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
Alejandro sighed and rubbed his palms against his thighs.
At last, he said,
No, I don't.
Victoria smiled, vindicated.
There. You see? she
And the people of the pueblo...
But Alejandro went on.
The people of the pueblo, he
said loud enough to override Victoria's voice,
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 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?'
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.
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
But... began Diego in a protesting tone of voice, and
Alejandro stopped him with a raised finger.
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
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
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
But it shouldn't be like that! Diego protested again,
his eyes definitely on Victoria now.
Alejandro finally lost his temper and yelled,
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
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
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
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
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
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
He's right, Diego; I have seen
perfectly innocent situations destroyed by malicious
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
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
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
That Victoria already has other commitments, Diego
And that marrying me will... put a crinkle in her
plans, he finished.
Crinkle or not, Alejandro said,
you'll still have
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
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 did, Victoria responded affirmatively.
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
You're the most capable woman I've ever
Thank you, Victoria gave a closed-lipped smile at the
But you've just proven my point, she
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,
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
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
No, answered a suddenly grieved Victoria. There was
the sound of threatening tears in her voice.
Don Alejandro came to their rescue this time.
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
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
Maybe so, Alejandro regretfully agreed.
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
I'll see about Victoria's wagon. And I don't think you
should see Victoria home, Diego, he cautioned.
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.
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.
sorry... she tried to say, but her tears kept getting in the
way of her speaking.
Her anxiety was beginning to distress Diego.
don't cry, he entreated.
I can't stand it if you
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
I don't mean to sound... ungrateful, but... She
couldn't go on.
You're not sounding ungrateful, quickly assured
Don't think that.
Alejandro reappeared to stand just inside the front door.
The wagon's all ready, whenever you are, he reported to
Diego released a still distraught Victoria.
Father, he said, but his voice sounded as woeful as he
Victoria took a step back, out of Diego's arms.
go, she said quietly, and wiped her cheeks. She walked over
to Don Alejandro and out the front door without telling Diego
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,
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.
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.
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
Thank you for coming - I guess that note I
wrote was rather mysterious...
Victoria, please.., began Diego, his sad mood
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
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
Diego tried to sound light again as he noted,
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,
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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,
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.
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
Have you thought about what kind of life I would have
if you were ever discovered?
Diego sighed, again, sad, infinitly terrified, then
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
Diego's brow creased in confusion as he fought back his
I'm not sure I'm following you,
A sob momentarily halted what she wanted to say, but she
controlled her emotions once more and, with them tightly reined
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
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
Victoria, I... Diego tried to comfort, but she
I would never really know who you were! she
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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,
outspoken! She sniffled again, her anguish complete,
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
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 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
I always try to be likable, even when I'm acting,
You're very likable, Victoria argued, interrupting as
Diego stared at her in shrewd calculation. Gently, he
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
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,
I still love you, he whispered, and kissed her
again, one hand holding the ring and one hand just grazing her
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,
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
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
I wonder if we could speak to you for a moment,
Padre? he asked.
Benitez appeared confused.
You don't wish to marry,
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.
that won't make any difference, he heavily said.
Diego sighed unhappily and he let all the hope fall from his
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
No, of course it isn't, Victoria said in
We've been friends for many years, Diego pointed
I just have previous... Victoria floundered for a
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
Now, should I post the banns for your
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.
Yes, she said as if she had to force herself to come
out of a bad dream. Softly, disconsolately, she added,
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
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
They entered the bright sunshine of the plaza.
I think I
should be getting back to the tavern, Victoria said.
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
Suddenly, Victoria stopped completely still in the middle of the plaza.
What is it? Diego asked in puzzlement.
The tavern! Victoria croaked.
discussed what I'm going to do with it.
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
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
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
You can keep it, sell it, or supervise it as you always
have, using a manager instead of living there to manage it
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.
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.
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.
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,
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
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
But I think you're making a mistake, Diego, in
allowing a wife to work, he cautioned next.
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
Do you think so? Diego mildly asked.
what of what 'the woman' wants in a marriage? He gestured
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
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
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
DeSoto's features continued to twist in a sneer aimed at
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
Diego shuffled his feet in the plaza dirt, thinking that a
show of embarrassment couldn't hurt his and Victoria's plight at
My father seems to think that it's the expected
course of action, and who are we to dispute him? he
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
I wouldn't have thought you capable of that, de la
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
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
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
Perhaps I should thank you, Don Diego, he said in
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.
be trying to tell you what to do by the end of the first
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
DeSoto stared up at Diego.
Then you're even farther gone
in your sense of duty than I thought a moment ago, he
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
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.
Victoria shook her head, making her curls swing as wildly as
How you can appear to take the likes of that
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.
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
I'm sorry you had to see and hear that, Diego said
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,
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.
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
He grinned at her unconscious imitation of his father's
Do you mean that, or are you still just
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,
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
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
They haven't! Victoria portrayed shock and
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.
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
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...
Victoria.., he interrupted to warn.
She sighed and capitulated.
All right. She sat on
the room's one bench, situated near the fireplace.
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
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,
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 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
Victoria's blush continued.
Go on, she invited,
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
The price? Victoria prodded.
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.
she said in some embarrassment that he could so easily read her
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
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,
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,
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
You hid your thoughts extremely well, Diego said
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
Let's be as open as we can be, after we're
married... after next week, he amended.
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
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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