding on. He couldn't stop himself from instantly responding to her, and his tumbling emotions roared to life.
It was over far too quickly as far as Diego was concerned. Their foreheads touched when they parted. “But I don't understand,” he softly protested. “First, you're mad at me for being afraid to marry, and you can't wait to get away from me. Now you want... what?”
“Diego, I may not always make sense, and neither will you, but I do love you. Let me be something more to you than a good cook. Let me in.”
Diego stared at her in quizzical wonder. “I always thought you were already in.”
Victoria shook her head. “You've been alone for a long time. Felipe helped... but you've solved everything alone.”
“I had to.”
She nodded, her skin rubbing his. “You don't have to anymore - maybe that's what frightens you. If you want help, then you have to let me help.”
It was exactly what Felipe had suggested the night before. Maybe he was more help than he'd realized?
If Felipe was already hard at work helping him, things would only improve if Victoria helped as well. As hard as it was, Diego made his first attempt in years at purposely letting someone else influence his decisions. “Consider yourself in.”
Victoria's smile matched his. She didn't say anything, but she did kiss him again.
Diego considered that letting someone else be of help to him wasn't so bad after all.
Go on to part 8.
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