First Note: this story a work in progress... It goes against everything in my natural instincts to post an unfinished story, but I know what it's like to crave new reading material, yet have none at my disposal... I'll add more as more is written...

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

Third Note: This story is the answer to a discussion of a challenge writing contest - This isn't the challenge, but I had to write about the idea anyway. Smithcrafter came up with the basic idea for the story, and though I created the plot, I wish to give credit where credit is most definitely due. Enjoy!

The Worth of a Good Reputation

by Linda Bindner

Part I

Diego, Don Alejandro called into the library, only to find the room empty when he peaked into it. Irritated now at not finding his son in his usual haunt, he yelled, Diego!

Yes, Father? came the return call, issuing faintly from the back of the hacienda. Alejandro followed the sound of his son's voice to the sitting room connected to Diego's bedroom. In it, Diego was seated in the only chair the room had to offer, at the desk in the corner, a quill in his hand and a piece of parchment spread on the wooden desk before him. I was just writing a letter to Rafael.

Your cousin? clarified Alejandro.

Diego nodded. Yes. But you called? he asked, an innocent expression on his face, despite the slight sarcasm of his tone.

Yes, Alejandro replied, leaning on the doorframe as he spoke. I wanted you to know that I plan on having the Callistos over to our hacienda for supper tonight...

He got no farther. Diego's face instantly fell at the first mention of the Callisto name. Not Don Jimero and that daughter of his? Alejandro nodded, and Diego's crestfallen expression turned sour enough to be considered a frown. Father! You know how I don't like Lucia!

I can't imagine why you don't like Don Jimero's daughter, Alejandro stated in a soft voice.

It's because she always chases me whenever I try to get away from her and her father, Diego answered, refusing to mince words with his own father about his reasons. She's like a disease at a dinner party!

Alejandro rolled his eyes. She's not that bad, Diego...

Diego interrupted, throwing down his quill to land in a splatter of ink on top of his letter in an atypical display of temper from the younger de la Vega. Oh, yes she is! Diego emphatically stated. She has 'husband-seeker' branded on her forehead, just as her father tends to encourage her in chasing anybody she persues. Honestly, Father, she's a menace to society.

Oh! Alejandro scoffed. She is not! And I've never seen her chase anybody, as you claim.

That's because she does it when you're not looking, Diego grumbled, quieting down now that his unnatural outburst of emotion on the subject had been revealed. He was a bit ashamed of such an unusual show of anger, to be honest. With a more chagrined expression than he had displayed before now, he faced his father.

Well, there's nothing wrong with her being on the lookout for a husband, Alejandro pointed out in aggravation. You should take some lessons from her.

In chasing? Diego asked in surprise.

Alejandro went on in slight exasperation, It can't hurt, Diego. He, too, rolled his eyes. It's not like you're known as the catch of Los Angeles, he said disparagingly.

You'd never know it if you watch Lucia, Diego muttered under his breath. When he looked up, he caught just a bit of the calculating look that his father was throwing his way. He knew without having to ask that his father was up to something devilish. Out with it, Father, Diego suspiciously ordered. What are you thinking?

Alejandro appeared more calculating than he had been since entering Diego's sitting room. Nothing, he replied evasively, however.

Diego sighed in annoyance. He knew his father, and he knew when his father was planning something. It's not nothing, Diego prompted. What?

Suddenly Alejandro's eyes narrowed. What do you say to inviting the Callistos for dinner if I also invite Victoria?

Victoria? Diego echoed, honestly surprised. Then he gave a splutter. Well, I'm all for eating with a good friend like Victoria, naturally, but what part does she play in all this?

Alejandro's eyes continued to narrow. No part, he said. I just think she might act as a descent buffer between you and Lucia.

Then, in a blink, Diego straightened in further aggravation. Father, you're not thinking of Victoria and I, are you?

Diego, Alejandro began, sounding wounded, I've never heard you use such poor grammar before - it's Victoria and me...

Father... Diego began warningly. It doesn't matter how I misuse grammar in this instance. You know how enamored Victoria is with Zorro... she could never fall for anyone else.

Hmmm, Alejandro hummed. It might interest you to know that her affections haven't always been fixed on a certain outlaw...

Father, Diego warned again. It doesn't matter what was, only what is, and Victoria is as off limits as off limits can get.

Perhaps... Alejandro answered vaguely.

Diego's eyes narrowed this time. What's that supposed to mean?

Alejandro crossed his arms, appearing nonchalant and thoughtful. Just that we had a very intriguing conversation this morning...

Oh? Diego questioned sarcastically, And was it about the senility you're suffering from lately?

Oh, ha, ha, Alejandro answered in a deadpan, irritated tone of voice. All I'm saying is that it's high time for you to get...

Oh, here it comes, Diego declared back. A bid for me to feel sorry for you and get married and have grandchildren...

Well, it wouldn't hurt for you to get married, Alejandro reiterated.

Only if the right woman comes along, Diego emphasized.

The right woman! scoffed Alejandro. Diego, you've spent so many years idolizing 'the right woman' that you've idolized her right out of existence!

Oh, I have not! Diego defended immediately. And what does this have to do with Victoria, anyway?

Victoria, Alejandro repeated, as if he was reminded by his son's repetition of her name that she did, indeed, exist. Is it all right with you if I invite Victoria over for supper?

Diego felt a tiny thrill course through him at just the mention of her name. He hid his feelings. Of course it is, but does that mean we'll have to invite the Castillos as well?

Can't have one without the other, Alejandro quickly stated.

Diego thumped just a bit in his seat on the straight-backed chair. Oh! You drive a hard bargain - Victoria and the conniving Lucia..?

Or no Victoria and the conniving Lucia anyway, Alejandro promptly said, his voice now full of the humor the situation presented.

Diego scowled at his father. You know which option I choose. Although Victoria is hardly considered to be a marriageable female, he added.

She is and she isn't, Alejandro said.

Diego looked at him in suspicion.

You'll never believe what she confided in me today, Alejandro started to say.

If it's a confidence, then I can hardly hear of it, Diego told him.

Alejandro shook his head. His silver hair danced across the back of his neck. I taught you far too well, he muttered to himself. You're too polite for your own good. Louder, he continued, You might be interested to know that at one time, Victoria was very... taken... with you.

Diego drew back in surprise. She said that?

Alejandro nodded, a tiny, astute, smile on his face. She said that when you first came home, before she met Zorro, she could have...

Diego wasn't certain that he wanted to hear about what might have been. But she did meet Zorro, he said. And she fell in love with him, even though your daydreams might have indicated differently...

Alejandro straightened in indignation. He dropped his arms so that they hung at his sides. That's not what she said at all.

Diego sat back again in a relaxed posture in his chair. He was pretty certain he knew where this conversation was heading. He felt safe enough to ask, And what did she say, oh esteemed father? His words dripped with sarcasm.

Alejandro rolled his eyes again at his son's banter. All right, Seņor I-know-everything-about-Victoria-Escalante...

I know this much, at least, Diego interrupted. Victoria's affections have always belonged to Zorro...

Oh, ho, ho, interrupted his father right back. That shows how much you really do know.

Diego peered quizzically at his father. Victoria's affections don't belong to Zorro?

They do now, but they might not have always belonged to the bandit.

That's... Diego started, doing his best to hide the fear that sliced through his heart at hearing those words.

That's the truth as she told it and I heard it this morning, Alejandro said with finality. There was a time, before Zorro, like I said, that she was equally as taken with you.

That was incredible news! But, still... What do you mean? What about me?

Only that she was as interested in you when you first came back from Spain as she claimed you were in her, Alejandro triumphantly said.

Uh-oh, Diego thought. Better to shut his father's matchmaking wheel off right now. That might be, Diego spluttered, trying to look convincing even while he was trying to convince himself, but that was a long time ago, and she's never...

And I don't suppose you ever have, either, Alejandro stated.

Diego tried to appear horrified. No, of course not! Victoria has always appeared as a sister of mine more than...

Someone to court? Alejandro inquired dryly, finishing Diego's statement. Then he went on, Look, Diego, all I'm saying is that I would be delighted if you choose one or the other of the young women to spend your time with tonight...

That's easy; I choose Victoria, Diego informed unequivocally, thinking of the chasing he would have to put up with if he chose Lucia, though she may be the only unattached person at this little party of his father's.

That's fine with me, Alejandro said in a tone of voice that indicated he had offered Diego a choice, knowing how that choice would ultimately turn out, and that he was pleased with the result. Diego scowled again as Alejandro suggested, You might look at Victoria in more than a sisterly light, tonight.

Father, you can't mean...

Victoria, or the doubtful charms of Lucia, Alejandro warned. Remember the evening you could have, Diego.

I don't believe you're forcing me to endure this... Diego muttered.

Alejandro retreated through the door, but leaned back to say, She was once quite taken with you, and according to the look on your face at the time, as Victoria explained this morning, you were quite taken with her.

Diego groaned. This is all getting quite confusing, if you ask me.

I'm not, Alejandro admitted. When Diego frowned, the older caballero said, Just think about it, Diego, and humor an old man. He widened his eyes at his son. I can't wait forever to have grandchildren...

I knew it! Diego exclaimed. Grandchildren had to come in to the conversation sometime.

Diego, it's high time you were married! Alejandro called back over his shoulder as he was leaving his son's suite of rooms.

Married, yes, but..! Diego called back, though just the idea sent shivers down his spine.

Why not to Victoria, then?

Father, don't embarrass me in front of her! Diego entreated.

Who, me? Never! laughed Alejandro as he moved back into the front of the hacienda.

Z Z Z

But when a servant had been sent to the Castillo residence to offer the invitation to supper at the de la Vega hacienda to both Don Jimero and his charming daughter, he was informed that Lucia already had plans to have supper at the tavern with Don Emilio Hermanado. Only Don Jimero, himself, was free to attend supper that evening at the de la Vega hacienda. When that servant continued on to the tavern to invite Victoria, she said she'd be delighted to fill out the correct number of guests at Don Alejandro's informal dinner party; one guest to keep Don Alejandro in society, and she could keep Diego company for the evening.

Don Alejandro grumbled that the evening's events weren't quite turning out how he had planned, even as Diego smiled broadly at the change in the evening's guests. It pained him not at all to think of spending an entire night in Victoria's company, even while he firmly ordered himself not to become too excited by her presence.

That order flew out the proverbial window the minute she entered the hacienda. Her hair was flung back and held with the combs he had given her last year as Zorro, and the striated coloring of the combs perfectly complimented her dark hair, as he had known they would when he bought them from a shop in Monterey. Now, he shamelessly said, What pretty combs, Victoria, as she stole into the hacienda from the depths of the descending darkness outside.

She literally beamed up at him. Thank you, Diego! she said. They were a gift. She didn't elaborate on whom they were a gift from, and Diego found that an interesting omission on her part, as if she didn't want anyone to know they had been a present from a bandit.

Where they from Zorro? Diego went on to inquire, feeling like a heel even as he did the asking.

As a matter of fact, they were, but I think I should just take them out, now. One's not holding my hair quite right; it itches. She pulled the combs from her hair and shook her head, stowing the combs in her pocket.

Diego gulped when she innocently tossed her head, but he didn't think anybody had noticed his action.

The frown that had been on Alejandro's face lifted into a smile when Victoria removed the combs. Welcome, my dear, as always.

You're so kind, Don Alejandro, Victoria grinned back.

Please, just Alejandro, for tonight, the caballero said.

Victoria nodded. As you wish - Alejandro, though it feels strange to leave off the honorific title.

As strange as it feels for me to not hear you say it, Alejandro said immediately, then turned to greet Don Jimero as he rode up to the hacienda, dismounted, and entered. Please, Alejandro said as he waved them towards the dining room after the proper greetings had been delivered. He followed Diego, Don Jimero, and Victoria out of the entrance hall.

Half an hour later, Alejandro laughed and said, I'm glad you came this evening, Don Jimero; your stories about your youth are very humorous - but, just wait until I tell you about the first time Diego tried to ride a barely broken colt...

Tried is the optimum word, Father, Diego said before Alejandro could relate the embarrassing story of his seven-year-old son falling off the colt to land right in a patch of mud.

No, the stock yard was never the same after you had that experience, Alejandro agreed, and chuckled again.

Victoria smiled as well. I have a hard time thinking of you being thrown off any horse, Diego, she said.

Diego shrugged. Well, he answered, it certainly bruised my seven-year-old ego!

Don Jimero chimed in, Did you even have an ego, then, Diego?

Diego laughed quietly, slightly embarrassed, yet knowing all the ribbing was only in fun. Not after that! he said.

They all laughed once more, and a silence followed their shared outburst. But Don Alejandro looked like he wanted to say something next, but looked hesitatant.

Finally, Alejandro said, Diego, I have a question about cattle prices for Don Jimero, and that will undoubtedly lead to more commentary about cattle...

Diego interrupted his father, ... and I'll be bored to tears.

That's exactly what I was thinking, Alejandro continued. I just wanted to warn you.

Without missing a beat, Diego turned to Victoria. Perhaps you would like to take a turn in the garden with me? It would at least get us away from another evening spent discussing the price of meat.

Victoria grinned again at Diego's inherent joke. As much as I get a shiver of excitement when talking about the price of meat, perhaps I'll forgo it this one time.

Their chairs scraped against the floor as Diego and Victoria prepared to enter the garden, and as the older caballeros wandered into the library. Diego smiled to himself at Victoria's subtle jest; she could always make him smile, he mused.

The garden effused a certain odor of dirt and freshly pruned vegetation as Diego and Victoria entered it's walled-in confines to 'smell the roses' while Dons Alejandro and Jimero spoke of cattle and prices and other ranch business. This is much better than listening to that conversation, Diego said, Not to mention the company's a whole lot prettier.

Thank you.... I think, said Victoria of Diego's bald compliment. It was so rare for Diego to say anything about how Victoria appeared that she didn't quite know how to respond to him. Saying 'Thank you' seemed both polite and warranted, though she was glad at the same time that the dark hid her red-hot blush from him. She turned her head towards the wall, away from Diego, to make sure he saw nothing of her reaction. But, the fact that she wanted to hide her face from him at all made her more aware of him as a male than she had ever felt before. That, too, made her blush.

Diego didn't appear to notice that any of her behavior seemed odd. Not to say anything too personal or too judgmental, but Don Jimero isn't exactly the youngest, spriest man in Los Angeles. Though I don't mean to comment on your life too personally, either, Victoria, but cattle prices are about the most boring thing I can think of to talk about.

Then what should we talk about that's not boring? The newspaper? The Alcalde? The dust in the plaza? Victoria teased. And you can compliment me all you like - I don't mind.

Yes, but Zorro might, Diego said back quickly.

Victoria felt the thrill that always shot down her spine when Zorro was mentioned, but she wasn't sure she wanted to speak about Zorro just then. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Diego cringe at his words; bringing up Zorro to her was always a fail-safe topic of discussion, but... Business has been extremely good lately at the tavern, Victoria said in an offhand manner, attempting to make him forget the previous subject that had been mentioned.

Diego looked at her more fully, confusion written all over his face. Victoria, why did you resist talking about Zorro just now? Did he do something to make you angry?

Victoria smiled brightly. Of course not, Diego! It's just that when I'm here with you, I feel as if I should speak about you and not him. It would be more polite. And, besides, men always wish to speak about themselves - remember, I run a tavern; I ought to know.

Diego chuckled softly, a sound that barely carried to Victoria's ears. Well, I'm glad to hear that nothing has happened between you and Zorro lately... think of the gossip any type of contact between you two always causes... but I can't deny the fact that you do run a tavern.

Victoria had to laugh at his reply. Ah, good answer, she said, quietly commenting on his own statement. Very... vague and polite.

Diego laughed with her. I always try to be polite, Seņorita, he said, smiling.

Victoria stared at him, laughing at first as she stared, and then just staring.

Is there something wrong, Seņorita? Diego asked. Is dinner not agreeing with you?

Victoria seemed to draw back against a wall covered in rose blossoms so that he couldn't see her response to his words on her face. No, of course not! she exclaimed. Don Alejandro's cook always serves a marvelous meal.

Let me guess... Diego said. It's something you wish to try out at the tavern?

Victoria sent him a quelling expression. No, something I wish to try out on you, if you're not careful, Seņor! she shot back, humor evident in her tone. You might find yourself the subject of an experiment. It was only after she said the words that she fully comprehended their double meaning; as if she wanted to experiment on Diego at all! She didn't... didn't she? Ignoring her own doubts that she had dredged up on the subject, and looking for another topic for discussion, Victoria commented on the first thing that came to her attention - a shooting star that she could just see over the top of the wall surrounding the de la Vega garden. Look - a shooting star!

Yes, Diego said as he walked over to join her at the wall. I've been seeing them for several days.

What do you mean by 'them?' Victoria asked.

The abundance of shooting stars, Diego explained. At her blank look, he went on, They're almost like a shower, coming from the Perseid cluster of stars... that takes place every August? he continued when he kept getting an uncomprehending gaze from her.

Every August?

Yes, at least for as long as I've been alive.

Really? she inquired in a disbelieving, though grudgingly respectful voice. I didn't know we could see something like that! After a pause, she went on, And I didn't know that you've always known about it!

Oh, yes, Diego assured, his eyes now on the stars that twinkled in the expanse of night sky stretching overhead. I've been lying out at night in hopes of witnessing the entire sky light up with shooting stars. I've seen some truly impressive displays.

Here? Victoria asked, the disbelieving tone once again in her voice. In Los Angeles?

Diego smiled at her in understanding. Yes, even in a tiny place like Los Angeles. It doesn't really matter where you are at the time... only that you can't help but show amazement... He had turned again from her shadowy figure to contemplate the sky.

Victoria followed suit, one hand on his blue-coated arm for balance. At last, she returned her gaze to him. It's too bad that I have to go back to the tavern soon - seeing an entire sky full of shooting stars sounds interesting.

Diego looked at her as well, and shrugged his shoulder just a little, but not hard enough to dislodge her arm. Would you like to stay just a bit longer? he asked, throwing caution to the wind as he did the asking. We could watch the sky for awhile, then I promise to see you back to the tavern at an only slightly scandalous hour.

Victoria couldn't help but laugh at his words. All right, Diego, that sounds fun. And polite, she added impishly. What do we do first?

Diego was gazing at her with a quickly concealed look of adoration on his face. He covered it with a much more bland expression and said, I'll tell Father where he can find us and grab some blankets - a true stargazing experience isn't complete unless you're lying down.

Lying down? Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. Victoria wrinkled her nose, an act which wasn't lost on him, in spite of the darkness; he had always thought she had a cute nose. I don't know, Diego, it doesn't sound so innocent to me, and it won't to the townspeople, either.

It's just sky watching, he answered, scoffing at her concerns. Come on - it'll be fun.

His enthusiasm for something scientific had been tweaked, and Victoria could hear the excitement leaking through his voice. Against her better judgment, she replied, All right, Diego, a few moments can't hurt, I suppose.

Diego placed a hand on his coat over where his heart would be. You have my personal guarantee that you'll be perfectly safe. It will be like you're spending the evening with Zorro.

There it was again - he had mentioned the bandit's name once more. She wondered why he did that so often, unless... Victoria's eyes widened. Could Diego be Zorro? But that's a ridiculous thought, she told herself. Wasn't it? Just as quickly, she smiled at him, and nodded, lest he guess what she was thinking.

Diego took her outstretched hand and led her back into the hacienda, his expression one of anticipation; he was too excited to notice anyone's expressions, even Victoria's. He left her just inside the door to the garden. Wait here, he ordered in distraction now that he had her agreement. Without further preamble, he walked into the library, where his father sat, deeply ensconced in a conversation with Don Jimero. Father, I'm taking Victoria out back so we can watch the shooting stars for a few moments. Then we'll head back to the tavern afterwards.

Diego, Don Alejandro said, holding his finger up in warning. You two, lying alone in the night, just to watch the sky? He shook his head. Oh, no, no, no. Not alone you're not.

Oh, Father, Diego ridiculed what he thought of as his father's ancient belief system of protocol. He gave his own head a shake. We're just going to watch for a few moments. When Alejandro didn't appear to want to relent any time soon, Diego went on, Father, you're so out of date! he commented in regret. Look, will it make you feel better if you send Felipe out with hot drinks in a little while?

Alejandro considered. All right, he reluctantly agreed. But there will be no 'goings on' out there!

Father! Diego sighed, as if the very thought appalled him. He jumped up from his place on the chair he had sat in when he interrupted his father's conversation. I'm thirty-one years old; when are you going to start trusting me?

I trust you just fine, Alejandro asserted firmly. It's the gossips in town that I don't trust...

Nothing will happen! Diego exclaimed. We won't go near anybody who sounds like a bandit, I promise.

Don Jimero took that moment to comment, What does a bandit sound like, anyway?

It was just the distraction Diego needed. While his father was trying to respond to his guest's question, Diego left the room, gathered blankets, pillows, and a lighted lantern, and dropped them near the back door before he gathered the waiting Victoria. He may not think the pueblo gossips were something to be concerned about, but he didn't wish to parade Victoria through the house, loaded down with blankets and pillows, either. Even I don't wish to try to explain why I'm dragging pillows throughout the house on one hand, and Victoria on the other, he muttered to himself.

Not five minutes had gone by before Diego was back beside Victoria. All ready! he said. Felipe's going to come out in a moment and bring hot drinks for us...

Sounds wonderful! Victoria enthused, But why does he need to bring us something warm to drink? Won't it be plenty warm already in August? she asked, a little scornfully. She cleared her throat to get rid of the judgmental sound in her voice.

It's hot during the day, but cools off quickly once the sun sets, Diego explained as he led the way through the darkened hacienda to the back door. I don't want to make the mistake of freezing before we see any shooting stars.

You sound like you've had experience, Victoria noted as she was dragged along the corridors of the hacienda.

Yes. Two nights ago, I came in an hour earlier than I had planned because I was so cold. It won't happen again.

Victoria smiled at him, then. You seem like such an excited child, she noted, this time with affection in her voice. All excited and beaming. She grinned.

He grinned back. Well, usually, I don't have anyone to share this experience with. I'm glad you're coming with me, Victoria, he said and clasped her hand in the dark.

Victoria felt a bit uneasy at his hand squeeze, but she couldn't stop herself before she had automatically answered with a squeeze of her own. I am truly interested in seeing a bunch of shooting stars, Diego.

I know, and that makes this all the better. Diego then scooped up his contraband items and led her through the back door.

Let me carry some of that, Victoria offered, and Diego paused long enough to pass the blankets on to her before he continued until they reached the slight rise of a small hill about thirty steps behind the hacienda.

This looks like the perfect site, Diego said, and he dropped the pillows in his arms before he pulled a blanket from the pile that she had carried to spread out on the soft grass for them to sit on. That should keep the dew away from our clothes, he said, then tossed the pillows down on top of the blanket. Without looking as if he was consumed with worry about who he was with, he blew out the lantern and lay down with his head on the pillow and his hands behind his head in a show of complete unconcern.

Victoria was a bit slower in joining him in the intimate position, but soon she was stretched out beside him. Oh, would you like that blanket I brought now? she asked politely, holding it up from her side.

Diego took it in his hands, but set it down next to him. I don't need it just yet, but if I know the nighttime California weather, I soon will.

Victoria wriggled beside him on the blanket, though he seemed as relaxed as he had ever been in her company. Now, what are we supposed to do? asked Victoria a few moments later after staring at a sky where nothing was happening.

Diego chuckled lightly. Give it time, Victoria. You'll see something very soon or...

He didn't have a chance to finish his comment before she was pointing at the sky. There's one! Victoria breathed in subdued excitement. And one more!

See, I told you something would... Diego began to say, but the green light of a huge glowing ball stopped his speech, and he just stared in wonder.

Wow, Victoria whispered in reverence, her eyes wide.

It's a bit early to be able to see such an excellent display, Diego told her a few minutes later, but I guess this is an unusual night, since such things are happening.

I'll say it's unusual! Victoria agreed. They were silent as streaks of light continued to careen across the sky over them. Six shooting stars later, Victoria quietly observed, You're right; it's like a shower of shooting stars; how beautiful.

Diego was more hesitant when he gazed at her and said, Yes, it is beautiful. But it's more beautiful when I have someone to share it with, I admit.

Victoria could have said something about the way he seemed to be so relaxed with his personal comments, but she decided to let her uneasiness slide for the moment. Look, there's two more!

And one over there! Diego said, pointing towards the western horizon.

And there! Victoria turned towards the west, and saw another shooting star to the north from the corner of her eye. It was gone, however, by the time she could look more closely at it.

Another few moments went by, and Victoria agreed with Diego's assessment on the weather; she was getting chilled from lying in one place for so long. She pulled the third blanket over her to cover her skirt, careful not to bother him by forcing him to lie on the curled edge of her blanket.

Diego laughed. Cold? he asked, as if he knew what she was going to say before she said it. He was thinking of the two of them heading into a storm in between the hacienda and Santa Paula one night the year before, and taking shelter in an abandoned windmill for the night; the building had been dry, but far from warm! Victoria had shivered and shook with cold all night long.

Oh, stop gloating! Victoria ordered with amusement evident in her voice.

I wouldn't dream of gloating, Diego said.

Victoria sighed and pulled up her blanket to cover her bare arms. No, you didn't shiver as much as I did that night we spent in that old windmill, did you? Then, she softly added, You're not exactly the gloating type, anyway, are you, Diego?

I can gloat more if you want me to, Diego suggested as he reached for his own blanket lying beside him and shook it over his arms and legs.

No, please, don't do it on my account, Victoria teased back.

I was being serious, Diego answered in a slightly wounded voice.

Victoria turned her head and stared at him. She was just as serious when she said, I like the fact that you don't gloat all the time. Then she turned back to look at the sky, and in a louder, more comfortable tone, added, You're one of the few men who come into the tavern who don't tell me about his latest daring exploit with a sword or pistol.

It was Diego's turn to swivel his head towards her. I thought you liked hearing about daring exploits, he remarked.

I do. she immediately said, unknowingly setting his racing heart more at ease. It's just that I don't like hearing about them over and over again, as if the men I hear those stories from have to brag about their own daily lives in order to make those lives more important. A second later, she went on to note, You don't do that.

I don't feel the need to do that, Diego softly observed.

I know, she said back just as softly, since she was commenting on such a personal trait. Why is that?

Diego shrugged, a move not lost to her even with so much blanket covering him. I guess I don't want to draw attention to acts that are so violent in nature, he answered. Swords are often unnecessary, and pistols are what we use to shoot the stock with when we have to shoot them... There's nothing heroic about that! Diego added when she started to laugh.

Victoria tried to contain her mirth at his words. True, she conceded. It hardly sounds... nice... when you put it that way.

I'd far rather spend my time filling out Felipe's adoption papers than in shooting cattle or horses! Diego sarcastically explained in a loud voice now that he was more in control of the conversation again.

Victoria laughed. I can't say that I blame you! she said, before turning her head to stare at him once more. That's a very nice thing you're doing, by the way - adopting Felipe is nice, I mean.

Diego gazed back at her - he could just see her in the light of a newly risen moon. Do you think so?

She nodded as best she could against the blanket. I think it's a very heroic thing to do.

He returned his gaze to the sky. It's not a heroic thing at all, you know, Victoria. I've been thinking about it for a long time, and Felipe's been like a son to me for just as long. Quiet greeted this statement. Finally, he turned to her and asked, Why? Does my adoption of Felipe bother you for some reason?

Me? No! replied Victoria on a surprised breath. I just like to be certain that you're both as happy as possible, that's all, she answered.

I am, Diego gravely replied as he stared at her. Nothing could please me more than to finally make Felipe a part of my family. A quiet moment later, he added, And speak of the devil... He sat up to watch a bobbing light from another lantern cast its uncertain light across the de la Vega lawn. Behind that light, Felipe drifted slowly towards them.

Felipe came closer to reveal the fact that he carried a tray with three glasses on it as well as the lantern. Diego tried to jump up to help the young man, but Felipe was already close enough to them to step on the edge of the blanket spread on the grass. He carefully lowered the tray to the ground and handed Victoria a drink after taking the third glass for himself. Diego had already secured and taken a sip of his own drink.

Hot cider! Diego exclaimed in appreciation. Whatever gave you the idea to serve this? he asked curiously.

Felipe smiled, gave his sign for Maria, the de la Vega cook, then pointed to the glass in his hand. This series of signs was followed by an even shyer grin when he pointed to the tray and Victoria at the same time.

Diego smiled into his glass. He knew exactly how Felipe felt; he, too, was a bit shy around Victoria. Oh, not frightened of her by any means, he considered, but shy of her nonetheless. He suffered from similar turns of his stomach every time he was around her, but he found he had an equal amount of trouble staying away.

In order to distract himself and divert his thoughts, he translated for the bemused Victoria, who never could read Felipe's fast signing as well as he could. Felipe says that he got the idea of hot cider from Maria, but putting it all on the tray to carry out here was an idea that came straight from you.

From me? asked Victoria, obviously still puzzled. But I never...

From that tray you always have with you in the tavern, Diego interrupted, and Felipe smiled again in an indication of his young patrĒn's correct assumption.

Victoria lost her confused expression and smiled up at Felipe. Oh, the tray! That was used by my parents - I wish I could take credit for such a good idea, but I can't. However, I'm glad that it helped you, Felipe, and that, as an idea, it's doing some good for somebody!

Felipe's grin grew even broader. He next pointed to his glass, to Victoria, and last to the tray, all interspersed with the hand signals that he and Diego had created. Victoria glanced in puzzlement at Diego after this rapid waving of arms and hands.

Diego smiled, always happy to translate for anybody, but especially glad to clarify the signs for Victoria. He suggests that you might serve warmed cider to your customers this autumn when it gets cold. Or, colder, I should say.

Victoria considered such a possibility. The thought of serving cider seemed to be a good one, but the idea of pressing all the necessary apples to get that cider was almost more than she could fathom. I will be happy to sell warmed cider if you can sell me the cider by the barrel, she eventually conceded.

Victoria's hair glinted in the lantern light, and Diego had to force himself not to stare at it - or, at least, look like he wasn't staring at it. What was wrong with him tonight? He usually had much better control over his emotions than he was having on this night, but he supposed that the closeness to Victoria that staring at the stars required of them was having an adverse effect even on him. So he resorted to a little joshing to cool his feelings. Are you offering a business deal, Seņorita? Diego inquired, a hint of teasing in his voice, meant to act as a distraction from staring at her hair.

Victoria noticed the pained expression on Diego's face just before he hid it with a look much more benign, and she was once again reminded of the amazing thoughts she'd had in the garden. Did Diego have something to hide, something so revolutionary that he had to conceal his natural emotions behind a facade of friendliness? Something that was so totally amazing as to be unbelievable? Like, perhaps, the fact that he had secretly been Zorro for years? Why else would he bring up the bandit in conversation over and over again?

A tiny voice inside her head argued with her that he had always treated her like nothing more than a friend, and Zorro... Well, to Zorro she had been so much more than a friend... Victoria admitted to herself that her inner confusion with the issue was growing by the moment.

To waylay her unbelievable suspicions, she answered, Pressed apples would be wonderful! I admit that I don't have the time to press enough apples in order to get the cider I would need to serve all my customers, but I would be more than happy to serve cider that is already pressed.

We have plenty of time to write out the details, Diego told her, thinking that it would be several months before the weather grew colder in California. We'll talk about it later when our surroundings are more... congenial... to writing, he commented wryly.

Felipe nodded and smiled, glad that he had been able to help his friends, and took a long drink of his quickly cooling cider.

Felipe has the right idea, Diego said. We should drink before the cider gets cold and is ruined. Then I should take Victoria back to the tavern...

Can I please stay a few more minutes, Diego? Victoria begged. The possibility of seeing another big shooting star is too addictive for us to stop just yet, I admit.

Secretly, Diego was thrilled that Victoria was having such a good time doing something with him that so many people found boring that he was hard pressed, himself, to squelch his smile at her. Instead, he said, Certainly, you can stay. But we probably should head back eventually if we want to avoid causing fits in my father that such 'wild' behavior as staying out signifies.

Victoria gave a slow, creeping sort of smile, looking as if she were enjoying her thoughts. Maybe we should cause fits in your father, she suggested.

Victoria! Diego sent her an appreciative look. Who knew you were so daring.

I am daring, I guess, Victoria answered. My brothers taught me to be so uncaring about the conventions of the day when we were young, so we only have them to blame.

Ah, it's all their fault, is it? Diego's teasing was becoming more personal the more he spoke.

Victoria couldn't quite cover the grin that the lantern light highlighted. But don't tell anyone, she said in a low voice, playing along with his teasing air. It might ruin my reputation for being a woman proper enough to retain control of the tavern's customers. Soon, I could have card players, dancers, gamblers, drunkards, and who knows what else in the tavern! She shook her head. I already have enough trouble with my customers as it is! I don't need a bad reputation as help, she noted under her breath.

Diego was instantly worried. You don't have too much trouble, I hope.

Nothing I can't handle. Victoria shook her head as she spoke. But I have to maintain strict rules of conduct if I want the tavern to remain a pleasant place to visit, she went on.

Diego grinned. So that's why it's always so welcoming, he answered blithely. I always wondered what your secret was.

There's no secret, Victoria replied, But I can't relax the rules now. Relaxed rules only encourage rowdiness, and that's something I don't need.

Zorro would come to your rescue if anything were to happen, Diego commented.

There it is again, Victoria thought to herself.

Felipe smiled, then, and after hefting the tray in his hand and taking both his and Diego's empty glasses on the upraised tray (Victoria wasn't finished with her cider, yet), indicated with a wave that he was intending to go to bed.

Diego and Victoria smiled their good nights, and Felipe slipped through the darkness back in the direction of the hacienda.

Victoria took another drink of her now lukewarm cider, admitted to herself that it was still quite tasty and more festive than her usual fare of coffee that she served in the colder months, and then couldn't completely quell the chill that snaked over her skin at the air disturbed by Felipe's departure. She was still able to set her glass of cider aside without spilling a drop in spite of the shiver.

You're chilled, Diego reported. He lifted the edge of his blanket and threw it across Victoria so that the only thing separating them was the blanket already wrapped around Victoria. You are forever getting cold, he teased.

Victoria glanced at him and smiled at the joke. I didn't exactly plan on sitting outside for hours; I'm not dressed quite right. She shivered again, even with the double weight of the added blanket.

But this kind of star display is too good to miss, even for cold air, Diego said.

True, Victoria agreed.

Diego lay back. Perhaps you'll be warmer in a moment.

Victoria lay down again as well. Perhaps, was all she would say on the subject, but she couldn't quite dispel a desire to snuggle up to him. She buried most of her emotions, but was still cold enough that she moved an inch closer to his coated arm. But, despite the cold, or, perhaps, because of it, the sky seemed an even deeper black. She was reminded of Zorro's black outfit, and thinking such thoughts reminded Victoria of her idea from before of Diego secretly being Zorro. Diego, she said to get his attention, Why do you bring up Zorro's name so often?

Do I? asked Diego, who had been unaware of such a habit. But fear at the danger of her possible discovery of him again tingled across his skin. He covered the sensation. I didn't know that I mentioned his name so uncommonly often.

I've noticed it this evening, Victoria said, I haven't noticed it before probably because I've never talked to you for so long and in such an uninterrupted manner. She turned her attention to the sky overhead, and saw two shooting stars go by. She barely paid them any attention, though; she was more interested in her conversation with Diego.

You would be aware of any mention of Zorro's name, Diego noted wryly.

Victoria had to laugh at that comment. Well, yes, I suppose I would, at that.

Suddenly, Diego grew more serious. Do you suppose that's true? That you are more aware of the mention of his name, and that's why you're noticing it now?

Victoria considered that. I guess you're right, Diego. I never thought of it that way, she said, sounding like she really had never considered that possibility before. I guess that's one way of looking at it.

Diego felt the relief flood through him as he successfully threw her thoughts askew. Well, if that would happen to anybody, it would happen to you. He chuckled a bit, hoping the gesture didn't sound as forced as it actually was.

I suppose that it's a natural reaction, Victoria mused, glad that she had finally found someone that she could talk to about Zorro. I would like to talk to someone about him. I can't talk to him, because I so rarely see him, though he would be the most likely person for me to talk to. But, he's never around long enough for me to want waste time on what I think of as trivial matters.

This was news to Diego. She had never said that she wanted to discuss Zorro before, or say something specific to him. That concept had never occurred to him, though now that he thought of that very idea, it should have definitely come to his attention before now. It only made sense that she would want to speak of the relationship she shared with Zorro. After all, she had no one to talk to about Zorro, as he had Felipe to speak to. There was no one except Padre Benitez to give her advice, and as she had noted before, he was necessarily ignorant of anything that she desired to know. Then, a new idea occurred to him. Maybe you could tell me whatever it is that you want to say to Zorro. As, sort of, practice for the real thing.

She turned her head to face him. Practice? she questioned with a wrinkle to her nose.

Sure, Diego said, warming now to this new idea of his, even though he hadn't had time to think it through sufficiently and find the dangers that were naturally built into it. But he plowed on despite any misgivings he might have felt. You deserve to talk about anything you want to talk about. Concerning Zorro, that is, he hastened to add. There has to be someone you can use as a sounding board, so to speak.

And you don't mind? Victoria inquired.

Diego looked at her. No, of course I don't. It surprises me that we haven't thought of this before now, he said, being honest with her.

Victoria swallowed her natural fear and shyness at this suggestion. What do you want to know? she asked.

Diego shrugged a shoulder under the blanket. Well, like... how many children do you want to have? Is there a specific number?

I know I want to have a child sometime, Victoria responded, suddenly fighting tears in her eyes, not knowing until that very moment how much she actually did want children. I haven't thought about it before now... don't you think that the number of children I want is a relatively private topic to discuss? she had to ask.

Diego sighed. Victoria, he said, sounding patient, this won't work unless you participate, and that you do an amount of pretending while you're 'playing along' with this scenario.

Pretending? she inquired.

Yes, he said with another shrug. You must have something you want to say to Zorro. Only he's not here right now, but I am. Take the opportunity while you get it, he suggested. So, pretend that you're having a conversation with Zorro; how many children do you want? Did she even have an opinion about the number of children they had, assuming she and Diego could someday marry and have a family? Or didn't she care? What do you think?

Well, she slowly answered, I guess I'd have to say that I haven't thought about that before. I need more time to think on it before I can give an honest answer.

Okay, fair enough, Diego responded.

Why? How many children do you want?

Me? Diego asked. Oh, I don't know, he said when he saw the outline of her head nod in the darkness. I guess I want however many children are born healthy; that's fine by me. I haven't thought of it, either, to be honest.

Fair enough - isn't that what you said to me? Victoria asked, and they could both hear the humor that came through in her voice.

Maybe there is no specific number that you want to settle on? Diego asked.

Victoria thought about that idea, and decided that he was right. Maybe there isn't, she responded.

That brings to mind how you'd like to raise them - have you thought about religion - what ideology do you wish to bring them up with? Do you care? When she didn't say anything, Diego went on, As much as this sounds like treasonous talk, you have to consider that the ideology of the throne changes all the time - I mean, right now, it's Catholic, and that agrees with how we were raised by our own parents...

But hasn't Spain always been Catholic? Victoria questioned.

It has for generations, but that doesn't mean it always will be, or that California will always belong to Spain, Diego pointed out. Mexico is fighting for its independence even now, he went on to say. California may someday be a part of Mexico instead of Spain. We have to consider that Spain may not always be in control of California or Mexico or anything.

But isn't Mexico Catholic?

I don't know, Diego admitted with a thoughtful sigh. There's not much news about how Mexico is or isn't that reaches us in such a far outpost as Los Angeles has become.

And what we hear is official, government news from the Alcalde, Victoria pointed out, having heard such things being discussed by her customers when she couldn't help but overhear them; she had to take orders and serve sometime, after all. She couldn't wait until each customer got done having a conversation - that would be ridiculous!

And, forgive me for saying this, but do you trust the Alcalde?

Victoria sighed. I've publicly announced that I'm in love with an outlaw of the government... what do you think, Diego? she asked sardonically.

Diego had to chuckle again. I doubt that you have much affection for the office, no matter who holds it.

Victoria snorted impolitely. The fact that it's Ignacio DeSoto holding the office right now isn't encouraging, either, she said angrily, this time.

Diego's brow grew lined, a fact that she couldn't see in nothing but moonlight. But didn't you once say that you... um...

That I what?

That you loved him? Diego continued, feeling uncomfortable.

Victoria laughed, a reaction that Diego hadn't expected, given what he had said. That was just a suggestion, and a wrong one at that. I could never love the man who is trying his best to capture Zorro, she declared.

Diego's heart warmed when she said that. He had always wondered about that episode in his and Victoria's strange relationship. It was... unusual.., wasn't it, I guess.

Yes, that was a very odd time in my life, Victoria reflected. I... I'm not sure I want to talk about it.

But isn't talking about things the point? Diego asked.

Victoria shrugged this time. I guess it is, she said. But do we have to waste that time talking about the Alcalde?

Diego laughed when she said that.

I think I'd rather talk about anybody else, Victoria stated with finality.

That was fine with Diego; the subject of the Alcalde wasn't his favorite one, either. All right... have you thought of any favorite names for your future children?

Um... Victoria considered names now. I always thought about just naming them after my parents, or his parents, whoever they are... but now I'm not sure I want to. I might want to do something different. She glanced at him. I hope he doesn't mind.

I doubt he will, Diego said, finding that he truly didn't care very much, now that he had actually thought about that possibility himself.

I mean, I'm named after an aunt...

I didn't know that.

Victoria nodded, and again Diego saw it by the moonlight hitting her hair. I am, but what if that aunt was named something that didn't suit me as well a 'Victoria' does?

What about waiting until you see that child, and then naming it whatever name seems to suit it best? Diego suggested.

That's an idea, Victoria resolved. I think I like that idea.

Diego felt as if they had decided something momentous. Maybe 'Jorge' will fit better 'Juan.'

Or 'Thomasina' will be better than... what was your mother's name?

Elena, Diego answered. Though it doesn't exactly matter - we're not married.

Victoria laughed. No.

But what if..? Diego stopped. The only reason he could put a voice to this new fear of his was that the dark hid his features, hid the fright showing on his face.

Victoria turned to him. You were saying?

What if we were to get married? he asked. Would that be so distasteful to you?

Victoria laughed again. No, I don't think it would. But you would have to be Zorro for us to get married, and you're not Zorro, are you? So it doesn't matter. She glanced up once more. And besides, I thought we were talking about names? she asked lightly.

To cover his elation as well as his hurt at her innocent words, Diego continued as best he could with their conversation. His voice only shook a little as he asked, We were talking about names. In fact, I have the perfect name picked out for a girl.

She didn't know this. You do? she asked. What is it?

'Victoria,' he answered, sounding as sincere as he could rather than sympathetic or romantic and rouse her further interest.

As it was, her interest was roused enough already. 'Victoria?' she scoffed, and laughed. I thought you were being serious here.

I am being serious, Diego replied.

Victoria shot a glance in his direction. She couldn't see the fire burning in his eyes because of the darkness, but that didn't mean she couldn't hear the earnestness in his voice. You are being serious.

I've never been so sincere in my life... except at one time, Diego said, thinking of the day he, as Zorro, had proposed marriage to Victoria in the secret cave. He'd been more than serious that day, if in a positive, optimistic way.

What time was that? Victoria inquired. Was it while you were at school?

It doesn't matter, Diego said evasively. What matters is that I've known that I've liked that name since I was quite small. The fact that you share it is a bit of a pleasant coincidence, nothing more.

Victoria felt her eyelids heavily resisting her attempt to open them and either watch him or watch the sky above them. She pushed them up, anyway. She couldn't afford to get sleepy while lying out in the grass with him; what a compromising position that would be! If you say so. But it does seem a trifle strange.

Why? It just happens that I like the name 'Victoria.' There's really nothing strange about that. We are friends, after all, and many people name their children after their friends. Look at the Magheros, for instance.

There was no secret to the news that Margarita Maghero had just given birth to a baby boy the previous Friday, and she and her husband, Carlos, had chosen to name the baby 'Juan' after his best friend.

When Victoria didn't answer right away, Diego settled down against the blanket at his back and thought about the name 'Victoria.' He could shorten such a name in many ways, to differentiate the child from its mother. Of course, this was assuming that Victoria wasn't completely put off by the fact that her love was also her best friend. According to what she had said earlier about being married to him, the prospect wasn't horrible to her, but it was more laughable, now, than anything else. He didn't know if he should despair over her reaction, or rejoice at the idea that marriage to him wasn't entirely revolting to her.

Diego decided to be glad about her reaction, and snuggled against his pillow a bit more. He noticed that the sky above the hacienda was speckled with stars, three of which fell into the horizon while he was looking. This was definitely the correct night to initiate Victoria into the art of sky-watching, he thought to himself. It had been a more than satisfactory experience, as well as exciting, especially with that big, green ball they'd seen right at the beginning. That had been...

Z Z Z

The next thing Victoria knew, she saw sunlight blazing down on her through the opening her window at the tavern provided. But that was funny, she mused. Her window faced west, not east, towards the morning sun. Maybe it was later than she anticipated and the sun was shining through just a corner of her window. She shouldn't have stayed so late at the de la Vega hacienda the evening before... It was irritating that she could recall so little about the drive back to the tavern or climbing into her own soft, nicely warm bed, but then, she must have drunk a bit more than she was used to the previous night...

But they'd had no wine, either during or after dinner...

Her eyes popped open to settle on the ring of obviously concerned faces hovering above her. What were so many people doing in her bedroom? Had she been sick or something?

The face belonging to Don Alejandro leaned in rather close to hers. Victoria? he asked in a soft voice. Seņorita Escalante?

Victoria didn't answer him, only stared at the faces circling above her - seeing so many people at once made her vision swim with light and confusion. She blinked.

Don Alejandro shook her shoulder through the blanket covering it. The pressure on her shoulder put pressure on her head. No, the fact that her head was somehow resting against Diego's coated sleeve put pressure on it. She moved her head and sluggishly blinked again. Wait... Diego's shoulder, touching her head? How could that be..?

Suddenly aware, Victoria sat up with a start. The blankets fell to her waist and puddled against her red skirt.

Steady, Victoria, Alejandro said, and immediately supported her with a hand on her back. You've had a long night out here - you're probably plenty stiff. I can't believe you and Diego were out here all night!

Diego?

Victoria's head jerked around so she could stare at the prostrate form of the man stretched out beside her. The blanket that had been covering them both slipped to show the edge of his blue-coated shoulder, but that was all as the blanket had been pulled up to his chin sometime during the night

Then the full impact of the situation impressed itself on her mind; she had been found sleeping with Diego de la Vega, an unmarried man, on a blanket spread out for them, covered in a second blanket that had clearly been meant to protect them both from the cold night air... this must look bad to everyone watching...

The tavern..! Victoria squawked, trying to climb to her feet.

Careful! Alejandro stopped her with his hand sliding from her back to her shoulder and pressing down, keeping her where she was. The tavern is safe, for now. But first, why don't you tell us all what you and my son are doing out here, covered in a single blanket?

But we're not covered in just... Victoria began, but one of the men standing in the circle that had formed around her and Diego spoke, cutting her off.

Wasn't there some kind of star thing last night? he asked.

Si, answered another. I heard Young Diego speaking about it just day before yesterday. Said he planned to stay up all night, even if he had to...

Si, but he didn't say anything then about keeping such pretty company, a woman spoke up before anyone could say more.

Victoria chuckled at the people ringing her. Wait a moment; Diego brought me out here to see the stars, nothing more.

That's what you say, said the man Victoria knew to be Pedro, the head Vaquero for the ranch. How do we really know what happened out here?

Victoria's face fell in utter horror at the suspicion being voiced about her and Diego... Why, the idea of doing anything with Diego was nothing short of ridiculous! Wait! Diego and I didn't do anything that..!

You would say that, though, the same woman pointed out, her voice brusk.

Still, Victoria felt she had to protest. But, we didn't... Nothing... The thought that nobody was voicing was so utterly ridiculous that she had trouble even putting words to such a proposition.

But everyone will suspect... said another man doubtfully. He looked at his friends and co-workers standing beside the blanket.

And all anyone needs to say in order for someone else to think the worst is... The voice of a second woman stopped, leaving her thought unvoiced. The silence she gave leant that thought more power than if she had voiced it.

Diego chose that unfortunate moment to stir beside her and wake. His hand immediately shot out of the twisted confines of the blankets and covered his eyes from the glare of the sun. Father, what are you doing..? He paused as he glanced around. What is everyone doing in my bedroom? he asked, clearly as confused as Victoria had been when she first awoke. Then he turned his head and spotted Victoria. Victoria, what are you doing here? He stopped as memory asserted itself in his mind, according to the expression of dawning understanding and dismay that swept across his features. He rose to a sitting position as quickly as she had. Father, I...

Diego didn't get the chance to finish. Alejandro sat back on his heels and grimly regarded them both. I think we have something of a problem, he stated, his tone as bleak as his words.

Go On To Part II


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