Alejandro roughly shook Diego's shoulder many hours later. “Diego, wake up.”
Diego brushed the irritation aside and slid further into sleep.
His father's shaking grew even rougher. “Diego, that's enough. You've been asleep for over a day... you can't run away forever.”
“ButIcantry,” Diego slurred, turned over, and went back to sleep.
Alejandro glared down at his son, then righteously ripped the blankets off the bed. “Get up! Victoria's here.”
Diego jerked, waking in spite of himself. He peered drowsily up at his father, trying to make his fuzzy brain keep up with the conversation. Aloud, he stupidly echoed, “Victoria?”
“Yes!” growled Don Alejandro. He crossed the room to Diego's wardrobe, and began pulling out trousers and a shirt. “I asked her to come over after dinner tonight - and she's here - so get up!”
But Diego just couldn't wrap his mind around what his father was saying. “You asked her over...”
“Yes! To talk to her and the man she plans to marry... you. I've been thinking about marriage all day, particularly about you getting married.”
“ToVictoriaIhope,” Diego slurred.
Don Alejandro continued as if Diego hadn't even spoken. “If Zorro doesn't show his face at this meeting that's at least partially for his benefit, then so help me, I'll be giving Zorro a piece of my horse whip, that's what!”
Diego couldn't fathom it: Zorro was a master of the whip and the sword, yet here he was, being threatened with a whipping by his father? There was something inherently ridiculous in that, but Diego was just too tired to figure out what that was. At the same time, if he knew one thing about his father, it was that he shouldn't push him when he got that tone. Alejandro might carry through with his threat, no matter who his son really was. So he got moving, fast.
In spite of worries about who his father was willing to threaten, Diego wasn't quite awake yet when they slipped out of the darkened corridor and into the library, where Victoria was patiently waiting on the loveseat. Diego mumbled 'Hola' to her, then promptly curled up with his head on her lap, his legs dangling on the floor, and went back to sleep.
Victoria looked in confusion at the man sleeping on her leg. She earnestly leaned towards an exasperated Don Alejandro and whispered, “I thought you needed to speak to us in the cave - how will we get him there if he's asleep?”
Don Alejandro was at his wits end with such a sleepy son. “I don't know - can you suggest anything?”
“Is he injured?”
Alejandro's face relaxed. “No. Felipe gave him something to make him sleep - do you know what I'm talking about?”
“Ah,” Victoria knowingly said, her grunt accompanied by an understanding gush of air. “I have more knowledge about his sleeping remedies than I wish. Water will help him - can you get him a glass?”
Alejandro nodded without asking Victoria how she knew what she knew, then left to get some water while Victoria continued to act like a pillow. The moment he reappeared, she took the glass from him, but instead of making Diego drink the water, dipped her fingers into it to drop onto Diego's face. Drips kept slowly sliding off her fingers, and the more that landed on Diego's skin, the more alert he became. At last he was awake enough to sit up and drink the remaining water in the glass.
“Ah, gracias,” he quietly said, and blinked at his surroundings. “My head is growing clearer all the time.”
“I thought for a minute that we would have to send for Dr. Hernandez,” Alejandro dryly quipped as he gazed at Diego.
Diego gazed back, perplexed. “Why are we whispering?”
“Because...” Alejandro's gaze raked over him. “Feeling strong enough to walk?”
Diego stood to illustrate his fast returning strength. “Yes. But...”
Alejandro didn't give him the time to say more. “Good. You two, follow me.” After first insuring that the coast was clear, he hit the correct spot on the mantel to open the hidden door, then vanished through the opening, assuming they would follow.
When he had reached the cave proper and could rise again to his full height, he gestured to the desk chair. “Victoria.” Then he pulled up the stool that Felipe had previously sat on for Diego. “Son.”
Diego took the stool, pulling it close to the desk and Victoria, but spoke to his father in his regular tones, “Why all the secrecy, Father? What's this about?”
Alejandro pulled up his own stool, then surprisingly scowled at Diego as soon as he sat. “I should think that's obvious.” But the 'hero of the pueblo' clearly didn't remember what he'd said about marriage only moments before. He hoped Diego's memory was typically better than what was on display right now.
Diego and Victoria shared a look, both confused. “Noooo.” Diego at last shook his head. “It's not so obvious to us.”
Alejandro heaved a beleaguered sigh, as if his son was the man with the slowest brain he'd ever come across. “You said that you wanted to talk about marriage. Then, please consider this conversation as 'Marriage For Beginners.'”
Victoria looked to Diego, her own confusion growing, before her gaze settled on her possible father-in-law. “Don Alejandro, not that we don't appreciate this, but...”
“Diego said he's scared to get married, and for me to figure out why,” Alejandro testily interrupted in a voice of flint. “Now, do you want the wisdom of someone who has at least been married, or would it be better for me to let you two figure this out on your own? He is, after all, Zorro - doesn't he know everything?” Sarcasm dripped from Alejandro's words.
Still blinking away the last bit of sleep from his eyes, Diego agreed, “I did tell you to figure this out while I slept, didn't I?” He shared a glance with Victoria that clearly said 'why not?' So he turned to regard his father again. “We'd be happy to listen to whatever you think wise to tell us.”
“Good.” Alejandro eyed both young people sitting before him, but it was still a surprise to Diego when his father swung to Victoria, starting with her. “We know that Diego's frightened of marriage, and you've given your suspicions as to why; are you frightened of anything in particular, Victoria?”
Diego was quite astonished that he'd never thought to ask her that simple question himself. He'd been so wrapped up in his own insecurities that he hadn't even considered that Victoria might have some, too.
For her part, Victoria's eyes darted between Diego and his father and back again. “Um... I think... perhaps... no.”
That answer took even the jaded Alejandro off guard. “No?” he disbelievingly repeated. “There's nothing? Not even an inkling... an itch?”
Victoria's head shake made her hair swish against her shoulders. “No, not a thing.”
Alejandro gaped, then glared at her with an unfamiliar scowl. “I don't believe you. Maybe whatever you're playing at can fool this lug,” he said, pointing to Diego. “But me? Not a chance.” He clapped his hands together once, and the sound echoed against the cavern roof. “So... out with it.”
Uneasy at her friend's unrelenting tone, Victoria's gaze again began darting from father to son. “I don't... can't...” she began, unsure what was safe to say.
“Out with it, Victoria - you're among friends,” Alejandro added, thinking he understood what was stopping her.
Victoria's gaze did some more darting, she did some sighing, then at last she spoke. “I... uh... don't want to insult you, or...”
“No insult taken,” Alejandro assured. “Right, Diego?”
Diego, on the other hand, had eyes only for his future partner. “Victoria? What is it?” His hand went to her arm in support.
At last she capitulated. “I don't know anything about running a hacienda,” she admitted with a worried shrug. “All I know is how to run a tavern. But those other ladies... daughters of caballeros... they know...” Her voice trailed off as she stared at Diego, stricken.
Diego was hard put not to laugh, his mouth twisting with the effort. Alejandro saw Diego's struggle, and discreetly stepped on the top of his right boot, enabling his son to swallow his gesture at the last moment.
“Victoria,” Diego assured, “I don't want other caballero ladies... you know that.”
“Yes, but, what happens when Don Alejandro wants to throw a party, or...”
“What do you mean 'what will happen?' We'll have a party.” Diego's lowered brows marked his confusion.
“But I'll trip over a long gown I'm not used to wearing, or do something else wrong and embarrass you,” Victoria insisted, her voice now full of protestation. “I don't want to be the cause of ruining the de la Vega name.”
Diego couldn't help but smile at what he perceived as unimportant fears. “Of course you won't. Everybody loves you.”
To his surprise, Victoria frowned. “Wrong. Everybody thinks I'm 'Zorro's Fallen Woman.' You should hear the talk at the tavern.”
“What?” Diego clearly didn't know what she was referring to. “I've never heard...”
“That's because they're afraid you'll print who said it in your newspaper,” she quickly replied. “They aren't so careful when you're not around.”
“You see, things aren't necessarily what you think they are,” Alejandro cut in to point out. “Is it caballeros who say this, or is it everybody?” he asked Victoria.
She paused for a minute to consider. “It's mostly caballeros, I guess.”
Alejandro nodded wisely. “They're warning you to stay away in case Zorro turns out to be a caballero.”
“What?” Diego retorted, aghast. “That's ridiculous!”
Turning to him, Alejandro gave a regretful twist of his lips. “I'm afraid that it isn't so ridiculous. There are certainly plenty of caballeros in the Los Angeles area only interested in furthering the ancient traditions of Spain to cause you plenty of worry.” The skin around his eyes narrowed in warning. “You two might as well face facts: there'll be more than enough people disapproving of any union between the de la Vegas and a mere tavern wench who...”
“Victoria's no tavern wench!”
Alejandro took on a conciliatory expression. “Of course not,” he agreed with his son. “But that's just one example of the snide talk you'll have to deal with. I've been hearing it for years: the young de la Vega spurning centuries of tradition and values by refusing to do his duty and marry someone of his class.”
“Why does it matter who I marry?” Diego instantly demanded. “I'm not a cow on the range to be bartered and sold!”
“It's time to get your head out of your books, my boy,” Don Alejandro reprimanded. “There are those who think the only reason to marry is to have children, and those children must further a family's ancestral line. If you and Victoria marry, know that you'll be shunned by any person who's a champion of tradition.”
“Nobody who counts would consider shunning either of us,” Diego argued.
“But it's something to keep in mind - you're putting an awful burden on Victoria simply by asking her to marry you.” Alejandro gave Diego a knowing look. “I just want you to be prepared for that.”
Victoria hesitantly suggested, “Maybe it would be a good idea to wait...”
“We've waited for years already!” Diego's scowl carved into his face. “We're not waiting a minute longer than we have to!”
“Just keep in mind that Victoria's going to need extra support, especially at first,” Alejandro warned him. “People will be waiting for the marriage to fail, and they'll blame it on Victoria's birth.”
Diego blew out a breath. “This is insane.”
“This is reality,” Alejandro corrected in a hard voice. He turned back to Victoria, his voice softening. “Do you have any other fears?”
“Uh...” She gazed at both men, still unsure. “How do I help run a cattle ranch? Is it alright if I help with the ranching, or is the idea of a woman helping with the ranch something that's frowned upon?”
Diego's eyes lit up. “You want to help with the ranch?” He'd had no idea, since they hadn't discussed the ranch before now.
Alejandro replied before Victoria could. “It will surely be a great disappointment to many caballeros if you show an interest in the ranch: 'That's men's work,' they will say.” At Victoria's understanding though clearly disappointed expression, added, “Of course, as my daughter-in-law, if you don't show an interest in the ranch, I will be greatly disappointed. So you'll have to decide what makes you the happiest.”
Victoria didn't look any more sure of herself when she asked, “Will I be allowed to cook?”
“My dear,” Alejandro said, and leaned forward to touch Victoria reassuringly on her leg, “you'll be the mistress of the house - you can do whatever you want.”
Victoria sprang back in the chair, as if she had never thought of it in those terms before. “Oh. Well, I...” Her voice once more thoughtfully trailed off while she gazed at Don Alejandro. Diego fancied he could see the wheels in her mind churning a mile a minute. He loved seeing her so engaged on behalf of his family.
Victoria at last shrewdly asked, “How would you feel if I make some suggestions to improve ranch productivity and profit?”
“I would say that you have to marry my son first before you're allowed to go changing anything,” Alejandro immediately stated. “However, I'm perfectly aware of what a good businesswoman you are - if you want changes, I know that you have your reasons. Besides, all you have to do is smile and...” Alejandro instantly grew uncomfortable while Diego knowingly grinned. “Er... smile, yes, and...” The look in his eyes grew exasperated. “Well, Diego knows what I'm talking about!”
“Indeed I do.” Diego smirked. “What he's trying to say, Victoria, is that you have every single de la Vega man wrapped around your finger, and all you have to do is...”
“He's trying to say that we all adore you - one shake of your finger and we'll fall at your feet.” Alejandro's comment came out droll and dry, but honest. “I'll make no bones about it - half the vaqueros are in love with you, and the other half are too young to know a good thing when they see it. Show some interest in the horses and cattle, and they'll all be yours to command in only a few months.”
Victoria's lips quirked in an uncomfortable smile. “I don't want to command anybody.”
Alejandro didn't press the issue, but didn't take what he'd said back, either. “My point is that ranching is traditionally a man's domain - it's up to you to change tradition.”
Victoria was silent as she digested this information. At last, still undecided as to how to take Alejandro's observations, she turned to Diego. “How many children do you want?”
The question surprised Diego, though it shouldn't have. They'd never had time to discuss anything about this, either. “As many as you can safely have.”
“What if that's just one?”
Diego smiled comfortingly at her anxious tone. “Then we have an only child.”
Alejandro turned the conversation onto another new topic when he asked, “Have you considered what you're going to do about the tavern, Victoria? Is Diego going to manage it? Are you? That will be difficult if you have children. Do you want to keep it in the Escalante family? Or don't you care?”
“Well, I...” Victoria looked unsure again, as if she hadn't given this much thought, either, when in actuality, it had often kept her awake and fretting until the early hours of the morning. “I guess that one of my brothers can manage it.”
Diego firmly said, “It's time those two took on some of the responsibilities in Los Angeles. You've been here, alone, for a long time.”
“I don't mind,” Victoria quickly negated.
“Nevertheless,” Diego insisted, “It's time that those two did something about their birthright for a change. They both ran off with your father years ago, and then didn't bother to make sure that things were alright in Los Angeles before they went glory seeking in the military. Things weren't alright here, and they should be ashamed at the way they left you to deal with things by yourself.” He could tell that Victoria was about to protest again, and rushed to say, “Maybe you don't mind, but I do.”
Silence again met this epistle until at last Don Alejandro made that same clapping noise again. “Alright, this is good. You're discussing topics that I bet you've never had time to touch on before.”
“You're right - we haven't,” Victoria agreed. “Talking wasn't exactly high on our list of things to do.” Before Don Alejandro could adopt a look that was too disapproving of their earlier behavior, added, “We had so little time together that tavern business wasn't something we wanted to discuss.”
After a moment, Alejandro nodded. “Alright. Another thing: I get the impression from several comments that Zorro has made in the plaza that to you, marriage is just another destination, something to strive for, something to achieve.”
“Well, isn't it?” Diego inquired.
Alejandro heaved an aggravated sigh. “No, you idiot.” Diego did a double take at being called a name, but Alejandro didn't even notice. “Marriage is a partnership, a journey, a sharing of likes and dislikes, a life... not a port of call where you'll disembark the ship to go shopping, but stop when you're tired. Marriage is for life - make sure you really want to do this before making a mistake that can't be undone.”
Diego's gaze again landed on Victoria. “There's nothing I'd like better.”
“Victoria?” Alejandro prodded. “Speak up now, for you won't get another chance.”
Victoria grasped Diego's hand. “I said 'yes' to Zorro, and 'yes' to Diego, and 'yes' is what I meant, for the rest of my life.”
Her response brought out a smile from Diego. He leaned in to kiss her as a way of reply... when his father's arm shot out and stopped him.
“From now on, things will be done in the most proper way, whether it's aggravating to you or not.” Alejandro looked so serious that even Diego paid attention in spite of his instant annoyance at being hindered. “You'll get enough criticism just because you want to marry - don't invite more.”
Slowly, Diego and Victoria nodded in understanding. But rather than address what had already been addressed so eloquently by Alejandro, Diego simply asked the burning question, “But isn't all of this pointless if we can't decide what to do about Zorro first?”
His father's brows lowered in a frown. “What about Zorro?”
Diego glanced at Victoria, then his father, then Victoria, and back again. “We seem to be forgetting the one important point in all of this: Victoria is officially engaged to Zorro, not Diego de la Vega, no matter who does or does not know about it. How do I get rid of him? I can't fight myself for Victoria, as appealing as that sounds, and I won't make Victoria publicly choose between the two men... though they're both me. Any ideas?”
“I could poison Toronado with my hot sauce,” Victoria jokingly suggested, but the woof from Toronado's stall area showed that he understood more of her threat than she had expected.
“No,” Diego said, still thoughtful. “It has to be something else, something big, aimed at Zorro, not Toronado. Father?”
Alejandro appeared almost too pensive to respond, at last saying, “Give me some time to consider this.” He turned slowly back towards the way out of the cave, thinking hard. “Get rid of Zorro, huh? How?”
Diego and Victoria watched him leave. He'd obviously already forgotten the reason he'd come to the cave in the first place.
Amused, Victoria murmured, “I still say that you're afraid of being bored by regular life.”
Diego surprised her when he answered, “I say that you'll be bored.”
That caught Victoria's attention. “What?”
“No customers, no cooking... unless you want to... no Alcalde to thwart on a daily basis...” Diego shrewdly regarded her. “You'll be bored to death in a week.”
Victoria snorted a laugh. “Married to you? Only if you threaten to read poetry to me.”
Diego drew her to a standing position, then onto his lap. “Should we start with Shakespeare's Sonnets? Or his plays, maybe?”
Victoria sarcastically eyed him. “If you make me read poetry, then you have to learn to cook.”
Diego wryly said, “Toronado may not be the only one poisoned.”
Her peels of laughter resounded around the cave as Diego's arms encircled her in a hug that was as impromptu as it was sincere. “You may be 'Zorro's Woman,' but you're my tavern wench.”
Go on to part 11.
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