The Worth of a Good Reputation

by Linda Bindner

Part III

Don Alejandro stood in the entry hall, in the midst of bustling servants and extra hired hands, momentarily at a loss as to what to do or where to go. This wedding is totally out of control, he muttered to himself, and shook his head. Then, his features brightened when he spied Felipe among the rushing servants.

Felipe! Alejandro exclaimed, capturing the young man by seizing his shirt between his fingers and refusing to release it. Have you seen Diego? he asked Felipe in confusion, but remembering to make sure he faced the young man, so that he could read his lips. Felipe, who was soon to be his adopted grandson, was acting as Diego's best man today, and he was dressed as opulently as the position required. But Alejandro continued, I've already looked for Diego in his usual places: the library, the garden... I can't find him anywhere! he said in exasperation. It was so typical that he would be unable to find his son on this most important of days. Do you know where I should look next?

Suddenly, Felipe grinned. The grin would have turned into a laugh if Felipe could make sound, but he nodded instead and gestured to his newly acquired wedding attire, and then pointed towards the back of the hacienda.

Understanding filtered across Alejandro's face. Ah, he repeated, he's in his room, still getting dressed. Alejandro grinned with Felipe. Hope he's wearing something good, he stated. He needs to be dazzling, today of all days. I'll find him in his room. Thank you, Felipe. Alejandro patted Felipe on the shoulder as the young man hurried away, then he carefully avoided the rushing servants and headed for the back of the house. Diego! he called when he reached the closed bedroom door. He pounded on the wood with the knuckles of his right fist.

Come in! came the muffled reply as a distracted Diego answered.

Alejandro pushed open the door to see his son carefully picking lint off a light gray caballero coat complete with dark gray buttons and a dangling tail. You haven't worn that since you arrived home from Spain, Alejandro reported. Good choice - no one will recall its previous use. Diego's cravat was tied at his throat, and a vest clung, unbuttoned, to his broad shoulders. It's almost time to go to the church, Alejandro reported then. Are you ready?

Diego gave the coat one last, critical, glance before he lifted it from its place on his bed and stuck one arm through the left sleeve. Almost. I just have to put this coat on, button both it and the vest, grab the ring, and then I'll be ready.

A moment passed where Diego buttoned furiously, then he walked purposefully over to his dresser and looked at his reflection one last time in the mirror hanging on the wall before reaching for something lying on the top of the dresser.

I recognize that! Alejandro said of the emerald and diamond piece of jewelry that he had purchased for his own wife many years before. Diego held aloft the ring for him to look at. You should have told me you had it, Diego - I've been searching high and low for that ring all week!

Oh, Diego said, as if the fact that his father would have searched for it had not occurred to him. I've had it since that first morning you declared Victoria and I had to get married, while you were seeing Victoria back to the tavern. I hope you don't mind if I use it now; technically, it is yours - I should have asked to use it, first. I'm sorry. Diego did look contrite, now, even if he didn't immediately hand the ring over to his father.

You were planning on using it today? Alejandro asked.

Diego nodded. As Victoria's wedding ring. I figured it's so pretty, it ought to be adorning a beautiful woman, but I do have a plain band, if you would prefer to have this one back, he offered.

Instantly, Alejandro shook his head. No, by all means, you keep it. Elena would be pleased to know that her jewelry was being put to such good use, he said. Although, I am a bit overwhelmed by what you said just now; when did you become so complimentary towards Victoria? 'A beautiful woman,' indeed! he recited with a teasing smile.

Diego smiled back, though his expression was much more hesitant than his father's. I'm not being too complimentary, I hope, he protested with his head hanging down in slight embarrassment.

No, not at all! Alejandro loudly protested. It's just that I've never heard you compliment Victoria before... it sounds strange.

Diego shrugged. Well, I could say that this is nothing more than wedding day jitters, but that wouldn't exactly be telling the truth, he admitted.

What do you mean? Alejandro asked, now with an air of bewilderment about his features. There's more you want to tell me?

Diego gazed at his father, wondering if he realized just how much more there was to know. A bit, he finally hedged, deciding that he didn't have enough information yet, and went fishing around for more.

Come on, Diego, Alejandro wheedled. This is your father you're talking to - you can tell me.

Diego heard the persuasive overtones of his father's voice, and decided then and there that his father knew absolutely nothing about his secret identity or about the emotions he had spent years harboring for Victoria. You might tease me if you knew, Diego said at last.

A secret on your wedding day? Alejandro inquired. I won't tease about it, I promise, he went on. The persuasion continued.

Diego stared thoughtfully at his father, the ring held up between them in his hand.

Alejandro focused on the ring instead of on his son. He reached for the familiar piece of jewelry. Ah, Elena was so ecstatic on the day she received this, he remembered. She was so stunned and proud - she showed it to everybody who would take a moment to look at it. Unfortunately, she got sick soon after, and died with it still on her finger. Alejandro sighed, still clasping the ring. But she loved it, and knew that I loved her when I presented it. There's nothing more that I could ask.

May it stay true to its original mission, then, Diego almost prayed, his voice sounding nervous and fervent at the same time.

Alejandro refocused his eyes on his son's image. What? he asked. What was that about an 'original mission?'

Diego sighed again and let his arm drop. The ring came down with it, sparkling in the early afternoon sunlight that streaked across the room. This might come as a surprise to you...

Diego, Alejandro interrupted in exasperation. A week ago I found my only son lying in the yard with the local taverness, and you think I could be further surprised?

I love Victoria, Diego blurted softly.

He was right; Alejandro was so surprised that he couldn't speak for a full minute. Whaaaaat? he asked at last.

Diego smiled at his father's apparent loss of speech. I told you it might be surprising to you. But it's also true; I'm in love with Victoria. I have been for years, even while she's been enamored quite publicly with another man.

That statement really did surprise Alejandro. You what? he asked for clarification.

Diego sighed, turned away, and sat on the edge of his bed before responding. You heard correctly; I said that I'm in love with Victoria, and have been for years.

Alejandro was as flabbergasted as the expression on his face indicated. But, Diego, he protested, you never said a word... gave a clue of any kind... I thought she was like a sister to you, he said in protest.

Now that would be strange, Diego mumbled. Marrying your sister...

You know what I mean!

Diego hung his head. Yes, I know what you mean... And, no, Victoria has never been like a sister to me, though I've treated her as one all these years. He paused, assessing his father's need to hear everything compared to his own need to bare his soul. He determined that his own, personal need to bare his soul was at least as strong as his father's need to know. I've seen more of Victoria this last week than I have since I got home from Madrid, and that fact is certainly agreeable to me.

Alejandro stared at his son, his surprise hardly abating. You love her? he asked. His voice indicated the amount of his surprise.

Diego nodded. Yes, very much. Then he stood, but didn't move forward. I thought you should know, for future dealings... around the hacienda... and things, he lamely ended.

Dealings around the hacienda? Alejandro questioned, now sounding vague. Then he snapped more to attention. You were caught lying with her in the yard, Diego! he petulantly exclaimed. It's why we're even having a wedding today! Are there more reasons for a wedding that you have to tell me?

Diego scowled. Of course there aren't! he assured. I don't think I like what you're suggesting, either!

Alejandro shrugged this time. Well, since we're... um... on the topic, he suggested, is there anything you want me to tell you? You are getting married, you know!

Married, not immigrating to another country! Diego protested. There's nothing you need to tell me.

Just curious... just making sure, and all, Alejandro said in defense of his words. I don't wan't it to be known that a de la Vega is unprepared for his future...

Don't worry, Father, Diego said with a roll of his eyes, infinitely patient. Someday, you'll get those grandchildren you've always requested, he promised.

Alejandro hurried to finish. That's all I want, Diego, he assured in a quiet voice. To see my family heritage someday bouncing on my knees...

I think that you don't quite recall how a young child really behaves... Diego said, and blinked in faint astonishment, then. But, don't you want to wish me happiness in this new life that you insist I have?

Well, that too, Alejandro deadpanned, his voice now full of the sound of teasing. And as long as Victoria is happy...

She will be happy, Diego assured, now deadly serious. She will be.

Even though she's not marrying her Zorro? Alejandro questioned softly.

Father, I can't believe you would even suggest that...

All I'm saying, argued Alejandro with a lift to his hands, is that you have to admit that Victoria comes with... some past issues, he finally settled on.

Diego sighed once more. Father, he said, patience in his tone, I love Victoria... love her. He gazed straight into his father's eyes. I plan to always cherish her, even if she never comes to love me back, like I hope she does. There. Now he had set the way for a future of showing more natural affection to Victoria, and for her showing more affinity towards him. I may not be quite like the dashing hero she's used to from the past, but I have my own ways of showing how I feel about her. She can't help but answer to that kind of fondness... already has, in fact.

Alejandro held up a warding hand. I don't want to know about what the two of you have already done in the name of...

Walks, Diego answered anyway, a foolish, little smile on his lips, talks, moonlit...

Don't. Tell. Me. Alejandro walked to the door, putting an end to the conversation. What you do with Victoria is your business, he reaffirmed. Any time you're ready, he invited.

Diego tossed the ring more jubilantly into the air and caught it. Lead on, he urged, and stepped lightly towards the door. I'm ready.

Z Z Z

Several hours later, Diego was able to admit to himself that he was finally wearing out.

The party for the wedding was still going strong, but the family of the man who had gotten married was more than ready to call it a day. They had been awake since early in the morning, organizing and preparing with the rising of the sun, and now that it was dark, they only wished to be left alone where they could hear themselves think.

Felipe and I are taking a bet - if I was a gambling man, said Don Alejandro from where he had come to stand next to Diego in the sitting room. Who's the most tired person who was in the wedding this afternoon?

That's an easy question to answer, Diego said under his breath. Victoria went to our room hours ago, claiming exhaustion. He felt a little thrill course up his spine at calling his old bedroom 'our room,' now that it was his and Victoria's room, combined.

Alejandro could barely believe what was hearing. Hours? he asked in disbelief.

Well, amended Diego, ignoring his pleasant thoughts, maybe not hours ago. But she said she was too tired to stay at the party any longer, and she certainly looked tired. He pulled his watch from a pocket in his vest and flipped it open. That was... is it that late already? he asked to nobody in particular. No wonder Victoria said she was tired.

She looked rather... grim... today, Alejandro said in subtle warning. I have to say that I'm a bit worried about the two of you, he added quietly.

Diego had a difficult time hearing his words, due to the noise of chatter from the surrounding guests, but he heard enough to cause his extreme surprise. Why are you worried? he inquired. It was you who recommended that we get married in the first place. He spoke to his father even while he stared at the remaining guests in the hacienda's sitting room and library.

Well, blustered Alejandro, there was no way around that, I admit...

Diego smiled at Sergeant Mendoza, who was standing across the room, as he said under his breath, Perhaps social standing wasn't quite a strong enough reason to require marriage.

Alejandro's eyebrows shot up. Isn't it a little late to be having that opinion? he asked.

I'm only repeating what I've heard people say when they think I'm not around to hear them speak, Diego defended.

You... You're what? Alejandro asked in confusion, making Diego laugh in amusement.

There's no need to worry, Father, Diego said then, laughing a little at the joke he was playing at his father's expense. I'll do whatever's necessary to make Victoria happy, he promised, serious now.

Besides, Alejandro added, harkening back to the earlier conversation. You don't know what having a poor social standing can be like in pueblo de Los Angeles. I'm just as glad that you don't have to find out.

Touché, Diego said, and lifted the glass of water he was holding in a salute. Alejandro smiled, and if the gesture was tinged with a bit of concern, he didn't say anything more about his thoughts.

Diego then turned to Sergeant Mendoza as the military man approached them with a broad grin plastered on his face. Don Diego! boomed the sergeant, adding to the noise level in the room. I wanted to offer my congratulations to the happy couple of the day!

Diego ruefully smiled. 'The couple' would be even happier if this noise would cease, I admit. Victoria has already gone to our room to escape all these people.

Mendoza immediately took on a concerned expression. She's not feeling sick, is she? he inquired. It's the food, perhaps, though it all seemed fine to me. He lifted the plate full of the fried tamale he was holding in his hands.

No, Diego explained, now with a smile of genuine amusement. She was complaining about being tired, and it's no wonder she's exhausted on this busy day.

No, no wonder at all, Mendoza echoed. It was probably all too much for her... all that cooking she did this morning, then the wedding itself...

She cooked the food? Diego asked, then, puzzled. I thought Maria from the hacienda kitchen made everything.

I don't know about that, Mendoza said around a mouthful of tamale. But Señorita Victoria was awake very early this morning and cooking already when I went over to the tavern to make sure she had everything under control.

Diego shook his head in amazement; Victoria always surprised him with the sheer amount of energy she possessed. But he changed the subject and said, I wonder if you could help us regain control of our hacienda, Sergeant, to aid Victoria and my father; I fear that he's not as young as he used to be, and, as it's getting to be quite late, all these people are keeping him from his own rest. Diego felt like a bit of a heel to be using his father's health as an excuse to clear the hacienda of wedding guests, but he wanted some quiet time alone with Victoria, too. He shivered as he considered what he would like to do with that solitude they might share. But he could barely even think let alone do something not usually described in polite company with Victoria as long as the hacienda was full of wedding reception guests. With another wry glance at Don Alejandro, he requested of Mendoza, Perhaps you can help me in moving them on to some other social event being held this evening? I worry about my father getting enough sleep, he added.

Sergeant Mendoza was immediately solicitious. Oh, of course, Don Diego, of course. I'll help in any way you want. First, though, I'll finish this tamale, then I'll go around and speak to everybody outside if you talk to those in here... He leaned close, as if sharing a secret. If we only make a suggestion about leaving, I bet your hacienda is empty in ten minutes.

Diego smiled again. If I were a betting man, Sergeant, I would take you up on that offer. He moved to the nearest group of people standing and conversing by the piano. Fortunately, I'm not the gambling sort, he mouthed back to Mendoza.

The sergeant grinned conspiratorially, then headed towards the front door, fried tamale firmly gripped in his fingers, as he left the plate on a side table in the sitting room.

Diego wouldn't have believed it, but the hacienda was clearing of the last of the reception guests eight minutes later. Mendoza gently but firmly pushed them onto the road running in front of the hacienda just as he saw Diego taking out his watch from its place again in order to check their amazing progress. Mendoza smiled once in Diego's candlelit direction, and still smiling, began chatting with Señora Benalto as she sat in a carriage beside her merchant husband, Sergio. The three of them were the final guests to grace the road, and Diego watched the darkness swallow them up, waving goodbye even as he was relieved that everybody had finally left. Sergeant Mendoza spurred his horse over to walk beside the carriage as the two turned the vehicle onto the road. The sergeant watched Diego close the door of the hacienda. I don't think it would be wise of us to tell Don Diego that he was simply being too eager to write about the wedding in The Guardian's society column, such as it is, right away tonight and that's why he wanted everyone to leave.

No, the señora concurred, I think the less said, the better, in this case. She was smiling at Mendoza when the dust of the road and the darkness of the night began to engulf them.

Oblivious, Diego still breathed in the silence of the empty hacienda, and felt guiltily relieved, but he turned to his father and opened his mouth to inform him that he planned to retire to his room for the night when Alejandro beat him to uttering the desire.

Think I'll turn in, Alejandro said and aimed in the direction of the back of the hacienda and his bedroom. It's been a long day.

Diego was quick to agree with his father's decision. Don't worry about us, Father, we'll be fine alone.

Alejandro laughed at his son's apparent complacency. Very well, Diego. I'll see you tomorrow. Good night, he said as he passed by the door leading to Felipe's room. The young man had retired when Victoria had claimed exhaustion and left the party, keeping her company on the short walk to hers and Diego's room before disappearing behind his own bedroom door. Diego felt just a twinge of guilt when he considered how little time he'd been able to spend with the servant that he hoped to soon adopt, but a wedding didn't exactly encourage the bride and groom to be gregarious; it was an ironic part of the whole 'getting married' situation, he vaguely contemplated as he made his way to his own closed bedroom door. The bride and groom were the focus of the entire event of a wedding, yet they were so busy with the wedding itself that they didn't have time to share more than a few words with each guest; how ironic, Diego thought, and grinned.

One lantern had been left burning from the top of his dresser so that he didn't have to enter a completely darkened room. It had been too warm for a fire when Victoria had gone to sleep, but now the chilled air of the room encouraged Diego to slide flint and steel from the mantel top and light the fire already prepared in his fireplace. He blew out the lantern, then turned to the bed to find Victoria spread out on the coverlet sound asleep. He chuckled to himself the minute he fully realized the entire set of circumstances.

Victoria must have lain down out on the bed when she entered the room, obviously planning to rest for only a moment before she got ready for the night several hours before, but had fallen asleep on the top of the coverlet, still in the dress she had worn for the wedding, before she could do anything more to prepare for the night. Diego smiled at the serene picture she presented; her hair lay in a halo of curls around her head, and the dress hugged her curves in all the most innappropriate places because she had fallen asleep while laying on it completely wrong. The result was a dress badly held askew. She looked so uncomfortable that Diego wondered how she had possibly fallen asleep in the first place. Yet, despite the discomfort of the position that Victoria was surely suffering through, Diego wondered what to do next; should he wake her, or let her remain asleep?

Victoria? he whispered from where he squatted right next to her side of the bed. She didn't even stir in her sleep. Victoria? he tried again, but she didn't wake at the sound of her name. She just continued to lay on the bed, breathing evenly, her curly hair framing her silent features in the serene quiet of the bedroom.

Silently, Diego wondered what to do now; he had tried to wake her to no avail. Did that mean she should remain undisturbed? But to stay asleep in her position meant that she would be practically strangled by the wedding dress she was wearing. He could leave her as she was, he supposed, all trussed up in the confining skirts wrapped around her legs, or he could risk waking her if he tried to remove the outer dress and untie her corset. Of course, he grinned to himself, waking didn't necessarily have to lead to inherently unpleasant things, he contemplated with a mischievous grin. He decided to risk her waking to find him carefully readying her for bed rather than leave her to the uncomfortable vagaries of her ill-chosen position.

Diego sat on the mattress beside Victoria, lifted her petite frame as if she were a child, and rested her head on his shoulder while he unbuttoned the dress she had worn for their wedding. Made out of a material covered in tiny flowers and leaves, it was tight over every curve she had to offer to the world. And it was also plenty uncomfortable to sleep in, he thought, desperately trying to distract himself as his natural desire for her struggled to the forefront of his mind even as he fought it back one more time. But her hair smelled like soap and water and fresh, outside air, and so did the skin he could see; they were both as alluring as he could force himself to withstand. He softly kissed the skin of her forehead, regretting her sleepiness even as he reveled in the feel of her lying in his arms.

It was truly ironic, he silently considered. Here it was, the night of their wedding, he was finally alone with a Victoria who knew of his secret identity, they had finally managed to ensure that it was expected by everybody that they make love to each other, being alone and together at the same time while in his bedroom was something he had spent years hoping and waiting to have happen, and Victoria was so deeply asleep that she wasn't even aware of his presence beside her. Diego sighed a sad exhalation of breath, but also couldn't help but appreciate the humor at the way things had played out.

When he had the dress off, and the corset untied, Diego left her underclothes untouched, figuring he was pushing his luck in not waking her as it was. Carefully, he lowered her back down to the bed, and sighed with his cheek resting snugly against hers before lovingly arranging the coverlet over her and securely tucking her into bed. She didn't stir at his nighttime care. He secured one beautiful strand of dark hair behind her right ear before cautiously removing himself and seeing to his own preparation for bed. The wedding dress he gingerly spread over a chair in the corner of the room.

Yes, it was truly ironic, Diego decided as he slipped beneath the covers beside his new wife, and sighed, and closed his eyes, too, in the hopes of encouraging sleep.

Truly ironic, he thought sourly to himself as he tried to be content with nothing but his arm draped over Victoria's sleeping form. Complete inaction greeted him as a response to his loving overture. Inaction, yes, he thought with another carnal growl from deep in his throat. But he didn't have to like it.

Z Z Z

Sunlight greeted Victoria's sight the following morning, and as she slowly peeled her eyes open, that sight was welcomed by Diego's warm, blue eyes positioned only inches from her features. Just as slowly, she grinned. Good morning, she slurred sleepily, blinking in the early morning light.

Diego smiled at the sound of her voice. If I'd told myself a week ago that, given just a little time, you would know everything about my secret and I would be married to you, I would have laughed in my own face, he said to her as he lifted a hand to gently caress her cheek. I've never been so glad that the most unbelievable thing I ever heard is true.

She kissed the fingers that strayed so close to her lips. Then, her smile still intact, but turning to one more of perplexity, she stole a glance under the covers, noticed that she was still wearing her undergarments, and her brow furrowed. What happened last night? she asked a bit sleepily. I'm a little foggy on how it all ended.

It ended with you sound asleep on top of our bed, Diego answered, his voice wry. I undressed you as much as I could, but I admit to having little... experience... with women's underclothes, he said next. That's why you're still wearing... what you're wearing, he finished uncertainly.

My dress? Victoria asked next.

I left it on the chair in the corner. I wasn't sure what you wanted to do with it.

Victoria swiveled onto her back, and then glanced in the direction of the chair, where her wedding dress was neatly spread out over the chair back and arms, as if waiting to be put away in the closet. Victoria suddenly giggled; if only she had a closet. You probably took better care of it than I would have if we... She paused, too embarrassed to continue. Well, and she cleared her throat. Thank you.

You're welcome, Diego replied, and raised himself up on his elbow. His caressing hand worked its way to stroke her neck. Now, how about we move along with the 'married' part of what I said earlier? he suggested.

She swiveled her head back around to stare at him. She would have been astonished at his openness, but she, too, desired more of a 'married' approach to life. She grinned as she captured his hand, and again kissed his fingers. I thought you would never ask, she said, smiled, then leaned in to kiss him slowly, hotly, wetly, right on his lips. Her own fingers wove seductively through his dark hair to pull him closer yet.

Diego couldn't help himself as he sighed in complete relaxation, and just as slowly caressed her ear; his blood had spurted to life the second she touched him and was now pounding in tandem with his wildly racing heart.

They were interrupted by a hesitant knock on the closed bedroom door. Diego? called the reluctant voice belonging to Don Alejandro. I'm sorry to bother you like this, but the padre is here and he needs you to sign some papers to make the marriage legal.

Legal? Diego echoed to himself and Victoria. I thought we already took care of that yesterday.

Alejandro's voice went on, I suggested that he leave the papers here so we wouldn't have to disturb you, but he insists that they need to be signed immediately.

Diego groaned and rolled onto his back. Someone really doesn't like me, he complained, then snuck a glance at Victoria through the space left by his arms over his eyes.

Victoria couldn't help it; she laughed. We would want everything to be legal, after all, she pointed out.

The minute it is... Diego mock threatened, then threw the covers back to reveal his white nightshirt to the world.

Victoria also tossed aside the covers, climbed out of bed, and began to dress in the one outfit she had left at the hacienda in the past week. At least I don't have much to put on before I'm dressed and ready to go, she teased.

Diego had crossed to his wardrobe, and peeled his nightshirt off prior to dressing in the white shirt and brown pants that he had pulled from the dark recesses of his closet. I really should save aside some space for your clothes in this thing, he thoughtfully said.

Victoria had to quickly swallow her emotions at the sight of his fine physique that greeted her probing gaze. Ah, if only they had more time... Victoria swallowed again.

Diego didn't notice her reaction. He ran a brush hurriedly through his hair. A stubborn lock of that dark hair refused to lie smoothly against the side of his head, and fell devilishly across his forehead.

Leave it, Victoria suggested as she pulled her green skirt over her head. It makes you look kind of like a pirate, she said.

Diego had to grin at that comment. Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum, he quoted, the smile still on his face.

Victoria smiled back. You don't drink, she reminded, and took the brush to run through her own hair. The combing did nothing but friz her hair around her face. Oh, she exclaimed in frustration, I hate curly hair!

Diego kissed her on the cheek. You hate it all you want, he said, then headed for the door. But I love it. With that, he pulled the door open and preceded her into his sitting room, and from there into the hacienda's empty hallway.

Making certain there was a proper distance between him and Victoria, necessary to fool any citizen of the pueblo they happened to come across, Diego led Victoria into the library, where his father was entertaining Padre Benitez. Both men jumped up from the chairs they had reclined in the moment the newly married couple entered the room.

Diego was the first to speak. Now, what is this about the marriage not being legal? he inquired without greeting the padre first. Just show me where to sign, he commanded next.

Diego, gently admonished Alejandro. Don't you wish to say 'hello' to the padre before you start asking questions?

Hola, Padre, Diego immediately said.

Padre Benitez chuckled in his own dry way. Hola, Don Diego, Victoria...

Hola, responded Victoria, in a tone that was more proper than her husband had just given. What do we have to sign? Papers of some kind?

Padre Benitez blushed a shade of beet red. It's not that the marriage isn't legal, per see, he started. Forgive a little deception on my part...

You interrupted us for a trick? Diego asked, stunned, thinking of the many times he had done the same to the Alcalde, but conveniently ignoring how the Alcalde must have felt after such artifice.

Please, just show us what we have to sign... began Victoria, knowing that Diego was in an uncharacteristic hurry to be finished with this task.

I'm rather embarrassed that I forgot about these signatures... the padre began again. I don't see how I could have neglected such an important thing as the signing of the marriage certificate by all those involved with the wedding...

Diego had to balk at that statement. He went still, the quill in his hand. This is the marriage certificate? he asked in further amazement. How could you forget the marriage certificate?

The padre shrugged. There was so much going on, I was distracted by Felipe stepping on the Señora's dress... Finally, Benitez admitted, I didn't slip it inside the registry before the wedding ceremony like I should have. I forgot about it lying on the table... it was white, the same color as the tablecloth loaned to the mission by the señora here... then the señorita... Padre Benitez let his voice fade away. When Diego continued to look at him in judgmental amazement, he went on to explain, This is the first time this has ever happened, I assure you!

I'll call for Felipe to sign as well, Alejandro said, and disappeared momentarily into the dining room.

But the second his father left the library, Diego straightened up, the quill from his father's desk still cradled in his fingers. If we didn't sign the marriage certificate, does that mean that anything that happened last night was an illegal act?

Diego! admonished Don Alejandro as he returned to the room with the silent Felipe, shocked at his son's forthright manner. This is hardly the time to bring that up!

Just as suddenly, Victoria giggled. She knew exactly what Diego was referring to, as she had heard much from the male customers who frequented her tavern. Do you mean that falling asleep is illegal, too? she asked innocently.

Alejandro's brow furrowed as he frowned. What?

That's what happened, Victoria then informed, her arms crossed over her chest. I was so... Victoria tried frantically to decide what would be the most innocuous thing for her to say, ... nervously energetic... she finally decided on, then continued, the night before the wedding, I cleaned the entire tavern, then I started cooking, and before I knew it, I had enough food for half the reception party and the night was completely gone.

It was Diego's turn to furrow his brow. You stayed up the entire night? he asked Victoria.

She shrugged. I didn't mean to... it just... happened, she ended lamely.

Diego blinked. No wonder you were so hard to wake last night.

You fell asleep? Alejandro asked to make sure, his tone one of incredulity laced with humor.

Victoria nodded. I'm afraid so.

Alejandro burst out laughing.

Diego didn't find the situation nearly as amusing as his father seemed to find it. Can we just sign these papers, please, and be done with it? He asked crankily. Felipe grinned at him, which didn't help improve his mood any. He ignored the laughing trio and signed his name on the line marked 'groom.' It seemed the appropriate place for him to sign. He next dutifully handed the quill over to Felipe, who signed below where Diego had written.

Next, Felipe handed the quill to Victoria, who, while still blushing and laughing, managed to sign her unmarried name above the place where Maria, who worked for her in the tavern and who had served as her maid of honor, had signed earlier that morning in town. She also signed her name on the second piece of paper that was identical to the first. Then, without a word, she handed both pieces of paper back to Padre Benitez.

The padre plucked them out of the air. Thank you, my child. One of these pieces of paper will go to the civic records vault in Monterey, and one of them will go in our records here in the pueblo. I would hate to ask you and Diego to live through another ceremony if I forgot.

Alejandro heard that statement. Heaven forbid, he muttered under his breath.

Padre Benitez heard him anyway. Yes, that's what I was thinking, he admitted. Then, he turned toward the door. Thank you, everybody, but now I must leave if I am to get this copy of your certificate on the stage to Monterey. Adios, he said, nodded his gratitude, and smiled. Then he was gone.

Alejandro slapped his riding gloves into the palm of his left hand, a habit that he had created when he was still a young captain in the army. Well, I should check on how Destiny is doing in the barn - she pulled a muscle in her back leg yesterday, and I wish to make certain it's healing properly.

Diego immediately offered his services. I'm available if you need me.

Alejandro grinned. No, I think you have some sleep to catch up on, he said before he, too, disappeared out the front door.

Felipe did his best to cover the smile that erupted over his face, but didn't succeed particularly well.

Don't you have something that needs desperate attention? Elsewhere? Diego half asked, half demanded.

The grinning Felipe took the hint and departed through the dining room, leaving Victoria alone with Diego.

Victoria sighed into the emptiness of the library.

It's much more quiet in here than it was last night, Diego commented, a touch sarcastic.

Can we..? Victoria pointed, inconspicuously she hoped, at Diego's clothes. You did promise to show everything to me, she whispered. And we have nowhere we have to be right now...

Isn't that the truth? Diego peevishly admitted.

Victoria raised her eyebrow questioningly at him. She wanted to be encouraging without being overbearing... Well..? she prodded.

In answer, Diego took one look at her pleading expression, then found himself glancing around to make sure they were, indeed, alone before leading her to the fireplace. Sighing, he whispered, We're going to have to do something about that puppy dog look you have in your eyes, or I'm going to be spending my entire life giving you anything you wish.

Victoria tried to hurry beside him without catching her skirt underfoot. I can't do anything about the puppy dog look about my eyes, she warned, and I'm not sure I want to do anything about you automatically giving me anything I wish.

Diego sent a mock glare towards her. Ready? he asked in a low voice instead of responding to her comment.

Victoria nodded. Diego pushed at a spot on the fireplace mantel, and as did, the back of the fireplace fell away to reveal the secret passageway leading into Zorro's cave.

Their shoes clicked on stone as the two walked slowly down the steps and into the cave proper. Victoria tried to look at everything at once, spending no more than a few seconds staring at any one thing.

There's Toronado, Diego said, pointing out the horse in his stall, then took a seat behind his oak desk. And this was Grandfather's desk that came all the way from Spain. We found it in storage in the beginning.

This was in storage? Victoria appreciatively ascertained as she ran a fingertip along the edge of the wooden desk.

Yes, Diego answered. That way it wouldn't be missed, he went on to explain.

This all came from storage? Victoria asked in surprise. She didn't even have personal storage at the tavern.

Diego nodded to her. Or wherever we could 'borrow' it from; the barn, the breeding house, the cellars... See, these jars came straight from the cellars, he said, pointing to them as they stood, waiting, on the work table. Felipe and I were going to fill them with sand from the lower creek the day...

Victoria let his pause grow exponentially before she dryly finished for him, The day Don Alejandro insisted that we had to get married.

Diego ran a hand through his hair, suddenly uncomfortable. Well, yes, that was the correct day.

Victoria ran another experimental finger down the desk, feeling for splinters or other signs of poor workmanship. All she felt was the smooth edge of a very well-loved piece of furniture. In spite of her findings, she said, I don't know why you seem to be so nervous about that day.

Diego shrugged. It was an emotional morning, he said as an excuse.

Victoria continued to glance around the cave until her sight landed on Zorro's black outfit hanging from the coatrack. She walked over and gently fingered the mask. So is today, she reminded softly.

Diego came around the side of his desk until he was standing right next to her. He carefully lifted her fingers from running up and down the mask until they rested in his gentle clasp. He slowly kissed each one. So it is, he whispered, and stared her in the eye. With only the slightest of hesitations, he lowered his head and kissed her sweet lips.

Victoria instantly became lost in the sensations of his velvet lips, and her heartbeat started to thud in her ears...but not so loud that the sound covered up a discreet cough coming from over Diego's left shoulder.

It was Felipe, standing at the bottom of the steps, gesturing with his hands and arms, a nervously contrite expression on his face.

Now? Diego asked after he and Victoria had drawn apart. Then he appeared to give in. Well, go ahead, groom Toronado all you want - don't mind us.

More arm waving met this proclamation. Felipe looked more than contrite now; he looked downright apologetic.

Diego sighed, the sound of a long-suffering man. Felipe, I hope you realize that the cave is one of the few places in this hacienda where Victoria and I can actually be ourselves - that's one of the reasons we even came in here.

I asked to see everything pertaining to Zorro, Victoria explained, sounding more like a petulant child at being interrupted, she thought, instead of a person with every right to be in the cave. She endeavored to at least sound more polite to the young man; it wasn't his fault for interrupting them! It's my fault - please, we have no wish to disturb you, she went on.

Felipe waved his arm again, still looking apologetic and in the way.

Don't worry, Felipe, Diego said as he pushed a hand through his hair once more, also showing his own aggravation at the same time. You aren't in the way at all. I know that Toronado needs attention, and I'm grateful to see that you plan to take over my duties for the day and care for him. Please, feel free to do whatever it is that needs doing. Victoria, he said after he turned to her. This isn't anyone's fault; please don't feel like this is your doing.

Victoria suddenly brightened as a new thought occurred to her. Diego, she started, why don't you and I let Felipe do what he has to do, and instead, write down our cider-sharing agreement for the tavern. I know that's not exactly on your agenda for the day, but it might go a long way in continuing the front you've always presented to the citizens of the pueblo, and it might encourage some...

Diego grimaced, but, like a dutiful child determined to embark on an extremely unpleasant activity, said, You're right in noting that being in plain view is not exactly one of my plans for the day - we only have this one day that you have off from your work at the tavern after all, and I don't want to waste it... I can't say that I particularly want to spend it on cider agreements, but I will, if only because it's an activity that perpetuates the myth of Zorro while I get to be near you at the same time... though, not how I would like to be near you, he admitted.

Diego sighed, rather like an aggrieved child, but it was Felipe who made the first move of the three of them; he slapped his hand on Diego's shoulder while a huge grin graced his features.

Oh, stop gloating, Diego admonished, and Felipe's grin grew wider, if that were possible.

Victoria couldn't help but smile, as well. She crossed to the desk that she had sat behind when Diego - Zorro - proposed for the first time, and grabbed up the quill, ink, and three or four empty pieces of parchment from the desk top. How do we get out of here? she inquired then.

Felipe gestured towards the stairs that led to the door into the library, but it was Diego who actually moved in the direction of the secret spring in the candle sconce on the tunnel's wall. Here, I'll show you, he said and started up.

Victoria's smile grew more mischievous by the second. You'll have to catch me first! she exclaimed, and leaped up the steps a hand's width in front of him.

Victoria! Diego hissed, but was smiling in spite of his concern about being overheard through the separating wall between the cave and the hacienda's library. Felipe's grin shot into his eyes, making them sparkle in the candle light. Shaking his head at their antics, he turned in the direction of Toronado's stall in preparation of doing his chores.

Diego caught up with Victoria at the tunnel's end, and after first putting a quieting hand over her mouth, whereupon she just kissed his palm, he worked the spring on the wall, and the door shot open. I already looked through the peep hole, he whispered. The coast is clear.

Victoria preceded him into the library, where they quickly settled on the love seat, looking as if they had spent the entire morning in its cushioned surface. But Victoria's leg was rubbing enticingly against Diego's, and the heat from the contact was distracting him, to say the least.

Diego grabbed up the ink bottle, the quill, and the top piece of parchment. 'If you don't move your leg, this could be the shortest agreement in history,' he wrote without preamble.

Victoria smiled devilishly, but said, Oh, sorry, in a low voice. She moved her leg a fraction of an inch.

The contact left Diego's leg, but he could still feel the heat from her leg, even through the material of his trousers. He did his best to ignore it. Well, how much cider were you thinking of needing? he asked.

Still flirting, Victoria put her leg back in the same position she'd had it in before, and Diego instantly had to swallow. For some reason, his reaction made her feel more powerful yet, and Victoria's spirits soared despite her exhaustion of the day before. Let me think, she said while Diego hurriedly scratched something on the first parchment and pushed it in her direction.

'Please move your leg before I go insane,' it said in his beautiful handwriting. The sentence didn't slant, or the ink blot, at all.

Victoria took a moment to marvel at such perfect scrollwork, then smiled as she took the quill into her own fingers. 'No,' she wrote. 'I'd rather watch you go insane.' Below that statement, she added, 'You have beautiful handwriting, by the way.'

Diego responded, 'Don't tell my old tutor what you think - he'll want to show it off as one of his own accomplishments - but I do remember spending entire afternoons on copying out sentences at the table in the dining room - I should have good handwriting! But thank you - your good opinion means a lot to me.'

'I only learned to write while you were in Madrid, so I'm not as practiced as you are... how's the leg, by the way?'

Diego sighed and sent her a look that said he was not amused by her impertinent question. Victoria's smile grew anyway. I thought we were here to hammer out agreement details? he asked.

Deciding to be good for now, Victoria answered, I should need... what?... about two barrels at first until we see how well hot cider sells to the tavern's customers. They may like coffee better, after all, she pointed out.

Not likely, Diego said, but dutifully wrote down 'two barrels at first,' on another piece of parchment. Now, it should take two men - Juan and Joaquin - to pick enough apples this fall for an entire barrel - at two pesos each, that makes four pesos, which he wrote down under their names, and four more people to press that many apples...

Only four? inquired Victoria. That doesn't sound like enough people. Pressing apples is hard work, after all. You don't want them to get hurt doing something impossible.

Your concern is noted, Victoria, Diego said, but it's not really necessary. About three years ago, I came up with a design for a machine that presses apples in half the time it used to, and using a third as many people. Four ought to be enough... He thought out loud, muttering for her benefit as much as his. If we use Valenzio's crew...

You created a machine that presses apples? Victoria ascertained, and Diego nodded. She breathed out a rush of air. What does Don Alejandro do all day on his ranch with you around? she asked, her voice showing her amazement. It's a wonder he even bothers to get out of bed in the mornings.

Diego barked a laugh at her comment. I still haven't created a way to ensure the safety of a calf being born, he noted. I'm afraid that Father sees pressing apples as a waste of time next to the safety of his precious cattle.

You're just under appreciated, Victoria protested decidedly.

While she was speaking, on the first piece of parchment, Diego wrote, 'I like that shirt you're wearing today - I always have.'

Victoria paused a bit to read the comment, then, grinning, she reached for the quill. 'I know,' she wrote next.

That statement surprised Diego. 'What?' he wrote. 'Even before I told you my secret?'

'Even before,' Victoria assured. 'I noticed you... um... looking one day, and couldn't quite stop myself from wearing it again the next week... and every week after that.'

'That's so mean!' Diego wrote, but he was grinning as he wrote the statement that told her he was joking. 'What would Zorro have said if he knew about such a thing?'

'I thought about that,' she responded, 'but every girl likes it when a man appreciates her.'

'I'm just glad it was me doing the appreciating!' Diego wrote.

'Who says it was just you?' she asked by way of the quill. A fiendish smile lifted her features.

On the other hand, Diego's face instantly darkened. 'Who was it?' he asked. 'Who was it so I can beat them to a pulp... of an apple.'

Victoria laughed aloud, but tried to quell the reaction. When next she took up the quill, she was more composed. 'Not to worry - I was just kidding - about others looking at my shirt, not about you looking - to help distract you from my leg... Did it work?' she asked.

'No, you sneaky little..,' Diego wrote, jostling her a bit with his leg and knee. Then, he continued with their spoken conversation without missing a beat. If we use Valenzio's crew, he said aloud, in order to keep up the pretense of Zorro's disguise in case anybody wandered through the library or dining rooms, that's Valenzio, Juan, Saludio, and Consuela... at three pesos each per barrel, that's twenty-four pesos, making it come to twenty-eight pesos altogether...

Consuela? Victoria asked again to make sure she had heard correctly as Diego wrote the number down on the second piece of parchment. But that's a girl's name.

I know.

Victoria drew back a little. You have a girl working in the barns, pressing cider?

Yes, Diego replied, then added more when he caught sight of Victoria's shocked expression. A woman, actually. This information did nothing to quell Victoria's instantaneous jealousy... of a peasant to boot! The reaction gratified Diego even as he went on to explain, You have nothing to worry about, Victoria...

Whose worried? Victoria muttered unhappily.

Diego smiled. Well, she wants to work there, and she works much harder in the barns, doing odd jobs, than she ever did when she was placed in the house, he defended. I hope that's not a problem for you, tavern owner, he said.

Victoria glared at him, her jealousy instantly gone to be repaced with pride. No, and you know it's not, she argued, ignoring her previous reaction of jealousy. It's just that I'm surprised... she excused. You're the first family I've ever heard of who uses the talents of a girl in the barns. Then she couldn't help but add, Well done.

Diego grinned at her. I thought you, of all people, would understand, he went on to say. At her nod, he supplemented, Father and have always believed that talent for hard work isn't regulated by what gender a person is. You work very hard in the tavern, after all, and you're female, he pointed out.

Yes, so I do, Victoria said with a firm nod of her head. It's only because females are encouraged to lace their corsets so tightly and be so thin and fragile that they have the reputation for fainting fits and delicacy and resisting hard work. A girl can do anything a man can do.

Well, not quite anything, Diego chided. Some things do require brute strength... and a looser corset... he added, a twinkle in his eye, then went on, and women just aren't born strong enough.

Wear a corset sometime, and then we'll see who's strong and who isn't, Victoria challenged with a slight harumph.

Diego grinned again. On the secret conversation piece of parchment, he wrote, 'I'll gladly help you out of your corset if it's too tight.'

Victoria tried to appear shocked and disapproving, but she couldn't quite resist his grinning face. She brazenly grinned herself. 'Please do,' she saucily wrote, then moved her leg a bit as an added incentive. Then she caught sight of the piano out of the corner of her eye. She pointed at the black instrument. Can you teach me to play? she asked.

Diego was surprised this time. Do you want to learn? he inquired.

Victoria sighed and seemed wistful for a moment. I've always wanted to learn, she finally admitted after a protracted silence. But mama and papa thought it would be a waste of time...

I'll certainly teach you, Diego instantly agreed. 'Sitting next to you for hours each day is never a 'waste of time,'' he wrote. Then he nonchalantly rose and crossed to the grand piano. Learning is as easy as falling off a log... he said.

... or a horse, she couldn't help interrupting to say.

Diego easily smiled back at her. Well, maybe not that easy.., he said, letting his voice trail off into the quiet of the sitting room and library. Come here... I'll show you.

Victoria instantly complied, after grabbing up the top sheet of parchment, roughly folding it, and shoving it inside her sash. Then she sat down next to Diego on the piano bench, rubbing her leg against his, just to be flirtatious.

That's mean, he whispered to her smiling visage.

Yes, it is, she agreed in an equally low voice.

Half an hour later, Don Alejandro came in through the front door and found them still at their first music lesson. Oblivious to how his son's leg was touching his wife's, causing heat to spread in all the most unmentionable places, he noted, Music lesson, I see.

Victoria turned around to grin at him. She was completely aware that her new position put even more pressure on Diego's leg, but ignored the change in him thenew position caused. I've always wanted to learn, she said artlessly.

'She's not that innocent,' Diego groused to himself, and shifted uncomfortably on the bench. He tried to hide his reaction and his thoughts about his wife from his father.

Alejandro couldn't help his smile. Whatever you say, Victoria. Then he added in a much softer voice, Just remember, there's more to sleeping and piano lessons to making a marriage work.

Victoria continued to grin. But they don't hurt, she said sweetly.

I wouldn't go that far, Diego muttered under his breath.

Victoria ignored his comment, knowing that she had been the only one to have heard her husband, continuing to talk to Don Alejandro instead. However, I think I'll take a nap before lunch - last night apparently didn't cure me of all the sleep I need... I'm still a little tired, and this music lesson from Diego has worn me down - all that concentrating, you know.

Diego agreed with her move right away. You go on ahead, I wish to play for awhile... You don't want to miss out on any rest, after all, he added with a wink to Victoria. You can't serve well at the tavern if you're asleep on your feet.

Alejandro grimaced. If you don't see any harm in this plan, I certainly don't - a nap before lunch might be just the thing...

Have a nice rest, you two, Diego said, then began playing a soft melody that must have been a lullaby he knew. Without another word, Victoria rose and left her new husband and father-in-law.

Alejandro only closed his eyes in internal distress, but left his son to his gentle music without offering any more vocal advice.

Five minutes later, Diego glanced behind him at the corridor leading to the bedrooms. Enough time had gone by, he surmised, for either his father to become absorbed in a book or to fall asleep, whichever he intended to do. With one last flourish of the keys, he allowed the notes to linger, then slowly drift away to silence. When there was no other sound in the hacienda for another thirty seconds, Diego silently rose from the piano bench and glided as quietly as possible to the room he shared now with Victoria.

Victoria jumped off the bed, where she had been sitting and waiting for him, and launched herself into his arms before the door was even closed. Diego hauled himself and Victoria behind the cover of the closing door.

Now, this is more like it, he whispered in gratification before kissing her soundly on the lips.

Victoria sank into his embrace while Diego deepened the kiss, until it had become a matter of seconds before anybody watching them would note that he was clearly seducing her... or she was seducing him. At any rate, according to the relaxed grin on her face, she didn't seem to mind.

Go On To Part IV


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