Note: This story takes place one month after 'Conspiracy of Blood.'

Further note: This story was inspired by a version of the fanfiction story entitled 'Wounded Fox,' the one that depicts a conversation between Zorro and Don Alejandro in a cave during a thunderstorm. Rereading that story caused me to wonder how the story would change if it was the same basic situation, only between different characters. This story was born in my mind. Inspiration goes to Robin/Icyfire. The story, and all its faults, are completely mine.

More notes: Thanks to Smithcrafter and my sister, Meg, for story ideas.

Weathering the Storm

by Linda Bindner

Zorro squatted on the stone floor, pausing for a moment to look out of the cave's opening and watch the pounding rain before returning his wandering attention back to the small fire he was building. It was lucky, really, that Victoria had spotted this cave at all, hidden as it was by all the brush and trees surrounding it. Another moment spent on Toronado's wide back as he galloped by, and the cave would have been lost to their sight.

But as it was, Victoria had been looking in the right direction at the right time, and had seen the darker smear in the forest. The picnic that they had planned for the evening and had been interrupted by both the Alcalde and his lancers as well as by the storm now soaking the entire coast of California would have to wait for another day.

A day that's dryer, Zorro thought to himself with an ironic twist to his words, then went back to rearranging the sticks and tinder sitting beside the larger logs that he had taken a few moments to collect as they had headed for the cave and its promise of dryness. Now, the dark hole in the wall of the forest to the South of the pueblo also afforded safety from their pursuers, as the rain was falling so hard from the sky that it was sure to wash away any tracks leading to his and Victoria's hiding place. He had nothing to worry about.

So why did he feel the sudden need to angrily throw the stick he was holding into the now-crackling fire?

For a second before the yellow and orange flames caught his eye again, his sight skittered across Victoria's still form as she leaned against the far wall to stare out at the driving drops of water. As he stared, he knew that being trapped in this position with her, dry in the cave while rain and life-threatening thunder and lightening strafed across the open land between them and the tavern's location in the pueblo, was what was causing his current concern. The planned-for picnic would have remained a secret to the pueblo's citizens, as Victoria would have happily lied to anybody asking for her whereabouts this evening. But now, with the two of them trapped in the cave for what looked to be an entire night, the citizens were bound to find out about Victoria's extended absence, and draw their own conclusions.

And those conclusions wouldn't be too far from the truth of the situation, he thought cynically to himself as he continued to tend the fire. He didn't know how he could endure such close quarters with the woman he loved for as long as the storm promised to last without giving in to the emotions of love for her that always stirred in his heart. From personal experience, he realized that those feelings would soon travel from his heart to certain other parts of his body, and he didn't have the threat of any danger or bandits to chase or the Alcalde to run from to conceal his inclinations for her if she looked closely enough. And if he knew Victoria, she would spend the whole evening paying as close attention to him as she possibly could. He was potentially in more danger now of his secret identity being discovered than he had been in the last four years combined.

Zorro sighed quietly into the murky light of the cave. Then he stooped beside the saddlebags kept just far enough away from the yellow flames so they would not be in danger of catching fire themselves, and pulled out a blanket that he unfurled enough to keep the worst of the cold off himself, and he sat. But soon, he was back to staring into the flames again. He didn't even stop when Victoria pushed herself away from the wall and crossed to the fire to stand beside him. She held out her fingers, as if they were cold from her vigil so near the frigidity of the stone wall she had been leaning against, and now sought the warmth offered by the crackling flames. It's a good thing you always carry flint and steel in your saddlebags or we would never be warm in here; you got an excellent fire going already, I see.

Zorro sent a fleeting smile at her from his place on the stone floor. He grabbed her fingers and wrapped them gently in his own. The heat from the fire quickly bled off her skin to seep into his own naked hands. He looked at his gloves, black pools of light on the stone floor; he'd had to take them off if he ever wanted to construct a proper fire. But a fire was hardly much help in alleviating the situation they presently found themselves in. I'm sorry, Victoria. I never meant our picnic to end up in a place like this... He looked around the cave in a gesture of apology.

Hey, she interrupted him softly, attempting to soothe the sound of frustration from his tone. There was no possible way you could have foreseen this turn in the weather. It's been cloudy for three days and we haven't seen a drop of rain until now.

Zorro smiled ruefully. And thanks to the Alcalde's diligence, here we are, as long as we don't want to get wet by riding in the rain, which I wouldn't recommend, as our luck would have one of us being struck by that lightening.

Victoria smiled at the tone of diparagement in his voice. You're right; we wouldn't melt, but I have no desire to be soaked to the bone, either, just to get home. And at least we have food, Victoria pointed out, indicating the tamales sitting beside the saddlebags. And Toronado is dry as well, and has enough grass to stay content for quite awhile... She pointed at the stallion, who was standing at the back of the cave, comfortably munching his way through the grass Zorro had managed to garner before the clouds had dumped their load of rain across the land. There's nothing to be concerned about, she said offhandedly with a shrug and a charming tilt of her head.

Zorro felt himself react to her unintended endearment, and he swallowed nervously. It's not the rain or the Alcalde or the cave that I'm worried about, he answered honestly. It's myself.

Yourself? she echoed quizzically.

Yes. I... um... am... er... not sure about myself, he replied while his discomfort increased and his nerves coiled tighter in his chest.

Again came the puzzled expression that so became her. She laughed lightly, a bit incredulously. Why in the name of Saint Peter are you worried about yourself?

Zorro sighed once more and tried looking to the far wall to cool his burning blood. I'm not sure if you understand the danger we're in by being here, together, so secluded, for what looks like a long time. The rain didn't appear to want to let up any time soon when he glanced out the cave's gaping entrance. His glance slid to her, and the confusion she was feeling at his words was obvious on her face. Trying to offer what comfort he could, he took her hand again in his. It's not me... well, it is me... Zorro stopped and just stared at her hand for a moment. The staring only made him want to kiss the smooth skin behind her knuckles, and he swallowed convulsively. He couldn't want to kiss any part of her. It's me, and it's you, and it's this... he explained.

Me? she said, amused. If you have nothing to worry about except what I can do...

He broke her off. You can do quite a lot, actually.

The confusion remained on her face. But I don't understand your problem... Wouldn't we have been just as alone and secluded on the picnic you had planned..?

Zorro interrupted, That picnic I had planned would have remained a secret. A night spent together, in close quarters, in a cave to escape being fried by a Spring thunderstorm, will not.

The confusion suddenly lifted from her features. If you mean that you're worried about what I can do to you because we're here, alone, then I've already thought of that.

Zorro stared at her straight on for once, too flabbergasted to remember to look away. You have?

Victoria shrugged again, the maneuver still nonchalant and light. Then she smiled a little smile. Well, of course I have. I'm not dead, you know, and I had to be thinking about something while I spent all that time looking out into the rain. Now she gazed rather pointedly at him, the humor she was feeling as clear on her face as her words.

Zorro squeezed the hand he held. You know, you always surprise me, preciosa. So often that I shouldn't be surprised at all anymore.

Her smile grew into one of delight. Take that as a lesson, then.

That I should never assume where you're concerned?

That I can read your mind, she corrected.

Oh? And what am I thinking right now, oh wise one? he joked. She could always make him joke and laugh.

Victoria sat on the blanket beside his seated form. Carefully, slowly, she began, You're thinking that you should be worried about my reputation and the gossip this situation will encourage, she said softly.

For a moment, he didn't say anything. I have to admit that I am worried about that, he said just as slowly as she had spoken. But I'm also worried that such potential for gossip about you might have some merit, he admitted. And I don't want to hurt you in any way if I can help it.

Victoria looked at him as if the fact that he was worried about her reputation at all completely delighted her. Purposefully, she put her free hand on his black-clad knee. The heat from her innocent gesture sent shock waves all the way to his feet. You're probably the only man in the world who would think of such things, she said. And I think that's one of the more marvelous things about you.

He couldn't help but snort at where her words took his thoughts. Marvelous or not, he started in a self-deprecatory tone, I should always be concerned about your good name. Then he looked straight at her. I was thinking about it before I asked you on that picnic tonight, he admitted, and I had already felt determined that you would always be safe with me, no matter what.

For just a second, she appeared to hesitate. She whispered in just a hint of disappointment, No matter what happened?

He nodded, then said in a matching whisper, Absolutely.

Again came the hesitation, something that he would have missed if he hadn't been paying attention. Then I can kiss you right now and we don't have to worry that anything else will... uh... happen?

He continued to smile at her like the besotted fool that he was each time he found himself around her. I may not go that far, he said in amusement, but still rueful. He thoughtfully looked away. I'm not sure either one of us can trust me not to... He stopped, swallowed. ... not to take advantage of you, and a noble person like I always strive to be should find such an act unthinkable where a lady is involved.

Victoria appeared to be so pensive, then, that she almost looked disapproving. Almost. So that is not an option, she stated.

He tried to explain his line of thinking. Your reputation is stainless right now, and I'd like to keep it that way. He gathered himself together before he could carry on, If we... This was harder than he thought. His nerves strung even tighter in his chest. If I... If you...

Victoria saw that he was having some trouble. Us, she supplied without sounding critical.

Zorro sighed. Thank you. He turned the conversation back to what he had been about to say, If either of us... does anything... that is not deemed completely proper, I fear that the gossips of the pueblo will start spreading rumors about you, and they won't take the time to be sure if those rumors are true or not. I'm afraid that they won't care.

He went on without a break. And... This was so difficult. Determined, he forced himself to continue. And the opposite is impossible, too.

Victoria immediately asked for clarification. What do you mean?

I mean, went on Zorro as he wondered if he could even vocalize the words that were on the tip of his tongue. He had been trained since birth as a gentleman not to say anything so impolite. I mean, he repeated, that if... if something were to happen, which it won't, he was quick to assure. But if something... something were to happen, and those rumors were true, and the Alcalde heard about them... You would no longer be safe in Los Angeles, he faced her to say. And I could do nothing to help you, not even as the real me, he negated. If I... or, I mean, the man I truly am... were to try to help you if you got... He swallowed again. If you became... He couldn't say it.

But apparently she could. Pregnant, she said dryly.

He nodded. Yes. Well, then I couldn't even marry you, for any man who marries you would be immediately under the Alcalde's suspicion. He stopped to angrily gaze again into the fire. The part that has me concerned, he said, still sounding angry and frustrated, is that just the fact that we're in this predicament at all will be enough cause for some people to start talking and making up rumors. That all my attempts to make certain that something like this, and he waved a hand around to indicate the cave, the rain, the situation, would never happen has just been so much wasted energy. He shook his head. It is truly galling that I expended so much thought and effort in the past only to be outmaneuvered now by the weather, he ended ascerbically.

Victoria's hand began rubbing soothing circles on his knee in a pleasant distraction. She didn't say anything for a moment as she considered all that he had said. Finally, she inquired, Are you sure that it won't make any difference what actually happens? That we're doomed to be the subject of gossip?

Yes, he answered, and flung the piece of tinder he was currently holding in his hand into the flames, where it was consumed to a shriveled, charred mass in moments. Of course, I'm being pessimistic about this, he admitted, but I've learned that it's better to be pessimistic about things. He looked at her. You're right more often than not, he said with a sense of gloom in his voice.

Victoria looked at him, then glanced out at the rain, then gazed into the fire. She didn't speak for several moments. All she did was move her head and breathe, the rush of air coming from her sounding loud in the quiet of the stone cavern. At last, she stared him straight in the eye. Compromise me, she ordered.

Zorro's head jerked up. What? No! he said harshly. Haven't you been listening? I can't do that! Not under any circumstances. He was emphatically shaking his head in denial.

Yes, you can, she argued. Or, I mean, we can. With a fast shake to clear her head, she went on, Zorro, we can look at this situation like you are, and she also waved her arm around to indicate the cave. Or we can look on this as an opportunity.

For a second, he was able to appreciate the humor of any time he and Victoria could talk so candidly about something like intimate relations before marriage. Then he felt the rise of his own confusion. An opportunity? For what? he asked, suspicious.

Victoria seemed to hesitate once more, but this time it was clear that any trepidation on her part came from the uncertainty that she was feeling at the moment. What I mean, she said, starting off slowly again, is that those rumors about us will be spread around no matter what happens here, no matter what we do. She looked at him assessingly. In fact, it doesn't matter what we do. We can be as proper as the most proper person in the world can be, but that won't do any good, she said. We can't stop the rumors from spreading anyway, so why be good and proper at all? Her eyes narrowed by degrees. There might as well be a good reason for those rumors if the people are going to be determined to spread those rumors to begin with, anyway, she argued.

Zorro gazed at her morosely. But we would know, Victoria.

For a moment, Victoria stared, seemingly mesmerized by the dancing flames. I've thought of that, she admitted, And I'm not sure that makes much of a difference to me.

Zorro looked steadily at her. Are you certain about what you're saying? he asked.

Victoria had to laugh at that statement. No, she said at last. But you seem to be certain yourself that those rumors will begin the second we get back to Los Angeles, and I also admit that I've wanted... She paused long enough to let a blush creep across her face. Well, it's no secret that I've not been content with sharing kisses with you for a long time...

Victoria, he interrupted, sounding amazed now. You aren't saying what I think you're saying, are you?

Again, she stared at him in complete honesty. That I'm considering sleeping with you just to get the inevitable over with? she questioned before snorting and turning away from him to contemplate the fire again. That's no secret, surely, at least, not to you.

He had to confess to himself, at least, that she was right. No, it's not really a secret, he softly said. And it should come as no surprise to you that I've often felt the same way.

I thought so, was all she answered.

But, once again, I can't put you in such a position as being the subject of rumors in the pueblo, he insisted. I can't marry you, and I would be certain to be hung as soon as I married you as the real me. He shook his head once more. No, it's hopeless no matter how we look at it.

Victoria was silent again as the minutes slowly crawled by. She looked at him once, an expression of pure calculation on her face. What if you waited?

That got his attention. What?

She repeated herself. What if you waited to marry me? Then she shook her head again. Assuming I'm...

Zorro gingerly smiled even as he interrupted her, It doesn't really matter if you get pregnant or not, he reminded. Both our reputations will be ruined, no matter what happens.

But what if you waited for... she considered quickly, say... two months?

Two months is a long time to for anyone to suffer the cold shoulders and insults that we're certain to undergo, he said.

What I mean, though, is that enough time needs to pass before you can make a public offer of marriage for me so that even the Alcalde won't suspect that you are Zorro, she suggested.

Silently, he considered her idea. At last, he said, You might have something there. But you have to remember that such an idea exacts a great price from you, and I'm not sure I want to put you in that position.

And I'm not sure, she gently said, that we have any choice in what we may want to have happen. She shrugged. You said it yourself; rumors about us will be a reality no matter what we do tonight.

And Zorro? he asked.

Victoria's features seemed to crumple together. Well, yes, that's the saddest part about all this, she said. It will be the end of Zorro. Then she perked up as she suggested, Maybe he needs to be rumored to have moved on to another pueblo.

Perhaps, he said, thinking about her concept. But what about my secret identity? he asked. If you marry me, you'll know who I am even if I don't tell you.

She seemed to push his concern aside with another wave of her hand. Oh, that.

Yes, that. Now I sound just like my father, he groused to himself, and grinned in good nature.

Victoria smiled. I've known about who you are for weeks.

Zorro's grin faded and he sat up straight on the blanket until his back was a perfect line of astonishment. What? he breathed quietly.

Victoria looked at him, assessing again. I've known since that day the Alcalde shot the Emissary. She paused to collect her thoughts. In the plaza, Diego said that he had something he had wanted to tell us for a long time. Then he seemed to change his mind about what he wanted to say and said instead that he wanted to adopt Felipe. I was excited by this news, of course, but it wasn't what he was originally going to say at all; I could tell. Then, Victoria's brow puckered in thought. I thought about that scene in the plaza later that day. That slight hesitation of his made me start to think and question my own perceptions of the scene, wondering what he had wanted to say at first. But what could Diego possibly have had to say? Something that we could never guess on our own? So I asked myself 'what.' What was going on? Then I tried to answer myself. Then I took it a little further, and asked 'What if he had a secret life?' Then I asked myself, just for fun, what if he were Zorro? So just for the heck of it, I paid more attention the next time Zorro was in town. I looked. The similarities were amazing. Amazing enough to make me look again.

She went on, sounding almost nonchalant in the explanation of her own secret. Once I knew what to look for, it was obvious. She shrugged again. At first I was furious that you hadn't told me, but I've had several weeks to try to see the situation from your point of view, and I'm not angry any more. However, and she turned her attention back to the fire, unsure now. I'm the only one who has to know for certain. That is, if we ever get married and if you want me to know at all. I guess I'm still assuming some things in this scenario.

Zorro blew out a breath of air that he didn't know he was holding. Victoria knew? She had known for weeks and hadn't told him? All of a sudden, he laughed at himself; Victoria must have felt the same sense of disbelief when she had discovered his identity, felt angry that the same reason was being used to instigate the silence that had been a part of his identity, that he was feeling now.

He stared at the mouth of the cave, trying to come to grips with what she had told him. He had always expected that she would find him out someday, of course, but he hadn't expected her to discover anything so basic about him at the same time. It had been so long that she had lived in ignorance as to the identity of the man she loved. Now she knew who he was, and he didn't know what to think or feel about her professed knowledge. Except, he was confused, and not confused at the same time. It was a strange duality of emotion, he admitted.

He was still staring at the cave mouth, lost in thought, when she peered through the eyeholes in the black mask he always wore. Can I start calling you 'Diego' now, when we're alone? she asked innocently.

It was then that the absurdity of the situation impressed itself on him; he had been so worried for so long that this scene would eventually occur that he had spent years cringing at just the thought of it occurring. Now that it was here and he was living that scene, instead of being afraid, he couldn't help but laugh at what she had said. Her reaction seemed so disconnected to the entire situation of learning his identity that he couldn't reply to her question, and instead commented on the first thing that popped into his head. You're so smart that you see the simple things in this world instead of just making everything hard. That's what I love about you, Victoria. He continued to chuckle even as he leaned over and kissed her cheek.

So it is true, she quietly stated then. You've as much as said the words to me.

His laughter died out and the silence of the cave once again descended on them. Now it practically crackled with the tension that each of them was feeling. Without saying anything more, he carefully pushed the mask back from his face, revealing his features to her for the first time. Yes, it's true. His whisper cut through the quiet like a the edge of his famous blade of steel.

She looked at him as she sat beside him on the blanket. Were you ever going to tell me the truth? she asked quietly, her words slipping into the cave to mix with the thunder from the storm.

Were you? he countered quickly.

A slight smile lifted her features for a moment. Touché, as you've so often said in the past.

Diego smiled as well. So I have. He took a deep breath. I've said many such things before.

So you have, Victoria agreed.

He gazed at her, his blue eyes suddenly sparkling in the glow of the reflective firelight. Softly, his words like a caress, even though he wasn't touching her at the moment, he said, I love you, you know. I guess that's no secret.

Victoria tried not to react, but hearing those coveted words for the first time sent a bolt of the lightening similar to that in the storm racing all along her skin. Yes, I know, she answered, her voice just as soft and quiet as his. Do you have any more secrets that you've never shared with me?

Felipe can hear, Diego instantly said. He's only been pretending to be deaf. People say more around him than they do around me because they think he can't hear. Then he admitted, Now that the news is out, it will almost be a relief to the poor boy; he's suffered for this secret a long time.

He's a man, not a boy, but you'll recognize that when you have more time to think about it. Victoria plucked distractedly at a loose thread on the brown blanket. She shook her head, sorrow plain in her expression now. So many people have given up something precious for the sake of that black mask, least of all, Felipe. She picked up the tied mask from where it had landed on the blanket behind them and slowly untied it.

I think you have given up the most for the sake of Zorro, Diego commented.

She glanced at him again. I would say that you have.

He laughed a little, both light and sad at the same time. I guess we both have.

In some ways, she said, then went on, But no matter how we have all paid the price for Señor Zorro, it doesn't help us out of this... um... predicament... we now find ourselves in.

No, said Diego as he took the mask from her, watching the dark material slip through her fingertips to his, uniting them in the legend that Zorro had become in a way that nothing else had ever symbolized before in his mind. The disguise keeps asking for that price whether we want to pay or not.

She gulped, but forced herself to ask, Do you want to?

With a sharp intake of breath, he stared at her. It appears that we no longer have a choice in the matter...

There's always a choice, she reminded him. As you once said to me.

He was silent as he looked at her in the flickering firelight, his eyes no longer blue, but black pools of cloudy darkness against his skin. Is there a choice?

She nodded. I've already suggested it. Compromise me, just like everybody expects.

The expression on his face showed the inborn pain he felt at that idea. You know we can't do that.

In answer to his comment, Victoria's hand tightened on his knee, then her fingers traveled slowly, almost enticingly, up his leg. He watched, hypnotized, then stopped her progress by covering her hand with his own. Victoria, you'd better stop while you can.

Why? Don't you trust me? she inquired blithely in a voice gone husky and inviting.

Softly, he chuckled, the sound mixed with the almost desperate breath he took as the simple touch of her fingers sent another set of delightful waves to his extremities. It's not you I don't trust, it's me, he divulged.

You?

Again came the uncomfortable laugh. Victoria, he explained, I don't know if you realize it, but there's been very little on my mind lately except feeling every bit of you. It's so prevalent that sometimes I've had to leave your presence, quickly, or else, I've been afraid, I might have given in to my yearnings. He paused to give her another look of distress. That would only lead to the Alcalde's gallows, so I couldn't give in to those feelings, no matter how badly I might have wanted to.

The Alcalde isn't here right now, she reminded in a little voice. No one is. This is the first time I think we've ever been undeniably alone.

His head snapped around again. Being alone with you is never a good idea.

Victoria glanced at him, then looked at her hand encased in his, then at the fire, then at the rain falling a bit into the mouth of the cave, then at the walls, then at the quietly munching horse. Her gaze refused to settle on any one thing as she nervously, but determinedly, said, Being alone with you is the one thing that I've actually wanted to experience ever since you came home from Spain, and it's the one thing I've never been given by destiny or fate or...

He interjected, Don't tempt me with talk of being alone. I'm not certain that I can resist you.

Victoria sighed. Diego, I'm sure that I love you. Now that I know who's behind the mask, and I've been given the time to accept it, I don't feel badly that you didn't tell me before. You were just doing your best to keep me alive, I know, and if that meant wearing a mask of indifference for me and the citizens of the pueblo, then that's what you had to do, whether I agree with your reasons or not. But, and she stopped to gaze at him again, then candidly said, the charade has gone on plenty long; four, almost five, years! It has to end. And I'm... I'm not certain that I can resist you any longer, either. Her head fell and she gazed now at the floor, a look of consternation coloring her lovely features. I'm not certain that I want to resist any longer.

A rush of warmth clouded Diego's veins as she spoke. It was all he could do not to claim her and all her affection for him right then and there, but his sense of nobility that he had been raised with was still hanging on to his natural passion for her by a tiny grasp of restraint. It was growing admittedly smaller and smaller as he whispered, Victoria... He sounded close to defeat, even to him.

She misinterpreted the sound of his tone. Her face froze like the stone under the blanket they were sitting on. You don't feel the same way, then. This situation is not...

He could stand no more. He hated beyond anything to see her face go so pale because of her misunderstanding of something he had said, because of his seeming resistance to her openness and the situation, and because of... He took her second hand in his larger fingers, cherishing her just by cradling her hands so gently. No, Victoria, you don't understand. He took a chance and raised her fingers to his mouth, where he lovingly rested one of them against his cheek before he slowly kissed her palm. A shiver shot through him at the contact, and the tiny hold he had on his restraint slipped another notch. I do feel the same way as you do, preciosa. Please believe me when I say that. He wrapped her in a crushing embrace then, and he felt his restraint slip again. I'm just trying so hard to resist you and how I feel about you and this situation that practically begs me to give in to the longings I've endured for several years... His resistance to her was almost gone as the scent of her hair, her skin, washed over him in delightful waves, and he closed his eyes to groan to himself, trying again to keep hold of his stampeding emotions...

Then Victoria's hands, that had been trapped between them when he had embraced her, ran in an alluring line down his chest until they reached the top button on his black shirt, and it fell away before he could take a breath. Let me help that sense of nobility you have, she whispered, and her fingers lowered to the second button on his shirt. In another breath, it was released as well.

Diego inhaled the slightly smoky air in the cave. Victoria, don't tempt me like this or...

Or what? Her whisper was only a preamble to the undoing of the third button on his shirt. Now only the fact that there was a fourth button and that he wore his shirt tucked into his trousers kept it from hanging open before her. She inched her hands through the gap, anyway, and Diego sucked in another breath of air as the skin of her hands touched his side and skimmed very lightly across his muscles.

The hold that Diego clung to slipped again at her touch. He loved her, softly, gently, completely, and he couldn't pretend any longer. He took one final, deliberate, gasping breath, and held on tightly to what little remained of his sanity. He succeeded in resisting the burning, the wild pounding, of his blood as it throbbed through his heart, his temples... Then, even that disintegrated. With all the emotion he could muster, he pulled her close and kissed her, slowly at first, lovingly, like he prized her above everything else, like he treasured just the stroke of her fingertips as her caress continued to work magic on his melting chest muscles. Her arms left his skin to wrap around his neck and pull him even closer to her than before.

The kiss deepened, grew more determined, insistent, and Diego changed with it. In an unrestrained sense of glory, his hands moved to where her skirt met her shirt, and he pulled until her brown shirtwaist was free of the waistband of her skirt, leaving the skin of her stomach and shoulders free to his own exploratory caress. He encountered the edge of her corset, and couldn't resist stealing his fingers under the edge of it to skim across the skin concealed invitingly underneath.

Victoria growled audibly, a sound of desperate excitement, low in her throat, and Diego couldn't help answering it with one of his own. His lips traveled to her chin and onto her neck, the smooth skin slipping by, encouraging his exploring to go lower than he'd ever been before as his control slipped to ashes just as easily, and he finally accepted that he wanted nothing more than to make glorious love to her right there in the cave, no matter how primitive the circumstances of their surroundings might seem.

Thunder rumbled, rain continued to wash through the land, lightening blazed paths across the sky, and Diego's and Victoria's blood flamed just as brightly and searingly hot as the lightening outside. Victoria slowly pulled the ends of his shirt out of his trousers, and the fourth button quickly shared its fate with the three before it. Soon, the shirt hung open from his shoulders, and her hands whispered lightly along the contours of his sides and onto his front.

The leap of tingles they both felt at the contact wormed through their veins until an ache started inside each, a swirling, tightening of stomachs, a pleasant sense of agony that was only encouraged as Diego pulled her shirt over her head and she pushed the black silk from his arms and onto the blanket that spread out under them.

His fingers fumbled with the hooks to her corset, and Victoria saved his unfamiliarity with women's underthings when she slowly released its hooks herself, letting it fall open and slide down her hips to the floor. The effect on Diego was immediate; he practically devoured the sight of her nakedness with a reverent whisper of, You're so beautiful. Then he groaned again, his passion filling his blue eyes until they were so hazed as to be almost black when he met her gaze for just a moment before he slowly lowered his hands, followed by lips gone soft as velvet, down to what treasures were kept hidden from eyes belonging to any but him.

They both had to resist feelings of franticness, then, as Victoria felt herself being lowered from the sitting position that they had enjoyed, to lay against the blanket beneath them. Feelings of heat, the sensation of coming alive for the first time, swirled deep inside them both as the heedless rain continued on its course of washing over the ground and making everything new once more.

Z Z Z

Hours later, when the searing heat of lovemaking had been extinguished by an act that, while expected by those in Los Angeles who wished to believe the worst of everybody, had never been anticipated by the two left lying, curled on the blanket. They were covered by another blanket found just as unexpectedly in Toronado's other saddlebag. Both were content to share the warmth of the fire as well as the feel of soft, smooth skin, but the heat offered by a second blanket was more than they could combat. Clothes meant to inspire modesty were now used as pillows, keeping their heads from the blanketed stone floor as they rested. Their combined breaths echoed in the silence of the cavern until Victoria's voice broke through the serenity.

Diego, she asked in a voice just above a whisper, can I tell you something? She lay with her head on his chest, filled with the scent of his skin, and staring out at the shadows beyond the fire.

Diego smiled at her and brushed her forehead with his hand. You can tell me anything. Then he amended, Well, almost anything.

Momentarily distracted from the story she wished to explain, she asked, What is it that I can't tell you, then?

That, on second thought, you need to leave my company for any reason you can contrive. I can't live without you; you're a part of me, in all ways. He sighed in contentment. I wouldn't want it any other way. Again he smiled at her, then kissed her forehead to follow the second brush of his fingers. Now, what is it that you wanted to tell me?

Reminded, Victoria grew still for a moment.

What is it? Diego asked again.

Victoria drew in a deep breath for courage to face her memories of the event she was about to tell him. You have to promise not to think less of me because of what I'm going to tell you, she said, and stirred in his arms.

Diego drew back at her serious tone. Of course, I won't.

She squirmed again, but said, All right. Here it is, and it isn't pretty.

Very little is as pretty as you are, he interjected, and kissed her forehead once again.

Victoria sighed. She smiled. Thank you, though your compliment makes this harder to say.

Diego lifted his head in inch to stare at her. What is it? he repeated. Are you going to tell me that you're in love with another man?

She swatted him as much as she could with the blanket pulled up to her shoulder. Her swat was more mocking then condemnatory. Don't be silly. But no other man has heard this story before. Not even your father knows the entire explanation.

Sounds mysterious, Diego commented.

Not mysterious... illuminating, Victoria answered. You were away at school...

In Madrid?

Yes, in Spain. Now, don't interrupt... You were away in Madrid at the time. I was sixteen then...

Diego interrupted, even though she had told him not to. I wish I had known you then. You were surely as beautiful as you are now.

Victoria snorted, though she blushed at the complement. Very beautiful... if you like spots and bumps all over your true love's face...

Acne? On you? Never.

Huh. Anyway, though I had always had the biggest crush on you...

Good taste, Diego jokingly commented again.

Not to inflate your ego, or anything...

Señor Zorro doesn't have an ego, he replied to her statement.

Of course he does, Victoria negated. All men do. Don't forget, I operate a tavern; I know.

Diego stretched, then hugged her to him. My secret is out.

Victoria grinned, but forced herself to continue. The tavern is sort of what I want to talk about.

Yes?

Victoria turned in his arms until she was facing him. Like I said, I was sixteen, you had gone abroad, Miguel do Nonde was the Alcalde at the time...

Diego's brow puckered. I don't know him.

That's because you didn't have to fight him, Victoria told him. He was a fair and supremely just alcalde. Crime was almost nonexistent in Los Angeles...

Must have been a good time to live here, Diego commented.

It was. I didn't understand how peaceful things were until about two years after you left.

Why? What happened then?

Though it was entirely safe to travel at night outside the pueblo, few did, and with good reason. One night, after we had locked up and I was in bed...

Was this before or after your father and brothers left?

Oh, sorry. It was after they left. We had been hearing stories of atrocities and rebellion from Mexico for the past year. They finally decided they couldn't condone such behavior from any government, and they left the tavern and myself in the care of my mother while they went off, chasing stories and rumors, looking for the rebellion... She laughed suddenly, a sound that carried little humor in it. Little did they know that all they had to do was wait a few years... She shook her head to get back on track of her story. Anyway, you were gone, father was gone with Ramon and Francisco... No one was around... The tavern was attacked by four outlaws...

Finally, she had his undivided attention. Four? You weren't..? He seemed puzzled, all the while thinking that he had just thought that he was Victoria's first as clearly as she was his. There was no one to protect you..?

We didn't know that we needed protection, Victoria protested. Anyway, they threw both me and Mother into the bar...

Diego winced. Ouch.

Indeed. On really bad days when it's cold out, if you look real close, you can tell that I limp. I hit my big toe so hard against the counter, I thought I had broken it for awhile...

Diego's face darkened and his brow lowered. I was in Madrid?

Yes.

Good thing. I would have certainly come to your defense.

And they would have shot you, she stated just as harshly. The only reason we were saved was because we were female and believed to be of no consequence. However, we were more trouble than the outlaws anticipated.

Good for you.

Victoria laughed a little at his statement, then went on, Mother yelled louder than ten men when the leader yanked me over to the one of the tables and pushed me flat against it after putting all our money into a bag on his belt.

Diego's face lowered again, and she knew she would have to hurry beyond this point of the story.

A group of soldiers out on patrol heard my mother's yell, and stormed the front door just as the second man hit her across the mouth to make her be quiet. I was too busy biting the leader's hand...

Diego laughed, now past his anger at her being attacked. That's the Victoria I know and love. I told Felipe that you were spirited, and I've always been telling the truth, at least.

Victoria didn't comment, lest she be waylaid from her repetition. In the ensuing firefight, two of the men were killed, and one was shot and wounded. He was hung the next morning, and I can't say that I was sorry. He was the leader of the four...

And the other? Diego asked.

Victoria paused. He was shot, and in the confusion, he escaped. Walked right out the front door.

Diego's eyebrows rose. Some soldiers.

Yes, well, two of the soldiers who rescued us lost their lives as well. I'll always be grateful for what they did...

But they let one man get away.

Yes, Victoria said. But they shot him first, before he escaped. Then, when it was hours later, and all was quiet, there was a scratching on the front door again.

It wasn't..?

It was. The outlaw who escaped. He'd been shot in the shoulder, but the bullet had hit him from behind. He needed help getting it out, and the tavern was the only place he knew in Los Angeles... The group had been traveling through the pueblo to Mexico when they hit the tavern on a total whim of the leader's... Actually, they were from Santa Barbara... The outlaw's shoulder was a mess of blood and tissue... Victoria winced at the memory. I wish I could forget that green color mixed with the blood... That's how we knew the wound was infected. But we couldn't get the doctor to take out the bullet, or the man would be caught and hung for sure...

My God, what did you do?

Victoria shrugged. I held him at gunpoint with the pistol my father had from the war...

Old.., Diego said.

But very reliable, Victoria argued. My mother took the bullet out, bound up the man's arm, and hid him in the store room behind the bar.

Diego appeared confused. But I thought your mother was shot for aiding a revolutionary, not an outlaw.

Victoria sighed. He was a revolutionary, only we didn't know it at the time. He had only recently joined up with the other three men to cover his, shall I say, colorful past. The entire story came out in the next few weeks as Mother, with her soft heart, took care of him. In the meantime, a new alcalde had arrived after Alcalde Nonde had been shot and killed in the skirmish with the outlaws. He had been on patrol that night.

It's very unusual for a man who was the alcalde to be out on patrol, Diego pointed out.

Alcalde Nonde was an unusual man. Anyway, Luis Ramon was the replacement, and you know how that turned out. He discovered the outlaw, recognized him from the wanted poster that's sent out to all the garrisons after the escape of every revolutionary, refused to listen to the story my mother told him, and carted them both off to jail. The outlaw was hung, and my mother was shot by a firing squad for aiding a revolutionary.

That must have been a terrible time for you, mi preciosa, he said, and his arm that was cradling her in an embrace tightened.

It was, Victoria said. I had no mother, no father, no brothers, no outlaw, and the tavern to take care of suddenly... It was awful; I didn't know the first thing about running a tavern...

You must have been paying some attention while you were growing up, though, Diego said, Or you wouldn't be so good at it now.

It was only luck that I turned out to have a talent for cooking.

Diego grinned. What a good talent to have.

Victoria grunted again. Your talent for fencing would have been more useful at the time.

They were silent for a moment, Diego caught up in the visions of the story playing out in his head, and Victoria wrapped up in her memories. Finally, Diego asked, But why tell me this, Victoria? I'll only get angry about it.

She turned to regard him again. I wanted you to know because someone should know, and you weren't here, and now you'll understand why I hate injustice so much.

Because that outlaw got what he deserved?

I'm surprised to hear you say that; no one deserves to be hung.

No one deserves to be shot and killed for helping a fellow man in trouble, either, Diego debated.

No, Victoria agreed. But it wasn't his fault he had fallen in with bandits.

They were going to have their way with you, Victoria, Diego said. Then he hugged her. I'm so glad they didn't hurt you. I never thought I'd say it, but thank goodness for lancers.

Victoria did laugh at that comment. You're right. If not for them... She shivered as the image coalesced in her mind. But still, it wasn't him who attacked me. In fact, he was urging the men to just leave, after they had the money they'd come for when the soldiers walked by outside and heard them. She shook her head. He didn't even have a trial. He was just hung.

And your mother was just shot, Diego reminded her.

True, Victoria nodded. It was a very confusing time, to feel sad about his death, but hate him for bringing on the same thing for my mother.

What did you do? Diego asked. You must have had someone to talk to.

Victoria shrugged one shoulder again, sending the blanket askew. I cried a lot. Wrote in my journal a lot. Talked to the priest a lot. He's not in Los Angeles anymore, by the way. He came while you were gone, and left before you came back. You never knew him.

Why did my father not know the condemned man?

I was only sixteen and very sheltered, Victoria told him. I didn't know Don Alejandro nearly as well then as I do now. We didn't talk much, and no one talked to Alcalde Ramon. The truth wasn't widely circulated. Everyone thinks that he was on outlaw, and my mother was his accomplice. But that wasn't the case at all.

Didn't the story come out when they read the charges against her?

Alcalde Ramon had her executed during Siesta on a Friday. Most people were already asleep when he shot her. So no one was around except me to hear the charges. Victoria sighed and snuggled closer to his shoulder. I thought you should know before... before anything happens.

Diego rolled onto his stomach, raised himself up on his elbows, and looked at her. You've always known adversity, haven't you?

Victoria's mouth shifted to show her semi-agreement with him, but at the same time shrugged that agreement off. I've learned that everything comes with a price attached to it, she said. Kind of like loving you has a price if we ever want to be together.

I'm not sure the price is worth what we're paying, though, especially you.

Again, Victoria shrugged it off. I think it is. You, on the other hand, are losing mightily in this.

Diego grinned. Oh, I don't know. He kissed her slowly before going on in a whisper, I think I might be getting the better end of this deal.

But all you've had to give up... no more Zorro, no more riding, no more catching bandits...

Victoria, he gently stopped her with his whisper, Zorro has ruled our lives for four years. More than four years. Felipe wants to go to school and study to be a lawyer. He can't do that while he's still spying for Zorro, and I can't keep up such dangerous work alone. Perhaps it's time for Señor Zorro to step aside and let Diego de la Vega live the life he was meant to live. A life with you at his side. He kissed her again.

That's why I told you about the truth, she whispered. We both shared something hidden with each other, and now that I've told you and you know everything, you have to marry me. She couldn't give voice to her challenge with a straight face.

Diego chuckled. I was going to marry you anyway. Nothing is a bigger dream of mine, and it has been my biggest dream for as long as I can remember.

She traced a circle on the center of his chest with her finger. But do you think the people of the pueblo will take this to heart?

I'll talk to my father about it. He's so well-respected that when he encourages the other caballeros to fight for justice for the poor, they'll do it just because he tells them to.

And will you fight? she asked.

Diego slowly smiled. I suddenly have become very interested in comforting an old, family friend on the abrupt ending of a longtime relationship. I'll be too busy to fight.

Victoria giggled. She answered his kiss with a caress of her own. I'll be looking forward to the attention.

Diego growled at her and grinned. I'll give you something to look forward to right now, he suggested.

Victoria glanced at him with an expression on her face that said she completely agreed with his suggestion.

Z Z Z

By noon the next day, the two were back in the pueblo, riding Toronado like neither had done anything that could possibly be questioned by anybody. But, before they could dismount, the whispers had started, and before Diego, with his mask once again in place, had time to confront DeSoto with the news that he was getting his biggest desire now that Zorro had gotten his by spending so much uninterrupted time with Victoria, even if nothing had happened, he could hear the beginnings of the first rumor rising from the edge of the surrounding crowd. He did his best to ignore the rumble as he helped Victoria to dismount in the mud left behind by the previous night's penetrating rain. But he remained facing an amazed DeSoto.

DeSoto continued to stare. You said you're leaving Los Angeles? Just like that?

Zorro grinned mischievously, a look not even remotely concealed by the mask. I find that, after last night, whether anything happened or not, the people of Los Angeles may have a difficult time not throwing vegetables at me whenever I enter the pueblo gates, and I have no desire to suddenly become target practice. Then, he frowned, and his face grew hard and unforgiving. However, I may be leaving Los Angeles, Zorro said warningly, but don't think that you aren't being watched. The caballeros may have a renewed interest in what kind of future taxations you come up with.

DeSoto gazed again at his arch enemy. What about the Señorita? he asked bluntly. You can't expect me to believe that you'll be leaving her as well? Especially now that you've shared so much 'uninterrupted' time together? There were hints leading to less than honorable behavior in his voice.

Zorro didn't like what the Alcalde was implying, but his guarded activity was nothing like the barely controlled thundercloud that was hovering at the edges of Victoria's features. He feared an unwise declaration of anger on her part. He caught hold of Victoria's hand in his gloved one and gave it a squeeze, both to be reassuring, and to hold her back from launching herself at the governmental man for the innuendos that he was making. Once again, DeSoto had no inkling at how much danger he was in from Victoria. You would assume something along those lines, Alcalde, Zorro said, and shook his head. I'm gratified that you didn't disappoint me. He glanced around at the people watching the scene unfold. Let's just say that the señorita and I have come to the understanding that I'm not someone who can ever marry, and she deserves far more from life. He pulled out his sword in the most aggressive move he had ever made. He looked mischievously at its sleek lines, clearly toying with the military man before him. But know that word will reach me if you ever bother her again, and I won't take kindly to such rumors.

Victoria inwardly smiled at his use of the very word that had brought them to this scene, but tried to keep her attention on DeSoto. It was no secret that she didn't trust the man, and she didn't believe she could trust him now.

But, still, she said nothing in case her strident tongue got her in trouble, which neither she nor Zorro needed right now. DeSoto said nothing as well as Zorro led Victoria over to the tavern's porch, kissed the back of her hand in farewell, then bounded onto Toronado and raced for the pueblo gates. The Alcalde was so surprised by the news that his arch enemy had imparted that he didn't even have the wherewithal to order his lancers to shoot at the departing bandit.

Did I just hear him right? asked a stunned Mendoza. That he's leaving Los Angeles?

Yes. He's gone, reported an already-grieving Victoria. Her eyes were trained on the masked man's departing figure.

Sergeant, said DeSoto in his crisp, no-nonsense military tone. I want you to put a guard on Señorita Escalante...

Victoria sent him a scathing look. Don't even think about it.

Señorita, DeSoto patiently began, you can't expect us to believe his story, either. You and he spent way too much time alone, together, for anyone to...

He didn't get a chance to finish his comment. Believe what you want, Victoria said. You will anyway. Then she turned her back on him in the biggest insult she could give him at the current time, and marched into her tavern and locked her door behind her.

Is it true? Mendoza asked after a ringing silence had followed Victoria's speech. Have she and Zorro called it quits? Finished?

It looks that way, Sergeant, the Alcalde commented, sounding astonished, as if he couldn't quite believe his own ears, and staring openly at the tavern's closed doors.

And that he's leaving? And that we're being watched anyway? Mendoza continued on.

Guess we'll know soon enough, DeSoto said. The rumor of his abandonment of the pueblo is more than we can hope for, he added. But then, what can you expect from an outlaw?

Mendoza remained silent after the rhetorical question, and kept his thoughts to himself as the crowd slowly began to disperse on its own. But he kept his eyes on the receding trail of dust in the air left by the man in black, and wondered.

Z Z Z

The truth of the matter came through loud and clear when, by ten o'clock the next morning, DeSoto had the lancers post a raise in the annual income tax, and by six 'o clock that night, he had returned from dinner at the tavern to find a note on his desk with no sign of how the sender had entered or left his office unseen. While he had the lancers comb the area, he read the note with a heart that had gone cold. He was right to be in agony already, it turned out.

Alcalde,

Remember our little talk? I'm watching you. Repeal your taxes, or the next time I'll be forced to leave more than just a note.

Z

DeSoto peered into the shadowy corners of his office, wondering how the brigand knew what was happening in Los Angeles when he was clearly absent from the pueblo, but had Mendoza run across the plaza to the tavern and remove the flyer about the raise in income tax, anyway, while he wondered if there was a way to make revenue in the town without hiking the already exorbitant taxes?

Z Z Z

The following morning brought Diego to the breakfast table in a more distracted demeanor than usual. Don Alejandro greeted his son with less than his normal enthusiasm.

What's on your mind, Son? he asked forthrightly. He had never been known as a man who didn't say exactly what was on his mind. As he spoke, he stared out the window toward the barnyard, giving Diego only a cursory glance.

Actually, Diego was thinking that two months was an awfully long time, but he couldn't say that particular tidbit to his father even as his arms itched to wrap themselves around a certain señorita. But, before he could indulge his desires, he would have to tell his father the entire story. Father, Diego greeted. I wonder if I could have a word with you?

Make it quick, please, Diego, Alejandro ordered without glancing up from his plate. The vaqueros say that Honesty is already in labor. I don't want to miss the birth of her very first foal.

I'll try, Diego nervously agreed.

Go ahead, Alejandro invited affably.

You know what they're saying in town about Zorro and Victoria?

Alejandro took a sip of his coffee. Yes. It's an unfortunate piece of malicious gossip to repeat, and I believe it happens to be completely unfounded.

Diego grimaced a bit. It's not exactly completely unfounded, he informed.

What do you mean by that, Diego? Alejandro returned his coffee cup to its saucer. How could you know, anyway? Has Victoria said something to you to make you believe something else?

Not exactly, Diego said again, hedging.

Alejandro clearly wished he was already out in the breeding barn. His hands were ready to push off from the table. Meaning?

Diego sighed, then encouraged his father to remain seated at the table with a wave of his hand. Meaning I was there, he said.

Alejandro laughed. Sure you were! In that storm? No, you were safely tucked in bed.

Did you check? Diego inquired.

Did I check? Alejandro parroted as the smile slowly faded from his cheeks. Of course not. Do I have to start setting a curfew for you, Diego, as if you're not a man to be trusted? I think I know you better than that.

Diego looked around the room to make certain it was empty of all the servants before continuing, Perhaps you don't know me as well as you think you do.

That brought the smile back to Alejandro's face. What are you talking about? he asked accusingly. Are you saying that you and Victoria had some kind of liaison or something?

His father didn't know how close to the truth he had come. Well, actually, we did, Diego said in a quiet voice.

But the smile would not leave Alejandro's cheeks. Of course you did. You dreamed it, perhaps. Because any liaison with Victoria would mean that you're... Suddenly, he stopped. The smile slowly vanished as Alejandro gradually rose from his chair. You're not..?

I am, Diego said in a low voice that Alejandro instantly recognized as one his son did not typically use. The pride was also unfamiliar, coming from that mouth, and also obviously evident. You can ask Victoria.

Alejandro's face now registered blank shock. You can't be, he protested. I would have known...

Would you? Diego inquired with raised brows. Or would you say that you were so close to the situation that you didn't know what was going on? Which is exactly what I wanted you to think.

Shock became shock, doubled. Alejandro spluttered, What..? How..? What..?

I'm very happy to say that in exactly two months, you'll finally be getting that daughter-in-law you've always said you wanted. He critically eyed his father. You can stop haranguing me about those grandchildren, now.

Alejandro closed his eyes, shook his head to clear it. Wait a minute, he said. Let me get this straight. He leaned on his hands propped on the white cloth covering the table. You have this preposterous dream that you're Zorro...

It's no dream, Diego informed immediately. I am the masked bandit. And I had a very nice liaison with Victoria on the night it stormed... three..? no, two... nights ago. Sorry. Sometimes I get a little mixed up on my days if I've been out all night.

You... You... Alejandro inelegantly said. You're nothing like Zorro!

Of course not, Diego answered. Would I be?

Alejandro just stared at Diego with a look of astonishment on his weathered face. Finally, he shook his head again. No, he replied. Then, he insisted, But the fencing? What about that? He appeared to be so sure that he had caught his son in a fabrication. You can't do it!

Of course I can't, Diego responded. I would quickly be discovered if were known far and wide that I can fence with the best any town has to offer. Then, he seemed to take pity on all that his father was being forced to accept, and his features softened as he explained, I fenced as if I didn't know how, in spite of those years I spent in the courtyard with Sir Edmund, drilling me in how to salute properly and handle overly aggressive adversaries, and such. I must say that the bandits I have routinely caught over the years weren't very aggressive, much to my regret.

Alejandro remained in shock. Why? he eventually deadpanned, his voice a monotone.

I could have used the practice, Diego said. He abruptly dropped the end of the tablecloth he was nervously fiddling with. Look, Father, I need your help, or I wouldn't be telling you even now.

My help? Alejandro repeated dumbly.

Diego glanced at his father. Perhaps you should sit down?

Perhaps I should. Alejandro sat in his chair with a thunk. A moment of silence followed before he asked, Now what did you need my help for?

Diego sighed. He could tell by his father's voice that 'shock' was only beginning to describe what the man was currently feeling. Yet he had no choice but to continue in his request. You know how things currently stand in the pueblo with the way there's no more Zorro around. With that in mind, I would really appreciate it if you could speak to the other caballeros and get their support for the poor people of the pueblo. I'm worried that DeSoto may take advantage of his new freedom a little too... exuberantly, he finally decided upon.

Of course, Alejandro agreed as if he were in a fog.

Diego sighed again. This wasn't going at all how he had envisioned. His father was much more shocked by the news than he had ever anticipated he would be. Would you like to see Toronado for yourself? he asked then. Perhaps my sword? A fencing demonstration?

No, no. Alejandro shook his head, but his eyes raked across his son's face, looking for similarities. That's not necessary.

Diego stared at his father. Alejandro stared back. Finally, Diego asked. Father, are you feeling all right?

This liaison with Victoria, Alejandro said.

Uh-oh, Diego thought to himself. Yes? he asked aloud.

Alejandro continued to stare straight at his son. You didn't... His voice trailed off.

There was no need for his father to go on. Yes, we did, Diego said matter-of-factly. And I'm glad we did.

But... Alejandro started to protest.

Father, Diego explained with a sigh. It didn't matter what we did. There would be rumors that what happened actually happened, anyway. So, we figured that if there were going to be rumors no matter what we did, we might as well behave as our feelings dictated that we should...

Alejandro stared hard at Diego. Even a man as noble as Zorro...

Finally irritated at last, Diego tried to push down his personal emotions. Noble or not, I will firmly stand by my belief that I love Victoria with all my heart, and that was the best way of expressing such an emotion, and... Well, such a thing was a relief, actually!

A relief!? Alejandro both questioned and exclaimed. Diego!

Well, at least he doesn't have that foggy look about him any longer, Diego thought to himself.

Diego! Alejandro went on. Are you even listening to me?

Diego stared blandly at his father. You have my undivided attention, he said.

Alejandro rose again. It's a good thing your mother's not around to hear about this...

That statement did more than irritate Diego; it made him angry. Don't you bring mother into this, Father. And don't try to cheapen what Victoria and I did, either.

Cheapen? Alejandro echoed in amazement. I'm not trying to...

Oh, yes, you are, Diego stated. Remember, I know you much better than you know me, and my experience tells me that you are having trouble with this because of your beliefs in old-school protocol and proper behavior. Well, I wonder how you would have fared stuck in a cave during a nightlong thunderstorm with Mother thirty-five years ago!

That comment stopped Alejandro cold. The retort he'd clearly had on his lips died out before he could even say it. You're right, he admitted at last. I'm as red-blooded as the next man.

Father, I am the next man.

Alejandro made a face at Diego. Oh, ha ha, he said sarcastically to his son. Now is not the time to be making jokes, Diego.

It was at that moment that Felipe chose to wander through the room. He was very surprised to see that Alejandro was still lurking over breakfast, and when he turned, he was even more surprised to see Diego apparently doing the same. Then, he felt the tension in the air between the two, glanced once more at Alejandro, then Diego, and his eyes widened. They continued to grow wider yet when he turned to stare straight at Diego again, and suddenly he comprehended what that sense of tension in the air meant. Then he stumbled over to a chair, pulled it out, and fell into it. He wore the distinct expression on his face that said he hoped not, but feared, that he would be imminently very sick to his stomach. His face looked nothing less than green.

Alejandro stared at the young man who had so recently become his grandson. Since you adopted Felipe only a month or so ago, I would assume that he knows everything about this, judging by the look on his face. He glanced sharply at Felipe. Or doesn't he?

Diego blandly answered, I couldn't have done it without his spying talents used almost daily on the pueblo.

Alejandro burst out laughing. His spying talents! he mocked humorously. How can he spy on anyone when he can't..? Then, he paused again. His probing stare went from Felipe to Diego and back again. Oh, he said, sounding almost as bland as Diego now. Oh, my goodness, he added in sudden understanding, and slowly resumed his seat in his chair.

Diego stood, scraping his chair's legs against the wood of the floor. I'll be going now that I've caused enough damage to fill ten days. You can think on all that I've said in the meantime while I visit Victoria in the tavern. She'll 'comprehend' this conversation better than I can. He paced to the archway that led into the entry hall, then stopped. I'm sorry that you had to learn so much at once that you feel overwhelmed. But I don't know of any other way to tell you, and I really do need your help now.

Alejandro could only stare at his son from his place at the head of the table. He could say nothing to act as a reply to Diego's statement. All he could do was stare.

I'm sorry, Diego repeated, then disappeared into the hallway. A moment later, the two still at the table heard the front door close. For perhaps the first time in living memory, the masked legend had fled a scene that had been of his own making. It was clear that he didn't know what to do about that scene, either.

Felipe looked grimly at Alejandro, like he was still a little boy and had been caught with his spoon full of contraband dessert, halfway to his mouth. Alejandro looked back in complete, overwhelmed astonishment. Neither spoke into the silence that had descended on the dining room.

Z Z Z

Diego walked as nonchalantly as he could into the tavern twenty minutes later. It was the first time he had set eyes on Victoria since he had deposited her on her tavern porch and kissed her hand two days before. He had no idea what kind of reception he should anticipate to his unusual absence the previous day.

He ordered coffee from the ever-present Maria before she, too, disappeared through the break in the gaily colored kitchen curtains hanging from the doorframe that apparently hid Victoria from his interested gaze. Instead, he turned that gaze to discerning the mood of the present patrons, and was surprised and delighted to behold the crowd surrounding each wooden table. He was very pleased to see that rumors of Victoria's recent 'talk' with her infamous love had not damaged her business. If anything, it seemed to have increased her clientele beyond even his wildest imaginings.

When he had turned around again to contemplate the kitchen curtains, Victoria was ensconced in her typical spot behind the bar. She had entered the main room without even a word to him to greet him or indicate her mood in any way. That was a bad sign, but she smiled and greeted him now with all her typical affability. Hola, Diego! It's good to see you since you have been in last. I was beginning to think that you had gotten lost on your way to the pueblo. She spoke loudly, and her teasing voice carried to the nearest group of peasants sitting at the closest table.

She's trying to end any rumors concerning me, he thought in a rush of gratitude. He took a drink of his coffee as he looked at her.

She had never looked more beautiful to him, even in the light of day. Firelight had been kind to her features two nights before, but sunlight only enhanced her natural loveliness now. A bolt of heat shot straight through Diego at the sight of her. He hid his feelings well, but in response to such an unexpected tingle of emotion, Diego grinned at her.

Hola, Victoria! he said with warmth. I can tell by your demeanor that the stories that father brought home yesterday from his trip to town are completely untrue.

Immediately beginning the charade they had decided to play when they were together, the grin slid off Victoria's face. No, they're true enough.

Diego faced her head on. What? he asked, feigning surprise. Have you and Zorro really had a break, then?

She sighed sadly. Looking as if she were almost near tears now, she picked up a towel she had left on the green countertop and haltingly said, Can I talk to you a moment, please, Diego, in private?

He straightened up, still trying to show feigned surprise. Of course. Feel free to tell me anything. That's what friends are for, he said, trying his best to sound like he wanted to set her at ease as he followed her to the kitchen.

The minute they were hidden from the prying eyes of the town's interested citizens, she dismissed Maria. Please watch the patrons for me, Maria? Victoria asked with a catch in her voice. I should only be a few minutes with my friend. Tears were streaming down her cheeks now.

Maria nodded, then grabbed a full pitcher of lemonade on her way out the still-swaying curtain.

Diego was almost beside himself then with curiosity laced in pain. Victoria, what's wrong?

Victoria let the material of the curtain swing to a stop before she dried her eyes on the apron she had tied around her waist. Please, forgive me, Diego, she said loudly through the split in the curtain. You're a good friend to listen to me this way. Then she whirled and unleashed a blazing smile at him. Hello, she whispered just before she hugged him, throwing her arms around him in unfettered joy.

Diego's embrace was slower in coming, but even he couldn't resist the feel of her particular curves that morning. Victoria, it's all right, he whispered. Whatever's wrong, it will be okay.

Oh, that's an act, she said in a whisper, instantly setting his heart at ease. I needed to pretend while Pablo and Manuel were so busy watching me. She indicated the curtains with a nod of her head. But no one would question a comforting hug or two from such a good friend as dear Diego. She raised her brows in an attempt to look amused.

Diego relaxed. Thank goodness. You had me fooled completely.

I know, she interrupted, and grinned again.

And after that scene with my father, I could use a good hug.

Interested at once, she asked, What happened?

I told him the truth, Diego said in a voice barely above the popping of her fire in the hearth. He was too stunned to be either pleased or displeased at the news. I left him still sitting at the breakfast table, looking like a tornado had just destroyed everything he had built over the years.

What? she queried in surprise. You just left him there?

I didn't know what else to do, Diego explained defensively.

Victoria glanced at the curtain as a burst of laughter suddenly assailed them.

You're busy as ever, I see, Diego next glibly commented.

Victoria rolled her eyes. Quick, kiss me before I go crazy with why we chose to do this.

Diego's grin widened even further. My pleasure. He kissed her quickly, but the gesture held enough heat to make up for the missing day. Better? he asked.

She grinned again at him. Better, she replied. But it makes me want more.

Then I'll contrive some reason to come back tonight, he promised. How does helping you close the tavern sound?

Perfect, she replied. But I can't vouch for my behavior if we're alone, she whispered. I might have to attack you.

Please, attack me all you want. I can't wait, Diego invited. Then, he kissed her quickly on the top of her hair, and stepped back. They had to be more careful when they were together, or they would surely arouse suspicion. Still, he couldn't resist a question of, Better now? He said it as loudly as he could, trying to help her along in waylaying that suspicion she wanted to deter.

Properly contrite and sad-looking, Victoria joined him before they both went back through the curtains and into the main room of the tavern.

Z Z Z

Alejandro stared at Felipe, but didn't move from his place at the dining room table. The young man refused to meet his gaze, so he said, You knew all about this, didn't you? When Felipe still would not look at him, Alejandro continued, It's all right - Diego told me everything. I know you can hear all that I have to say.

Felipe glanced up at that comment, but he was too used to pretending not to hear anything to be able to meet his grandfather's penetrating gaze for more than a second. His eyes dropped again to the white tablecloth held restlessly between his fingers.

Alejandro sighed. The sound was sad, and frustrated, and filled with guilt. Eventually, he whispered, Felipe, look at me. When the young man's gaze had risen to hesitantly connect with the older don's, he went on, You do know that I'm very proud of you, don't you?

Felipe looked surprised, then started to protest that the entire situation wasn't Diego's fault, that he had been braver than...

I know that. Alejandro sighed again, and the guilt changed to regret. I would never try to blame anyone... He barked a laugh. If it's anyone's fault, it's mine. I should never have let my temper get the best of me all those years ago, should never have struck the Alcalde, should never have gotten thrown in jail. If none of that had happened, then Diego wouldn't have felt that he needed to do something to get me out again.

Felipe shook his head in emphatic denial, making signals with the swirls of his arms.

It is the Alcalde's fault, I guess, at that. Alejandro's laugh held more humor to it this time. Whatever happened to him, anyway? He never returned from the Devil's Fortress, if I remember right.

Felipe sat for a moment in silence, then waved his arms again after running his hand through his dark hair.

Alejandro's face blanched. A quiet invaded the dining room. You're not serious? he half asked, half shouted. Unmasked? Diego? Alejandro sat still, as well, then for the first time realized how much danger his son could have potentially been in if Luis Ramon had survived the fall off the tower of Devil's Fortress that had ultimately killed him. Why, Diego could have been quickly identified... His face whitened further. He could have been hung!

A stricken look on his face, Felipe agreed by lowering his head at just the thought of his father dying someday because of the cause he had undertaken to fight.

Alejandro swallowed. You... his voice broke, and he had to clear his throat. That... His voice broke again. He tried one last time to speak his thoughts. That must have been terrifying for you, he was finally able to say. Such a young boy as you were..!

Alejandro was interrupted again by Felipe's signs.

Alejandro sighed. I know that it was worse for Diego, but you know how it is - hurt is never as uncomfortable for the person feeling it as it is for that person's loved ones, watching it, unable to help... If I learned anything when Elena died, it was that, he imparted dispassionately.

More silence followed his confession, broken only by Felipe's gestures that clearly indicated he wanted his grandfather to go with him. Alejandro reluctantly followed his grandson from the table. He would far rather have sat for an hour or two and thought about the implications of having a legend for a son.

Instead, he found himself by the library fireplace. Irritated and doing his best to hide his emotions, Alejandro said, I understand that this has come as a shock to you, Felipe, but... Then, the young man touched something on the mantel, and a piece of the back of the fireplace opened in front of Alejandro's gaping and widened eyes. A passage led off into the dark and undisclosed place. What..? Alejandro placed his hand on the mantel and leaned forward to get a better look at the apparent hole in his hacienda. Then, everything clicked into place for him in his foggy memory. Of course, the old Indian escape! he exclaimed, his voice now an amazed whisper. I used to look for this all the time! I never found it, though obviously Diego did...

Felipe was proudly thumping himself on his chest.

You found it? Alejandro asked with a gnarled finger pointed at his grandson.

Felipe nodded and smiled.

Alejandro stared at the passage again. Well, I never would have guessed that.

Then Felipe was gesturing again, and Alejandro had to watch closely in order to follow what the younger man was saying. He wasn't nearly as adept at reading Felipe's signs as Diego was. The reason for that adroitness was obvious, now, as it was clear that Diego and Felipe must have spent a lot more time together on creating the legend of Zorro that even he had suspected. But if he was taking the younger man's meaning correctly... No, Felipe. Alejandro was shaking his head as hard as Felipe had shook his a moment before. This is not your doing... Again Felipe signaled. You...? Alejandro stopped when Felipe put out his hand in a definite signal meant to halt him. Then he pulled Alejandro forward, easily forcing him into the secret passageway so that the door could swing silently shut behind them.

It was eerie for Alejandro to be so deftly sealed into the dark like that. For all he knew, no one would even be able to hear his yells from that vantage point behind the secret doorway. Then, he heard two voices almost immediately, and he was instantly glad that Felipe had dragged him into the passage. Servants, he thought, even as he recognized the voices of the housekeeper joshing with Juan, his head vaquero. The voices were indistinct murmurs, but Alejandro could guess that Honesty must be close to giving birth, and that Juan was looking for him to bring him out to the breeding barn.

He was waiting for the two to leave, torn between his desire to see more of this hidden son he had, and being present when his horse came to foal for the first time. He wanted to be available for both. He chuckled; this must be how the parents of twins feel all the time, he thought; torn between two opposing interests. Alejandro made himself a promise to be more understanding of multiple births in the future, but Felipe was gesturing urgently for him, now. The sign for 'follow' was as distinct as it could be, and besides, that was one sign that he had shown comprehension of in the past. How could he convincingly pretend otherwise now?

The passageway only went on for a short distance, and soon Alejandro found himself entering a cavern that was so incredible, it went beyond his wildest imaginings...

Worktables sported bubbling liquids in beakers... A desk held a volume open on its farthest corner; a book most plainly used in recent days... A coatrack held the famous black clothes hanging from pegs, ready at an instant's notice... The familiar blade of Toledo steel rested on more pegs in the middle of an arsenal of weapons, surrounded by whips and other swords... A huge, black stallion stood contentedly in a corner, chewing obliviously on hay and corn...

Alejandro gaped. The cleanliness and order of the cave amazed him. Everything had its place, its niche, and not a speck of dust or dirt met his scrutiny anywhere...

Alejandro whipped his head back to Felipe. You did all this? he asked. Felipe nodded, now showing pride in his features. The young man gestured. Alejandro shook his head again. No, Felipe, you may have thought up the beginning of Zorro, but it was Diego who gave him life... He paused to again pay close attention to Felipe. No. Alejandro's sharp blast echoed and rang in the confines of the stone chamber. Don't ever think that, Felipe. It is not your fault that Diego has been shot at and endangered repeatedly over the years. It's no one's fault except those who did the endangering, the shooting... He stopped again, but this time, he smiled. I guess it's DeSoto's fault, then. The smile faded quickly, however.

Felipe touched Alejandro on the arm, a gentle question on his face. Alejandro sighed again, as if that was the only thing he could do in this situation. He shook his head, his regret palpable in the cave's clear, colder air. When I think of the things I've said to Diego... he began. Of how many times I wished that he would show real courage and be a de la Vega for once in his life...

Felipe gestured again, slowly, sadness seeping into his eyes.

The sadness only made Alejandro sigh again. No, I don't want you to spare me anything. Tell it all to me; don't leave anything out that you'll want to leave out because you think that it will be for my own good. Spare me nothing, he ordered, then took a seat in the desk chair while Felipe dragged a stool over from one of the worktables.

An hour later, Alejandro wondered vaguely if he could handle any more pain and astonishing surprises in one day. He had remained silent while Felipe told him of the many times... each one separate, distinct, and full of its own, special brand of agony... that Diego had been reduced to tears of frustration over what his father had chosen to say to him on any particular day. That being called a 'coward' barely scratched the surface of Alejandro's apparent disappointment in the son he seemed to have acquired upon that son's return from Madrid. And here, Diego had been risking his life for the poor of the pueblo every time he rode into town on his big, black stallion... He had put off loving Victoria, as a normal man would have done, making her his wife, having a family of his own...

The list of forfeits could have gone on indefinitely. Alejandro wasn't immune, however, to the irony of a chance rainstorm forcing his son to reveal his hidden identity. If not for the weather... Alejandro thought, smiling in spite of himself at the idea.

His head jerked up again so that he could look at Felipe. Victoria doesn't know about any of this, does she? For some reason, it was important for him to ascertain the full truth of this situation that had been part of his family for years. At Felipe's shake of denial, the sense of regret that he had felt for some time, doubled. But Felipe was trying to say something more, again.

What..? Alejandro asked, not understanding at first. But then he pulled a thick, leather volume towards himself, cleared away the papers that had been obscuring it, and held it closer so that he could read it. There was no title, no author, and Alejandro had to flip to the front page before anything became clear.

It was Diego's journal. A record of his thoughts, his deeds, his adventures, over the years. Kept for posterity, here, in this secret cave...

Feeling like something of a heel for peeking into thoughts that had been intended to be private, but not enough of a heel to keep him away from the journal, Alejandro flipped another page and began reading...

Z Z Z

It was an hour later that Diego returned unexpectedly to the hacienda. He immediately aimed for the secret cave, as he had several experiments going that he wanted to check on. However, his step was a bit bouncier than usual.

That is, until he caught sight of his father, sitting complacently at his desk, clearly buried in his own personal journal.

That was supposed to be private, Diego said, but descended the steps slowly, an unconscious show of his inborn strength.

Alejandro glanced up from his perusal of the journal to glance at the man who had written the words that so enthralled him now. It wouldn't be so good if it wasn't considered to be 'private,' he answered, maddeningly calm.

Diego paused at the bottom of the stairs at his father's words. It's just a record of Zorro's adventures, he reported.

Yes, I know, Alejandro drawled, most of his attention still on the page he was reading. But this account is fascinating to those who would like to get to know you better.

Diego laughed a bit at that. Don't tell Victoria about it, then, he suggested as he hung his blue caballero jacket on an empty peg on the coatrack.

Alejandro finally sat forward to regard his son. Do you realize how many times you've been injured in the past? How often you've tried to act normally on only a few hours of sleep?

I don't know... a lot? Diego hazarded to guess. I only write it, I don't read it.

Alejandro stretched his back after staying in one chair for so long. I had no idea, either, until... Alejandro cut himself off. Maybe Victoria shouldn't read this journal, then. She might start to worry that you have a death wish.

I have nothing of the sort, Diego argued as he wandered over to the worktables and started fiddling with some bowls and measures.

Then you've never showed this to her? Alejandro held the book aloft in his hand.

Of course not. She might have deduced my identity. Diego paused, then gave an amused, affectionate smile. She did anyway, come to think of it.

Alejandro gave a start. So she knows? He hadn't anticipated that, but he couldn't say that he had expected any of this to be true. Even Diego's nod of affirmation came as a surprise. Slowly, Alejandro retrained his thoughts on what he had been going to say. Well, I wouldn't show this to her if I were you, he cautioned.

I thought you said it was fascinating reading?

Oh, it is. But if she reads it, you'll never get out of her sight again, Alejandro joined his son in the light chuckle that followed, but he ended it to say, I had no idea that you were so... active, he finally finished. You're much more of a thrill-seeker than I was in my younger years.

And I thought I wasn't supposed to be much of a de la Vega, Diego quipped.

Alejandro was instantly contrite under that tone. Yes, well, Diego, we need to talk about that.

Diego stopped his hands and closed his eyes. No, I'm sorry. That was unacceptably rude of me. I shouldn't have said that. He looked remorseful for a moment. You raised me to know better than that.

Alejandro said the first thing that entered his mind. I also raised you better than to... Then he stopped and nervously cleared his throat. Yes, well, you get the picture. He rose and swept around the end of the desk. But he maintained his hold on the leather-covered journal. I'll just take this and read it somewhere else so I won't disturb you. He paused at the top of the stairs while Diego watched him out of curious eyes. By the way, Diego, Alejandro started to say before a smile of enjoyment crowded his features. I love what you did with this old Indian escape. This cavern has never looked better.

Diego mockingly glared at him. How would you know?

Alejandro kept grinning. I've lived in California for a long time, Son, he enigmatically replied. Then he shook the journal at Diego in lieu of a formal farewell, and left the cave without another glance.

Diego went on stirring a new compound for pain that he'd read about in one of his books. But he smiled to himself as he did.

Z Z Z

Three day passed. Days with no taxation threats from the Alcalde, no visits from Zorro to the tiny pueblo by the sea, and several contacts between Don Alejandro and many of the local caballeros.

You know, Diego, Alejandro thoughtfully said as he, his son, and grandson loped their respective mounts towards the pueblo to partake lunch at the tavern, I can easily get used to helping Señor Zorro out like this.

Diego blanched a bit at the name of Zorro being thrown around so freely by his father. It was a day he'd never thought to see... I wouldn't get so used to giving such help if I were you. Zorro can be a very fickle creature sometimes... Friend one minute... he didn't finish his comment, but left it hanging in the air instead.

Oh? asked Alejandro, sounding sly and mischievous. He knew very well that his son was talking about himself.

Yes. He just needs a little help this time... to disappear... for his own good.

Alejandro chuckled at that statement. I'll be sure to tell Victoria that...

Diego broke in. You wouldn't dare.

That only made Alejandro laugh harder. Felipe joined his relative-by-adoption and added his silent, though quite obvious, guffaws to the thought of his father being completely under the power of Señorita Escalante, who was a good foot shorter than he was. Though she had a temper that was taller than the hero was. That thought made Felipe laugh even harder.

Diego groaned to himself. Two months had never seemed so long to him...

The minute they were inside the town's main gate, however, Diego pushed up the sleeve of his coat in apparent relaxation, and said, I have some business to take care of before lunch. This won't take long; I'll meet you at the tavern.

Be sure to bring your humility with you, added Alejandro on a laugh.

Diego groaned good-naturedly, then headed for The Guardian office.

Ten minutes later, Diego, now holding his coat and the sleeves of his ruffled, white shirt rolled to his elbows, indicating work of some kind, rejoined his parent and son outside the tavern, and they entered as a united group. But the only table available was with the Alcalde, and it was with reluctance that Alejandro led his family over to join the military man. It was common knowledge that earlier in the week, DeSoto'd had plans to flog a peasant who was dubiously charged with tax evasion. Only the outcry of a group of the local caballeros had saved the man at the last minute from a painful beating. It was impressive what the Alcalde could be 'encouraged' to do.

Don Alejandro, DeSoto greeted with a proper and genteel bow to the three de la Vega men, in spite of their recent disapproval. His seated position curtailed his behavior.

Alejandro was hardly mollified by the bow. Tried to flog any peasants lately? he asked in an acrimonious voice. It was the most open he'd ever acted at the Alcalde's 'misguided' cruelty.

Father! remonstrated Diego quickly, not wishing to draw attention to the event, or to his or the caballeros' behaviors. It's most unfair to form an opinion over DeSoto according to one 'error in judgment,' and the caballeros seem to have spoken to him about it already. Besides, we need to eat, the Alcalde has the only table with free chairs, and it's our duty to forget and forgive.

Alejandro wondered how a son of his couldn't choke on such words. He stood still and grimaced for a moment, before he realized that his son his right, no matter how much he might not like it, and twisted the grimace into an unlikely smile that showed his pain as much as it displayed his good will. You're absolutely right, Diego. It's good of you to remind me. I'll be the model of a perfect gentleman the rest of the time we're here, I promise.

Diego smiled. That's the spirit! he exclaimed, also wondering silently how his father was handling his words. He never got the chance to find out, as Alejandro turned at that moment to find Victoria standing beside him at the end of the table.

Ah, Victoria, some stew for three, por favor, Alejandro said.

Diego whipped around, and suddenly found himself face to face with the woman he'd spent more than just a night with. His heart did a flip at the sight of her, but he kept a cool face as he said, Victoria, in greeting.

She smiled at him, then disappeared into the kitchen to fill their lunch orders. The three de la Vegas took their seats in her absence, and Diego silently ordered his heart to calm down from its audible thumping in his chest.

DeSoto grunted, sourly eyed Victoria, then turned to Diego to say, You're the only one who has gotten a smile out of her since I arrived half an hour ago. I'd say you were Zorro himself, but I know that's silly - you're the least likely man in the entire pueblo to be Zorro - but with the way you can bring out her good side, I'd say you should marry the girl while you can, and make her smile and eat all the food she can cook before Mendoza gets the same idea in his head.

DeSoto was teasing, but Diego did a double-take, as if the idea had never occurred to him before. He forced his heartbeat to calm again. I'm flattered, Alcalde, but Victoria smiles for many people in the pueblo.

The Alcalde was shaking his head. No. I've watched her, as you can probably guess...

Diego's brows went up at that comment, and his hands balled into fists under the table where no one could see them. The idea of any man besides himself watching Victoria increased his sense of injured rage tenfold, but he couldn't show his feelings if he wanted to stay alive. It was an unfortunate state of affairs...

The Alcalde continued, ... and you or that brigand she has favored in the past are now the only two who can make her smile... I've seen it or had it reported to me. DeSoto shook his head again in amazement. That kind of regard needs marriage as the only answer to such a situation.

Diego forced a laugh. Imagine me... married! And to Victoria! She's my best friend, after all, not someone to consider so lightly, he said argumentatively. I couldn't marry her!

DeSoto was again shaking his head. Someone will, certainly, now that it's known that Zorro is gone. He took a bite of the enchiladas he had ordered for lunch. If you don't, someone else will surely ask her, he repeated.

Diego was discomfited as he sat back in his seat next to Felipe. He had not thought of others requesting Victoria's hand. It made his wait... and the Alcalde's words... seem more urgent and important than they might otherwise have seemed. Really..? Diego asked, sounding thoughtful. He got the chance to inquire of Victoria about the situation of marriage proposals when she came out of the kitchen carrying three bowls of stew on a tray a moment later. He began sounding hesitant. Victoria..? Then he hung his head to complete the picture of being totally embarrassed. This is a bit delicate. Please forgive me for asking so bluntly, but, what with Zorro gone from the pueblo for all intents and purposes, have you been receiving any... any proposals... lately?

Victoria's face went a shade whiter than it already was. She'd been pale ever since that day Zorro had ridden out of the pueblo. She had endeavored not to show how it affected her, but...

She also hadn't wished to let Diego know about this particular state of affairs. He wouldn't like it, and there was no point in getting him concerned about something he couldn't control and that wouldn't matter in another month or two, anyway. So she hedged a little. Well... she supplied reluctantly. But she couldn't outright lie to him, either. Yes.

Diego was surprised, both that she was getting proposals in the first place, and that he hadn't thought of it happening before that particular moment. Now, he mentally kicked himself for not considering it a problem sooner. You have? he asked, sounding as stunned as he felt.

Victoria was still acting reluctant. Yes, I have. But I've always said 'no,' she was quick to emphasize.

Alejandro smiled and would have choked a giggle if he hadn't been so naturally refined. Here's your chance, Diego.

Diego turned to glance at his father. My chance? he inquired, looking as confused as he could.

Alejandro winked at the grinning Felipe. It's common knowledge that you have a tender spot for Victoria. He glanced at DeSoto, and looked like he had just elbowed the Alcalde in the ribs. He and DeSoto were united in the teasing of Diego, it appeared, even if they disagreed on pueblo politics. Alejandro also looked like a man on a mission; he had a desire to see Diego and Victoria engaged even as he knew that such an occurrence was inevitable. Only, he couldn't let the Alcalde know what he knew. It was a strange state of affairs to be cornered into. Once again, he wondered how his son and grandson had possibly withstood the burden of Zorro's secret identity for so many years.

Diego colored. Well, Victoria and I have always been good friends, certainly...

Excuse me, Victoria said brusquely. I am not a piece of dinner to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Diego colored even more. Victoria... that's not what I meant...

I know perfectly well what you meant, Victoria assured in a voice that was understanding, at least, if not altogether benign. But the Alcalde and Don Alejandro are inferring that I'm for sale instead of having a mind of my own...

I'm not inferring anything of the sort, Señorita, DeSoto refuted. I'm merely saying that your freedom is common knowledge, and your beauty, as much as it pains me to point out, is also common knowledge. Your temper, however... He stopped after a glance at Victoria's darkening face.

Yes? she asked, her voice dangerously light. Anyone who was anyone knew that this was the time to treat the señorita from Los Angeles very carefully. She had a reputation for needing very little to explode.

This situation was no different, to both Victoria's and Diego's regret.

It's volatile, shall we say? DeSoto finished.

Victoria sighed. Alcalde, she said, sounding tired now, but patient, as if she had explained this very idea before. You've won. Zorro's gone, and we won't see him again. Can we just move on from there, please?

DeSoto looked as if he didn't wish to argue with the strong-willed señorita. I'm trying to do just that by suggesting that Diego marry you, since the outlaw of your choice is absent. He paused for a moment, then wet on, Plus, it would remove you from my...

Alcalde, Victoria interrupted. My married state is far from yours, or anybody else's, business in this pueblo...

Which is why you should marry Diego and set these stories of your sudden availability to rest, DeSoto went on, sounding just as patient as Victoria. It's a perfect solution; it solves everyone's problem in a very positive way.

She glared at him, finally losing the internal battle she was having with her patience. Alcalde, I don't have a problem, and we've had this conversation several times in the past days...

All to my great distress, I assure you, DeSoto muttered.

Victoria thunked down the tray right in front of Diego. Let's not cover such useless ground again, eh? I have no wish to marry, she emphatically stated.

The patrons nearby ceased their conversations so they could listen to the exchange.

Diego reared back from the slamming tray, but was careful not to react to her comment too closely. Victoria.., he started to say.

Not now, Diego! she huffed.

Diego instantly held his hands up in a placating gesture. My mistake.

Victoria's eyes narrowed as she tried to stare down the Alcalde. I am not some chattel to be sold off to the highest bidder like some cow. I want to be wooed, courted, treated like my brain matters, like it's as treasured as I am...

And is that what your bandit did? jeered the Alcalde.

Victoria sent a withering look his way. Completely ignoring Diego, she leaned against the table and said to the Alcalde, He would have, if he'd ever had the time. But you always got in the way, and now, it hardly matters.

The Alcalde interrupted as well, I'm not in the way, now. In fact, I'm suggesting an irrefutably different replacement. DeSoto pointed at Diego.

Alejandro frowned. Are you saying that my own son, a man from excellent de la Vega stock...

Father, Diego protested, irritated for real, now. I, too, am not something you can sell at an auction, you know.

Alejandro went on as if he hadn't even heard Diego speak. ... and therefore, he is nothing like Zorro? He internally smiled to himself as his words emphasized the difference between Diego and Zorro.

DeSoto snorted a short laugh, unaware of what Don Alejandro was thinking. He's not quite as 'talented' in some areas...

Alcalde, Diego lamented next. Please, there's no reason to highlight my lack of skills like that...

DeSoto also ignored Diego to respond to Alejandro. But, I'm not saying anything of the kind, de la Vega, he insisted as he wiped his mouth with his napkin. However, you have to admit that your son isn't as 'endowed,' shall we say, with shining examples to make him appear to be Zorro.

My son can do anything he sets out to do, Alejandro reminded the Alcalde in aggravation.

The Alcalde placed his hands on the tabletop just like Victoria was doing. Then why shouldn't he marry the girl? Why not show some energy, for once in his life? The situation had quickly escalated to the point of becoming a challenge to him, and the DeSotos always rose to a challenge.

Alejandro half stood in anger. Perhaps he will, he said.

Perhaps he won't! DeSoto refuted.

He can, and will! Alejandro expostulated through his clenched teeth. Even if what he was doing was purposeful, he was amazed that DeSoto could spur on his anger so quickly.

I'll believe it when I see it! DeSoto raged.

Alejandro spun to face Diego. I order you to marry Victoria, he said in his no-nonsense tone of voice, one that Diego was very familiar with from his childhood days. Unfortunately, that voice had usually been raised to shout at him at the time. Then we will set the Alcalde straight on what a son of mine can and can not do!

As delighted as Diego was that this conversation had seemingly come about with little effort on his part, it couldn't seem as if he was in agreement with the idea. He still raised a conciliatory hand. Now, Father... he began, trying to be calming.

But Alejandro didn't wish to be calmed. Don't 'Now, Father' me. I'm trying to find you a partner for life, Diego...

Felipe continued to watch the proceedings with great amusement as he turned around to stare at Diego.

Diego was blushing furiously with all the attention he was getting as the other patrons in the tavern stared as well. No, you're treating both Victoria and myself like your cattle, sold at the market...

I am not, but what's the difference? Alejandro muttered angrily. He felt secretly glad that he had managed to make this a command so easily.

Suddenly Diego reared back again. How you ever managed to court Mother with that attitude is beyond me. Victoria is a person to be prized, cherished, treasured...

Thank you, Diego, Victoria couldn't help but say.

Diego paused long enough in his speech to turn to her and affirm, You're welcome, before going on. She's not someone who will agree to accept the first man to come along...

That's just it, Diego, the Alcalde argued. More men will 'come along' if you don't say you'll marry her...

Alcalde... Diego began.

It's the only descent thing to do, Alejandro put in encouragingly.

Father... Diego tried again, not having to feign his aggravation now.

Marry her and save her from a future full of possibly unsavory encounters, the Alcalde said next. Not to mention it will save me from a frequent political irritation... he whispered under his breath.

But, apparently, Victoria heard him anyway. Don't I have a say in this? she grunted from her position of still leaning against the edge of the table.

Not acting as if Victoria had spoken at all, Alejandro wheedled to Diego in a persuasive tone of voice, Do something heroic, for once in your life.

DeSoto backed him up, Yes, for once!

Seeing the two men who were typically opposed to each other fighting for the same thing would have been amusing at any other time. However, that agreement only compelled Diego to try once more. Alcalde...

You can't do it, the Alcalde said, then faced Felipe. He can't even ask her. Felipe just shrugged.

Diego saw the shrug, and felt his natural anger rise. Who's side are you on, anyway? he asked his son. Felipe shrugged again, then clearly gestured towards Victoria with both his hands and raised his eyebrows.

Diego was amazed. You agree with this barbarism?

DeSoto sadly shook his head. You've been sweet on her for years...

Diego looked to Victoria in something like horror, as of his secret was out, and she glanced back at him. But he couldn't let that comment pass. Alcalde...

DeSoto refrained from letting such reluctant irritation as Diego's stop him from having his say. She's available now, he continued on, as if Diego hadn't even spoken. It's the chivalrous thing to do, you'll be saving her from having to face scors of men intent on being less than honorable with her, and still you can't do it?

That was too much, even for such a passifist as Diego was known to be. Maybe I will! he exclaimed.

Maybe you won't, the Alcalde said in return, snorting as if he didn't believe what he was hearing.

Goaded, especially by the comment about other men being less than honorable with Victoria, Diego turned to face her. As a rescue from being some man's prize at market, what do you think? Though I'm not the hero of the pueblo that you've always been connected with, I'll do my best to make you as happy as if I were the hero everyone has been talking about for years. And... Here he hesitated, wondering how far he could go in such a public proposal. Then he decided that whomever might be listening could either think him incredibly foolish or incredibly romantic; Victoria was worth both. Throwing all caution to the wind, he went on in a much softer voice, ... and the Alcalde is right; I do love you and have for years.

Victoria opened her eyes wide in simulated shock, though she also couldn't help but smile to herself at the hero comment, though she insisted, I want to be treated like I'm a lady to be won and admired, not rescued like I'm a side of beef!

Getting into the role he'd been pushed into playing, Diego rose from his bench and swept up Victoria's hand into his own. He did the atypical thing and kissed her on the knuckles right then and there. I would never treat you like a possession, Victoria! he declared. You are your own person, unique, and so beautiful, you take my breath away if I so much as look at you, which is why I don't. Marry me, and I promise to prize you, treasure you, cherish you, and above all, to never treat you as an inferior! he ended in an impressively persuasive roar.

There was silence after this vow, and the customers of the tavern stayed hushed, slightly leaning towards the table by the door now as they waited for Victoria's answer.

They didn't have long to wait. Victoria stood up straight, looked Diego square in the eye, her own eyes as wide as the plates she served her food on, and whispered, I... I... Then, she suddenly got a panicked expression on her face, and curled up on herself and fainted dead away in a rush for the floor that was far from usual for one so in-control.

Diego caught her, felt her forehead, found it warmer to his touch than he would like, and immediately assumed the worst, just to be on the safe side. He was quickly all businesslike and as unheroic as he could get. Father, some water, please. Felipe, run and find Dr. Hernandez. Alcalde, seal off the pueblo in case Victoria proves ill and needs to be quarantined. I'll get her away from so many curious people. He peered at the obviously interested crowd, but was too concerned to spare them more than a glare. With that, he quickly scooped up his previously declared precious treasure and hurried up the stairs to her room. There, he laid her out on the bed and threw a cloth into the pitcher of water on her night stand, where it quickly soaked in seconds. He wrung it out, then gently placed it on Victoria's forehead.

Here's more water, Alejandro said and thrust a filled pitcher into Diego's waiting hands.

Thank you, Diego said, distracted.

While his father looked on from the open door, Diego saw Victoria's eyes flutter slowly open. Don't move. I want to make certain you're all right, first.

Slowly, like the flowing of molasses, or as if she were fighting against something that wanted her to sleep some more, Victoria smiled lethargically. Diego, she said, then took a deep breath. What happened?

You fainted, Diego hesitated to say.

The smile wiped itself off her face as she tried to move into a sitting position. Diego held her down on the bed. Fainted? I never faint!

Alejandro spluttered from his place near the door.

Diego hardly heard him. Should I consider that a 'yes' or a 'no?'

But before she could answer, Dr. Hernandez was elbowing his way into the room. Move aside! Out of the way, please! Then he was at Victoria's head. Señorita Escalante! I heard that someone fainted?

She did, Diego said at once.

That's most unusual, the doctor announced with a frown on his face as he stared at the young woman lying prone on the bed cover.

I know, Diego said. I think everything was just too sudden for her. Fainting acted as an escape.

Victoria rolled her eyes in self-deprecation. Or I simply was stupid and stood up too fast.

I'd like to make certain, Diego said.

Well, intoned Hernandez perfunctorily. An examination should solve this mystery for us. He turned to Diego and his father. Out! he ordered. Get some water, change the linens, watch over the other customers downstairs - I don't care what you do, but do it somewhere else!

He gets very irascible when he's working, Diego thought, but rose from Victoria's bedside to follow his father out the door. Father, you show the customers out while I see to anything that's cooking in the kitchen, he said quietly, purposefully taking on the harder job for himself. It will keep us busy while Dr. Hernandez does his job.

Excellent suggestion, Diego. Alejandro said, then paused on his way out the door. He whispered, Were you serious when you asked Victoria to marry you just now?

Diego looked at his father again, hesitating to tell Alejandro of the plans made on the night of the storm. But he had no intention of refuting them, either. That's the other part of the master plan that Victoria and I came up with the other night, he whispered..

Is this fainting a part of that 'master plan?' Alejandro inquired.

Diego's brow furrowed. No, and that's what worries me.

But getting married is part of the plan?

It is the plan, Diego assured, his voice so soft, it was almost covered up by the noise of the customers talking just below them.

Suddenly Alejandro chuckled.

Diego paused at the head of the stairs. What are you laughing at?

Alejandro continued to chuckle. The Alcalde. He and I pushed you into a public proposal. The idea of the Alcalde encouraging you to marry Victoria is extremely ironic.

Diego smiled, then, appreciating the import of his father's words. But his smile quickly faded as he remembered even now how awful it had been watching Victoria faint. I only hope we make it to a wedding, he answered, then threw a glance at Victoria's closed bedroom door where the doctor was even now examining her within an inch of her life. Diego didn't envy her the experience.

Even as Diego thought about Victoria's encounter with the pueblo's only physician, the cry of Ow! issued through the closed door. Diego's brow furrowed again in sympathy. But his hands were tied, theoretically, and this time, he couldn't help her. Together, he and Alejandro started down the stairs to take care of the tavern while Victoria became the equivalent of the doctor's pincushion.

Z Z Z

I'll wash and you dry, Alejandro said, then rolled up his sleeves prior to throwing the first dirty dish into the dishpan full of soapy water sitting on the counter, ready to go.

Diego stood beside him at attention, towel in hand, and dried his first dish of the day as he eyed the precarious stack on the counter beside his father.

Twenty minutes later, Alejandro paused in his job and also eyed the stack of dishes. How does Victoria do this every day? I mean, I've never seen a pile of dishes so high, and I'm sixty years old!

Diego stopped also, dish in hand. She thinks about me? he hazarded to guess, part joking and part serious.

Alejandro continued on with his self-appointed task. She must! he said with a light chuckle that was laced with exhaustion. I'm tired already, and we have lots yet to do! How does she do it? he asked again.

One thing's for sure; I have a lot more respect for this kind of work, now, Diego declared as he reached for what seemed like his hundredth plate. Careful of that knife, he warned.

Alejandro lightly tested the kitchen implement with his finger. It sliced evenly through his outer skin, but he pulled it back before it could do any real damage. Sharp! he claimed thoughtfully, then washed it as carefully as he could in water full of obscuring soapsuds. Victoria sure promotes using sharp knives in her kitchen, he thought to himself. You could use this for one of your adventures, he said offhandedly to his son.

Diego grimaced. I don't think so. Besides... A loud knock at the door halted his speech. He set down the plate and towel and hurried to open the back door. Sergeant! he greeted. Come in, come in. What brings you here?

Sergeant Mendoza followed Diego, but looked at the fireplace to see if anything was bubbling or warming over it. Don Alejandro! Don Diego! he answered. Hello! When the front door wasn't open, I came around back to see how things are going with Señorita Victoria. Nothing cooking, I see, he said in dejection.

Alejandro lifted his hands from the warm dishpan. No, we were just doing some dishes for Victoria while we wait for the doctor's report. And here he is!

Alejandro turned to the curtains as Dr. Hernandez walked through.

Doctor, Diego said immediately. How is she?

Fine, replied Hernandez with a puzzled smile on his lined face. I can't find a thing wrong with her.

Isn't that good? Alejandro asked.

Yes, I suppose so, answered the pueblo doctor.

Uh... you suppose? Mendoza inquired.

Dr. Hernandez smiled even broader. I just like to find out what the problem is. And this time, I can't find a problem, and I don't like it, I guess.

Perhaps it's as Victoria claims; she just stood up too fast, Diego commented.

Which would indicate a lowness of blood in the brain, Hernandez said in meditative concern. But I couldn't find any reason for it. And she claims not to be... he hesitated, then finished, indisposed.

Mendoza laughed. Of course she's not.

Hernandez shrugged. Though with the rumors from a few nights ago that she and Zorro...

Diego interrupted quickly, attempting to waylay everyone's attention. Surely you don't believe that? he asked.

That can't be true, Mendoza said. After the proposal by Don Diego today at lunch... speaking of lunch, are there any burritos left over from this afternoon?

Alejandro grabbed Mendoza by the arm, but made the move look like a casual gesture between friends. And speaking of the proposal, he quickly said as he tried to further distract the Sergeant, Perhaps you can accompany me to the bank where I've kept my wife's ring for Diego to use all these years. It will make a lovely engagement ring.

Diego blanched, but Alejandro didn't notice any unusual behavior, and only plowed on. We can see the doctor out on our way.

I would be glad to accompany you, Mendoza claimed. Then he headed for the pantry instead. After I check the shelves in this closet. You know, he said to Diego and wrinkled his nose, You can never be too careful with all the bandits that could possibly be lurking around.

Diego watched him go with a baleful eye. Or Victoria's enchiladas, he said in slight sarcasm that only Alejandro heard. Somehow, he had the suspicion that Mendoza would be a frequent visitor to the hacienda after he and Victoria were married. Right about lunch time, he thought to himself as he saw the sergeant come out of the pantry loaded down with an enchilada in each hand. Is the pantry safe? he asked with as straight a face as he could manage.

Schafffeee Mendoza muttered around a big bite of tortilla and cheese. He chewed and swallowed. Let's go, Don Alejandro. I'm ready now.

So you are, Alejandro said, but Diego pulled him aside for a moment of private conversation.

Victoria already has the ring, Diego whispered, hardly opening his mouth as he uttered the words.

Alejandro's eyes widened. She does? he whispered back. Diego nodded. Guess I'll be hearing some stories tonight, he said, then turned to the doctor and the military man holding an enchilada as if his life depended on it. The two were locked in a conversation of their own about the benefits of staying trim. But no one needs to know that. He gathered up the Sergeant. In a loud voice, he said, After you, gentlemen.

At least let me escort you to the bank, Mendoza said affably.

Alejandro grinned to hide his grimace. I'll have that ring in my hands before the day is out, he said loudly. See you at home, Diego.

The three men left by way of the back door.

Diego breathed in relief as the door swung shut on his call of, I'll be along in a moment. Right after I check on Victoria. Such a prospect delighted him enough to encourage him to relinquish the towel beside the dishpan as soon as the door closed. Then he sprinted through the curtains and hurried through the eerily empty main room and up the stairs. In another moment, he was knocking on Victoria's closed bedroom door.

Come in, Diego, Victoria called through the wood, and when he moved the door aside to enter, said with a raised brow, What took you so long?

Diego grinned sheepishly. I didn't want to trip on the stairs? he guessed. Then, he said in a much more normal tone of voice, I just wanted to make certain you're all right.

She held out her hands, which he took in his. I'm fine, really.

You're not..? he tried to ask then.

Archly, she answered him, No. At least, not that I know of.

But Dr. Hernandez said something about fainting indicating low blood to the brain, which indicates... He didn't have the chance to finish.

That's an old wives tale, Victoria scolded. I can't believe you, of all people, still think that means pregnancy. Diego shrugged and rubbed her hands with his fingers. I can't help but think along those lines, he admitted in a defensive voice.

That's just a stereotype, Victoria claimed, then sighed. But I don't suppose you can help yourself.

What's that supposed to mean? Diego inquired as he took a seat in the chair at her desk while she sat on the mattress of her brass-framed bed.

Victoria shrugged. Nothing. Except that women have always been your undoing.

Diego snorted. Well, besides yourself, I don't quite follow you...

Victoria quickly said, There was that one who was charged with the murder of her Alcalde husband..?

Diego rolled his eyes. That Señora Sinestra?

That's the one! Victoria exclaimed. The one you thought was innocent.

The one you thought had her own bounty hunter doing what she had told him to do, Diego quickly pointed out. He wanted to forget that particular adventure of Zorro's, actually.

But Victoria seemed genuinely interested. She grinned then. Yes, well, can I help it if I was insanely jealous?

Victoria, Diego said, and joined her on the bed. I've always meant to apologize to you for that particular episode in the life of Zorro.

Nothing could have surprised Victoria more. Apologize?

Diego looked uncomfortable. Yes.

Whatever for?

Diego was silent for a moment as he studied her adobe wall. Finally, he said, It was my fault. I told her about you in a truly weak-willed moment, and it almost got you killed. He feverishly kissed her hand. I don't know what I would do without you!

This conversation wasn't turning out at all like she had thought it would; it was proving to be much more impassioned. Diego! she admonished gently, forgivingly. That was a long time ago! And even if she tried everything on you...

She did?

Of course she did, Victoria soothed. Maybe she could hide what she was doing from you, but she couldn't hide anything from me!

Diego smiled a thin smile. I'll be sure to ask for your help in the future, he said.

Victoria snorted. You're not going to have a future, except one full of the cries of children.

Diego furrowed his forehead. I thought you said...

Victoria sighed. I did. Then she glanced at him suggestively. But that doesn't mean we never will.

True. Diego was amazed that a suggestive look from her could reduce him to mush so quickly.

And if we have girls... Victoria grinned. They'll have you wrapped around their fingers...

Uh-huh, Diego grunted. Along with the fingers of their other hand as they stick them in their mouths...

The smile only grew on Victoria's lovely face. No. I meant what I said. Women have always been your downfall.

Meaning?

That you can't hit a woman, so she has nothing to worry about.

Diego drew back. A gentleman never strikes a woman."

Victoria looked at him with narrowed eyes. Uh-huh, she grunted back. That's what I mean.

Diego hugged her to him. You're one woman whom I promise to cherish and treasure for years to come. Then he affirmed, And never to hit!

Victoria held him for a moment, reveling in the special feel of him in her arms. She liked the way his muscles moved against her, and loved the smell of his hair, something she had missed wallowing in for years. She would never get enough of it. But they had several things that needed to be discussed. Victoria reluctantly pulled back. And speaking of the engagement...

I didn't plan that, you know. That was all my father's doing, Diego was quick to point out.

Victoria smiled. I know. And you sound like I mind, when I don't mind at all.

Diego glanced at her in relief. You don't? Good. I thought you would say you were insulted or something.

Insulted? Victoria repeated in astonishment. How could a girl be insulted with such a romantic proposal? She shook her head, still amazed. No, I want to get our logistics right and on the same page, so to speak. Do you think we should show more... affection... or not?

Diego considered. I have declared my love for you... he slowly said.

Yes, but everyone will expect me to keep pining for the loss of Zorro, Victoria told him right back.

Diego sat for a moment, and the silence of the empty tavern descended on them in a blanket of peace. Finally, he suggested, Perhaps you can show a little affection?

Victoria giggled. I would love that. As long as you don't think the Alcalde will find it too strange.

He finds everything strange, Diego instantly said, and hugged her again. Then, he laughed.

What are you laughing at?

Diego smiled once more. Father found it quite ironic that it was the Alcalde who suggested that you marry me.

That is ironic, Victoria agreed, thinking about the proposal scene that had just taken place downstairs only moments before.

After another extended silence went by, Diego grinned at her and asked, What are you thinking now?

Victoria readily replied, That this could potentially be a very long week. She grinned back at him, her voice full of all the things she wasn't saying.

Diego couldn't agree with her more.

Z Z Z

Alejandro met his son at the hacienda's front door, a look of disbelief on his face. You're engaged? he asked quietly, still managing to stress the second word in his amazement.

Diego looked a bit chagrined. I am, he responded. But not officially, not yet. Then he, too, appeared befuddled by the events happening to two distinct personalities. But I am, I guess. At least, I asked her a long time ago and she said 'yes.'

Diego's father lifted his eyebrows in surprise. She said 'Yes?' A long time ago? Doesn't that make you engaged already?

Diego did a double take by glancing twice at his father. Yes, he answered. I think.

Alejandro just stared in amazed defeat. You think? he rejoined. Maybe you should think again, just to make certain. He turned away, then turned back. Is there any other secret that you want to tell me?

Diego looked up, thoughtful for a moment. No, nothing that I can think of.

Alejandro sighed in aggravation, then pulled his son through the door and shut it behind Diego. It's a good thing you told me, or I would have torn the bank apart looking for Elena's ring.

Diego's forehead wrinkled in puzzlement. But Mother's necklace is still in the jewelry box in your bedroom. Then he smiled slightly. I looked.

Alejandro's brows went up. Oh, did you want to give that to Victoria, too? Now he sounded scolding.

Diego thought about that. Maybe. Then he went on, But I still don't understand why you went to the bank to look for a ring that you could very well have kept at this hacienda.

Alejandro appeared irritated, but he answered Diego's question as if he were speaking to either a very young child or the old Felipe who he believed had a hearing loss. Because I was pretending; that search at the bank was just a ruse to mislead Sergeant Mendoza, he explained. Then he pointed his finger and hissed, If you think the sergeant was in the tavern in order to do anything other than get information on you for DeSoto, then you're not as wise as I thought you were.

The idea had entered my mind, Diego admitted.

Alejandro grunted, then led him into the sitting room to the left of the door. Keep thinking like that.

You mean like I'm paranoid? Diego inquired.

Alejandro turned towards his son. Maybe, he said. But maybe you should be more concerned with communicating better. I feel like I don't know what's going on in my own house, he groused.

Diego answered, I didn't want you to know before you knew, and now...

... now, Alejandro interrupted, I know everything there is to know, and I'm still confused as ever.

Diego had to smile at his father's dramatics. That will pass, he promised.

Ugh, Alejandro grunted, as if he didn't believe his own son. He changed subjects as soon as the two men sat down in the chairs offered in the sitting room. Diego, have you thought about when you want this wedding to be like? I mean, is it going to be soon, how soon, and what kind of celebration do you want to have for it?

Diego sat with a blank look on his face. Well, Victoria and I haven't talked much about it, yet. She hasn't even officially said she'll marry me, he pointed out.

But she's going to say she will, right? asked Alejandro with suspicion in his voice.

Diego shrugged. As far as I know, she will.

Alejandro's eyes grew narrow as his forehead wrinkled into more lines than he already had. For the legend of the pueblo, you sure don't seem to know what's going on.

Diego just sent 'the look' his father's way.

Alejandro responded to Diego's expression by ignoring it and speaking about what was on his mind, anyway. Do you realize that he could hang you for even marrying Victoria?

Diego sighed. Yes, I realize that, and I don't want to be hung any more that any other man, but I'm tired of waiting for the promise I made to her in the plaza to come about, for our lives to start, together. We both are tired of waiting.

Alejandro glared at Diego. It's hard to begin a new life if you're dead, he predicted.

Diego looked appropriately chastened. I know that. The idea was that I would wait a little longer to propose, so that Zorro and I could not possibly be connected.

And I suppose I sped things up a bit with my 'prodding' with the Alcalde, Alejandro suggested.

Diego now appeared vindicated. You did, a bit.

Alejandro sighed this time. I'm sorry for that, he apologized. I had no idea what your plans were, but, he said as he continued on, at least now you've made a public proposal...

... Did I have any choice? Diego interrupted.

No, his father said with humor mixed with the finality in his voice. But it will appear to give Victoria something to think about, and it all looks innocent to everybody but the Alcalde.

Nothing would look innocent to him, Diego negated. not even the proposal of a weak son of a local caballero.

Yes, well, we can hope that my ruse at the bank will fool Sergeant Mendoza, who will then fool the Alcalde, Alejandro stated.

The Alcalde's no one's fool, Diego said, as if he knew what he was talking about.

He probably does, Alejandro ruminated to himself. Then aloud, he said, We can only hope he is fool enough to believe what Mendoza tells him. In the meantime, I suggest we go ahead with your plan as expected; everyone will count on us having a big party to celebrate the marriage, no matter how it came about, of the son of the house.

Diego considered having such a fete, and smiled slowly. Then I suggest we give them one.

Z Z Z

The wedding reception party was probably the biggest gathering the de la Vegas had ever held. Talk about a fete, Diego thought in irony six weeks later. Half the town had been invited, and the other half had shown up, anyway. Local caballeros were there to mingle with the pueblo's merchants, soldiers from the cuartel, and farmers. Anybody who was anybody loaded their hand-held plates over and over again with the dishes that Victoria had prepared the day before and the da la Vega cook, LaRosa, had made that morning. Wine flowed just as quickly as the food went, and no one left the hacienda's grounds without a full stomach.

The situation was much to Sergeant Mendoza's liking as he stood beside the reception's food tables, but his affable mood wasn't shared by his companion, the Los Angeles Alcalde. DeSoto stood unmoving, thoughtfully stroking his goatee, staring in calculation at Victoria, the newest de la Vega daughter. Evening was falling, now, pink and purple and mauve coloring the sky to swirl in striations of vibrant colors across the silk of her cream wedding dress, a notable gift for the wedding day from her future in-laws. Even though Victoria seemed to be marrying her longtime friend, Diego, instead of the love of her life, Zorro, she appeared to be perfectly content with the way things had worked out as she spoke animatedly to a group of guests in the corner nearest the hacienda's wide-open front doors.

She was too happy while she stood at the front of the church, DeSoto reflected to himself as the content sergeant standing beside him stuffed first one tidbit of food into his waiting mouth, then another. You're going to get nothing but a bellyache, DeSoto warned his second. He was still thinking, staring at the new señora across the crowded outside area.

Mendoza nodded, and tried to smile around the food in his mouth. What came out was a rather distorted grin. I know, I know, and I should show more temperance, but it's all so good! he exclaimed in agreeable humor. You should try some, Alcalde. Just a little taste won't give you any stomach ache.

Perhaps later, DeSoto answered in distraction. You stay here and... watch over the food, he ordered, I'll make sure to congratulate the newest couple in Los Angeles society.

Mendoza smiled again in happy compliance with this latest command. He didn't think to question the Alcalde's reasons behind making such an arrangement, and was only too glad to refill his plate for the third time as his commanding officer slowly wandered away through the crowd.

By the time DeSoto had jostled and cajoled his way to the front doors of the hacienda, Victoria was inside, sitting next to her groom, Diego, on the love seat in the library. The happy couple were relaxing after their long day, plates filled with finger food rested on their laps as they talked to a guest, one Señora Supero, who, with her husband, ranched the land just west of their host's ranch. The nuts and berries that had been picked and washed by de la Vega vaqueros and servants the day before, were mixed with nuts to make a pleasing appetizer, though the Alcalde felt anything but pleased at the moment. What he felt was fury, and irritation, and self-loathing, and general agony all coalesced into the thunderous frown he now wore on his face. But he tried to arrange his features into more pleasing lines. I haven't offered my felicitations to the happy couple, he observed dryly, sounding as if he were nearly choking on the words he spoke in spite of his efforts to appear congenial. I'm more than happy to do so now.

You don't sound happy, Victoria noted as the señora looked at the conversing pair.

On the contrary, DeSoto declared. I remember quite distinctly that I persuaded Diego, here, to ask for your hand one day in the tavern. It gives me great pleasure to see such a union met. He did nearly choke on those words, but he covered the strangled sound of his voice by pretending to have recently belched. Excuse me such unforgivable manners, he finished with a white-gloved hand held tightly his chest.

Victoria giggled, but tried to smother the sound behind her fingers.

DeSoto turned to Diego, then, and asked, I wonder if I could see you alone for a moment, Diego? I'd like to talk to you about last week's editorial in The Guardian, if you don't mind. Then he spoke to Victoria. Have no fear, Señora, I'll return him no worse for wear in very few moments.

Please, take your time, Victoria replied, and swung around to Señora Supero as Diego rose from beside his bride, set aside his half-eaten food, and invited, After you. He waved a hand towards the rear of the house, as the two wouldn't find a private space to occupy in the crush of guests and party-crashers.

DeSoto led the way through the crowd until they were outside in a relatively quiet corner of the back patio. A table, where LaRosa often shelled peas and snipped beans, was the only furniture blocking their way. But as the tiny table had only one chair set near its rounded workspace, no one else was spending time on the terrace at the moment. Diego halted near a shade tree, crossed his arms, tried not to look too worried, then asked, What would you like to talk to me about in The Guardian's editorials, Alcalde?

DeSoto grinned, then. Nothing, actually. I just wanted to see you where we'll be sure not to be overheard.

The skin along Diego's scalp immediately began to crawl at the Alcalde's announcement. But he hid the feeling of fear growing in the pit of his stomach, and instead laughed, going for a light, incredulous, sound. What could you possibly have to say that can't be overheard, Alcalde?

DeSoto glanced around them before he answered.

Diego didn't like this new furtiveness the Alcalde was displaying, but again, he couldn't show it. What? he prodded once more.

The Alcalde replied swiftly, then, much to Diego's gratitude. Come on, Diego, we're both grown men, DeSoto muttered then. We don't have to waste so much energy pretending anymore.

Diego tried to look perplexed at the same time as his insides were in a sudden panic. He knows! Diego thought as, aloud, he only asked, What are you talking about? Then he seemed to perk up a bit. Does this have something to do with how my father got that excellent price on his horses in San Pedro the other day?

The Alcalde kept muttering, As much as I would like to know about Don Alejandro and his... shall we say... rather incredible ranching methods, that's not what I want to discuss right now. No, Diego, this time, I mean your other secret.

Diego's eyebrows rose. My other secret?

Yes, DeSoto now said in slightly impatient irritation. That one about a certain secret identity? he mentally pushed.

How much does the Alcalde know? wondered Diego as he suddenly found himself seriously staring at DeSoto, laughing uproariously at the other man's seemingly outrageous claim. Until he learned more information, however, he decided to pretend he knew nothing. Excuse me, Alcalde, but I still don't understand...

About fencing! the Alcalde hissed, then, his patience finally hitting its end. You know; you, me, fighting in the plaza, black mask, price on your head, 6000 pesos...

It was the day Diego had dreaded for four years, and now that it was here, instead of thinking about the gallows, he could only try to consider ways of protecting Victoria, Felipe, and his father. He tried playing dumb at first. I still have no idea... he answered, feeling numb and too paralyzed to speak any further.

Don't try to pretend with me, DeSoto responded in a whisper. I know, Diego. Please don't insult my intelligence any more than you already have. Then he went on to praise, But I want you to know that I think you're good. This has been quite an act! No one would ever believe me if I told them the truth in the plaza tomorrow. Then his eyes hardened. But that smile your blushing bride wore today brought together some very disconnected ideas I've been entertaining lately.

Such as? Diego guardedly asked.

Such as, how did... how did you know who, DeSoto whispered, finding that he was reluctant to verbalize the name of his arch enemy now that he was actually making an accusation. ...sneak into my office that day months ago, when I first tried to raise taxes? He looked at Diego in puzzlement. He paused before continuing, He wasn't found anywhere near the pueblo. But then it occurred to me a few days ago as I was pondering the issue enough to give me a headache... He wasn't anywhere near Los Angeles, but you were already known to be in town that day.

Diego laughed again. That doesn't prove anything, Alcalde.

The Alcalde went on, True, once wouldn't even have raised my suspicions. But twice... He shook his head. That was fairly careless of you, Diego.

How do you know I was even in the pueblo the second time? Diego asked, still aiming for, and getting, that light, amused sound. He hadn't been the masked man for four years for nothing. Now he used all his acting talents to waylay the Alcalde's suspicions.

Because you met your father for lunch that afternoon where I encouraged you to propose to that tavern owner of yours. He glanced around again, and when he didn't find anybody anywhere near the two of them, continued, Leaving a note on my desk, then sneaking out the skylight and slipping over the wall to come out beside The Guardian office would have fooled most men, Diego, and leaving several days between the planned flogging and the note was a stroke of genius, I must admit, to mislead any doubters, but you forgot one thing.

Curious, Diego asked, Oh, and what's that? Not that I'm who you say I am, he ended, curious, but cautious.

DeSoto was so excited by that point in the conversation that he could hardly contain himself. Having very little to go on, he said, with a pained look in Diego's direction, I had my men study the area that afternoon, and we found an odd, white, piece of material stuck to the top of the tree just outside my office window. What could Zorro be doing wearing white, I asked myself. He always wore black. But this scrap of cloth was clearly white... caballero white, DeSoto emphasized. So I was on the lookout for a torn shirt or torn breeches that day. Only I didn't see any clothing that was torn, though I kept my eyes peeled for a torn piece of cloth all day. But, what I didn't remember until just last Monday night was that I had already seen such clothing.

Oh? Diego sounded bored with the recitation. Where?

The Alcalde answered. When you raised Victoria's hand during your 'proposal,' I noticed that your sleeve was torn on the underside, near the cuff, where no one else could see it. Except someone who was sitting down and to your side. And I was the only one sitting at that table during the time in which you proposed.

Diego's face, previously schooled to an expression of bored curiosity, slipped just a bit before the expression of boredom was replaced with humor. You think I'm..? He couldn't, or wouldn't, finish the statement. Zorro! But Alcalde, I can't even fence. As you pointed out just now, I would have to be able to fight the good fight if I were... A hearty laugh greeted the Alcalde's supposition. That's preposterous! I'd tell Victoria about it tonight, only I don't want to cause undue torture to her memories!

DeSoto maintained a look of equanimity on his own features. Laugh all you want, but as to the señora...

She's done nothing wrong, Diego instantly jumped in, amazed at how fast the flashing stir to his temper came the moment Victoria could possibly be mixed into DeSoto's strange accusations. Leave her out of your mad hunt for the masked man who used to romance her with more promises than he could possibly keep. He hoped that this personal attack would sow just enough doubt in the Alcalde's mind that he would have trouble believing his own accusations.

DeSoto placed a hand to his breast. I wouldn't dream of troubling the señora with this... he began sarcastically.

Why don't I believe you? Diego asked in a cold voice now that his wife of just a few short hours had been mentioned.

As you wish, DeSoto replied, feigning graciousness. But there's a few things that I want you to know first, he claimed magnanimously.

Diego cautiously inquired, What's that?

That you have nothing to fear from me, the Alcalde said, then, in a deadly serious voice.

Diego threw up his hands in equally as feigned defeat. I still haven't admitted to anything and the evidence...

DeSoto interrupted, The evidence against you will never hold up in a court at the palace, he admitted. A torn sleeve and a smile is flimsy enough evidence for anybody but me, he said. Besides, by the time we can both travel all the way to Spain, where the hanging of such a notorious bandit must take place, there will be no Spanish rule in the colony of California left to enforce, because the revolutionaries will surely have won colonial independence by then. Mexico will be a free country, and if I'm not mistaken, and I rarely am on political matters, California is not far behind. You may be a pardoned man already, for all I know.

Diego pretended that he had heard enough. Alcalde, you're free to sample any wine you want, but this paranoia of yours really must stop...

DeSoto smiled wolfishly. Oh, you would like that, wouldn't you, Diego? Then his smile softened. You know, I keep forgetting that I'm talking to a much worthier opponent than the past has portrayed you to be. He cocked his head to the side. Wearing black would help.

Victoria doesn't like it, Diego quipped in a no-nonsense tone of voice.

I doubt that, DeSoto responded. Her smile today says otherwise. He continued, Now that I've got your attention, I'll tell you what I've been thinking these last few days.

I can hardly wait, Diego said, sounding bored again.

DeSoto just laughed at the tone of voice that confronted him. Good, very good. Then he schooled his face into his 'dealing with a bandit' expression; pure malice glared out of the eyes trained on Diego. I'll tell you what I'm going to do... nothing.

Excuse me? Diego asked. You're what?

DeSoto shrugged. I can't do anything to you.

You mean you have no reason to do anything to me, Diego pointed out.

Whatever, the Alcalde answered.

That's the reason itself behind these preposterous...

Think what you like, the Alcalde confidently replied. But this pretense has really got to stop.

Or what? Diego inquired.

I would string up that new wife of yours...

You wouldn't dare... Diego started to say, a frown marring his face now.

DeSoto laughed gleefully. Got you there, didn't I?

You stay away from her, Diego ordered in a penetrating hiss.

DeSoto continued laughing. Don't worry; I won't even tell Mendoza about our little talk. What you tell the señora is your concern. You see, DeSoto said then, the reason I can't do anything to you... well, there are several reasons, actually.

Diego said nothing, but the glaring expression of distrust in his eyes was unmistakable.

Yes, the Alcalde continued, I get the point. But I was going to detail my reasons...

This had better be good, Diego threatened. I want to know why you dragged me all the way out here on my wedding day; just to give satisfaction to your sense of paranoia for Zorro?

The Alcalde studied the man standing before him. The crossed arms didn't invite much warmth. He ignored Diego's demeanor, and plowed on, anyway, All right, here it is. He gathered himself. I can't publicly confront you because the entire town would just laugh at me, and refuse, out of complete disrespect, to follow any of my future orders. I'll be laughed out of town.

DeSoto continued, And I'll regret it if you try to kill me for me trying to kill you. I have no desire to spend the rest of my life with one eye trained over my shoulder.

Smart idea, Alcalde, as Zorro, and he stressed the local hero's name, would be sure to succeed in any attempt on your life, Diego threatened, now looking like a stormcloud had invaded his features.

The Alcalde reacted with raised brows. So you admit it, then?

Diego sighed. I admit to nothing.

DeSoto eyed him again. Whatever. Then, he went on, To continue... your father won't take very kindly to a threat against your life; he'll kill me before I set one foot out of town the minute I hang you.

You're right.

So if I value my life, which I do, I assure you, I can't hang you and be done with you like I want to be.

So?

So we're at an impasse, the way I figure it. I can't try to kill.,.. Zorro... and miss in the attempt; Zorro will kill me then. If I hang... He almost said 'you' again. Zorro.., Don Alejandro and the other caballeros will surely revolt; they don't strike me as the kind who will put up with murder of one of their own.

How perceptive of you.

And if I try to hang Don Alejandro, who must have known...

You're mistaken; my father knows nothing about Zorro's identity, Diego lied glibly.

DeSoto looked at him carefully. If you say so. But I can't kill him, or the other caballeros in Los Angeles will kill me. So... stalemate.

You mean checkmate, Diego said.

No, DeSoto argued, I mean 'stalemate.' No one can win if either one of us acts on what we know. So I won't.

Why tell me this at all? Diego asked next. Even if I were Zorro, which I'm not, it would be easier to capture him if he remained as ignorant as possible.

DeSoto replied immediately. Because I want you to know this: And his voice turned hard, like a knife edge. If I so much as see a scrap of black material in the pueblo again, I will hunt you down faster than that horse named for a tornado can run. And if I can't find you...

You'll what? Diego asked suspiciously at DeSoto's dramatic pause, afraid of what such a pause might mean.

Diego wasn't disappointed: DeSoto grinned, making the pleasant expression far less pleasant. I may not find you, but remember that your wife is just across the plaza, and she's much easier to get to.

Diego's arms uncrossed in surprise. Leave her out of this! he bellowed, not even attempting a lower voice anymore.

I'll be good as long as you'll be good, DeSoto promised. But step one toe out of line... He didn't finish the threat, leaving it to be all the more potent in its unfinished state. He chuckled softly, then turned to wend his way to the stables and his horse. Enjoy your party, he said as he departed.

Stunned, Diego let him go. He realized as he stared at DeSoto's departing back that the military officer had him right where he wanted him, as the saying went. That last threat to Victoria all but insured Zorro's future good behavior in the pueblo, and Diego could do nothing to him as Zorro or as Diego, or Victoria would pay the price, and by the time he heard about it...

Diego grimaced, and groaned, and rubbed his arms as a distraction to himself and as an attempt to ward off the sudden chill that snaked across his body and had nothing to do with the colder air surrounding him. Full night had fallen while he and DeSoto had talked, but the twinkling stars in the sky did nothing to dispel Diego's fears. Grimacing again, he growled, then went back into the hacienda.

What did the Alcalde want, Diego? Victoria asked blithely when Diego returned to the library. She was still seated on the love seat and still deep in innocent conversation with Señora Supera, but without the encumbrance of the plate of food she had been holding. The two women stopped their talk to stare up at him in ignorance of what the Alcalde had effectively done. In one seemingly innocent encounter, and with no bloodshed, he had finally bested his enemy of several years. All because of a smile.

Diego dropped in sudden exhaustion next to Victoria. Nothing, he replied, reluctant to share this latest threat with his wife. Why worry her needlessly over something that he could do nothing about? He wanted to offer his congratulations.

But why in private? asked Victoria. What did he have to say that he couldn't say here in front of us?

Diego grimaced. If only she knew! It was a male thing. Something you'll get used to, no doubt, Diego answered.

Ugh! Victoria grunted. Trust the Alcalde to try to dampen our own wedding party with 'manly' advice, she sarcastically said. It was no secret that she didn't much respect the governmental man.

Suddenly Diego hugged her close, and hard. Be careful, he enigmatically whispered.

Diego!? Victoria exclaimed, unsure of what had brought on this unusual display of affection. Unusual for Diego, at any rate.

Don't... don't... Diego couldn't finish either entreaty. Just be careful. I can't stand the thought of living a single day without you, he said in an agonized whisper into her ear, so softly, his voice kissed her hair.

Victoria hugged him back, a little puzzled. You know I will be careful, she promised. I always am.

You know, Diego said, conscious now of the señora seated next to them. Outlaws and bandits in the pueblo...

I'll be so good, you won't recognize me, Victoria promised, making Diego laugh.

That will be the day! he exclaimed.

She withdrew from his embrace. Now, do you feel better?

Diego smiled. A promise always does, he rejoined, and they both shared a common smile at the joke made at their personal expense, as only they could. I love a good promise.

Then I promise to make them all the time! she said. Come on; let's go see what LaRosa made in the way of a cake that's supposed to be a secret, but isn't.

Nothing is, said Diego knowingly.

What's that supposed to mean? inquired Victoria, worried suddenly, expecially considering who her husband had just been talking to.

They both rose from the love seat. Nothing, Diego said, and when Victoria told him with just a look that some sort of an explanation for such a strange remark was going to have to be forthcoming, Diego went on to say, It's only that everyone knows how much I love you.

Victoria grinned. Your rather public proposal took care of any myths there. But come on: we're almost to the kitchen and the cake.

There's a cake? Diego inquired, half teasing. He knew there was a large, white cake currently resting in the pantry. It had enough eggs in it to wipe out the hope of getting any more for breakfast for the next month.

Oh, you know! laughed Victoria. Very little gets past you in your own house!

Our own house, said Diego as they made their way through the kitchen door.

Yes, added Victoria, Our house.


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