The Worth of a Good Reputation

by Linda Bindner

Part II

But nothing happened! Diego exclaimed a moment later to the two in the library, his usual calm deserting him when his father put the question to him concerning what had gone on in his back yard while he'd been asleep during the night.

That's not what people are going to say, Alejandro informed, as if he knew he was right, and he was right in this case... as soon as the news of Diego's and Victoria's sleeping arrangements swept through the pueblo, its citizens were sure to jump to conclusions first, and pay attention to the truth second. The damage would be done.

But surely you don't believe everything you hear, Victoria declared loudly, trying to salvage what she could of the situation.

Alejandro sighed and rubbed his palms against his thighs. At last, he said, No, I don't.

Victoria smiled, vindicated. There. You see? she said triumphantly. And the people of the pueblo...

But Alejandro went on. The people of the pueblo, he said loud enough to override Victoria's voice, don't exactly care about anything when they have a group mentality, as they will certainly have this time, we can be sure of that. It's not me you have to worry about, like I said, but the group the citizens will create, however unwittingly. I've seen something like this happen before; they will ask questions later. Had you not attracted everyone working on the entire ranch...

What were they all doing out so early in the morning, anyway? Diego asked.

Alejandro sighed again. It wasn't that early, Diego. In fact, you and Victoria are lucky that you aren't suffering from nasty sunburns on top of your other... difficulties, he settled on at last.

Diego sighed as well. Father, how many times do I have to say it? Nothing happened! he insisted.

Alejandro nodded from his place in a chair in the library. Well, you'll have to say it an awful lot, because unless you have a good explanation for the fact that you spent the night together, since everyone saw you this morning, you'll either lose what good reputations you have, or... He didn't finish, looking now at Victoria with a puzzling expression of concern mixed with sorrow on his face.

Or what? Diego asked.

Alejandro finished his sentence. ... or you'll be expected to get married.

Victoria's eyes flew wide at this pronouncement. I can't...

I know, Alejandro said as he held up a warding hand. What about your promise to Zorro? I've already thought about that, and I'm afraid that he can't help you this time.

What do you mean, 'he can't help me this time?' Victoria asked.

Alejandro replied readily enough. I mean that he can cut whatever else he wants with that sword of his, or he can bring a bunch of outlaws to justice, but he can't stop people's tongues from wagging. The older nobleman sighed again. And this time... If we hadn't found you this morning as a group, I might have been able to hush this up, but with finding you so out in the open, and by a bunch of people who are sure to go into the pueblo, and who are certain to talk once they get there...

But... began Diego in a protesting tone of voice, and Alejandro stopped him with a raised finger.

Alejandro explained, You can say it until you turn blue from lack of oxygen, but do you wish to be the person who turns Victoria from a tavern owner who is respected all over the territory into a woman with a reputation for being loose?

No! Diego said emphatically. Of course not! And everyone knows that she would never do what you're suggesting! Diego glanced once at Victoria, as if to make certain that she was still present. Just being in the same room as she was seemed to comfort him.

It doesn't matter what she would do, Alejandro argued, but what she is thought to have done.

But that's not fair, Diego protested stridently. The pueblo is full of good people; they'll understand once we explain...

The pueblo may be full of good people, Diego, Alejandro went on, but they'll surely believe what they want to believe, and it's far more fun to believe that a good woman of Victoria's excellent standing could not be so good after all. He snorted, then. They would love to watch her fall, her business fail...

But it shouldn't be like that! Diego protested again, his eyes definitely on Victoria now.

Alejandro finally lost his temper and yelled, You should have thought about that last night before you fell asleep together under one blanket!

But there were two blankets, Victoria said, calmly breaking into the argument.

Again, Alejandro clenched his teeth and tried not to yell at her. That may very well be, Victoria, and you and Diego never had any intention of spending the entire night together, but I, for one, never saw a second blanket, and neither did anyone else.

But it was there, Don Alejandro, Victoria insisted. Wrapped completely around me to keep me warm. She looked at a towering, upset Diego. Your son was very concerned for my comfort.

That does him credit, Victoria, Alejandro conceded. But the fact remains that people will be saying extremely unkind things about you unless Diego marries you.

But I can't.., began Victoria.

Alejandro interrupted her. Are you willing to watch your business at the tavern suffer? he asked. Because it will. Nobody in the pueblo of Los Angeles will want to patronize a place owned by a woman with a bad reputation. I know it's not fair, he went on when he saw the expression of agony on Victoria's face. But that's how it is. We don't have to like it, but we do have to live with it.

No, we don't, Father. We can change the people who.., Diego began.

Ohhhhhh, Alejandro said right away, wagging his finger again. You think you can change everybody, but the truth is that no one will change and no one will want to change. We may have the purest intentions in the world, but it wouldn't matter, he stated. There will always be that one person who will wonder, and who will talk about that wonder, and who will draw his or her own conclusions, no matter what we say. He turned to the tavern owner. Tell him, Victoria. Tell Diego about what you've seen happen in the tavern over and over and over again.

Victoria wrinkled her nose, as if she had just smelled something unpleasant. He's right, Diego; I have seen perfectly innocent situations destroyed by malicious gossip.

Alejandro spoke immediately, And those gossips won't wait around to find out if there was one blanket or two, if your intentions were good or nefarious... they'll talk the second they can, and what they have to say won't be kind, I can guarantee that!

Diego couldn't believe this was happening, but it was happening, and to him. Victoria's chances of retaining her good reputation rested on his decision of what to do next, a decision that could affect so many lives... but what else could he do? All right, all right, I'll cooperate in any way I can instead of trying to argue the point, you know that, Diego said in defeat.

You sound reluctant, like you don't want to marry Victoria, Alejandro accused.

Diego sighed in aggravation; it was too early in the day to have to deal with so much trouble. That's not how I feel at all. It would please me more than anything to marry Victoria. That's not what I'm saying.

Then what are you saying? asked his father.

That Victoria already has other commitments, Diego argued. And that marrying me will... put a crinkle in her plans, he finished.

Crinkle or not, Alejandro said, you'll still have to...

That's easy for you to say, Diego yelled, losing his own temper at last. You're not the person whom Zorro is going to carve into little pieces and eat for dinner!

Zorro would never do that, Victoria protested immediately on the heel of his words.

As good as his idea of bringing up his fear of Zorro's wrath had been, Diego didn't want to give a false impression of the hero or of himself with his next statement. But when a man has his promised love stolen out from under his very... glove.., he's capable of doing a great many things, whether he's naturally noble or not.

But Victoria was shaking her head. I know Zorro, Diego, and as much as this may hurt him, he would never raise his sword against anyone who didn't deserve it.

What if he decides that I deserve it? Diego predicted.

And have I ever told you that he's suggested that I marry you more than once before?

That information seemed to stop Diego's arguments. He said that?

He did, Victoria responded affirmatively. Right in your very garden.

But why me? Diego asked for clarification.

Victoria shrugged her shoulders. He thought that you might uphold my... Well, he thought you would be able to take good care of me.

You don't need someone to take care of you, Diego protested. You're the most capable woman I've ever met.

Thank you, Victoria gave a closed-lipped smile at the compliment. But you've just proven my point, she insisted. There aren't many men in the territory who are confident enough, as both you and he are, who would admit that a woman makes a fine business person on her own merit, and doesn't need a man to run things. Victoria shook her head in disbelief at that theory. Zorro actually has a rather high opinion of you for sticking to your beliefs that we shouldn't turn to violence to solve our problems.

As nice as that was for Diego to hear, he asked, Who's side are you on, anyway? It sounds like you actually want to marry me.

Victoria instantly held up her hand and placed a finger on the bridge of her nose, as if she hoped to keep herself from crying. Don't, she begged. I can't stand it if you're nice to me. I'm trying to convince myself that this is the only course open to us, that this isn't such a bad decision...

Are you succeeding? asked an instantly solicitious Diego.

No, answered a suddenly grieved Victoria. There was the sound of threatening tears in her voice. I'm not.

Don Alejandro came to their rescue this time. Perhaps it would be a good idea to take Victoria home, now, and let you both think over your options before you make any decisions.

We have options? questioned Diego, sounding hopeful.

No, Alejandro said. I just don't want to be the cause of any future despair.

Diego took one look at Victoria as she tried valiantly to fight off her tears. I think it's too late for that, he said quietly.

Maybe so, Alejandro regretfully agreed. Maybe so.

Diego decided then and there that he'd had enough of future plans, desirous or not. Father, may I please talk to Victoria alone for a moment?

Of course. Alejandro rose and headed for the front door. I'll see about Victoria's wagon. And I don't think you should see Victoria home, Diego, he cautioned. There will be enough said about the both of you in town; there's no use adding fuel to the fire.

Diego nodded his understanding. He didn't follow his father out of the hacienda. Instead, he centered his gaze for the first time all morning on Victoria. Slowly, he approached her and took her hand in his. I'm sorry, Victoria. I never anticipated that this might happen...

It's not your fault, Diego, replied Victoria, but then she burst into tears, seeming to negate her words.

Diego did the only thing he could think of for handling a crying female; he did his best to comfort her. Without even thinking how such an action would look to anyone passing through the entrance hall, he pulled Victoria into his embrace. It's all right, Victoria, he whispered. I'll think of something, he promised. If all else failed, he was willing to tell her the truth to set her obvious worries to rest. He didn't want to trouble her, after all. That was the last thing he wanted to do.

But Victoria seemed to have gone numb in his arms, her dazedness only broken up by her trembling. I... I'm sorry... she tried to say, but her tears kept getting in the way of her speaking.

Her anxiety was beginning to distress Diego. Please don't cry, he entreated. I can't stand it if you cry.

I...I don't mean... to cry, hiccuped Victoria. But this changes... everything... everything in my... my life... that I've taken for granted.., she said around her sobs. I don't mean to sound... ungrateful, but... She couldn't go on.

You're not sounding ungrateful, quickly assured Diego. Don't think that.

Alejandro reappeared to stand just inside the front door. The wagon's all ready, whenever you are, he reported to Victoria.

Diego released a still distraught Victoria. Thank you, Father, he said, but his voice sounded as woeful as he felt.

Victoria took a step back, out of Diego's arms. I should go, she said quietly, and wiped her cheeks. She walked over to Don Alejandro and out the front door without telling Diego goodbye.

Diego only sighed sadly and stared at her departing back.

Z Z Z

An hour later, there came an insistent, heavy knocking on the hacienda's front door. The pounding interrupted Diego's musings as to what to do concerning the mess he had created for Victoria. He had almost decided that he would tell her the truth after he married her, but the pounding stayed his thoughts in his mind.

Crossing to the door, he called in aggravation, I got it! just as he yanked open the door.

Outside, standing first on one leg, then the other, was a boy whom Diego did not recognize. You..? The boy glanced at the message in his hand. You Diego de la Vega? he asked suspiciously, as if he expected someone to steel the paper right out of his hands.

I am, Diego replied.

The boy held out the note. Was told by a pretty lady at the tavern to give this only to you. Now, you got some bread or something I can have to eat?

Diego raised an eyebrow in a show of rather irritated patience; what this boy assumed he deserved was a bit presumptuous. Still, he told the message delivery boy about the hacienda's kitchen entrance. Go to the back and they'll let you into the kitchen if you tell them that Diego sent you. Then, after the boy disappeared around the side of the hacienda's protective wall, he peeled apart the piece of parchment in his hands. As he unfolded the letter, the words became clearer.

Dear Diego,

Please don't be alarmed; nothing has happened, unfortunately, and Zorro hasn't shown himself, but I do need to talk to you. Meet me behind the mission, in the herb garden, at siesta. I'll be waiting for you. Please don't tell anyone (this includes Felipe). This is just between you and me.

Victoria

Well, that's alarming, Diego thought. As strange letters went, this one had to be the strangest.

Silently, Diego pondered what Victoria could possibly have to say to him that was private enough to warrant meeting in the walled-in herb garden. The only way to find out is go to town and see her at siesta, thought Diego as he closed the door and returned to the library.

But he fervently hoped she didn't want to discuss what he suspected she wanted to discuss; she had discovered his secret and knew that he was Zorro.

Z Z Z

So with a great sense of trepidation, Diego pulled open the public gate that led into the mission's herb garden and entered. Victoria was already there, sitting on a bench that was flush with the mission's north wall, sheltered completely in the shade. The north window already had a curtain covering it, Diego noticed, and the mission's door leading into the garden was already locked when he tried to open it. As long as someone didn't sneak up on them along the side of the mission, he and Victoria's conversation would not be overheard, which was comforting, at least. Diego was so nervous about this meeting by the time siesta rolled around that he automatically found solace in the smallest of things.

Next, Diego turned his attention to Victoria herself. She was seated on the bench, her head flung foreword and held up by hands supported on bent elbows that were in turn supported on her legs. The forlorn look on her face did not encourage him, either; it was obvious that she was deeply troubled by something, as the tiniest edge of the unhappy expression on her face showed through her fingers. Her eyes were closed, as if she couldn't bear the sight of the refreshing sunshine when she was so despondent herself, and her forehead was covered with tiny wrinkles of worry and doubt. She sighed while he studied her, and the melancholy sound filled the tiny garden with its sadness.

Diego's guilt at causing the situation that was now creating her sadness increased tenfold. As bad as these circumstances were for him, it was made worse by considering that it was because of him that Victoria was suffering now. He knew that her dejection was much greater than his. It had to be horrible to even contemplate having to give up the love of her life to marry him, even if she would suffer anyway if she didn't marry her friend, Diego. They both lost something either way they went about this predicament, he ruminated, and grimaced into the silence of the garden.

Diego must have made a noise while he frowned, for Victoria's head jerked up and she gave a start of inhaled breath. One second later, she had risen jerkily from her seat on the wooden bench.

No, please, sit back down, Victoria, Diego said right away. As an extra incentive for her to stay out of the warm sun and return to the bench, he joined her, settling down beside her. He felt the itch in his fingers to touch her in some way, yet ignored the feeling, and inquired, You wanted to see me?

Yes, Victoria said at once, without wasting time on greeting him. Thank you for coming - I guess that note I wrote was rather mysterious...

Victoria, please.., began Diego, his sad mood matching hers. You don't need to apologize. Now, what is it? Has something new happened that I don't know about? he tried to joke, but the joke fell flat in the stifling air of the garden.

Before she said anything more, Victoria stood up and checked that no one was hiding along either side of the mission walls. Diego laughed a bit. What are you doing?

Checking for eavesdroppers, Victoria answered in a no-nonsense tone of voice. I don't want to be overheard.

Diego tried to sound light again as he noted, Then this must be a very serious discussion you mean to have, though I don't know how anything could possibly get any more serious than it already is...

Without preamble, Victoria sat down again beside him when she found both sides of the mission to be clear of eavesdroppers, and promptly pulled an object from her sash. Holding it up, she asked in a voice barely more than a whisper, Is this yours?

Without a second thought, Diego took the object from her, and suddenly found himself staring at his mother's precious ring of emeralds delicately surrounded by a circle of diamonds. It was the very ring that he, as Zorro, had given to Victoria when he had asked her to marry him. Now, he watched it glitter and wink in the palm of his hand, and terror gripped him.

Shaking, Diego held the ring as carefully as he was able with his large fingers. This was it, the moment that he had dreaded his entire adult life, while at the same time, had looked forward to this day in anticipation and hope. It was with a sense of duality that he held the ring before him and attempted to steady his wavering voice so that he could answer her. If I say 'yes,' are you prepared for the truth and the price you'll have to pay for the knowledge you seek? he asked, a note of warning in his voice.

Victoria sat back against the mission wall. What do you mean by 'the price I'll have to pay?' she inquired.

Diego sighed. I assume this ring is from Zorro? he asked quietly, though he knew very well who had given it to her. Despite the calmness of his voice, his heart hammered a staccato rhythm against his ribs.

Victoria swallowed so apprehensively that he could see her throat shake and shimmy. It's my engagement ring, she said in a voice so soft that he had trouble hearing it.

Diego appeared to find that this news came as a surprise to him, but he went on with his information. I thought as much. Then this problem we're facing is even bigger than I had considered. He turned on the bench to regard her, a serious expression on his face. His heart pounded on, but he endeavored to ignore it. Victoria, by a price, I mean that to know Zorro's identity, even as much as you probably wish to know it, will always be dangerous to whomever carries such a secret. Zorro is a wanted man, a bandit with a price on his head, he patiently explained. Even if Ignacio DeSoto someday leaves the territory and goes back to Spain, even if Zorro gets pardoned, which isn't likely to occur, he'll still have many people challenging him to fights, simply so they will have the notoriety of saying that they beat the man who was Zorro. It will never end, and you will have to live your entire life with the possibility that it will be unending. Are you willing to risk that? He tried hard to be patient while waiting for her response, but it was difficult.

At last, Victoria stopped looking at him and sighed. Diego, for a casual observer, you seem to have thought long and hard about this.

Diego shrugged, feigning nonchalance. I've always been interested in Zorro, the man, even if I'm not interested in the violence that he often represents. I've spent a great deal of time thinking about him and his future options. Your relationship with him has only encouraged that interest; you're a good friend to me, after all.

Victoria's sigh was regretful this time, but still, she said, And that's what I want to talk to you about, Diego. She stood up, slowly turned completely around, as if she were a dog feeling out a comfortable sleeping place, and sat back down.

What do you wish to know? Diego asked in what he hoped was a sincere manner. I'll tell you anything you want, you know, Victoria. Then, he ruefully laughed. That seems the least I can do after getting you involved in such a mess as I did with our actions of last night.

Victoria eyed him warily. The truth, she said, in spite of his vocal misgivings of a moment before. Does the ring belong to you? she softly asked with a pucker of concern rising between her brows.

For a terrifying moment, Diego didn't know what to say to her; he could answer 'yes' to her question, and she might do nothing but ridicule his revelation. Or, he could say 'no,' and they could both continue the ruse that had colored their lives thus far with a depth of deception that would inevitably drive a wedge between them that had to be as indelible as it was indestructible. On the other hand, he could take this one, last chance he'd been given to circumvent the own emotional trap that he had so innocently set in motion that day in the jail so long ago when he had rescued her from Luis Ramon, or he could hide forever from the possibility of her eventual disappointment in the identity of her long lost love. And if I say 'no,' continued Diego on a strangled breath of air, will you be extremely disappointed for the remainder of your life?

I just want to know, Diego, once and for all, Victoria said, the sadness she was feeling oozing from her voice. I may be disappointed for a while if you say 'no,' but I may be just as disappointed if you say 'yes' because of all the duels that are sure to be requested after Zorro's a free man. She turned her head to look toward the shimmering, heated horizon. When I remembered this morning to think about your habit of mentioning Zorro's name, I tried to convince myself that I was just imagining things again. But the feeling that I was missing something important wouldn't go away, so I wrote that note that brought you here this afternoon. That's why I want to know about the ring. She looked at the horizon again, afraid to meet his burning, intense gaze.

They were silent for a minute, each judging the other's need to know and express him or herself, versus the safety of remaining unenlightened. Victoria pulled Diego's hand cradling the ring close so that she could take one last, innocent, look at it, then glanced questioningly back at him. Well, is it? she breathed, risking everything, even her future happiness, with the guileless act of asking her question. But she had to know.

Diego gazed at her uncomprehending expression, his eyesight drifting slowly over her familiar and loved features to rest at last on her eyes. They were filled with self doubt and longing and tender affection and encouragement... Diego's heart continued to beat that same erratic rhythm on his rib cage as he regarded her in indecision. At last, he quietly whispered a simple, Yes.

Victoria didn't move except to fold her hands together in her lap. She stared at her interlaced fingers so long and so sorrowfully that Diego was compelled to think that she planned to reject him outright, but that couldn't be helped now; she had more right to know his identity than anyone else, he argued with himself. Yet, he sweated as she decided what to do, how to behave. His held breath was beginning to leak through his tightly clenched teeth as he watched her watch her hands.

Finally, she sat back just as Diego decided that he couldn't stand the silence any longer. Please, say something, Victoria, he entreated in a voice lowered almost to silence.

Victoria sighed. Oh, Dios, she said gently, and closed her eyes, shutting out him as well as the glare of the afternoon sun. A single tear trickled out of the corner of her left eye and began to run down her cheek. I was right, she whispered brokenly, sounding haunted now.

Diego didn't reach out to touch her any more than she reached out to touch him. Instead, he tried to sound affectionate in the next proclamation he made. What he got sounded more like a desperate plea of persuasion, Victoria, please listen to me when I say that I've wanted to tell you for years, but telling you meant I would have to put you in constant danger from the Alcalde and his men, and I just couldn't bring myself to do that.

Oh, then it's all right for you to be in that danger, but not for me? she bitterly asked, crying in earnest, now.

Diego watched the tears streak down her cheeks, his chest filling up with the pain represented by each one. No, that's not what I mean, he insisted. I mean, that, yes, I'm perfectly willing to sacrifice myself if I have to, but I'm not willing to sacrifice you. You're far too precious to me for that kind of fate.

Victoria sobbed for a moment, then, when she had gotten her emotions under control again, went on in a thin, reedy, choked voice, Have you thought about what kind of life I would have if you were ever discovered?

Diego sighed, again, sad, infinitly terrified, then explained, If I were ever discovered, I was going to ask that my father or Felipe look after you - it was the only thing I could guarantee - that you would at least want for nothing the rest of your life. Diego's voice, still lowered for secrecy, was full of pain; his desperate bid for understanding was squeezing every last drop of assurance out of him.

That's not what I meant, Victoria negated immediately, and sniffled. I mean my life, my emotional well-being...

Diego's brow creased in confusion as he fought back his natural alarm. I'm not sure I'm following you, Victoria.

A sob momentarily halted what she wanted to say, but she controlled her emotions once more and, with them tightly reined in, continued, Your silence may have guaranteed my safety, Diego, but what is safety next to eternal despair? She was crying again as she finished her appeal.

Diego sat back as well, feeling the stone of the wall behind him as easily as he felt the pain of a breaking heart within him. Don't you think you're being a bit overdramatic, Victoria? he asked in a last bid for logical statements from the both of them.

That charge burrowed through her sadness and made her angry. Yes, I'm being overdramatic! she exclaimed in a whisper. Have you ever stopped to consider what it might be like for me without you here? she asked, compelled, now, to speak more plainly.

Victoria, I... Diego tried to comfort, but she interrupted.

I would never really know who you were! she stridently accused. I was going to be left with a lifetime of bleakness while I wondered about the most basic thing concerning you! She sobbed again. You would be gone, and I would never know anything except that I would never be able to feel you again, or kiss you, or... or anything, she wailed in a whisper. And you think this is a good thing?

Victoria, Diego stopped her, feeling upset himself now that he could see things through her eyes. But he was not beyond begging her, Please, you have to understand, I only ever had your best interests at heart.

She groaned in irritation tinged with anger. How can being left alone forever be in my best interest?

I planned to release you from any sense of obligation to me so that you could marry someday...

Victoria emphatically exploded, But I don't want to marry anybody else, Diego, except you! Victoria wiped her eyes on the edge of her skirt that blew haphazardly in the wind. Her sense of agony increased the longer she spoke. That's just it - that's what this ring represents! Getting it made me the happiest I've ever been in my whole life! It still does, she added in a heartfelt aside.

Diego felt the thrill at her words course through him and settle in his chest. He took a chance that she wouldn't tell him to leave her alone, and clasped her hand in his. The ring nestled between them, uniting them in a way that it never had before. Victoria, please... he choked. I never meant to hurt you, please believe that...

You hurt me anyway, interrupted Victoria, then shook her head and went on. But I can hardly blame you for that since this whole mess is really my fault in the end. She continued sobbing and letting the tears race down her cheeks.

Again, Diego was confused. What do you mean?

She sniffled so that she could explain. Back at the beginning, she said mournfully, when you came home from Spain and first walked into my tavern...

I remember, Diego said by way of encouragement.

Victoria shuddered. I liked you even then, Diego, but I didn't think you could like me.

Diego was stunned. Whyever not? he asked quietly, too overcome to speak any louder. How could I not immediately love the person who..?

Victoria brushed at her tears, her head hanging low, but cut him off when she whispered her admittance, I'm so outspoken! She sniffled again, her anguish complete, And no one likes an outspoken female! Some people say that I'm extremely brazen, and foreword... You're a caballero, Diego, she went on to proclaim, so very proper all the time, and I'm not proper even when I try to be... She continued to gather herself together. More calmly, she said, So when Zorro came along and he was so dashing and daring, and, above all, outspoken, it was easy to let myself become interested in him. The rest is history, as you so often say.

Despite the seriousness of their conversation, Diego couldn't help but let himself smile a little in irony.

What? Victoria asked accusingly now that she had voiced her biggest fear.

Diego did his best to school his features into an expression more appropriate to soothing her wild fears with a dose of the truth. That's all an act, Victoria, so that I can avoid suspicion. I'm actually very loud and uninhibited and straightforward. I only pretend to be the retiring, indolent caballero so that I won't get caught.

Victoria choked this time. You mean that I don't know the real Diego? That your true personality lies somewhere in between the daring of Zorro and the studiousness of Don Diego?

Diego heaved a sigh for a third time. I suppose so. I admit that I don't know, myself, any more. It will take deeper thought than I've given to myself before anyone can honestly say that they really know me. Diego gave a forgiving smile. My father really doesn't know me at all, for example.

Yes... he can be very... cutting... in his remarks, Victoria agreed, just as quiet as he was.

Yes, that's a good word... 'cutting.'

But so many people like you the way you are, Diego, Victoria protested next. Sergeant Mendoza, Seņor Banalto, Don Emilio...

I always try to be likable, even when I'm acting, Diego interrupted.

You're very likable, Victoria argued, interrupting as well.

Diego stared at her in shrewd calculation. Gently, he inquired, Does that mean that you can forgive me for not telling you the truth, Victoria? He held his breath in tight anticipation, waiting while she gathered herself enough to respond.

Victoria sat in silence, contemplating the garden before her. Finally, she said, I can forgive you for not telling me the truth if you can forgive me for not believing in you enough to begin with.

Diego stared at her, and she gazed back at him. Her dark eyes were made even darker by her tears, and the blue of his seemed to blaze back at her in an intensity of their own design. He held up the ring between them and whispered, You know I'm helpless when I need to forgive you anything, Victoria - please don't be cruel enough as to pretend... answer me... He leaned forward until his lips just brushed the hair alongside her left ear, even though the action almost scared him senseless. Please - marry me, Victoria?

She instantly became more hysterical yet as her tears threatened to take control of her again.

Diego ignored the wetness of her eyes as he tenderly kissed her left eyelid, followed by her right. I love you, he whispered, then moved his lips to her nose. I love you, he said again, poking fun at himself even as he repeated his earnest declaration. He touched his lips to hers for a quick, soft kiss. I still love you, he whispered, and kissed her again, one hand holding the ring and one hand just grazing her cheek. No matter what your answer might be, he added, and lovingly brushed her lips one last time.

Victoria melted. She could never withstand such an emotional assault to her senses, and she was no longer sure she wanted to. In a sense of wild abandon, she threw herself into his embrace, sealing more than just her future with the movement; she unwittingly tied him to her side with the gesture of affection, just as indelibly as she was now pledged to his.

The gentleness of his hug finally left her long enough for him to give a rocky grin and, still self-mocking, quote, 'What is your answer?'

Victoria sobbed, laughed, and kissed him on his forehead. You know what my answer is, Diego. Then she grinned, as well, and added, I wouldn't want it to be any other way.

Z Z Z

No matter what their clear emotions were in the case, however, their talk with Padre Benitez, fifteen minutes later, acted like a solid dose of reality.

I expected to see the two of you sometime today, the priest regretfully said the second they walked into the mission through the front door after undoing all the precautions they had taken with the building before their earlier conversation.

Then you've heard? Diego asked, using the higher, lighter tones in his voice. He and Victoria had just decided that a continuation of the deception was their best bet in remaining alive and to keep the entire town from learning Diego's secret, but the higher voice still sounded strange to Diego's ears; he had just spent a long enough time speaking in his lower, more natural, tones to Victoria, and anything else already seemed odd to him.

Heard? inquired Padre Benitez. Oh, yes, I've heard; Los Angeles is still a very small town, the last I checked, and gossip, ufortunately, spreads faster than the sunset. He shifted his weight to his other foot, and then sat down on a convenient pew beside him. When do you wish to marry? he asked, still sounding regretful, especially considering the topic of discussion.

Diego paused, then sat in the pew behind the padre with an audible sigh. I wonder if we could speak to you for a moment, Padre? he asked.

Benitez appeared confused. You don't wish to marry, then?

Victoria carefully lowered herself down beside Diego. It's not that, Padre, she hesitantly said.

Yes? he prodded.

Diego seemed to hesitate as well. Then he carefully asked, You agree with my father, then, that there's no other option in our case other than to marry?

Benitez wrinkled his brow. I'm afraid that I do, Diego, he said. The two of you were found in a very compromising situation by a large group of citizens... He continued on unwillingly with his advice, I see no other choice but to get married or risk the poor opinions of many people. And I'm sure you don't wish to make Victoria suffer through such a thing, do you, Don Diego?

Diego grimaced, glad that he had agreed with Victoria that the disguise was worth continuing, but preferring not to mislead the priest, either. He sighed again. No, I don't want that, Padre, but nothing untoward happened last night, I assure you, and Victoria may already have... He paused, wondering what were the correct words to say in this situation without heaping undue suspicion onto Victoria. ... have... prior... plans that a wedding might interrupt, he finally settled on.

Victoria did her best to look as hopeful as she could. You know of my committment to Zorro, she announced.

Padre Benitez looked even more upset now. I'm afraid that won't make any difference, he heavily said. Not in this case.

Diego sighed unhappily and he let all the hope fall from his face. That's what I was afraid you would say.

Padre Benitez critically eyed them both. Is it so bad to be married to one another?

Diego and Victoria looked at each other, then quickly looked away. No, of course it isn't, Victoria said in protest.

We've been friends for many years, Diego pointed out.

I just have previous... Victoria floundered for a moment.

Diego finished for her. Previous obligations, he said, jumping into the conversation, overriding her protest.

Padre Benitez sighed again. Zorro will understand, he said, no longer pretending he didn't know what they were talking about. Now, should I post the banns for your wedding?

Silence fell on the three sitting inside the church. At last, Diego said, My father was thinking that maybe nest week is soon enough, and I agree with him. He turned to Victoria. Victoria?

Yes, she said as if she had to force herself to come out of a bad dream. Softly, disconsolately, she added, Next week is fine.

The padre honestly scrutinized them both. When another silent moment had gone by, he said, This is perhaps too unexpected for you to handle positively right now, but the two of you hold a great affection for each other - a marriage between you two is not so... so outlandish, he finished finally. I think, given time, you will deal very well with each other.

Victoria glanced up and answered, Thank you, Padre, for the kind words. She smiled, or tried to at least give an imitation of the gesture; it came out more watery than not with the unshed tears clinging to her lashes. She determinedly blinked them back.

Thank you, Padre. Diego shook his hand, followed by a nod from Victoria, and then he gestured them out the mission.

They entered the bright sunshine of the plaza. I think I should be getting back to the tavern, Victoria said. It may be too late to open today, but I can get a head start on what I wish to prepare tomorrow.

I'll walk with you, Diego offered, appearing to be his regular chivalrous self, but in actuality, thrilled to find any excuse to spend even a few more minutes in Victoria's company.

Suddenly, Victoria stopped completely still in the middle of the plaza.

What is it? Diego asked in puzzlement.

The tavern! Victoria croaked. We haven't discussed what I'm going to do with it.

Diego laughed. Don't you think it's a bit early to get all stirred up about decisions like what to do with the tavern? he asked.

Victoria eyed him coldly. That's easy for you to say - you won't possibly have your home sold out from under your feet.

Once again, Diego laughed, a light chuckle that illustrated his confusion at the importance of this issue to her. When her attitude remained unyielding, he tried to be more understanding and to see things from her perspective. Well, what do you want to do with the tavern? he asked.

I don't know - I never thought about it before, Victoria admitted with a tiny wrinkle to the bridge of her nose.

Diego stared at the building across the plaza, trying to see it as a place of business rather than the place where he'd spent many content hours watching its owner out of the corner of his eyes. You can keep it, sell it, or supervise it as you always have, using a manager instead of living there to manage it yourself.

I can continue working in it, too, Victoria reminded him, wanting to consider all the options open to her.

True, Diego reluctantly admitted.

Victoria immediately picked up on his hesitation. Ah, the first hitch in married life, she said as she crossed her arms, appearing belligerent. You don't want to be known as a caballero with a working wife. I hate to have to tell you this, but the Escalante's have always worked for a living, and I don't intend to break that tradition just because it seems that it would be a good idea if I marry you in a week.

Diego smiled his amusement at what she thought she knew. That's not it, Victoria, he said right away. I don't care if you feel the need to continue working or not... I just want you to be happy, he said.

This announcement clearly caught Victoria by surprise, according to the look of astonishment on her face. What? she asked, dumbfounded. A moment of silence went by again. Finally, she said, I admit that you're the first caballero who I've heard react in such a way.

Then you haven't been hearing the right kind of caballeros, Diego softly declared.

I've been hearing my customers talking for years, Victoria protested.

At last, Diego turned to regard her. Victoria, to speak plainly, right from my heart for a moment, he said, so that she would know it was the real Diego talking, not the facade he had shown the citizens of the pueblo for the last several years, it is immaterial to me whether or not you want to work at the tavern or stay at the hacienda like everyone expects a wife to do - I don't require much 'taking care of,' admittedly. My concerns are not the issue right now - it means more to me that your needs are being met, that you find in yourself the need to work or get a manager or sell the tavern.

Victoria continued to gaze up at him, clearly amazed to find a man who had her needs at heart, when the voice of the Alcalde suddenly cut into their discussion.

Ahhh! he growled. That's soft! he said next. He came to a stop next to Diego and Victoria at the edge of the plaza. I was making my way over to the tavern to determine if what the men have been saying all day is true, that some compromise forces you to marry each other, when I don't need to walk further than the plaza on this hot, sunny day, he explained. But I think you're making a mistake, Diego, in allowing a wife to work, he cautioned next. People will only see it as daft.

Diego turned to regard his old schoolmate as he came to a stop to stand next to them. You don't agree, then, Ignacio? A wife's needs aren't important? he carefully asked.

No! DeSoto said with a grimace that turned into a frown of contempt. A woman's place is by her husband's side, he declared. All of polite society stands for that.

Do you think so? Diego mildly asked. But, then, what of what 'the woman' wants in a marriage? He gestured towards Victoria. A marriage takes two people to make it work, he pointed out. The last I looked, a woman has as much say in a marriage as a man.

Not this man, the Alcalde reported in no uncertain terms.

Perhaps that's why you've remained unmarried for so long, Victoria frigidly said in an unguarded moment.

DeSoto slowly pivoted to coldly look straight at her. He sneered. I don't see you entering into the blissful state of matrimony with that bandit you've chosen, he accused.

Alcalde.., Victoria began, a warning note in her voice.

DeSoto's features continued to twist in a sneer aimed at Victoria, Is Diego 'doing the right thing' and offering marriage to you? The way he made it sound, it made Diego out to be either a fool for following the social customs of the day, or an idiot for doing only what others expected him to do given the circumstances.

Diego shuffled his feet in the plaza dirt, thinking that a show of embarrassment couldn't hurt his and Victoria's plight at this point. My father seems to think that it's the expected course of action, and who are we to dispute him? he rhetorically inquired. He knows a great deal more about things like social scandals than we do, having lived so much longer and seen so much more than we have.

DeSoto laughed at that. Perhaps so, he admitted. Then he shook his head in grudging admiration, something Diego thought he would never see coming from DeSoto. That must have been quite a compromising position they found you in, he said to Diego. I wouldn't have thought you capable of that, de la Vega.

Victoria instantly felt her anger flair. It's not like he did this on purpose! she said.

DeSoto returned his gaze to her. And what does that outlaw of yours say about all this? he asked, getting right to the crux of a marriage to Victoria in an instant. He went on, Pray tell us, Seņorita, if he has offered you his best wishes yet?

Diego wanted to wipe the sneer off DeSoto's face for vocalizing such insulting words, but to give in to his emotions about wanting to take the Alcalde down a notch for the way he was intentionally treating Victoria would have down nothing but give away his identity and land him in jail. So he reined in his temper. Still, he had to mildly make some sort of protest. Please don't speak to Victoria in that tone of voice, he requested.

DeSoto looked at Diego as if he were surprised to hear any kind of protest from him at all. Then he glanced at Victoria. Pardon me, Seņorita, he apologized instantly, though he looked far from contrite. My mistake, he went on, looking now like he didn't think he had made a mistake at all. His sneer deepened, if anything. How thoughtless of me to mention the man who will carve the man you intend to marry into a thousand tiny pieces... Then we can arrest him for murder. He eyed Diego. Perhaps I should thank you, Don Diego, he said in fake joviality. You just might bring that brigand into the open with this... this 'marriage', and then my men can capture him as easily as slipping a noose around a tree branch, DeSoto finished.

If Zorro is the man I think him to be, Diego said with his tongue in his cheek, he won't do anything because of a marriage to Victoria brought about by a sense of honor - he would release her from any previous obligation they have to each other so she can marry whomever she pleases; if she pleases to marry me, all the better.

DeSoto snorted in disgust. Surely, you don't believe that, Diego. He distastefully eyed Victoria. Why, she'd be trying to tell you what to do by the end of the first week.

Victoria has always had excellent ideas to share, Diego responded right away, and Victoria smiled with a sense of triumph again in place on her face as she gazed at the Alcalde.

DeSoto stared up at Diego. Then you're even farther gone in your sense of duty than I thought a moment ago, he announced.

How so? Diego inquired, trying to be polite when he really wanted to smash his fist in DeSoto's face.

DeSoto snorted again. Zorro's like any other man; he'll come to claim what's his.

Victoria had to speak out against that idea. I am not property! she loudly stated. I'll marry whomever I wish to marry!

DeSoto openly eyed her. Whatever you say, he said, while wearing an expression on his face that announced to both Diego and Victoria that he didn't believe a word he was saying. However, what's going to happen is going to happen, no matter what I say. So it's up to me then, to offer felicitations - I can only guess that you'll need them.

Why, you... began Victoria.

A hand meant to restrain her as well as encourage her to hold her tongue shot out from Diego. Thank you, Alcalde, he said. Then they resumed their trip back to the tavern as if they had never been interrupted.

Why, that... Victoria quietly hissed.

Careful, warned Diego in a whisper. Wait just another moment...

Victoria shook her head, making her curls swing as wildly as her mood. How you can appear to take the likes of that insulting...

Diego interrupted her. Why do you think Zorro has appeared to so enjoy humiliating him in the past years? he inquired as they reached the tavern's empty porch and bounded up the step to the front door.

Victoria had to grin at that comment. Well, keep doing it, I say, she whispered, and opened the front door wide to let him enter with her. Nothing is too good for him.

Diego shut the door and bolted it behind them. They breathed for a moment in the silence of the empty tap room. After a moment, he said, All right, it's safe to let your true feelings show now.

Argh! instantly seethed Victoria. It's amazing that you can stand letting him gloat like that!

Diego grinned at her. I punched him even harder when I felt like he deserved it, he admitted.

Hmph! Victoria grunted then. I don't blame you!

I'm sorry you had to see and hear that, Diego said next. Ignacio's nothing if not an upholder of established European societal customs... he's as open as a book, sometimes - I always know what he's going to say or do before he says or does it; I had that entireconversation in mind before it even started speaking, he said as an example.

I can stand it if you can stand it, Victoria noted, then. But I don't have to act like I enjoy it! she said next, a dark expression on her beautiful face.

Diego laughed appreciatively. Don't tell anyone, but I secretly love it when you're angry like that - just as long as you're not angry at me!

Victoria blazed for another moment, then her features dissolved into a softer expression. I have no reason to be angry at you, Diego, she divulged.

Diego chuckled. And I plan to keep it that way, he informed. Then he changed the subject like it was the ocean breeze, ever altering its direction. But I did follow you into the tavern to ask a favor of you that has nothing to do with our Alcalde, as much as that news would astonish him.

Yes, our Alcalde does tend to think he's the center of the world, Victoria agreed with him. Then she invited, All right, out with it, Diego. Don't hold back with me.

He grinned at her unconscious imitation of his father's common sayings. Do you mean that, or are you still just talking?

Victoria smiled, as well, at his flirtatious manner. He had never had time to flirt with her before. Maybe we should retire to the kitchen, she suggested smoothly, which has no windows for people to stare through.

An excellent idea, Diego said. But, please, you'd better not entice me into doing exactly what every citizen expects we've already done.

Diego! Victoria admonished, but she wasn't fooling him; the regard for him she was feeling bled through in the astonished tone of her voice. How unlike you!

To say something like that may be unlike how I've always behaved before, Diego acknowledged as he led the way into her kitchen, But it's exactly what my daydreams have always centered around, he admitted once they had reached the far cozier confines of the smaller room where Victoria did all her cooking.

They haven't! Victoria portrayed shock and surprise.

Don't pretend with me, Diego said to her as well as to the empty room. I know that you've been thinking the exact same thing I've been thinking all these years.

Victoria tried to disapprove, but wasn't quite able to manage the appropriate expression. What came out was a look that was half chastising, and half anticipatory. And what have I been thinking? she demanded to know.

He stared hard at her after a furtive glance towards the curtain separating the kitchen from the main room of the tavern, even though he knew the tap room was empty right at the moment. At last, in a quiet voice, he turned to her. You've been thinking the same thing I've been thinking, he repeated in emphasis, suddenly serious. He brushed a finger gently across one of her cheeks. He followed the tender expression with a gentle kiss to the skin on that same cheek. That you might have been off limits to my hands, but that says nothing about censoring my thoughts, and my mind has been very active for several years.

Just as earnest, Victoria stared back at him, a puzzled look on her face. Can I ask you a question? she inquired finally in a hesitant voice.

First, before I forget to say something about it, may I borrow your ring until the wedding so that my father doesn't suspect anything about you having it? Why was a request to acquire a ring so loaded? Diego wondered. Yet he couldn't help but fall pray to the intense emotional overtones of her actions as, without a word of protest, she slowly slipped the ring from her sash, looked at it wink in the light streaming through the one window set high in the east wall, then passed it into his waiting palm. Sparks shot from her fingers as they brushed against the skin of his hand, and it was all he could do to resist lowering his head to become lost in a kiss that promised to be as deep as it was infinite. But now was not the time for an exploration of the emotional pull that he always felt towards her; not when she had something to ask of him. What do you wish to know? he whispered despite the fact that they were completely alone in the tavern's kitchen.

Victoria had to clear her throat and glance at the plain wooden floor before she was able to say, This is rather... unusual...

Victoria.., he interrupted to warn. What's on your mind?

She sighed and capitulated. All right. She sat on the room's one bench, situated near the fireplace. What's it like, being Zorro? She looked up at him in anticipation. I've always wondered...

Diego slowly sat next to her, pensive. Finally, after gathering his thoughts together so he could at least sound coherent in his reply, he said, Zorro has been around for so long that many things are mixed together to make the whole of the legend that Zorro has become. He settled more firmly beside her on the bench, but the sound of her voice interrupted him from saying anything more.

It's like you're not in control of him any longer, but you are him; I don't understand, she said in puzzlement.

Diego turned to look at her. Then he leaned foreword to prop his elbows on his knees, much as he had first seen Victoria do in the mission garden an hour before. Still pondering, he looked up at her quizzical expression. The legend that Zorro has become isn't really mine anymore; he belongs to everybody in the pueblo, now, as much as to me.

Victoria wrinkled her brow, then hesitantly inquired, He belongs to me, then?

Diego smiled a soft smile. He's always belonged to you, he admitted quietly.

Victoria blushed, comprehending the meaning of his cryptic words, but quickly went on to say, You know what I mean, Diego.

Diego sighed, the heavy sound washing around the room. You're right, I do know what you mean... I'm sorry, Victoria - I can't help flirting a bit when you're concerned.

Victoria's blush continued. Go on, she invited, then.

Diego sighed once more, still gathering his thoughts. Zorro will always defend injustice, no matter who is the victim of that injustice, he declared. But the price we've both had to pay for that continuation is mighty high.

The price? Victoria prodded.

Diego shrugged. Yes. The price of being apart, of not starting that family that I know you want so badly...

Victoria looked away, out into the room. Oh, that, she said in some embarrassment that he could so easily read her mind. If you know of the way I feel about families, then you also realize that I'm aware that there's really very little that you can do about it...

But that's not exactly fair, he protested immediately, repeating the concept he had said that morning in the library.

It was Victoria who shrugged this time. Who ever said the world was going to be fair? she questioned rhetorically. I understand and accept that, at least.

But, Victoria, Diego said, still hushed, perhaps I've always thought life should be more fair, he went on in a persuasive tone. I guess that's why I created a man like Zorro in the first place. And if this creation has exacted a price from anybody, it has exacted so much from you. He continued even though she looked like she was prepared to break into his protest, You've been so patient with all this, with me, waiting like you have...

Diego, Victoria said, cutting him off, please don't think that way. I have been waiting, true, but justice for the people is as important to me as it is to you - waiting all this time is sort of my way of contributing to everything you do and stand for... She gazed up at him, then. It's been no hardship, really.

Quietly, Diego chuckled. It may not have been much of a hardship, Victoria, but that doesn't mean that either of us particularly enjoyed it...

I never said I liked it, Victoria clarified immediately.

And I'm sorry for waiting so long to tell you if you didn't like not knowing, Diego was just as quick to say.

Victoria sighed this time. Diego, I know why you didn't tell me all these years...

I was so frightened, Diego whispered, shaking his head even as he slipped his fingers into hers.

Victoria raised those fingers to her lips and gave them a short kiss. I know you were, she replied, her voice a whisper as well. I don't agree with you that there was anything to be afraid of, but that's another issue altogether. She dismissed his fear in deference to whatever was on her mind. However, I'd like you to know that I was also very afraid, and have been for years.

This statement surprised him. You? questioned Diego. You never said... I mean, you're not afraid of anything that... Finally, Diego halted his rambling comments, and more coherently asked, What do you have to be afraid of? in a sincere tone.

Victoria gazed into the empty space of the kitchen. I have a great deal to be afraid of, she slowly informed. All these years that I've been seeing you in the quiet of this kitchen, I've been worried about who you are; what if I didn't like you? she asked, again not looking for a response from him. What if we had nothing to talk about? What if you were a farmer; I've never been a farmer before. What if you were a caballero? What if you were from another pueblo and I had to leave everything that I know behind in order to marry you? Would I be able to do that? They were both silent, then, as they considered these new and burdensome thoughts. There was a great deal for me to worry about; all these thoughts kept me company on those long and lonely nights over the years.

Diego grinned wryly. This is getting worse for me all the time, he said under his breath, but she heard his muttering anyway.

I'm not telling you about my concerns in order to make you feel bad, she declared. Only to impress on you that you have not been the only one with anxieties these past years...

You hid your thoughts extremely well, Diego said next. I had no idea you were ever concerned, and I was probably the closest person to you.

Victoria smiled, then, if a bit sadly. How could I waste the time telling you about worries when you were visiting as Zorro? And when I saw you as Diego, I was almost always working, and while I was working was not the time for discussing my worries; I didn't really have the time to talk about anything while I was at work tending the tavern. So I kept everything I was worried about a secret until now.

Diego looked at Victoria, then, stared straight into her dark, vivid eyes. Let's promise to never keep secrets from each other when we can help it, he said in his hushed voice. He took her hands, the spontaneity of the moment not overriding his sincerity. Let's be as open as we can be, after we're married... after next week, he amended. I'm very frightened for you, now that you know my secret identity, Victoria, but the truth is that I knew I had to tell you soon, anyway, or drive myself insane with being alone all the time. His eyes turned dark and intense as he went on, and his gaze swept over her familiar and beloved features. I'm glad that you know, actually. I was afraid, terrified, of telling you and what your reaction was going to be, but I understand now that whatever your reaction, you knowing is better than you not knowing. He gently grazed his index finger across one of her cheeks. I wouldn't change anything, now, for... even for the promise that the Alcalde might leave Los Angeles, he finished, looking into her eyes, mesmerized.

Victoria stared back at him for a moment, thinking that he was the dearest of men and how could she not have known his identity for so many years and now he was so loved and cherished... Victoria suddenly hugged him close, tightening her arms around him in a fierce embrace. He had been her chosen love, true, but he had also been her friend, for so many years... Don't leave me, she whispered. I couldn't stand it, couldn't live without you in my life...

Victoria, you are my life, Diego whispered back, holding her as tightly as she held him. And I promise to never let you go... I can't let you go, he said, his voice hushed, the sound almost swallowed by the room and the quiet that had invaded it, the quiet that gave his words their intensity. I swear it.

Go On To Part III


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